Your Amazing Faith, Part 7

Jackie DeShannon sang a lot about love. She made the song, "What the World Needs Now" famous. She was right. The world "needs love, sweet love," but not just any love. The world needs the love of God.

Jackie DeShannon sang a lot about love. She made the song, “What the World Needs Now” famous. She was right. The world “needs love, sweet love,” but not just any love. The world needs the love of God.

Your amazing faith is what makes you an amazing person. That’s not a cliché, it’s a fact that is accomplished by the transforming work of God through the in dwelling of His Holy Spirit. That’s where your amazing faith came from in the first place: God. It was His gift to you when you heard the Word and responded in faith to it:

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

And your amazing faith, as amazing as it is, isn’t in itself, it isn’t in your abilities, or your dreams and hopes. Your faith isn’t your church or some talented individual. The object of your faith is God Himself, and His abilities and His Word, as Paul showed us during a raging storm at sea:

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Not only did Paul discover the object of faith, but he also showed us the secret of faith – or more specifically, Paul showed us the secret to living righteously is in our amazing faith in Jesus Christ:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

You and I work so hard to avoid trials and trouble and if we happen to fall into trouble on account of our faith, those kinds of trials are what God uses to stretch and toughen up our amazing faith:

These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:7 | NIV84)

Paul found out that living a righteous life was possible by having faith in Jesus Christ and living as He did, and He went on to show us how the Holy Spirit makes that possible:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23a | NIV84)

That’s the power of faith – the fruit of the Spirit. And the prayer of faith is something James taught us about when he talked about praying for a sick person. There is power in prayer just as there is power in faith and the prayer of faith really boils down to exalting the amazing will of God:

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15 | NIV84)

We come now to the last aspect of your amazing faith, and it’s found in the most pastoral letter in the New Testament:

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. (1 John 5:4c | NIV84)

John and his letter

In all, John wrote five pieces of literature that have been preserved for us in the New Testament; three letters, a book of prophecy, and one gospel. His first letter is unlike any other New Testament letter. Some scholars refer to it as an essay or a tract, and others refer to it as a sermon. It’s hard to categorize it, but it’s easy to see what John was trying to do. He wrote like a pastor, covering all manner of issues so as to build up and encourage his people in their faith. He writes with care, compassion, and passion.

The thing about John’s letters, and in particular his first one, is that they are chock full of theology. A lot of Christians hate that word almost as much as they hate the word “doctrine,” yet no believer can live without either. The “apostle of love,” as John is often referred to, covers such profound doctrines as sin and salvation, atonement and holy living. But unlike, say Paul in his letter to the Romans, John writes about various doctrines not in an academic, systematic philosophical manner, but he shows how these doctrines form the very foundation of our fellowship with God and how believing the right theology leads to a life of love.

John lived a very long life for a man of his day. He traveled with Jesus and wrote his letter sometime around the end of the first century, around 95 AD.

Faith is the victory

1 John 5:1 says a lot more than appears on the surface:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. (1 John 5:1 | NIV84)

The word “believes” a Greek verb, pisteuon, and it’s a strong verb. Merely understanding the Gospel and confessing the truth of salvation does not make anybody a partaker of the life of God in Jesus Christ. It’s one thing to outwardly confess faith in Jesus Christ, as John had previously covered back in 4:2, 15. But what is outward must be inward first. Remember what Paul wrote:

For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Romans 10:10 | NIV84)

But when you couple the truth of verse 1 with what John says in verse 2, you get the notion that Christianity is absolutely exclusive:

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. (1 John 5:2 | NIV84)

Only Christians – only those who have experienced a conversion of the heart leading to a confession of the mouth, leading in turn to a wholehearted love and devotion to God and His Word – are children of God. In spite of what you may have heard to the contrary, not everybody is a “child of God.” In John’s Gospel, there is this interesting exchange between Jesus and some Jews.

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (John 8:42-44a | NIV84)

Wow! That’s Jesus talking, telling unbelievers that God is not their father, the devil is. A statement like that is like a deep line in the sand. If a person wants to be a child of God, then he must sign onto the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christianity is exclusive to Christians. Being a child of God is exclusive to Christians. And loving the children of God is part of loving God. You can’t claim to love God yet live out of fellowship with the body of Christ. The two go hand-in-hand. That’s why being in church is so important. It’s not that going to church saves you, it’s that being in regular fellowship with the local body of Christ is one way of showing your love and support for the children of God, and God Himself.

But again, actions without an inner commitment constitute nothing.

This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome… (1 John 5:3 | NIV84)

Just to exclaim, “I love God” while you are in church amounts to exactly nothing. Anybody can say anything. John made that pretty clear a chapter back:

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20 | NIV84)

But now he adds the bit about non-negotiable obedience to God’s commands. In John’s thinking, that’s simply doing what God wants you to do; it’s living the way He wants you to. And that’s not hard to do, by the way. The world thinks it is. As far as the world is concerned, only one person a 10,000 is a “Saint.” But in the Kingdom, we all are. And if you forget what those “commands” are, John’s already told us:

And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:23-24 | NIV84)

Love was a big deal to John, and it should be to you, too, if you consider yourself a Christian. We should be deliberately looking for ways to encourage fellow believers all the time. A phone call, an email, a text message, or a smile and good word can go so far in making the day a little for another Christian. Too often though, we find it easier to tear down a fellow believer, especially if we don’t like them in the first place. When we gossip or speak about another Christian using derogatory terms, then we aren’t being obedient to God. During the Second World War, there was a saying, “Loose lips sink ships.” Well, in our war against the forces of evil today, “loose lips sink lives” all the time. Your grandmother was right: If you don’t have something good to say about someone, don’t say anything.

And that gets us to the verse that got us into this whole thing:

…for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. (1 John 5:4 | NIV84)

Verse 4 is really just a continuation of verse 3, so let’s ignore the verse break and put the sentence together, the way John intended:

And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.

God’s commands are not too much for the believer, because the believer has been born of God and he, by virtue of his new birth, overcomes the world. What that means is simple. To John, “the world” is opposed to God and God’s people and that opposition is manifested in the form of disobedience. So when you, as a believer, are tempted to disobey the Word of God and live in a way that shames God and the body of Christ and hurts other believers, you are doing what “the world” wants you to do, not what God wants you to do.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17 | NIV84)

The things of the world look so good and promise so much, but according to John, you never have to side with the world over Christ. It is entirely possible to live in constant obedience to the Will and Word of God because you have overcome the world; you are stronger than “the world.” By virtue of your faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, you have already overcome this sinful world in the spiritual sense. In the practical, day-to-day sense, that same faith, which was given to you by God, empowers you to live in such a way as to glorify God and shun the world.

To overcome the world begins with being victorious over all the things in your life that have ever tempted you or will ever tempt you to go back to the ways of the world. Things like your attitude, your dreams, your desires, your ambition, your emotions, and so on. Your amazing faith gives you the strength to overcome those those inborn stumbling blocks so that you are equipped to overcome the world.

