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What Is Man, Part 1

Have you ever stopped to think about yourself? Where did you come from? Where are you going? Why were you born? Human beings have a self-awareness no other member of God’s creation has, and this makes him ask such questions. For the Christian, the answers are found in the Bible, and they are surprising.

what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalms 8:4-5 | NIV84)

Thanks to what the New Testament book Hebrews tells us, we know that Psalm 8 is referring to Jesus Christ, but the point of the psalmist can’t be missed. Man has God’s attention – God is “mindful” of human beings to the point, in fact, where His Son became their representative in Heaven.

Another psalm says this:

O Lord, what is man that you care for him, the son of man that you think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow. (Psalms 144:3-4 | NIV84)

Again we see that God cares for man; that God thinks about man. That’s an astonishing fact, and made all the more astonishing by the fact of man’s frailty: he is like a breath – there one moment and gone the next. Yet somehow and for some reason, the weak, impermanent man has God’s eternal attention. The Bible paints a pathetic picture of humanity: Created to be the greatest of God’s creative achievements, yet utterly dependent upon on Him.

Anthropology is the doctrine of man and theological anthropology deals with man in relation to his Creator, while scientific anthropology deals with man as a physical and psychological being in relation to natural history. In this series of studies, we’ll examine different aspects of ourselves in the light of what the Bible has to say.

The origin of man

Ever since man was first able to look up into the night sky and see the stars and faraway constellations, he was confronted with the mystery of his origin. Over the centuries, man has set his mind to figuring out where he came from. Charles Darwin, the unfortunate originator of the theory of evolution wrote this:

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on the matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.

The idea of “theistic evolution” is not a new one, but it is an incorrect one. The Bible teaches very clearly the doctrine of special creation, meaning that God, the Creator, made every creature “after his kind.”

So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” (Genesis 1:21-22 | NIV84)

With the utmost care, the Lord created all the various species of animal life on earth and in the seas and then let them develop and progress (we might even use the word “evolve”) according to the laws that govern their being.

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:24 | NIV84)

This wasn’t the case with man, however. Of man’s creation, we read something very different:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27 | NIV84)

Only man was created in God’s image. And this why Christians cannot accept any version of the theory of evolution. It takes a personal Creator out of the picture. The theory of evolution and its proponents attempt to link man with animals, yet the Bible clearly states that man is linked to God through his creation. Though sin ruptured that link, Jesus Christ came into this world to re-establish man’s eternal link to His Creator by re-creating or repairing the marred image of God in human beings.

The sinister side of evolution is that human nature is gradually evolving; ever so slowly becoming more and perfect or divine. Again, this is as far from Biblical teaching as you can get. The Bible teaches that the opposite is occurring. Man without God, left up to his own devices, is getting worse and worse, not better and better, and that man progresses spiritually, physically, culturally, and in every other way, not by his own efforts but by the work of God in Him.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness 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 and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4 | NIV84)

The nature of man

In Genesis, we read this:

the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7 | NIV84)

Clearly there’s more to man than meets the eye. He is a physical being, having been constructed from “the dust of the ground,” but God added something to that physical part of man: a soul. The soul – whatever it is – adds life to the body, and when the soul is taken from the body, the body dies.

Yet there’s more to it than that. The New Testament expands our knowledge of man’s two sides:

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23 | NIV84)

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

So are human beings a dichotomy or a trichotomy? Are we made up of two parts or three? Theologians, who will argue over how many angels can sit on the head of pin, are divided. Some say we are made up of just two parts: the body and the soul/spirit. Others say we are made up of three parts: the body, soul, and spirit. In fact, in spite of the contention between the two camps, both are correct. The soul and the spirit represent the immaterial, or non-physical side of man. They are separate, as we see in Hebrews, since they may be separated by the Word of God, but they are not separable. They are “wound around each other” so tightly that words “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably sometimes in Scripture.

But each part has its own function. The “soul” is “the self.” It’s the part of man that makes him aware of himself, his surroundings, and of other people. The soul of a man makes him who he is, with all of his brilliance and his foibles and fears. The soul includes such things as the intellect, the emotions, and the will. We could say that the soul governs man entire personality.

The “spirit” is different. Man is not a “spirit,” but he possesses a spirit that was put in him by his Creator, and it is his “spirit” that sets man apart from all other created beings. Our “spirit” is that part of us that connects us to the spiritual world. It is that part of us that is conscious of God’s Spirit and Presence in us and in the world around us.

When Paul wrote a letter to the Ephesians, he described the spiritual state of man without God:

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

Obviously, when Paul said his friends were “dead,” he wasn’t referring to their bodies or their souls – they ability to read the letter, after all! He was referring to their “spirits.” Unsaved man is spiritually dead. He’s physically alive, and he’s able to think and laugh and do all sorts of great things, but he’s dead with respect to God. The human spirit is unable to relate to God in any way. Part of God’s gracious gift of salvation is the complete restoration of man’s spirit: the Holy Spirit (God’s Spirit) enters man and renews man’s spirit, bringing that man to a higher level of living and giving him the capacity to relate to God; giving him the capacity of love God.

So you can see that man without God is a mess; he’s not a whole person. He’s a pathetic shadow of what he was created to be. And the truly sad part of man without God is that somehow, deep down inside, he knows something is terribly wrong. That’s why human beings, left up their own devices, will spend a lifetime and thousands and thousands of dollars looking to be made complete and whole, never realizing it is God they need, because they are dead to Him and He is dead to them. Brown Bannister captured sinful man’s sad state like this:

One I was dying, my soul was crying,
Trying to find the nature of Love.
I thought I found it,
But I just walked around it,
Looking for the nature of Love.

That’s when You seized me,
And now You have released me,
To know You are the Nature of Love.
Your Spirit found me,
And now Your Love surrounds me,
I know You are the Nature of Love.

That’s what God does for sinful man; something he could never, ever do for himself. How man ended up in this predicament – as a broken, hurting being – we will cover that next time as we continue to look at God’s most amazing creation:  Man


God’s Best Gifts, Part 5

As defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, the noun “gift” means a few things. First, a “gift” can be present given from one person to another. It may also mean “something that is surprisingly easy or cheap.”  For example, “I can’t believe how easy that test was! It’s like a gift.”

But a “gift” may also refer to a talent we posses. We often speak of a “gifted piano player,” for example.

As good as the Cambridge Dictionary may be, it falls a tad short in the spiritual realm. “Gifts” are also things that our Heavenly Father gives us, His children. They may be special talents. They may be fortuitous abilities that a church member is given supernaturally for the time their church needs a person with those abilities. God also gives us spiritual gifts for our benefit and for the benefit of other believers. Yes, our God is a very generous God who knows what we need, why we need it, and the best time to give it to us. God is a giver in every sense of the word.

The apostle Peter, in his second letter, very briefly mentions another precious gift from God to us:

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)

God has, apparently given us some “very great and precious promises.” Just are those promises? What did Peter have in mind when he wrote that sentence? How can any promise help us to be more like God? Let’s find out!

Why a second letter?

