7 Steps in the Christian Life, Part 3

Cast your minds back to when you became a Christian. For some of you, this might be a difficult assignment; you’ve been a believer for all your life, maybe. Others may not be able to pinpoint an exact date, but you do have a dim recollection of being without Christ, then with Him. And some of you may know the exact date, time, and circumstances of your “come to Jesus” moment. We’re all different, yet we’re all the same. In our Christian lives, we’ve all taken the exact same steps; we are all taking the exact same steps. The first step we all took, whether or not we may recall the exact date or circumstances, was receiving Christ.

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:11 – 13 | TNIV)

Most people around you will never receive Him, but you received Christ. When you did, you became a child of God by the will of God. That’s an important thing to remember; you received Christ, but it was God’s will that it happened. From your perspective, you made up your mind to confess your sins, repent, and receive Jesus into your heart. But from God’s perspective, which is the one that counts, He had been calling you to receive Jesus, as He calls all lost people to receive Jesus, and He gave you the ability to open up and receive His gift of salvation in the form of His Son, Jesus.

The second step was your confession or profession of Christ. What saved you wasn’t your decision but rather the Gospel of Jesus and your faith in it. You became a Christian because you heard about what Jesus did for you on the Cross: He took your punishment; He shed His blood to wash away your sins and the guilt of your sins. By faith from God, you believed that and were saved. That Word of God that you heard with your ears was planted in your heart and pretty soon, what was in your heart bubbled up and came out your mouth!

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (Romans 10:9, 10 | TNIV)

You’ve received Jesus into your heart, and His presence in your life has become obvious to your friends and family, through things you’ve said and the way you behave. You’re a different person, from the inside out. Paul put what happened to you this way:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…. (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18 | TNIV)

An important phrase you should remember is this: “all this is from God.” That means that when it comes to your salvation, God did all the work. He did it all for you. But, after that, you have something to do. And that’s the third step in your Christian life.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 | TNIV)

That’s Jesus talking to His disciples, telling them that it was their responsibility to “remain” in Christ. What does that mean? How do you do it? And how do we reconcile what Jesus said with what Jude said:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy… (Jude, verse 24 | TNIV)

Jude makes it sound like God will keep you in Him; God will keep you saved. Yet Jesus told His followers that it was up to them to remain in Him. Let’s take a look at just what Jesus was teaching His disciples because we are also His disciples.

Jesus and His friends had just left the Upper Room, heading toward the Garden of Gethsemane. His time on earth was coming quickly to an end. Our Lord’s earthly ministry was drawing to a close. As the group passed by the Temple, they noticed one of its most beautiful ornaments, a golden vine cluster which was larger than a man. Jesus used this decoration as the basis of a parable.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. (John 15:1 | TNIV)

The disciples would have been at least vaguely familiar with the figure of a vine and vineyard. They are used frequently throughout the Old Testament where Israel is pictured as a rotten, dying, degenerate vine with dried-up fruit barely clinging to it. Here’s an example:

I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isaiah 5:1, 2 | TNIV)

In other words, the nation of Israel was a huge disappointment to God. The prophets used the figure of a vineyard to drive home that teaching. God was tending His vineyard, Israel, but Israel wasn’t bearing any good fruit, only rotten fruit.

So our Lord used a very familiar motif to teach His disciples something very important. In that first verse, there are two very important, profound truths. First, there is genuine stock. In other words, there are true believers and those who aren’t. An essential in agriculture is to plant the right kind of vine or tree so that you get the right kind of healthy, quality fruit. No fruit can be better than the vine that produces it. Jesus taught that He is the “true vine,” and unless the believer is connected to Him, the quality of that believer’s fruit will be as bad as that of Israel. There may be many branches, but only those bearing good fruit are part of the true vine.

The second truth is that God the Father is the “gardener.” The Greek really means “farmer,” specifically, an expert in growing grapes. The relationship of the believer to God is the same as that of the vine to the farmer (the owner of the vineyard). He cares for that vine in every way; he tends it, waters it, protects it, and cultivates it.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:2 | TNIV)

The branches that don’t bear fruit – when they become dry, brittle, and lifeless, the farmer – God the Father – cuts them off and drags them off the be burned. These branches had, at one time, been green and healthy but not any more. Now, whom do you think Jesus is talking about here? Remember His audience: His disciples. Which one of them had been walking and talking with Jesus for all these years? Which one had Jesus referred to as His “friend?” Of course, the dead branch is Judas, a disciple who began so well but eventually died inside. Judas became selfish, disregarded the truth, didn’t value his relationship with Jesus, and had become filled with the “spirit of the antichrist.” John would later write more about people like Judas:

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. (1 John 2:18, 19 | TNIV)

Judas was a dead branch, but he’s not the only one. There all kinds of “hangers on” in the Body of Christ, people who claim to belong to Jesus but don’t really. You can spot them as easily as you can spot a dead branch on a vine. They aren’t producing good fruit. And Jesus says that His Father, the great farmer, will tend to them. It’s not your job or mine to haul these dead branches away, it’s God’s.

But God also prunes all the good branches so that they’ll produce even more, better fruit than they are already. Pruning looks like a bad thing – lopping off branches, trimming a tree back to its trunk. But that’s how the farmer keeps the tree or vine healthy. And a healthy vine will produce more and more good fruit as it is pruned. All those experiences in life that we hate – the painful ones, the ones that make us hurt or break our heart, these are the things God uses to prune us. All the disappointments and discouragements of life are used by the Lord to prune us so that we will bear more fruit. The old timey Bible scholars like to refer to this action as “moral purification.” God carefully and with great deliberation allows what we may perceive as the awful moments in life to touch us, cleansing us from dirt in our lives, so that we may produce more and better fruit. Those old timey guys were on to something. Notice what Jesus says next:

You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (John 15:3 | TNIV)

What do you think our Lord meant by that? For sure Jesus did not mean the disciples were sinless. Nobody is. But they, and we, are clean. Believe it or not, this his a hotly debated verse among the theological eggheads, who love to strain at gnats. But sometimes the simplest explanation is the best. All believers are “cleansed of sin” when they receive the Gospel message. Back a couple of chapters, we see Jesus humbly washing the feet of His disciples. That was a common enough thing for the host of a dinner to do in those days. But when He came to Peter, Peter was incensed that his Lord would deign to wash his feet.

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. (John 13:7 – 11 | TNIV)

Of course, the whole foot washing thing is all very symbolic of Jesus cleansing believers from the sin in their lives. Only He can do that. The forgiveness of sins is part what God does for us so that we may be acceptable to Him. But there is another side to this. We are made clean, but we must remain clean. We play a part in that as we remain in fellowship with Jesus, the vine.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7 – 9 | TNIV)

We have a part to play in keeping ourselves clean – we confess our sins, we remain in fellowship with Him and other believers. But then there’s something the psalmist wrote:

How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word. (Psalm 119:9 | TNIV)

Paul goes one further. Not only are the “young” able to keep their way pure through the Word of God, but the whole church is also!

And you husbands, show the same kind of love to your wives as Christ showed to the Church when he died for her, to make her holy and clean, washed by baptism and God’s Word… (Ephesians 5:25, 26 | TLB)

It is not possible to read the Bible, to study it, to go to church and be exposed to it and not be cleansed by it. God’s Word is truth and light; it exposes the sinful conduct in our lives and bad attitudes and beliefs. If you are a true believer, connected to the vine, then you will respond to the Word of God with humility and submission.

