“Basics Values of a Healthy Jesus Follower” – Romans 12:9-21

There are WAY too many choices here!

I hate shopping for groceries, I really do! There are too many choices. I don’t feel confident when I shop that I will pick the right brand, the right size and get it at the right price. Honestly, shopping is my wife Dottie’s domain.

If she sends me to get something at the store, I have to remind her that I am not native to that environment. I don’t intuitively know where the cheaper nuts can be found on the inner racks of the store, so I will probably buy the more accessible (and more expensive) ones from the obvious end cap rack next to the fresh fruits and veggies. I know they have another shelf somewhere with them, but I don’t know where it is, and I don’t want to waste a half hour searching for it. I will just buy the more expensive and console myself at the amount of time I saved doing it

My chief problem when I am charged with shopping is that I have to think like Dottie if I am to have any hope of choosing the right things. I have to ask “Which of these would Dottie buy in all these choices?” I have to search my mind for the few times I may have paid any attention at all to the brand of the item that she normally brings home.

The fact is, I am not buying these things for myself – I am bringing home what I buy – and the choices will be inspected. I don’t mind shopping for tools, because I don’t have this problem. She doesn’t care what tool I buy, as long as it helps me more rapidly complete the list of repairs she wants done.

Here’s my point: When you are making choices for someone else, you have to learn to think like them. You have to see with their eyes, and learn to perceive what they value. You have to choose with the knowledge that your choice will be judged as adequate or lacking. This isn’t a silly story of an inept Pastor trying to pick up a few groceries, there is a spiritual principle to consider…

One of the easiest things to say as a Christian, but hardest things to do is to really surrender my daily choices to my Savior.

In a culture that prizes personal freedoms and individual choices, it is quite easy to forget that surrender is not an optional aspect of our faith; it is at the very heart of it. My choices will, one day, be inspected by Jesus as I watch. I am not ignorant of the fact that even now, I am to make each with HIS DESIRES first in mind.

In fact, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul told openly mentioned that Jesus would measure our choices, when he wrote (writing to believers):

2 Corinthians 5: 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

The word “bad” is the common Greek word for “worthless.” Paul suggests that we will have things in our lives that are worthless, even though we chose them and cherished them.

Let me ask you something. If Paul really believed that, what do you suppose drove his daily choices? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. He reviewed his decision-making priority with some simple but penetrating words from the same chapter. Listen to what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:

2 Corinthians 5:14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf… 20b “… we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Paul began by saying Jesus’ love controls him, and therefore his choices. He responds in his choices to knowing the love of Jesus. As a result, his choices reflected Jesus’ character, the Savior’s chief passion and His most excellent joy. Paul was a CONTROLLED man – and it was by his choice the surrender of control became real.

Why did he give up making choices solely on the basis of what he felt, what pleased him and what he thought would gain him personally? The end of verse fourteen explained that Jesus died for all and in response each of us must die to self for Him. In case that was a bit cryptic, look very closely at the simple wording of 2 Corinthians 5:15:

He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again…

Did you catch those words? Jesus died for me, and His expectation is that I would fully comprehend that as a follower of Him, my choices are NOT MY OWN. Let’s say it this way:

Key Principle: When it is all said and done, our salvation is “lived out” in choices surrendered to Jesus’ direction and approval.

With that in mind, flip back for a moment to Romans 12 as we continue our study.

As you may recall, the Roman Epistle was designed to answer five big questions:

What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).

What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).

How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).

Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in Hi trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).

What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we begin in our study today.

Walking back into the dialogue of Romans 12, we looked last time at three statements that Paul made to set the stage for walking in health. We noted:

• A healthy Christian regularly seeks a heart inspection by Jesus (12:1). His intense gaze helps me remember that I need to be careful how I allow my heart to entertain itself.

• Second, we learned that a healthy Christian learns to think differently than the fallen world from which they emerge (12:2). It is easy to get pressed into the mold the world tries to impose when it comes to moral thinking and values systems.

• Third, a healthy Christian thinks accurately about self (12:3). We may be tempted, because we have a relationship with God, to think WE are more than others around us. We aren’t – HE is.

• Fourth, a healthy Christian recognizes the value of others in the body and tries to get connected to them (12:4-5).

• Fifth, a healthy Christian desires to understand and operate in their gifting, using it to the fullest for the body’s good (12:6-8).

Let’s move on with our list from this chapter in today’s lesson… Go to verse 9 and pick up reading where we left off last time.

Romans 12:9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Sixth, a healthy Christian knows how to treat people in a God honoring way (12:9-20).

In short order, Paul offers a whole list of practical ways we can treat each other in a godly way.

He began his list in Romans 12:9:

Romans 12:9 Let love be without hypocrisy.

First, he said, our surrendered choice of ceding life to the goals of Jesus should be seen in HOW WE LOVE PEOPLE. That is where the life turn of surrender meets the road of life. The term an-ypókritos simply means “not phony” or “put on, describing sincere and authentic love free from hidden agendas and selfish motives.

Don’t you get tired of all the phony pitches you hear in a week? Between advertisers and a flood of heavily editorialized “news” accounts, it get sickening trying to get to the truth. You watch your boss talk to a customer one way to their face, and use the opposite terms behind their back. You really like your neighbor, but you have learned she is a gossip peddler in spite of the fact that she seems to be nice face to face.

God starts His control in our lives with a demand for authentic relationship. Stop faking it.

People in the world are desperate to encounter an authentically loving person today. Since the days of “How to win friends and influence people” (Dale Carnegie) salesmen have feigned care for us – when they honestly wanted to profit from us.

I believe AUTHENTICITY is one of the greatest gifts you can develop in yourself for other people.

It truly seems to me that we are tempted to put on a mask because of some very basic fears:

• We fear that people will be able to peer inside us and expose the truth about who we are – with all our faults, foibles and failures.

• We fear when we are exposed for who we truly are, people will reject us and walk away because we aren’t as good as they thought before.

• We fear we will face intense pain and hurt out of that rejection.

All three fears drive us to a hidden hypocrisy. Paul said love – but make it AUTHENTIC love. Stop faking it.

If you don’t care as you should, it isn’t a personality flaw; it is SIN. Ask God to help you deal with your cold heart toward other people.

Next, Paul said:

Romans 12:9b “…Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.

“Abhor” is actually the term apos-toog-eh’-o, which is to detest, and the term for “evil” is ponērós, which is an unusual word derived from the term for “pains of arduous labor.” The idea isn’t just “doing bad things” as it seems to be the inevitable agonies and miseries that accompany evil. In an ethical sense the words mean “Shun evil, that brings miseries in the results.”

Think about that! Do you recall a moment in your life when you KNEW what you were choosing was WRONG – but you did it anyway? Do you recall thinking, “But that will hurt so and so” but that didn’t stop your desire for momentary satisfaction? Did you ever say something to deliberately hurt another because you were hurt?

Paul wrote: Detest selections in your choices that will bring misery to you and those around you. Just walk away… You can find that satisfaction without compromising values and hurting people in your life. You don’t need to cheat. You don’t have to lie. Don’t entertain your heart in these things, or the detesting will fade away.

We MUST grow to be REPULSED by the conniving behaviors that create pain.

Watch five movies about someone who cheats on their spouse, and you may well start to think it is normal. It may be, but in a fallen world, so is DEATH. Because it is common doesn’t mean you are going to really have a good experience. He continued…

Romans 12:10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love;

It is likely if we were honest, that some would get off the merry-go-round at this point. Our lives are busy. We have way too many commitments to come to church today and get a long list of people we should be devoted to. After all, some of them, no matter how you cut it, will take more from us than they could ever give back. C’mon Pastor, how am I supposed to take care of ME and still “be devoted” to this whole room of people?

That’s a fair question, albeit a rather blunt one! Let’s put the words in context.

First, they aren’t an opinion or an optional appeal. This is a command. We can obey it or not, but it is a command.

Second, remember 2 Corinthians 5:15? We weren’t saved to live for self, but to serve the interests and desires of the Savior. Paul commanded them to philó-storgos “Foster the special affection shared between family members!”

You can choose to try to be a church without family affection, but on the authority of the Word I will flatly tell you it will not work. A church that is healthy is filled with people who put others and their needs ahead of their own. Oh that we believed the verse enough to do it! Oh that we truly tried to foster a bond with one another that intentionally pushes past our petty differences and temporal fussiness! Paul was “on a roll” and kept pressing…

Romans 12:10b “…give preference to one another in honor;

How can I be devoted to the others in the body? I can pro-ēgéomai (from pró, “before” and hēgéomai, “lead to an important conclusion”). Put the idea together. We are to lead the way, modeling the right example of gracious and proper behavior, i.e. so others can follow the one “going first.”

We are to put others first with what the text calls “honor.” The word timḗ (from tiō, “accord due respect”) means we are to treat others with a true perceived value; we handle them as something precious. The text says we must put others ahead because we think they are worth so much to God, we don’t want to handle them improperly.

Love is about valuing others. Humility is about seeing them as of greater worth than your cherished opinion, your deep desire or your personal reputation. Don’t forget:

Love drove Jesus to spend time with people other religious leaders thought would ruin their reputation and waste their time.

God took time with people who were broken. Should I do less? Not according to the Word! Paul added more texture to these commands. He wrote about the quality of my labor in loving, helping and caring with these words:

Romans 12:11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord;

My caring, loving and serving is to be an energetic work,, not a resistant one. The word ok-nērós is from oknéō, “to delay”. I am to “get to it” and not dawdle. I must intentionally invite God to warm my heart toward people, so that I don’t “drag my feet” when it comes to showing love.I have to drop my reluctant attitude, and stop being secretly unwilling to act, protecting some kind of “spiritual disinterest” as a good thing.

Honestly, let me plead with you to put away the excuses about “I just didn’t grow up that way” or “my personality doesn’t express love.” Frankly, if I preach the truth, none of that matters. You live for Jesus. You serve Jesus. You do, as much as is within you, what He commands, what He desires, what He says. We don’t get a special pass because we had a dad who didn’t tell us he loved us – because we have a Heavenly Father that has made that point clear.

He told us to do something: serve without dragging our feet. Love with gusto and help with vigor.

We will never grow to be healthy is we try to avoid the exercise God prescribed… Let me remind you that Scripture makes the point that people with many problems are a gift to the church – not a problem. They are like the hill you climb to keep you fit. They force the church into learning and practicing being helpful.

At the same time, I am not licensing those who would perpetually need help because of their own laziness. There are other passages that address them as well.

What kind of people ought believers to be?

First, we aren’t just hopeful, we are noisy about hope. Paul offered this in Romans 12:12 “rejoicing in hope.”

We are to be a people of HOPE, an OPTIMISTIC bunch.

The word “rejoicing is “xaírō” and “favorably disposed, leaning towards” and its cognate is xáris, “grace.” We LEAN INTO the gift God gave us in this life – the gift of HOPE (certainty of a promised future). Hope is the word HOPE is elpís from the word “to anticipate or to be prepared to welcome.” This is a word for excited expectation of what is certain to follow. That is the chief reason verse twelve offers for the next phrase:

Romans 12:12b “…persevering in tribulation

How can we endure times of throbbing pain or angry persecution? We do it with the anticipation that the same God who created clouds and stars, the God who sculpted canyons – He has a plan that goes beyond the now. We are excited at the anticipation of what will happen when time surrenders to eternity. How do we keep THAT perspective? Keep reading… We are to become a people…

Romans 12:12b “…devoted to prayer,

We actively, intentionally, moment by moment are trading our sorrows and fears with God’s peace and purposes by handing them to Him. We work at prayer. We lean on Him in prayer. We seek His face in prayer. When we leave the huddle and move into the world, we START by looking squarely at the needs of the team God can use us to meet. Paul went on and share that believers are:

Romans 12:13 contributing to the needs of the saints

We are looking for ways to meet the needs of the others in the body. We WANT to SEEK their needs and meet them, not flee their needs and use the time for ourselves. One of those needs is OTHER PEOPLE. Paul reminds believers are:

Romans 12: 13b “…practicing hospitality.

Together they face hurt. Together they pray. Together they encourage one another. They don’t lash out, because they have the Spirit, the Word and the support of brothers and sisters. That is why they can:

Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

That is why they learn to:

Romans 12:5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

That is how they maintain the unity of the Spirit and meet the words of this command:

Romans 12:16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.

The key is that last phrase. Don’t be too important to care. You aren’t and I am not either. We need each other, and we prove we believe that when we take time for one another. Love will keep me looking for other’s needs. Humility will help me hold back “lashing out” when people do wrong to me. It will build respect for others and help me do what helps them. It will build peace between people. A humble spirit is the antithesis of a vengeful one. It feeds the hungry – even when they don’t deserve it.

Finally, a healthy Christian knows how to get beyond defense (12:21).

Let me finish the words of this chapter with one thought. There is endurance in the healthy.

Romans 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Healthy, mature Jesus followers can take a punch without running to the corner and sobbing. Why?

First, they have resources. The others on the team are fast to rally and protect them when they are under attack. The Spirit of God will bolster them when they cry out to Him.

Second, they know that no injustice in this life has the final word. There is a future. It is certain. God knows what we face and He is prepared to wipe the tears from our eyes. He doesn’t promise to deliver us from the tears HERE, but He does promise to set things in order in the end.

Rejoice in that realization. Make noise about that hope! Let this life become Hi opportunity to direct your steps and walk with you all through the journey. Don’t resist Him. Don’t lead Him. Don’t try to bargain obedience. He wants to dance; but only if He leads.

When it is all said and done, our salvation is “lived out” in choices surrendered to Jesus’ direction and approval.

Habits of Healthy Disciples (Part Two): “Basics Values of a Healthy Jesus Follower” – Romans 12: 4-8

In my formative years of Pastoral training, I became familiar with a writer that had a real influence on my life. His name was Gordon MacDonald, and you may have read some of his books. I found his insights helpful and his style of writing something really I connected with. Part way through my college career, his spiritual life appeared to have “flat lined.” He fell into sin and it became public exposed. For a number of years he stopped writing (at least so far as I was aware). After a time, another book came out. This time, a fallen, broken, publicly humbled and then gracefully restored man presented his journey over the edge and back – writing in a way that was both helpful and (I have to believe) deeply personal and embarrassing.

In an even later work, he reflected with these penetrating words:

My perception is that broken-world people exist in large numbers, and they ask similar questions over and over again. Can my world ever be rebuilt? Do I have any value? Can I be useful again? Is there life after misbehavior. My answer is yes. That is what grace is all about. A marvelous, forgiving, healing grace says that all things can be new. The escape route from sin is Jesus. The wellspring of forgiveness is Jesus. The power to mend broken lives and set us on our feet again is Jesus. The one who can guard us against the devastation of sin is Jesus.

Over the years, MacDonald has written a number of impacting works. Personally, I have been challenged as he has publicly probed and examined his inner life (like few others since C.S. Lewis did so in his grief). He wrote titles like: Ordering Your Private World, Rebuilding Your Broken World, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, Mid-course Correction and A Resilient Life – and these are just a few. He serves, now nearly 80, at Denver Seminary as its head.

I mention his testimony and his pain to remind you of what is at stake when we play church but don’t deal with what lurks beneath in our broken and selfish heart. We are talking frankly about our spiritual health in this series, and I want our thoughts to probe deeply inside us. I need reflection and self-testing (as well as a healthy dose of the Spirit’s conviction and the Word’s testing), and I am certain some of you do as well.

In our last study, we began examining the last part of Paul’s letter to the Roman church in the first century, looking for direction on gaining and maintaining spiritual health. We noted that:

  • Healthy habits are individually attained. No one can monitor your intake like you can, and no one can force you to take the stairs instead of the elevator should you choose to ignore your need for regular exercise. You can always sneak a cookie others don’t see.
  • Making rules on healthy habits doesn’t produce as much health as it does guilt. A guilty heart hides behind the bushes when God shows up in the Garden. Since that isn’t what we desire to produce, we need to find another way forward than to simply list laws of health and send you out feeling like failures.

Here is the key to this study:

Key Principle: God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

As you may recall, the letter was designed to answer five big questions:

What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).

What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).

How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).

Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in Hi trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).

What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we begin in our study today.

Walking back into the dialogue of Romans 12, we looked last time at three statements that Paul made to set the stage for walking in health. We noted:

• A healthy Christian regularly seeks a heart inspection by Jesus (12:1). His intense gaze helps me remember that I need to be careful how I allow my heart to entertain itself.

• We also learned that a healthy Christian learns to think differently than the fallen world from which they emerge (12:2). It is easy to get pressed into the mold the world tries to impose when it comes to moral thinking and values systems.

• Third, a healthy Christian thinks accurately about self (12:3). We may be tempted, because we have a relationship with God, to think WE are more than others around us. We aren’t – HE is.

Let’s journey past the first three verses and keep reading, while we look for evidences that God is doing a transforming work in us. Listen to these words for a moment:

Romans 12:4 For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly:

Romans 12:4 and 5 compare our relationships as believers to the body in which we live.

He established that our body is made up, by God’s brilliant design, of many parts that not only look different from one another, but he was pushing to the idea at the end of verse four that all the parts perform different and complimentary functions. You aren’t one big eyeball, and you shouldn’t be. That’s just weird to think about. Your body is designed with each part doing what it does. When one doesn’t, you quickly realize something’s missing. Here is the truth: because the body functions as a unit, any part that fails to operate properly hurts the function of the whole.

As God designed your body, so God designed a believer to function in connected relationship to other believers. You needn’t look for some deeper truth in the passage than this: body parts are connected, and so believers should be. It is how God designed us to work – as ONE UNIT.

Christianity is wholly incompatible with radical individualism. We are designed to follow Jesus TOGETHER.

I CANNOT OVEREMPHASIZE the point, because we have been thoroughly Americanized. We believe we were meant to drive down the street in our “wheeled living rooms” with a stereo entertaining us in a closed and personal environment, as we sing aloud with our favorite band or worship leader. We walk on the street with headphones on that say “unapproachable, please don’t BUG me.” Our people take countless “selfies” and buy one product after another that begins with the most used pronoun in the English language – “I.”
Paul wrote simple words: “The Christian life is NOT designed to be lived in disconnection from other believers.

We need to check our attitudes when we can show up at church only when there is “something designed for me” and when the music “touches me.” If we can easily quit and move on when we don’t like what the band plays, as if that is at the heart of what we came for – we are missing something. If we come and sit with people we don’t know and (if the truth were told) don’t really have time to get to know – something is wrong with our concept of the body.

Some of us honestly think: “After all, I have enough friends. I have TV. I have my golf partners. I have my bridge club. What do I really need the rest of these people for? I came for what I need, to get instruction in the Bible so I can grow, and I can be, and I can have, and I can honor… wait? Is that what the Bible teaches?

Here is an important question: Can I consider myself a mature believer and still act as though I entirely miss the point of the basic body concept of Romans 12:4?

Beloved, we are SUPPOSED to live a life connected to other believers. Yet, here is the secret we don’t often acknowledge: We must learn to WANT to be connected. It isn’t “natural” anymore.

Remember, the mere fact that Paul was teaching about this, indicates it is not innate in us to know the truth of our vital connection to one another. We must learn to care about the other parts, just as we learn to care about body parts that perform different functions.

The truth is that many parts of my body that I only acknowledge when they hurt. The rest of the time I just expect them to do their job. When they don’t, I want to help them. If it happens too often that they hurt, I get annoyed at them. The same can happen in a church if we aren’t careful. Rather than feel compassion for those who hurt more often than the norm, we can actually project that we are annoyed at them. Dear ones, we must want connection and we must remember we need it – even when it is difficult. Let’s say it this way: A healthy Christian recognizes the value of others in the body and tries to get connected to them.