We don’t always know what occasioned the writing of New Testament letters, but in the case of Peter’s second letter, he tells exactly why he wrote it:

Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. (2 Peter 3:1 | TNIV)

Really, Peter has done Bible students a great favor, because in that single verse he has told us why he wrote two letters: “to stimulate [his readers] to wholesome thinking.” Both letters were “reminders.” In other words, the content of both Peter’s letters was not unique or the result of some kind of special revelation from the Heavenly realms. Peter’s letters are jam-packed with stuff his readers already knew about but needed to be reminded of. It’s important to for Christians to be taught and re-taught the same things over and over and over again. Repetition helps to reinforce essential truths that sometimes get lost in our Memory Palaces.

But what did Peter mean by “wholesome?” It’s a Greek word that refers to that which is “pure,” “uncontaminated,” and “good.” Plato used the same word to describe thinking or reasoning that was uncontaminated by the senses. So “wholesome thinking” to Plato was thinking that was completely objective. Paul’s concept of “wholesome thinking” is best summed up like this:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8 | TNIV)

Peter knew full well that Christians needed to be reminded from time-to-time about the things they already knew. And wholesome thinking – thinking correctly – is vitally important because what’s in the mind will eventually work itself out in the world in the forms behavior, actions, and attitudes. Everything we do and feel starts out as a thought. How important is it to think wholesome thoughts, then?

More and more grace and peace

So this letter, then, was mailed to Jewish and Gentile Christians in northern Asia Minor; that is, “to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (I Pet. 1:1). In between the writing of the two letters a change of circumstances had taken place among Peter’s friends. Whereas the first letter had been written to prepare them for suffering, perhaps at the hands of an unfriendly government (1:7; 2:12-15; 3:14-17; 4:3-4, 12-16; 5:8-10), the second letter warns against the encroachments of false teachers (2:1-3, 10-15, 19-22; 3:3-7, 15-17). In each case, though, the believer’s best offense against either a hostile government or the bad theology of false teachers is knowledge. But not just any kind of knowledge! Knowledge of God’s Word.

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

This is actually a prayer. When was the last time you prayed that “grace and peace would be” somebody’s “in abundance?” That was Peter’s prayer for those reading this letter. He was asking the Lord to super-multiply “grace and peace” in the lives of his friends. But what’s particularly interesting here is that this request of God is followed by what is essentially instructions to the reader on how to make it happen: “through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” In other words, if you, as a believer, can create the necessary conditions – which involves acquiring more knowledge of God and Jesus – God will super-multiply grace and peace in your life!

The word translated “knowledge” here is one of Peter’s favorites; he uses it some 13 times in his letter. It does not refer to cold, academic knowledge. It’s not knowledge gained second hand from listening to a  teacher or from reading a book. This kind of knowledge is experiential knowledge; firsthand knowledge of God and Jesus gained through a relationship with them through the Holy Spirit and through the Word of God. It’s knowing God and Jesus as they really are, not how some theologian says they are. It’s a personal knowing. That’s what you need if you want more and more “grace and peace” in your life.

Miraculous provision

Here are two very powerful verses full of deep spiritual 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)

When you think about what Peter is claiming in these verses, it’s truly an extraordinary claim. In fact, had anybody else said what Peter said, I’d say they were insane. But the man is writing from personal experience. Peter had seen the power of Christ calm the stormy sea and enable him to walk on the water (Matthew 14); he had heard the resurrected Christ make the claim that all power was given to Him in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28); he had received the power of Christ into his life by the sanctifying baptism of the Spirit of Pentecost (Acts 1, 2); and he knew, along with his friend Paul, this simple fact:

but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:24 | TNIV)

If anybody knew how beneficial the power of God and the promises of God operating in the life of a Christian can be, it certainly was Peter. These two verses give us everything we need to live a successful Christian life.

Power. The Greek word for “power” is dynamis, which looks like our word “dynamite.” It refers to a self-contained, inherent power that is steady and dynamic. The exact same power that God exerted in raising Christ from the dead is in every believer. Stop and think about the implications of that statement. That supernatural power is now housed in you, enabling you to live a life of righteousness, live a positive and uplifting life that is a powerful witness in your community. This provision – or gift, if you will – is activated and assisted by our knowledge of God. No matter what, it seems like you can’t get away from knowledge of God!

A verse like verse 3 compels us to ask the question: How important is knowing God to me? Is getting to know God a priority to you? It’s sad but when looking around at the state of the average Christian life, it seems as though knowing God isn’t a priority. It’s more of a convenience. How to be a top notch Christian is no mystery. The first step is simply getting to know God more – not gathering more information about Him, but getting to know Him as a person through a living relationship with Him. Don’t get me wrong. You have to know about God. You have to know the facts of God; you should be curious about Him, and that curiosity should lead you to the Bible. But knowing God as the Person He is involves something supernatural that the Holy Spirit is involved in. This supernatural, intimate knowledge of God and Christ enables us to access that “resurrection power” whereby we can live a supernaturally empowered life that glorifies God and keeps the spigot of His blessings open.

When we come to Christ, the power is given to us, and as we learn how to access it and allow it to work through our whole being, things like this happen:

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19 | TNIV)

A lot of Christians want that provision without realizing that God has already met that need through the “resurrection power” in you!

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)

As a Christian, you have everything you need – everything – for spiritual growth. That’s what’s indicated by the word “fullness.” It’s all in you, like a gift waiting for you to unwrap it.

Promises. Not only has God given us His supernatural “resurrection power,” He has given us some very special promises. We don’t know which promises Peter had in mind when he wrote verse 4. But we may speculate. Maybe he was thinking of these:

The promise of forgiveness of sins – past, present, and future sins.
• The promise of adoption as sons and daughters of God.
• The promise of the Holy Spirit’s help in living life and spiritual growth.
• The promise of comfort during life’s darkest moments.
• The promise that all of our needs will be met.
• The promise of eternal life in Heaven after we die.
• The promise of bodily resurrection when Christ returns.
• The promise of reigning with Christ in His kingdom.

Chuck Swindoll came up with that list, and I think he was on to something. Those promises, in addition to things like the promise of abundant life in Christ and Christ’s ongoing presence in our lives through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, enable us to live victoriously in the face of things like, in the case of Peter’s readers, false teachers.


Ultimately, though, the purpose of God’s power and promises in our lives is to make us “partakers of the divine nature.” That’s referring to perfect fellowship with God the Father and God the Son through the God the Holy Spirit. Peter used Greek words, of course, but also Greek phrases, like “divine nature.” He could have simply used “fellowship with God,” but remember his audience; they would have been very familiar with phrases like the “divine nature.” The Greeks, not unlike Christians, viewed the world as corrupt, but to them, the only way to overcome the corrupt world was to become a god – to assume a “divine nature.” Peter twists the Greek philosophy and straightens it out. Man can escape the corruption of the world, not by becoming a god, but by fellowshipping with the only true God.

God has given His people great gifts. Here, in Peter’s letter, we have the gifts of God’s power and of God’s promises. These are marvelous gifts that too many Christians leave unopened.

