Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 1

Ask a lot of people about the book of Ezekiel and they will tell you he saw a UFO. Ask most preachers about Ezekiel and they’ll blankly stare at you. It’s just one of those odd books in the Old Testament that gets the short shrift from Bible readers and teachers. There are a ton of reasons for the neglect of Ezekiel. There is the usual reason most people shy away from the prophetic books: history. They know they need to know some history of the ancient Near East, and since most people don’t like history, they never get around to reading the prophets, beyond a chapter here or a verse there. Another reason is that these books are full of strange visions and dreams with statues or creatures with multiple faces. Who can understand crazy things like that? Then there’s Israel or Judah or both. So much of what the prophets wrote don’t have anything to do with us today. Or so we think.

For those and many other reasons, Ezekiel is shunned. But maybe the biggest reason we avoid Ezekiel is that there is verse after verse after verse dealing with God’s judgment, and it all gets so depressing and repetitive after a while, our eyes glaze over. Yet this big book of prophecy is important – important enough for the Holy Spirit to have it included in our Bible. That reason alone makes it imperative for us to at least have a general working knowledge of what the man wrote.

For all the supposed mystery surrounding the book of Ezekiel, the prophet himself gives us a lot of information. For example, we know precisely when he gave his prophecies. Many of them were given between 593 BC and 571 BC, meaning that Ezekiel worked as a prophet for a couple of decades, assuming the “13th year” mentioned in 1:1 refers to Ezekiel’s 13th year as a prophet. Consider these chapter and dates:

Ezekiel 1:2 – 593 BC
Ezekiel 8:1 – 592 BC
Ezekiel 20:1 – 591 BC
Ezekiel 24:1 – 588 BC
Ezekiel 26:1 – 586 BC
Ezekiel 29:1 – 587 BC
Ezekiel 29:17 – 571 BC
Ezekiel 30:20 – 587 BC
Ezekiel 31:1 – 587 BC
Ezekiel 32:1 – 585 BC
Ezekiel 32:17 – 585 BC
Ezekiel 33:21 – 585 BC
Ezekiel 40:1 – 573 BC

That’s more information than most other prophets give us!

And then there’s this: Ezekiel is actually organized! That’s a relief, because usually the prophetic books are notoriously unorganized. Here’s an easy-to-use outline:

Chapters 1 – 24 – Prophecies given before the Fall of Jerusalem
Chapters 25 – 32 – Oracles against foreign powers
Chapters 33 – 39 – There is hope and danger in the future
Chapters 40 – 48 – Vision of the new Temple and Land

And within each of those sections, the prophecies are arranged in order.

The man in history

…the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him. (Ezekiel 1:3 | NIV84)

That single verse tells us a mouthful about the prophet Ezekiel. First, he was a priest, not a prophet, the son of priest, and he was living by the Kebar River in Babylon. The natural question is, Why is Ezekiel there in Babylon? The answer is found in 2 Kings:

At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it, and Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him. (2 Kings 24:10 – 12 | NIV84)

It was during that particular siege (there were three altogether) that Ezekiel was deported to Babylon. It was during the first siege a few years earlier that Daniel was taken away.

The prophet/priest Ezekiel was a contemporary of both Jeremiah and Daniel, but of course by now Jeremiah was a very old man, nearing the end of his prophetic ministry. He never went into Babylon; he remained in what was left of Judah until he was taken to Egypt. During Ezekiel’s time of ministry to the Jews in Babylon, Jeremiah was ministering to the Jewish remnant now living in Egypt. As for Daniel, he was taken as a boy into the court of Babylon and in time he became a prime minister. God certainly has his people in the unlikeliest places!

So Ezekiel eventually settled among the Jewish exiles that had been relocated by the great canal that came off the Euphrates River, several miles from Babylon proper. It was here that Ezekiel ministered.

It’s very interesting to compare the opening verses of a Psalm that was written during this time to the first verse of Ezekiel:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137:1 – 3 | NIV84)

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1 | NIV)

That’s yet another startling contrast in the Bible, which is a book full of contrasts. The exiles were a depressed and discouraged lot, so much so they hung up their musical instruments, choosing to not worship God, hopeing to avoid the mockery and jeering of the locals. But at the same time, we have Ezekiel, having incredible visions from God. Very often the truly faithful believer will stand alone, separate, at least in experience, from his fellows.

These three prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel each had a ministry to distinct groups of people, but as far as we know, they never met each other. We do know that Daniel was acquainted with the prophecies of Jeremiah, and it is likely that Ezekiel had a passing familiarity with him, but their paths never crossed. Each man was faithfully serving God where God had put him: Jeremiah in a nation in decline, living among a remnant in a pagan land; Daniel in the courts of a pagan nation, never visiting his people in exile yet caring greatly for them; and Ezekiel among exiles in Babylon.

Major themes

Ezekiel wrote a huge book, full of obvious themes and, we might call them, topics. Here is a handful:

• God’s word is absolutely dependable and reliable.

The proud Jew found it impossible to conceive that their nation; that Jerusalem would ever fall to foreign conquest. In the first 24 chapters, Ezekiel preached over and over and over that it would be destroyed.

Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself am against you, Jerusalem, and I will inflict punishment on you in the sight of the nations. Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again. Therefore in your midst fathers will eat their children, and children will eat their fathers. I will inflict punishment on you and will scatter all your survivors to the winds. (Ezekiel 4:8 – 10 | NIV84)

And so the prophet drones on for 24 chapters; incessantly and persistently trying to convince a stiff-necked and rebellious people that the end is near. He had it tough, as most prophets did.

The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. (Ezekiel 2:4 – 7 | NIV84)

But Jerusalem did fall, Ezekiel was vindicated, as was the veracity of the Word of God.

That wasn’t the end of the matter, though. Once in exile, the people were barraged by all manner of false prophets proclaiming that their exile would be brief and that they would be going home any day now. Poor Ezekiel had to break the news to them that generations would pass before they would go home. He was right again, and 70 years later the exiles finally returned to Jerusalem.

To discouraged exiles who saw the prosperity of every nation except their ruined one, this great prophet promised that some day, the Lord would balance the books and godless, heathen, violent nations would get their comeuppance and God’s people would be restored. Once again, much of what Ezekiel prophesied came to pass in his lifetime as many nations fell throughout the 6th century BC.

• The glory of God revealed

Like no other prophet, Ezekiel wrote in sweeping terms about the magnificent glory of God.

Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory. The vision I saw was like the vision I had seen when he came to destroy the city and like the visions I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown. The glory of the LORD entered the temple through the gate facing east. Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. (Ezekiel 43:1 – 5 | NIV84)

• The responsibility of the individual

There are two exceptional chapters – 18 and 33 – that contain the most thorough teachings on personal responsibility anywhere in the Bible. Anybody who entertains the philosophies of fatalism or determinism needs to study these two chapters.

