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Glory! Part 1

According to the only dictionary that matters, The Oxford English Dictionary, the word “glory” means, among other things, the following:

High renown or honor won by notable achievements;
• Magnificence or great beauty;
• A thing that is beautiful, impressive, or worthy of praise;
• The splendor or bliss of heaven.

Who would argue with the great Oxford English Dictionary? The Bible has a lot to say about “glory.” In the Old Testament, “glory” looks like this: כָּבֹוד, and sounds roughly like this: “kabowd.” This Hebrew word suggests heaviness and weight. In the New Testament the Greek word is δόξα, or “doxa,” and suggests an opinion, judgment, estimate, splendor, and brightness.

So generally speaking, “glory” is used to speak of great honor, praise, value, wonder, and splendor. Glory is the “excellence” of anything in display. For example, the Heavens declare the glory of God’s creative skill. The miracles of Christ displayed the glory of what He could do. Here’s what John thought about Jesus’ very first miracle:

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him. (John 2:11 | NIV84)

To study each use of “glory” in the Bible would take forever; it’s used over 500 times! So we’ll look at a handful of examples of how the Bible uses this fascinating word.

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27 | NIV84)

There’s another word in that verse that is almost as fascinating as “glory” and that’s the word “hope.” A quick peak back in the Oxford English Dictionary tell us that “hope” means:

A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen;
• A person or thing that may help or save someone;
• Grounds for believing that something good may happen;
• A feeling of trust.

What is this “hope of glory?” Where does it come from? What does it involve? Let’s take a closer look at what Paul was trying to tell his friends in the Colossians church and how it impacts us, as 21st century Christians.

Distinctions

To say that Paul was a combative preacher could be an understatement. He had moments where he let his softer side show, but here in Colossians Paul is at war:

I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. (Colossians 2:1 | NIV84)

He was “struggling,” meaning that Paul was fighting for his friends and for people who never met him. He was “doing battle” for believers all over. Paul understood spiritual warfare, perhaps better than most:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12 | NIV84)

In this letter, Paul is doing battle against false teaching. He spent a lot of time fighting false teaching and false teachers, and here in Colossians the false teaching that had gripped the Colossian church was particularly sinister. It was a melding together of Christian, Jewish, and oriental beliefs; a version of Gnosticism that taught faith in Jesus wasn’t enough to produce salvation; that Jesus was a superior, created being – better than man but less than God. You’d wonder why Christians taught by Paul would be so quick to swallow this heresy. The problem was that in cultures and societies that were so pagan, some elements of Gnosticism were very attractive and familiar to Christians. For example, there was a emphasis on religious externals on observing religious traditions and practices. There was an emphasis on the supernatural; on angels and supernatural beings.

When you understand the background of this letter and what Paul was up against, it puts this whole paragraph into perspective:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 | NIV84)

Paul was not simply saying nice things about Jesus for no good reason, this is Paul doing battle against all the false teachers and false teaching that had infiltrated the church in Colosse. He was fighting lies with the truth.

And the great apostle had to remind the congregation at Colosse what the truth was; the truth that was verified by their own experiences. It’s curious how so many Christians seem to forget the fundamentals of their salvation the longer they are saved. That’s why we need to read the Bible over and over again, and we need to teach it and study it all the time. The truth, as precious and life changing as it may be, is easily forgotten or challenged by fancy-sounding false truths. One truth forgotten at Colosse was this one:

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation–if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Colossians 1:21-23 | NIV84)

The work of Christ in context

That’s a brilliant defense of the Gospel, but the reason for it is sad. There was a good chance a sizable chunk of the congregation had forgotten these most basic facts of Christ’s work on the Cross for repentant sinners. It’s completely objective – you were the object of Christ’s work on the Cross; He did certain things for you that you could never have done for yourself. There was no way you or any sinner could become a friend of God’s. You were, as all sinners are, enemies of God. But because of Christ’s physical body, that is, because He bore your punishment physically, you are able, through faith in Christ, to stand before God holy and without blemish and free from accusation. That’s confidence! But your confidence is rooted in Christ’s objective work for you. In another place, Paul put it this way:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. (Romans 5:1-2a | NIV84)

Being able to stand in God’s grace, confident that He sees you free from your sins and the guilt of those sins, is possible only through the faith you have placed in Jesus Christ’s work for you on the Cross. You, and all sinners who by faith have trusted in Him, were why the Lord suffered and died on the Cross.

A great many people, like these Gnostics of Paul’s day and many religious people today, think that man has to do something in order to curry God’s favor. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t help enough people to tip the scales in your favor. You can’t pray enough, you can’t give enough money, you can’t live good enough to get God to even notice you, let alone save you. God, on the other hand, has done everything to get you to notice Him.

With verse 24, there is a change:

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24 | NIV84)

Does that sound right to you? It sounds like Paul is saying that he is rejoicing because of his suffering – he was in prison for preaching the Gospel when he wrote this letter – because he was doing something that was lacking in what Christ did. Is that possible? Christ didn’t do enough so Paul had to step in and do more? Of course that would contradict everything Paul believed and taught in Colossians. The sufferings of Paul were not redemptive – his suffering produced no salvation for anybody, not even himself. But there are different kinds of suffering. Specifically, there is ministerial suffering and mediatorial suffering. Christ’s suffering was mediatorial; He was our mediator and He suffered for us. In fact, Jesus suffered more than any human being ever did, for He suffered as the Son of Man and as the Son of God. As a man, He suffered all things every human has to suffer. Galatians 6:5 tells us something very interesting:

for each one should carry his own load. (Galatians 6:5 | NIV84)

And sometimes that load is heavy. Sometimes it’s painful. That’s life though, isn’t it? There are things we go through in life nobody can help us with. Terrible things that we endure alone. Some pain cant be taken away by your Mother or by alcohol and drugs. Jesus endured all those things as each of us does.

But then He also suffered as the Son of God; He experienced suffering to a degree you never can. He is God yet He became a man to experience all the suffering you do with the knowledge He didn’t have to. No mere mortal has ever endured anything even close to what Jesus did for you.

He also suffered as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. His death clears the books. That kind of suffering is unique to Jesus. His sacrificial death wipes the slate the clean.

None of that is what Paul was talking about. Paul was talking about something called ministerial suffering. This is the kind of suffering all believers may share in. If you’re going to live right and if you’re going to take your faith seriously, eventually you will have to take an unpopular stand that may result in your suffering on account of your faith. One scholar put it this way:

The world will damn the man of God with faint praise, and they will praise him with faint damns.

Paul, for his part, wrote it another way to the Romans:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. (Romans 8:35-36a | NIV84)

So, to this Colossian church that had forgotten the essentials of theology; who had begun to embrace this terrible false teaching, Paul was reminding them both of Christ’s unique greatness but also of the work he was doing and the suffering he was going through for Christians everywhere.