Your amazing faith, that incredible, indispensable gift from God, not only saved you and set you free from sin; it not only enables you live like Jesus lived and love like Jesus loved, it gives you what you need to live in complete victory over the evil in this world. It empowers you to live in obedience to God and to love other believers. Your amazing faith is such an integral part of your life, you can’t live without it.

Your Amazing Faith, Part 6

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Last time, we learned that your amazing faith is what makes you an amazing person as you allow the Holy Spirit to empower you and motivate you:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23a | NIV84)

That faith that results in your life producing the fruit of the Spirit was deposited into your heart by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the Word of God:

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

But your amazing faith isn’t in yourself or other people. It has nothing to do with your dreams or aspirations or your hopes. Your amazing faith has nothing to do with the circumstances of your life, good or bad. Your amazing faith is in a specific Person:

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Faith isn’t a mysterious, impersonal force. Paul discovered the secret of faith:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

And lack of trials in your life is no indicator that you’re doing anything right. In fact, as we found out, the struggles and trials and persecution we work so hard to avoid are actually the very tools God uses to cause our faith to grow and mature:

These (trials, struggles, and persecutions) have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:7 | NIV84)

Talking about faith in an “academic” environment like this is easy. But in real life, many of us find that there is a disconnect between what the Bible says about faith and what our own experiences seem to teach us. Nowhere is this apparent disconnect more glaring than when sickness is involved. When a close friend or a loved one is hurting physically, and we do what good Christians are supposed to do and that person gets sicker, we shake our heads in confusion and frustration. Here’s the verse we put into practice during situations like that:

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15 | NIV84)

James, the man and his letter

We call this letter “James” after the man who wrote it:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ… (James 1:1a | NIV84)

Throughout the New Testament, there are several prominent men named James. But based on things Paul wrote and on Luke’s history of the Church as recorded in Acts, it is probable that the James who wrote this letter was James, the half-brother of Jesus.

James was an interesting character. He is mentioned twice in the Gospels (Matthew 15 and Mark 6) but he was not a follower of Jesus until after the Resurrection. He was one of the 150 believers gathered in the Upper Room when the Spirit fell. He rose quickly through the ranks of the early Church in Jerusalem due to his ability and faith. He became a prominent leader in that Church and the apostle Paul spent some time with him after his conversion and James was one of the leaders of the Church who dispensed Godly wisdom in dealing with the Gentile influx when the Gospel spread beyond the Jewish community.

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1b | NIV84)

James wrote to Christians, who had been Jews, who had probably been living in Jerusalem but were forced to leave their homes when the heat of persecution got turned up. But other Christians would have read this letter; converts under the ministry of Paul and other missionaries.

It’s hard to know when James wrote this letter, but we can be sure it was written early in the history of the Church. Some conservative scholars would say it was written as early as 45 AD, other put it a little later, but for sure it was written before its author was martyred in 63 AD.

His letter concerns practical Christian living. You won’t find a lot of heady, doctrinal, and theological philosophy in it. As you read it, you’ll discover what a lot of us have: it’s the most “Jewish” book in the New Testament. With its emphasis on godly behavior some scholars see it as the New Testament Christian parallel to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. James is a lot like the Old Testament prophet Amos, who like James, was concerned with things like social justice.

Some prominent Christians had problems with James’ letter. Martin Luther called it “an epistle of straw.” Well, he was wrong about other things too. The great value of James is that he addresses what we might call “real life.” Paul’s letters soared to the heights of theological discourse, but James writes about putting what you believe to work. You are saved by grace and faith, but once you’ve been placed on the highway to heaven by God’s grace, it’s up to you navigate your journey. James is all about that journey.

An odd fact about James and his letter is that he says less about Jesus than any other New Testament writer, yet he sounds more like Jesus than any other New Testament writer.

How you live says more about your faith than what you say

And that’s really the value of James’ letter. Intellectual types may love Romans and Galatians, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s James that gives the most practical advice in the New Testament. For example, here’s what James thinks is important when a believer faces affliction in life:

Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. (James 5:7 | NIV84)

How you act and react during times of stress says everything about your faith. James tells his readers to “be patient.” And you have to be patient when times are tough. James is very practical about this; he knows believers will face problems in life:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. (James 1:2-5 | NIV84)

That’s the most common sense thing you’ll read today. James doesn’t sugar coat anything here. He assumes believers will face “trials of many kinds,” but he knows that those trials – whatever they may be – serve a very distinct purpose: they test the believer’s faith, and that in turn makes them stronger, mature, and complete. But the thing is, when you are in the midst of the trial, you won’t have the proper perspective, that’s why no matter what you are going through, you must ask God for wisdom. And God will give it to you. God won’t judge you. If you lack wisdom during a trial – and you will without question lack wisdom – have the presence of mind to ask God for it. Couple that with being patient, and we a good idea about how you should conduct yourself when times are tough: be patient and pray. The thing you shouldn’t do during trials and times of stress is freak out and and behave in an unseemly way. That kills your witness faster than anything. Be calm and cool; be patient and pray.

That brings us to chapter 5, where James compares believers going through a trial to farmers waiting for his crop to grow. The farmer knows it will happen, but he can’t make a seed grow faster than it can grow. Similarly, when you’re in the midst of a trial, it will run its course, and all you have to do is be patient and pray.

James adds a bit to that with verse 13:

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. (James 5:13 | NIV84)

“In trouble” is a funky Greek word, kakopathei, and it means “afflicted.” When you as a Christian are afflicted – when you are “in trouble” – or when life is treating you well, your highest duty and your greatest blessing is to fellowship with God. In trouble? Go to God in prayer. Feeling good? Praise God. That’s what James is saying here. No matter what’s going on, acknowledge God’s presence in your life by either asking Him for help or by praising Him.

One of many types of affliction is sickness. James could have picked any kind of trouble people find themselves dealing with, but he chose sickness.

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. (James 5:14-15a | NIV84)

Prayer in times of sickness is your duty and your privilege as a believer. It’s unfortunate that most believers don’t have the presence of mind to exercise it as often as they should. James’ advice here is so simple, we usually miss it. As J.B. Phillips put it, “If anyone is ill,” then believers need to take certain steps:

Call the elders of the church. Call your pastor or other church leaders. Let them know what’s going on. This isn’t spiritual advice; it’s practical advice. Your pastor can’t read your mind. He’s not some kind of psychic who knows when you or your loved one is sick! Let him know what’s going on.

But there’s another reason for making the call: It’s exercising your faith. It’s stepping out in faith believing that when the pastor and/or elders get there, they will pray and God will answer that prayer.

Pray over the sick person. That’s actually an interesting phrase. It means literally to “pray standing over the sickbed” and to “pray about” the sick person, referring to intercessory prayer. All that means is simply this: It’s up to the sick person to let the pastor know, and therefor the church, that he or his loved one is sick. Members of the Body of Christ are entitled to know when a fellow needs help and/or prayer. It’s a courtesy, first of all. And second of all, it’s the responsibility of believers to bear one another’s burdens. That can only happen when we know about them.