• Israel’s long history of sin

Throughout the book of Ezekiel is the reality of the fact of the Lord’s judgment upon His people was due to the continued sin and disobedience to the law of God by those people. The loss of the Promised Land, some population, exile and loss of freedom smacked the people upside the head.

What happened to Judah was not random or arbitrary or something God decided to do on a whim. It was brought about by the historic behavior of His people who knew better, yet chose to go their own way repeatedly.

• The influence of national leadership for good or bad

Israel’s past kings, and even the kings of other nations (Tyre and Egypt especially) played a role in Ezekiel’s prophecies and in the fall of Jerusalem. We see the population rising or sinking to the moral and spiritual state of their leaders. This is a fact of the history of all nations, but especially that of Israel and Judah.

From a practical standpoint, greedy, ignorant, impetuous, immature, and amoral leaders made decisions and entered into political agreements with godless nations that ended disastrously. And their lack of spiritual discernment resulted in a rise of idolatry and a decline of Jehovah worship.

Ezekiel offered rebuke and hope that a future king would actually do right by his people.

• God is holy and His people should also be holy

The people were well-aware of their God’s absolute, total holiness. But that knowledge didn’t compel them to live holy lives themselves. Ezekiel’s people failed to make the connection between God’s holiness and their own. Ezekiel made it plain that God cannot ever tolerate disobedience and rebellion because it not only impugns His good Name and character, but it also defiles institutions and godly people.

• God’s transcendence

Ezekiel’s book begins and ends with incredible visons of an awesome God and the unlimited power He yields. God is not limited to Israel; He is bigger than any nation or region or anybody’s interests. God is a universal God who will judge all nations, and restore His people in every way. He will give His people a place to live in forever, and they will enjoy His provision and presence for eternity and they will finally and forever worship Him in spirit and truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Master Multiplier, Part 6

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17 | TNIV)

I’ve come to the end of another series, and, as they say, I saved the best for last. Throughout this series, we discovered that God is a giver. He’s the greatest giver ever. God gives His people:

• Abundant grace – more grace than enough!
• Life – and He sustains all life
• Victory – over death, hell, and the grave
• Wisdom – in the midst of all of life’s difficulties, God gives us perspective
• Gifts – and the ability to use them in His service

God is simply amazing, and He gives us so much. The final gift I want to look at is the most amazing gift all: He gives us everything for our enjoyment! It doesn’t get better than EVERYTHING, does it?!

Paul wrote this verse to a young pastor. I was a young pastor once, and I can tell you it wasn’t easy. If I was told that God could give me “everything for my enjoyment,” I’d wonder when He was going to get around to it! Barely scraping by in small churches, living paycheck to paycheck is hardly enjoyable! There were lots of things I could have used to make my life more enjoyable that I never got – from God or anybody else, for that matter.

So, what was Paul getting at when he made that statement? Let’s take a look.

Letters to pastors

Paul was a prolific letter-writer. Had be been active in our time, he likely would have been the kind of person who is constantly checking his email, responding to emails, sending out text messages or tweeting all day long. We have only a fraction – a small fraction – of his letters, preserved for us in the Bible. Almost all of the letters we have were written by Paul were written to various churches, with the exception of Philemon, which was written to person, and a small group of letters that have come be known as “the Pastorals.” They were written to pastors, whose names are forever a part of our Bible theology: Timothy and Titus.

Paul’s letters were meant to be read aloud to the congregations they were sent to, and even Philemon, addressed to a man, was to be read out loud to the congregation that met in his home. And even these personal letters written to pastors were obviously copied and circulated since we have them collected in our Bible. Paul probably wrote letters to other pastors and church leaders. We could easily imagine the apostle scribbling out a letter or two to Barnabas and Luke, Mark and Apollos. We don’t have those letters, but we do have these letters written to Timothy and Titus. The Holy Spirit thought enough of what Paul wrote to these men in these letters that He supernaturally preserved them for us. That means that we should take special note of his advice. You may or may not be a pastor or church worker, but his advice and counsel is timeless and of great import for all believers.

The Pastorals were written by Paul late in his career, probably after his first Roman imprisonment, around 61 or 62 AD. Tradition tells us that Paul was martyred in the late 60’s, so we’re reading things that were on the great apostle’s mind near the end of his life. Most scholars think that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, followed by his letter to Titus, and then a second letter to Timothy.

Who was Timothy?

To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. (1 Timothy 1:2 | TNIV)

That’s how this letter is addressed. Timothy was Paul’s “true son in the faith.” Naturally Timothy wasn’t Paul’s real son. He didn’t have children as far as we know. Timothy was his “son in the faith,” or his “spiritual son,” meaning that Paul was instrumental in leading this young man to the Lord and then disciplining him in the faith.

The first mention of Timothy is all the way back in the book of Acts, a history of the early church:

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:1 – 3 | TNIV)

This chapter tells the story of Paul’s second visit to Derbe and Lystry, and it’s not unreasonable to think that he was directly responsible for leading Timothy’s mother (Eunice) and grandmother (Lois) to the Lord. If you know your Bible, then you know that it was here in Lystra that Paul faced some bitter opposition and persecution and it was in the home of Eunice that he likely found solace and safety.

Timothy was around 17 years of age when all this happened, so assuming he was led to the Lord during this period, then he would have been in his mid-30’s when Paul wrote his first letter to him. But in the years inbetween, Timothy traveled with Paul and others as they took the Gospel to the known world.

It’s evident that this young man was special to Paul and to his ministry. Timothy was fiercely loyal to Paul and to the work of the ministry and devoted to believers in all churches. Here’s Paul’s appraisal of this young man’s worth:

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Philippians 2:19 – 22 | TNIV)

The pastor’s potential problem

We get the impression that all early Christians were poor – unemployed, persecuted, world-weary men and women who had virtually no resources of their own. That’s just not true. There were many converts to Christianity who were had been wealthy, influential people who gave up some or all to follow Christ, but they didn’t stay that way. There were poor and down-trodden Christians to be sure, but there were church members who were middle class, upper middle class, and wealthy people. All kinds of people were reached and transformed by the Gospel. And that’s why Paul wrote this piece of advice to Pastor Timothy:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17 | TNIV)

It seems clear that Timothy had some of “those who are rich” in his church. This verse occurs in the midst of a very important issue: How people in the various strata of society ought to live out their faith in the world.

Christian slaves and Christian masters, 6:1, 2

The first two groups of people that made up Timothy’s congregation were slaves and slave owners. Here’s his advice to these two very disparate groups:

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. These are the things you are to teach and insist on.

Today’s Christian may cringe when they read the words “slave” and “master,” but they shouldn’t impose our 21st century values upon those living in the first century. Those “slaves” back then would be roughly equivalent to today’s employee or perhaps “household help,” and the “master” would be the “employer,” for the sake of making a reasonable application. Timothy was to teach and insist upon proper behavior from both employee and employer. Dr McGee summarizes the duty of the slave like this:

The Christian is to turn in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.