God’s Best Gifts, Part 4

If you are a Christian, then you enjoy the blessings of the Lord. Yes, you! You walk in His blessings, everywhere you go, every day of the week. All the time, God is giving you good things. And, of course, because they come from God, you know that you don’t really deserve them. You may be wondering what blessings I’m referring to. I guess it really all depends on your perspective. Consider this:

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

Let’s take a closer look at this oft-quoted verse. Every word is literally dripping with meaning and importance. In fact, you need to read the verse directly preceding it to grasp its full meaning. Verse 16 is short, but important:

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. (James 1:16 | NIV84)

When you read a verse like that, you should be asking yourself, “Who’s being deceived about what?” The “who” bit is easy. James is writing to Christians, his “dear brothers.” But what are the brothers being deceived about, anyway? James had been writing to his “dear brothers” about negative things. Things like the way life often treats us. It’s not fair. There are people who have, and people who don’t. There are Christians who are being persecuted on account of their faith in Jesus Christ. That’s hardly fair. Reading parts of James 1, we are reminded of the lament of the psalmist:

For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. (Psalm 73:3 – 5 | KJV)

Some of James’ “dear brothers” must have been feeling that way, so he gives these discouraged believers some good advice:

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. (James 1:9-10 | NIV84)

In other words, regardless of their lot in life, believers need to have a God-centered perspective; a perspective that places God and God’s will right in their view of everything. So, whether you have much or hardly anything, you should be content, at least to the extent that you don’t blame God for your state. Another way to think about verses 9 and 10 would be take the view the apostle Paul adopted regarding life. If any Christian had an up-and-down life, it was surely Paul:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13 | NIV84)

That’s a God-centered worldview right there. No matter how good Paul had it or how long the next rough patch would last, Paul just knew that God would give him strength to see him through. And it’s this attitude that James wanted his “dear brothers” to have. Sure, they were suffering some, but it was important for them to not be deceived. Rather than blaming God for their current state, they needed to see God as the source of all that is good, not bad. God doesn’t make bad things happen to the people He saved and loves. God doesn’t manipulate your life so as to cause you to sin. He doesn’t operate like that. If you believe that kind of nonsense, then you are, to use James’ word, “deceived,” that is, you aren’t thinking straight!

Far from being the source of hard times, God only gives good things, as verse 17 tells us. In fact, that phrase, “every good and perfect gift” is vitally important. It tells us something of God’s blessings. First, anything beneficial that comes into the life of the believer comes from God. That’s the implication of the word “every.” It’s an all-inclusive term. Regardless of the apparent source of the good thing, it ultimately came to you from God. A good verse to keep in mind that will help you understand what James is getting to is this one:

A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just. (Proverbs 13:22 | KJV)

You are “the just,” if you are a Christian, so regardless of where your blessing seems to come – a check from the IRS or a bonus from work – the wealth of the world is yours. Or rather, God has a right to funnel it to His people, for their benefit.

That brings us to the next word, “good.” God’s gifts are “good,” a word that means “useful,” “beneficial,” and “profitable.” In other words, if a thing comes to you that helps you out in some way – solves a problem or gets you out of a jam – then it came from God. The other word James used to describe God’s gifts is “perfect.” That’s a wonderful word that means “complete,” and “lacking nothing.” God gives us just what we need, when we need it, and what He gives will always work and there will always be enough of it.

And you can count on God to be this generous and thoughtful all the time because He doesn’t change. He’s always the same.

Long before James wrote to his persecuted, frustrated friends, there was a group of Jews in a particularly bad state.

Not forgotten

History tells us that around 586 BC, the Jewish exile to Babylon began. Jew would tells us it began a little earlier, around 597 BC, but without regard to exact date of the exile, it lasted 70 years. During this time, Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Much of Judah was steam rolled by Nebuchadnezzar when he plowed through the land not once but three times, taking citizens back to Babylon and resettling them there. In those intervening seven decades, the Jewish population in Babylon grew and grew and while they would eventually prosper to some degree while in exile, and while many of them remained utterly faithful to the beliefs of their forefathers, there was a sense that some day they would return to Jerusalem. This had been promised to them by the prophets, and many – though not all – clung to those promises and passed them on to their children.

The day came when a small group of Jews returned to Jerusalem, tasked with rebuilding the wall and the Temple. What they saw when they got close to the old home town was, to say the least, devastating. There was almost nothing left. A pile of overgrown rubble.

It was a big job, but the builders got to it and at last the project began to take shape. There was a lot rejoicing when the foundation was laid. At last, in spite of all the odds, the small group of expatriates was getting it done. But, not everybody was happy.

But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. (Ezra 3:12 | NIV84)

So, it was a time of mixed emotion, and it’s understandable that the older folks weren’t as excited as the young people. This new Temple was a shadow of Solomon’s Temple. The young people had never seen that one. But the memories of its grandeur were emblazoned on the minds of the elderly. They were sad, not glad.

The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem and of the Temple. By the time we get to Nehemiah 8, the Temple had been rebuilt and many homes in Jerusalem had been rebuilt and other towns and cities were being resettled. From Nehemiah 8 on, we read about a “back to the Bible moment,” or a mass religious revival.

The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers and the temple servants, along with certain of the people and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns. When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns…. (Nehemiah 7:73 | NIV84)

The cusp of revival

But, they didn’t stay in there towns. And Nehemiah, with his job done, could have returned to his job back in Susa. He was not really an architect or a builder, but a cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes. He had a comfortable life to which he could have returned. But he didn’t because t here was more to be done:

all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:1-3 | NIV84)

Nehemiah’s big concern was for the spiritual well-being of the Jews. He, a cup-bearer from Susa, along with Ezra, the spiritual leader of the returning exiles, ministered to the spiritual needs of the people by teaching them the Law, celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, and by leading the people in rededicating themselves to the Covenant.

It might be difficult for you, a 21st century Christian (assuming you are a 21st Christian), to understand how reading the books of the Law, not exactly a crackling read, could induce a religious revival. And yet it did. From the Exodus to the Crucifixion, the believing Israelite’s relationship with God was governed by the Mosaic Covenant. The written code didn’t create a relationship between God and Israel, but it did serve to regulate it. That spiritual relationship was by faith, even back then.

When Ezra opened the book, something remarkable happened:

Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Nehemiah 8:6 | NIV84)

The “amen” was shouted in agreement and faith with the prayers that had been prayed and then the people, as one, bowed low in worship. This was no show. This was a heartfelt, sincere expression of their humility before their awesome God.

Power of the Word

And then it happened.

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:8-9 | NIV84)

The Word of God wasn’t just read aloud, but it was “preached,” it was expounded upon so as the people could understand not just the words but the meaning behind the words. This clear exposition of the Word moved the people – it convicted them of sin in their lives and that resulted in repentance.

This is a valuable lesson for us to learn. In our day, so much preaching and so many elements of church service are based on feelings and emotions. This isn’t a diatribe against those things, by the way. God gave us feelings and emotions for reasons, so they are part of who we are. The powerful exposition of God’s Word often brings about a deep conviction of sin. Repentance, though, must not be an emotional response only. That’s self-centered and that kind of remorse is not acceptable to God. Rather, it’s important to note what Ezra and the Levites did when the people emoted. Essentially, they told the people to stop it. Instead of making repentance all about how you feel, it should be about how wonderful God is and how profound His forgiving goodness is. That’s why they were told to do the exact opposite to what they were doing.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 | NIV84)

This verse is remarkable on a couple of levels. First, following the reading and teaching of the Word, a spiritual awakening occurred – people were moved to repentance and worship. But that’s not where it ended. If the Word of God means anything to you, it will make you want to DO something for others. It will make you want to serve God. Here, Nehemiah made sure all the people enjoyed a great feast, even those who were unprepared. It was like a massive potluck dinner! Nobody was left out.