Anoint the sick person with oil. This is one of those things in the Bible that most Christians don’t understand. It’s so misunderstood, some believers actually think that the “oil” is the Holy Spirit and that when the sick person is rubbed with the oil, the Holy Spirit is at work. I’ll disabuse of that notion right away. Only two times – 2 times – in the New Testament is oil associated with healing. The other reference is Mark 6:13. The word “anoint”  as it is used here in James, refers to a medical anointing, not a spiritual one. During New Testament times, oil was looked at as a medical treatment for all kinds of ailments. It was the aspirin of the day. Headache? Not feeling up to par? Take two aspirins and call your doctor in the morning. That’s the sense which the word is used here. In fact, Moffatt thought James meant to “smear the patient’s body with oil.” That being the case, James’ advice is practical and spiritual. Pray for the sick person and make sure he takes his medicine.

Yet at the same time, there’s a bit more to it than that. “Anoint him with oil,” says James, adding, “in the name of the Lord.” That’s important. Even as you are doing what your doctor tells you to do, don’t stop trusting the Lord! Medicine and faith do NOT cancel each other out! Truth is, no man has the power to heal another. Only God heals. Or put another way, all healing comes from God, whether the healing comes instantly, or from a pill.

So why do I anoint the sick, sometimes, when I pray for them? There’s nothing in the oil at all. It serves as a symbol of God’s presence and of our obedience to His Word and as a point of contact between my faith and the faith of the person being prayed for. It’s an encouragement, that’s all.

And then there’s this:

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15 | NIV84)

First things first. James has already said this:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17 | NIV84)

I’m sure we’d all agree that medicine and surgery are good things. Thank God for modern medicine! But pity the poor unbeliever who only has that. Believers have more: we may enjoy the blessing of medicine, but we also have the power of prayer: the prayer of faith. Divine healing is taught in the Bible; it’s a doctrine we hold to. But, second, notice something important here about the prayer of faith. First, it’s referring back to the prayer made by the pastor. He’s to pray in faith believing that God can heal the sick person. Second, the prayer of faith is made in response to the faith of the sick person and his family. Here’s the thing people miss. It’s fine for the pastor to have faith, but the one being prayed over needs faith too. Now, the fact that they called for the pastor in the first place teaches us that. Third, the result of this prayer of faith is, as the NIV84 says, “make the sick person well.” That’s from all-purpose Greek word meaning to “restore.” That covers any kind of illness, physical or otherwise.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking James is giving us a formula here. There is never, ever any guarantee given anywhere in Scripture that healing will take place. Consider, there are certain laws that govern prayer:

• It must be offered in Jesus’ Name, John 14:13;
• It must be offered in faith, Matthew 21:22;
• It must be offered according to God’s will, 1 John 5:14;
• It must be offered with sincerity and earnestness, Matthew 7:7 – 11.
• Sin can hinder our prayers, Psalm 66:18;
• Disunity can hinder our prayers, 1 Peter 3:7;
• Wrong motives can nullify a prayer, James 4:3.

Then too, God uses natural and human instruments for healing. Remember, Luke was a doctor and Paul suggested that Timothy not pray for his stomach problems, but drink some wine (1 Timothy 5:23).

And then, there are all kinds of people who went unhealed in the New Testament:

• Paul prayed to be healed but God wouldn’t heal him, 2 Corinthians 12:7 – 10;
• Trophimus was not healed, 2 Timothy 4:20;
• At the pool of Bethesda, there were all kinds of sick and diseased people gathered, but Jesus only healed one, John 5:2 – 9;

And, as unpleasant at this sounds, God sometimes allows sickness so that He may be ultimately glorified, which was the case with the blind man in John 9:3 and with Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10. Truth be told, sometimes God can be glorified more as that sick believer remains so, yet in the midst of his condition he seen praising and worshipping God in spite of it.

Yes, your faith is amazing and it can accomplish anything amazing, if it’s God’s will. And that’s the key. Faith never demands that God heal. Faith always bows in reverence in God’s presence, seeking His Will, mind, and purpose. If it is God’s will to heal that sick person, the the Holy Spirit will lead His servants to pray that prayer of faith. But if it’s not His will to heal, then the prayer of faith becomes “thy will be done.”

Your Amazing Faith, Part 5

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Your faith is your most precious possession. Far more precious than your family, your job, your pension plan, your faith was given to you by God through the working of the Holy Spirit and His Word:

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

Your faith is what sets you apart from the rest of the population. It makes you special. It makes you a “new-and-improved” you; a supernatural person. Your faith isn’t in yourself or your abilities or your dreams and hopes, your faith is in Someone outside of yourself: God. Because of that, your faith is not effected by your circumstances.

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Some people think faith is a mysterious force that cannot be understood, controlled, or comprehended. That’s not true. Paul discovered the secret of faith:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

And your faith, that indispensable, precious, timely gift from God works in ways that may seem odd to you. The most awful, trying moments of your life are the very tools God uses to cause your faith grow and mature. The suffering you try so hard to avoid is the very thing makes you stronger, wiser, and more powerful in your faith.

These (trials that cause suffering) have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:7 | NIV84)

These things alone make your faith simply amazing. But there’s more. Speaking of power, there’s this in Galatians 5:22 –

Faith, or faithfulness, is not static. It’s meant to grow, and in fact as a faithful Christian full of God’s Holy Spirit, it can’t help but grow! Let’s consider this aspect of your amazing faith in the overall context of the Fruit of the Spirit.

It’s Flesh Vs. the Spirit

Paul’s teaching on the Fruit of the Spirit begins back at verse 16 –

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:16 | NIV84)

There is always the lure of the flesh to distract Christians in their walk of faith. Paul admonishes the Galatians to walk by the Spirit because in doing so the distractions of the flesh would not catch their imaginations. The flesh is always at odds with the Spirit; they are always in direct opposition to each other and each other’s purpose.

Living by the Spirit doesn’t come naturally to anybody. Remember, faith isn’t native to human beings – it is deposited into your heart by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the God’s Word. God does that for you. You can’t buy faith and you can’t qualify for faith. You can’t work to acquire faith. Your faith is God’s gift to you. However, that gift doesn’t make you do anything. It will sit there in your heart and atrophy unless you use it or put it to work. Paul uses the phrase “live by the Spirit” as a way to say that it is your responsibility to take that gift God gave and make it work in your life. Faith isn’t the kind of gift you put up on the shelf of your heart to look at, admire and talk about! You are to be led by the Spirit in your walk of faith.

And this living by the Spirit is a tricky thing because you must actually do it. It takes an act of the will – a determination – to live by the Spirit. God forces no one to live by the Spirit.