And if the slave owner – the boss – is a believer who employs fellow believers, he shouldn’t take advantage of them just because they have a common faith. As one scholar put it,

It must have called for an amazing degree of forbearance on the part of both parties to this relationship to make it work.

• False teachers, 6:3 – 5

If you know 1 Timothy, then you know that the young pastor must have been contending with false teaching and false teachers within his own congregation. False teachers are sometimes obvious about it, other times a false teacher may be an otherwise commendable member who has happened to glom onto a bit of false teaching, who then re-teaches it to other members of the church. He’s ignorant; he has no idea that what he’s doing is dangerous.

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions. (1 Timothy 6:3, 4 | TNIV)

Sounds like some people in your church? You know the type: To people like this, everything the church does is wrong – it’s wrong to put up a Christmas tree or sing Christmas carols; Easter is a pagan holiday; Sunday is a pagan day; Christians should only read the KJV; and the list goes on. These people think they know more than you do or more than the pastor does. Paul’s characterization of this type of person is picturesque to say the least: “a pompous ignoramus,” “a swollen headed idiot,” and a “conceited idiot.” The great Martin Luther, whose insults are as legendary as his “reform” theology, said this about such people:

I would not dream of judging or punishing you, except to say that you were born from the behind of the devil, are full of devils, lies, blasphemy, and idolatry; are the instigator of these things, God’s enemy, Antichrist, desolater of Christendom, and steward of Sodom.

And sometimes these false teachers equate monetary gain is a sign of God’s blessing:

who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. (1 Timothy 6:5b | TNIV)

The worst kind of false teacher is the one who makes money off of his bad teaching. And Paul’s advice to Pastor Timothy is classic:

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (1 Timothy 6:11 | TNIV)

Now we get a glimmer of a potential problem with Timothy, and it’s the common affliction of most young preachers, and maybe old ones, too. Often times there isn’t a lot of financial reward in preaching the Gospel. If the pastor of a church isn’t careful, he can start to resent the wealthy members of his church because of their wealth. It might be tempting to latch onto the popular preaching of the day – the pop psychology dressed up and baptized as Christian theology that is so popular nowadays – and make a few extra bucks. It’s tempting. And it’s tempting for the average Christian to grab hold of the kind of theology that promises easy blessings and a kind of faith that makes you rich.
Pastors and all true believers need to “flee from all this” and have nothing to do with false teachers and teachings. True faith may not pay rich dividends to those of us who are trying to practice it, but true faith does bring peace and satisfaction and contentment. And that’s why Paul wrote this famous verse that is often misquoted:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10 | TNIV)

Paul’s concern was not for the rich people in Timothy’s church necessarily, although he was told to teach those people to keep things in perspective. The apostle’s main concern was for young pastor Timothy; he’s the one in danger. It’s so easy for all Christians to look at what others have, especially other Chritians, and to become discouraged because they don’t seem to be as prosperous. People in that state of mind are ripe pickings for false teachers and fall pray to all manner of false teachings.  And people like that often accuse those prosperous Christians of sinful practices because, after all, only in doing something wrong or questionable can a person acquire so much  (that’s a sarcastic statement).

And this is why Paul told Timothy – and us – that God gives us everything for our enjoyment. God is the Great Provider; from Him all good things descend. Timothy’s church was in Ephesus, a place full of prosperous people; full of businesses, and he had lots of these people in his church. To those people, and to people like himself, Timothy was to drive home the point that ALL IS OF GOD, both wealth, the ability to acquire it, and the ability to enjoy it.

 

 

 

The Master Multiplier, Part 5

We all enjoy getting presents. Whether it’s at Christmas or for our birthday or some other occasion, who doesn’t like ripping open a gift? And most of us like to give gifts; we get a lot of joy and satisfaction watching the other person opening their gift from us. It’s just built into us, I guess. As we get older, it becomes harder to buy a gift for us. And even though we could have bought a certain item, it feels good to receive it as a gift from a friend or loved one. It makes us feel a little special and we realize that we mean something to them.

God is the giver of perfect gifts. He gives us gifts that we can really use. Starting with the gift of His Son, God continually gives gifts to His people. We’ve already looked at some:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:24, 25 | TNIV)

God gives everyone life and breath and, as Paul said, “everything else.” That’s a stunning declaration that some people have a difficult time dealing with. God gives life but He also sustains life. You’re alive today because God is keeping you alive. You woke up this morning because God decided to give you another day. Think about that!

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7 | TNIV)

Here Paul was referring to his evangelistic efforts. He was a great preacher – one of the best that ever lived, yet he acknowledged that he was just one of many doing the work of God. As God gave opportunities, Paul planted seeds of faith just like a fellow like Apollos did, but ultimately it was God who was bringing about salvation in men, not Paul or anybody else.

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 | TNIV)

God gives all of us victory over death, hell, and the grave through Jesus Christ. Death doesn’t have the last word! We do! That word is “victory!”

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. (James 1:5 | TNIV)

In times of difficulty and stress, God promises to give you wisdom if just ask Him. Wisdom is the one thing we all need more of, and if we ask God, He will give us more than enough. He gives perfect perspective, allowing us to navigate through all the twists and turns of life.

But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.”. (James 4:6 | TNIV)

And God gives us even more grace – He gives us an over-abundance of grace. He never gives just enough, but always more than we think we need.

But then, we read of this gift in 1 Peter:

If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11 | KJV)

God gives abilities with which we may serve Him. Think about that for a moment. God makes us able to do that which He asks of us. Yet how many of us face the prospect of serving Him with fear or doubt? We always think “the other guy” can do it better than we can. Well, according to Peter, that’s baloney.

Let’s consider what Peter meant when he wrote of these abilities from God, because as always, there much more going on than meets the eye.

Be like Christ – Suffering

In various ways, Peter had been writing about suffering; that is, suffering on account of the faith. He was writing to people who were suffering various degrees of persecution, and his purpose was to show that this kind of suffering was inescapable; that the best way to deal with it was to be prepared for it. In chapter 3, Peter wrote about Christ’s suffering for us. Of course, our Lord not only suffered for us, but He also died for us. As a Christian, how do you respond to that? According to Peter, here’s how you should:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin. (1 Peter 4:1 | TNIV)

That’s right; we should have the same attitude as He did. We need to think and reason and respond to suffering or persecution as He did. Peter covered that a couple of chapters back:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21 – 23 | TNIV)

According to Peter, when we suffer barbs of criticism because we follow Christ, or indeed if we are persecuted to a greater extent because of our faith, we are “done with sin.” That’s a funny thing for the apostle to say. While it sounds like he is saying that “persecution drives the sin out of us,” that’s not at all what he is getting at. It’s really the other way around: Because we are “done with sin,” we are now facing various kinds of persecution. Or, another way to put it might me: Because you are now taking your faith seriously and have stopped this sin or that, you will face mockery or jeering or worse forms of persecution. Your new life of faith and holiness makes you a target!