I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness–the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. (Colossians 1:25-26 | NIV84)

The “mystery” Paul was referring to was of God’s revelation in Christ Jesus. The one the Gnostics said was not God but merely a better man, was in fact God Himself – as Paul has been teaching and preaching everywhere:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. (Colossians 2:9-10 | NIV84)

To this “mystery” Paul was absolutely committed. Jesus Christ: man and God at the same time. The final authority in the universe is Jesus Christ. And that gets us to the “hope of glory,” because that concerns us.

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27 | NIV84)

Did you know that knowing Jesus Christ as the Son of God is “glorious” and “rich?” That’s what Paul is saying here. We spend a lifetime chasing riches and glory, yet when we possess the knowledge of who Jesus is, we possess the wealth of eternity! And though some of us may be a predicament like Paul was in – suffering on account of our faith – and though we don’t feel real rich, we possess something else: “the hope of glory.” There’s no glory in serving the Lord right now, but that will come later. The “hope of glory” is the promise of a future filled with life and light and vindication. But, you must ensure that you have got your faith built on the firm foundation of proper theology.

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Who Is God, Part 6

We’ve come to the end of another series, and hopefully you’ve learned some things you didn’t know before or been reminded of things you’ve forgotten. It’s essential that we know as much as is possible about our God if we want to have the best relationship possible with Him. But there’s another reason to know God better. Paul wrote to Timothy about it.

For everything God made is good, and we may eat it gladly if we are thankful for it, and if we ask God to bless it, for it is made good by the Word of God and prayer. If you explain this to the others you will be doing your duty as a worthy pastor who is fed by faith and by the true teaching you have followed. Don’t waste time arguing over foolish ideas and silly myths and legends. Spend your time and energy in the exercise of keeping spiritually fit. Bodily exercise is all right, but spiritual exercise is much more important and is a tonic for all you do. So exercise yourself spiritually, and practice being a better Christian because that will help you not only now in this life, but in the next life too. This is the truth and everyone should accept it. We work hard and suffer much in order that people will believe it, for our hope is in the living God who died for all, and particularly for those who have accepted his salvation. (1 Timothy 4:4 – 10 | TLB)

Paul was warning Timothy, a young pastor, about false teaching and false teachers. False teachers love to foist their weird ideas on everybody. These false teachers of Paul’s day were running around teaching all manner of foolishness that some Christians were actually buying. Things like marriage is bad, exercising all day is good, and some foods are bad and should be avoided at all costs. Paul would have none it. He said, “Everything God made is good.” Period. No exceptions. And the Christian shouldn’t waste his time doing things that matter very little in the face of eternity. Don’t place your hope for a good life on your retirement accounts. Don’t place your hope for a good life on never eating fatty foods…on exercising eight days a week…or faithfully using your blue trash bin, or abstaining from this or that. Paul couldn’t be clearer: “Our hope is in the living God who died for all, and particularly for those who have accepted his salvation.” That’s right. Hope for today and for the future isn’t in your spouse or your church or your philosophy. It’s got to be in God Himself. And if you want to have genuine, sincere hope in the living God, you need to know Him. It’s too bad that so many Christians know what false teachers are teaching – and even false teachers themselves – better than God and His Word.

Knowledge: The best defense

Peter was a friend of Paul’s and he also understood the importance of knowing God and His Word.

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:4 | TNIV)

When you read Peter’s two letters, it becomes clear that as far as he was concerned, the best defense is a good offense. Like Paul’s warning to young Timothy, Peter wrote about the dangers of false teachers and false teaching. His major concern was that his readers – young, immature Christians – would find false teaching alluring and be led astray by it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Becoming rock steady in your beliefs begins with something Peter mentioned almost in passing in verse 2:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. (2 Peter 1:2 | TNIV)

Those first two words, “grace” and “peace” are important and shouldn’t be glossed over too quickly. Since I’ve spent considerable time defining them, I won’t do that again, except to note their order. It’s always “grace” then “peace.” You can never experience the God’s “peace that passes all understanding” until you have received His amazing “grace.” Grace always comes first; it is always the starting point for anything we receive from God. Salvation, blessings, answers to prayer, anything you can think of comes after God’s grace.

But now notice what comes next. Peter wants his readers to have “grace” and “peace” in abundance. That means He wants them to literally overflow with those things. The key to experiencing overflowing “grace” and “peace” is not necessarily praying for them but through acquiring more knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ. It was Sir Francis Bacon, the man with one of the best last names ever, who wrote this famous quote in one of his works:

ipsa scientia potestas est

You probably know it like this: “Knowledge itself is power.” And in the case the Christian, that is certainly true, but it’s a very specific knowledge: Knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ will lead to an ever-increasing supply of “grace” and “peace.” In case you think this was all Peter’s idea, here’s Paul’s version of it:

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8 – 11 | TNIV)

Of course, Paul being Paul used many more words than did Peter to say essentially the same thing. But even before Paul and Peter there was a fellow named Daniel who made a very similar observation from the courts of Babylon:

And such as do wickedly against the covenant shall he corrupt by flatteries: but the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits. (Daniel 11:32 | KJV)

Daniel is writing about the end times and the Antichrist, but his point is well-taken. People who know their God will be strong and do great exploits. And it follows that a Christian who doesn’t know the Lord all that well will not be strong and will do very little for Him. In all, the words “knowledge” and “know” are used over a dozen times in Peter’s letter and it refers to a personal knowledge; knowing a person for who he or she is, not from what you can glean from a classroom or a text book. Knowing God can never be a theoretical or academic exercise. This kind of knowledge comes from both understanding God’s Word and experiencing the presence of God and of His grace on a continuous basis.

Spiritual provision

So far in this letter, knowing God and knowing His Word form the best defense against falling to false teaching. But the next couple of verses give us two profound truths.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3,4 | TNIV)

The two profound truths are these: Knowledge of God and promises of God and both of these things are involved in living a holy life.

Knowledge of God

God has provided everything necessary for a Christian to lead the good life – a life that is Godly and righteous. This fact, that God gives you the resources to live right, shouldn’t surprise anybody. Christ draws all people into a relationship with Him, and His power enables them to respond.

God’s “divine power” is really the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, and it is this exact same power that works in our lives.