And that gets us to the main point of Jesus’ teaching, verse 4 –

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 15:4 | TNIV)

For a branch to bear fruit, it must get its life from the vine. Similarly, for believers to bear fruit they must remain in Christ. The power to live as God wants you to live comes from above. You can’t do it on your own. And the fruit you bear is not what you can do, but rather it’s the life of Jesus in you working its way out. Paul noticed this:

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

We’ve learned something very significant so far in our look at the 7 steps in the Christian life. First, we receive Jesus because God enables us to do so. We profess Jesus because His Word bubbles up from within our hearts. And we bear fruit because Christ’s life in us works its way out through us. God does it all the work as we allow Him to. Even as true believers rooted in Jesus Christ, the good we do must be done in the power and anointing of Him.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 | TNIV)

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7 Steps in the Christian Life, Part 1

Have you ever wondered how you became a Christian? Or how you remain a Christian? You probably have, and depending on where you go to church, you’ll get an answer based on what your church or denomination teaches. That’s too bad. The church is good at many things, but giving a straight answer to a theological question usually isn’t one of them. As always, your best resource to find an answer to a spiritual question is always – always – the Bible, unfiltered and uninterpreted by theological eggheads. The dirty little secret some churches don’t want you to know is this: You don’t need them to tell you what the Bible says. Don’t get me wrong. The church is important; it is Biblical and it is vital to your well-being as a healthy believer. If you claim to be a Christian, then you are obligated to regularly fellowship with a group of believers that forms a church. Staying at home or pretending to have church in your home is a terrible idea in the 21st century. This is America. It’s not communist China. Generally speaking, you’re in no danger in this country if you go to church. Of course, just any church won’t do. You’re best bet is to find a church that holds the Bible in the highest esteem; that has a pastor who preaches from the Bible, faithfully explaining it and showing you how to apply it to your own life. The worst thing you can do is land in a church that prefers man’s teachings to God’s; that considers the writings of Calvin or Wesley or Luther or Augustine to be as good as the Bible. Or that tells you that the Bible is beyond your understanding. That’s utter nonsense. The Bible was written for any born again believer to understand. The Bible itself confirms this:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalms 119:105 | NIV84)

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (John 16:13 | NIV84)

The Bible is your guide, and the Holy Spirit will lead you to grasp its truths. But you have to do your part. You need to study it. You need to prayerfully read it. You need to talk about. And you need to be in a church that takes the time to explain it.

So, as I begin this series on the seven steps in the Christian life, our primary source will be the Bible. I may quote from theologians and scholars smarter than I, but remember: I always prefer the Bible. In other words, we will always defer to God’s Word.

The first step in the Christian life may seem obvious, but lay aside what you’ve been told or what you think you know and let’s discover what the Bible really has to say about it.

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13 | NIV84)

Step number one in the Christian life: Receiving Christ. But, what does it mean to “receive Christ?” We’ve all seen the late Billy Graham’s evangelistic services and the hundreds upon hundreds of people going forward at the end of his sermon to “receive Christ.” Did these people just decide they needed to “get saved” and “receive Christ” during Rev. Graham’s 20 minute sermon? Did they feel the guilt of their sins during the service to the point where they felt the only remedy was to go forward and “receive Christ” and His forgiveness? Or, was something else happening in the lives of these people; something not evident just by looking at them? Was God, in fact, working on their hearts and minds long before they showed up at the arena to hear Billy Graham’s sermon?

The ugly truth

Human beings were created in God’s image. We all know this. But when sin entered the world, everything God created changed, including human beings. As a matter of fact, you and I probably can’t conceive of what man was like as he was originally created. Can you imagine being able to walk with and talk to God as we talk to each other? Adam and Eve were created to be able to do just that. They were made to be able to relate to their Creator just as naturally as they did to each other. But sin ruined that. The ability of any human being to live in a right, healthy relationship with God, with other people, with nature, and even with himself has been completely corrupted. But, we still bear the image of God. Sin, with all its destructive power could never erase that image. Though God’s image in us has been severely marred and distorted, it’s still there. So when God looks at sinful humanity, He still sees images of Himself.

And the Lord sees people desperately in need of saving. Not only saving, but restoring. God longs to restore that image of Himself in a sinful person back to perfection. But the sinner has no such desire. He has been completely corrupted by sin. That’s the nature of sin, you see. Sin is not just a bad decision or some moral failing. It’s direct rebellion against what God wants. The day Adam and Eve sinned and disobeyed God, they literally began to die both physically and spiritually. That death was passed on to every one of their descendants.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalms 51:5 | NIV84)

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…. (Romans 5:12 | NIV84)

For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23 | NIV84)

Every human being today is born estranged from God. Earlier I said that when God looks at all people, He sees distorted images of Himself. That’s true, but He also sees something else. He sees something He didn’t put there. He sees sin. Every child born has a sinful nature that God cannot look at. That’s one of the consequences of sin, and it’s a devastating consequence because it impacts every single area of our lives because it effects our wills. In simple terms, every single human being acts in accord with their sinful nature. Paul described what that looks like:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:15-19 | NIV84)

Without Christ, people are, by their very nature, estranged from God and hostile to Him. We have wills that don’t want to obey God. We have eyes that can’t see Him and ears that are deaf to Him because without Christ, we are dead to God.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…. (Ephesians 2:1 | NIV84)

That’s the ugly truth about every baby born and every human being who has ever lived.

What it means

What that means is this: There is not a human being who has ever lived who wanted to get saved. Nobody woke up one morning and decided that “today is a good day to convert to Christ.” Why? The answer is simply that because we are dead to God, we can’t in any way relate to Him. Our sinful nature rebels against Him. Our wills don’t want to have anything to do with God and His will. While we may, on a day-to-day basis, make wise choices and choices that may benefit ourselves and society, every single choice we make is influenced by our sinful nature. In theology, we call this “total depravity.” You probably have heard that term. Here’s what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean we are as bad as we can be. It means that all aspects of our being have been negatively impacted by sin. Sure, we can all do good things by society’s standards, but all those good things are sinful if they aren’t done for God’s glory. People may choose to do good, but because they are dead to God, they are not doing good to please God or in obedience to Him. That’s why no matter how good and moral a sinner may be, it’s not good enough to tip the scales in their favor. Their sin will always outweigh the good they may do.

That’s why people need Jesus. Sin came into the world because of what Adam did. You and I may not be guilty of Adam’s sin, but we all inherited his sinful nature. And that sinful nature is what keeps us away from God. But Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth to undo what Adam did.

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19 | NIV84)

You see, Jesus succeeded where Adam failed – Adam sinned but Jesus didn’t – if we receive Jesus then we also receive His nature. Or we could day, when we receive Jesus, the old sinful nature we received from Adam is taken away from us and we are given a new nature from Jesus.

The crux of the matter

In John’s Gospel, the apostle laid it on the line and wrote bluntly about something we all have noticed even today.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. (John 1:10 | NIV84)

That’s because the eyes of the sinner can’t see Jesus for who He is. Their thought processes have been completely corrupted by sin. We Christians know who Jesus is: the Son of God, because our eyes have been opened by God. But they see Jesus as everything but. They see Jesus as a good man, a prophet, a teacher, or a nut.

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (Mark 8:27-28 | NIV84)

And that’s why nobody who has ever lived just decided on their own to “receive Jesus.” They couldn’t because they were never able to.

And yet, it seems some do.

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…. (John 1:12 | NIV84)

Something happened so that some would receive Jesus. Really, a couple of things were going on in the background to make this divine transaction possible. First, they were being drawn to Jesus by the Spirit of God.

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32 | NIV84)

That’s Jesus explaining to His then-confused apostles why He had to be crucified. The whole reason our Lord gave up the glories of heaven and came to earth was to hang on a cross, which released the power within Him to draw sinners to Himself. Without the cross and everything Jesus did on it, we’d all be thinking Jesus was a good man, a prophet, a teacher, or a nut.