But your attitude through it all should be that of Jesus. The Christian who keeps the faith and remains true to Christ during persecution does not do evil. He doesn’t fight back, for he will withstand persecution as Christ did. Consider this:

Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53 | TNIV)

That’s right. Jesus could have called on thousands of angels to get Him out of the predicament He was in with the Jewish religious leaders and with the Romans. But He didn’t. He faced it. He submitted to His captors. Christ never gave evil for evil, and the Christian who has the attitude of Christ toward suffering will not strike out against his persecutors.

Be Like Christ – Purpose

In verse two, Peter contrasts two philosophies:

As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:2 | TNIV)

The person who doesn’t know God or knows God but isn’t serving Christ is not living for the will of God but does everything he can to fulfill his own human desires, which more often than not run contrary to God’s will. But the true believer’s goal in life is to accomplish God’s will and he actively finds ways to do just that. In verse 3, Peter touches on some of things that the believer used to spend his time doing:

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. (1 Peter 4:3 | TNIV)

It’s amazing how much time you have on your hands when you aren’t trying to find a party to go to or recovering from the party you were at the night before! Before you were saved you did those things, but now you don’t. Another amazing thing happens when you start taking your faith seriously: You’ll probably lose some friends. And it likely won’t be your idea:

They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:4 | TNIV)

Really, what Peter is talking about here is living a life of holiness – separated to God, though not physically separated from the world. You still have to live in this world of sin, but living for God means you don’t participate in all the things the world thinks are so great and necessary. The people you once spent time partying with or, as Peter might have said, “sinning with,” may not be interested in God’s will and because they likely won’t understand it, maybe they’ll “heap abuse on you.” It’s illogical to be sure, but who said sin in logical?

But when you get to thinking they’re right and you’re wrong, remember these words:

But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:5 | TNIV)

That’s right; they may live like there’s no God and like they aren’t responsible to Him for the sinful choices they make, but it doesn’t matter what they believe: There is a God and they will stand before Him and give an account of how they lived their lives and, more importantly, why they rejected Him. And before you think there are exceptions, know this: Every human being, at some point in their lives, will be given the choice to serve God. That’s Peter’s point in verse 6:

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6 | TNIV)

Peter uses the term “dead” to refer to individuals who heard the presentation of the Gospel – who where given the choice – while they were living, but now at the time he wrote this letter are now dead. The point is that these individuals had heard the Gospel, but they rejected it.

Be Like Christ – Service

Fortunately, not all people reject the Gospel. A great many accept it and their lives are good examples for us to follow. The rest of the world may live like there’s no end in sight, but the truth is, there is an end coming:

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. (1 Peter 4:7 | TNIV)

Christians ought to be clear-headed and see things with a God-given perspective so that they may pray more effectively. See how important prayer is? It’s linked to how you perceive your world. If you’re so dull-witted that you think everything is hunky dory, then your prayer life will probably be lackluster, boring, and a waste of God’s time. However, if you begin to take your faith seriously, pretty soon you’ll start to see your world the way God does, and your prayers will reflect that. Your prayers will become serious prayers that God takes seriously.

However, a believer can’t just pray all the time without a thought to other members of the church. Prayer is important, but so in maintaining a good relationship with other believers:

 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:8, 9 | TNIV)

Love exists between believers, or it should, and we ought to love each other “deeply.” That’s a good word but it’s not the best. Other translations use the word “fervently,” but even that word isn’t strong enough. The Greek word carries the idea, for example, of an athlete straining his muscles in an effort to win his race or reach his goal, or of a horse running at a full gallop. It’s an intense word that suggests an intense effort. More important than any other thing, believers should practice love for each other fervently. According to John, this how other people know we are true believers:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7, 12 | TNIV)

This kind of deep love, Peter says, “covers over a multitude of sins,” which is an awkward way of saying that as we love each other the way Christ loves us we will forgive each other. It’s not that love excuses sin or hides it, but rather forgives it. This kind of love accepts the person just as he is, faults and all. This does not imply that the local church should never deal with gross sins, but that the Christian should never hold past sins against a brother who has turned his back on those sins.

Use your gift(s)

And that’s the background that gets us to God’s gifts to us:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10 | TNIV)

It’s not a coincidence that Peter mentions using one’s gifts from God right after a discussion about loving each other. Spiritual gifts need to be used within the context of love. Whatever gift or gifts God has given you, you are to use them in love. God gives us gifts in love and He expects us to exercise them the same way. Peter briefly mentions a couple of those gifts in the next verse, but his point is that without your spiritual gift or gifts operating in your church, your church will suffer.

If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If you serve, you should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11 | TNIV)

Now would be a good time pause and examine your own life to see if you are using your God-given gift or gifts to benefit the Body of Christ. Getting by in this world of sin isn’t always easy for the child of God but He has given us the tools to not only get by but to live in victory in spite of circumstances. We owe each other in the church love and the faithful exercise of our spiritual gifts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Master of Multiplication, Part 4

We serve a God who gives and gives and gives. He never stops giving to His people. And His gifts to us are “magical.” Without exception, every gift God gives us grows – multiplies – before our very eyes! So far in this series, we’ve looked at these things that God has given us:

• Life and breath to everything, meeting every need. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and satisfies every need there is. (Acts 17:25b | TLB)
• Opportunities of service in which He multiplies the good that we do. The person who does the planting or watering isn’t very important, but God is important because He is the one who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:7 | TLB)
• Victory in this life; victory of death, hell, and the grave, just like Jesus. How we thank God for all of this! It is he who makes us victorious through Jesus Christ our Lord! (1 Corinthians 15:57 | TLB)

This time, we’ll look at something else that God gives Christians. It goes without saying that all the gifts God gives people are given to HIS people only, not just anybody.

If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. (James 1:5 | TLB)

God gives His people wisdom. The Living Bible describes God’s blessing of wisdom as “bountiful,” and that’s a good way to describe the way God blesses His people. God never gives His people “just enough” of anything, but always a “bountiful supply,” and in this case, the blessing is a bountiful supply of wisdom. But there’s a catch. So before you start thinking you’re wiser than anybody else just because you’re a Christian, let’s take a look at what James was really saying.

James and his letter

This letter is a little different than other New Testament letters, but it is still a letter even though at times it feels like a sermon transcript. It is a letter, and it was written to Jews who had been scattered all over the world.

From: James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To: Jewish Christians scattered everywhere. Greetings! (James 1:1 | TLB)

These Jewish Christians were “scattered everywhere” after Stephen’s death when the Jerusalem church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, and as far away as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. It was leave town quickly and strike out to destinations unknown or stay in Jerusalem and face the same fate that Stephen faced: martyrdom. Many of the recipients of this letter were living in poverty or barely scraping by. Some of them were merchants and businessmen, but all the readers of James’ letter were facing hardship of varying degrees.