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8:11 | TNIV)

God, through the Holy Spirit, empowers you to live a godly life; making you strong and giving you spiritual victories. This power is accessed through “our knowledge of him.” Please note that, because it’s not what most Christians think. Their answer to righteous living is to “pray about it.” That’s church-speak for, “I don’t want to do any of the work, I want God to do it all.” There are a lot of lazy Christians like that, and this type of believer will talk a blue streak about how much they pray, yet a closer examination of their lives shows they know very little about God and are generally unimpressive in the things they do for God. Knowing God means reading and studying His Word. You can’t know about God by listening to sermons or reading books about Him, although you should be doing both.  But knowing God is a supernatural transaction: You do your part by reading and studying the Bible, and God does His part by illuminating that Word in your heart. It’s that intimate knowledge of Christ that gives us power to live and to grow. Everything – everything – you need to live a successful, victorious, powerful Christian life is found in Christ, and when you find Christ as Lord and Savior, you receive those things. You are made complete in Him.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. (Colossians 2:9, 10 | TNIV)

But all that divine provision is activated by knowledge of Him gained in through the Scriptures.

Promises of God

The second great truth involves the promises of God. At salvation, we receive everything we need to live a godly life, but also priceless spiritual promises. In the Bible, there are really two kinds of promises from God. The first group of promises flow into our lives when we accept Christ as Savior. Some of those promises are things like these:

Forgiveness of sins – past, present, and future;
Adoption by God;
Spiritual growth by the Holy Spirit;
Comfort during the hard times;
Provision of our needs;
The sure hope of Heaven when we die;
Resurrection of our bodies when the Lord returns;
Reigning with Him in His kingdom.

That list is by no means exhaustive, but you get the idea. Nothing we do impacts those promises. Those are gifts from God that we can’t earn. But in addition to promises like those, Christians may receive promises based on their actions. For example, there is the promise that we will become like Christ. That starts with the new birth, but after that it’s up to us to do the things that cause us to grow into Christ-likeness. That’s why the very next group of verses go like this:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Peter 1:5 – 7 | TNIV)

As Lou Barbieri wrote that the Christian life if like the use of power steering on a car. The engine provides the power for the steering, but the driver must actually turn the wheel. Without the engine, it’s almost impossible to steer your car. Without the supernatural power provided by God, living the Christian is almost impossible. The Lord provides the power to run our lives, but we must turn the wheel. In a very real sense, the Christian really does determine the course of his life.

This is a wonderful and often overlooked aspect of God’s character. He will do so much for us, all we have to do our part.

Who Is God, Part 5

We’ve been looking at some aspects of God’s character and nature, not because He is mildly interesting, but because understanding God is absolutely essential if you, as a Christian, want to have the fullest, most meaningful, most honest relationship with Him as possible. And it’s not like God is a mystery! If He is a mystery as some think He is, then the Bible is full of lies. Here’s what Paul thought about the issue of whether or not God is a mystery:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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 1:18 – 20 | TNIV)

Those three verses are either comforting or scary, depending on the spiritual state of the person reading them! In truth, these verses deal with people – Gentiles, not Jews – who didn’t have the Scriptures. For the Jew, things were a little different; they were the custodians of God’s Word, in which God revealed Himself to them. But the Gentiles were a completely different story. How was God dealing with people who never heard the Gospel or saw a copy of the Scriptures? This section of Romans 1 is just as relevant today as it was when Paul wrote it. We are living in what has been called the “post Christian world,” a time unprecedented in world history. For the first time ever, the majority of those living in the West have no knowledge of the Bible. Others prefer to think of this modern era as “the twilight of Western thought,” and that’s a good label, too. Young people today – from the so-called Millennials on down – have no clue how the Bible has shaped the Western world. From the arts to education to governance to science to even warfare, the pages of the Scripture have shaped Western attitudes and philosophies.

Where once the Bible was taught in public schools (oh, the horror!), now not only is it ignored in public schools, but it is disparaged. One time, not so long ago, a young person with a very limited knowledge of the Bible, knowledge gained in school, understood that he was a sinner who needed God; he had a sense of morality and ethics. We’ll never know how many seeds of salvation planted in elementary school through the most casual of references to the Bible took root that resulted in salvation later on in life.

In Romans, Paul brilliantly explains how God revealed Himself to people who have never had even a glimpse at a Bible. He explains that some people may wonder why they need to be saved. You probably know people like that. They’re good citizens; good parents; decent and as honest as the day is long. They’ve never read the Bible so they have no idea they’re doomed for Hell. For people like that, God’s solution is simple: His wrath is revealed all around them; they are literally living under God’s wrath. But they deny the truth. For example, every living thing all around such a person is dropping dead. Plants, animals, friends and family members. Such tragedies invariably cause a person to think about themselves and their future. But, as Paul wrote, they deny the truth – they refuse to think too much about it. Like the person who keeps putting off making a will, the sinner who doesn’t take notice of what God is revealing all around them, may find out one day it’s just too late.

Paul’s point is clear: Because God has always been revealing Himself to the world, specifically His wrath, people are without excuse. The Jew is without excuse because they had the Scriptures, and Gentiles are without excuse because His wrath is all in the world all around them.

So far is this series, we discussed that fact that God is holy; that God is love; that God the Father and the Son are the same; and that God dwells in all believers as the Holy Spirit, who empowers them to serve Him. And now, we’ll take a look at an aspect of God’s character that some people find surprising. It goes along with what Paul was writing about in Romans 1 and it deals with the revelation of God’s will. Just like God’s character is no mystery, God’s will isn’t really a mystery, either. In Hebrews, we read this:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20, 21 | TNIV)

Presumably, if God is going to equip you to do His will, then His will must be knowable. Let’s take a look at what that means, from the perspective of the one who wrote this letter to some Hebrew Christians.

Perspective

It frequently surprises Christians when I say that God’s will is no mystery, but it really isn’t. That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s always easy to discern. In fact, often it’s not. God’s will in a general sense is a piece of cake: Christians should live lives that glorify God and help their fellow man. But the specifics of God’s will take a little work to figure out. Maybe that’s why the author of this letter wrote this:

Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. (Hebrews 13:18 | TNIV)

The “us” refers to the writer of the letter and those with him (or her). No serious believer engaged in the work of God can do so without knowing God’s will, and sometimes you need the prayers of others for that. Their consciences were clear. They were doing their level best to live according to the will of God. Not only that, they genuinely wanted to live honorably in every way. For the believer, that necessarily means living in accordance to His will.

That request, “pray for us,” should never be taken lightly. Believers ought to be praying about and seeking after God’s will and they ought to be praying for other believers that they may discover God’s will for them and live it.

Power

The benediction, which begins with verse 20, is one of the best in all of Scripture. The writer of Hebrews has discovered that, in spite of it all, he served a “God of peace.” That’s a beautiful way to describe our Lord. The word is shalom, and means much more than just the absence of strife. The peace that God give us permeates our whole being; it’s a restful mind, a quiet confidence that informs the soul that no matter what’s going on, things will be fine because, after all, God’s got everything under control. Of this amazing peace, we are told that is “the peace that passes all understanding,” because it doesn’t make any sense. When everybody around you thinks you should be angry or sad or frightened and you’re not, it doesn’t make sense to them. But it makes sense to you because God has given you His shalom.