Second, the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of the sinner just enough to glimpse the truth about Jesus.

But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16:15-17 | NIV84)

That’s how a person is able to see Jesus for the very first time – somehow the Spirit of God reveals the truth to him. We don’t know how it happens, but it does. And the third thing that happens is this:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 | NIV84)

God’s grace saves the sinner when, through faith given him by God, he opens up to receive Jesus. Nobody receives Jesus on his own and no preacher, not even the great Billy Graham, can save a person through a sermon. It’s a work of God from beginning to end. Someone, I don’t know who, wrote this about the Gospel, the Word of God:

The Christian gospel offers salvation freely in Jesus Christ. It is a work of God from beginning to end. God is the active giver. He chooses, He draws, He saves, and He keeps. It is all His doing. Anything less is not the gospel.

Or, as the Bible, our primary source in our look at the 7 steps in the Christian life, puts it:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 | NIV84)

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Ephesians 1:4 | NIV84)

And finally, how does a person stay saved? The answer is simple.

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy…. (Jude 1:24 | NIV84)

It’s an amazing thing, this salvation of ours. God did all the work, but we enjoy all the benefits.

You Should Be Committed, Part 7

Last time, we looked at this paragraph from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19 – 21 | TNIV)

Jesus wants His people to give to the work of the Lord while they are living on earth so that they may build up credit in Heaven. There’s no other way to interpret what our Lord is saying in these verses. As a believer, you can obsess over investing all your worldly wealth in a bank, and if you do, then that’s where your heart will be. Or you can do the smart thing. Invest some of your worldly wealth in the work of the Lord, adding to your treasure in Heaven. According to Jesus, if you do that, then your heart will be in Heaven.

Will there really be treasure waiting in Heaven for you? Some people don’t think so. But Jesus seemed to think there will be, and that’s good enough for me. Peter also believed Jesus:

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. This inheritance is 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 | TNIV)

As far as Peter was concerned, our Heavenly inheritance – which is not a chance to live in Heaven as some think – is a gift from God in the same vein as our new birth! The apostle equates salvation with a tangible inheritance waiting for us in Heaven! I say our inheritance or treasure in Heaven is tangible because, first, it can never “perish, spoil or fade.” Second, it is being “kept in heaven for you.” In other words, your treasure is reserved for you. It’s yours. God has your treasure on deposit for you in His Heavenly vault, and He’s waiting to give it to you.

Jesus also said this about our treasure in Heaven:

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:33, 34 | TNIV)

This is all about Christian stewardship and love. Engaging in proper stewardship is an act of love; an act of love toward God and your fellow man. The smartest thing a Christian can do to get ready for his future is simply to prepare for it. You have a retirement account. You have a pension plan. You ought to have an eternal investment, too. When you practice proper Christian stewardship, you are really engaging in a paradox. You are storing your wealth, not in “purses,” which wear out, but in heavenly purses, which last forever. Christian stewardship is exchanging the earthly for the heavenly; the temporary for the permanent.

Jesus is giving us a tremendous principle for living here that is really for all people, but especially for His people. Whoever we are, whatever our situation in life may be – whether we are rich or poor, famous or infamous, saints or sinners – our hearts will be where are treasures are, and our treasures will be put where our hearts are. So, if we love God and are committed to Him, we will be making deposits in Heaven by using our wealth, possessions, and talents for God’s glory. The more we give on this side of eternity, the more treasure we will be accumulating in Heaven. The more we accumulate in Heaven, the more securely our hearts will be anchored in Heaven. This principle is the single measuring rod by which we can measure the depth of our love and commitment to God. It is also a way to check our love and commitment to Christ, for when we see ourselves becoming more and more interested in accumulating earthly possessions than in heavenly treasures, it’s time to pause and reflect and take a long hard look at our spiritual health.

Back in Matthew 6, our Lord gives us some more advice to help us not only add treasure to our Heavenly inheritance, but also to live a good life in the here and now.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25 | TNIV)

Trust more

That word, “therefore,” is such an important word. It attaches this concluding section of Matthew 6 to all that came before it. Throughout Matthew 6, Jesus had emphasized three virtues of true disciples: simplicity, sincerity, and singleness. The Christian life is marked by simple truth. By sincere love and devotion to that truth. And by singleness of devotion and purpose to one Master, Jesus Christ.

If you have decided to serve Christ, then you must decide to be obedient to Him. Part of that obedience is to start doing something that unbelievers don’t do: Trust God; look to Him for His care and learn to let Him take care of you. Living like this is exactly opposite to how you used to live and how most of your family and friends live. They worry. It’s human nature to worry and fret. But if you are a committed follower of Jesus Christ, then you wont live like that. Worry is a sin; it’s not a virtue. If you worry, you are passively telling God you don’t really trust Him; that you trust yourself more or other more.

George MacDonald, Scottish novelist, once said:

To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.

He’s not altogether wrong, but when it comes to our relationship with God, He demands both your trust and your love, and your trust is a good indication of the kind of love your have for Him.

The big point Jesus makes in 25 is “don’t worry about your physical needs or luxuries.” The reason is simple. When you fret about things like those, it reveals where your heart is; the whole focus of your life is off. If God has given you a life and body – both far more important than food and clothing – don’t you think He’s capable of giving you what you need to support your life and body?

To support this principle, our Lord gives us some examples.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life ? (Matthew 6:26, 27 | TNIV)

To worry about food and clothing and such things is to show how dumb you really are because you haven’t learned anything from the world all around you.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20 | TNIV)

Mose of us take what Paul wrote to the Romans and apply it only to the unsaved, but there’s a kernel of truth in it for Christians, too. We believers should look at how God cares for His creation and understand that we, like the birds of the air, are part of that creation. If He cares for them, then how can He not care for us?

Charles Lindbergh once wrote,

If I had to choose, I’d rather have birds than airplanes.

That’s might be a funny thing for an aviator to write, but it tells us something very important about Lindbergh: He was smart. He knew you could learn more from birds than from airplanes. Think about this: Birds can’t sow. Birds can’t reap. Birds can’t store things in barns. But we can! You and I are supposed to sow and reap and store, and at the same time we’re supposed to trust God. That bird trusts God, and so should you. Trusting God doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be exercising some good judgment. You should save for your old age. You should have insurance. You should be prudent in how you spend your resources. But first and foremost, you should be trusting God to provide and sustain. And He will!

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life ? (Matthew 6:27 | TNIV)

That’s a short verse that’s actually a little complicated to translate, and the TNIV did a good job. It can actually mean a couple of things: Worrying can’t make you taller. Worrying won’t make you live longer. You get the idea behind what Jesus was trying say here. Worrying about things like your health or your wealth won’t do any good. Worrying is all done inside your head, so it can’t do anything good for you. Leo Buscaglia wrote:

Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.

That’s absolutely correct. Want to be miserable in thirty minutes? Start worrying about something right now. Worry is a waste of time and energy. Martin Luther, a man who had a lot to worry about, once remarked,

You pray and let God worry.

Naturally, God doesn’t worry, but you get the idea.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:28 – 30 | TNIV)

Birds work after a fashion, but they don’t worry. Flowers don’t do anything except sit there, looking good. Our Lord’s point here is not that His followers should opt out of life and be lazy but that God’s provision and care are so abundant that He is able to even “clothe” stuff as transient as grass, which produces nothing and can’t endure.

Our generation isn’t the first to be concerned about clothing. The way this is written indicates that the disciples 2,000 years ago worried about what they were wearing! No wonder Jesus chastised them: “You of little faith!”