But second, and of great import, was that because this particular day was sacred to God, the people needed to stop grieving – stop feeling sorry for themselves – and rejoice. They probably didn’t feel like rejoicing – they were grieving and mourning – but those are self-centered emotions. Rejoicing occurs when a person makes a determined effort to take their eyes off of themselves and look to God. When you do that, you can’t help but rejoice. And here’s the kicker: the joy of the Lord is your strength. In other words, His joy is IN you and that joy makes you strong. When you don’t feel like rejoicing, God gives you His joy, which gives you strength to rejoice. This was something Paul knew all-to-well:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4 | NIV84)

Rejoice in the Lord always. Always, no matter how you feel or what’s going on around you. Rejoice in Him and you will be strong. And you will make the world a better place. Dennis Prager, in writing about happiness, wrote something very profound. Happiness and joy are not quite the same things, but what he wrote of happiness certainly applies to joy:

For much of my life, I, like most people, regarded the pursuit of happiness as largely a selfish pursuit. One of the great revelations of middle age has been that happiness, far from being only a selfish pursuit, is a moral demand.

When we think of character traits we rightly think of honesty, integrity, moral courage, and acts of altruism. Few people include happiness in any list of character traits or moral achievements.

But happiness is both.

Happiness — or at least acting happy, or at the very least not inflicting one’s unhappiness on others — is no less important in making the world better than any other human trait.

Just imagine what the world would be like if Christians, who ought to be happiest people on earth anyway, did that? And we can, because God gives us the strength to do just that. Rejoice in Him and marvel at how other people respond.

The Word of God brings you joy. John wrote about this:

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:3 | NIV84)

God’s Best Gifts, Part 3

God gives His people numerous gifts for a variety of reasons. God sent Jesus – His gift of love to sinful man – to catch their attention. In a world filled with condemnation, Jesus came in love to save. God also gave His people that kind exact same kind of love – a divine, unconditional love – so that they could love the Body of Christ as God does.

Another gift God gives His people is peace. God is able to make His people completely sound in mind and spirit. Instead of anxiety, frustration, and anger, God’s people can be at complete peace.

Perhaps the most under appreciated gift from God to man is the gift of His Word. The Bible is a gift from God. Through the pages the Bible, God’s heart and mind are revealed to man in such a way as make plain His thoughts, His feelings, and His will. Even the unredeemed man is able to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, grasp the elemental spiritual truths contained in the Word of God. Of the Bible, the book of Hebrews declares:

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

There is nothing ordinary about the Bible. Some people think that it’s a boring old book that’s largely irrelevant today. Other people consider the Bible to be a masterpiece of literature. Some very influential people have said some very profound, and sometimes some very stupid things about the Bible. For example, no less an influential person as Mahatma Gandhi once remarked:

You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.

Mark Twain was utterly confused about the Bible. On the one hand, he said this:

It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.

But then said this:

The Bible has noble poetry in it… and some good morals and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies.

Richard Dawkins, who some people think is very smart, wrote something very dumb about the Bible:

To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.

Søren Kierkegaard once wrote:

The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.

And President Ronald Reagan said this about the Scriptures:

Within the covers of the Bible are all the answers for all the problems man faces.

With so many opinions about the Bible, we should go right to the source itself. As far as the Bible is concerned, it is indispensable, and here’s why you, if you are a Christian, can’t do without it:

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17 | TNIV)

The Word of God is the “sword of the Spirit.” Let’s take a look what that means within the context of Ephesians 6.

It’s war

Verse 16 of Ephesians 6 occurs in the midst of Paul’s discussion of the spiritual warfare every Christian faces. This whole section seems oddly out of place in a letter largely devoted to peace, and yet it isn’t really. One of the great blessings of the Gospel is that it produces peace between members of the Body of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:14 – 17 | TNIV)

One of the great themes of Ephesians is the peace of Christ that resulted from His work on the Cross. And Paul spent considerable time writing about peaceful relationships between each other in the context of the family, at work, and out in the community. Being a Christian should result in a person treating others, especially other Christians, with respect, honor, and dignity.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2, 3 | TNIV)

And then suddenly, along comes these famous verses in chapter 6:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:10, 11 | TNIV)

Peace is important, but peace between members of the Body of Christ is absolutely essential indispensable; it’s a powerful witness to the world of what the presence of Christ can do between people. And there are some immensely practical steps Christians can take to encourage the growth of that peace. But at the same time we know that of all the struggles we face on earth, the greatest threat to our survival as believers takes place in the spiritual world. No matter how diligent we may be in trying to live righteous lives that result in peace in all our earthly relationships, if we ignore the spiritual battles raging all around us, we risk losing it all.

In that sense, this section may not be “oddly out of place,” after all!

The need for armor

Of all things a believer can do to live at peace with the world around him, the key is to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” The phrase “be strong” really means be to be “continually empowered” by the power of God. You need that. Just think about how hard it is to live at peace with your spouse. All kidding aside, sometimes it seems like what’s needed is supernatural power to keep you from losing your temper or whatever. That’s a simple (or funny) illustration of what Paul is getting at here. Part of what he calls “the devil’s schemes” is sowing seeds of strife and contention between spouses or between siblings or between friends. We all need God’s power so as not to let those things get out of control. You see, even though the struggle takes place in the spirit world, there are real-world consequences to what’s happening there. No human being has it within himself to face the devil alone; we all need God’s presence and God’s resources – the armor He gives us.

Just how great is God’s power? Paul touched on that subject at the beginning of this letter.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:18 – 21 | TNIV)

That’s the power Paul is writing about – the power that is available for you to do this:

you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. (Ephesians 6:13b | TNIV)

The struggle is real, but then so is the power of God. It is up to whatever struggle you as a believer may be facing. Shakespeare’s Hamlet felt something of that struggle. He felt that life was so bad it might better to just end it all and miss all that suffering. That was why he said this:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing, end them?

“Slings and arrows” are a good way to describe the devil’s weapons. Those “slings and arrows of outrageous (or cruel) fortune (fate)” may be able to harm you, but they can’t kill you. They’re a “scheme” of the devil’s to mess with your mind. You need the power of God to rise above those “slings and arrows.”

Parts of the armor

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14 – 17 | TNIV)

The concept of “standing firm” is so imperative for the believer that Paul wrote it in the imperative! A Christian MUST always stand firm, and in order to do that, he must wear the armor God provides him with.

Belt of truth.

The belt is important because it keeps your pants up and shirt tucked in. Truth is important, of course, but not just any truth: It must be God’s truth, or the truth of His Word. Of primary importance is for the believer to be armed with the truth of the Scriptures at all times. It’s easy to get so discouraged in our daily lives that we forget the Word and be tempted to buy into the devil’s lies. When the devil tempted our Lord in the wilderness, what did He do? He quoted the Word of God!

Breastplate of righteousness

Sharp-eyed Bible readers will recognize this piece of armor because it’s been mentioned before – long before in the book of Isaiah!

He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. (Isaiah 59:17 | TNIV)

That’s the Lord putting on His armor as He is seen preparing to fight the enemy. The Christian is to emulate their Lord by doing the same thing. When the devil beats down the believer, the temptation will be to fight him using his weapons. That won’t work with the devil; the believer needs to maintain his integrity and to remember that he is wearing the righteousness that comes from Christ. So no matter who’s hassling you or coming against you, because you are a Christian, you can’t retaliate in kind. Guard your heart with the breastplate of righteousness. One Bible scholar remarked:

Cowardice and hesitancy are by-products of the unrighteous heart, while bravery and courage flow from right thinking and acting.