The peace that we enjoy is guaranteed by the work of Jesus Christ. Or in other words, God’s peace depends on HIM, not on us; not on anything we do – like taking a vacation or getting pumped up on one drug or another. He is described as a shepherd and we are the sheep. No wonder we can live in peace with the world around us! Unlike those sheep without a shepherd, we have the Great Shepherd keeping watch over us. This is not an empty metaphor; it’s a statement of unassailable fact: Jesus Christ IS our Great Shepherd. He watches over us. He knows what’s going on in our lives. He knows ours needs. We are safe and secure because our Shepherd has shed His blood, making an eternal covenant with His sheep. Part of that covenant looks like this:

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”. (Hebrews 13:5 | TNIV)

The writer of this letter is quoting from Deuteronomy, and a look at the whole quote will show you the context. Joshua was about to lead the people into the Promised Land, and here’s what God said to him:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”. (Deuteronomy 31:6 | TNIV)

That was God’s word of encouragement and promise to Joshua, and it’s for us, too. And we have it better than Joshua ever did! We have the Great Shepherd; he didn’t. We not only the word of God’s promise, but we have a guarantee to that promise: Jesus Christ.

But our Good Shepherd does more than just keep watch on the sheep; He actually empowers the sheep to do God’s will. That’s an amazing statement. Leaving the metaphor, what the writer of Hebrews is getting at is really quite profound. God enables His people to carry out His will. He gives them all the resources necessary to live a life completely in accordance to His will. For the Christian, knowing God’s will and doing God’s will are the most important things.  Whatever else may be happening in your life, nothing is as important as the will of God. That’s why, for example, the Lord’s Prayer includes, “Thy will be done.”

But here’s the thing Hebrews is teaching. It is essential Christians do the will of God. Yet even as they go about doing God’s will – which is way more than just doing good works, although good works are part of it – it is God who is working with the Christian to get it done. We work, and God works in us to do His will. It’s a win-win for believers. I have no idea why so many Christians find God’s will onerous. It isn’t. It’s not difficult to know, and it’s not difficult to do when we understand it’s God enabling you to do so. We do the work, but it is really God working in us. It’s the amazing concursus of grace. Another passage makes it even clearer:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12, 13 | TNIV)

Even as God expects us to live according to His will, He creates within us the ability to do it, and sometimes He creates the conditions around us to bring about His will. Just imagine what the world would look like if Christians – all Christians – took seriously this issue of God’s will. Just imagine what your life would look like if you took seriously God’s will.

Who Is God, Part 4

God is holy. God is love. God the Father and the Son are One. These are some profound truths about our God. They are essential to know if you desire a full, balanced, and rewarding relationship with Him. If you believe in God, yet believe in error concerning some point of doctrine, your relationship with Him will never be what it could be. The enemy of all believers is really ignorance.

Here’s another doctrine surrounding God, though it is itself its own doctrine:

But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power to testify about me with great effect, to the people in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, about my death and resurrection. (Acts 1:8 | TLB)

That’s our Lord speaking to His disciples shortly before He left them. He called the coming of the Holy Spirit, “the promise of the Father,” and this promise would be fulfilled in the very next chapter:

Seven weeks had gone by since Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the Day of Pentecost had now arrived. As the believers met together that day, suddenly there was a sound like the roaring of a mighty windstorm in the skies above them and it filled the house where they were meeting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on their heads. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in languages they didn’t know, for the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. (Acts 2:1 – 4 | TLB)

This amazing “promise of the Father” was really the promise of power; power to testify about Jesus Christ. And it takes supernatural power to share your faith with others. It’s not easy to be a witness for Christ, especially in these days of intolerance, laughably called “tolerant,” and political correctness, which is anything but correct. The disciples were promised power to share Jesus with the lost, and within a chapter, the believers gathered in the Upper Room were baptized in and filled with the Holy Spirit, who gave them that promised power to “speak in languages they didn’t know.” Onlookers were amazed; they thought this group was drunk! But others had another reaction:

How can this be?” they exclaimed. “For these men are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking all the native languages of the lands where we were born! (Acts 2:7, 8 | TLB)

We can discuss what “speaking in tongues” is all about another time, but for now, what happened here on this particular Day of Pentecost was a fulfillment of what Jesus had spoken of earlier. His followers were given the miraculous ability to speak other languages so that the Gospel could be heard by the thousands of visitors in Jerusalem for the celebrations.

But is this first recorded incident of the Holy Spirit enabling believers to do the will and work of God? Or is what happened in Acts just another incident in a precedent already set by God? There’s an obscure verse found in the writings of an ever more obscure Old Testament prophet:

Then he said, “This is God’s message to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty-you will succeed because of my Spirit, though you are few and weak.’” (Zechariah 4:6 | TLB)

A famous quote, which evangelical scholar D.A. Carson claims his father, a Canadian minister, coined, should be kept in mind when you’re studying any particular verse, but especially a verse like this one. The quote goes like this:

A text without a context is just a pretext.

With that clever maxim in mind, let’s look at just what prompted the prophet Zechariah to say what he said.

Who was this Zechariah?

Unlike a lot of minor prophets, we actually know some important things about Zechariah.

Subject: messages from the Lord. These messages from the Lord were given to Zechariah (son of Berechiah and grandson of Iddo the prophet) in early November of the second year of the reign of King Darius. (Zechariah 1:1 | TLB)

Right away we know that Zechariah, whose name means “Jehovah remembers,” was a professional prophet, who came from a long line of prophets. And we know that he was preaching during the reign of King Darius. King Darius was the Mede who let the Jews return to their homeland after the 70 years of captivity had run its course. So, now we know the date of Zechariah’s ministry: 520 BC.

In the historical book of Nehemiah, we read of various priests who left Babylon to return to the land of Israel after King Darius issued his decree:

Here is a list of the priests who accompanied Zerubbabel (son of Shealtiel) and Jeshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Amariah, Malluch, Hattush, Shecaniah, Rehum, Meremoth, Iddo, Ginnethoi, Abijah, Mijamin, Maadiah, Bilgah, Shemaiah, Joiarib, Jedaiah, Sallu, Amok, Hilkiah, Jedaiah.