Though the New Testament names a number of men named “James,” many scholars believe that the James who wrote this letter was James, the half brother of Jesus. If this was the case, James was late to the party. He wasn’t a believer until Jesus appeared to him after the Resurrection. He doesn’t refer to himself as Jesus’ brother, but a servant. We don’t why he didn’t. Perhaps it was an act of humility. Or perhaps James regarded his primary relationship to Jesus as spiritual, not physical. Regardless of the reason, when we read his letter, James’ authority comes out clearly and his status as a church leader is unmistakable and undeniable.

Testing of your faith

Dear brothers, is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow. So let it grow, and don’t try to squirm out of your problems. For when your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete. (James 1:2 – 4 | TLB)

James wrote this letter to Jewish Christians who had fled their homes, who had been driven from their jobs and possessions and all they knew. They had become “strangers in a strange land,” many exploited by the rich, dragged into court, and slandered against just because they believed in and professed the name of Jesus.

To these people, the answer to James’ opening question was obvious: Of course! Of course their lives were full of difficulties and temptations! What a question to ask. And if James were to ask you that question, no doubt you’d answer the same, incredulous way. When have Christians not felt the pressures of the world closing in around them? When you feel those pressures, what do you do? Try to escape them? When you can’t control the incidents in your life, how do you cope? James, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, may have addressed persecuted Jews of his time, but in reality he is reaching out to all believers throughout the centuries.

His advice when the pressure cooker of your life gets turned up: “be happy.” Yes, it’s counterintuitive, but it is inspired advice and we’d be wise to heed it. Other translations put it this way: “consider it pure joy” when the tough times come. Strange advice, especially coming from a man who is safe and sound back in his church. Was James out touch with real life? Was he that ignorant of what real life is like for these people? Was he like the typical pastor who writes his sermons all day unaware of the suffering people are enduring?

Actually, James was well-aware of what people were going through. He had witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen, after all, and was living in and with the believers who chose to stay behind in Jerusalem. He knew his job as a pastor – to speak (or write) words of encouragement based on spiritual principles. James wasn’t the only one to give this piece of particular pastoral advice to people experiencing unending and unpleasant stress:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us-they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady. (Romans 5:3, 4 | TLB)

So be truly glad! There is wonderful joy ahead, even though the going is rough for a while down here. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it-and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return. (1 Peter 1:6, 7 | TLB)

Can you detect a pattern here? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see how God wants His people to deal with the pressures of life. Don’t freak out. Don’t get angry. Don’t shout and stomp and blame your spouse/kids/car/job/co-workers/government. Instead, behave in a way totally opposite to the expected way! J.B. Phillips in his translation makes the pill James is asking you to swallow even bigger:

When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!

Treat your trials and temptations as “friends.” They aren’t your friends, but treat them as such because those things you hate so much are the very things God will use for your benefit, if you’ll let Him.

Talk about a tough assignment! But even though James wrote the words, this is really God’s counsel to us. The problems of the Christian life have a purpose. In ways we couldn’t possibly comprehend, they are the means by which we grow into the likeness of God. Just as an athlete can find joy in the rigor of his training as long as he keeps the winning of the race in view, so the Christian can find joy, even in trials, when he sees those trials as a means of achieving Christlikeness.

What we need the most

In the midst of life’s trying situations, the one thing we lack the most is the one thing God promises to give us if we’d only ask Him:

If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. (James 1:5 | TLB)

That’s the wisdom God promises to give: Wisdom to see with perfect perspective – crystal clarity – in the midst of trials. Rather than seeking to avoid those problems at all costs, ask God to show you what’s really going on! Ask God to tell you what you should do next. God won’t get annoyed with you; He knows what you lack and He’s ready to give you the wisdom you need. But, this is one of those blessings you have to ask for. Why ask? God wants His people to learn what it means to depend on Him.

Something significant about what James wrote here was NOT what he wrote. James did NOT advise his suffering readers to pray and ask God to remove the sources of persecution, but for wisdom in the midst of it. In other words, the norm for the believer is a life of difficulties. Really, that’s the norm for every human being. But Christians have an edge over their unsaved counterparts. God tells us “why” bad things are happening to us and “how” we are to cope with them. That’s a blessing of incredible proportions. And it’s a blessing only available to believers because this kind of wisdom doesn’t come from experiences or natural education. It comes from the Holy Spirit in the believer. Jesus talked about this:

You men who are fathers-if your boy asks for bread, do you give him a stone? If he asks for fish, do you give him a snake? If he asks for an egg, do you give him a scorpion? Of course not! “And if even sinful persons like yourselves give children what they need, don’t you realize that your heavenly Father will do at least as much, and give the Holy Spirit to those who ask for him?”. (Luke 11:11 – 13 | TLB)

That’s really what James is getting at here. This wisdom is part and parcel of the gift of the Holy Spirit. So, part of the catch involving this blessing of wisdom is that you have to ask God for it. And then there’s this:

But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to tell you, for a doubtful mind will be as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind; and every decision you then make will be uncertain, as you turn first this way and then that. If you don’t ask with faith, don’t expect the Lord to give you any solid answer. (James 1:6 – 8 | TLB)

To me, those three verses are scary. Who has never doubted when they’ve prayed? But there’s an incident in Mark’s Gospel that puts this doubting issue into perspective:

Oh, have mercy on us and do something if you can.” “If I can?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if you have faith.” The father instantly replied, “I do have faith; oh, help me to have more!”. (Mark 9:22b – 24 | TLB)

Maybe that’s how most of us need to begin our prayers. Since we’re asking God for help, obviously we have some faith, otherwise we wouldn’t be asking in the first place! But we need more. The good news is God will give us the faith we need. He sees the earnestness of our hearts when we pray. He knows our weaknesses; our unsound minds. And He has made provision for those things. He gives us the faith to receive all the wisdom we need to make sense of what’s going on in our lives. All we have to is ask.

God, the Master of Multiplication, gives us all that we need to live, not under the circumstances of our lives, but on top of them.

 

 

 

 

Pentecost Sunday Thoughts

We call it “Pentecost Sunday,” but where did it come from? While it’s not found anywhere in the Bible, it does celebrate a Biblical event. As a matter of fact, Pentecost is actually a two-fer. It’s a prominent feast in the Jewish calendar, celebrating the giving of the Law on Sinai, and it is also part of the Christian liturgical year commemorating the giving of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Some people call it Whit Sunday, Whitsun, or Whit, especially in the United Kingdom. It always falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Pentecost means “fiftieth day”: it is celebrated 50 days from Easter Sunday (including Easter Sunday in the counting), hence its name.

It’s always interested me that many Churches seem to love celebrating Biblical events rather than taking them seriously. If you look at the kinds of churches that make a big deal of Pentecost Sunday, with their banners, special hymns, and such, rarely if ever do they ever allow the Holy Spirit free reign in their services. Just an observation with a little criticism mixed in.