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. (Galatians 5:13 | NIV84)

Yet a lot of Christians are doing exactly what Paul cautions against! They use their spiritual freedom to justify their sins. And it’s so easy to do! We want to commit this sin or that, so we justify it by deluding ourselves into thinking that God will forgive us anyway or that particular sin that’s caught our eye isn’t really all that bad or I’ll do it just this one time. When we behave like that we are making a mockery of the freedom that salvation calls us to.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1 | NIV84)

That’s exactly right; our salvation has set us free from the shackles of sin. But we are not set free to sin. And that’s Paul’s whole point. If we are to use our new freedom wisely and for the glory of God, we will learn to walk by the Spirit and make very effort to do.  Now, if we are set free, then, how to do we walk by the Spirit without falling back into a religious list of do’s and don’t’s? That was the Galatian’s big conundrum. They wanted to live right, but they weren’t walking by the Spirit to do it, they were walking back into the bondage of man-made religious rules. That’s why Paul wrote this:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-2 | NIV84)

The answer to the question, of course, was that they were saved hearing and believing the Gospel, not by keeping the law. But like so many of us, they were being distracted by something as worldly as the law, and that was keeping them from living by the Spirit. You see, worldliness can take many forms. It isn’t always dark and evil and sinister. Oftentimes, worldliness takes the form of religion – which is man’s made-up way of approaching God. Salvation has nothing to do with religion (which is all about man) but everything to do with God.

Your flesh, though, loves religion and despises freedom in Christ. It’s odd, but there it is. Man would rather be enslaved by a religion (a form of worldliness) than enjoy limitless freedom from religion by simply serving Christ in faith. It’s mind-boggling to be sure.

It’s all about the Spirit

Instead of living in fear of whether or not you’ve broken too many rules to get into heaven, Paul says it’s easier to just “live by the Spirit,” which is the verse that got us started:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:16 | NIV84)

Let’s take a closer look at that. In the NIV84, the phrase is “live by the Spirit,” but in the Greek it’s closer to the KJV’s “walk in the Spirit.” The Greek word is peripateo, which sort of means “live,” but in the sense of how one conducts oneself. It has to to do with your behavior. In order to live a Christ-like life, one must behave like the Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Christian’s inner man is to be controlled by or influenced by or motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, not his own spirit. That, as you might imagine, is exactly opposite to man’s preferred mode of living, which is to do whatever he pleases.

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Galatians 5:17 | NIV84)

But how do rise above all that? That’s the question of the moment! How do you live by the Spirit when, in fact, you don’t want to? The answer is simplicity itself:

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (Galatians 5:18 | NIV84)

To be “led by the Spirit” is the solution to the problem of having to “live by the Spirit.” The term “led” emphasizes submission, as in, the believer will submit to the Holy Spirit’s wishes and disregard his own.

Works or Fruit?

So, in Paul’s mind, a believer can choose to live by his own spirit, which will always result in losing his God-given freedom and living in a worldly manner or he can choose to live by the Spirit, that is, in obedience to the Holy Spirit. But how can that believer tell if he’s getting it right? Let’s face it, living in obedience to Spirit can sometimes feel like living by a set of rules – don’t do this or do that. Fortunately for us, Paul shows us. If we are living by our own spirit, then this will be the result:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 | NIV84)

Those are the “acts of the sinful nature,” or, more accurately, they are the “works of the flesh.” When you try to live right under your own power, using your own strength and wisdom, you will to varying degrees manifest all of the above “works of the flesh.”

But if you’re living by the Spirit, here’s what will characterize your life:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 | NIV84)

By the way, in choosing to use the term “fruit,” Paul isn’t just being a clever writer. A “work,” as in “works of the flesh,” is something a man has to do for himself and by himself. But a “fruit,” as in “fruit of the Spirit,” is something that is produced by a power which a man doesn’t possess. Man cannot make a fruit! You can plant seeds, but you can’t make them grow.

You can tell immediately that a believer is living according to the Holy Spirit because his life will be marked by positive, wonderful virtues that build people up rather than tear them down. And one of fruit of the Spirit is faith, or more accurately, faithfulness. The Greek word here is pistis, and it’s a bit ambiguous to define but almost always in the New Testament infers our complete and utter dependence on the work of Christ. But here, this fruit of “faithfulness” is lumped in with a bunch of moral and ethical virtues that speak to human relationships. So that’s probably how Paul meant it to be taken here. In that case, the Spiritual fruit of “faithfulness” has to do with such things as loyalty and trustworthiness. But not just loyalty to God and being trustworthy to God, but to other people. Part of being a faithful believer is being dependable to God and man. It has to do with being a “man of your word” that others can trust. Faithfulness represents the highest level of responsibility between husband and wife. As Charles Barclay wrote:

No church and no marriage can stand unless they are based on loyalty.

No wonder faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit! Once again, as this series on Your Amazing Faith is stressing, your amazing faith sets you apart from everybody else. It makes you better than you otherwise would be. When you look at the list of the fruit of the Spirit, doesn’t it describe the kind of person you want to hang around, hire, work for, or marry? Your amazing faith makes you an amazing person.

Your Amazing Faith, Part 3

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How amazing is your faith? It’s so amazing only you and other Christians possess it. No unbeliever has faith. Only Christians have faith because faith comes with a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. No unbeliever has a relationship with God. Granted, an unbeliever may say he believes in God – and he may mentally assent to the existence of God – but believing in God isn’t the same thing as being in a relationship with Him. I believe that Kim Kardashian exists, but I don’t have a relationship with her. This is the essence of Romans 10:17 –

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

So, faith comes from hearing the Word of God; the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When you couple that verse with another one, you’ll understand why unbelievers don’t possess faith:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 | NIV84)

That’s why faith comes from the Word of God. And that’s why the unbeliever doesn’t have it; he doesn’t have the Word and therefore he can’t have faith.

Faith also has nothing to do with what you think or feel. Nor does it have anything to do with the circumstances you may find yourself in. Faith exists outside of your mind, emotions, feelings, and circumstances. Paul discovered that –

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Paul, in the midst of a life-threatening storm at sea, was able to say that because his faith wasn’t in the sailors or the ship he was on or in his hope that the weather would change; his faith was in God. Too many Christians haven’t figured this aspect of their amazing faith out. They foolishly think that their circumstances indicate how much faith they have. Or, they allow their feelings to dictate how much faith they have. So when times are good, they “feel” like they have a lot of faith but during bad times, they “feel” like they have less faith. That’s crazy thinking. Our amazing faith has everything to do with God, not us or our circumstances. Our faith is objective, not subjective. And the Object of our faith is God.

That brings us to the third aspect of our amazing faith, and it’s found in Galatians 2:20 –

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | KJV)

This single verse is the most significant theological statement on the new birth in the Bible. Let’s take a look at why Paul wrote it in the first place. The reason behind the verse makes it even more profound.

The old switch and bait

It all started back in Galatians 1:10 –

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10 | NIV84)

Not only the Galatian Christians, but those in other churches of the day had been accusing the apostle of sacrificing the truth of God or of sugar-coating the Gospel so that he might win more people over to his way of thinking. In other words, Paul was being accused of lowering the standards of the Gospel of salvation; of making it too easy for Gentiles to become Christians.

The fact was, at one time Paul really did try to “please men,” particularly when he was running around persecuting Christians. But he stopped that when he became a servant of Christ. After his conversion, his concern was pleasing God, not man.