The following were the clan leaders of the priests who served under the High Priest Joiakim: Meraiah, leader of the Seraiah clan; Hananiah, leader of the Jeremiah clan; Meshullam, leader of the Ezra clan; Jehohanan, leader of the Amariah clan; Jonathan, leader of the Malluchi clan; Joseph, leader of the Shebaniah clan; Adna, leader of the Harim clan; Helkai, leader of the Meraioth clan; Zechariah, leader of the Iddo clan; Meshullam, leader of the Ginnethon clan; Zichri, leader of the Abijah clan; Piltai, leader of the Moadiah and Miniamin clans; Shammua, leader of the Bilgah clan; Jehonathan, leader of the Shemaiah clan; Mattenai, leader of the Joiarib clan; Uzzi, leader of the Jedaiah clan; Kallai, leader of the Sallai clan; Eber, leader of the Amok clan; Hashabiah, leader of the Hilkiah clan; Nethanel, leader of the Jedaiah clan. (Nehemiah 12:1 – 7; 12 – 21 | TLB)

Now we have some historical and geographical context. Zechariah was likely a young man in 520 B.C. and had come to Jerusalem as a child in a caravan from Babylon. The Book of Ezra sheds a little more light on what young Zechariah’s ministry was all about:

But there were prophets in Jerusalem and Judah at that time-Haggai, and Zechariah (the son of Iddo)-who brought messages from the God of Israel to Zerubbabel (son of Shealtiel) and Jeshua (son of Jozadak), encouraging them to begin building again! So they did and the prophets helped them. (Ezra 5:1, 2 | TLB)

He, along with his pal Haggai, who also has a book in the Bible, were recruited by God to encourage Zerubbabel, who was a kind of civil governor, in getting on with the daunting task of rebuilding the Temple, which had lain in ruins for some 70 years; since the Babylonians had invaded Judah and Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar, who hauled off most of the Jews to Babylon as exiles.

The Jews that had returned home faced many hardships. Not only the Temple, but most of Jerusalem and Judah had been destroyed and the land overrun by squatters, who weren’t overjoyed that they had come home. The surrounding nations didn’t want the Jews to rebuild and did their best to discourage that from happening. You can imagine how depressing it must have been to see your parent’s home a pile of rubble. The Jews that had left their homes and jobs in Babylon only to face poverty, homelessness, and very real danger, were discouraged, frightened, and frustrated.

And on top of everything else, when Darius issued the decree allowing the Jews to return home, many, probably most of them, didn’t want to leave Babylon. They had lived in exile for 70 years. That means the generation that had lived in Judah and had seen the glory of the Temple, was long gone. Those who chose to return had no memory of living in Judah; no memory of the Temple. Two generations had grown up in exile. They now had homes and jobs and families. You can read about this in the book of Esther. They were prospering in what was Babylon, and had no desire to leave their lives to return to….what? A pile of rubble? So, you can see that the intrepid group that did return to Israel was the minority. They were the group going against popular opinion. These few exiles, in returning home, were swimming against the current.

A parable’s meaning

The first part of chapter 4 is devoted to a strange vision or parable that Zechariah had involving lampstands and olive trees. This was the fifth vision Zechariah had, and if you think it was a confusion one, you’re not alone. Even the prophet didn’t understand what God was showing him.

What is it, sir?” I asked. “What does this mean?” “Don’t you really know?” the angel asked. “No, sir,” I said, “I don’t.”. (Zechariah 4:4, 5 | TLB)

In answer to Zechariah’s question, the angel responded in a very curious way because he didn’t seem to answer the question:

Then he said, “This is God’s message to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty-you will succeed because of my Spirit, though you are few and weak.’ Therefore no mountain, however high, can stand before Zerubbabel! For it will flatten out before him! And Zerubbabel will finish building this Temple with mighty shouts of thanksgiving for God’s mercy, declaring that all was done by grace alone.”. (Zechariah 4:6, 7 | TLB)

That was God’s word of encouragement to an overwhelmed Zerubbabel: Don’t worry about your circumstances (the mountain), because God’s Spirit will give you success.

That’s what the vision was all about. As the lamp was fed with oil without human effort, so God’s Temple would be rebuilt and restored, not by the strength or ingenuity of Zerubbabel or anybody else, but by the power and provision of God. Now, of course, the people had to work, and they did, and it was hard work. The Temple wasn’t going to miraculously appear. But God’s promise was that success was guaranteed.

By the power of God’s Spirit working through human agents, like Zerubbabel and all those who engaged in the arduous task of building the Temple, the mountains of obstacles that stood in the way would be flattened.

But in that coming day, no weapon turned against you shall succeed, and you will have justice against every courtroom lie. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord. This is the blessing I have given you, says the Lord. (Isaiah 54:17 | TLB)

Jesus Himself encouraged His followers with a similar admonition:

In reply Jesus said to the disciples, “If you only have faith in God-this is the absolute truth-you can say to this Mount of Olives, ‘Rise up and fall into the Mediterranean,’ and your command will be obeyed. All that’s required is that you really believe and have no doubt! Listen to me! You can pray for anything, and if you believe, you have it; it’s yours! (Matthew 11:22 – 24 | TLB)

Of course, we know there are caveats to what Jesus said. But His point is well taken. If you have the faith, pray in faith believing, and praying in the Spirit according to God’s will, you can’t lose. Recall what Paul said about this very topic:

And in the same way-by our faith-the Holy Spirit helps us with our daily problems and in our praying. For we don’t even know what we should pray for nor how to pray as we should, but the Holy Spirit prays for us with such feeling that it cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows, of course, what the Spirit is saying as he pleads for us in harmony with God’s own will. And we know that all that happens to us is working for our good if we love God and are fitting into his plans. What can we ever say to such wonderful things as these? If God is on our side, who can ever be against us? (Romans 8:26 – 28; 31 | TLB)

Who Is God, Part 3

In this series on God, we have learned a couple of very important things about His nature and character. First, God is holy. This is more than just how He acts; it’s how God is. God is holy, and that means that God is separate from His creation. Every child knows this simple truth: God is in Heaven, we are on Earth. God is even separate from His children, even though we may have personal fellowship with Him through the Holy Spirit and the work of Jesus Christ, He is still “up there” and we are “down here.”

We also discovered that God is love. God not only loves, but He is love; love is part of His character. There is nothing but love about God. God loves the world – He loves all the people of the world – and He sent His only Son to save them. While God loves everybody, only some will be saved because only some will choose to choose God’s love. While God loves everybody, He especially loves those who chose to accept His invitation to become part of His family.

Speaking of that, here’s another very important thing about God: His revelation. Even though God is “up there” and we’re “down here,” God has revealed Himself to us! And He’s been doing it for a very long time. That’s the subject of this third message on the topic, “Who Is God?”