Paul moved to a very specific way of sharing how we can learn to be connected in the use of our gifts. Here, Paul noted… A healthy Christian desires to understand and operate in their gifting, using it to the fullest for the body’s good.

He wrote it this way:

Romans 12:6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; 7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Paul offered a number of details in this passage about gifts of the Spirit.

The words “since we have” in the beginning of verse six remind us that believers possess the Spirit of God from the moment of their salvation, and with the seal of the Spirit comes a unique package of gifts for Divine enablement to help us accomplish our assignment from God both individually and as one body.

The word “differ” in verse six tells us that we don’t all get the same gift package. God gives what God knows will work best, and we receive what we are given before we even identify what it is.

The last part of verse six is written in our English Bible in italics. That means the words are not a translation, but are inferred in the original. Most of the time the translator gets it right, but it isn’t foolproof. Here, it appears the best linguists feel Paul was making the point that we have the gifting of God, but we need to use each gift according to its unique purpose.

What are these gifts?

The New Testament divides the gifts into “ministry” or “service gifts; “manifestation” gifts or “special signs that “God is at work.” In one place, Ephesians 4, God also revealed there are “men” gifts (in the generic sense), that is gifted people who are suited to the work in one place and then dropped into another place by God’s grace and power.

Seven gifts are listed here. This isn’t the only list in the New Testament (another companion list is found in 1 Corinthians 12).

The List

Here we have seven gifts mentioned:

• Romans 12:6b “…prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith;

• Romans 12:7 “…if service, in his serving”

• Romans 12:7b “… he who teaches, in his teaching”

• Romans 12:8 “… or he who exhorts, in his exhortation

• Romans 12:8b “… he who gives, with liberality

• Romans 12:8b “… he who leads, with diligence

• Romans 12:8b “… he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Several have no word about the gift except to use it to its fullest, with zeal to help others in the body. Four of the gifts on the list have a description of HOW to best use the gift. Let’s look at each “up close” for a moment, and be sure we understand each of them.

The Prophetic Gift

Let me ask you as I begin to consider the list, “Are you a prophet?” It is a legitimate question. Some of the body has been gifted for the special task of giving Divine truth. God may have suited you to be someone who can research, examine, study and then deliver a careful explanation of what God said in His Word. Before we go further, I should say that in the early church, this often took a form that was combined with a manifestation sign of the Spirit (sometimes a tongue or a word like that) because they didn’t yet have God’s Word in writing. Today, it exists, I believe, in a different form.

The term is pretty broad in its meaning. It is more than just a white-bearded guy standing on a box on a street corner proclaiming the coming of an asteroid. Consider the term prophecy as it used here. The word is prophēteía (from pró or “before” and phēmí which is to “make clear or assert something as a priority.” It is something clarified beforehand or spoken with clarity in the front of a meeting. If you are terrified to speak in public, this probably isn’t your gift. If, on the other hand, you are honestly checking other passages while I am speaking and putting together the places prophecy as a word appears, you may be one of who is a prophetic voice that hasn’t been activated yet.

If that is the case, my best advice to you is to study to show yourself an approved workman. Do the work in the text before you look for an audience to listen to you. We should also remember that Paul made clear this gift was to me exercised “according to the measure (analogia) of your faith (pistis).” A person so gifted is to teach what God has made known to him from the revelation of His Word according to the measure of what they have already studied. In other words, we are to teach what we know from our labors. When it comes to the Word of God, don’t “shoot from the hip.” Don’t speak above what you know. Study and deliver the best that you can, but don’t go beyond what your real work. That is a big part of his point. We have to take the work seriously. We aren’t doing brain surgery, but the stakes are often higher than that! One more thing: remember prophetically gifted people spend more time preparing themselves in the Word and prayer than preparing the message. If you have ever seen this at work, you know exactly what I mean.

The Gift of Service

Paul turned his attention to another gifted ministry partner, the one with the gift of service. This is the word diakonía (which came from the term “waiter” in the ancient world and is translated “ministry”). We get the title of “Deacon” from it. The word specifically refers to gift of a Spirit-empowered desire and ability to serve guided by a specific knowledge of God’s Word. A person gifted for service delights in caring for the practical needs of others, but knows the difference between meeting a need and enabling someone, because they have the Spirit and have learned from God’s Word. They find joy in making a difference in the lives of others, even if it is by doing the most menial of things. My picture of this, ever-present in my mind, was Tom Solyntjes singing to Anita Byng as she lay dying in her bed. He shows love like few other men I have ever seen, and I have never forgotten it. Tom didn’t sing because he thought he sounded like a rock star – he did it out of a love for Jesus that he expressed in a quiet voice for a sister who was leaving this earth.

The Gift of Teaching

Maybe you have the gift of teaching? The word used for this in the NT, is didáskō, which nearly always refers to teaching the Scriptures in the Bible, but was used more broadly in literature of that time. Deep within someone with this gift is a special joy that is reserved for watching those you have worked to impart knowledge to work it out for themselves. Teachers LOVE to see students pick up the truth and “run with it.” It isn’t the gift of incessant studying to look like the smartest in the room, it is the gift of imparting, modeling and releasing. It is exciting and challenging, because you can invest years and the student may never become what they could be. Ask any parent about that disappointment, and they will tell you they have either seen it happen, or experienced it themselves. I have to admit to you that has been my chief motivation for many years. I would rather see others take what I have tried to teach and model and put it into practice than I would like to see people watch me do it. It isn’t a sign of old-age or laziness, it is a joy of watching others walk in truth and become what they were made to be for Jesus’ sake. Didasko isn’t about becoming famous for being good at something; it is about building up others and watching with joy as they launch out.

The Gift of Exhortation

Deeply embedded among the troops of the Lord are those who have the gift of exhortation. They are sometimes “encouragers” and at other times “prodders” to those around them. In my life, I have needed some who would make clear what God wanted me to do, and others who would give me that extra little “push” to get it done. The term “parakaléō’ is take from pará, “from close-beside” and kaléō, “to call.” It is, properly, “beckon” from “close-up.” If you are one of these, you probably have been enabled to see through problems faster than most of us. You grasp the nature of oncoming problems, and you have a deep compulsion to cry warning and prepare us. You want, out of love and because of your gift, to warn us about what we aren’t seeing and doing. The problem is, without close relationship, you can easily sound caustic to the rest of us. You are valuable, even vital to the body – but you must learn to be careful. You can easily lose track of when your counsel is Biblical, and when it is about deeply held opinions based on personal biases and ideas. You must bathe in the Word and prayer, or the gift meant to build will crush others. Be careful with it, but don’t deny it. Foster the Biblical use of it! Make sure there is relationship beneath it, so you don’t presume to sound like an uninvited authority in someone’s life. Be very careful about using this gift on social media platforms. What is very clear to you may not be clear to the people to whom you want to give warning!

The Gift of Giving

Some in the body of Christ have a burning desire to supply others with what they want. Think of this gift like you think of parenting a small child. You see them struggling to carry the trash bag, so you want to go and help. You watch them trying to learn to ride a bike and you want to buy training wheels to make it easier. That impulse to provide things for you’re your children to help them, when pressed into the specific “gift of giving” as it is found here is the Spirit nudging you to spread that impulse into others around you. The term giving is literally translated “I offer so that a change of owner is produced; I give mine and make it yours. In the text, this is to be done with haplótēs , a strange word that translates literally “singleness, without folds, like a piece of cloth unfolded.” In this context, it denotes “not over-complicated or needlessly complex. The text argues that if you have the gift of giving, don’t get caught up in complexity – just do it. Take care of what God puts in your heart is a need. Don’t announce it. Don’t make fanfare and parade it about. Just do it. Get it done. Keep it simple.

The Gift of Leadership

Perhaps you have been gifted with leadership. You may not yet have the place to lead, but you have the gift, and God is developing you. The word comes from two other words: pro and histémi. They simply mean “to put before, to set over, to manage.” God has gifted some in the body to feel responsible for what goes on, and when they are affirmed and put in a place of responsibility, they show they are both capable and gifted in this area. The text makes clear this is to be done with spoudḗ (quick movement or swiftness to show zealous diligence). It is as though someone gifted with leadership is pushing us forward to “speedy diligence” to cause the body to quickly obey what the Lord reveals is His priority. Leaders help us elevate the best over the good – the most important over the important – and they press us to do so with earnest swiftness and true intensity.

The Gift of Mercy

Perhaps you are someone who hurts for people in a powerful way. You cannot help but be concerned for the welfare of anyone who is hurting. You might be one of the people with the gift of mercy. The term “eleéō” as God defines it, is helping only on His terms. This gift is to be used with hilarótēs form the word for “already won over” and in this context means with “cheerful readiness.” If you have the gift of mercy, helping mustn’t become hassled. The word hides in it a caution that you not overwork yourself until you are unable to be cheerful about the work.

Here is the important truth behind the passage:

God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

Habits of Healthy Disciples (Part One): “Basics Values of a Healthy Jesus Follower” – Romans 12:1-3

For decades, Americans have been talking about health care. We have been searching for answers as to how best to utilize the medical brain trust that we have in our country to aid everyday Americans when they become ill or incapacitated. The discussion can be heard from Main Street to Wall Street, at kitchen tables and in the halls of Congress. We are still working to find solutions to this complex set of problems.

Some have tried to address it from legislating nutrition. They have taught the food pyramid, but that wasn’t enough. They sought ways to penalize those who would not practice healthy selections, and chose to harm their bodies with large amounts of calories and sugars, etc. In New York City, they have tried to regulate “sugared drinks” for instance. Yet, even that isn’t really stemming the unhealthy trends in modern life.

For this series, we would like to look at another kind of health – the spiritual health and maintenance of individual followers of Jesus – in order to grasp what we should be doing, and how we should conduct ourselves in a manner pleasing to our Savior. In doing so, we will hit some of the same snares we encounter when addressing physical health:

Healthy habits are individually attained. No one can monitor your intake like you can, and no one can force you to take the stairs instead of the elevator should you choose to ignore your need for regular exercise.

Making rules on healthy habits doesn’t produce as much health as it does guilt. A guilty heart hides behind the bushes when God shows up in the Garden. Since that isn’t what we desire to produce, we need to find another way forward than to simply list laws of health and send you out feeling like failures.

Here is the key to what we will study together:

Key Principle: God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

Since there are timeless truths God has entrusted to us in His Word about how to walk in healthy ways as a Jesus follower, here is our plan. We want to explore the patterns of health He made clear we need. Each of us will be encouraged to consider three parts to our spitirual health, just as we would our physical health.

First, we will be encouraged to be careful about what we allow into our hearts just as we would be encouraged in the area of nutrition in our body. We will need to spend some time focusing on the choices we make in consumption.

Second, we will be encouraged to forthrightly look at how we use what we know to follow and serve Jesus. Here we can explore both the basic disciplines of the faith, and the use of every gift God has bestowed on us.

Third, we will be encouraged to reflect on what we choose to keep inside our lives – what we retain. This area is often neglected, but it is a critical part of a healthy walk.

Let’s open to the last part of the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman believers of the first century. Take a moment and try to put on their sandals and understand the problems and conditions under which they found themselves, so you can more accurately grasp what the Apostle told them.

There are four things you should know about this letter to really understand it.

First, the letter is in the written form of an Epistle, so it was understood from its reception to be a publicly read instruction for the whole body of those who claimed to follow Jesus. We know that, because it was addressed in Romans 1:7 to “to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints…” The form of the letter as an Epistle was a known literary form in the New Testament period. That means this isn’t a personal note, but an address that every believer needed to heed.

Second, the people of the church at Rome included both returned Jews and Gentiles. (Many Jews had been evicted from Rome under Emperor Caligula and again under Emperor Claudius, as refernced in Acts 18:2 in the case of Priscilla and Aquila). The letter includes a way forward for both Messianic Jews and former Gentiles who have come to Jesus. Everyone, regardless of their background, could find help in the pages of this Epistle.

Third, the letter was probably drafted by Paul during his third mission journey (cp. Acts 18:23-21:16) likely while Paul was re-visiting the church for about three months in Corinth. Paul instructed the church in Achaia by letter, but needed to come to those churches and encourage believers. During that trip, Paul took the time to address the Roman church about his desire to come to them. The letter includes a warm desire of Paul to engage people lovingly, not some loose tossing of platitudes and flippantly “judgment loaded” standards. Everyone who listens will hear an inviting voice in its words.

The letter was designed to answer five big questions:

What happened to mankind? Why is sin rampant and why is the world full of troubles. Paul answered with essentially one word: mutiny. Man’s rebellion caused his troubles (cp. Romans 1-3).

What did God do about man’s rebellious and languishing state? The second question was answered by a single word as well: gift. God gave His Son to remedy sin’s hold on man (cp. Romans 4-5).

How can I cast off sin’s hold on my life as a follower of Jesus? Through Paul’s quill, God instructed Jesus followers that the prison doors of sinful behavior have been unlocked by God, and we can be free to walk in God’s Spirit (cp. Romans 6-8).

Is God really trustworthy in keeping His promises? A large part of the Epistle deals specifically with the history of God and His promises to Israel, as a case study in Hi trustworthiness (cp. Romans 9-11).

What should a healthy walk with Jesus look like in practical and daily lifestyle? This is the section we begin in our study today.

My frame was given to me by God, and I am therefore called to do what He told me with what He gave me. I completely grasp that some part of my physical health is genetic. To some extent, then, each of God’s directives must be personalized because we are not all the same. On the other hand, some principles aren’t very personal at all. For instance, I understand that what I eat and drink (my daily diet) plays a significant role in my physical health. Though it plays out differently in each of us, the overall principle is still at work. In addition to that, I recognize the amount I move, push and work out my body and its muscles has much to do with my physical health. Exercise isn’t everything, but it is a component of health.

In the spiritual world, then, let’s ask the question Paul seems to be answering in the last part of the Epistle to the Romans: “What are the practices of a Jesus follower who truly wants to be healthy in their walk?”

Let’s unpack Paul’s response to that question by looking over the whole list found in Romans 12, and then doing a “deeper dive” on the first three items on the list. We will pick up the others next time.

In Romans 12, Paul enumerated seven important attributes of a healthy Jesus follower. He made clear that a healthy follower:

1. Sought regular heart inspections from the Lord (12:1).
2. Was openly being transformed in thinking from their old views (12:2).
3. Had a proper measure of their life and influence (12:3).
4. Had a deepening appreciation of the other believers in the body (12:4-6a).
5. Possesses a hunger to discern their function in the body (12:6b-8).
6. Builds different kinds of relationships because of their faith (12:9-20).
7. Draws on sustaining power from Jesus, not self (12:21).

Remember our key principle? It included the words: “He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.”

As you look more intently, don’t forget, that is God’s purpose. He is working to change you to get you prepared to accomplish the purpose for which you were designed. He is your Coach, your Personal trainer, and your Guide through the changes that must come to get you ready for what is ahead. Start with where the passage begins… start with the work that must be done on our heart. Paul made clear:

First, a healthy Christian regularly seeks a heart inspection.

Romans 12:1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Most all of us know this verse! Don’t pass off the familiar and bypass the importance of its rich content. Paul urged them, based on the argument he had already made concerning the “mutiny of mankind” together with God’s costly liberation of those who choose to follow Jesus, to place themselves in a deliberate place of inspection before God.

The active verb of the sentence is “to present your bodies.” The term parístēmi is a compound word from pará which means “from close-beside” and hístēmi, which means “to stand.”

The term means to stand close beside, and in this form it is likely to be understood as “ready to exhibit inner traits.” The point is that every believer must learn to habitually recall they live each moment with Jesus watching. Recalling His personal and painful self-sacrifice for us is part of our daily desire to be inspected by Him. Jesus sacrificed Himself for our eternal life, and we must be prepared to live as one who demonstrates sincere gratitude.

Back in 1998, Tom Hanks played a starring role in the hit classic movie “Saving Private Ryan.” There is an ending scene in that movie that illustrates this sense very well. For the unenlightened, the movie chronicled how a man whose family name was “Ryan” was sought out and saved (to be brought home to his family) at the great expense of others who died keeping the order from command to locate and return him. The last scene finds an old man, Ryan in his later years, kneeling at the graves of the men who perished to get him to safety years before. Ryan was engaged in a vivid memory of one of the men who was shot and slipping away. His dying words (the actor played by Hanks) whispered to Ryan: “Earn this!” A man offered those words with his last breath. Ryan understood the depth of that request. In effect, the dying man said: “We died to get you home. We died to follow our orders because someone thinks you are worth saving at all costs. Don’t let our life be wasted! Live yours like what we did mattered.” As the elderly Ryan wept, his wife approached him kneeling at those graves. He looked up and said to his wife and said: “Tell me I am a good man.” He wanted an inspection on his life to verify he did what he was asked to do.

Don’t overplay the illustration, but don’t ignore it.

Jesus didn’t tell you to live in such a way as to earn your salvation. You can’t; He died for you and He alone has the power to forgive you. The Bible is clear on that. He did, however, stress on a number of occasions in His Word that you “walk worthy” of the price paid for you (as in Ephesians 4:1ff). You can’t earn your walk with God, but you can live in such a way that you gratefully show you recognize the incredible cost He paid. Your other choice is to live thoughtlessly, as one “entitled.”

A healthy Christian is one who daily considers the fact that Jesus paid dearly for us, and that He is daily watching our lives. A healthy Christian longs for the inspection to produce a smile on the Master’s face. Paul simply asserted it is reasonable for God to expect us to live for His approval, since He paid dearly for our freedom.

Say it again and again in your heart: “Jesus, You paid dearly for me. Look with piercing eyes into my walk. Try my thoughts. Measure my desires. Convict me of selfish thinking. I need Your inspection!” Yet, there is much more…

Second, a healthy Christian learns to think differently than the fallen world from which they emerge.

John’s Gospel recorded that Jesus prayed for His disciples only hours before His arrest and eventual Crucifixion, and God preserved the prayer for us in John 17. Jesus said to the Father:

John 17:14″I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15″I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil [one]. 16″They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17″Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18″As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19″For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

Hang out in any church for very long and you will hear these verses summarized as “We live IN the world, but are not OF the world.” Though that is catchy, it probably leaves many people with the wrong impression. Jesus didn’t leave you here so you could live in a permanent state of discomfort and protest over the wickedness in the world. Read the words carefully. They reveal:

1. Jesus is not of this world and neither are we – because we have believed the Word of God (John 17:14 and again in 17:16).

2. Jesus didn’t want us REMOVED from the world, but rather removed from the imprisonment of the fallen world’s temporary ruler (John 17:15).

3. What must set the believer apart from the world is a God- initiated separation revealed through God making His Word clear to us (John 17:17).

4. The destination of the believer isn’t FROM the world, but INTO THE WORLD – but it must be on mission.

We all agree Jesus doesn’t want His followers to be “of the world” in their thinking and in their choices. At the same time, notice that when Jesus says we are “not of the world” He isn’t making escape our destination to some holy huddle in disassociation from the active mutiny in this world.

No, this was no offer of an “escape hatch” from the world, but a confident assertion that by learning to firmly trust His Word, His followers would be truly prepared to walk boldly into the fallen world, changed by His teaching and not easily wooed by their beckoning.

Look at the way Paul addressed the same notion in Romans 12:2. He wrote these words:

Romans 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Essentially, Paul wrote three compelling truths in the verse we just read.

He told them (based on living a conscious and inspected life in verse one) they are to intentionally block the influence of the world’s powerful stamping machine that would press us into a certain “mold” of the world.

We live in a conflicted world that both demands freedom of choice for every individual and then, in turn, increasingly punishes those who don’t choose as the culture dictates. You are completely free to choose, as long as your choice agrees with the ever-shifting moral value system of our times.

When Paul wrote “do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) the text literally reads “don’t let the world press you into its mold.” That deserves a close look if we are going to be sure and avoid this trap.