The essence of Paul’s preaching was freedom from sin – salvation by grace. Sinful man is freed from the clutches of this evil world by the power of Christ alone. You’d think people would be clamoring to hear a message like that. Some were, but many wanted him to shut up and keep his grace and freedom to himself. They did that by lying about what he was saying.

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12 | NIV84)

That’s his defense, and it’s a simple one. Not only was Paul not trying to please man in his preaching, but his sermons didn’t come from any other man’s notes and he didn’t learn it in school. His sermons – his message of grace and freedom in Christ – came directly from the Source: Jesus Christ. Beginning on that dusty road to Damascus and continuing through three years of seclusion in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:17, 18). Paul was in no way a bandwagon preacher, glomming onto the popular ideas of the times and incorporating them into his preaching and writing, as happens so often today.

Now, he wasn’t the Lone Ranger evangelist, either.

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18-19 | NIV84)

So Paul made it clear that while he wasn’t a loose canon, but his preaching wasn’t influenced by anybody or anything, either. He preached Christ and Christ alone. His credentials – his apostleship – didn’t descend from the mother church back in Jerusalem. He was called to preach by Jesus Christ. For Paul, Christ was truly was his all-in-all.

Peter’s problem

But not all the apostles were like that. Take the case of Peter. Paul certainly did and he raked his friend over the coals.

Once, on a visit to the church’s headquarters in Jerusalem to justify his ministry among the Gentiles, Paul dragged poor Titus along as an illustration of the kind of preaching he engaged in:

Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. ˻This matter arose˼ because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. (Galatians 2:3-4 | NIV84)

And herein was the problem. These false brothers – Jewish troublemakers – thought that Paul should have been preaching elements of Judaism along with Christ to the Gentiles. These people – false brothers – believed that while law-keeping didn’t save a sinner and wasn’t necessary, it did bring about a higher state of perfection. That’s the point behind this verse in Galatians 3:3 –

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:3 | NIV84)

This was a big problem in the early church and the Judaizers, the false brothers by name, could have ruined the fledgling church by intimidating its members and it’s preachers into caving into their demands to introduce elements of Judaism, particularly circumcision, thereby making Christianity just another sect of Judaism.

Sounds crazy, right? Who’d be foolish enough to go along with that? Remember the aforementioned Peter? He was one who was intimidated by these Judaizers. Here’s how Paul dealt with Peter’s problem:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Galatians 2:11-13 | NIV84)

Paul opposed Peter in his unseemly behavior. I’d love to have been a fly on the way when that happened! Here was Peter, one of those closest to Jesus, the one so brash and rash in the early days of his faith, now cowering in the face of these false brothers. It’s astounding that a such a minority of people could wield such influence over so many. But that’s the way it’s always been with false teaching and certainly it’s the way it is today.

That’s the background in behind the verse that opened this message:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

Paul’s perspective

Here’s the thing. Unlike Peter, Paul never gave into these Judaizers for a second. Paul’s perspective was the right one. He had a new life under Christ. He wasn’t that man that persecuted Christians years ago. This new life in Christ set Paul free from the hindrances of the law – that law that encouraged him to persecute Christians; the same law that insisted Gentiles be circumcised or obey other stipulations of Judaism!

That first phrase, “I have been crucified with Christ” sets the foundation for Paul’s perspective. When a person becomes a Christian, he is identified with Christ – His life and His death. This isn’t a clever turn of phrase, it’s a statement of faith. By faith, a sinner makes Christ’s death his own. What that means is profound. In the future sense, it means that a redeemed sinner will never face eternal death for his sins. Somehow, when Christ died on then Cross, so did the sinner. This spiritual fact is something we take on faith.

The present benefit is astounding. The power of sin is broken in the believer’s life because he died to sin with Christ. As Christ died to the world around Him, so we died to world around us. Our old, inner self, hopelessly addicted to sin and depraved by sin, doesn’t exist anymore. That’s an objective truth that must also be taken by faith because more often than not it feels like our old self is still alive and kicking. It isn’t. But sin still is and it’s up to us to live in such a way as to put truth to the spiritual fact that our old self is dead and gone.

The counterpart to dying with Christ is the second phrase: “Christ lives in me.” Paul and all believers are living a new life.

just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4 | NIV84)

Death to sin – death to the world around us – opens the door to this new life in Christ. The Greek is far more emphatic than our English translations. Here’s how one Bible scholar paraphrased what Paul was trying to get across:

I live no longer as I once did, but in a new way – no longer I. Now Christ lives in me – He is the Lord of my life.

I like that. Paul wasn’t the same man he was before he fell off that donkey on the road to Damascus. He was different; he was different because he was no longer running his life. Christ was now in charge of Paul the apostle.

In spite of that, he still needed faith. This wonderful new life in Christ is lived in the here-and-now, or “in the body,” as Paul put it. And to live a life worthy of Christ takes faith. Paul was justified by faith and now he must live by faith in Christ. Think about what that means. First, everything in the believer’s life comes from Christ. He is the source. In fact, His love for sinners caused Him to die for them. But secondly, Paul discovered that while salvation was free and and the result of God’s amazing grace, living the Christian life was entirely up to him. He couldn’t’ afford to attempt to live righteously by simply obeying a bunch of man-made rules or regulations. He wouldn’t do it, and he wouldn’t tell others to do it. Paul had discovered something every believer in Jesus Christ must: we live by faith in Jesus Christ and in what He did on the Cross.

Your Amazing Faith, Part 4

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There is no more amazing thing in a believer’s life than his faith. A Christian may be highly educated, credentialed, celebrated, talented, and decorated, but his faith is his most amazing possession. The thing about the Christian’s faith is that nobody else in the world has it; only Christians. The world has its pale imitation of the believer’s faith, and while practicing positive thinking and while maintaining a positive mental attitude may lead to a better and more fulfilling life, those kinds of things are NOT Biblical faith. You don’t have faith naturally; it is placed into your heart by the Holy Spirit. We take our faith for granted but we shouldn’t. It’s what separates us from the rest of the world. It makes us special. It makes us supernatural people.

The basis of our faith is the Word of God, according to Romans 10:17 –

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

The object of our faith is not our feelings or our emotions. We can’t gin up faith. Our faith is completely objective, and its object is a Person: God –

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Faith may be a mystery to some, but not to Paul who had discovered the secret of his faith:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

But possessing faith and living by faith isn’t all sunshine and buttercups. Nobody knew that better that the apostle Peter, and he wrote to Christians who also knew all about how difficult living a life of faith can be.

These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:7 | NIV84)

Background

Some people might refer to Peter as “just a fisherman.” But nobody who spent three years in the company of Jesus Christ could be called “just a fisherman.” In fact, if you were to sit down and read through both of Peter’s letters in the New Testament, you would be reading about such things as the doctrines of election, foreknowledge, sanctification, obedience, the extent of Christ’s finished work on the Cross, God’s grace, the Trinity, salvation, faith, and hope! Peter was not “just a fisherman,” and while we always think about Paul as being the towering intellectual of the Christian faith, Peter was no intellectual slouch. He juggled mighty theological concepts while dealing with the day-to-day problems encountered by believers scattered all over the known world.