The main point

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matthew 6:31, 32 | TNIV)

And here’s the main point, from the negative perspective. True disciples of Jesus aren’t supposed to live like people who don’t follow Jesus. We’re supposed to be obviously different from them, and part of that difference is worry and anxiety. We cannot be consumed with worry and anxiety because that’s how they live. Here’s the thing a lot Christians miss. We take very seriously the notion of not living like non-Christians in terms of morality and ethics. They lie and cheat. We don’t. They commit adultery and sexual sins. We don’t. They don’t live by the same ethical and moral code that followers of Jesus Christ do, and we take that very seriously. But we smile and chuckle when the pastor tells us that we shouldn’t worry. Worrying is as much a sin as lying and cheating and committing adultery because when we worry, we are behaving like pagans. We are essentially telling God that He doesn’t know what we need and that He doesn’t care about us. So, from the negative point of view: STOP the worrying, people!

But it’s not enough to just stop the worrying. Worrying must be replaced by something else. And that brings us to the positive perspective:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:33, 34. TNIV)

Worry less, pray more. Stop letting your mind run away with anxiety and think on Heavenly things. That will reveal where your heart is. What do you spend your time thinking about? Your job? That’s where your heart is. Your investments? That’s where your heart is. Your family? That’s where your heart is. Your hobbies? That’s where your heart is. No wonder the average American Christian is a dysfunctional basket case, full of stress and consumed with anxiety and fear. You’re living like everybody else and suffering needlessly. Your life is mediocre at best when God intends for you to live a life of excellence in every way. If you want to be different from everybody else; if you want to stand out from the mass of mediocrity all around you, then become a dedicated, committed disciple of Jesus Christ.

You Should Be Committed! Part 6

We’ve spent some time looking at how we can be more committed to God through our relationship with Jesus Christ. Lack of real commitment is probably the number one problem in the Church of Jesus Christ as we move through the second decade of the 21st century in America. American Christianity has, at various times been referred to as “shallow” at best and “too commercial” at worse. American Christians are viewed as “lazy” and “out of shape, spiritually,” by believers in other countries. I hope they’re wrong, but it’s hard to dispute their assessment. Spend a few minutes around many Christians and it seems that they are well-versed on many things except their faith. They can talk forever about the latest movie or TV show they like, or football and politics, but change the subject to spiritual or Biblical things and, amazingly, they clam up! What’s going on? It’s because too many of us are more committed to the things of this world we like than to the God we claim to love so much.

And that’s a real tragedy because it is only when we become serious about our faith that incredible things start happening to us, in us, and around us. God promises so much to those who are truly committed to Him; things not available to less-committed believers. Really, some Christians who are are barely in the Kingdom are quite literally robbing themselves of tremendous blessings – spiritual and otherwise – because of their stubborn refusal to give their all to Jesus.

In Matthew 6, we read a very interesting teaching that starts off like this:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19 | TNIV)

As with so many of our Lord’s teachings, He’s exaggerating to drive home a point, which we will get to when He does. In order to fully appreciate His teachings about treasures on earth versus rewards in Heaven, we have to go all the way back to verse 1 –

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matthew 6:1 | TNIV)

People who follow God can do so two ways. They can be concerned with the here-and-now. So, as verse 1 suggests, as a believer you can choose to live in such a way as to gain the praise of man. Again, Jesus is engaging in some exaggeration. It’s not that you should hide your faith so nobody can see it; so nobody can tell whether or not you’re a Christian! Everybody should know what your faith is! When people look at you, they should know without a doubt that you are follower of Jesus Christ. What Jesus is getting at here is motivation. Do you live like a believer to impress people? Are you looking for that handshake from the pastor? If that’s what’s important to you, then while you are building up credit here on earth, you won’t be in Heaven.

This teaching of Jesus’ reminds me of something Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians about this very subject.

If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:12 – 15 | TNIV)

So, certainly you can live looking for rewards on earth. You’ll get into Heaven, but barely, smelling like smoke. Alternately, you can live with your focus on pleasing God, not man, with Heaven in view, not this world. Jesus mentions that if you live with pure motives and are committed to God, then rewards will be waiting for you in Heaven, courtesy of your Heavenly Father. That gets us down to verse 19.

Priorities and Attitudes

It is the height of foolishness of trust treasures on earth. Anything you save here can be taken from you.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19, 20 | TNIV)

The context of this teaching, though, is really about rewards. Jesus introduced the idea back in verse 1, and here He expands on it. There are rewards for living right and being in a faithful, committed relationship with God. If there were no rewards, what’s the point in being good? The rewards of this world are temporary at best. God’s rewards, however, are permanent and are spiritual. A Christian may be so focused on building up his kingdom here that he forgets about Heaven. It’s not that Jesus is against saving money or saving up for retirement. If that’s what you see here, you’re missing the point. Myron Augsburger wrote this about these verses:

Gathering earthly treasures is not a great enough cause by which to structure a philosophy of life. Earthly treasures offer no long-range security. Rather, the treasures of the eternal life are the securities that remain.

Christians need to live with an eternal perspective, not a temporal one. That’s not easy to do because we can’t see into eternity, all we can see is the temporary world around us. Generally speaking, most of us weren’t raised with an eternal perspective. If we were fortunate enough to have been raised by Christian parents who dragged us to Sunday School and made us sit through sermon after sermon, then we learned about rewards in Heaven. We learned about the dangers of loving money. We learned about trusting God to provide our needs. But at the same time, we were probably encouraged to go to college to “get a good job that pays well.” We watched as we went deeper and deeper into debt so that we could, supposedly, live prosperous lives when we graduated. At best, our well-meaning parents sent us very mixed messages indeed! Trust God, but don’t put all your eggs in the same basket. Hedge your bets. Just in case. No wonder most churches are bereft of members in their 20’s and 30’s! They’re still trying to figure out why they aren’t prosperous and why they’re drowning in debt! The sad reality is that you can be genuinely interested in serving the Lord, but at the same time be running after the elusive and temporary rewards the world has to offer. If this is how you are living at any age, you’re doing it all wrong.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21 | TNIV)

Is it possible to accumulate great amounts of “wealth” and still be a committed follower of Jesus Christ? Absolutely! There are many, many wealthy disciples of Jesus Christ, who are doing just fine spiritually and materially. The problem occurs when you start to view your wealth as your treasure. Your “treasure” is the most important thing in your life. If that’s how you view your wealth – or anything on earth, for that matter – then you’re in big trouble. Your heart won’t be in Heaven, it will be stuck here on earth. You’ll be living a very limited life and your God will be very small. Ralph Earle, in his commentary on Matthew, made a very astute observation about what I call the “eternal perspective:”

If you encourage a man to give to the Lord’s work, you are are helping to tie him to heaven. Even soliciting a sinner to contribute to a special project of the church may lead to his salvation. Thus we do people a definite service when we give them a chance to make their offering to the Lord. Where their money goes, there also their hearts will go.

That last sentence is what they call, “the money quote.” Mr Earle is absolutely right about that. When we live with an eternal perspective, we will be obvious about it for the right reasons. When we give others the opportunities to participate in living with an eternal perspective, we are engaging in a worthy service. And here’s the point so many Christians miss. The whole of their lives should be devoted to the eternal perspective and pointing as many people in that direction as they can. If you are a Christian, the entirety of your life is an opportunity to show the lost that there is a better way to live; there is way off the hamster wheel of life.