This makes plain the notion the world has a constructed mold, and they want you to follow their pressures to become what they are. Conversely, it reminds you that, as a believer under the power of a transforming Savior, you need not buckle. God never commands you to resist what you cannot resist. This is a call to firmly stand without acquiescing to the re-shaping pressures, and you CAN do it. He has given you the power.

I love that Paul didn’t just offer a negative of what NOT to do, but offset it with a positive. He didn’t just offer a “brace yourself for the coming powerful pummeling of the world” but rather he said, “open yourself to God in order to move forward!” When he wrote “be transformed” he referred to the “renewed mind.” Part of this call addresses the intentional work of the believer, while another part of the call is the result of that work.

Paul instructed the believer to invest time focusing their mind on grasping His Word, intentionally allowing it to rush in like a flood and rearrange our thinking within.

As I learn and yield to God’s Word, it will retire my old way of thinking and give me a new look at life. The transformation (the Greek word from which we take “metamorphosis”) isn’t something I do (God does it in me), but rather the effect of something I do. When I open to the flood stream, the rushing stream does its work.

Don’t miss the term “prove what the will of God is.” This comes from a term that means “what passes the necessary scrutiny and is found acceptable because it is genuine and verified.” What a truth!

Paul argued those who were pressed into the mold of the world were living unacceptably to God, not engaging Him at all. They lived a life largely absent of the scrutiny and validation of their Creator.

Ask one who does not yet know Jesus and they will tell you “I hope I’ll get to Heaven. I HOPE God will be happy with my life.” Yet, they have no assurance because they haven’t addressed the fact that God has made known His desires in His Word. They live a life unproven, uncertain, untested and unresolved.

A believer is called to live differently. Each is called to live with an eye keenly fixed on what God has said about life. He will use those words to transform their values, convert their ethics and (as they mature) empower new choices.

Third, a healthy Christian thinks accurately about self.

How we see ourselves has a dramatic effect on how we treat others, and how we navigate life. Paul wrote:

Romans 12:3 For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

The world’s “thinking mold” impressed deep into us a false standard by which to measure ourselves – the yard stick of me against another person. It works in every way – from “fashion conformity” to our modern expression of values. As the world changes, our vocabulary changes and our fashion is “updated.” Not all of that change is a bad thing, since I cannot reach people if I grudgingly cling to speaking Chaucer’s English while the world moves on. I don’t want to be a distracting oddity. As the world changes how they address issues, I will need to keep apace in order to effectively communicate timeless values. At the same time, this constant change can be a danger, if I find my identity in it.

Look at what Paul wrote closely. He offered words seasoned with grace to the Roman believers, calling them to measure themselves properly and with “sound judgment.” He called them to make the “yard stick” the “measure of faith.” We have often said it: “Faith is God glasses.” It is “seeing things the way God says they are, not the way my eye would see things without looking through His revealed truths.”

Here, Paul made clear we are to see ourselves through the Word’s measure, not the world’s measure.

With a transformed mind, I measure my life’s success by a singular standard. “Did I deliberately commit to allowing God’s Word to do its work in and through me?”

That is the big third commitment of the text. Paul made clear that transformation by God comes from my intentional yielding of heart to God’s Word.

Let’s stop with these three for this lesson. Let’s rehearse the truths with these three desires:

• I want a regular and piercing heart inspection of Jesus.
• I want the Word to flood in and rearrange my thinking.
• I want to see myself properly.

God has not only told us how we can be rescued from sin, He has told us how we can accomplish in this life the mission He gave each of us.

Step into the workshop of a blacksmith, and you can discern three kinds of tools.

In the dark corner, on an old bench, lay a pile of tools that are in disuse. They appear outdated, broken, dull, rusty. They sit among the cobwebs, covered by a layer of dust and dirt. They appear to be useless to their master, oblivious to their purpose. They may have once been used, but they haven’t been called upon for quite some time. They are comfortable, but they are essentially unworkable.

In the shop’s center there are other tools positioned on or near the anvil. They have heated and often made molten hot. They have become repeatedly fashioned, each time closer to their final look. They are often changed by the blacksmiths hammer. They aren’t DONE, but they are BECOMING as they accept their purpose.

In the hands of the blacksmith, there are his chief tools. They are of greatest usefulness because they have allowed molding. They have submitted to the grind of sharpening. They have been filed, pounded and defined. They are ready for the blacksmith’s use. They are effective because he can count on them to do what he calls on them to accomplish.

In God’s church, there are three kinds of believers. Some wish to be used, but only if God will submit to their terms. They live broken lives, self choices – with talents wasting and time slipping away. Alive in their own purposes and dreams, they don’t seek the Master’s shaping. They run from the fire, push back at the filing and flee the pound of re-shaping. They want to be used, but they don’t seem to be willing to submit to the Master’s purpose.

Others believers are mid-shaping. They are open and hungry to change, accepting the file to peel off wounds of the past. They want to know the Master’s touch, be it comfortable or not. They want to be used even if it means giving up their dreams, their shape, their plan – all to be shaped by the Master. They have learned to welcome the painful pounding of the hammer, but they still long to be remade and repurposed.

Still others are well placed in their Master’s powerful and creative hands. They demand nothing, but surrender all.

What you can become is up to His shaping. How you get there is up to your willingness.

Where Transformation Began: “Basic Training” – 1 and 2 Thessalonians

The young man standing at my door bore only a slight resemblance to the pudgy little kid that used to live next door. Now twenty-two and serving our nation in the military, this young man had the look of a well-chiseled frame, taught of muscle and sharp in features. I could scarcely see in his eyes the youth and uncertainty that once marked his steps. This was no kid; he was now a US Marine.

I wonder… How did those who were engaged in making Marines out of our boys manage to press deep disciplines into undisciplined, sloppily-dressed apathetic youths? They took them through what has come to be known as “basic training.” They worked to transform these young men with rigorous training, discipline and constant contests against each other and their own lazy inclinations. They tested, tried, taunted and troubled them into transformation of mind and body. They repeated exercises until muscles responded in memory when the brain was still mostly asleep. I don’t know much about the process, but there is the one this anyone who passes through the experience can tell you: Discipline comes at a price. No one becomes well-trained in a passive and unintentional environment.

Dear ones, I have been spending time with believers in a number of places. God is at work in many corners of our planet, and I am blessed to be a part of many things far larger than I ever could have imagined. The believers I have been with come from many parts of the world, and they don’t all share the same experiences, cultures, languages and politics. Yet, it is clear to me as I journey that I am encountering many of the same attitudes and practices no matter where I turn. Out of a heart of concern, I say to you that I believe the world is impacting the believer, in many cases, far more than the believers are impacting the world. Collectively and individually, our salt is in danger of losing its saltiness.

I know that most of you know this basic truth of Scripture:

Believers are called, first and foremost to be “distinct” (the meaning of the word “holy” in Scripture).

When we lose that distinctiveness in look and sound, the “salt loses its savor” and becomes worthless for the purpose of witness and impact on our world. It offers nothing to flavor the world that is unique. Though our worth to God is not in question, our worth in witness is reduced to bland mimicry of the world’s ways. Let’s say it this way: No good cook reaches for salt shakers filled with beach sand to flavor the stew.

How can we go back to the training we received in the beginning to help us recover our individual paths of transformation? That is the question I want to explore for the moments we have together.

Maybe the place to begin is where instruction in our faith began. To that end, I want to look back at where the writings of Paul began to instruct the church to begin their impact on the world around them – by allowing the Spirit to transform them from within. I want to look briefly at his first two letters that were addressed to the Thessalonian believers of the first century. Here is what I believe will become obvious from our study…

Key Principle: The call of the believer is to cling to Jesus while His Spirit transforms us to a distinctiveness we cannot achieve on our own.

Drop your eyes into 1 Thessalonians for a few minutes. In the time allotted, I cannot offer a deeply detailed study, but I am not persuaded that is truly necessary to make the point Paul wanted us to take away.

Transformation by the Spirit can and does happen. It doesn’t always take ions of time and volumes of copious notes. It does, however, take intentional and focused submission to Jesus as we let Him lead us.

Paul’s first epistles opened with simple reminders of the authors and their intended recipients (1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1)

“Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is worth recalling that this wasn’t a tiny country village off the beaten track, but rather the capital and largest city of the Roman province of Macedonia. Located on the Egnatian Way, a major road from Rome to the eastern provinces, the city served as center of trade and commerce.

We know about the beginnings of this church.

The establishment of the church is recorded in Acts 17:1-9. This was on Paul’s incredibly difficult second missionary journey, He and his companions (Silas and Timothy) had just left Philippi and passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia to arrive at Thessalonica. As was his custom, Paul immediately located the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews for three Sabbaths concerning Jesus Christ. While some of them were persuaded, including a great number of devout Greeks and leading women, the unbelieving Jews became jealous and created uproar within the city. It became necessary to send Paul and Silas away secretly by night to the city of Berea, almost one hundred fifty (150) miles away!

Despite ominous beginnings, a strong church was established in Thessalonica (cf. 1:2-10). Mostly Gentile (cf. 1:9), its members included Jason (Ac 17:9), Aristarchus, and Secundus (Ac 20:4).

In spite of their initial troubles, Paul tried to open each letter (one written shortly after the other) with something “upbeat.” Listen to how positive his words were, considering the shortness of their time to get underway:

1 Thessalonians 1:2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…

5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit…

Leaders need to see past the troubles into the joys. Good leaders highlight the good things. They see the problems, but they also balance that with God’s good hand in the midst of the struggle. Paul demonstrated that.

We know about the specific circumstances surrounding the letters.

From the letter itself (1 Thess. 3:1-6), and the record of Paul’s travels in Acts (Ac 17:10-18:11), it appears that Paul wrote this letter soon after arriving in Corinth on his second journey. This would put it somewhere around 52 CE, when Paul was in his late 40’s in age. His concerns were used by God to ignite his writing career, and give us the bulk of the New Testament by his life’s end.

It is obvious when reading, that his abrupt and forced departure from Thessalonica so soon after the beginning of the church left Paul anxious about the condition of the brethren in that city. When Timothy joined Paul at Athens (cf. Acts 17:14-16), his concern prompted Paul to send Timothy at once back to Thessalonica to encourage and ground the new disciples in the faith, and to learn how they were enduring persecution (cf. 3:1-5). When Timothy returned to Paul in Corinth (cf. Ac 18:5), the news was mostly encouraging (cf. 1 Thess. 3:6-7).

Despite persecution they had remained strong (1 Thess. 2:13-16), and even proved themselves to be an example to others (1 Thess. 1:6-8). Yet, as with any young church, they needed further instruction concerning holy living and the work of Jesus in them.

We know about the problems they were facing.

The letters made clear issues were lurking beneath the surface. The three most prominent problems in Thessalonica were persecution, confusion and discouragement.:

In 1 Thessalonians 2 and 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul noted the church barely got started, and was swamped with persecutors and problems – they needed confidence that God understood their problem.

One of the most powerful attacks of the enemy is PERSECUTION. It is not simply the act of beating down believers that he uses. He seeks to get believers stirred with a rage of injustice in order to get them to doubt God’s reality or perhaps question God’s true goodness. Troubles make us impatient at best, cynical at worst. This is an old ploy – and the enemy has used it since the beginning of the church. Because people are against your message does not mean that the message is wrong. It may mean their hearts are the problem. If you look closely, the condition of the attackers hearts will become apparent.

Paul made clear God is not unaware of the unfair attacks believers suffer – He simply awaits the proper time to respond. This is the nature of 2 Thessalonians 1. Be careful of being led away from sharing Jesus because of the injustice of an irrational lost world. It is a trick. Judgment will come in due course – but not until the last man, woman or child is reached by a sharing believer! If we allow ourselves to get stirred up, love will dissipate, and anger will suppress our call to obedience.

In our world, “wrong” (as defined by God’s Word) will be called “right.” God will be mocked by mutineers. People will make outrageous charges against the people of the truth – and allow others who are clearly sinister to walk by untouched by accusation. We must anticipate it, and we dare not allow ourselves to be distracted by it. God promised His unending presence; not unabated fairness.

By the time of 2 Thessalonians 2, it seems some were shaken by a false letter and forged explanations of eschatology that were designed to throw them off track of following the truth – they needed clarification of what Paul already taught them.

The enemy loves CONFUSION in the church. Sometimes it is the muddling of false doctrine that emerges from improper use of the text of Scripture. Sometimes it is the elevation of false scripture – or the relentless charges against the true Word of God. Still other times, it is the misguided and poorly formed teaching of a wayward pulpit. After two thousand years, the enemy has played a role in all of these.

Both letters show that some were upset and distracted by undisciplined and disorderly Christians, who were not living the truth – they needed a charge to make certain their responses.

This third attack invokes DISCOURAGEMENT. It is hard to serve God when you see so many believers that act with disregard to the Word and God’s Spirit! Paul ascribed the bad behavior in the wayward as undisciplined behavior. He didn’t simply call them lazy, he argued that proper disciplines in life that were essential to obedience were simply lacking – and that resulted in dependencies on others that were not right.

In the letters, I could seven direct calls toward transformation. That doesn’t cover every detail of the two epistles, but it does give the essentials to the basic training in the first of the manuals given to the church by God.

Seven Calls to Transformation

Drop directly into 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul picked up on the opening instructions of seven points of transformation, and look at their purpose:

1 Thessalonians 4:1 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

There it is! The clear purposes of each letter was to:

• Make a special request: erōtáō (from eromai, “ask”) – make an earnest request, especially by someone in a “preferred position” – as Paul obviously was.

• As well as offer a special encouragement: parakaléō (from pará, “from close-beside” and kaléō, “to call”) – properly, “make a call” while being “close-up and personal.”

• The point of these personal requests were that they “excel more” (perisseúō: meaning “to exceed previous levels”) in a holy (distinctive) walk.

Don’t miss that verse two says the commands came from Jesus (1 Thess. 4:2) so they were essential.

What were they? Follow the line of his writings in the rest of the first epistle and in the second letter as well.

Call One: Live in Distinctive Purity

Paul started with the believers surrendered use of their body for God’s purposes. He wrote:

1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God … 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.

Sexual freedom as defined by our society is a masquerade for godless, pagan, rebellion. It isn’t rejection of the church – it is the rejection of God’s right to be God. He made us. He called us to define right and wrong NOT BY OUR FALLEN DESIRES but by His carefully stated and illustrated Word.

I plead with you if you know Christ today to learn to curb the desires of your body and walk in obedience to Jesus Christ. One million years from now, you will celebrate that victory. Don’t excuse your bad behavior by your desires. We all have them. They shouldn’t define you, nor should they control you. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Two: A Call to Distinctive Focus

If you keep reading, Paul offered a second word – and this one is about the sparkling objects to which we most pay attention. This one is about where we focus…

1 Thessalonians 4:10b “…But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12 so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

We live in a time when many will spend hours surfing the web and picking up causes over which they can fume. They will read about injustice. They will read about abuses. They will fall into the negative trap of believing that offering an opinion is what will change the world.

The believer should spend more time loving the girl who got pregnant out of wedlock and drawing her to Jesus than protesting Planned Parenthood. The latter deserves to be derided, but not more than caring for the people in our lives. Get busy doing more than criticizing what is wrong with our world. I would humbly suggest the world has more critics than it needs already. Get involved in something that stirs your heart and make a difference. Work hard. Be a person with that reputation. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Three: A Call to Distinct Understanding

Paul kept the fire hot and wrote…

1 Thessalonians 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. … 15 …we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive [n]and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. 5:1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. … 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. …11 Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.

Believers are to understand the times we live in. Some of us will die, but the body sown in the ground will get recycled at the coming of Jesus. Jesus can deal with all of it when He returns, and HE WILL RETURN. It will be sudden, when the world has tossed aside the idea that He ever came, let alone the idea that He will return.

Because we know He is coming again, we should be encouraged. We should be watchful. We should care about how we use our time, our talent and our treasure. We only have what we have because He gave it to us. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Four: A Call to Distinct Gratefulness

Look for a moment at the reminder of how we should sound concerning those God has given us to serve with in the Kingdom…

1 Thessalonians 5:12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

Paul noted the way to do that is:

• 13b “…Live in peace with one another.
• 14b “…admonish the unruly.
• 14b “…encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
• 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
• 16 Rejoice always;
• 17 pray without ceasing;
• 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
• 19 Do not quench the Spirit;
• 20 Do not despise prophetic utterances. 21 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;
• 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

What if believers lived out those truths? What if the people of our churches focused on getting along instead of sharing dirt behind the scenes? What if we lovingly built relationships where correction wasn’t a mallet, but an act of love? You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Five: A Call to Distinct Courage

Paul offered in 2 Thessalonians 1 some inspiration to oppressed and persecuted Christians as he wrote these words:

2 Thessalonians 1: 5 [This is] a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6 For after all it is [only] just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and [to give] relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire…

He noted that believers must “take heart” in persecution?

If the days grow dark, we are to keep growing and know that our testimony is enhanced by the testing of persecution. We must learn to be settled in recognizing that God will deal with those who are hurting you (1:6). We have to remember that the Magnificent One is on His way! (1:10). We have to understand that God will use your lives powerfully to glorify Jesus (1:11-12). Ask the Coptic Christians that withstood fear in the face of Muslim Brotherhood. Ask the Iraqi believers who endured the horror of ISIS.

Massive numbers of followers of Jesus have sprung from those events. Though pushed out of some places in the Middle East, there are plenty of new congregations and believers. We have to be courageous. We have to stand firm. We have to stop trying to appease evil. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Six: A Call to Distinct Commitment

Paul offered instruction to perplexed Christians with this simple command:

2 Thessalonians 2:1 Now we request you… 2 that you not be quickly shaken …or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for [it will not come] unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, … 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains [will do so] until he is taken out of the way. … 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false… 15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught…

Believers are called to recognize that God clearly holds our future in His hands!

When trouble came, they tried to decide if they were in the wrath of the “Day of the Lord” – but they weren’t (2 Thess. 2:1-2). Knowing the Word and resting in its surety would have saved them much in anxiety. Paul made clear that first came the “snatching away” and then the “Man of Sin” would be revealed (2:3).

The Greek noun “apostasia” is used twice in the New Testament (here and Acts 21:21 referencing Paul as “teaching Jews among the Gentiles to forsake (apostasia) Moses.” The term is “apo” or from and “istemi” “stand” with a core meaning of “departure”. The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon defines “apostasia” as either “a defection or revolt” or a “departure or disappearance.” Is this the rapture of the church? Is this the falling away of the church? I cannot say for sure, though I have an opinion.

The point is that we are called to understand the times based on the revealed truths of the Word. God isn’t playing games, and times must be seen through the glass of the Word.

What is clear is there is a restraint on the lawlessness that is growing, and will come to an explosion when the end comes. (2:4-7). Lawlessness means “making up our own rules.” The pressure is building, and that shouldn’t surprise us – but there is a God-ordained restraint upon him right now. Don’t be dismayed, Jesus will deal with his power! (2:8). The enemy will work, and God will dull minds, but it will all be dealt with in the coming judgment (2:9-12). Be thankful with us that God has called us to rescue and deliverance! (2:13-17). Don’t let discouragement over the behaviors you see take over your heart. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.

Call Seven: A Call to Distinct Discipline

At the heart of Paul’s “Injunctions to disorderly Christians” he the need to deal with the unruly in the church. Many will be the voices that suggest we should ignore bad behavior because we don’t want to come off as “judgy.” Here is what the Word says:

2 Thessalonians 3: 6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we [kept] working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right [to this], but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example…

There will always be wayward ones in our world. Paul made clear:

• Back away from them during their disobedience (3:6).
• Keep walking in discipline and work hard (3:7).
• Don’t try to get things from others for free – work hard (3:8-10).
• Remember that people need productive work to do or they will multiply sinful behaviors (3:11).
• Recognize that practical instruction is part of the work of the church (3:12).
• Don’t tire of doing right and walking in obedience (3:13-14a).
• If someone won’t follow the Word, mark them and admonish them in brotherly affection (3:14b-15).