Here was a man who, at one time, was impetuous; the kind of guy that rushes in where angels fear to tread. Peter often spoke before he thought and some of the dopey things he said surely caused our Lord’s head to shake. Speaking of our Lord, Jesus said this to and about Peter:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my
Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be e loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17 – 19 | NIV84)

Peter was the “rock” upon which the church was to be built. But before you get all excited about that, Peter, whose name means “rock,” would go on to write this in 1 Peter 2:5 –

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4, 5 | NIV84)

So, in Peter’s inspired opinion, all believers are “rocks.” We are all Peter. Peter knew there was nothing special about him; he knew he was an apostle, but he also knew he was just one of many. The church is built on people like Peter; people like you and me.

Peter wrote his letters after Paul wrote his, probably between 64 and 67 AD, after Nero had come to power and had begun his persecution of Christians. And we know to whom he wrote his letters, particularly the first one:

To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia… (1 Peter 1:1 | NIV84)

These were believers in peril; their lives were constantly threatened by persecution on account of their relationship with Jesus Christ and His church. And though Peter mentions persecution many times in his letter, the theme of the letter is not persecution but rather hope in times of persecution. Dr McGee refers to Peter as the “apostle of hope,” and hope in the New Testament is always linked to suffering. What that means is startling and counterintuitive. Suffering, what we all try to avoid at all costs, is something that produces hope.

And the readers of this letter needed hope. They were “strangers in the world, scattered…” all over the place. The recipients were a mixture of both Jew and Gentile believers, and both groups were literally “strangers in the world” and “scattered.” For the Jewish Christians, they were forced out of their homes in Jerusalem and forced to lived in strange, pagan cities. For the Gentiles, their citizenship was in heaven but they had lost so much just to follow the way of Jesus . So both of these groups of precious believers were suffering and that suffering (those trials they were dealing with) was producing something in their lives they didn’t have before: HOPE.

Trials in perspective

It’s easy to understand how trials produce suffering, but how does that produce hope? It all boils down to perspective. When a believer is facing a trial that produces suffering, what he pays attention to makes all the difference in the world. Peter gives us something to think about:

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:6 | NIV84)

There’s your perspective right there. What Peter is referring to when he wrote “In this,” will become self-evident, but for right now, his point is a simple one: in the midst of “suffering grief in all kinds of trials” Christians should rejoice, not worry or be anxiety-ridden. That may sound crazy to you, but you need to pay attention to it. When you are experiencing trials that lead to suffering, you ought to rejoice – not praising the trials, but focusing on God instead of the trial. The key is forcing yourself to see God, not get bogged down in the trial. Remember what kind of trial Peter is talking about here. It’s a trial you experience because of your faith. We’re not talking about the trial of a bad cold or a feverish child, although you should focus on God regardless of what’s going on in your life.

As a side note, modern Christians have a completely warped out perspective on suffering. We foolishly think that whatever is happening at the moment is the most important thing in our lives. So when we are suffering the trial of a bad cold or a feverish child, those things tower over horizon and we behave in an unseemly way for a Christian to behave. When you drag your sick child to the emergency ward at the hospital and are freaking out because you have to wait to see a doctor, that’s unseemly behavior for a Christian to engage in because it says something very disturbing about your faith. It says you don’t have very much. A moment in the waiting room can ruin your testimony for Jesus Christ. And nothing is more important than that. How you behave when the thumb screws of life get tight says everything the quality of your faith.

But Peter is specifically referring to those trials you may face on account of your Christian faith. When that happens, here’s what “in this” refers to:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5 | NIV84)

You may be facing trials on account of your faith, but if you keep your focus on what God has done for you and given you in Jesus Christ, your trials pale by comparison. The jeers and mocking, the persecution of losing your job or home because of your faith are NOTHING compared to what you GET in Christ! Thinking about what you have waiting for you in heaven may also seem counterintuitive and a denial of reality, but it isn’t.

Here’s the thing. Our faith in this is both objective and subjective. It is objective in the sense that our faith is in “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” and in “his great mercy” that led to our “new birth.” It is subjective in the sense that there are definitely “rewards,” what Peter refers to “an inheritance that can never spoil or fade” that we should think about.

In the midst of these kinds of trials, if we can keep them in perspective and keep our focus on God, we’ll be fine. And that brings us to the verse that started this whole thing:

These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:7 | NIV84)

If you think that verse is a little hard to swallow in light of what came before it, try what Peter’s associate, James, wrote on for size:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4 | NIV84)

Both Peter and James were not deniers of reality. Neither of them denied that the readers of their letters were suffering trials. They’re giving Holy Spirit-inspired advice that needs to be noticed and taken by modern believers.

As a Christian, you will face some forms of persecution on account of your faith. That persecution may take many forms, but it will come. Even in America. You may find that hard to believe, but all you have to do is ask the Christian who spoke out in support of traditional family values who has been denied a promotion because of it. Or the baker who refused to bake a cake for a “gay wedding” who had to pay a heftY fine. Those are forms of persecution. That you will face some form of persecution is guaranteed. How will you react to it? Peter wants you to understand that your most precious possession is not your job. It’s not your home. It’s not your friendship. It’s not your family. Your FAITH is your most precious possession and though you may lose much because of your relationship with Christ, you can never lose your faith. In fact, that faith is strengthened when you suffer persecution.

Augustine observed:

In the fiery furnace, the straw is burned by the gold is purified.

Martin Luther chimed in:

The fire does not lessen the gold but makes it pure and bright, removing any admixture. So God lays the Cross upon all Christians in order to purify and cleanse them well in order that their faith may remain pure even as the Word is pure, and that we may cling to the Word and nothing else.

Both of those guys were right. Why does your faith need to be purified? It’s because when we live and prosper and enjoy the blessings God gives us, we as sinful people tend to start focusing on them and trusting in them instead of God. Our faith becomes corrupted by other things, even very good things like friends and family and pension plans. When that happens, those corruptions in our faith – those impurities – need to be removed. And God will allow those persecutions that lead to suffering to do just that.

Perspective is everything. And it’s the one thing Peter’s friends needed and it’s the one thing we need, too.

Your Amazing Faith, Part 2

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Faith is an amazing gift from God. How amazing is faith? It’s so amazing only Christians have it. Non-Christians don’t have faith. Like so many other things of God, the world has a version of faith, but it’s a pale imitation of what Christians have been given. The world has positive thinking, but only the Christian possesses faith. That’s what we learn from Romans 10:17 –

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

It’s unfortunate that the average Christian doesn’t grasp the profundity of this idea. He glibly takes his faith for granted; utterly clueless of its value or it’s power. Your faith comes from hearing the Gospel. Never underestimate the power of the Word of God, nor the power of the faith it implants in your heart. So the basis of our faith is not what we think or what we feel or what we wish; the basis of our faith is the Gospel.