“Right thinking and acting” flow from a pure heart, guarded by the breastplate of righteousness.

Gospel of peace

Believers are to literally walk in peace, that is, the peace of their salvation. Metaphorically speaking, then, it makes sense to wear shoes made out of the good news (Gospel) of peace. Again, Paul may have had in mind something the prophet Isaiah wrote long before:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7 | TNIV)

Believers possess what everybody wants: Peace. That peace is the Gospel – the good news of the Gospel, which is the good news of Jesus Christ. Wherever the believer goes, he is a walking testimony of that good news. That’s why when everything at work is upside down or life throws you a curve ball, you remain calm, cool, and collected. You’ll feel better because you’ll be enjoying God’s peace through Jesus Christ, but you’ll also be noticed by those who are losing their minds to stress and anxiety. What a marvelous tool of evangelism: God’s peace!

Shield of faith

Christians are to “take up” this shield. This is the only time this Greek word for shield is used in the New Testament. It refers to the kind of shield a Roman soldier would carry into battle. It was large and oblong and would extinguish fiery arrows that got stuck in it. When Paul says to “take up” their shield of faith, he’s not referring to getting more faith. As a Christian, you already possess buckets full of faith. Paul is talking about using that faith – accessing it’s power to defend yourself against whatever the devil may throw at you. Your trust in God and in His Word will go a long way in keeping you alive during a spiritual battle!

Helmet of salvation

This isn’t the first church Paul wrote to about this. He wrote a similar thing to the Thessalonians:

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. (1 Thessalonians 5:8 | TNIV)

“The hope of salvation as a helmet.” Is that also what Paul was referring to here? In Ephesians, Paul is not suggesting that believers obtain salvation since they obviously already possess it. But rather, the idea is for the believer to remember that he is saved; he is already seated with Christ in Heaven; he has already won the battle. In other words, we might say something like this: When the devil is attacking, keep your head! Remember whose you are!

Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God

Lastly, Christians are to wield the “sword of the Spirit.” Paul tells us what this weapon is: The Word of God. Exactly what Paul meant here is unknown. We wish he had expanded on it slightly. It may be that Paul is suggesting that at a crucial moment during a crisis, God will being back to your mind – and possibly to your mouth – an appropriate Scripture. Jesus said this would happen:

But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:19, 20 | TNIV)

The Spirit is able to do just that. When Jesus was explaining this to his disciples, He was referring to persecution because of their faith; definitely a crisis! But there are other crises in life that may arise where a believer needs counsel from the Word. The mind is an amazing thing. It remembers everything yet recalls nothing sometimes. With the help of the Spirit, Bible verses and stories can be brought back to remembrance, thereby comforting or empowering the believer or even somebody else.

This amazing Word of God is truly a gift. It’s literally the gift that keeps on giving, making it possible for every child of God to live victoriously over the the devil and all the circumstances of life.


God’s Best Gifts, Part 2

Christians are the most fortunate people on earth. Simply by virtue of our relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, we are the recipients of some amazing gifts from our Heavenly Father. We did absolutely nothing to merit those gifts. We certainly don’t deserve them. Out of boundless love and consideration, God has blessed us with things to make our lives worth living.

Last time, we looked at the first gift God has given His people: LOVE. He sent His Son in love, not condemnation, to catch man’s attention. There is so little genuine love on earth that God’s love in Christ Jesus stands out; man wants it; man can’t find that kind of love outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ and the Body of Christ. A side benefit of receiving God’s love is that you are made able to love others the same way God loves you! That Divine love isn’t in man naturally, it has to be placed there supernaturally by God Himself because it is His gift of love to you.

Love is in short supply in the world, but so is peace. Anxiety, uncertainty, frustration, fear, anger, and things like that are in abundance. When feelings and emotions like those pile up on you, you should remember this verse:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 1:27 | TNIV)

Setting the scene

Jesus didn’t just speak verse 27 for no reason. In fact, it really isn’t a verse at all. In real life, people don’t speak in verses, and neither did our Lord. And life doesn’t take place in chapters, either. The chapter divisions in the Gospel of John (and in every other book of the Bible, for that matter) weren’t put there by its human author. They were added much later, in the fourth century. What we call chapter 14 is just a continuation of the events of what we call chapter 13. Jesus’ admonition to “do not let your hearts be troubled” was given in connection this:

When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. (John 13:31 – 33 | TNIV)

Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times! (John 13:38 | TNIV)

Jesus knew that His followers already had troubled hearts, and the information He had just given them simply added to the trouble they already had. So the whole purpose of chapter 14 was an attempt to calm their nerves about the future, especially in light of what He told Peter in verse 38.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God ; trust also in me. (John 14:1 | TNIV)

The news that Peter would disown Jesus; that there was some question as to how serious Peter was about following Jesus; and that He Himself was about leave them were the explicit reasons for 14:1. How would you feel if you, as a Christian, were told by Jesus that He didn’t think you were a serious believer and that you would go so far as to disown Him and that from now on, He’d be hard to find? How would you feel? Of course, everything Jesus said to Peter and His disciples simply indicated that He knew what would happen. In spite of how shabbily He would be treated by Peter, Jesus didn’t chastise him. He told the apostle and the others to be calm; to keep on trusting God and to start trusting Him. And Jesus is telling you the same thing, too. Essentially, He knows we are all weak, fickle, somewhat untrustworthy human beings. It’s good to know that we, like the disciples, when confronted with their shortcomings, were encouraged to “trust in God” and to “trust in Jesus.” Because, in the end, our salvation doesn’t depend on us getting it right 100% of the time. It depends on being dependent upon the grace and love of our Lord.

Gracious provision

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so , I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2 | KJV)

My Father’s house has plenty of room; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”. (John 14:2 – 4 | TNIV)

This speaks to His impending departure. Jesus would leave for a time, but He would return. This is an interesting paragraph that has resulted in numerous hymns and gospel songs being written to celebrate our mansion in heaven that the Lord is, even now, building for us. Songs like this one, written by Elvis Presley:

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold.

What if you don’t want a big old mansion? What if you prefer a bungalow? Or a real nice single wide? The TNIV’s “plenty of room” as opposed to the more familiar “many mansions” is far more accurate. The Greek word is monai, and it’s a curious word. Some scholars write that it has a reference to an Aramaic term for “shelters along the way,” or a place where travelers could rest for the night. In other words, Jesus may be talking about preparing places of rest or protection along the walk of faith. Could be, but there’s no getting around the fact that these “shelters along the way” are being prepared, apparently, in Heaven. In that case, Jesus, in leaving the scene for a time, promised to prepare a place in Heaven for all of His followers, many of whom had left their homes to follow Him. Nobody would be left out because there is room for all. Maybe our Lord is referring to both ideas. The idea that God is not only a divine Person but also a place was a common one in the Old Testament:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. (Psalm 90:1 | TNIV)

Jesus, the way to God

Leave it to a guy like Thomas to ask the question that all the disciples likely had in their minds:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”. (John 14:5 | TNIV)

Our Lord’s answer is among the most profound declarations in all of Scripture.