The point is clear: The call of the believer is to cling to Jesus while His Spirit transforms us to a distinctiveness we cannot achieve on our own.

Before we are finished, let’s hear two warnings:

First, while we are called to walk well, I won’t hesitate to remind you, that isn’t our ultimate focus. In fact, if we focus on doing right, our works will be good. If we focus on walking with Him, that relationship will help us begin to understand holiness – true distinctiveness. The two do not end in the same place because they come from a different place. One is rooted in accomplishment; the other builds on relationship.

Second, Jesus said that when He left, He sent the Spirit of God to work in the LOST to bring conviction. (John 16:8-9). Look at what a comfort that truth is!

• We do not ARGUE people into the Kingdom of God.
• We don’t PROTEST them into the throne room of the King.
• We don’t SHAME them into following Jesus.

We teach His Word – and do it with love and grace. We accept their harsh words, as those who “know not what they are doing” but stand unapologetically by the Word of the King.

How does that “weak” and “unaggressive” method work in such a “dog eat dog” world? It works incredibly well – because we have the privilege of laboring beside the powerful partner of the Spirit of God.

Jesus does the changing; we hold His hand and follow His lead.

Before It Happens: “Judgments of the ‘Day of the Lord’” – Joel 2

On September 25, 2015, the Business Insider web report offered a fascinating article called “Predictive Policing.” In the article, the author referred to a Tom Cruise movie from 2002 called “Minority Report.” The article described the movie as an action mystery-thriller directed by Steven Spielberg, and noted the story was set in the Washington, D.C. area in the year 2054. At that time the so-called “Pre-Crime” police unit was tasked with apprehending criminals before they committed the crime, based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “pre-cogs.” It sounded like a powerful thriller for those who like the science fiction genre. My chief interest, though, was in the information found in the article that described how police are, in fact, using stores of computer collected and analyzed data to suggest where police resources should be directed, (i.e. areas where crimes will likely occur) – as a computer “predicts” when and such help should be concentrated. I was fascinated with the notion that such “predictions” could actually one day be found a reliable aid in crime deterrence.

The fact is, though, that predicting coming trouble isn’t a new thing. God mercifully sent prophets centuries ago who did just that. In our last lesson, we began recalling some of the words of an ancient prophet in The Book of Joel.

As we look into Joel 2 in this lesson, it may be helpful if we recall that in our last lesson we made the point that it wasn’t a desire to punish that drove God to send prophets – it was a function of His grace to warn us. We made clear that these passages are sometimes cryptic, and often uncomfortable to wade through, but God was anxious that His people know what was to come. The passage begins:

Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming…

Does it sound like God desired to hide what was happening? Not at all! The truth is that however hard, however uncomfortable, we need the message of a coming reckoning of our lives. We need to know that God is not aloof, and our sin is not private and easily forgotten. Israel needed that message too!

Go back to the Book of Joel and you will recall that God used a graphic symbol to get the people’s attention. They saw a massive locust invasion described in vivid terms in Joel 1. The warning of God was made plain: this was to be an illustration of something larger that would devastate the children of Israel in the days ahead. The prophecy was horrid, messy and terrible… but that wasn’t the end of the story. Prophecy wasn’t designed to leave people in the “soup” of judgment. Let me explain…

Do you recall that Jesus used the scene of a woman in childbirth as His “go to” illustration concerning the prophecy of the end times of the human program? In Matthew 24, tucked into His warnings of “wars and rumors of wars” He offered these words: (Matthew 24:8 But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.). He said that when the time of judgment drew near, the birth pangs would begin, but that pain was just the beginning of the end. It is particularly helpful, I think, at that moment of pain to recall that the end is not in pain – but in a new life. The pain will pass.

In the same way, some prophecies are revealed in very messy terms. Some of them are not linear prophecies – neatly unfolded in chronological order like the organized closing argument of a lawyer. Rather, as God unwinds the cosmos around us and replaces it with a new Heaven and earth, there is a painful and nasty process – but it is designed to bring forth something wonderful and exciting. This isn’t the only example of such pain-ridden processes in life.

• Think about the first morning the athlete begins training for a spot on the Olympic team. It is still dark out, and they get up and head out the door in their sweat pants and t-shirt – a body is about to begin to be altered. There will be much pain ahead, but the end may find them standing on a platform with the whole world watching them receive a medal.
• Think of the confused and distressed drug addict that checks into the clinic and begins the process of stripping from within the body the harmful and powerful drugs. The process will be disgusting, but it will restore the life that was ebbing away. If they follow the given instructions, they will likely exit new and different people.
• Closer to more of us, consider the person beginning the terrible process of losing many, many pounds on a necessary but agonizing diet. The end will be greater health, but the path to get there may not be very pretty.

All of these examples are arduous and painful processes that are designed to end well. So it is with God’s eventual and dramatic end to the history of human rebellion. Time will surrender to eternity, and mutiny will be replaced by worship!

Joel’s opening vision was stark, powerful and heartbreaking – but the locust devastation provided a picture to refocus Israel on coming judgment – and encourage them with the message that it would end well.

This prophecy is more than it appears on the surface. It is a story of the world God made, and what He is going to do with it. It is the story of what God did for His people, Israel – and what He will do to bring them to full surrender to Him. Like the intricate settings and battles of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is detail and drama. We must not become quickly impatient for the revealed ending and miss the weight of the struggle – because the prophets aren’t in a hurry to skip over the painful details.

Here is why. God’s faithful character is uniquely revealed in the depths of a painful struggle. His glory is best discovered in a commanding triumph over the rebels, and His vast wisdom most clear in the rich texture of the prophetic struggle.
In detail, chapter two is probably the weightier part of the message of this prophet’s record. The chapter turns on the words: “The Day of the Lord.” This phrase was used five times in Joel beginning with Joel 1:15 (see also: 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14). You cannot begin reading the second chapter for but a few words and the phrase appears yet again.

Because the prophet did not begin with a definition, we will need to discern the meaning of the phrase FROM the text. As we seek to do so, we will see this truth emerge…

Key Principle: The “Day of the Lord is an extended period of time in which God deals with Israel’s constant rejection of Him.

It begins with their veiling from the former profound relationship with Him, and end with their restoration beyond any further judgment at Messiah’s return and judgment of His people. We will be able to discern this by looking at the best passage in the Bible on the subject – Joel 2.
When the prophets use the term “day” they don’t always seem to mean a chronological 24-hour period.

Think with me about what we see in the prophetic literature. The term “day” always appears to refer to time, but some references appear to be more than a single calendar day:

1. There is the term “Day of man’s judgment” in 1 Corinthians 4:3 referencing the current economy, when men have control over human jurisprudence- i.e. where men “run the courts.”
2. The “Day of Christ” is mentioned six times in Scripture (1 Cor. 1: 8; 5: 5; 2 Cor. 1: 14; Phil. 1: 6, 10; 2: 16) and appears to refer to a time period when Christ will come to snatch away the church (as described in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13– 18) from the earth, bringing up the Christians of the church age to be with Him forever (Jn. 14: 1– 3).
3. Another term is the “Day of God” (cp. 2 Peter 3:12) seems to refer to the final disposition of Heaven and Earth (when they ‘pass away’) as God remakes things using devastation and fire.
4. With these, there is also the “Day or the Lord” which seems to include several profound kinds of judgment of God on His people Israel, and on the nations before, during and after the Tribulation.

Based on these uses of the term “day” in the context of judgment, the word doesn’t appear to be only used of 24-hour periods, but sometimes may be reckoned a protracted period of time.

What did the prophets mean by the “Day of the Lord” as best we can tell?

The specific phrase occurs nineteen times by name throughout the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, including once by the prophet Obadiah (1:15), five times in Joel (1:15; 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14), three times by Amos (Amos 5:18 twice and 5:20), three times by Isaiah (2:12; 13:6, 9), twice by Ezekiel (13:5; 30:3), three times by Zephaniah (1:7 and 1:14 twice), once by Zechariah (14:1), and once by Malachi (4:5). Add to that other occurrences of “that day” or “that great day” and you will pile on another seventy-five places where it was mentioned in at least a cursory way.

Rather than define the terms outright, I would like you to build with me a construct for the meaning of the “Day of the Lord” as we follow the record of Joel 2.

Our text offers descriptions of the “Day of the Lord” beginning with the call to assemble because of its impending arrival.

After Joel called the people in 2:1 to: Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming, He went on to describe the event…

First, the “Day of the Lord” was swiftly approaching.

Joel 2:1b …Surely it is near.

From God’s perspective, Israel was running out of time before an event, that was part of divine judgment, would come upon them. The importance of that phrase is simple: People always think they have more time in life to straighten out their walk with God. Part of the blessing of warning is it reminds us to pull against our natural inclination to believe we have more time.

If you are honest with yourself, can you admit that you often think you can accomplish more in the day ahead than you actually can? Are you a victim of your own unrealistic expectations? If you are, you need to listen carefully when the Lord calls you to repentance and renewal – because you will tend to think you have more time.

Don’t forget, when you read “near” in the Bible, that when we talk in terms of time with God, we have to be careful, since He dwells outside of the dimension of time.

There is a Scripture connecting events of the “Day of the Lord” mentioned some time later in the words of Peter in Acts 2:16.

but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel. 17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on My bond slaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophecy 19 and I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. 21 And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

That quote from Joel was made as Peter defended the men who were speaking in tongues in Acts 2. In my view, Peter carefully noted that with the coming of the Spirit to begin indwelling the believers, the “Day of the Lord” judgments were commencing. Something at Pentecost appeared to be acting as the beginning point of the “Day of the Lord.” If my analysis of his reference is true, the “Day of the Lord” is a period of judgment beginning with the celebration of Pentecost in Acts 2, when the Spirit of God fell upon the church. The effect that event had on Israel will become clear as we study.

In any case, don’t miss the point: People overestimate the amount of time they have to get their life straightened out – so we all need reminders that life is short and judgment is certain.

Second, the “Day of the Lord” would bring a darkening veil over the discerning eyes of God’s people.

Critical to the understanding of the nature of the “Day of the Lord” is the sentence that included the nature of the judgment – it was a “darkening” or “veiling.” The writer continued:

Joel 2:2 A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, So there is a great and mighty people…

The words evoke the image of the blanket of locusts that blocked out the sky. In the same way, the people of God would experience a darkening and a gloom. It may be the reference was to natural disturbances – and clearly that was part of the issue. At the same time, it appears that a veil descending over their hearts would also arrive, and it would make a clear walk with God a distant, vague, and darkened pursuit. Paul appears to have spoken of this “veiling” as a “hardening” in Romans 11:25:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion; He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” 27 This is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.

If the “Day of the Lord” includes a judgment that placed a curtain of darkness between the Jewish people and God for a time, one form of divine judgment seems to be God placing a distance from Himself in the heart of someone that expresses (in word or deed) their desire for Him to “leave them alone.”

Don’t miss that: God may politely withdraw from you when your life message to Him is that you don’t want Him bugging you.

It is ONLY His grace that keeps needling you with embarrassing guilt. Your feeling of guilt isn’t your problem; your stubborn and rebellious spirit is! Part of God’s mercy can be seen in His uninvited conviction.

In the case of Israel, the veiling or hardening was neither total nor final, but it was part of the whole judgment.

Third, the “Day of the Lord” (though offering some resemblance of other judgments) was unique in the prophetic scheme.

This was both am exceptional and distinctive time…

Joel 2:2b …There has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations.

In the Bible, the “time of Jacob’s Trouble” (called by Jesus the “Great Tribulation”) was described in Daniel 12:1 and Matthew 24:21 exactly that way – as a time unlike any other. The description in those places are clearly of judgment so heavy on the Earth that the world would have been decimated were it not for God putting a stop to those days.

Unique judgment requires special attention. The fact that God clearly marked out a coming time that was unlike any other was an “historical highlighter” marking something very important. To God, the time of purifying His people wasn’t a WASTE of resources. The destruction of the landscape was “entirely worthwhile” as God drew people back.

It is worth remembering that even the hard times that call us and draw us back to God are precious times in His sight. In some cases, those severe moments of discipline are the moments He marks as the most important in our lives. So it was with Israel in the “Day of the Lord.”

Fourth, the “Day of the Lord” includes severe destruction of the landscape through divine judgment as a main feature.

Obviously, if you are a Bible student, the description here fits well with the later description of the Great Tribulation…

Joel 2:3 A fire consumes before them and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them but a desolate wilderness behind them, and nothing at all escapes them.

Parts of the Great Tribulation are described in those exact terms, as in Revelation 8:6

And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them. 7 The first sounded, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. 8 The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood, 9 and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed.

It appears the “Day of the Lord” includes the Tribulation Period revealed most completely in Revelation 6-19, with the seven seal judgments (Rev.6), the seven trumpet judgments (Rev. 8) and the seven bowl or vial judgments (Rev. 16).

Here is the truth: when we are rebellious, it is nearly impossible to get our attention until we face catastrophic failure. Anything short of destruction of our dreams will easily be explained away and ignored. In the case of Israel, the whole earth will appear to turn against them because they won’t run to God until there isn’t anywhere else to run!

Are you really any different? Most of us can readily admit that we aren’t good at repentance, and we aren’t quick at picking up on the signs of judgment.

It will take a near decimation of the world to bring Israel to her knees. She won’t realize she needs God until there is literally no stone left unturned in her attempt to find her way without Him.

Fifth, the “Day of the Lord” includes the appearance of a massive army, just as the locusts graphically pictured.

The story of “The Great Tribulation” in Revelation 16 and 19 ends with a massive military buildup on the Earth that prepares to destroy Israel – but meets doom in the coming of Messiah and His forces from Heaven.

Note how the “Day of the Lord” in Joel 2 appears to include this time…

• It includes the movement of a swift army: Joel 2:4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; And like war horses, so they run.
• That massive army moved with great noise: Joel 2:5 With a noise as of chariots They leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire consuming the stubble, like a mighty people arranged for battle.
• The army that struck terror into hearts as it advanced: Joel 2:6 Before them the people are in anguish; all faces turn pale.
• It appeared as a well-trained, overwhelming force on the earth: Joel 2:7 They run like mighty men, They climb the wall like soldiers; And they each march in line, Nor do they deviate from their paths. 8 They do not crowd each other, They march everyone in his path; When they burst through the defenses, They do not break ranks. 9 They rush on the city, They run on the wall; They climb into the houses, They enter through the windows like a thief.
• The militia seemed unstoppable, and blocked out even the stars (dust cloud or aircraft?) above in their overwhelming power and might: Joel 2:10: Before them the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness.
• The gathering of an army that would surely destroy them without God’s intervention was foretold in detail in Zechariah 12:12-14:5: The burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. … 2 “Behold, I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that causes reeling to all the peoples around; and when the siege is against Jerusalem, it will also be against Judah… 7 The Lord also will save the tents of Judah first, so that the glory of the house of David… 10 “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. 11 In that day there will be great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, every family by itself…14: 2 For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. 3 Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. 4 In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east… 5 You will flee by the valley of My mountains … Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him!

In the end, Israel won’t save herself. They will finally see God’s Son, their Messiah, and He will bring them rescue – just as He did for many of us.

Salvation isn’t about our ability to find God – it is about our response to Him when He stands right in front of our messed up lives and calls us to take His hand and follow Him. God isn’t interested in people “getting their lives together” so they can meet Him. We can’t do it. He is interested in us recognizing we have no one who loves us like He does.

Israel will see their long lost Son. They will recognize Him for His past sacrifice for them. They will weep – but they will reach out for His hand. That is the only thing for which God waits.

Sixth, God’s rescuing army also arrives.

Mid-way through the description of the advance of the army, the prophet appears to have changed his description from the opponents of God, to the army God sent in response:

Joel 2:11 The Lord utters His voice before His army; Surely His camp is very great, For strong is he who carries out His word. The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, And who can endure it?

Isn’t this just like the description of the assembly called from Heaven for the defeat of the armies defiant against God found in Revelation 19: 17?

…Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in mid heaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” 19And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army.

The “Day of the Lord” doesn’t only include the Tribulation Period, but also the end of that time with the coming of the Lord. The gathering of the nations was organized to attempt to destroy Israel and remove any memory of the God of the Bible – but then God showed up.

Never count God out in the fight… Never! When the darkness descends and you look in every direction but find no alternatives – look UP! God isn’t aloof. He knows where you are, who you are, what you’ve been doing, and where you are headed.

Many in Israel may have rejected the Messiah today, but He hasn’t rejected them. When the time is right, He will show Himself. At the same time, He is removing any doubt that there is another way for them to be reconciled to God and find peace on this planet. It isn’t until God removes the other options that we see the truth – He is all we have – but He is all we need.

Seventh, when God’s army appears, His people will again be called to repent.

A message was passed to the Jewish people to get serious with God yet again, as their time had run out. Even though God called for generations, yet He called again. Long after they had forgotten His love… His patience called them back to Him.

The message of repentance will be offered to His people.

Joel 2:12 Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.

The opening to return to God’s arms will be offered to His people.

Joel 2:13b…Now return to the Lord your God…

Is that true of YOU today? Have you been on the run trying to make it without God, but you sense Him calling you today?

Don’t ignore Him. In fact, listen to the way the prophet, the SAME GUY who described the decimation of things all over the world, described the character of God…

Joel 2:13b …For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him, even a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

Just as Zechariah 12:10 reminded us of the coming response of the people of Israel, so Joel cites the turning of the hearts of the people to the Lord in the face of the battle between God and the nations. The appearance of the army of God will be a new opportunity to bow before the Lord. The people will recognize the day and nothing will be more important!

In Joel 2:15 they are called to “Blow a trumpet”… to “Consecrate a fast” … 16 Gather the people… Assemble the elders

Even the long resistant spiritual leaders of Israel will call the people to repentance and recognize their own sins.

Joel 2:17 Let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, Weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, and do not make Your inheritance a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?’”

Clearly this will be a day when Israel will understand the choice they have to finally see the Lord clearly once again.

Here is the simple truth: God rescues when He is invited to do so. He saves when we recognize we need saving. As long as we think we can run our lives without Him, He lets us try.

Here is what Scripture makes plain: It won’t work for Israel, and it won’t work for you.

The “Day of the Lord” includes God’s heavy hand of judgment to get His people to stop running.

In our next lesson, we will finish the chapter with God’s wonderful rescue – but don’t leave the conviction of this moment…

The penalty for constant neglect of God and their invitation of evil while distancing themselves from God was this:

• God withdrew.
• Intimate knowledge of God became veiled.
• For dark generations the Jewish people suffered.
• Many invented marvelous things, and some achieved notoriety and wealth.

Yet, through it all they were living in turmoil under the “fog” of a spiritual life largely darkened.

The prophet explained it.

When we push away from God, He politely lets us walk in the peril of our own arrogance.

God’s judgment in His withdrawal is always palpable. They KNEW something shattered their identity. Even after the State of Israel has attempted to offer stability and identity to world Jewry, still they know the world waits for their destruction and they don’t know why. It hurts. It is lonely. It feels wrong and isn’t clear why these things are happening.

Yet, God’s promise didn’t stop at pain and rejection. There is coming an END to the pain. Significant to the narrative was this record of its end:

Joel 2:25 Then I will make up to you for the years That the swarming locust has eaten… 26 … Then My people will never be put to shame. 27 Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, And that I am the Lord your God, And there is no other; And My people will never be put to shame.

Look at that.

Grab the import of a nation redeemed, lives restored.

Think about many people who have lived apart from God for much of their lives, only to find peace in the Savior late in life.