If the basis of faith is the Word, then what is the object of our faith? Paul gives us the answer in Acts 27:25 –

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Let’s take a look at why Paul said that, and let’s begin by considering this, one of the most exciting chapters in all the New Testament.

Context

The last two chapters of Acts are exciting and make for fun reading. They are full of nautical terms, which is significant given that the author of Acts, Dr Luke, was a landlubber! Notwithstanding, his account of Paul’s journey to Rome is considered to be masterpiece because it sheds some light on how sea voyages were made in those days. James Smith, a Scotsman who is considered to be the father of yachting, is often associated with these chapters. His lifelong devotion to and studies of geology and conchology are considered legendary, but it was his love of yachting that led to his writing a book detailing Paul’s seafaring adventures. In 1844 he retraced this voyage as Luke recorded it, and Smith concluded:

Luke, by his accurate use of nautical terms, gives great precision to his language, and expresses by a single word what would otherwise require several.

His estimation of Luke’s record testifies to the integrity and authenticity of the Biblical record.

When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us. (Acts 27:1-2 | NIV84)

Three times in those two verses we read the word “we,” which includes Paul, Luke, and a fellow by the name of Aristarchus. The last time we read “we” in the books of Acts is back in chapter 21 when Paul and his friends finally arrived in Rome. That was about two years before the incidents in chapter 27. What was Dr Luke doing for those two years while Paul was held as a prisoner in Caesarea? Remember the other document the good Doctor wrote – the Gospel of Luke? It was here in Rome and the surrounding areas that he did his research for it.

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled a among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus… (Luke 1:2, 3 NIV | 84)

Luke was nothing if not thorough! But why was he allowed to travel with Paul the prisoner? For that matter, why was Aristarchus there? Paul was a special case; he wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill prisoner, and he was treated with slightly more consideration than were other prisoners. In all probability, Luke was Paul’s personal physician and Aristarchus was one of Paul’s best friends.

But what got Paul in such hot water that he was being transported to Rome a prisoner? Back in chapter 25, we read that Paul had been hauled before Agrippa and Festus to face charges brought against him by some troublesome Jews –

A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned.” (Acts 25:13 – 15 NIV | 84)

Paul faced both Agrippa and Festus and he shared his conversion experience with the king. This was Paul’s habit. If you read the whole book of Acts, you’ll read Paul’s testimony several times. The fact is, if an unbeliever stood still long enough, Paul would share it with him! Agrippa’s response to Paul’s evangelistic efforts and Paul’s response is a classic exchange –

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:28, 29 NIV | 84)

Everybody agreed that Paul was not guilty of any crime, but he was determined to get to Rome at all costs. In a mark of his frustration with Paul and the Jews in general, Agrippa remarked –

This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:32 NIV | 84)

Agrippa stands as a most tragic character. He had no desire to persecute Paul. Meyer Lenski, one of the great New Testament scholars, notes ;

Agrippa had felt Paul’s touch upon his heart, and from this strange and unexpected power he “left the room.” It was his hour of grace, and when he “left the room,” he left salvation behind him.

Sad for Agrippa. He was presented with a the chance of a lifetime: the chance to have his sins forgiven and a home in heaven guaranteed. And he walked away from it. He’s not alone, unfortunately. Countless others have done what he did.

Bound for Rome

Nobody onboard that ship was thrilled to be there this time of year. A sea voyage such as this one was not looked forward to by the ancients, but it was particularly perilous this time of year. Paul left the area in late August and didn’t arrive in Rome until March! It was a miracle that he got there at all, having not only lost all his belongings, but also his ship!

The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. (Acts 27:3 NIV | 84)

But it wasn’t all bad, at least at first. As a Roman citizen, Paul was treated with respect and “presumed innocent,” at least until he faced Caesar. He was allowed to visit some friends, but time was passing and the weather was changing fast. Paul wasn’t sailor, but he was no dummy – he knew they were in trouble.

Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them, “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” (Acts 27:9, 10 NIV | 84)

Just like Agrippa, nobody on the ship would heed Paul’s warning, so instead of finding safe harbor, they pressed on.

The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. (Acts 27:15 NIV | 84)

In other words, their fate quite literally was “hanging on the wind.” If that isn’t a metaphor for life, nothing is. So many people honestly think that they are in control of their lives; that they shape their destiny; that they can plan their lives around a desired outcome. It’s not like that, though. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to be careful and live prudently. But it’s downright foolish to think for a moment we control our lives. Other times it may seem as though outside forces are doing that; that we are at the whim of our employers or our government or our health. But that’s not accurate either. It’s God who is control of our lives, and it’s not a passive control. But at the same time, you and I as believers in God shouldn’t allow ourselves to be “driven along” by the winds of this world. The world should never, ever direct the course of a Christian! Paul knew back in verse 10 that trouble was coming, and it was.

When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. (Acts 27:20 | NIV84)

All hope was lost. They had reached the point of no return – the absolute end of their resources. And that’s when Paul said this:

Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ (Acts 27:23-24 | NIV84)

Those verses grab your attention. Most people are hooked at “an angel of the God whose I am…stood beside me,” but what is most astounding, to me at least, is that God had a plan for Paul’s life (to stand trial before Caesar – not a great plan from the human perspective!), and therefore Paul’s life would be preserved. Not only that, because of the importance of Paul’s life, the lives of all those associated with Paul would also be preserved! Never underestimate the importance of a single Christian life! A single Christian life can change the course of history.

That word from the God sustained Paul through this storm. It didn’t matter how bad the storm was or how terrified the sailors were, Paul knew things would be fine because he knew what God’s Word was and his faith was in God and His Word. Paul’s faith was completely objective, and that Object was God. That’s why he could make this declaration –

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

His faith wasn’t in the sailors’ skill or the boat’s sturdy construction. This wasn’t positive thinking speaking. Paul’s attitude was the logical outcome of his faith in God and God’s Word. There’s nothing like the worst circumstances of life to bring out the best aspects of faith.

Paul lived an exciting life, and this incident highlights a couple of things. First, God’s will for those who serve Him can never be stymied, not by nature or man. Second, God’s people are able to hear the voice of God in the midst of terrible storms. Maybe nobody else, but God’s people can hear God’s voice, and His voice brings personal assurance and strength.

Your Amazing Faith, Part 1

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Faith, it is said, can move mountains. But can it really? Have you ever tried to move a mountain with your faith? Of course, we know that when Jesus spoke those words in Mathew 17:20, He wasn’t referring to real mountains. He was referring to metaphorical mountains. With faith the size of a mustard seed (that’s a tiny amount of faith), a believer is able to move mountains of – you name it – pain, illness, debt, emotional problems, marital problems. And yet, if you’re like me, and you have that little bit of faith, you also have mountains that never give way to it.