Something a lot of churches have forgotten is that the Holy Spirit is not just “an influence,” but rather God Himself. The Holy Spirit is as much God as God the Father and God the Son. Together, the form the Trinity. Even though He is always mentioned last, various verses in Scripture put Him on the same level at the other two members of the Trinity.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14 | TNIV)

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…. (Matthew 28:19 | TNIV)

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Corinthians 12:4 – 6 | TNIV)

A Person

The Holy Spirit is a Person just as much as Jesus is. It may be because older translations of the Bible refer to Him as “the Holy Ghost,” but a lot of Christians don’t look at Him the way the look at Jesus. But they should. Consider this:

He thinks: And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:27 | TNIV)

He wills: All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:11 | TNIV)

He teaches: But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26 | TNIV)

He shows love and affection: I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. (Romans 15:30 | TNIV)

He can be lied to: Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?” (Acts 5:3 | TNIV)

He can grieve: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30 | TNIV)

Those verses and more tell us that the Holy Spirit is a Person. Only a person can have those attributes.

God Himself

But like the Son who is also Gcd, the Holy Spirit is also God.

He is omnipresent: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7 – 10 | TNIV)

He is omnipotent: I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. (Romans 15:18, 19 | TNIV)

He is eternal: How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrew 9:14 | TNIV)

He is the co-creator of the world: When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. (Psalm 104:30 | TNIV)

So the Holy Spirit is much more than so many Christians think He is. He certainly deserves more than the lip service too many churches give Him. The precious Holy Spirit has always been in the world and He has always been a powerful presence in the lives of His people. But His very public entrance into the new Church marked a turning point.

Incident at Pentecost

We’re all familiar with what happened in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost:

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:2 – 4 | TNIV)

But that was in fulfillment of something Jesus said a little earlier. In the Gospel of John, we read this:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:15, 17 | TNIV)

That’s the promise. But if you just read that bit, you miss the reason for the promise in the first place:

If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15 | TNIV)

That’s what Bible scholars call “a practical exhortation,” and the Bible is full of them. They are what the reader (or listener at the time) was expected to do. “Love one another” is another practical exhortation. In this case, our Lord gave His disciples a simple test to prove their love for Him. If you love Jesus, then you’ll obey Him. It’s a very simple test that involves His moral teachings. The problem is, though, living on earth as we are, it’s very difficult to live every moment of every day in obedience to the Lord’s teachings. Therefore, Jesus said, He would ask God to send the Holy Spirit. We are to depend on Him – the Holy Spirit – to help us live obediently to the teachings of Scripture.

In the lives of believers

Jesus gives us some valuable information about the Holy Spirit and His roll in the lives of believers.

He teaches, John 14:26

Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as “another advocate.” Other translators use the word “comforter.” The word properly means “advocate,” “intercessor,” “pleader.” The original Greek word is actually a passive word that means something like, “the one who is called to someone’s aid.” The Holy Spirit is the helper, identified as “the Spirit of truth,” which brings us to verse 26:

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26 | TNIV)

As “the Spirit of truth,” the Holy Spirit is the great revealer of God’s truth. He is able to take the things of Christ – His words, sayings, and actions – and not only make them known to believers, but He makes them make sense. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the believer is supernaturally able to recall the teachings of our Lord. But His work is far more than just helping us to remember the words of Scripture, but rather the true meaning of those words. Barclay wrote,

The Holy Spirit saves us from arrogance and error of thought.

He guides, John 16:12 – 13

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the 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 16:12 – 13 | TNIV)

Actually, Jesus was wrapping up His conversations with the disciples when He remarked that He had much more to tell them. The Lord’s wisdom and truth are truly inexhaustible! But here, He was laying the foundation for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. In spite of their enthusiasm and devotion to their Lord and His teachings, the fact is they were unable to comprehend or understand the depths of His teachings. It’s not that they were mentally deficient, but that the human mind is incapable of grasping the deep, spiritual truths of Scripture. But, fortunately for them (and us), One was about to arrive on the scene who would lead.   The Greek word translated “guide” looks a little funny, hodegesei, but is very serious. It means “to lead or guide along the way or path.” Jesus Christ is the way in which we must be led by the Spirit, and He is also the truth to which we must be guided.

The power of the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with secret revelations and mystical experiences, but rather in getting a believer to the place where he can not only recall Biblical teachings, but also understand them and apply them to any given situation or circumstance.

He intercedes, Romans 8:26, 27

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26, 27 | TNIV)

That phrase, “in the same way,” links the Spirit’s ministry of intercession with the hope of the preceding verses. Never underestimate the power of hope in the life of believers. It’s essential, and it’s an essential ministry of the Holy Spirit. Hope is essential because we are weak. We are so weak that sometimes we don’t even know what we should be praying for! It’s like writer’s block – a strange phenomena that writer’s fear: Too many ideas but not enough words – there are so many needs blowing around the hurricane in our minds that we can’t focus on any one in particular to pray for. When this happens, the Holy Spirit comes along and does it for us. Or perhaps a better way to put would be that the Spirit prays with us. Paul clearly says we are praying with “wordless groans.” I suggest this is what Pentecostals refer to as “praying in the Spirit.” Not all Bible scholars think this, but they’re sometimes wrong about other things, too. You may wonder what the point “praying in tongues” is. After all, who can understand such gibberish? God can! The words of Karl Barth are relevant on this point:

God makes Himself our advocate with Himself. He utters ineffable groaning, so that He will surely hear what we ourselves could not have told Him, so that He will accept what He Himself has to offer.

And once again, God comes through for us! He makes it possible for us to do what He wants us to to.  So, Pentecost Sunday is more than just a special Sunday that some churches celebrate.  It’s a good day to recall who He is and how indispensible His work and ministry in our lives is.  Whether we realize it or not, we can’t get along in this world without the remarkable Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

The Master Multiplier, Part 3

We serve a God who gives. And gives. And gives. He gave us Jesus, who is our salvation. He gives us blessings that cannot be counted; so many they often go unnoticed or unappreciated. God gives us answers to prayer. He gives us life and He sustains our lives. God gives and He miraculously multiplies His gifts to us. That’s why what He provides for us goes further than what we provide for ourselves. And why when we give to Him in the form of offerings or service, our gifts seem to do so much – He multiplies them to accomplish His will! The way God works is, in a word, amazing.

In 1 Corinthians, we discover that God gives His people something in addition to what we’ve already looked at: God gives victory!

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 | NIV84)

What could be more exciting than than “free victory?” God gives it to us! And yet, your experience has probably demonstrated that most victories are either hard fought or elusive. So what was Paul getting at here? Let’s take a look.

The central fact of Christianity

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central fact of the Christian faith. Had it all ended with His crucifixion, Christianity would be indistinguishable from virtually any other belief system on earth. The Resurrection IS what Christianity is all about. Had our Lord not risen from the dead, there would be no Gospel to preach, no church to start, no hope for the future. It’s hard to imagine a Christian who would seriously doubt or question the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and yet during the very early days of the Church, the Resurrection was doubted and questioned and the question as to whether or not it actually happened threatened to rip apart the Body of Christ.