Jesus moves from the heart of a man to another organ.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22, 23 | TNIV)

Believe it or not, Jesus is referring commitment to God here; a singleness of purpose. Follow: If your eyes are working correctly, then you’ll see things clearly. But an eye, for example, with astigmatism, produces only blurred vision. They eye is the window through which images filter and perception is brought to the mind. If the window is clear and clean, all is well. But if the window is dirty or cracked, light is warped and images become all distorted. What Jesus is getting at is so simple it’s profound. The light which gets to a person’s heart depends on his spiritual state. Eyes that are clouded with greed or lust lead to distorted vision that produces improper behavior. But eyes that are clear – eyes that are both looking in the same direction in singleness of purpose, committed to God and loving toward others, will see eternity on the horizon and that image will influence the man’s behavior.

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24 | TNIV)

This is a powerful verse that sums up Jesus’ teaching of the two treasures and where we store them. There’s more than meets they eye when it comes to these two treasures. It’s a question of two masters and which one you will let master you. The English “money” comes from the Greek “mamona” or “mammon,” which is actually a transliteration of an Aramaic word meaning “property” or “wealth” in which a person places their confidence. Jesus brilliantly personifies God and money as slave owners and pits them against each other. A man can hold down two jobs at once; a lot of people are doing that today, but God and money aren’t employers, they are slave owners, and nobody can be owned by two slave owners. Either God is served with clear, single-minded devotion or He is not served at all. One scholar lays it all on the line and writes,

Attempts at divided loyalty betray, not partial commitment to discipleship, but deep-seated commitment to idolatry.

So, how does all this tie into our series on being committed to Christ? When you are in a committed relationship with the One who saved your soul, you are serving Him and that includes your wealth – your money. In case you missed it, here’s what Jesus said about your motivation for giving your wealth to God’s work: Store up (or build up) for yourselves treasure in heaven. You show God that you are serious about your relationship with Him by how generously you give to His work here on earth. A lot of Christians view money as dangerous and dirty, but I tell you money is a very spiritual thing. The only way to build up your treasure in Heaven, which according to Jesus is what you should be doing, is by giving some of your wealth to the Lord’s work here on earth. Don’t give blindly to every charity that comes begging; make sure that your church or charity is truly doing the Lord’s work – that the Gospel is being preached and taught both here and elsewhere; that people are being helped in Name of God. If your giving is being used for the sake of God’s kingdom in the propagation of the Gospel and changing lives, then it becomes legal tender in Heaven.

You may think that’s not a good reason to give. You’d be wrong. You should be giving for the purpose of adding to your treasure in Heaven because our Lord said: Where your treasure is, is where your heart is. If you know you’re building up and adding to your treasure in Heaven, then that’s where your heart will be. But if your treasure is in the bank, that’s what you’ll be thinking about because that’s where your heart will be.

You Should Be Committed, Part 5

Being committed to the Lord means being a disciple of Jesus Christ. That word, disciple, frightens some Christians because they’re quite content with just being a “Christian,” going to church a couple of times a month, behaving properly around their Christian friends, and saying grace. To Christians like that, a disciple is somebody who takes their faith way too seriously. These are the people who do crazy things in the name of their faith. Things like planning their daily lives around church activities; like making sure their kids are proficient in their knowledge of the faith first and of sports and video games second and third; things like helping strangers in the name of Christ and volunteering their time and talents while getting nothing in return. Being a disciple of Christ is not for the lazy or faint of heart. It’s serious business, and many Christians aren’t that serious. And that’s a shame because there is great satisfaction found in being so committed to Christ that He would refer to you as His disciple.

In the book of Proverbs we read a very interesting verse about this very issue:

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed. (Proverbs 16:3 | NIV84)

Of Proverbs 16, Dr McGee made this observation:

This is a very rich and important section—short sentences drawn from long experience, tested in the crucible of time and of suffering. They are made rich and real to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s the real beauty of all the proverbs, but really describes Proverbs 16 well. Most chapters in this book don’t fall into a meaningful outline, and this one doesn’t either. I’ve seen a couple of outlines but none of them are really helpful. So what I’d like to do is just concentrate on the first handful of verses.

The Lord

It is significant that in the first seven verses, Israel’s personal name for God, Yahweh, was used. This section stresses God’s activity in the affairs of men. We like to talk about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, but this verse shows how far-reaching it is! It actually begins in the mouth of man.

The preparation of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:1 | KJ21)

In a single verse, we see how God is able to confound even the wisest of men. When the wisest man in the world seeks to speak to others, God is able to control his words. The way the verse is written, the idea is that God is able to take the most meticulously thought-out speech and turn it on its head by jumbling the words up spoken by the person giving it. In other words, a clever person can plan on saying one thing, but if it is contrary to God’s plan, He will step in and take control of the person’s tongue. You may scoff at such an idea, but remember Balaam’s ass?

The second verse carries this idea even further, beyond just words and ideas.

All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes, but the LORD weigheth his spirit. (Proverbs 16:2 | KJ21)

Only God is able to see into the depths of a person’s being to discern his true motives. Any person, even the most precious blue-haired saint in the church, can delude themselves into thinking their motives are pure when they may not be. There isn’t a human being alive who is able discern the motives of others, let alone their own. Jeremiah knew this quirk of human nature to be true:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward everyone according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:9, 10 | KJ21)

That’s why you should never “follow your heart” or “listen to you heart.” It lies to you. You can’t trust it. But you can trust God, and that’s why you need to listen to Him and seek His will all the time. Your heart will always lead you astray and get you into trouble.

If you want favor with both God and man, and a reputation for good judgment and common sense, then trust the Lord completely; don’t ever trust yourself. In everything you do, put God first, and he will direct you and crown your efforts with success. (Proverbs 3:4 – 6 | TLB)

Nobody knows you like God does. That’s why you need His direction for your life. And the only way you will be able to discern His direction is if you are in a committed relationship with Him through Jesus Christ because then and only then will you be living a God-centered life, which is the essence of discipleship. And verse 3 really shows us how in practical terms what a God-centered life involves.

Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established. (Proverbs 16:3 | KJ21)

The word translated “commit,” means literally “roll.” This verse is probably the very best prescription for anxiety available, and it’s free. All you have to do is simply learn how to do it. If you want to lessen the anxiety in your life, then roll all your affairs over on to the Lord. Whatever you are doing or whatever you’re involved with, give it to God and let Him work it out. That sounds so simple, yet most Christians can’t do it because they know that what they are doing or involved with is not God’s will for them. And here’s the number one problem with American Christians: They segregate their lives in such a way as to keep certain things away from God. They have no problem praying for their children or grandchildren or for safe travels. But it never occurs to them that God is vitally interested in their work. Or in their hobbies. Or in their various other extracurricular activities. In fact, I suspect that it’s even worse than just ignorance. It’s a calculated way of living and self-deception that says to God, “OK, I want to go to heaven, so I’ll give you this, this, and this, but I’ll keep my free time to myself.” We are masters of the double life. We should all be given an Oscar for our performance as Christians when we are called on to act like like one. But we aren’t fooling God. So instead of rolling the entirety of our lives over onto Him, we hold some back and suffer the consequences of such foolishness. We are anxious and we worry and we get all stressed out. We have to deal with guilty consciences. We don’t really trust God because we’ve never really tested Him! We’ve never given Him the opportunity to prove how faithful and powerful He really is. Because, when it really counts, we prefer to trust ourselves.

This verse teaches us complete dependence on the Lord. And that’s not something most of us want. We’re not quite sure about Him. But the thing is this: If you want to enjoy the kind of success that is pleasing to God and most beneficial to you and those around you, you’d better start rolling all your “stuff” over onto him. Wise up and do what’s best for you. Learn humility through depending on God. God will never, ever let you down. Some people have genuine trust issues because they’ve been disappointed by their parents or their spouse or other people of importance and influence in their lives. To you, I say try God and you will discover what many of us have discovered to be true: God is faithful and will always do what is best for you. And your family. And your business.