We’ll be looking at a number of verses in the anonymous letter addressed to some Hebrew Christians, but before we do, there are some verses in John’s gospel that should be looked at first.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. (John 14:6 – 11 | TNIV)

Verse six is the solution to the dilemma of all men, everywhere: Where do I go after I die? Regardless of what anybody may say, everybody fears what will become of them after their last breath has been taken. Even the atheist lives in fear of “what’s next?” Nobody wants to take a chance at death. Jesus gives the simple yet profound answer: You get to God (Heaven) through the Son of God. There is no other way to enjoy eternal life in “the good place” except through faith in Jesus Christ. Christ is the way – the only way – to God. Now, that doesn’t mean that anybody is excluded, for anybody may place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”. (John 12:23 | TNIV)

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let those who hear say, “Come!” Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life. (Revelation 22:17 | TNIV)

So anybody is free to respond to the call of God to be saved. Anybody! Nobody is excluded from the invitation to believe and be saved. Nobody. Of course, God in His foreknowledge knows who will and who won’t believe, but the invitation goes out, because God is nothing if not fair and just.

The point of what Jesus was saying to Philip was simply this: God is in Him and He is in God; the two of Them are inseparable. In other words, if a person is curious about God, then he should take notice of Jesus. If a person is curious about what God thinks about this or that, they should study Jesus. The two are one.

Our Lord is the ultimate self-expression of God. In an odd way, almost everybody knows this fact of God and they acknowledge it, at least one time a year when they sing the words Charles Wesley wrote:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate deity.
Pleased with man as man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.

And, of course, we know “Immanuel” means “God with us.” So it’s not a secret, this marvelous, miraculous fact of God’s self revelation. But you may wonder, when did God start doing this? For that, we turn to the New Testament letter to the Hebrews.

God, the revealer

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways…. (Hebrews 1:1 | TNIV)

That’s how the ultra-modern, up-to-date TNIV translated the Greek, but in this case, the good old KJV comes a little closer to what that Greek really means: “at various times and in various ways.” It may seem like an insignificant difference to you, but here’s why the KJV’s rendering of the Greek is so important to know. We’re learning here not only that God spent a long time revealing Himself to His people, but that He didn’t do it all at once, or all in once place, or always in the same way. The process of this self-revelation was a continuous one, and it was a revelation that more than one person received. God, in the past (that means throughout the Old Testament) took great care to reveal bits and pieces of Himself to “our ancestors,” that is, to many, many Jews of the past. But, as we’ll learn, nobody in the past had a complete picture of God. Nobody. Not Isaiah. Not Jeremiah. Not David. Not Daniel. Not Moses. Nobody.

Throughout the Old Testament, or “in the past” according to the author of this letter to the Hebrews, God showed some important aspects of Himself to His people through the prophets and other means. Back then, God’s people learned things like this:

• God was the Creator. From His mind and power came the material universe – all that we can see, touch, and experience – and immaterial universe – the spiritual realm that we have yet to experience.
• God was the one who established the laws of morality and ethics. He set Himself up as the judge of His people’s hearts and actions.
• God made covenants or agreements with His people. And while historically His people were always reneging on their end of the covenants, God never did. He always kept His word.
• God, as awesome and transcendent as He is, is still vitally interested in the individual. He spoke to people. He appeared to people as “the angel of the Lord.” He is seen caring for people’s needs and providing even the small things for His people’s comfort.
• God is seen as forever faithful. Though He got angry with His people and judged them, God never, ever abandoned them or walked away from them.

So, in a general sense, God revealed some astounding things about Himself to His people. And He kept it up. Continuously, all throughout the centuries of the Old Testament. But then something happened, and everything changed.

but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:2 | TNIV)

Contrasted with “in the past” is the phrase, “in these last days.” In concrete ways in history, God was revealing Himself. But now, in our time, something has changed. Now God is revealing Himself in His Son. Whereas in the past, God spoke through prophets, now He’s doing it through His Son. And the Son gives us a much more complete picture of the Father, because as we learned from what John wrote, and what Jesus Himself said, He and the Father are one.

That little word, “but,” that begins this second verse, tells us something important. The revelation of God throughout the Old Testament was good, BUT, with Jesus coming into the world, it’s now perfect. The revelation of God through His Son is perfect and complete. You’ll notice that now God’s revelation doesn’t come to us in “various was,” but ONE way: the Son. Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of God. Or put another way, only in Jesus Christ do we get a perfect picture of God the Father.

“In the past,” God relayed His messages through human vessels, and humans are imperfect at best. And when God intervened in nature and things like that, not everybody saw it and it could be misinterpreted. But “in the last days,” in our day today, God spoke through Jesus – the Son – directly. This is vitally important because of the next verse:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:3 | TNIV)

Jesus is the “exact representation” of God’s being. In the Greek, that’s a startling declaration. “Exact representation” is the translation of a single Greek word, charakter, which means “expression” or “stamp.” Jesus is the exact “expression” of God. He is not an approximation of God’s character, but an exact copy or version of God’s essential character – His being – has been “stamped” onto Jesus like an image is stamped onto a coin.

So when you read the Gospels and you study Jesus’ interaction with people, you’re really reading about how God interacts with people. When you see Jesus crying at the tomb of a friend who was cut down in the prime of his life, that’s also God’s reaction to a situation full of sorrow and sadness. When you see Jesus getting angry with hypocrites, that’s how God feels about them. When you see Jesus having compassion on the sick, the lame, the hungry, that’s how God feels.

God’s revelation in Jesus is complete. You can’t learn more about God any other way. He’s not revealing anything else about Himself to anybody anymore. Jesus was and is the final, ultimate revelation of God to man.

Who Is God, Part 2

If a Christian wants to have a complete, balanced, healthy relationship with God, then he must know God; he must make it his quest to know all that is knowable about the Lord. Since what may be known about God is only found in the Bible, it goes without saying that knowing what the Bible says about the subject is essential. Too bad so many well-meaning Christians don’t understand this simplest of truths. God is not known by singing hymns or listening to gospel songs all day. He is not known by reading books about Him, although they may be helpful. He is not known by praying, although you should pray. God is known by knowing the Bible.

It may surprise you to know that human beings actually have an innate need to know God. One of the Greek words for “man” is anthropos, which literally means, “the one looking up.” In a way, man is looking for God, though he may not know it. Because of that, man is a praying creature. Even people who have no relationship with God will utter words of prayer during some crisis, “just in case,” they would say. Man is not an animal, but he may become like one because man without God has no clue how special and dignified a creation he really is. Man is special because he alone was created in the “image” and “likeness” of his Creator. That sets man apart from all of creation and makes him the crowing creative achievement of God the Creator.

God, the Creator, is a holy God, meaning that He is separate from His creation. He is above it and beyond it. God is in Heaven and we are on Earth, so God is separated from His greatest creation, even from the people He redeemed by the blood of His Son.  God, in some respects, continues to be separate from them. We may enjoy precious fellowship with God, but He is still “up there,” and we are still “down here.” When our salvation is finally consummated and we have been ushered into the actual presence of God in Heaven, that impassable gulf will finally be breached.