In a mobile home backed up to the church property lived a man who came to Grace Church years ago, walking in the back door and looking at the ceiling as though it might fall upon his entrance. I noticed him immediately because his skin was a pale yellow. He was apparently a sickly man with an advanced and serious illness. He decided to walk across his back yard one morning and walk into the church. At the invitation, he came forward, and we talked for a time after the service. He told me that he came to Jesus in his youth, many years before. He recounted God’s call to send him into a mission field, and how he told God “No!” in a church service, because he had things he wanted to accomplish in his life. He didn’t think God understood how hard the mission field would be for him. No one knew how much he was wrestling with God, but in a matter of weeks, he left the church, never to return until he walked in our door. Then he made the remark that I will never forget. He said, “I am old and I am very sick. My time here is short. I know what the Lord wanted for me, and what a WASTE I made of my life!” We prayed together, and he sobbed as he asked Jesus to take him back after years of wandering. I opened to Joel 2 and asked God to follow His own nature and “give back” for the years eaten away by the locusts of self-centered thinking. In the next months, I had the chance to visit the man a number of times, and each one surprised me, more and more. I would walk in, and he would be smiling, excited about his study of the Word. “I missed God through my life. I knew He was watching, but He knew I wasn’t listening! How glad I am that He restored me!” He didn’t live long, but he died happy.

You have the opportunity to ask for God’s rescue TODAY. That is God’s mercy to YOU. Won’t you respond before the locusts eat your life?

God waits to be asked.

Randy Alcorn reminds us that when we listen to the vocabulary of the Bible, it reveals something powerful with its language of God’s heart for struggling and wayward people. He noted, God often uses words like reconcile, redeem, restore, recover, return, renew, regenerate, and resurrect. God wants to put back the relationship that rebellion and mutiny is trying to keep at arm’s length. (My paraphrase from a note he made in Fifty Days in Heaven).

Before It Happens: “Preparing for Coming Days of Judgment” – Joel 1

What does your Bible look like inside? On careful inspection, if we checked the Bibles of many people who are active in the local church in America (I am speaking of those who study of God’s Word at least in their church services), we may observe a pattern others have noted before us. The text of many Jesus followers is well worn. Some parts are underlined and have scribbles in the margins. Some are filled with colored markings and symbols in an unintentional “code’ that no one but the owner and the Spirit of God may fully perceive. Yet, even in these cases, often there is a pristine portion of their Bible – a section somewhere between the books of Song of Solomon and the opening of Matthew – that appears cleaner. This section is often in near mint condition, with gilded edges still gleaming, despite the condition of the rest of the Bible in which they are found. Perhaps it is because there is so little preaching, as many pastors have openly admitted they struggle with how to bring the Hebrew prophets into the modern pulpit.

Part of the reason may be that we don’t understand the true function of the prophets and their writings. We may read their words and they strike us as vengeful or angry (with all that “God will bring fire and judgment” talk) – and that doesn’t match our understanding of God’s loving character and His general way of doing things. Some believers have made up their mind that the God of Israel was somehow transformed to a warmer and nicer version of Himself when Jesus came (as recorded in the record of the Gospels). Frankly, that is nonsense. God doesn’t change and doesn’t need to change. Perhaps the real issue is, that we haven’t taken enough time to carefully consider Who our God is, and make a true attempt to understand the truth of what the prophets provide as spokesmen of His grace. They weren’t angry – they were giving sharp warnings because people were haplessly but swiftly approaching a perilous cliff in their nation. The fact is that when you are trying to stop a tragedy, your words may often sound shrill and impatient. As we open to the beginning of the recorded words of the Prophet Joel for this lesson, I trust the Spirit of God will make clear this truth…

Key Principle: God’s prophetic warnings are a function of His grace. Those who snub warning eventually suffer judgment by their own choice.

If you are patient, that truth will show itself from our text. Before we begin to investigate the text, I want to remind you of how we got where we are in our churches regarding prophecy and its part of our Scripture diet. Honestly, there are several problems that naturally arise in the modern church when trying to preach or teach the prophets. In fact, I asked some friends who serve in pastoral roles why we don’t do more with the prophets from the pulpit, and they offered some helpful observations.

Honestly, it is hard to make the message of God’s eventual judgment all that helpful and practical to the struggling Christian. Today’s church is bent on practical life preaching and God-help strategies. I am not commenting on that truth here – just observing it. One pastor explained why he has largely skipped speaking on and teaching from the prophets. He noted (my paraphrase):
Sometimes I preach from a specific prophecy (say, concerning the coming of Messiah) and trace the promise to the eventual fulfillment in God’s story. To bring home some sort of personal application, I try to remind the congregation that prophecy shows the veracity of God’s Word and the faithfulness of God’s character.

My point is: You can trust God. He speaks; then He does exactly what He said He would do. Occasionally it is good, but it isn’t a very deep observation of the text.

He said, “I read over my notes, and if the text of my message seems dry in the study, I am sometimes honestly tempted to “spice up the story” and make it appear more relevant by offering some of my own thoughts on possible connections and even, on occasion (I admit) speculative end-times scenarios to help hearers see relevance for their lives today – because being relevant has become very prized in pulpit communication. This is a constant danger, because I want people to stay with me in the presentation and not sleep off the sermon! Because of these dangers, I spend less time preaching the prophets. When I DO, I tend to tell a story about the writer’s life and make parallels between a follower of God long ago and the hearers today. That helped me feel like I wasn’t skipping the prophets, but I mostly AM skipping them. I am not really explaining the message of the books themselves, and the congregation doesn’t appreciably grow in their knowledge of those books of the Bible.

I suspect that anyone who teaches the Bible has at least a little sympathy for what that pastor authentically shared of his own experience.

I mention the lack of time spent in these sections, and the three different natural bends of teachers of the Word to encourage you as we move forward. This study will require something of you in patience. That isn’t a veiled warning of a “boredom zone” ahead, it is rather a recognition that we are on unfamiliar ground in many circles today. You may be a student of prophecy, but most people aren’t today. We need to deliberately stretch ourselves. We need to speak the whole counsel of God’s Word. Some of the parts of Scripture have easy individual application and offer deep encouragement. Prophetic portions offer something very different. Without the words of the prophets, some of the lofty view of the Awesome Majesty of the Heavens would be barely touched, and a powerful and resounding call for us to tremble at His voice would barely be heard.

Prophets help us do more than satisfy ourselves that God knows where everything is going. They challenge us to bow before the One True Judge.

They call us to examine whether our outer practices are incongruent with our inner beliefs. They bring back a sense of the power and splendor of the God we serve.

There are examples of all the styles of preaching in the Word, if you look for them. When Paul stood on Mars Hill before philosophers, he carefully reasoned for the faith. When Jesus spoke of the Galilee hillsides, He pulled the minds of the people into the simplest imagery of daily life. When the Apostle Peter rose to defend God’s work in the men on the Day of Pentecost he launched into a full-throated support of the prophetic power of God before the crowd – and three thousand responded.
What the prophets of old offer is something more than mere learning about God. Think of the long, thin finger of Nathan the prophet stuck into the face of David as he uttered the words, “You are the man.” The value of the prophetic word is that it can be like an arrow to the heart in a way that few other portions can.

I am deliberately beginning slowly to introduce the prophets, because our next studies will have some unusual qualities as we work the text from a book of the Minor Prophets. Take a few moments with me to open our Bibles to the book of the Prophet Joel. The book is after Psalms in the middle of the Bible, and is the twenty-ninth book of thirty-nine in the common collection of the Hebrew Scriptures. As we turn for this prophet’s record, think with me about the painful process observed by a prophet of God, as they tell of the end times.

We must recognize that God made us emotional beings, and we gravitate toward positive emotion – but that isn’t the only kind we need to be able to reckon with.

We need to look at the painful parts of judgment to understand the glory of grace and rescue of redemption. As we open our reading, stand in front of a field that was stripped by the voracious appetite of locusts.

Joel offered his opening words in three parts:

• He called people to see what was happening as unique.
• He called specific kinds of people to respond to the scene.
• He called people to recognize the urgency of their time.

As you read his words, some will notice (because of their edition of the Bible) the way they are placed indented in paragraphs. The translator wanted you to know the words are lyrics. They were poetry. They were the record of a sad song written by a broken-hearted man who could barely believe what his eyes were seeing.

Look at the beginning of the three parts of his message from the first chapter…

First, he called the people to attention by telling them they have never seen anything like what was happening in front of them.

Joel 1:1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: 2 Hear this, O elders, And listen, all inhabitants of the land. Has anything like this happened in your days Or in your fathers’ days? 3 Tell your sons about it, And let your sons tell their sons, And their sons the next generation.

If there was a word for what he was trying to say concerning the scene he was about to explain, it was: “Unbelievable!” He told the people and the elders who led them to stop moving and look at the picture God showed him. He went on to describe the scene.

Joel 1:4 What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; and what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.

Whether this was a vision in the realm of the spirit or an actual event on the landscape is not known. Whether the locusts were insects of a field or the imagery of an invading human army is not known. Whether this already happened or was about to take place is not known.

What is clear and certain is this: The man was overwhelmed by the scene of massive devastation – and he wanted them to see how obvious the marks of it were.

Some of us know exactly what he felt. We cannot believe that in a mere five years, our country has deliberately overhauled the most basic unit of mankind – the family. We have made perilous moves swiftly, based on the flimsiest testing of where that will lead our society. We are no longer drifting, we are swiftly moving with a furious current toward a rejection of one thing after another connected to Judeo-Christian practice. Left-over images of biblical texts on court rooms across the country are stark reminders of the violent lurching to the left.

In the Book of Joel, most scholars note that an invasion was approaching that would eventually devastate Judah – and this was a call to prepare and repent in hopes that God may withhold or reduce the judgment. Perhaps the locust invasion was a dramatic way for God to warn them of another kind of invasion just over their horizon view. Like the prophecy – the locusts were a symbolic warning given in GRACE.

Joel’s essential question was, “Have you ever known any invasion this severe?” (1:2)

That should have given them pause, instead of letting their eyes adjust to the dark setting. In fact, one of the common commands of the Law was for Israel to constantly rehearse her history before her children (cp. Dt. 4 and 6) in order to help them avoid the hand of God’s judgment.

The second part of the opening prophecy was separated into calls of specific kinds of people to face what was coming in God’s judgment.

• God’s first call was for those who were dull-minded as one would be with wine overindulgence to awaken (1:5).

Joel 1:5 Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has invaded my land, mighty and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has made my vine a waste and my fig tree splinters. It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white.

The call came for Israel’s dullard drunkards to awake from their lulled, compromised and sinful state. They were to open their eyes to see that judgment was at hand.

One of the ways people deal with staying in a wrong state and not facing God is DIVERSION – they simply focus on something else.

There is a natural tendency in some of us when we are facing hard times to attempt to ignore the coming results or divert our attention to something that will help us cope with the pain of what we see. In fact, we have noted before the term for “turning off the mind” is called ‘AMUSEMENT’ and it has become for many a consuming passion.

This is a danger of a Christian population that focused more on how the church can meet their needs than how it can honor God’s call. We can end up with sermons that make us feel good about things when the actual call of God is to see how perilous they are becoming. ALL our teaching isn’t warning – but let’s admit that in some places the idea of warning NEVER rises to the pulpit.

• His second call was to those who were planning in ignorance of the impending doom.

Joel 1:8 Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.

Israel was to drape herself in the clothing of sadness and brokenness. The point was that while some could divert, amuse, or dull their minds, others made plans for celebrations and paid no attention to the impending troubles because they were unaware of them. They were the CLUELESS. When peril came, the power of judgment crushed them like the waves of mourning as their dreams were dashed against the rocks of reality.

We live in a time when people call, year after year, for every problem to be solved by their government – even when the truth is their government is up to its neck in debt. Freedoms are casually surrendered as we ask one new administrator after another to step in a help us solve some difficulty or injustice. It isn’t bad to have someone test the food in the packages we will consume or make sure the tires on the airplanes in which we travel have been made to certain specifications.

Government isn’t bad – it’s necessary. The problem is it neither CAN nor SHOULD be called on to feed, clothe and care for us in every situation. When we reward people for lack of preparation for difficulty, we discourage the next group from even trying to sacrifice and prepare.

Joel’s imagery of the bride, dressed and waiting for a groom that will not come because he has died – reminds us there is a process of mourning a severe loss that we are impatient in our culture to understand – but it has a purpose in the fallen world. We weren’t designed to face death, but God added “waves of grief” as a means of regaining equilibrium.

His point was this: Loss is most powerful in people who never truly considered it could happen to them.

The issue with the people was one of thorough forgetfulness that led them to clueless insensitivity. At one time, they knew evil, in principle, would be judged. By then, they knew their nation had plunged into evil. Yet they didn’t connect the problem with the result. They simply made plans for the next celebration and hoped for more years of good harvest – hoping against hope that things would go well.

The people hardest hit in the downturn of a market are those who have forgotten to consider the possibility.

The deepest despair comes from those who have honestly forgotten the risks of living in a broken world. In short, Israel was about to be walloped and some had never considered the possibility that God was actually going to judge as He repeatedly warned.

This is the danger of a church who has taught a generation of Christians that God’s chief interest is in their health, wealth, and happiness. They never considered the possibility the things that have happened to Iraqi or Syrian Christians could happen to them as well. Troubles, brutal martyrdom, and a tested faith are things they believe belong to another time and place.

• God’s third call was to priests and ministers (1:9) to lament the cutting off of the provisions for the spiritual life of the nation.

Joel 1:9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. 10 The field is ruined, the land mourns; for the grain is ruined, the new wine dries up, fresh oil fails.

While some were DULL and others were CLUELESS, those who oversaw the spiritual life of the nation should have been able to see without blur that things were heading in a bad direction. Joel beckoned SPIRITUAL LEADERS (those with an “elder” view” of the community) to step up and recognize the signs. A community elder is one who acts as a father or patriarch over more than his own biological family – but becomes a protector and provider for that greater community.

Let’s say it this way: When you serve God by serving His people, you think differently about the effects of sin on the society.

Those who sit in the counseling room, work at equipping of Jesus followers, and craft instruction for God’s people from His Word, are often “early adopters” of the message of the effects of bad decisions. There are some in our society who STILL don’t connect the dots between our decisions and their outcome as a people.

When we opened “no fault divorce,” we removed both legal roadblocks and public stigma to the decoupling of a marriage. Today, people are even insulted if you use terms like a “failed marriage” because they feel that is judgmental toward their situation – as if one of the natural options of people coming to the altar and declaring their commitment was an escape hatch.

Here is what I know. In the history of marriage, there have always been troubled people and difficult pairings. The profound difference in our time is that it is easy to get out of the problem without working it out – and the world around you will help you deflect any sense of responsibility for that event. Out of compassion for people in difficult marriages, we legislated our way into the mess of meaninglessness at the altar. The children torn up by these broken homes now fill our schools as a broken and bitter reminder that we made it easy on one person often by devastating another. They live together, because they don’t see the point of the commitment we call marriage, and we shouldn’t wonder why.

When our courts decided the people needed protection from the state invading their privacy so much that a woman had the unrestrained right to end the life in her womb, many didn’t connect that decision to the brutishness that has now become part of the modern American voice.

• They didn’t recognize with equal fervor the child within her to be also that of her partner – his rights were effectively muzzled in that termination of life.
• They didn’t calculate the loss of 57 million Americans in a single generation to the economy.
• They didn’t think through how human life itself, no longer sacrosanct, would diminish clarity of honored values of our society.

In a new way, motherhood was separated from fatherhood, and unborn children became throwaway dolls, removed in bags and treated like refuse. We no longer argue about if it is human life, but argue today whether we have a right to have tax dollars rid me of an inconvenient child in the womb. Politicians call for this without pausing to observe how far we have fallen from the image of tenderness that was once associated with the womb.

Some claim our pulpits shouldn’t address things like divorce, so called “same sex marriage” or abortion. They look at those social issues as merely political and judicial. They don’t get it – because they don’t understand the elder view. Those of us who know God’s Word and teach it, carry a special wound in the society for the self-mutilation that comes from our collective mutiny against God. We deal with the broken-hearted children, and we try to train those whose thinking has been so skewed that “right” and “wrong” are no longer clear.

The Bible is unequivocal and clear – morality is not a social construct.

Man didn’t crawl out of primordial ooze, invent a God, and then promptly NOT follow Him so they could invent guilt. That doesn’t make sense because it didn’t happen. Men didn’t invent God. He created us. Exacting design doesn’t flow haplessly from random happenings. You know it, and so does every observant person who isn’t bent on doing life according to their own rules.

Closer to home, we need to remember our own history in days like these as well. Our country simply wasn’t founded without a profound connection between a specific faith view of the world and human responsibility. It isn’t by happenstance that our Congress had a chaplain and our buildings were built across the land with Bible verses etched into them. The Bible men and women were sworn into office with wasn’t just a décor statement. We come from a long and detailed history of men who knew that our rights and responsibilities were based on the fact that all of us have the same Creator. They wrote carefully that none of us is more important than the other because they reckoned that we all will eventually kneel to the same God. That story may be ignored in our halls of learning, but our history is literary and stubbornly stained on parchments with ink. The only hope of those who desire to mute the voices of our fathers is to fill the heads of the young with nonsense and hope they don’t grow up and get wise by doing things like reading the documents for themselves.

• A fourth call was for farmers to recognize the shame of losing everything in an act of God’s disfavor (1:11).

Joel 1:11 Be ashamed, O farmers…

The FARMERS were presented as those who knew deep disappointment. Perhaps no one truly understands the sense of hopefulness for the crops like the farmer; conversely, no one feels the depth of the disappointment in the stripping of the land. People attached to the land become more sensitive to their impact on it. They who worked the land and saw it destroyed weren’t to be MAD, as though God has abandoned them – but ASHAMED as if THEY had abandoned God.

When we see judgment clearly, it will not be a mark against God, but a mark against us. Our modern jails aren’t a statement about our contemporary judges as much as they are statement about our growing contention to live inside the boundaries of the law.

• A fifth call was for the vinedressers to wail (1:11) for the loss of the vines, fig trees and other fruit trees. They were to see their joy withered as the trees melted away (1:12).

Joel 1:11b “…Wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley; because the harvest of the field is destroyed. 12 The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; the pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men.

VINE DRESSERS were a subset of farmers who acted more as attendants. They didn’t plant the vines as much as tend them. They were to grapes what daycare workers are to children. People who tend and care for the fruit cultivation have a very specific “parenting” view of the vines and trees they attend.

The third (last) part of Joel’s opening urgently called people to stop acting like the time was far off and get serious with God right away.

The call starts with the clergy and warns on them to get serious before they expect the nation to get on board.

Joel 1:13 Gird yourselves with sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth O ministers of my God, for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

God’s worship leaders were told to change what they are wearing, and put on the symbols of mourning so all could see them. They were told to pay attention to the provisions of God being diverted from the temple. They were called to publicly call the people to fasting, public repentance, and mourning. The warning of judgment connected to public acceptance of egregious errors started with God’s leaders. Also note that God didn’t just tell them to “get sad” and look somber before the masses. He gave them their message: God will not let what we are doing go on forever – His day is coming. He isn’t playing around, and He is right on schedule to do what He promised.

Judgment cannot be avoided by ignoring it.

Joel 1:15 Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.

God intended the people to notice the time of judgment was getting close:

• First, they were to see their prosperity evaporating.

Joel 1:16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes…

• Second, they were to notice the sobriety of those who studied God’s Word and taught them from it.

Joel 1:16b “…Gladness and joy from the house of our God

They were to reckon the natural disruptions in the earth as part of the tremors of coming judgment.

Joel 1:17 The seeds shrivel under their clods; the storehouses are desolate, the barns are torn down, for the grain is dried up. 18 How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle wander aimlessly because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.