If you call yourself a Christian, then you should commit your plans to the Lord so that He may establish them. Not every plan you may have is pleasing to him; but for those that are, this verse is a great comfort. True faith, borne of a love relationship with Jesus Christ will remove the anxieties and the perplexities from your life. Guaranteed. But that won’t stop some people from thinking that they or their situations are the exception; that God wouldn’t waste His time. To you, the Bible makes a simple statement:

The LORD hath made all things for Himself, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil. (Proverbs 16:4 | KJ21)

“All things” means just that. God made all things so He’s keenly interested in all things and He understands all things. Your situation that you think is so different and unique is blasé to God! Put it another way, there is nothing God hasn’t seen, heard, or dealt with. Do you think you’re the first person to pray about his marriage? Or about his job? Or about everyday problems in child rearing?

God is absolutely committed to you, in every way you can think of. If you aren’t committed to Him in kind, you’re short changing yourself in a big way! You’re missing out on all that the Lord can bring into your life. He has the uncanny ability to make everything work out for you. In His kingdom, there are no loose ends; God takes care of it all. When you stop and think about it, there really is only one reason why a Christian would not commit 100% of himself to God: Pride. That’s a huge problem, by the way.

Everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; though they join hands, they shall not go unpunished. (Proverbs 16:5 | KJ21)

Ouch. If pride is keeping you from giving God your all, you’re an abomination to Him. That’s about as bad as it gets. That phrase, “pride in heart,” refers to a person who thinks he knows more than God does; that he knows better than God does. If that’s your attitude, you’ve put yourself in a bad position. That kind of pride – of arrogance – doesn’t go unnoticed by God or unpunished. You reap what you sow. Some believers reading this may have found themselves on the outs with God because of their attitude of pride and arrogance. Inexplicably you have found the spigot of God’s blessings dried up. You no longer feel like He’s listening to your prayers. The things of God no longer seem to hold your attention. All those things are tiny judgments God directs at you to get your attention; to tell you He wants all of you, all the time.

There’s a famous verse in the book of Acts that’s worth taking a peak at. It’s Acts 26:14 –

We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (Acts 26:14 | TNIV)

That phrase, “kick against the goads,” in Greek literature evoked a rural image, of farmers goading their oxen in the fields. It sounds like an odd saying to but us, but everyone in that day understood its meaning.

A goad was made from short pieces of timber, blunt on one end and pointed on the other. Farmers would use the pointed end to prod a stubborn ox to move. Sometimes, the animal would kick at the goad. The more the ox kicked, the more pain it felt as the goad stabbed it’s hoof or leg.

We have the impression that Saul’s conversion happened all of a sudden, as he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. But based on the Lord’s expression regarding his kicking back, it’s very likely that Jesus had been working on him for years, prodding and goading him.

We don’t have any record of it happening, but given Paul’s amazing intellect and curiosity, it’s almost impossible to imagine him not being present in the audience while Jesus was preaching and teaching. He was certainly familiar Jesus. And if he heard our Lord preaching, then he heard the Word of God and for a long time he “kicked against the goad” of that word until finally, in very dramatic fashion, Christ got the man’s attention.

Saul heard the Word and he resisted it. His heart was so desperate to go the other way, that he became the foremost persecutor of Christians. But his heart wasn’t strong enough to resist Christ’s call. And neither is yours.

A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the LORD directeth his steps. (Proverbs 16:9 | KJ21)

Like Saul, you can run, but you can’t hide. If you’re a Christian who is holding back from God, He will hound you, no matter how much you kick against the goad. The question is, how beat up do you want to get? You can “devise” your own plans, but if you belong to Him, God will move you in the direction He wants you to do. Be smart. Stop resisting God. He wants all of you, so just give your whole life to Him. When you do that, this will happen:

(Christ) is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…. (Ephesians 3:20 | TNIV)

Thoughts on the First Noel

Luke chapter two might be the most widely read portion of the Bible. Each year during the last weeks of December, Americans dust off their Bibles and turn to the account of what has become known as “the Christmas story,” or as I like to call it, the story of how God sent His Son among us to save us. There are, all told, five characters of prominence in Luke 2.

The Romans. Of course, the Romans represent the earthly government; a government determined to keep doing what it wanted to do even while the King of Jews was born. In Luke chapter two, we see what’s important to any government: Making life hard for its citizens and confiscating even more money from them in the form of ridiculous tax.

The angels. The supernatural appearance of these heavenly messengers heralding their messages of eternal hope set the stage for the birth of our Lord. Of course, God had been telling His people of the Savior’s first Advent for centuries; you could say it was the worst-kept secret ever. But human beings, blinded by sin, never noticed.

The shepherds. To the shepherds the angels appeared, and this time their message was noticed. Really, shepherds were the perfect people for angels to appear to. King David was a shepherd and he was greatly loved by God.

Mary and Joseph. The earthly parents of Jesus set the perfect example of how any parent or any other person should respond to God: In simple obedience. Neither of them possessed all the facts. What was happening to them was unprecedented, yet they did what God wanted them to do.

The infant. No, there was no halo surrounding the head of the Jesus. He was just an ordinary baby, born like countless other babies. There was nothing outstanding about the Baby. That’s how God chose to reveal Himself to man. He still does that today. You can find God in the simplest, most mundane aspects of life.

Humble birth, Luke 2:1 – 7

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. (Luke 2:1 – 3 | TNIV)

The story of the birth of Jesus as told by Luke couldn’t be more different than the same story told by Matthew. In Matthew, we read about the birth of the King of the Jews. We read about how King Herod was so obsessed with finding this new king that he killed an unknown number of young boys in an effort to kill the young King of the Jews. Yet in Luke, the birth of Jesus is presented in an altogether different way. His parents are portrayed as young and being bullied by an uncaring government bureaucracy. Why so different? Luke’s Gospel is a work of history written primarily for Greeks; for intellectuals. Of course, Luke also wanted to present the infant Jesus as the Son of God, but to do so in an educated, orderly account was Luke’s goal. Pastor, theologian and hymn-writer, Joachim Neander, who died far too young of tuberculosis at age 30, wrote something we should keep in mind.

The three great historical nations had to contribute, each in its own peculiar way, to prepare the soil for the planting of Christianity,—the Jews on the side of the religious element; the Greeks on the side of science and art; the Romans, as masters of the world, on the side of the political element.

The three Synoptic Gospels bear Neander’s hypothesis out. Matthew was written to the Jew and therefore stressed elements of Judaism in its account of the Lord’s birth. Mark was written to the Roman and Luke was written to the Greek, with its stress on details, both historical and personal. The Roman Government, under Caesar Augustus decided to tax the world. It sounds like an idea concocted in the halls of Washington DC, but Ancient Rome was just as arrogant as modern America when it came to taxation. The Greek word used for “world” really meant “civilized world,” and the TNIV’s translation, “Roman world” is accurate.

Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar whose real name was Octavianus, although he took the name Caesar. Augustus wasn’t a name at all but a title. He could have called himself king, emperor, or even dictator, but he chose the more religious title Augustus in an attempt to deify himself. It’s ironic that in his mind, his burdensome tax scheme got people like Mary and Joseph to travel to their various birth places, but really it wasn’t his plan but God’s plan that was fulfilled. Many centuries before Caesar Augustus was a glimmer in anybody’s eye, the Old Testament prophet Micah foretold the birth of the Messiah, referencing where He would be born:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2 | TNIV)

There were actually two Bethlehems and Micah distinguishes between them by adding “Ephratah.” Micah’s prophecy was written an astounding seven hundred years before the event took place. Given the Babylonian Exile and the great Dispersion that scattered the Jews all over the Babylonian and Persian Empires, it’s truly a miracle that a descendant of King David’s would have been born in this particular Bethlehem. The so-called “Christmas Story” is so familiar to us, we don’t realize just how miraculous it was. Caesar Augustus thought his dopey tax scheme was his idea, but little did he know God was pulling his strings so as to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in time for the Son of God to be born.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:6 – 7 | TNIV)

The Bible doesn’t tell us how far along Mary was when Joseph took her with him bound for Bethlehem, or even why he took Mary with him (other than to fulfill Bible prophecy). One scholar thinks Joseph was looking for a good excuse to get pregnant Mary out of town to avoid the inevitable gossip and the emotional stress of being so pregnant. While it is true they were married, she was farther along than she should have been! The Bible also gives no indication that the couple got to Bethlehem “in the nick of time.” In fact, it’s more than likely they arrived in town in plenty of time for the census but then stayed there until long after Jesus was born.

The popular image of Mary and Joseph being holed up in a barn or cave is more myth than reality. While there would have been no room in local inns due to the presence of Roman soldiers and officials in town to work the census, the couple probably stayed in Joseph’s family home, or the home of some close relative. Back in those days families stayed upstairs while some animals were housed downstairs during the night. That’s probably where they stayed, and Jesus was indeed put in a manger or trough, which Mary used as a crib.

Announcement in the sky, Luke 2:8 – 20

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10 – 12 | TNIV)

We all know that angels appeared to a bunch of shepherds at night and that they were the very first people to whom the Good News had been told. They were also the first people to visit Jesus. But why shepherds? Among all the occupations of the ancient world, the lowliest was that of the shepherd, followed by the fisherman. Shepherds were thought to be a untrustworthy lot because their job involved keeping ceremonially unclean animals. But in keeping with the recurring theme of Luke’s Gospel, the Good News came first to the social outcasts of the day. But really, the shepherds of Luke 2 have come to symbolize all the ordinary people of all time whose lives have been touched and changed by the Good News.

The message of the angelic choir tells us more about God than anything else:

Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14 | TNIV)

The “peace” on earth and “goodwill toward men” have to do with God. Of course, there is no peace on earth today, and there won’t be until Jesus comes back the second time. But for all those who have found Jesus as the Lord and Savior, they are at peace with God. That’s the peace of justification by faith, and that’s the peace that the angels were singing and praising God about. The birth of Jesus made this kind of peace between God and man possible. And that goes for goodwill toward men. It’s not goodwill between men, but toward men. Again, because God sent His Son, born of a virgin, into our world, goodwill now exists between God and redeemed man. The angels understood this, even if we don’t. The song of the angels gets lost in the Christmas story, but taken on its own, their song is the song of salvation, telling of what Jesus did for sinful man.

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:16 – 19 | NKJV)

The reaction of the shepherds to seeing the fulfillment of what they had been told by the angels is amazing on so many levels. These simple men, to whom the Good News had first been told, themselves became the first evangelists, telling others the Good News. Think about their message and you’ll realize how powerfully they had been touched. They literally threw off all constraints to tell a story so fantastic, who would believe it? But when people are touched by God; when a person catches the faintest glimpse of God’s glory, they can’t keep quiet about it. Recall this incident form the Old Testament, involving some lepers who had made an amazing discovery.

Then they said to each other, “What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.” (2 Kings 7:9 | TNIV)

Similarly, the apostle Paul couldn’t keep the Gospel to himself.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16 | TNIV)

And so the over-the-top reaction of the shepherds maybe wasn’t so over-the-top, after all! Their excitement propelled them to tell others. Are you as excited about Jesus as they were? Something to think about: The angels came and went. The great heavenly choir’s performance and show didn’t last. But the message of the angels did, and the shepherds took their message and told to anybody and everybody in Bethlehem. They didn’t keep this good news to themselves. Yet we keep the Good News to ourselves all the time, don’t we? Just think about all the people in your life who need to hear the Good News about Jesus and about what He can do for them. Have you told them yet? They’ll be just as amazed as the people of Bethlehem were at the testimony of the the shepherds.

But, we are told, Mary kept “all these things in her heart.” It may seem odd that Joseph’s reaction to all this isn’t given, but Luke is telling Mary’s story, and, in fact, he probably heard it from Mary herself. For Joseph’s side of the story, you can read Matthew’s account. But Mary thought deeply about all the things that had happened to her this night. To her, this was truly a sacred night; a night of miracles, and she thought long and hard about it. You get a tiny glimpse of this woman’s character and temperament and you realize that she was the perfect choice to give birth to the Son of God. We don’t worship Mary and we don’t exalt her. But she must have been a woman of simply amazing character. She was calm, deep, very spiritual, and certainly full of grace.

The first Noel has never been repeated, nor will it be. But one day, our Lord will return in glory, but not as a baby in manger. This Christmas season, it’s good to remember how it all came about, but we also need to remember that Christmas was just the beginning of a much larger event: The glorious Second Coming.

You Should Be Committed! Part 4

Anybody can call himself a Christian, but it takes real commitment to actually be one. It takes no particular effort to join a church or even to attend one, but that’s not what makes a person a Christian. You can even believe in God and that doesn’t make you a Christian. There is a very common misconception today that says a person can be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus Christ and that he can accept Jesus as Savior without making Him Lord (a word which means Master) of his life. But the Bible has a very different view of what a Christian is. The word “Christian” occurs only three times in the New Testament, and each time it’s used, it’s synonymous with the word “disciple.” In one instance, it is directly connected with that word.

News of this reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Acts 22 – 26 | TNIV)

In Antioch, there was a visible change in the people’s lives – there was glaring, obvious proof that God’s grace was present and changing lives, and Barnabas could see the change. This passage specifically states that it was the (new) disciples who were called “Christians.” They were being mocked because of the changes which had occurred in their lives.

Now, contrast what happened in Antioch with what happens today. Rarely is a new convert ever discipled in ways a follower of Christ should live. In fact, usually the opposite happens: Christians today try to find ways to be accepted by the world – they try to find “common ground” with non-Christians. They water down the Gospel to make it more palatable for the lost to accept. But the grace of God demands holiness – separation from the world and a lifestyle that is radically different from what the world thinks is the norm.

Acts 26:24 – 28

At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:24 – 28 | TNIV)

Here, Paul was sharing his testimony before King Agrippa, and it was the king who used the word “Christian,” but he used it as a term of ridicule. He was not claiming that he was almost ready to become one, because to him the word “Christian” meant “weird religious fanatic.” It would have been “political suicide” for him to “convert” and make it known to everyone that he believed that some obscure, dead, Jewish criminal named Jesus had come back to life!

Paul, as he told King Agrippa what Jesus had done for him, spoke about the need for people to change their ways, and said that the Messiah – Jesus Christ – fulfilled the message of the prophets. To the king, accepting these things meant becoming a “Christian,” and changing his ways – and this he was unwilling to do.

1 Peter 1:6 – 9; 4:12 – 19

As Peter understood it, trials which result in a measure of suffering should be considered the norm, not the exception for committed Christians. If a Christian experiences some kind of suffering on account of his faith, he needs to understand that it’s God’s will.

These [trials] 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 | TNIV)

If a person claims to be a Christian yet has never experienced any kind of “suffering,” then they aren’t doing it right. It’s not that a disciple of Christ should want to suffer or that they should think that they should be suffering 100% of the time. That’s not what Peter is saying here. What he is telling us is that if we are true disciples of Christ and genuinely committed to him, there will be times when we will be called out because of our faith. When that happens, it serves to prove that our faith is genuine.