God is holy, but God is also love. And that’s the subject of this second message in the series.

A statement of fact

God is love, and God also loves the people He created. The classic verses on this subject is one we all know so well, we could cited it with our Bible closed. Here it is from the KJV, the version we probably have memorized:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16 | KJV)

There is no more profound verse on the love of God for sinful man than John 3:16. God loved “the world,” that is, God loved the people He created who are now lost in sin, so He offered His only Son to be their atoning sacrifice, thereby making it possible for sinful man to believe and have faith and, and a result, enjoy everlasting life with Him in glory. This verse along with a couple of others, perfectly captures the love of God for the people He created:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 | NIV84)

One of the sinners Christ died for was one Henry Moorehouse. Do you know who he is? He’s also known as “Harry Moorehouse, the English Evangelist.” He was born in Manchester and as a young man he spent considerable time in local jailhouse, and after being bailed out time and again by his very patient father, young Harry found himself a soldier in the army, where his talents for fighting and getting into trouble could be put to better use.

Upon getting out of the army, Harry happened to pass by a tent revival meeting where Richard Weaver was preaching. It must’ve been a raucous service because Harry, thinking there was a fight going on inside the tent, buttoned up his jacket and raced in, ready to fight. Of course, there was no fight, just an excited preacher. Harry, disappointed, turned to leave, but then he heard the one word that would forever change his sorry life: JESUS. Harry couldn’t leave that tent; Jesus got a hold him and wouldn’t let him go. In an instant – in a moment of time – all the rage and anger of Harry’s heart melted away and this restless wanderer became a different man. He heard about the love of Jesus and that love invaded his heart and made him a “new creation.”

You likely never heard of “Harry Moorehouse, the English Evangelist,” but you probably heard of one of his friends, D.L. Moody, the American Bible teacher and preacher who would found The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, which is still going strong today. One of the men who influenced Moody the most was Moorehouse! Once, Moody hosted Moorehouse at his Institute, and for an entire week, The English Evangelist preached on John 3:16. An entire week’s worth of sermons featuring that single, life-changing verse.

The preaching style of Moorehouse, according to Moody, was very different from his own. Instead of preaching that God was ready to judge the sinner and execute perfect justice, Moorehouse told the congregation that God wanted every person to be saved because He loved them. Moody said of his preaching:

I didn’t know God thought so much of me. It was wonderful to hear the way he brought out Scripture. He went from Genesis to Revelation and preached that in all ages God loved the sinner.

Moorehouse ended the last sermon of the week like this:

For seven nights I have been trying to tell you how much God loves you, and this poor stammering tongue of mine will not let me. If I could ascend Jacob’s ladder and ask Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Almighty, to tell you how much love God the Father has for this poor lost world, all that Gabriel could say is: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16 | KJV)

An example from the Old Testament

In trying to understand the love of God, there are are some verses in the Old Testament that answer a lot questions on the subject. In the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, a book that a lot of Christians think is all about tithing, we read this startling verse:

I have loved you,” says the Lord.“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the Lord says. “Yet I have loved Jacob…”. (Malachi 1:2 | NIV84)

God declared to His then-backslidden people, “I have loved you,” and these people in their backslidden state, questioned that love. But God was adamant: “I HAVE LOVED you…” These people had lost their love for God, and therefore their spiritual senses had become dull; they honestly thought God had stopped loving them. As if that could ever happen! But a spiritually dull person is almost always wrong when it comes to spiritual matters.

To prove to his wayward people that He did, in fact, love them, the Lord pointed to His favored treatment of Israel (Jacob) over their ancient enemy, Edom (Esau). You’ll recall that Jacob and Esau were brothers, and Israel and Edom were the nations that descended from each of them respectively. The state of Israel – prosperous and thriving for much of its history – versus the state of Edom – always at war with somebody and always struggling to get by – proved that God preferred Israel over Edom. If their hearts hadn’t been so hardened, Israel would have remembered how God protected them historically, and fought for them, and freed them from their captivity.

In looking at the love of God for Israel, we can learn a couple of very salient points about the love of God in general.

God’s love is not earned or deserved

Looking at what the Lord said through His prophet Malachi, this what we read:

I have loved you,” says the Lord.“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the Lord says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” (Malachi 1:2-3 | NIV84)

Can God really hate? It may seem strange that in a sermon about “God is love” that we read that God hated a person is a bit shocking. God actually hates a lot things; sin, lying, pride, and other things, but here the word “hate” is used in the sense of “preference.” God preferred Israel over Edom. And His treatment of Israel proved that He preferred them over Edom. The Edomites were nasty people, just as Esau was a nasty man.

But on the other hand, Jacob wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue, either. He was a liar, a cheat, and a conniver, and con artist. Yet God preferred him over his brother? Here is a point about God’s love: Nobody can earn it and nobody deserves it. Jacob didn’t any more than his brother did, yet here we have it stated that God preferred Jacob over Esau. The choice of Jacob was God’s sovereign choice, not influenced by anything or anybody. It was a choice made in grace.

God’s dealings with us are always out of grace. We are saved by grace, we are empowered for Christian service by grace, and we are kept by grace. The fact that God loves us is an act of grace that no believer deserves, yet enjoys nonetheless.

God’s love never changes

When we speak of God’s love, we’re talking about agape love. This kind of divine love is above all other forms of love. Agape love means, first of all, that God’s love for the believer is absolutely perfect – God cannot love you more and He cannot love you less. God’s love for you is perfect. God’s love won’t lessen when you misbehave nor grow when you do something righteous. His love is perfect. His love is constant. Like the North Star; God’s love is always there.

Secondly, because His love is perfect, it never changes. In the Hebrew, the force of Malachi 3:2, 3 isn’t just “Jacob I love and Esau I hate,” rather, it’s “Jacob I loved and I continue to love.” It’s important to note this because as God spoke these words to Israel through His prophet, Israel had become a corrupt, discouraged, backslidden nation. They were lazy in their faith and treated God with contempt. Yet God continued to love them just as He always had. God’s love for His people didn’t change because of their misbehavior.

God’s love is truly amazing. It’s almost beyond comprehension that God is able to love like that. But it’s a fact; it’s in the Bible.

God loves everybody

And so we return to John 3:16 for the last point. God’s love is universal. If His love isn’t conditional, then it naturally follows that He loves “the world,” just as John said. This is what we could call God’s “merciful love.” The result of this “merciful love” is spelled out by Peter:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 | NIV84)

God wants everybody to be saved. That’s why Jesus is said to have been “coming soon” for over 2,000 years! It’s the slowest “soon coming” in history! But that’s why. God is waiting for the last possible moment to get as many sinners saved. God’s love is universal, but salvation isn’t. Not everybody is going to get saved. And therein lies the rub. Don’t confuse God’s love for the sinner with salvation. The love of God compels God to call all people to repent and believe. But the love of God doesn’t compel Him to save everybody with no corresponding actions on the part of the sinner.