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.”. (John 14:6, 7 | TNIV)

Jesus doesn’t show the way, He Himself is the way. There’s a difference. Our job as followers of Jesus is to show the way to God, and that way is a Person, Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Lenksi quotes Koegel’s sermon on this very topic:

Jesus doesn’t say, “I show you the way,” like a second Moses, but “I am the way.” Nor “I have the truth,” like another Elijah, but “I am the truth.” Not only, “I lead you to life,” like one of His apostles, but “I am the life.”

Philip also had his question, which lead to another profound declaration:

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 14:11 | TNIV)

That’s an interesting statement. Followers of Jesus are presented with a choice: Simply believe that Jesus and the Father are one and the same, or if you can’t muster that kind of faith, at the very least believe the evidence of your experience. In the case of the disciples, they had seen all that Jesus did and those miracles were evidence enough. In your case, if doubts ever float into your head and you wonder about Jesus, read again all that He did and remember what He’s done for you. Pretty soon your doubts will fade away.

The Holy Spirit, obedience, and peace

But why did Jesus have to leave them? That’s really what the disciples wanted to know. To them, it didn’t seem to make any sense. If preparing a place for them was too much for them to conceive, Jesus gave them an immensely practical reason for leaving:

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. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:16 – 18 | TNIV)

Jesus had to leave so that “another advocate,” the “Spirit of truth,” could come be with them. That phrase, “another advocate” is misleading. The Holy Spirit is “another of the same kind,” in other words, having the Holy Spirit dwelling in us is just like having the Spirit of Jesus in us. When our Lord was here in the flesh, He was confined to a local area. He had to leave so that the blessing of His presence could be given to all people, everywhere. The Holy Spirit makes no sense to the world, but He does to you. He makes it possible for you to live like Jesus did.

Jesus took this occasion to give His disciples a gentle admonition:

If you love me, keep my commands. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. Anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:15, 21 | TNIV)

These two verses have to do with love, even though it looks like something else. Verse 15 is the why a Christian should live in obedience to the teachings of Christ and in verse 21, love becomes the test of love. A believer who knows the commands of Jesus and puts them into practice is the one who loves Jesus. These commands, by the way, serve a very important purpose, as one scholar put it:

The instructions of our Lord were given not to make us better theologians but better people.

To which we should all say a hearty, “Amen!” But then Jesus promises a kind of reward to those who love Him in obedience. Of course, that love will be returned by the Father and the Son, but the Son will “show Himself to them.” More than one scholar has pointed out that our Lord was speaking figuratively here. He didn’t mean that He would come to them in dreams and visions, but rather that the obedient, loving believer will enjoy the continual presence of Christ. This spiritual self-revelation refers to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:16 | TNIV)

All this context is the background to this promise that so many believers cling to but few catch the connection:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27 | TNIV)

Back in the day, “peace” was both a greeting and farewell. This is how Jesus used the word here, only in reverse order – on the eve of His leaving, He left them peace but then prophetically offers it to them. The Greek word is eirene, and the Greeks looked at peace as the absence of strife. But to the Hebrew, “peace” was a much deeper word that carried with it a “sense of inner well-being.” This is what Jesus was leaving His people and at the same time offering them: Complete well-being. But that well-being is a to be continual state that comes from a relationship with Christ through faith, resulting from the presence of the Holy Spirit and life lived in obedience to the commands of Christ. So many Christians think that this peace comes to them at moments of stress and anxiety – like at the funeral or during some kind of test. But that’s not the idea here. The idea is that the believer will walk in this peace all the days of his life as he enjoys the presence of the Holy Spirit and endeavours to live in obedience to the Lord.

This promised peace is Christ’s own peace, and it’s nothing like the peace of the world, which comes and goes and sometimes has to be enforced at the end of a gun! What good is that kind of peace? The world’s peace always falls short. God’s peace, though, is exactly what you need because it meets all your needs.

If you, as a believer, find God’s peace elusive, the problem lies with you, not with God. You say you love Him, but are living in obedience to Him? You have the Holy Spirit within, but are you paying attention to Him? You have all you need to be at peace. Appropriate it by doing what’s right.

God’s Best Gifts, Part 1

There are many verses in the Bible, especially the New Testament, that speak of what God has given man – His gifts. Our Lord talked about this in the Gospel of Matthew:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11 | TNIV)

That’s an interesting verse that deals with prayer. Part of the believer’s walk with God is walking in prayer. You can think of prayer as a kind of fellowship. The kind of prayer Jesus is talking about here is not the kind of prayer that your pastor or priest prays while standing in front of the church. That kind of prayer is usually prayed using flowery language and sometimes in the King James version: “Our great and glorious Heavenly Father hear, thou, our prayer as we lift up our hearts…” But who prays like that on a Tuesday afternoon, at work, with deadlines looming, or during a situation where a choice must be made but the direction isn’t clear? At times like that, you don’t think to translate your words into 1611 language! You need help, and you need it now! And it’s God’s help you need. You need God to break through His world into yours in a special way to meet the need that burdens your heart.

That’s what Jesus is talking about here. And because most of us have these kinds of needs constantly – some of them may be “big,” and others not so – we pray like this, or we ought to pray like this, constantly throughout our day, not just when we go to bed at night. That’s the idea behind this famous sentence:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7 | TNIV)

Jesus wants us to pray persistently, and that doesn’t necessarily mean praying about the same thing over and over again. It may sometimes, but what He’s getting at is praying about everything. It seems like a done deal with Jesus: Ask, and it you’ll get what you ask for. What you’re looking for you will find. The closed door will open. All this positivity is predicated on prayer. Jesus’ brother half-brother James fleshed this out even more when he wrote:

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (James 1:6 | TNIV)

I guess that part goes without saying, but you’d be surprised how many Christians go through the motions of prayer without their brains engaged. The one praying has to be focused; he has to truly believe that the Lord is listening and will come through with an answer. That in no way means that your belief triggers God to act or that the power of your belief will cause what you want to come to pass. Life isn’t Hallmark movie. God wants you to trust Him; to rely upon Him; to depend completely upon Him. If that sounds like a ongoing thing, that’s because it is.  Prayer is – or should be – an ongoing activity, like breathing! It’s all part of a relationship with God, your Heavenly Father. And the very fact that Jesus correlates the natural feeling between father and child and child and father suggests that those are the feelings God has for us and, therefore, that’s how we should feel about God. And what dad would withhold anything beneficial from his son or daughter?

God, our Heavenly Father hears our prayers and answers them. He gives us what we need and often, even what we want. Jesus calls answers to prayers “gifts.” But God is always giving us gifts. All the time, whether we notice those gifts or not. And, remarkably, God even gives gifts to those who don’t belong to His family. Here’s an example that kind of gift.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9 | TNIV)

With respect to Calvinists, God sent His Son – the very Love of His Heart – into our sinful world for the express purpose catching the attention of all those who were dying in their sins. This was a theme of John’s which he first mentioned back in his Gospel:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16 | TNIV)

Because real love is so rare in the world around us, man, steeped in sin and bound to a loveless world, needs to experience it. Condemnation, however, is all around in abundance. Condemnation is plentiful. That’s why Jesus came in love; He came so that man would notice Him and want what He was offering: God’s love.

Reason for another gift

John begins the fourth chapter of his letter encouraging his readers to exercise another gift they had been given.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1 | TNIV)

John doesn’t call this gift by name, but he’s referring to the gift of discernment, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit that all believers possess, since he encourages his “dear friends” to exercise it. It’s not just the clergy or the Pentecostals who are to “test (or discern) the spirits,” it’s all believers.