They weren’t supposed to call for a new legislature so much as drop to their knees. They weren’t supposed to look for help from the king as much as from the King of all Kings!

Joel 1:19 To You, O Lord, I cry; for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness and the flame has burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the beasts of the field pant for You; for the water brooks are dried up and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

It wasn’t enough for the temple to keep the schedule as usual. The people were to be awakened to the voice of the Lord concerning the days ahead. They should be clear, pronounced and deliberate. God said:

Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion …

Why? Were they to be depressed while the world was rejoicing? The point was they were to show the warning before the world around them connected the dots between their sinful violations and God’s coming of judgment.

God’s leaders were, and are, to make clear the hour is late and the warning is becoming more and more obvious.

God’s prophetic warnings aren’t as much a function of His judgment as they are of His grace.

He didn’t tell us what was coming because He savors judgment, but in order that we might step out individually and stand with Him against the normative trend of our day. When God called believers to be HOLY as He is HOLY – the call was to be distinct as He is not like any other.

If you blend well in the company of lost men and women – something is wrong with your distinctiveness.

If people note the difference in you and it makes them uncomfortable, you may be the warning sign they most need to turn before they plunge into the broken road ahead. Don’t forget…

Those who close their ears to the pronouncement will eventually suffer God’s judgment by their own choice.

If you took the time to read the last three chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you would surely note four powerful truths that emerge from looking closely at the final judgment scene called the “Great White Throne” Judgment. You would note:

• THE IDENTITY OF THE JUDGE: the offended Son of God
• THE ABSENCE OF AN ADVOCATE: sinners stand fearfully alone
• THE FINALITY OF THE VERDICT: no appeal is possible
• THE SEVERITY OF THE SENTENCE: Eternal separation from God into torment becomes real for countless people

Looking over the edge into that prophecy of the future, we have a responsibility to articulate the warning to those who do not know Christ as their Savior – and will only know Him as their judge. It need not happen. The peril is both clear and obvious.

The warning is a function of God’s GRACE.

• When you work hard for a day’s pay- we call that a wage.
• When you compete well for a trophy – we call that a prize.
• When you achieve recognition for a high level of service – we call that an award.

When you didn’t work for it, didn’t compete for it, didn’t accomplish it and never could even if you tried – we call that a gift of grace. Come to Him today, receive His forgiveness, and avert standing in judgment for your sin.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions—ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2)

Stand Your Ground: “A Day with the Master Artist” – Mark 4:1-5:20

In Mark 1-3 Jesus demonstrated a successful stance against the constant attacks of the enemy. I believe it won’t surprise you to know that if you keep reading the Gospel account, Jesus continued to be attacked and continues to achieve victory. Spiritual warfare is real. It is happening now just as it was then. Standing your ground is, in part, an issue of identifying the enemy’s strategy and practicing for the day he turns the darts on you. Yet, that isn’t ALL there is to learning to be a disciple of Jesus. The story continued…

In the account we call Mark’s Gospel, most of us believe we are reading the organization of the earthly work of Jesus that was originally preached by the Apostle Peter and then carefully recorded and spread to the churches by a leader in the younger generation than the Apostles, one named John Mark. He was a contemporary of Timothy, and a follower of Paul and the other original missionary groups. Mark emphasized the WORK of Jesus, and if you follow his account closely you will see how the Master accomplished His mission, and (by example) how God works in our lives to shape us to be like Jesus.

I have a confession to make as we begin: I cannot sculpt, nor can I use modeling clay to make anything anyone else would call “art” but I love to watch it being done. It is fascinating to see an artist take some lumps of refined earth and make them into something beautiful. If we can, I would like you to observe an artist making clay into the representation of a young woman.

(During video) If you watch closely, you will notice that in order to make the bust of this young woman the artist worked in three deliberate steps:

• First, she started with a rounded base approximating the head and added to that base some lumps that built up the underlying structure.

• Second, the artist pressed in or cut away any additional material that was not desired. That “extra” would have marred the face and shape – so it was taken away.

• Third, the artist carefully and gently smoothed the surface, healing any tiny breach while filling over any wrinkle. By this step the artist allowed the material to take its final shape.

This isn’t an art seminar, but I want you to consider something – this is the same way God adds to our life truth as He models us to be like Jesus. He puts us into situations where we can gain truth from Him, then scrapes across our life with troubles to remove the excess. Finally, if we allow Him to do it, He shapes us with His own artistic hand. Let me show you an example from Mark 4 and 5. Remember the underlying truth…

Key Principle: Believers are shaped by three important works from the Master: Divine instruction (adding), daily problems (scraping) and God’s dramatic re-shaping power.

The day recorded by Mark started with a sermon, brought the disciples to fear for their safety, and ended with a shocking display of raw power… It was a day to remember…

First, let’s look at the teaching of Jesus that added truth to the disciple’s lives (4:1-34).

God doesn’t just call us and then start using us to give out His message. We are like the round clay with very little shape when we come to Him. He adds truth that helps us look more like the Master, and people who know us see the change in us as the truth is put on our lives. Let me show you an example in Jesus adding to the disciples long ago…

We are using the account that Mark collected of the teachings of Jesus to set up the day’s events. Remember, Jesus didn’t only say things once, and sometimes He repeated an illustration but changed its meaning – that was the way of teaching familiar to the crowds of that time. The text opened:

Mark 4:1 He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down, and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land. 2 And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching…

Let’s make a quick note of three things:

• First, Jesus was already well-known and popular at the time of these teachings. This wasn’t His first sermon, and people knew His style and liked it very much.

• Second, let’s stipulate this was the dry season (because the rainy season was too cold and wet for a large crowd) and that it was early morning (since you can fry an egg on a rock in that area by mid-day in the dry season).

• Third, Jesus used a teaching method called a “mashal” or parable. This brought the truth of Heaven into bite-sized earthy chunks.

Five Truths

As we get into the meat of the teaching, Jesus taught five truths to His disciples.

Truth #1: The hearer is responsible for hearing.

Here is the first, a simple parable about a man throwing seed on the ground:

Mark 4:3 “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 as he was sowing: Some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. 9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In this teaching, Jesus referred to agriculture on terraces. The ground on the terrace covered a slope of bedrock. The edge had (and still has) a rocky wall filled with weeds and thorny bushes whose roots hold the wall fast. There is often a path through the center of the terrace used as a walkway by those passing through. The good seed would normally be cast between olive trees and yield varying amounts, depending on where the seed fell. Keep reading for a moment:

Mark 4:10 As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.” 13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?

Note the fact that when they got alone, they quizzed Jesus on WHY He was teaching in parables instead of plain speaking.

To understand His response, you must realize one of the most basic tendencies of a disciple is to leave following Jesus and work at figuring out Jesus.

Many of us are tempted to spend time counseling Jesus on how He should be running things. This was true at the beginning as well. The disciples didn’t fully appreciate Jesus’ choices for packaging the truths He put in front of them. Perhaps they fancied crowd-pleasing tidbits and tempting promises. That wouldn’t be unusual for a large crowd of this sort… but Jesus wanted to show them the people that don’t stick aren’t entirely the problem of presenter nor of the presentation – the recipient bore some responsibility to receive the truth openly.

Don’t forget that when you communicate God’s Word to people. Some won’t receive it, and it ISN’T your fault. They have to want to hear what God said in His Word.

It is worth noting that Jesus’ primary concern wasn’t to make His preaching as easy as it could have been. He expected something from the hearer – a heart open to Him! Let’s be clear: People have to surrender and engage, not pick through the words for self-serving promises.

The truth is we will accomplish more of our mission with 100 surrendered and engaged Jesus-followers than we ever could with 10,000 disengaged spectators or 1000 mildly-engaged fair weather friends.

Jesus made clear He wanted the crowd to follow, but only if they were willing to hear what He truly had to say and engage it in their lives! Don’t forget – the soil didn’t HEAR if it DIDN’T BEAR fruit. Look at His explanation:

Mark 4:14 “The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word, which has been sown in them. 16 In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”

In the lesson, Jesus observed there were different kinds of people that were listening to Him:

• Hard Hearts: There were those who were present when the Word was sown, but they did not take it in at all. They came because someone told them to be there and they were not interested enough to allow the Word to sink in.

• Troubled Temporaries: There were those who seemed to respond to the message of Jesus, but they didn’t add a life of surrender to Him. In Jesus’ explanation, when the pains and problems of life or persecution rose, they didn’t think the message was worth sacrifice– so they bailed out.

• Choked Christians: Some follow, but they get distracted by demanding work in their child-rearing age and challenging golf tournaments in their retirement. They never seem to get around to making an impact with the message. They always meant to, they just didn’t do it.

• Harvest Christians: There are those who followed, surrendered and became fruitful in life.

In the end, Jesus said, “You are responsible for listening to the truth and letting it change your behavior.”

That is convicting, and piles on truth, but that wasn’t the whole sermon. That was just Jesus’ opening illustration! Mark continued:

Mark 4:21 And He was saying to them, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22 For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In essence, Jesus told them an essential truth: the real and the fake would all eventually show themselves. No one can truly hide from God. He knows who is honestly surrendered and actually following. He knows who is not!

As a form, religion allows the unrighteous to act out in ways that temporarily cover their emptiness.

Yet, here is the truth: A relationship with an all-knowing God precludes faking it to the finish line. It is a really dumb idea to think we can trick God into thinking we have surrendered our life to Him when we haven’t.

Truth #2: When you truly grasp the truth, it changes you. If you didn’t change – the truth slipped past you.

Honestly, the end goal Jesus gave us isn’t to get people into the church to hear the truth but to get the truth into the church and send changed people into the world. Our prime turf of engagement isn’t under a steeple but in the town square. If you aren’t doing that, you aren’t getting the mission Jesus sent us to fulfill. Mark continued:

Mark 4:24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

Truth #3: The primary assignment of a Jesus isn’t to run around trying to measure the life and faith of other people (but we will be tempted to do it!).

In most every religious group, some feel called to run around and decide the faithfulness of others and offer a grade to ones that measure up and those who do not seem to meet their standard. Jesus wanted His followers to be introspective, but not obnoxious about the inspection of others. We must remember that when we create a standard of judgment, it is only valuable if we are truly living by it ourselves! The account went on:

Mark 4:26 And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27 and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. 28 The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29 But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

By way of reassurance, Jesus offered a word of deep encouragement to the disciples.

Truth # 4: Followers don’t need to understand how everything God does truly works (but they will often want to and claim to!).

He told them that the Kingdom was able to grow and become effective without the need for them to really know all the progressions involved because the process was as natural as vegetation growth. What a word for any of us who have dear ones that live far away from us – God can reach them and grow in them the Word planted long ago! We don’t have to understand WHO God will use or HOW; we just need to understand He is able. Jesus continued:

Mark 4:30 And He said, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32 yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE.” 33 With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; 34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.

Truth #5: God often works to meet different ends than we are watching.

While the weed that was planted in the garden appears to have been a waste, it was really successful from the standpoint of the need of the birds! We have to recognize that Kingdom growth meets God’s ends, not always ours. Therefore we need to be humble. We may not be qualified to judge well what Jesus is doing in those around us.

That was a long day of teaching! Jesus added five truths to His followers and built up the base from which they could be formed to look like Him. The additions are the only way to form us to be more like Jesus. There is something else…

Second, look at the scraping that came with the troubles Jesus took His disciples through (4:35-41).

Scraping involves shrinking. It involves painful struggle. It isn’t pleasant, but it shapes us. Mark recorded and example:

Mark 4:35 On that day, when evening came, He said to them, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. 37 And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. 38 Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” 39 And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. 40 And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”

Great teachers give students an opportunity to learn the truth by LEARNING ACTIVITIES. In this case, Jesus placed the disciples in an awkward and needy position to move their eyes from judging the current crowds to looking beyond the small world of their ministry to a lost world that struggled all around them in the grip of the evil one. He snapped them to attention by:

• Taking them where they felt unsure

• Giving them a problem while appearing unconcerned

• Letting them draw conclusions about His love: “Master don’t you care?”

• Solving their problem and amazing them

The point of the exercise was to get the men ready! God always has a point for our suffering, though we don’t often know what it is.

Why do “bad things” happen to “good people”? I can think of five reasons without really working very hard at it:

1) Sometimes it is the result of MY SIN.

Galatians 6:7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.

2) Sometimes it is because I live with choices of other sinners.

Romans 3:10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE...”

3) Sometimes it is because I live in a fallen world.

Romans 8:19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

4) Sometimes it is so that God can test me – that I may see who I am and who I am not.

Dt. 8:2 You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.

5) Sometimes it is so that God can prepare me to comfort others.

2 Cor. 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

The disciples in this story were being prepared for a great lesson – that God has work going on well outside the places they considered. God is at work in a battle against both a brutal and vicious enemy, and a fallen world that does not work the way He created it to work. It is fallen and struggles against what God intended.

If only the disciples had recalled the work of God in the Exodus, they would have understood exactly what God was doing. He was giving them the rocking boat because that is what they NEEDED to get ready for what was coming.

More often than not, troubles come into our lives to set us up for the place God wants us to be effective if we will learn from our pain. The scraping of the artist pulls the extra from our shape and makes us more like our Master’s image.

Third, the artist transforms the work by smoothing the surface, allowing us to understand His re-shaping work (5:1-20).

In the case of Mark’s account, the disciples needed to see the transforming power of the Master to understand what He was doing IN THEM. Mark wrote:

Mark 5:1 They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. 2 When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him, 3 and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; 4 because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones. 6 Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; 7 and shouting with a loud voice, he said, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore Yo u by God, do not torment me!” 8 For He had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain. 12 The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them.” 13 Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea. 14 Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the “legion”; and they became frightened. 16 Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine. 17 And they began to implore Him to leave their region. 18 As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him. 19 And He did not let him, but He said to him, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

The elements of the story present the “Perfect Storm” – a nightmare from the Jewish perspective:

• They went to an unclean area filled with pagans after dark (5:1).
• They were met by a demon-empowered man who was living in the constant defilement of tombs (5:2).
• He was uncontrollable with broken chains hanging from him (5:3-4).
• He was gashed and bleeding (5:5).
• He ran abruptly toward them (5:6).
• Demons spoke from his throat (5:7-8).
• Pigs were eating along the nearby slope (5:11).
• The healed man wanted to come home with them (5:18)!

The storm on the sea prepared the men to follow Jesus into the storm on the land – a struggle against barriers of fear to fight the enemy openly. Jesus was able to defeat the enemy’s minions, and the men saw the transforming power of Jesus.

In the end, these stories returned to the fight of Jesus in spiritual warfare against His enemy.

Step back and put the three pieces together:

• Jesus taught and added truth to them.

• Trouble scraped and extracted self-assurance from them.

• Transformation showed God’s ability to re-make people.

After I have followed Jesus for a long time, it is easy to forget how powerful, magnificent and life-changing time with Him truly is! Many of us have found ourselves secretly questioning what God is doing in our lives. We don’t like pain and we don’t want trouble. We are focused on the wrong things… Remember:

Believers are shaped by three important experiences: God’s instruction, life’s problems, and God’s shaping power.

Don’t kick against any of them – they are making you into what God intends you to be!

Second Chances: “The Move to Hope” – Ezra 10

Read the magazines and blogs on ministry today, and you will get a steady dose of two ideas: First, the church has not shown enough love to the world in the way we have reflected Jesus to them; and second, the western world is increasingly offended by our reflection of absolutes in the realm of morality– so we need to navigate sharing them with more care.

The best modern writers “thread a needle” to suggest we shouldn’t “abandon” any of our core beliefs, but we need to be more nuanced about how and when we share them. On first inspection, many in the church in America seem much more concerned with sensitivity than boldness, (both of which are Biblically demanded) but they seem more concerned with subtle influence of behavior than overt zeal communicated from a life powerfully transformed. That should be a matter of some concern for those who are paying close attention. We can so easily tilt too far in one direction.

The trend to sensitivity isn’t all bad, in fact there is much wisdom in it. I need to be reminded to be tactful and careful all the time! We must be prepared to present Jesus in a way that people can hear what we are saying, to be sure. We naturally shy away from the rude and overly blunt for good reason. Yet, there are times when I honestly question if that sentiment is an accurate portrayal of Jesus and the early church at all. I study the Bible. I study it a lot. I have read Jesus’ self-statements and His methods of ministry as revealed in the Gospels. I have walked the paths of the Apostle Paul and read every word of every letter carefully. Here is what I didn’t see: neither Jesus nor Paul seemed to project a greater concern about the possible offensiveness of their presentation to men than they did about the urgency for lost men’s souls and the need to clearly present critical the truths about God. The early church seemed to celebrate zeal and boldness for Jesus in the face of rising persecution. There appears to be a “disconnect” between the Holy Record and the modern authors.

Whatever happened to the call for ZEAL and the celebration of courage?

I took some time to read more carefully several authors in an attempt to understand what they were seeing that I simply wasn’t. What I found were several lines of argument – mostly framed by the notion that egregious violations from anecdotal Christian history should make us more careful about what we say and how we say it. Their line seems to be something like this: People who claimed Jesus in the past have sometimes been unbelievably unloving in their presentation of Him. That seemed true, so I took some time to ponder that as I reflected on a passage that is very tough to read if all the is true can be found in “syrupy compassion” (Ezra 10)…and the resulting study is today’s lesson.

God’s Word teaches that we must be compassionate, but we cannot make the world’s acceptance our chief goal.

We represent God as expressed in His Word. Where that Word conflicts with our modern, ever-shifting and easily wounded sensitivities, we must still speak clearly. We cannot be driven off message by those who ask us to modify God’s Word to be less offensive to them. A message that presents men and women as broken and lost in sin was never, and will never be, truly popular.

Let us be very clear: Compromise of a believer’s call to stand for the revealed truths of God’s Word for the sake of displaying compassion to the world is wrong, for it places the world’s affirmation above loyalty to our Creator.

In the short run, it may make our faith more palatable to rebels, but it won’t please the God that called us to and for Himself. It won’t represent Him as He truly is. In fact, the lessening of the standards of God’s revealed will can never produce a people more sensitive to God – only people more sensitive to being accepted by a lost world. That isn’t our goal. An ambassador is much more concerned with accurately relating the message of the one who sent him than of being welcomed by his audience. Believers have to keep that in mind. We want to be winsome, but acceptance by the world cannot and must not be our exclusive concern. We want to connect emotionally with lost people because it is dark where they are – but we don’t want to offer them a blanket of comfort to dwell in darkness.

I mention all this because our passage is about a time when God commanded something He never did before, and has never articulated since. This is a “one off” deal, where God made clear that when His intentions were not followed, and people compromised on what He told them to do – the only right way “back” was to take drastic action. Remember our principle from the first part of this message…

Key Principle: There is a process to leading people from disobedience into a right standard.

How do we redirect people when they have done something God said MUST NEVER be done?

The scene was one of disobedient Israelites that inter-married with local tribes-people, violating God’s command to remain distinct from such a practice. They were to define marriage “for them” only inside of the tribes of Israel. It didn’t matter what the world did; that was their God-placed limitation. Ezra came to the land, and the intermarriage was shared with him. He fell on his face before God and wept for the magnitude of the violation, and the hubris of leaders who accepted it. Last time we walked through the heavy-hearted response. We ended with the “refocus” on HOPE.

First, Ezra refocused confession toward HOPE (10:1-2)

The beginning is confession of sin – clear, broken and concise…

Ezra 10:1 Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.

Talk about a place where “spin” wasn’t happening – I love the fact the verses show Ezra talking straight about the violation. He cried for chapter nine, but now it was time to be decisive.