 

 

 

 

 

Who Is God , Part 1

What do you know about God? How well do you understand Him? If you are a Christian, then God should be the most important Person in your life, therefore you should know Him very well and know all about Him. Sadly, a lot of Christians are blissfully unaware of even the most basic facts of God – His nature, character, His divine attributes. How embarrassing it will be for you when you stand before God and you realize you knew more about your spouse, or your kids, or your co-workers than you ever did about the God created you, saved you, and made you His child. For the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at what the Bible reveals about God so that we can all get to know Him better, and in doing so we’ll appreciate Him more and love Him with a deeper, more informed love.

Just to get us started, let’s take a very interesting verse; something that the apostle Paul wrote to his friend, young Pastor Timothy:

That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:10 | TNIV)

Right away your probably see something in what Paul wrote that looks a little off, given what we know about salvation: “God…is the Savior of all people…especially of those who believe.” The question that should pop into your head is, “Who else is God saving except those who believe?” What did Paul mean when he wrote, “especially of those who believe?” We’ll delve into that, and the rest this verse in detail later on in this series, but for now, I want to focus on another phrase of great import: “We have put our hope in the living God.” That’s the essence, really, of what salvation is all about: Trusting God. It only goes to reason that if you know more about God, then you’ll have more hope. Or, we could say, the more you know about God, the more hopeful you will be. And hope is an important thing:

Know also that wisdom is like honey for you: If you find it, there is a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off. (Proverbs 24:14 | TNIV)

As we begin to learn all that we can about God, the first aspect of His Person is the foundation of all the others. God is holy. When we talk about the holiness of God, what do we mean?

Holiness of God

Let’s go back to the beginning. In the book Exodus, we read this concerning the holiness of God:

Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11 | TNIV)

That verse hints at what is involved in God’s holiness. Somehow it relates to the fact that no other god, and of course those other “gods” refer to little gods created in the minds of men, comes close to being like the true God.

This aspect of God’s character means that God is absolutely morally pure. God cannot sin nor can He tolerate sin. You may think that “holy” means things like “good” or “well behaved” or “decent,” but it may surprise you to know that the root meaning of “holy” is “separated” or “separate from.” But in what sense is God separated? First, and most obvious, God is separated from man: He is in Heaven, we are on earth. There is a distance between God and man; we don’t occupy the same time and space. But God is also separated from man in His nature and character. For example:

• God is perfect, man is imperfect;
• God is divine, man is human;
• God is morally perfect, man is sinful and corrupt;

Very simply put, holiness is the distinction that sets God the Creator apart from all that He created, including man.

And throughout the Bible, God tried to drive this point home to His people. For example, in the written words of Scripture, we read all about how God is holy. But even when He supernaturally revealed Himself to man – in visions, for example – He did so in such a way to show how holy or separate He is. There are several examples of this, but Isaiah’s vision of the transcendent God is maybe the best.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy , holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ( Isaiah 6:1 – 4 | TNIV)

What an awesome scene! No earthly king or potentate could compete with it. That’s what God was trying to impress upon Isaiah: God is NOT like anybody or anything on earth or elsewhere. That’s what the holiness of God means. And that’s what separation looks like.

Did the coming of Jesus change any of that? In other words, is God still separated from redeemed man?

Another side of God’s holiness

In John’s first letter, we read this:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. (1 John 1:5, 6 | TNIV)

You don’t see the word “holy” in those verses, but that’s what John was writing about. Instead of writing “God is holy,” John wrote, “God is light.” Of course, light has nothing to do with holiness, but John contrasts the idea that “God is light” with the fact that there is no darkness in Him. There’s that idea of separation again – light is separate from darkness. Light is not the same dark and we all know that when you turn a light on, the darkness goes away – the two cannot co-exist in the same time and space. God must forever be separate from sinful man. The two cannot co-exist. That’s essentially what John was getting at when he wrote: “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” In other words, if a person – any person – claims to be a Christian but lives a life steeped in sin, then they are lying about being a Christian. They can’t be. Now, that’s not to say that Christians are sinless. They sin. But, because they have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, they are able to have some fellowship with God. They can’t have that fellowship apart from Christ.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13 | TNIV)

This is absolutely essential for people to understand – John needed his readers to understand it. If a person wants to have fellowship with God and with the Son of God, he needs to understand what makes that fellowship possible. Because God is holy, He remains necessarily separate from sinful human beings – that’s all people, by the way. But because the blood of Christ washes away our sins, we are able to experience, to a certain degree, the presence of God on an ongoing basis.

P.T. Forsyth, in his work, “Cruciality of the Cross,” made this statement about the blood of Christ:

The blood of Christ stands not simply for the sting of sin on God but the scourge of God on sin, not simply for God’s sorrow over sin but for God’s wrath upon sin.

That’s a fancy way of saying this: Sin caused Jesus to bleed, and God caused Jesus to bleed. Sin, in the sense that our Lord was beaten up and stabbed by sinful man. God, in the sense that His Son was being punished for your sins, not His; He’s forever sinless. The Son of God bore the wrath of God the Father in His body, on the Cross. And because He did that, Christians can enjoy the presence of God. Now, it’s not a perfect presence though. Because there is still a real separation between God and even His children. He’s still “up there” and we’re “down here.” But through the work of Jesus Christ and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, we are able to be in God’s presence, wherever we are, any time.

Summary

To sum up, there are three things we need to remember when we say God is holy. First, there is a chasm or a great gulf between God and sinner.

Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:1, 2 | TNIV)

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Habakkuk 1:13 | TNIV)

But not only is the sinner cut off from God, God is cut off from the sinner. Before man fell from grace, God and man walked together in the garden. Their fellowship occupied the same space and time. Now, though, that kind of unbroken fellowship is impossible.

Second, if a man wants to approach God, he must do so based on the merits of Another. No man can come into the presence of God because of his sin problem. But, thank God, Jesus came and has made that free access possible.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1, 2 | TNIV)

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:18 | TNIV)

Lastly, even though we have free access to God through Jesus Christ, we should still approach Him with reverence and godly fear.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28, 29 | TNIV)

Why fear? Because God is holy and you aren’t. So you should rightly fear being in His presence. When you understand what the holiness of God is, then you will have a right understanding of how bad sin is and what it does to you.

“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more.” (Job 40:4, 5 | TNIV)

That is an example of how we should all go into God’s presence, in an attitude of  humiliation, contrition, and of dependence.  When we see ourselves correctly, we will have a correct view of the holiness of God.


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