The primary reason for writing this letter was to warn its readers to beware of false teachers, whom John refers to as “antichrists.” They were all over the place in the first century of the church’s existence, and they’ve only multiplied since then. His warning is applicable more than ever today.

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18 | TNIV)

False teachers claim to be representing “the church” and preaching “the truth,” but in reality they aren’t. They’re hard to spot, which is why believers need to exercise their spiritual gift. John’s readers and we are not to be credulous when it comes to every teacher and teaching. We aren’t to “believe every spirit,” or buy into every teaching we hear because it sounds good. The word “believe” here really mean “to place your trust in.” That’s a tricky thing not to do when a teaching really sounds good! But if your desire is to remain true to the Lord, you have to stick with His teachings and avoid the rest.

John uses the word “spirit” but what he’s really referring to a person’s personality. In the case of one who teaches – or professes to teach – the Word of God, their personality will eventually be revealed by their words and actions.

The real test is a simple one:

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (1 John 4:2, 3 | TNIV)

That’s a completely objective test, involving an objective standard: Does this person acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ and His Incarnation? In other words, does this teacher hold to the basic teachings of the Gospel. It’s important to note here that Christians are not encouraged to apply the test that is popular in our day: look into the person’s heart. That far too subjective a test. Besides, no man can know another’s heart!

But John doesn’t stop there. He provides a sort sub-test that involves how the truth is received by others from us:

They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:5, 6 | TNIV)

These are very important verses for Christians to know and understand. The false teachers’ teachings, no matter how clever sounding or deep those teachings appear to be, are worldly in origin. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that kind of teaching, but when a teacher claims his worldly teaching is from God, that makes him a false teacher. And the proof is in who is clamoring to hear his teaching. If his teaching is readily accepted by the world and the unsaved clamor to hear it, then the odds are pretty good that teaching is a worldly teaching. By way of contrast, the Christian – the true teacher – draws from a higher Source than the world: God Himself is the Source of his teaching. And the odds are pretty good that teaching won’t end up on the New York Times Bestseller list any time soon.

We belong to each other in love

Obviously, Christians are not to have fellowship with false teachers; the more you rub shoulders with them, the greater the chance that their bad ideas and behavior will rub off on you. We are, however, to be in fellowship with other believers. As far as John was concerned, we belong to each other in love. Love is the common bond between believers.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7 | TNIV)

In a very broad sense, all love is from God. The ability for the unsaved to love each other; for an unsaved parent to love their child, for example, is an ability given human beings by their Creator. So, in that broad sense, all men are capable of receiving and giving love on some level. What John is really writing about is “this love.” The article, “this,” is present in the Greek but not in our modern English translations because it sounds awkward. It’s too bad, because that word is vitally important in this particular case. The love that exists between believers is that special kind of love. As a matter of fact, the presence of “this love” in the believer makes it possible for him love his neighbor, who may not be a believer. It’s unfortunate that Christians don’t consciously think about this or realize its significance. We are in possession of a divine love that enables us to love the Body of Christ as He loves us.

And that brings us to verse 9,

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9 | TNIV)

God is love, and God expresses His love for His creation in concrete ways. First among those ways was sending His one and only Son into the world. The Son is the expression of the Father’s love. The purpose of sending Jesus was so that sinful man might believe in Him and obtain eternal life. But the word that captures my attention is “showed.” God “showed” His love – He put His great love on display for all the universe to see by sending Jesus into the world. That’s a deeply moving and profound thought. In a world so desperately short on real love, God sent a gift of love. Sadly, most people won’t notice that gift.

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4 | TNIV)

Now, our own experience and the fact that churches even have members shows us that God’s gift of love – the light of the gospel – has been seen by at least some unbelievers. This is because of the unrelenting work of the Holy Spirit in the world around us. He is drawing sinners to faith in Christ. Some will respond to that drawing power, many will not. But thank God He sent His gift of love into the world. True, divine love. A gift from God you can’t live without.

The Mystery of Melchizedek

He lived in the mists of antiquity. He was a king and a priest of God during a time when a great spiritual darkness shrouded the world; when mankind was worshiping gods created by the work of their hands and from the imaginations. The Bible describes Melchizedek as a priest without beginning and without end. He is mentioned very briefly only a couple of times in the Old Testament and discussed in one chapter in the New Testament. Yet he is important; he is such a key character in Scripture that he is compared to the Son of God.

Who was this enigmatic man? Where did he come from? Why is he so important? What can we learn from Melchizedek?

A brief encounter

We first read of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 –

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18 – 20 | TNIV)

And that’s it. Abram’s chance meeting with Melchizedek came about in an odd way. The patriarch’s scurrilous nephew, Lot, had moved into the thoroughly godless and wicked city of Sodom and became enmeshed in its political life. After a group of Eastern kings defeated Sodom, they took Lot and other citizens captive and it was up to Father Abraham to rescue Lot and the others. Though he was not a military man or a man of violence whatsoever, Abraham led a highly successful campaign and rescued his wayward, troublesome nephew and the others.

On his way home, he passed by Salem, or as it later became known, Jerusalem, where he met Melchizedek, paid him a tithe and was blessed by this strange priest.

But just who was Melchizedek? He was the ruler of Salem, which became Jerusalem. Salem was a city-state, not a country, and in the ancient Near East these city-states dotted the landscape and many of them were ruled over by men who were referred to as “king.” These were not countries or kingdoms, just very large, often influential cities. Many of these city-states were ruled by men who functioned as both a king and a priest. Religion was very important back then and while the Israelites would distinguish between a king and a priest – the king descending from the line of Judah through David and the priests coming from the line of Levi through Aaron – the two offices were usually mixed together among the cities and nations that surrounded ancient Israel. Interestingly, Sumerian cities of the time were ruled by the ensis, priests who claimed to be representatives of the gods themselves and the Egyptians were ruled by men who had supposedly close ties to the various deities they worshipped.

But Melchizedek is an anachronism. It is said that he was a priest of El Elyon, or “the most high God.” El Elyon was one of the names of the God Abram worshipped and he saw in this priest of Salem a kindred spirit. They worshipped the one true God. That’s an amazing thing that even during those days of widespread idolatry and idol worship there were those few who worshipped the one true God who were not part of Abram’s family.

A New Testament teaching

We don’t read anything else of substance about Melchizedek until the writer to the Hebrews brings him up in Hebrews 6 –

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:19, 20 | TNIV)

That Jesus has become a high priest forever isn’t news. Many verses in the New Testament teach this. But that phrase, “in the order of Melchizedek” is a baffler to be sure. To understand that phrase, we need to understand the nature of this letter written to Hebrew Christians.