Ezra attempted to start the wave of complete repentance. He was not putting on a show for the people around him, but rather deliberately falling before the Lord and asking him for much needed mercy. A contrite heart draws others toward God, while a self-centered heart deflects glory from God. Ezra did not wait for others to follow, but lived his life before the Lord, and others saw it for what it was and were moved.

While most people wept bitterly, two leaders stepped forward, spoke with promise, and hope about the future. It wouldn’t help to wallow in guilt and despair if they could not offer the earnest expectation that people can change their behavior, and experience God’s grace. The call to repentance isn’t simply a call to an end of wrong behavior, but a call to a new shower of grace and an invigorated new walk with God.

Look at the two elements of it in verse two:

• First, there is the admission of guilt: “We have been unfaithful to defining our fences where God put them!”
• Second, there is a call to hope: “God can renew us!”

These two ideas are at the heart of our message to men and women walking in error. We do not explain away the “error” in complexity and compassion – we define right and wrong with the clarion ring of the God’s command. We don’t END with the violation – but with the path to God. The path to the Holy One always leads through humble admission and a request for undeserved favor.

Second, Ezra called on the people to openly commit to difficult CHANGE (10:3-12).

Guilt leads to wallowing in pain while godly sorrow leads to deliberate life change… Without change, hope is an illusion. Things don’t get better until people walk into God’s arms admitting they have been straying…

Ezra 10:3 So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Arise! For this matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you; be courageous and act.

True leaders took up the matter before the country. It was the responsibility of the leadership, but the people needed to commit to stand behind them. It is worth noting that there are times when even the leader is so impacted by the weight of the decision, that paralysis sets in. Nothing motivates the heart of a leader more than followers encouraging him or her to stand for truth — and making a statement of loyalty to God’s purposes in the process.

The leader didn’t run ahead – he brought the people with him. He made sure the commitment was to God’s Word and not simply to him. Because a godly leader is not asking people to follow them apart from the restrictions of God’s Word, the leader can be bold and direct about expecting obedience. Ezra expected the people to make an open promise to do right — and any godly mature leader can do no less. We cannot sanction wrong out of compassion, nor can we make people feel good about denying God’s Word in their lives.

Ezra 10:5 Then Ezra rose and made the leading priests, the Levites and all Israel, take oath that they would do according to this proposal; so they took the oath.

He was not content to simply address the problem before the people; he continued to be brokenhearted about it. It is the responsibility of the leader to move people past the problem, but that does not mean the leader will not suffer personally the setbacks of facing the problem. Ezra was a man, and as such he was subject to the pain and sorrow that anyone who counsels people out of sin choices in their life can recognize.

Ezra 10:6 Then Ezra rose from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib. Although he went there, he did not eat bread nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.

The people needed to be led to the point of decision and change. One of the expectations on them needed to be a specific time schedule. Left open-ended, people are inclined put off making difficult commitments forever. Ezra chose a three-day time frame, based on the counsel of the leaders about him. Travel time, and other considerations were no doubt discussed.

Ezra 10:7 They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the exiles, that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the leaders and the elders, all his possessions should be forfeited and he himself excluded from the assembly of the exiles. 9 So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain.

Ezra clearly defined the expectation because people cannot follow an expectation they do not understand. It was his job to make clear the application of God’s rules. The people needed to face their wrong, and take the tough medicine required to right the wrong. Thankfully, the people agreed to do the tough thing.

Ezra 10:10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. 11 “Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly replied with a loud voice, “That’s right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do.

It is easy to read this without emotion, since the events were recorded twenty-five hundred years ago. Think about the scene. God’s command was violated, and the fence He originally called for needed to be set anew. That wouldn’t be easy, but it wasn’t optional either. We don’t get to be more compassionate than God, more understanding than the Almighty, more clear that the Absolute Light. He places the boundaries and we live within them.

Third, Ezra aced the internal tension and opposition (10:13-17).

There were some practical hurdles that needed to be considered (10:13-14). Ezra needed to listen carefully to the “push back” on the command.

Once everyone agreed that action needed to be taken, specific steps needed to be outlined in the work to make the appropriate responses. The people saw the greatness of the task in front of them, and decided that they would need more time to deal with the issue. This was not an attempt to deny fixing the problem, but a mere recognition that the process of overcoming the problem would be difficult.

Two Hurdles to Overcome

This “push back” was a potential land mine for Ezra. It is easy for the leader to misinterpret any question of clarification or problem presented as rebellion. It is important to recognize that there is a vast difference between opposition of the purpose and questions related to executing the goal. It’s important for us to allow people to explain the difficulties of completing the task, without implying that they are being disloyal or disobedient.

Ezra 10:13 But there are many people; it is the rainy season and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter. 14 Let our leaders represent the whole assembly and let all those in our cities who have married foreign wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each city, until the fierce anger of our God on account of this matter is turned away from us.

A second problem arose that was equally difficult and just as potentially treacherous for Ezra. Inside the practical hurdles, some will be suspicious and insist the only plan is the original plan (10:15). A mature leader must know who stands in opposition, and when it is time to adjust the plan. I think we can understand why SOME would object to appearing to “loosen the standard” to allow more time. Some did in Ezra’s case – but not all…

Ezra 10:15 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, with Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supporting them.

I think it may be informative that these men included some from the list of Nehemiah 11, showing they apparently did not object to Ezra because he was moving to separate families – but because he wasn’t doing it QUICKLY ENOUGH. They were ON BOARD with the three day plan – but any extension looked like compromise to them.

Beloved, we who have been in the church for a long time need to be especially careful about this kind of attitude. When we see an issue as essential and agree on the prescription from the Word, it doesn’t mean the wrestling is over. We may understand the gravity of the sin, and want to see immediate action taken. That all sounds good. When practical considerations were considered, some compromise of the TIMING of the correction was immediately opposed. Why? Because it is appeared to be some kind of compromise; but it was not! Here is the danger: These men adopted a GUARDIAN SPIRIT over the flock – as though they alone knew what was best. They didn’t. Ezra knew what he was doing. God wasn’t un-pleased with his response to loosen the time frame. Ezra wasn’t compromising of truth, only timing. He was wise and kind all at the same time!

If the four men: Jonathan, Jahzeiah, Meshullam and Shabbethai, had considered carefully all that Ezra already said and did before this easing of time – they could have trusted his intention not to be soft on sin, or allow the Word to be overlooked. After all, there was nothing in the narrative that suggested that Ezra didn’t see the sin clearly and the remedy clearly. They needed to trust their leader – and I believe they DID when the rest agreed to wait longer.

Fourth, the leaders made a careful inspection of compliance to the rule (10:16-44).

Someone once quipped, “You can expect what you inspect!” A specific process of investigation of families was engaged in order to decide whom the order applied to, and whether they were in fact following it. Part of facing opposition is taking people’s various positions and not mischaracterizing them or improperly grouping them with other views. We cannot expect people to understand exactly what they should do simply by offering edicts and commands. It is absolutely essential that God’s leaders be clear about God’s standards, then carefully but lovingly hold people accountable for their pledge to follow God – even when it is difficult.

Ezra 10:16 But the exiles did so. And Ezra the priest selected men who were heads of fathers’ households for each of their father’s households, all of them by name. So they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter. 17 They finished investigating all the men who had married foreign wives by the first day of the first month. 10:18 Among the sons of the priests who had married foreign wives were found of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib and Gedaliah. 19They pledged to put away their wives, and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their offense. .. 44 All these had married foreign wives, and some of them had wives by whom they had children.

Before we leave this book and this problem, it is worth noting the final verse – and the emotional pain it represented. How tough it must have been to divide homes and impact children in this way! How “judgy” and “uncompassionate” that must have seemed to those who did not follow God. Even God’s followers would find that hard to swallow. That kind of reasoning isn’t “new” and “modern” – it is as old as the rebellion against God itself. Men think they know more than God. They think God doesn’t know what is best. That was at the heart of the first sin of Eve, and every sin of men and women since. We know better. We get the idea that God is “out of touch” or doesn’t really understand and care for my needs. It is wrong, but it is common thinking.

Seriously! God broke up families with children? That just seems mean!

The truth is that many people think they have a reason not to obey a command of God that seems too difficult or doesn’t seem to take into account their feelings.

We can only imagine that the division of these homes would’ve caused great pain to many people. We can hear the psychologists warning of how this will hurt the children for life, and how it would scar the land with broken people. NPR would have a field day with one expert after another who knew better than God what would be the best “for all concerned.”

There is nothing more arrogant than a man or woman who looks straight at the Creator and tells Him He doesn’t have the right to set the standards and should live with the fruits of our jumped fences.

Let’s be absolutely clear.

God had no desire to cause such pain — the pain should be placed on the bearer of the sin, not the bearer of the truth.

Because these families were united in a way that was utterly inappropriate, there was no way to alleviate their pain.

A recent case illustrates this point. A homosexual couple made their way into a local church, and subsequently came to Jesus as Savior. They were lovingly guided to divide their relationship because it did not conform to biblical standards. The church was not dividing something God put together, for God had never made the slightest hint that such a union was acceptable to Him. The fact that men declared such a marriage legal did not change the fact that the Scripture has spoken on this issue clearly. “What about the adopted children?” some immediately howled.

It didn’t occur to them how flawed their thinking was. They thought that by ignoring the biblical standards clearly outlined in the Scriptures, somehow things would work out BETTER. We need to guard our hearts against such poor thinking.

Turning from sin to God’s arms is where real hope should be focused. That’s the plan. There is a process to leading people from disobedience to a right standard.

• It doesn’t include ignoring the standard – but applying it.
• It doesn’t assume we are the judge of God’s standards – but the creature for whom they were made.
• It doesn’t sound like an angry weapon – but is given from a broken heart.

Second chances with God have always been about recognizing the truth of Who He is, who we are, and what life is truly about.

Grace pours out on the broken, not the arrogant. It is clear that the Bible beckons the prodigal’s return – while the modern university calls on us to see the prodigal’s life needs as the “new normal” while we move the moral fences to accept their way. We must see clearly: that is the rebel’s path and God has consistently called men and women to make the painful and difficult choice to do right after we have done wrong and grown accustomed to it.

How many times would you let someone make up the rules in YOUR marriage? Would you let them wander in and out of your bed between trysts? One woman remembers the days after making the tough choice to draw a line… Someone clipped this for me, and I am not sure where it originated, but the author was a woman named Melodie Miller. Listen to how hard it was for her to do what she needed to do to follow God…

“…Unfortunately, my children were at a young age when their father left our home, and they had to grapple with feelings of rejection and abandonment. The first few weeks were brutal. Comforting my children was exhausting and added to my own heartbreak. I held my 3-year-old daughter, Emelia, and 2-year-old son, Elijah, for hours while they cried. Elijah was deeply saddened by his father’s absence, but he was unable to express his feelings verbally. So in the middle of the night, he would wake up screaming. Other times, Elijah wandered around my bedroom crying, not knowing what to do with himself, only to finally collapse exhausted on the floor. Minutes later, he’d despairingly rise to begin the pattern again. Sometimes I’d hold him in a big bear hug. Other times I would sit on the floor and rock him with tears pouring down my face. ‘Mama’s here,’ I’d say. ‘I’ve got you. I love you. Stop crying, baby. Elijah, please stop. You’re OK. You’re safe. Mama’s here.’ To quiet him, I began singing to my son. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’

“Finally, I cried out to the Lord, begging him to comfort Elijah’s soul with the peace only Jesus can give. Proverbs 31:8 tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” So, I interceded for my broken-hearted children and asked the Lord to protect them from the sins of their father. Elijah’s sobbing went on for many nights. I continued to hold him, rock him, sing hymns and pray until he fell asleep. His anguish began to diminish. Finally, he slept soundly through the night. I learned some valuable lessons about God through that difficult time. I realized that God is: My Comforter: …God cares deeply and shares in my sorrows. God sees my trouble and knows about the anguish of my soul (Psalm 31:7). Just as I shared the pain for my boy’s broken heart, my heavenly Father felt the pain of mine. I need to remember to crawl into my Daddy’s lap when I feel helplessly alone.”

I got only a small portion of her story, but it is one I have heard countless times. He plays around, and she doesn’t want to show him the door, but that day comes. She grows distant and he discovers she is in an affair with a guy at work…. Sometimes the person who draws the line in the sand feels like THEY are the one breaking things…but that isn’t so. They are calling their partner back to what God designed for marriage – not the nonsense and games some people prefer to call a life together.

Ezra stepped in and stopped wrong by drawing a line in the sand, redefining the terms back to what God made them. Nothing gets fixed while God’s standards are set aside…

It’s all about Jesus: “Grasping the Details” – Colossians 3:1-9

I have a confession to make: I get impatient assembling complex things. I don’t have the problem when I am working over a long time to build a program or write some research – those are puzzles I seem to enjoy. Yet, when it comes to assembling something with dozens of tiny parts, I get frustrated easily. Part of the problem is that I don’t want to invest the time necessary to really do the job – there are other things on my mind. The other part of the problem stems from reading directions written by someone with only a vague knowledge of my language, using sentence structure of which I am not familiar. The combination of complex design, a multitude of parts and poorly written instructions make the job incredibly frustrating to me.

Here is what I know about a complicated assembly: the details matter. The manufacturer may give you some extra nuts and bolts in the package, but it is far more likely that you have forgotten step 126, and left a tiny part out. You will discover that after the full assembly doesn’t work as it should, and begin to undo all the steps back to 126.

Let’s just accept the fact that in everything that is complex, the details matter.

Why is that important? It is essential to recognize because a walk with God is a complex operation.

By the way, not every believer treats it that way. Some speak of the Christian life in passive terms – as if God overwhelms you and does it all for you. There are verses that demonstrate God is the One Who transforms us, but those aren’t the whole story. In fact, the many commands of Scripture make clear there is a part of the process I am personally responsible for as I become what Jesus intends me to be.

Let’s say it this way: No one slides into spiritual maturity. Though spiritual growth IS God at work in us, it is NOT strictly a passive endeavor. God promised to change my life from the inside out, but it is a “room by room” process. He demands that I consciously open the door to each “room” within for His inspection and His work of change.

If that is true, I need some clear and careful instruction on how to know what God wants access to inside of me, and how to allow Him to initiate change. Here is the truth found in the first part of Colossians 3…

Key Principle: To mature in my faith, I must attentively allow God to change my mind and my actions.

Since we know the details matter, let’s look closely at the two areas where God revealed He desires us to open the first doors.

Gain a new perspective: Change your mind.

God wants to begin with our thinking, and where we focus our view. In short, we are to set our focus on one specific chair in Heaven.

Colossians 3:1 Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Paul started with a simple word about what the Colossian believers were focused upon. Note the exacting detail of the description of where in Heaven a believer is supposed to fix their gaze – at His throne.

The point is that Paul called them to train their thinking to recognize they live to please the King!

The “seeking of things above” isn’t just “dreaming about Heaven” and getting warm and fuzzy. It isn’t dreams of little cupid-like angels floating from cloud to cloud. It isn’t anticipation of seeing our beloved great grandma once again and hugging her tightly. Paul’s call was clear: “Look at the place of Jesus seated on the throne.” If we have claimed His death as payment for our sin, and recognized His Resurrection as God’s acceptance of that payment, we must refocus our mind to deliberately surrender ourselves to the proper Prince of our heart’s throne. He rules Heaven, and He is supposed to rule us.

Just as Colossians 3:1 called believers to focus on the ruler of their life, Colossians 3:2-4 called them to persistently connect how Heaven later affects choices now.

This is a second step, and an essential detail of the practical side of the elusive nature of “letting Jesus control my life.”

Don’t skip past the verses. Paul wrote:

Colossians 3:2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

Clearly our mind must be reset. The key to practicing the rule of Jesus in me is found in how I train my mind. God has promised help in re-tooling, but He left commands because we must give Him access to our thinking. Read the verses carefully and you will discover that Paul drove home a simple point.

To engage the transformation process I must train my thinking to get satisfaction when He is satisfied (3:2). Any desires that don’t meet with His approval must be “put to death” and subjugated to His desires (3:3) so that when Jesus comes I will stand with Him as part of His loyal host (3:4).

In short, I have to change WHO I live to please.

If I want to be a part of those who stand in the host of Heaven’s army, loyal and trusted among the companions of my Lord in the future, I have to change my thought life. If I make my daily choices based on my own feelings and live to please ME, then I am not fit to call myself one of HIS.

In practical terms, every believer would do well to begin each day acknowledging the ownership of His Lord. He or she will want to frequently ask for direction, purchase any item with His nod of approval, and constantly speak with a keen awareness that the Master is listening.

When I train myself to realize the nearness of God, I walk in harmony with God.
I truly believe what Bonhoeffer observed long ago: “When the enemy moves in to tempt us, he does not get us to HATE God, but to FORGET God.” If that is true, frequently recalling His presence and seeking His approval for choices will help me steer away from disobedience and forgetfulness. A walk with Jesus starts with mindfulness of Jesus.

The simple truth is that how we think directly sets up how we behave. Let me illustrate:

When VICTOR SERIBRIAKOFF was only fifteen years of age, his teacher told him he would never finish school and that he should drop out and learn a trade. Victor believed the counsel, took the advice and for 17 years he became a handyman. He was told he had little academic aptitude, so for seventeen years he lived in that role. At about age 32 an amazing transformation took place in his life. A detailed skill evaluation revealed that he appeared to be a genius with an IQ of about 161. Almost from that moment, he began acting like a genius. Since that time, he became author of a number of works, secured a series of patents on products he invented and became a successful businessman selling his knowledge and inventions. Perhaps the most significant event for the former drop out was his election as Chairman of the International Mensa Society. The society has only one membership qualification – an IQ exceeding 140.” Victor changed when he believed he was different – and you will too.

When you recognize daily that Jesus is in charge, your choices will begin to change. Perhaps you need more! How can I practice placing Jesus in charge? What a good question! The truth is, once you KNOW you need to do that, you will need to allow God to renew something else inside. You will need to open the door to some old ways of thinking and allow God to hit the “reset button” on them.

Crush old defaults: Change your assumptions.

We do what we do because we think what we think. What we believe deeply is what we live daily – and those daily practices show where our heart truly is. Look at three assumptions that God must reset in you to allow the maturing process to take hold.

Assumption #1: I should be led by my heart. This is a tremendous lie the enemy has seated so deeply within our culture that we now allow our feelings to overturn any other belief system. In modern America we determine truth by our feelings. The truth is that I must shut down unquestioned control of my behavior based on my fallen hungers. Paul wrote it this way:

Colossians 3:5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.

Stop assuming that because you want it, you should have it. We could say it this way: I need to get a new diet – I don’t have to live by the old rules. These things are building to the day of God’s interruption and judgment (3:6). We USED to live in them, but transformation means they are drying up inside us (3:7).

Let’s be clear about the Spirit’s work and my choices. The transformation by God in every area of my life directly corresponds to the rooms inside I willingly open to Him. He can change anything, but chooses to change nothing unless I offer it to Him first.

• If I refuse to offer to God the access to my relationships – God will not transform them.

• If I refuse to hold out to Him an addiction – God will not empower me to push it out of my life.

Whatever I don’t offer to God I keep for myself – and I won’t grow properly in that area.

The simple truth about this transformation process is that I must ask God to empower me to force the desires of my past life to lose their power over me. The lost man has passions and lusts that drive them, but I must not (3:5). To be clear, Paul enumerated them (3:5b):

• Immoral practices: (porneia) defiled or unlawful use of sexual gift

• Impurity: (Akatharsia) ceremonial or moral impurity – living beyond the moral fences God set up

• Passion: (Pathos) used as one subject to – the idea of allowing something else to choose for me

• Evil Desire: (kakos epithumia) giving a “green light” to temptation in my mind. This is like “taking a moral mental vacation” and thinking about the forbidden.