1 Corinthian 15 is Paul’s brilliant defense of the Resurrection, and though volumes could be written about what Paul taught in this chapter, I’ll just barely glance at the highlights. The first thing Paul wanted his friends to understand was that the Gospel they received; the one they believed in by faith; the one that proclaimed the Resurrection, was the one that changed their lives.

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2 | NIV84)

No matter what other teachings these people may have heard after they received the Gospel, it’s the Gospel Paul wanted them to “hold firmly to.” And why would anybody believer hold any teaching above the Gospel when it was the Gospel that saved them in the first place? Let’s face it, teachings come and go, man’s philosophies wax and wane with generational changes, but the Gospel is constant. The Gospel doesn’t change. A culture doesn’t effect the truth of its teachings. And it’s the Gospel that changes lives.

The Corinthians heard it, they received it by faith, and by that Gospel they took their stand in the world. If a teaching, say a teaching that questions or denies the Resurrection, came along and they believed it, then they wasted their time with the Gospel. In other words, the Corinthians had to accept all the Gospel or none of it. This is not an insignificant concept. A lot of people like parts of the Gospel but hate other parts of it, and they foolishly think believing in some of it is better than nothing at all. Not according to Paul, though. Christianity is an all or nothing proposition; you believe it all or you walk.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 | NIV84)

Instead of getting all metaphysical, Paul makes it clear the the Resurrection is a historic fact, and he makes three statements in order of importance:

• Christ died for our sins.
• Christ was buried, which means He was dead; He wasn’t pretending to be dead. He wasn’t putting on an act. Jesus Christ’s death was real – it was an accomplished, historical fact that is provable.
• Christ rose again after three days. Interestingly, Paul notes that these three elements of the Gospel are all “according to the Scriptures,” meaning these three points are not made up fables or tall tales told by himself and other apostles.

But with this third point, Paul adds something: Proof positive that the Resurrection took place.

and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:5-8 | NIV84)

Eyewitness, many of whom were still alive at the time he wrote this letter, could attest to the reality of the Resurrection. Skeptics today may balk at this, but in Paul’s day, this was a huge deal. All those eyewitnesses, Paul estimated 500 in all, saw Jesus alive after He had died. And he named names!

Reduction ad Absurdum

Paul used the Scriptures and eyewitness accounts to prove Jesus rose from the dead. Now the apostle goes negative.

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12 | NIV84)

Since the evidence for the Resurrection is overwhelming, Paul reasons, if even one person has indeed been raised from the dead, how can anybody say that there is no resurrection of the dead? To question this basic fact is to start a chain reaction that in effect nullifies the entire gospel.

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19 | NIV84)

And that’s the crux of the matter; this is why the Resurrection is so important: Without it, we have no hope for the future. Christ’s Resurrection shows that: (1) it is possible for the dead to rise again; (2) Christ will be the first of many who will rise from the dead; (3) that is our hope – that just as death wasn’t the end for Him, it won’t be the end of us, either.

By the way, this is exactly how liberals destroy the Word of God, even today. They deny parts of it – the parts they don’t like; the parts that don’t fit into their particular world-view – but in denying one part, eventually all the parts are called into question. That’s why the Bible in it’s entirety must be accepted, on the basis of faith, to be the complete, true and accurate Word of God.

It’s evident that Paul looked at the doctrine of the Resurrection of Christ as a hopeful thing. I’d wager not many of you look at it that way. Most modern Christians in the West, especially, have it so good and are so comfortable, the idea of being raised from the dead never enters their minds. But these Corinthians didn’t have healthcare. They didn’t enjoy good health. They died young. Yes, even just the mere possibility of resurrection would have given those with a bleak outlook, HOPE.

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19 | NIV84)

Without the Resurrection, there is no forgiveness for sins because after all, if the Resurrection is a fable; a mere invention of man’s over-active imagination, then so is the idea of forgiveness, for if you can’t trust the Word of God to be truthful about Resurrection, how can you trust it for anything else? Worse, without the Resurrection of Christ, there would be no resurrection of believers, and that means there’s no future – no hope for any of us.

Christ’s Resurrection and Ours

But, because of His Resurrection, ours is guaranteed:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20 | NIV84)

That’s right, and that’s the hope of every believer; that we won’t die; that we will live on after this life is over. Part of that “living on” has to involve our bodies. Man is a spirit, he has a soul, and he lives in a body – all three parts of man are eternal and God has made provision for all three to live on. The Resurrection (Christ’s and ours) is as certain as death. As death had entered the world through Adam, resurrection entered through Christ. As Adam opened the door to death, so Christ opened the door to resurrection life. But there’s an orderly process to this whole business:

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:23-26 | NIV84)

Death still reigns today. You might have noticed people are dropping dead all over the world. But we have the hope that until Death is destroyed, God has made provision for His people, as He made provision for His Son. Death may come to you, but the joke is on Death. You’re coming back! Just as death couldn’t hold our Lord, it can’t hold you either. Death is, we might say, an inconvenience; something we have to put up with because of what sin had done to human beings and the world in general.

A special kind of victory

Earlier I said that your body is eternal. It is, yet it isn’t. Paul clarifies the issue of your immortal body beginning at verse 50:

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed–in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:50-53 | NIV84)

God’s people are special people, and in keeping with their special place in the Kingdom, they will be given a body that is able to enter into the eternal, spiritual Kingdom of God. Your mortal body would be no good in Heaven. Just like you can’t exist in the water without SCUBA gear, so you can’t exist in Heaven without the appropriate body. And whether a body is in the grave (or in the belly of a lion or at the bottom of sea), or living at moment in the future when Jesus returns, all believers will be able to exchange their flesh-and-blood bodies for new ones – perfect ones that will last forever.

Paul called that “a mystery,” and it was in his day. He was the first person to talk about it. It’s not a mystery to us, thanks to Paul’s profound teaching here in 1 Corinthians 15.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55a | NIV84)

The death of Death will occur when Jesus returns and we receive our new bodies. At that time and not before, Death will forever come to an end on planet Earth. And that gets us to the verse that started this whole thing:

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 | NIV84)

The victory He has given us is the victory of death and sin. It may seem like Death is winning, but Death is a defeated enemy. If it were not for sin, Death would have no sting. If it were not for the law of God that shows us how sinful we are, Death would have no power over us. But Death doesn’t have the final word! God has the final word and, and that word is VICTORY. Victory over death, hell, and the grace has been won by Jesus Christ and He shares that victory with all of us. Because Jesus died and rose, Death’s back has been broken, and you and I never need to fear it. That’s the victory – multiplied millions upon millions of times.

The Master Multiplier, Part 2

God is a mathematical genius. He is the undisputed Master Multiplier. As we began this series, we discovered that God is able to supernaturally take His gift to us, whatever it may be, and multiply it so that it not only meets a need we may have, but actually meets needs we didn’t know we had or that other people may have. He is able to take our gift to Him – like He really needs anything from us in the first place – and multiply it. He is the Master Multiplier.