Was Jesus wrong when He said that faith can move mountains? We know that can’t be true because Jesus is the Son of God and that fact precludes His being wrong or telling a fib. So He must mean something else. But what? Studying faith is like trying to dribble a football (that is, an American football). Just when you think you can, you find out you can’t. Just when you think you get a handle on what faith is all about, you discover you don’t. And it’s back to the drawing board you go.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to explore Biblical faith. What it is, and what it can add to your life. And this will be an important study because of this single verse:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6 | NIV84)

If you’re a believer, then you probably want to please God. You need faith to do that, therefore you need to know just what Biblical faith is.

In Romans, Paul wrote about faith, and in his opinion faith isn’t something normally present in a person. It’s not native to a human being.

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

The word “consequently,” or “therefore” in the KJV, links verse 17 to something preceding it.

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”. (Romans 10:16-17a | NIV84)

So Paul was quoting from the book of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 53:1, when he referred to faith resulting from hearing a certain message. What message? What is the message both Paul and the Old Testament prophet thought was so powerful that it literally brings faith into the hearts of those who just hear it?

Let’s take a look at the context of Romans 10 and we’ll discover the basis of our faith.

Two kinds of people

Here in Romans, Paul has in mind two kinds of people: the zealous Jewish moralist and the believing Gentile. The key to understanding the quandary of faith is understanding what Paul wrote in chapter 9 –

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. (Romans 9:30-32a | NIV84)

In other words, there were zealous, well-meaning Jews who had spent a lifetime pursuing holiness and righteousness before God yet accomplishing nothing of eternal value because they were using the law to obtain that which can only be obtained by simple faith. But on the other hand, there were Gentiles, who had never heard of the law or tried to obey it, yet they had obtained righteousness because they had faith.

How is this possible? How is it possible to be righteous through faith and not through good works? It’s because – as Paul had argued in the first eight chapters of Romans – all men are sinners and simply cannot approach God on the basis of good works.

Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” (Romans 9:32 | NIV84)

So these zealous, misinformed Jews thought they could become holy, righteous people simply by obeying a list of do’s and don’ts. This, Paul maintains, is impossible. Only through faith can a person become righteous in God’s sight. The sad but sincere Jew Paul had in mind, was so busy minding the law that he literally tripped over Jesus, whom Paul refers to as a “stumbling stone,” as he again quoted from Isaiah –

As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”. (Romans 9:33 | NIV84)

That’s actually God speaking through the prophet. God set a “stone” in Zion – in Israel – that caused Jews to stumble and fall down. Jesus, our Savior, became “like a stumbling stone or block” in that Jews who were busy minding the letter of the law missed Him completely or tripped over Him as one would trip over an inconveniently placed stone on a path. Because they were so focused on themselves in relation to the law, they couldn’t see Jesus and they couldn’t hear His message.

That’s the big problem with this legalistic approach to righteousness, by the way. Because man is a sinner, he doesn’t judge himself correctly nor does he see his own moral and spiritual shortcomings. He judges himself against other people, and supposes himself to be all right or as good or better than others. The odds are that a person who thinks this way will become proud and self-seeking, which is the root of all sin. People like this, and the church today is full of them, overlook or trip over God’s way of righteousness, which comes a gift given in grace: faith in Jesus Christ. It’s an ironic tragedy: these people so zealous for God were rejected by Him over their misplaced zeal. Yes, these moral legalists were and are sincere, but sincerely wrong. Here’s the rub: Sincerity is worthwhile only if you’re right. There are a lot of very sincere people who are wrong in their approach to God. They foolishly think they can earn their way through the pearly gates by doing good things or simply by going to church and believing the right stuff. These activities are good and are part of the Christian life, but salvation doesn’t come that way. A lot of churches, for example, make their young people pass a test before making them members of the church. That’s all well and good but that doesn’t make you a Christian.

The law versus faith boils down to a message

The whole point of this discussion is boiled down in these verses –

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. (Romans 10:1-3a | NIV84)

So, where does the knowledge come from? You and I know this knowledge as the Gospel. Paul does too. But remember to whom he’s writing: Jews. That’s why he quotes so freely from the Old Testament. All through Romans 10 Paul quotes from the likes of Moses, Isaiah, Joel; all men held in high esteem by Jews. Paul uses what these men wrote and sums up his argument this way –

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:12-13a | NIV84)

That last bit is a quote from Joel 2 and what Paul said here, though obvious to us, must have been a stunning declaration to the Jews of his day: God doesn’t distinguish between people when it comes to salvation. Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter because all people without Christ are lost and in need of saving. In our time and corner of the world today, we might say something like this: Whether you are a good person or a sketchy criminal type, you both need to be saved. God doesn’t prefer the good person over the bad. Both are sinners and God is the only one who can save them both.

The problem Paul sees is two-fold. First, how do we get this word out to people? And, second, who’s going to take it? Paul addresses this problem, and again he uses the words of Isaiah –

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15a | NIV84)

We’re getting close to discovering what “the message” is that produces faith one’s heart. There’s a lot going on in these two verses in the form of questions:

How can a person call on someone to be saved if they don’t believe in him in the first place? That’s a good question and points to the fact of the necessity of salvation. The “belief” here is not a mental exercise. A lot of people believe in Jesus Christ – that is, they believe He existed and so on. But that’s not what we might call “saving faith.” How can a sinner call out for salvation if he has no confidence or belief in the one to whom he is calling? If a sinner is to call out for salvation, then, he must have faith planted in him. Why? Because that faith isn’t there naturally; human beings aren’t born with “saving” faith in them.

The second question indicates the necessity of a sinner learning about Jesus Christ, the only one who can save. If a person hasn’t heard of Jesus Christ – or more specifically what Jesus Christ did for him the Cross – then he can’t be saved. Remember what Peter said in his famous Pentecostal sermon –

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 | NIV84)

What’s really interesting about Paul’s quote from Isaiah in Romans 10:15 is the context of Isaiah 52. The prophet has in mind the exiles in Babylon. Not all, but many of the exiles living in Babylon were faithfully waiting for the Lord to come to their rescue. Here’s the Word of the Lord to them as Isaiah proclaimed it –

For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “At first my people went down to Egypt to live;lately, Assyria has oppressed them. “And now what do I have here?” declares the Lord. “For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock,”declares the Lord.“And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed. Therefore my people will know my name;therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it.Yes, it is I.” (Isaiah 52:4 | NIV84)

Tempted to give up and give in, these exiles stuck in Babylon longed to be set free. The exclamation, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news,” is what these sad and sorrowful exiles exclaimed when saw the messengers coming with the news and they heard that “good news” that their exile was over and that they could go home.

Such are the “beautiful” feet of Paul and the countless preachers and missionaries down through time who were called by God and went out to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the spiritual exiles longing to be set free. Our Lord put it this way –

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6 | NIV84)

In this first study of faith, we learn the powerful lesson that without Christ nobody can be saved; that it is faith in Him and His work that results in our salvation. But nobody can gin up the faith to believe in Him unless He puts it there first. The faith to believe comes from the message of the Gospel – the Word of God. And the Gospel came first through Jesus Christ and then through the innumerable men and women whom He called to take it to those who need to hear it.


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