The writer of this letter is unknown to us. Some think it was Paul; perhaps it was. Whoever it was, his (or her) purpose was to show these Hebrew Christians how superior Jesus Christ and their new faith based on His divine teachings were over their former religion, Judaism. The author wasn’t dissing Judaism, but rather showing his readers that Christianity was better; that Judaism was a thing of the past; that the New Covenant was in every way superior to the Old Covenant. This involved demonstrating the superiority of Jesus over the priests of that Old Covenant.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:14, 15 | TNIV)

The readers of this letter were apparently beginning to wander away from the teachings of the apostles and the truth of the Gospel, back into their old faith of Judaism. Part of the teachings of Judaism involved complete dependence upon the priests. To discourage a return to that, the writer to the Hebrews had to prove that Jesus Christ was a new and improved priest. Why go back to the old priest who didn’t empathize with the people and their problems when they could enjoy the ministry of the new Priest who had gone through everything they were going through? That new priest is Jesus Christ! Not only that, this new priest isn’t ministering in a temple here on earth, but He is in Heaven, ministering before God. You can’t do better than that!

In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. ” During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5 – 10 | TNIV)

Furthermore, this new priest was appointed by God Himself! He didn’t become a priest because that’s what His father did and His grandfather did. God the Father made Jesus the Son the last priest man would ever need. That in itself makes Jesus superior to any priest that came before Him or was practicing in the days of the Hebrews.

Part of the argument the writer to the Hebrews used in proving the superiority of Jesus over any priest, was declaring that He was a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” He took an obscure character from his ancient history to drive home the point that Jesus Christ was the last, best priest.

The greatness of Melchizedek

To prove the superiority of Jesus Christ, first the writer proves the greatness of Melchizedek. He already wrote that Jesus is a priest “like” Melchizedek, so it follows that he must show why he thought so highly of Melchizedek by rehashing the only thing anybody knows about him: His run in with Abram, or Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith. As far as the the writer to the Hebrews is concerned, Melchizedek was great and he himself was superior to any Jewish priest because the great patriarch paid him tithes and in return, Melchizedek blessed Abram. Further, there’s this observation:

Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. (Hebrews 7:3 | TNIV)

That verse makes Melchizedek sound all mysterious and supernatural, but he wasn’t. That phrase, “without father or mother,” was used in Greek literature mostly of orphans whose parentage was unknown, or for illegitimate children, or in referencing people from the lower classes or from unimportant, or questionable families. All that is being said here of Melchizedek is that we have no record of his family or of his lineage and that his priesthood – not his life – was without beginning or end. In other words, there was simply no account of him ever becoming a priest nor of his retirement. To the Jew who was obsessed with the very strict Levitical law, it was not possible for anybody to serve as a priest if he didn’t have priestly parents. But – and here’s his point – Moses himself in the book of Genesis called Melchizedek “the priest of the most high God” even though the man himself had zero credentials! Melchizedek had no official pedigree. In that respect, Melchizedek was similar to the Son of God, who was without the normal priestly pedigree. You should have noticed something significant here: It is Melchizedek being compared to Christ, not the other way around. The great earthly priest Melchizedek is “like” the heavenly priest Jesus Christ in three ways which will be emphasized in the verses to come:

• Jesus Christ’s priesthood is not a Levitical one. It’s better.
• Jesus Christ’s order of priesthood is far superior to the Levitical order.
• Jesus Christ’s priesthood will last forever; it will never end.

The tithe

Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their kindred—even though their kindred are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. (Hebrews 7:4 – 6 | TNIV)

That’s a powerful paragraph that most of us don’t see as being powerful. But had you been a Hebrew reading it, it would have knocked your socks off. What’s being said here is truly profound. The tithe was a requirement of the Law. It was not voluntary. Add to that the fact that Levi himself was a descendant of Abraham, the tithe then is seen as a “family matter.” But Melchizedek was a complete outsider; he was not entitled to collect anything from Abram, so paying homage to Melchizedek in the form of a tithe was a sign of subservience on the patriarch’s part. Or to put it another way, Levi (earthly priests) can’t claim to be great because the tithes paid them are, (1) a matter of Law, not voluntary; (2) part of a family obligation, that is, people paid priests the tithe and the priest was a always a relative.

The blessing

So Abram honored Melchizedek by voluntarily paying him a tithe, something he was in no way obligated to do. But Melchizedek turned around a blessed Abram. The Old Testament blessing was a huge deal, even though it may not be to us. The older, the wiser, the highly respected always blessed the younger, the lesser. The fact that Melchizedek blessed Abram showed that the priest of Salem was in a superior position to that of the patriarch. The one receiving the blessing was always in the inferior position to the one giving the blessing, and in receiving the blessing, Abram was essentially testifying that he needed it – that he was in need of a blessing.

In paying tithes, Abram was paying homage, which was a religious act, and in receiving Melchizedek’s blessing, he was willfully putting himself in the position of beneficiary. Both of these events showed Melchizedek’s superiority over Abram.

Greater than Levi

But what does Abram have to do with the priests of Levi? Levi wasn’t even born yet!

In the one case, the tenth is collected by those who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor. (Hebrews 7:8 – 10 | TNIV)

How great was Melchizedek? Well, tithes are received by priests who will die. No earthly priest was eternal; they all died. The writer to the Hebrews isn’t saying that Melchizedek is eternal but that his memory is. That is, who remembers a priest after he has died? Sure, he collected the tithe during his years of service, but when he died another priest stepped in and the former priest was soon forgotten. That’s not the case with Melchizedek. Centuries after Abram paid tithes to him, he was still being talked about! It was as if he was eternal, in that sense. What’s more, Abram in paying tithes to Melchizedek was acting on behalf of all those who would descend from him, even Levi, from whom would come all the priests of Judaism. That’s quite an argument, bolstering the greatness of this man, Melchizedek.

Perfection finally in another Covenant

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. (Hebrews 7:11, 12 | TNIV)

The Jews firmly believed that their system of approaching God was as good as it gets. But the fact that another Priest came who was not of the Levitical priesthood proved that what they had was not all there was. A new Priest, not of Levi but of Judah, meant a change in the Law was necessary, hence the New Covenant. This new Priest, Jesus Christ, was appointed by God Himself, and He Himself sidestepped the rules of the Old Covenant, therefore His Priest would be administering this New, divinely given Covenant.

He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 7:13 – 17 | TNIV)

Beginning with the last verse first, the writer quotes from Psalm 110. The point of Psalm 110 is to give us some information about the Messiah, namely that the Messiah would be a Warrior King:

The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies.” Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy splendor, your young men will come to you like dew from the morning’s womb. (Psalm 110:1 – 3 | TNIV)

But, at the same time, the promised Messiah would also be a priest:

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. “. (Psalm 110:4 | TNIV)

That verse is the climax of the whole psalm. God the Father has submitted Himself to an irrevocable oath that the Messiah is, or will be, a Priest. But – and here’s the big point – not a Levitical priest; He will be a “Melchizedek priest.”

That’s the whole emphasis of Hebrews 5 – 7: Jesus Christ is far superior to the ancient line of earthly priests. As royalty, He descended from the tribe of Judah:

For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. (Hebrews 7:14 | TNIV)

But as a priest, He did not come from Levi. He will be a priest like Melchizedek. This ancient priest was a priest of God yet he preceded Levi just as Christ is a Priest distinct from and superior to the Levites.

Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. (Hebrews 7:22 – 24 | TNIV)

You can see, I hope, how clever the writer to the Hebrews was. He took a historic person his readers would have been familiar with and used him as way to explain why Jesus Christ, the Messiah-Priest, is superior to the earthly priests they seemed to have been so loathe to give up.

We can also see how wonderfully the New Testament interprets and reveals the Old Testament, showing the relevance of obscure passages so that believers in the 21st century can see the integrity and majesty of God’s Word.

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