This time, we’ll discover another aspect of this quirk of God’s character, and the verse comes from a sermon Paul preached, some would say to unspectacular results, at Athens:

And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:25 | NIV)

Paul told the brainy Athenians, “God gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” Why did he put it like that? That’s a curious way to phrase a simple statement, so let’s take a look at why Paul said what he said and what it means to us, and to all the eggheads who heard him firsthand.

Starting churches all over

In Acts 17, we see three intrepid church planters traveling from Philippi to Thessalonica, a thriving, hustling and bustling seaport metropolis, for the purpose of starting a church there. It would be a perfect location for an evangelical church. God may be the Master Multiplier, but He wants His servants to be as well, and He has called us to be “little multipliers.” By having a church strategically located in a place like Thessalonica, the Gospel could be taken around the known world by the various merchants, travelers, and tourists who stopped over there.

Paul’s custom was to start out preaching and teaching at local synagogues. He had become a sort of “rogue Jew,” but was still a highly respected Bible teacher out on the frontier. He had some very good results early on in Thessalonica:

Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. (Acts 17:4 | NIV)

But it wasn’t all sunshine and buttercups. As is frequently the case, when God moves in a substantial way, the Devil does too, trying to quash the good work of the Lord. Unfortunately for us, he is also a “multiplier” of sorts: A multiplier of evil, You’ve probably noticed that in your own life. When you begin to make progress in your faith – maybe you’re reading the Bible more and praying more; perhaps you’re more faithful than ever at church – pretty soon you face some discouragement or other spiritual roadblocks. You suddenly have issues with your kids or with coworkers or maybe even with somebody at church. Do you think those things are random? Do you think that bad things just coincidentally happen the moment God starts moving in your life? The Devil is smart; he knows the right psychological moment to throw a monkey wrench into the inner workings of your spiritual life.

Here’s what happened to Paul and his pals:

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. (Acts 17:5 | NIV)

That’s what they do, people who don’t like what you say, they get the “Rent-a-mob” and demonstrate. Nothing’s really changed in 2,000 years, has it? How about that poor schmuck, Jason? He put Paul and Silas up for the night and for his trouble he got hauled out of the house and dragged before the rulers, and charged with harboring people who talked treason by speaking of another king by the name of Jesus. To add insult to injury, he had to post bail to get out of jail and apparently had to agree that Paul would not return to Thessalonica any time soon.

For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. (1 Thessalonians 2:18 | NIV)

Paul knew his problems weren’t a coincidence.

On the lamb now, Paul ends up in Berea, where he did what he did best: Started another church. Of the Bereans, we know this:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11 | NIV)

There’s not a pastor or evangelist out there who wouldn’t love to preach and teach the Bible to such a receptive audience! For people like Paul, this would be dream assignment. What could go wrong? Plenty! Remember that Rent-a mob from Thessalonica?

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. (Acts 17:13 | NIV)

Sometimes you just can’t win for losing! That’s an interesting saying that goes back to a 1955 issue of the Postal Supervisor, a journal of the National Association of Postal Supervisors:

You can’t win for losing, it seems. Who are our friends, and who is the snake in the grass in Congress. There must always be a villain in the plot. Will it be the outer-space missile this time?

Well, for Paul the villain in the plot, the snake in the grass, took the form of those trouble-making Jews from Thessalonica. They were determined, it seemed, to make life miserable for Paul no matter what. But really it was the Devil trying to undo the work Paul had done.  However, there’s no stopping God’s people from doing God’s work. All of this got Paul, in a round-about way, to the center of thought in the ancient world, Athens.

Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. (Acts 17:15 | NIV)

Reasoning with smart people

While Paul was cooling his heels in Athens, waiting for his Silas and Timothy to arrive, he must have been taken by the sights and sounds of that very pagan city. Idols and temples were everywhere, and opportunities to share the truth of Jesus Christ were also everywhere.

So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. (Acts 17:17, 18 | NIV)

For as long as he was in town, Paul had a two-fold ministry in Athens. First he did what was his custom: He preached Christ in the local synagogue. Second, he “debated” with the Gentiles in the marketplace. It wouldn’t have been an organized thing all the time; frequently Paul would have debated a handful of high IQ Athenians with shoppers and merchants gathering around, listening in. Paul was very adept at using the local customs to get the Gospel message across.

As he was doing his thing, he caught the attention of two groups of philosophers. The Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans were the pleasure-seekers; pleasure at all costs. They tried to live free from any and all stress and entanglements of any kind. The Stoics were not interested in pleasure so much as knowledge and rational thought. Paul managed capture their attention by his teachings. Considering his recent encounters, Paul may have been a little worried when this happened:

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) (Acts 17:19 – 21 | NIV)

No, these were not bullies. No Rent-A-Mob troublemakers here. These were men who were intellectually curious; they wanted to know more about Jesus. They were very religious people, these Athenians, and Paul respected that. He didn’t care much for men like Agrippa and Felix, well-known Greeks, but he respected the people, and he spoke with respect.

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23 | NIV)

That’s a fascinating verse because it not only described the ancient Greeks, but modern Americans, too. You can see objects of our worship strewn all over the place. When Paul walked into Athens, he saw their objects of worship; temples and idols. But if Paul were to walk into your home, what would he perceive to be the objects of YOUR worship? What object or objects are given prominence in your home? More to the point, what thing or person do you think most about? Like the Athenians, we may not ever be aware of what we are worshiping.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. (Acts 17:24 | NIV)

This is a far reaching verse simply by its implication: Because God made everything in the material universe – EVERYTHING – He needs nothing – NOTHING – from any one of us. We bring nothing into the relationship; He brings everything. Our buildings, our seminaries, our theologies can’t contain Him. We exist simply because He allows us to.

That’s a very big pill for some people to swallow. The proud, arrogant, self-important, ego-centric person today is the center of his universe. But whether he knows it or not; whether he acknowledges God or not, he is responsible to that God.

And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:25 | NIV)

That’s the verse that drives the secular Leftist crazy. His life comes from God Himself. He didn’t create himself and he has no right to himself. God gives life and breath to every man, meaning God sustains every human being – He keeps us alive. Somewhere, deep inside man, this truth lies. Paul quoted from one of their very own philosophers, Epimenides:

For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:28 \ NIV)

The last phrase comes from the poet Aratus, referring to Zeus. Man’s heart and mind are totally corrupt by sin to the point where they ascribe to made-up gods truths that apply only to the one true God! But truth is the truth no matter who sais it, and though they didn’t know it, Epimenides and Aratus had no clue they were uttering the most profound truths any man could ever stutter out his mouth: In God we live and move and have our being. We are His. And because of that, God has ever right to call those whom He created to REPENT.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30 | NIV)

Repentance is necessary because one day God will judge all men by Jesus, whom He raised from the dead.
Regardless of what a man thinks or how he lives or what he thinks of God, God gave that man life and keeps him alive. But one day, God will judge that man. Until then, it’s on that man to repent. God is the Master Multiplier – giving life  to all and judging all.

 


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