Not only that, Peter seemed to understand that the age in which we live – the Age of Grace – is really a very long (so far over 2,000 years), protracted period of judgment or discipline for the Church of Jesus Christ.

For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin first among God’s own children. And if even we who are Christians must be judged, what terrible fate awaits those who have never believed in the Lord? (1 Peter 4:17 | TNIV)

Every human who has ever lived and will live will be judged – Christian and non-Christian alike. Right now, members of the Body of Christ are being “lightly judged,” or being “disciplined” by the Lord. As we experience this divine discipline, our faith matures and we grow in grace. The writer to the Hebrews had this to say about God’s discipline:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate children at all. Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! Our parents disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7 – 11 | TNIV)

If you are living as a disciple of Christ, then you will, from time to time, experience God’s discipline. It’s unavoidable but helpful.

God wants His people to be committed to Him, no matter the circumstances and He wants us to grow to the point where our “inner man” is committed to His will. This time, we’ll look at another aspect of our commitment to the Lord:

Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, Lord, my faithful God. (Psalm 31:5 | TNIV)

Background

Psalm 31 is what Bible eggheads call an “individual lament.” It was written by David while he was on the run from crazy King Saul in the desert. It’s an interesting psalm because while it is a lament, there is also a lot of thanksgiving and faith expressed in it. David was nothing if not realistic. He knew when he was in trouble and he knew when the cards were stacked against him. But those potentially disastrous circumstances didn’t seem to dampen David’s faith and trust in God. How unlike the modern Christian he was! If it’s a rainy day, some of us think God has jumped ship and abandoned us. We are so easily discouraged when it seems like things don’t break our way. We can all learn about commitment from this psalm.

Trust. No matter what. Psalm 31:1 – 8

“Trust” is the big theme in this first division of the psalm.

[1]In Thee, O LORD, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed; deliver me in Thy righteousness. [6] I have hated them that have regard for lying vanities; but I trust in the LORD. (Psalm 31:1, 6 | KJ21)

More modern translations use the word “refuge” in place of “trust.” Both words work since the Hebrew word translated “trust” carries with it the idea of a “refuge,” or a “hiding place.” That’s an important concept. As we use the word “trust” these days, we are usually referring to having faith in someone’s abilities – we trust a person to do a good job or show up on time. “Trusting” usually refers to what a person can do and is capable of. But the way the Bible uses the word in relation to God is more along the lines of having confidence in who He is, not just what He does. David trusts God to be his “refuge,” a place of safety in the midst of trouble. It’s a very personal word based on personal experience. David could “trust” God because in the past, God had shown Himself to be “trustworthy.”

And David knew from firsthand experience that God was righteous. And because he was in a relationship with a righteous God, he had no use for those who were “liars” and “vain.” Love for and trust in God always leads to contempt for those who don’t.

You are like an unfaithful wife who loves her husband’s enemies. Don’t you realize that making friends with God’s enemies-the evil pleasures of this world-makes you an enemy of God? I say it again, that if your aim is to enjoy the evil pleasure of the unsaved world, you cannot also be a friend of God. (James 4:4 | TLB)

Well, that nails it, doesn’t it? You can’t be in a relationship with God if you are trying to maintain a relationship with the world. You can’t do it. If you’re in a committed relationship with God, you won’t have any fear when your time comes. David didn’t. And Stephen didn’t. And Jesus didn’t.

Into Thine hand I commit my spirit; Thou hast redeemed me, O LORD God of truth. (Psalm 31:5 | KJ21)

That was what Stephen said as he died and it’s what Jesus said as He was dying on the Cross. When Polycarp was being burned alive at the stake in Smyrna, he also shouted those words. Bernard used them; Jerome of Prague used them; Luther and Melancthon and many others have also used them. It was Luther who said this:

Blessed are they who die not only for the Lord, as martyrs; not only in the Lord as believers, but likewise with the Lord, as breathing forth their lives in the words, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.

Magnificent words that can only spoken by people who have lived their lives wholly committed to God. You can hear the confidence in those words: I commit my spirit into your hands. When your time comes, hopefully you will have lived close enough to God to have developed that kind of trust. David understood that God had redeemed him – that he belonged completely to God. That’s the essence of commitment, isn’t it? That you belong to the God who purchased you from sin and death.

Lament. The realities of life. Psalm 31:9 – 13

It sounded as though David had a good grip on things until the next section begins.

Have mercy upon me, O LORD, for I am in trouble; mine eye is consumed with grief, yea, my soul and my belly. For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing; my strength faileth because of mine iniquity, and my bones are consumed. I am a reproach among all mine enemies, but especially among my neighbors, and a fear to mine acquaintances; they that see me in the streets flee from me. I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind; I am like a broken vessel. For I have heard the slander of many; fear was on every side; while they took counsel together against me, they schemed to take away my life. (Psalm 31:9 – 13 | KJ21)

This man had it bad! But he did the right thing: He took it to the Lord! We usually don’t; we usually whine and complain about our miserable lives to people around us. We shouldn’t do that. It’s a waste of time. The person you’re complaining to is probably worse off than you, anyway. Take your trouble to the Lord. He’s the one who can help you. Don’t fret or worry – those are sins. And let’s face it, you have trouble enough with sins.

Thanksgiving, Psalm 31:14 – 24

David was realistic. He was in trouble; he knew it and he admitted it; and he took his trouble to the Lord. But he also did something else:

But I have trusted in Thee, O LORD; I said, “Thou art my God.” (Psalm 31:14 | KJ21)

There’s that word “trust” again. David trusted in God because he knew God personally. For David, God was not an impersonal deity, way off in the distance. God was HIS God. That’s not an arrogant thing to say. David isn’t saying that he possessed God, but that God possessed him. Years ago Phil Johnson wrote some wonderful lyrics that express the kind of confidence we all should have in God:

He didn’t bring us this far to leave us,
He didn’t teach us to swim to let us drown,
He didn’t build His home is us to move away,
He didn’t lift us up to let us down.

Part of that trusting involved a knowing and understanding who was in control:

My times are in Thy hand; deliver me from the hand of mine enemies and from them that persecute me. (Psalm 31:15 | KJ21)

That’s an amazing verse that speaks of God’s sovereignty over David’s life. He’s sovereign over your life, too. God sees all and knows all. He is not ignorant about what you are going through – He knows your enemies and those that persecute you. This would be a good verse for every believer to memorize and cling to. Robert Browning did, and he wrote a verse about it:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first was made.
Our times are in his hand Who saith,
“A whole I planned. Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

This is from “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” and it’s true. That word translated “times” in Psalm 31 means “life-stages” or “fate.” What David wrote and believed is what you need to believe: Regardless of where you are in your life – young, middle aged, old – your time, or your fate, is God’s hands. God is not for old people only, or for children! He’s for all people, at every age. There never is a time in your life when you can do without Him. That’s what being committed to God is all about. God is committed to you through all the times of your life. You should return that commitment in kind.

David ends with a word of encouragement, and it’s a good way to end this teaching, too:

Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the LORD. (Psalm 31:24 | KJ21)

I like the literal sense of this verse, which Moffatt captured perfectly:

Be strong, and let your heart be valiant, all you who hope in the Lord.

To “hope” in the Lord is to have complete, unwavering confidence in Him and His abilities. If you’re not completely sold out to God, you can’t have confidence in Him or His abilities because you won’t know Him well enough. It pays to be committed to God. Your life may depend on it some day.


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