• Greed (which is idolatry): (Pleonexia) an unending hunger for acquisition

If you look closely at the list above, oozing out of the words are the attitudes of selfishness. They are all about ego and fulfilling desires of the flesh. They are all rooted in lies.

• Sex won’t fulfill my God-given need for intimacy with others.

• Living “on the edge” may seem exciting, but it will be short-lived.

• Allowing passions to overtake me may sell well in a cheap thrill novel, but impulsive living leads to ruin in relationships and puts a stain on our reliability to others.

• An insatiable hunger for more will drive me to make both unhealthy and unholy decisions. Curbing inner desires is no different in substance than curbing bad eating habits. I must stop feeding on the wrong thing in the short term to realize health in the long term.

Assumption #2: My first answer is my best one. This is a lie we learned taking tests in school. It may work on an instinctive level when you study some academic pursuit, but it isn’t true when it comes to moral thinking – because my default settings didn’t begin in godliness. The truth is I must gain conscious control of my default reactions. Paul wrote:

Colossians 3:8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.

God’s call to the believer is to stop assuming that because it feels natural, it is good. Here is the truth: If I don’t rein in my feelings they will continue to run my life as they did when I was lost. Jesus will be supplanted from the throne by how I feel today.

Like everyone on the planet, my unsaved life was run by how I felt. If I am going to pass into the process of spiritual maturity, I must deliberately change my attitudes about people and make sure my responses reflect that change (3:8). I must deliberately choose to set aside:

• Anger: (orgay) untempered agitation of the soul

• Wrath: (thumos) heat; uncontrolled outbursts of burning frustration

• Malice: (kakia) depraved speech and thinking

• Slander: (blasphemia) speech that injures another

• Abusive speech: (aischrologia) debased speech, obscenities

I smiled when I read about this new believer who shared how God was changing her attitudes:

She declared, “I’m so glad I got a relationship with God. I have an uncle I used to hate so much I vowed I’d never go to his funeral. But now, why, I’d be happy to go to it any time.

Assumption #3: The truth is often too hard to bear. There are many reasons we give ourselves to say something that is not true. The simple truth is that we must seek to shut down the inborn impulse to lie. Paul wrote:

Colossians 3:9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices.

Think of it this way: When my attitudes change, my words should change as well. People lie for many reasons. Some lie to gain status. Others lie to keep peace. We must stop assuming that because something we say could make us appear wiser or even if it would avoid possible conflict with people, it is right to say things that aren’t true.

Let’s be honest: No place are our attitudes so obvious as in our mouths.

Connect verse nine to verse eight for a moment.

When we let a matter burn within, a small amount of pressure will push out the feelings we have kept under wraps. These preserved and un-yielded bad attitudes inside, stirred up by outside influences of a fallen world (news, TV, etc.) will yield things I have to cover up. That’s where the lies become a part of my life.

May I suggest that we may need to withdraw from conversations with people who peddle in smut or gossip? I want to be a witness, but transformation focus requires that I understand who is being changed. If I am being pressed into the mold of the world, it is time to withdraw for a time of renewal and re-strengthening before I continue to reach out to that particular person or group.

To mature in my faith, I must attentively allow God to change my mind and my actions.

Sheila Crowe wrote: Dennis E. Mannering was teaching a class for adults, when he did the “unpardonable.” He gave the class homework! The assignment was to “go to someone you love within the next week and tell them you love them. It had to be someone you have never said those words to before or at least haven’t shared those words with for a long time.” Now that doesn’t sound like a very tough assignment, until you stop to realize that most of the men in that group were over 35 and were raised in the generation of men that were taught that expressing emotions is not “macho.” Showing feelings or crying (heaven forbid!) was just not done. So this was a very threatening assignment for some. At the beginning of our next class, Mannering asked if someone wanted to share what happened when they told someone they loved them. He fully expected one of the women to volunteer, as was usually the case, but on this evening one of the men raised his hand. He appeared quite moved and a bit shaken. As he unfolded out of his chair (all 6’2″ of him), he began by saying, “Dennis, I was quite angry with you last week when you gave us this assignment. I didn’t feel that I had anyone to say those words to- I had told everyone who needed to know that I loved them, and besides, who were you to tell me to do something that personal? But as I began driving home my conscience started talking to me. It was telling me that I knew exactly who I needed to say ’I love you’ to. You see, five years ago, my father and I had a vicious disagreement and really never resolved it since that time. We avoided seeing each other unless we absolutely had to at Christmas or other family gatherings. But even then, we hardly spoke to each other. So, last Tuesday by the time I got home I had convinced myself I was going to tell my father I loved him. It’s weird, but just making that decision seemed to lift a heavy load off my chest. When I got home, I rushed into the house to tell my wife what I was going to do. She was already in bed, but I woke her up anyway. When I told her, she didn’t just get out of bed, she catapulted out and hugged me, and for the first time in our married life she saw me cry. We stayed up half the night drinking coffee and talking. It was great! “The next morning I was up bright and early. I was so excited I could hardly sleep. I got to the office early and accomplished more in two hours than I had the whole day before. At 9:00 I called my dad to see if I could come over after work. When he answered the phone, I just said, ’Dad, can I come over after work tonight? I have something to tell you.’ My dad responded with a grumpy, ’Now what?’ I assured him it wouldn’t take long, so he finally agreed. At 5:30, I was at my parents’ house ringing the doorbell, praying that Dad would answer the door. I was afraid if Mom answered that I would chicken out and tell her instead. But as luck would have it, Dad did answer the door. I didn’t waste any time – I took one step in the door and said, ’Dad, I just came over to tell you that I love you.’ It was as if a transformation came over my dad. Before my eyes his face softened, the wrinkles seemed to disappear and he began to cry. He reached out and hugged me and said, ’I love you too, son, but I’ve never been able to say it.’ It was such a precious moment I didn’t want to move. Mom walked by with tears in her eyes. I just waved and blew her a kiss. Dad and I hugged for a moment longer and then I left. I hadn’t felt that great in a long time.” But that’s wasn’t his point or even my point. Two days after the visit, his dad, who had heart problems and didn’t tell him, had an attack and ended up in the hospital, unconscious. And the gentlemen didn’t know if his father would see tomorrow. But he had a peace just knowing that his dad knew he really loved him.

Here’s the point of transformation. In order to become what we are not in the flesh, we must open up to God and allow Him to empower us to change inside and out.

We are not working to be saved – we are opening doors to be transformed because we know Him.

His Spirit will do its work when we offer each part of life to Him.

Daily steps of conscious obedience aren’t “gutting out resolutions to live for God.” The whole thing is preceded by asking Him to lead in each part.

No one else can make you change. You and I must submit to the Person of Jesus and the process of empowering He gives. All the DNA of the butterfly is found in the caterpillar, and all the DNA of a God-honoring and transformed powerful believer is found in you and me. It is time we change our focus on WHO we are living for.

It’s all about Jesus: “Attacking the Center” – Colossians 2

There are times the problems of life seem to be dropping like bombs on us.

We are out of coffee. The stove breaks and we can’t make our breakfast eggs. No worry, we rush out the door and think, “I will take care of the stove later and stop at the market for more coffee.” As we unlock the car door, we see the interior light is very faint and was left on all night. You turn the key, and… you guessed it! The car won’t start. The battery is dead. That late night dash out to the car to get the cell phone that dropped on the floor cost you a live battery, because you forgot to shut the overhead dome light off. Now you are hungry and don’t have a way to work, and it isn’t 7:30 AM yet.

Life on a fallen planet in a body that doesn’t always work is by its very nature unpredictable and hassle-filled. Not every day is that way, but far too many are. As it works at home, so it works at the job. Problems may assail your company. They may press your community and certainly fall like rain on our massive government. The area many forget to recognize as problem susceptible is… their church. Even your local body of believers experiences a steady stream of challenges.

By the way, that isn’t new. Shortly after the birth of the church recorded in the Book of Acts, the church faced members that told lies, authorities that pressed them to shut down and people with opposing views that tried to silence them. The Apostle Paul knew all about those efforts, because he led them before he met Jesus. After he was trained by Jesus in the desert as a young believer, he returned to a church under siege. It wasn’t only challenged by temple authorities in Judaism, but by Roman officials of the government.

In Colossians 2, Paul addressed three tests the local church was facing. He wrote to them to encourage them, but also to make sure they understood how to navigate through the issues. All three of the stated challenges were presented in the letter as the problem stated and a solution offered. Though the problems varied some, the solution always seemed to be the same: recognize Jesus as He is. Colossians 2 challenged the believers to recognize one truth…

Key Principle: The key to staying on the path of our faith is keeping Jesus at the center of all we believe and do.

Three words appear in the text of Colossians 2 that set the outline for the three problems. Note 2:4, where the word “delude” appears. Now drop your eyes down in 2:8 and note the word “deceive.” Go even further down in the text to 2:18 and mark the word “defrauding.” Do you see them? Apparently, some of the people at Colossae were facing a faith that was being obscured (deluded), while others were being pressed by deception, and still others were being handed a faith that wasn’t real to replace the authentic one (defrauded). Take a few minutes to look at each situation that was captured in the text as a lesson to us.

Deluded Faith

First, consider the problem of deluded faith. Paul opened with the words:

Colossians 2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument. 5 For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.

The Apostle offered three specific concerns related to a possible delusion in Colossae:

First, Paul’s struggle was that he didn’t have a personal relationship with some of the people of the region (Colossians 2:1). It is hard to effectively pass what a relationship with Jesus looks like from a distance. Christianity is much more caught then taught.

Second, He heard that some had come to faith, but was concerned they didn’t have a complete understanding of Who Jesus truly is (Colossians 2:2-3). The most dangerous form of faith is the one that has severe knowledge gaps that get filled in by untrue ideas. In the case of the Savior, when His life and work aren’t completely grasped, it is easy to take the massive volume of information and insert other ideas that obscure the truth of why He came and what He accomplished. Let me offer three examples I have personally observed in my years of ministry:

• Jesus the Good Example. There can be no doubt that Jesus did things that modeled honesty, helpfulness, servanthood and integrity. Even the most severe critic of our faith seems careful enough when it comes to critiquing Jesus’ behavior as it was made clear in the Gospels. There are exceptions, but they are relatively rare. People who emphasize, “He went about doing good,” (Acts 10:38) tend to press the point that Jesus was a helper. They don’t emphasize the more offensive things He said to people who thought themselves to be leaders at the time. Jesus can sound, when you listen to these folks, like an ancient loafer-wearing Mister Rodgers, building a happy neighborhood of moral sock puppets.

• Jesus the Social Revolutionary. Akin to the “good example” group are those who use Jesus to back their agenda for social change. These folks emphasize the way Jesus made startling remarks that shook His day for truth. They tend to be short on details on how Jesus didn’t set up His own soup kitchens and community centers, but they picture Jesus as One Who came from Heaven to fix the neighborhood with activism and community participation.

• Jesus the bringer of Wealth and Prosperity. One of the groups that emerged in my lifetime were those who found TV a perfect medium to offer the hope of a happy filled wallet life in the name of Jesus. They posited that Jesus came to bring “abundant life” and that was meant as a promise to multiply our bank accounts.

All of these groups “preached Jesus” without really making clear what Jesus was really all about. They emphasized an agenda they had and used Jesus’ face like a celebrity endorsement. Paul may not have faced these groups, but he had his own version in his own time. The ones he faced caused him deep concern. Paul expressed he felt some were being pulled away by someone arguing against their walk with Jesus (Colossians 2:4-5). Note the term “persuasive argument.” This wasn’t simple questioning of the main ideas of the faith in Messiah; it was a deliberate and well-constructed argument against their faith designed to pull them from it.

Paul made the point in verse three that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Jesus – not in other places. The basic delusion seemed to be that Jesus shouldn’t be the center of the faith. His work for us in salvation and His walk with us in daily life somehow lacked fullness as the basis for our faith. This can be simply called the “Jesus plus” delusion. It is the notion that you need something more than Jesus to be complete in your faith-walk before God. For some people it seems to be some gift you must pull from the hands of God. For others, it is some participation in a practice unique to their fellowship.

Paul wasn’t making a call to toss out the Bible and sit on a rock and wait to “experience Jesus” apart from the instructions of His Word. What he was saying was there was nothing that needed TO BE ADDED beyond belief in Jesus and His work to the essentials of our faith. In a sense: Deluded faith here is diluted faith.

For Paul, personal faith in Jesus and His completed work was enough. He made it clear when he answered a straightforward question: “How should they respond?” Paul took the people back to recognize anew the Jesus Who saved them:

Colossians 2:6 Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.

• Note from Colossians 2:6 that in order to be a part, one must receive Jesus (Colossians 2:6a). You don’t walk in Him until you have received Him.

• Second, watch carefully as Paul commanded them to show they were a part of Jesus by walking daily with Jesus (Colossians 2:6b). The Christian life isn’t simply a worldview, but it produces one. It isn’t simply a list of things we do, but we do end up living a list of chosen actions. It isn’t just a moral code, but it does yield one. The Christian life is the conscious act of knowing, loving and inviting Jesus daily into the course of our life, allowing Him to lead us through the day.

• Third, note that Paul made clear their walk with Jesus was based on deeply rooted truth that encourages us and keeps us stable (Colossians 2:7a). The Gospel doesn’t get re-invented based on issues of social change. Jesus saves people in every walk of life on every corner of the globe the same way.

• Finally, note that he called upon them to have their walk with Jesus characterized by following His instructions in the Word while gushing with gratitude for Him (Colossians 2:7b)!

Deluded faith is avoided by so filling ourselves with Him, there is little room for another to be poured into our life. When we celebrate Jesus and His work for us, we don’t seek another solution for our sin – because we recognize what we found. You stop looking for your keys when you find them. You stop looking for a way to God when you know Him.

Deceived Faith

Next, Paul mentioned deceived believers when he wrote:

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

The heart of the deception point seems to have related to the words “traditions of men” and “elementary principles of the world.” Don’t let those words slip by you or you will draw false conclusions about both the problem and the solution.

Some conclude the passage is speaking of the sacrificial system and its entry requirement, circumcision.

Some hold Paul was referring to the Torah, the Law of Israel. They connect the phrase being “under the Law” in Gal. 3 with “under the elementary principles of the world” in Galatians 4.

Others support the notion that Paul referred to demons which originated the false teachings which Paul refuted. The terms “the elementary principles” were sometimes used in extra-biblical literature to refer to the spirits and Paul later spoke of “the worship of angels” as part of the heresy associated with the “the elementary principles.”

When you step back and look at it, there seems to be a mixing of two things: some commentators don’t seem to keep a line between what God said and what men added to what God said. Be very careful about your criticisms, because the same can be said for MOST Christians that cannot separate between the Bible and the rules of their denomination or fellowship.

• Let me be very clear. Men didn’t command circumcision to access the place of atonement (Tabernacle or Temple) – God did.

• Men didn’t invent the Atonement Laws that required the killing of animals in the sacrificial system – God did.

• Lumping the Law into “traditions of men” is not correct.

The issue seems to be the rabbinic rulings that added to the Law, not the Law itself. After all, God didn’t say atonement sacrifices were permanent, even in Leviticus where they are instructed. The use of the term “forever” is quite limited in that book!

The fact is that atonement law offered animal blood to temporarily abate the wrath of God (turn Him away from holding sin to an account). Sacrifices were NOT mere “ritual” even though they were temporarily in place. The issue was this: Atonement Law was fully replaced by justification. To go back to the atonement sacrificial system (as offered by the temple authorities of the time) could only lead to slavery.

In Messiah, all foreshadows lost their significance and needed to be discarded.

Let me say it this way. You took a trip to Hollywood and wanted to walk along the areas where celebrities were celebrated. By a newsstand, there was a life-sized cardboard cutout of your favorite movie actor or actress. You rushed over to get a picture taken as you stand posed beside the cutout. While you are standing there, that very actor walked out of the shop and was standing there watching you get your picture taken. When you realized the actor was there, you abandoned the cutout for the actual human being. To walk away from the actor and go back to the cutout would have been ridiculous.

Paul wanted people to walk with Jesus, but abandon their sense of need for the atoning sacrifices that were a cardboard cutout of Him.

By Messiah’s death, He brought total justification to us (wiping clean our account before God without any act performed by us beyond the acceptance of His work). He offered a “once for all” offering that forever replaced the need for atonement sacrifices. However, it is demeaning to lump “Old Testament” and “ritual,” not to mention “traditions of men” together when referring to the Law God gave to Moses.

Rabbis that made the temporary into the permanent added to the Law given to Moses.

The term elementary principles actually meant “what belongs to a series.” In 2 Peter 3, the Apostle referred to the physical elements of the universe set for destruction by the Lord at the end of the age. In Hebrews 5:11, the author used the term for the “basic truths” of the oracles of God the people needed to hear. In Colossians, it appears to be “things added to God’s Word.” These things are enumerated later in the passage as:

• Various rules about what a Colossian could eat or drink (2:16a). God commanded Israel not to call some animals food, but it was the rabbinic courts that sought to add that restriction to Gentiles.

• Rules about how and when to celebrate various calendar festivals, including Sabbath (2:16b). Again, God instructed Jewish people to meet Him at appointed times, but never included the Gentile world under the command. Men added that.

• Rules about “giving things up” in self-discipline of rules made by men (in 2:18a, 21-23). God called on Israel to walk in holiness, but the specifications of HOW were largely written by men.

• Rites that included worship of angelic beings (2:18b). Some cults and practices of the first century called for mystical rites common to the Roman world. Men made those up.

• Regulations of the behavior of other believers based upon personal spiritual visions (2:19). Men claimed a vision and then told everyone else their word held the authority of God’s Word.

When you argue that something must be added to trusting the work of Jesus for salvation, the basic composition of saving faith changes.

• For some, it is the continual return to the “Mass” to be among the saved at death.

• For some, it is whether or not you were baptized after you were saved that guarantees eternal salvation.

• For some, it is whether or not a priest offered you “last rites” at the time of your passing that secures the way.

• For others, no one who exhibits any behavior that should drop away as one matures will be in Heaven.

• For one group, anyone who worships on a day not Saturday cannot claim to be one of God’s people.

• For another group, only those who keep the festivals and feasts of the Lord truly understand what salvation means.

There are a ton of “Jesus plus” options out there. Paul’s admonition was simple. Keep Jesus at the center. He simply told them to stand in Jesus as the total answer.

Colossians 2:9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

He also told them to look at the judgment postings at the Judicial Dias.

Colossians 2:13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Because this refers to Roman customs, it may take some explanation…The illustration was from Roman law. Based on their writings, it seems Romans believed they were destined to bring law and order to the chaotic world. Virgil wrote in the Aeneid:

But you, Romans, remember your great arts; To govern the peoples with authority. To establish peace under the rule of law. To conquer the mighty, and show them mercy once they are conquered.

Because Paul was a Roman, he knew that if he was to make sense to Romans of his time, he had to make a legally structured argument.

Consider what he was saying as a Roman would have heard it.

In Rome there were juris prudentes (men wise in law who formed the judex), and advocati (men summoned to one’s side) and causidici (speakers of cases), who, argued the cases themselves for their clients (after C2 BCE).

In most cases, a magistrate defined the dispute, cited the law in question and referred the problem to a judex, a reputable authority in the community. The judex (with some advisors) listened to the arguments of the causidici, weighed the evidence and pronounced the sentence. Roman authorities posted the judicial notice on a board beside a platform known as the JUDICIAL DIAS where the words revealed how the judex settled their case.

Paul called on the people to go to the board and see what it said.

• He told them Jesus cancelled their debt.

• He wanted them to celebrate that Jesus took every charge against them away!

Then, without a breath, Paul changed the metaphor from the dias and called the people to another Roman image. This one found in a parade called a “Triumph.”

Colossians 2:15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

When Rome subdued a neighbor, it held a massive victory celebration – The Roman Triumph. In the city of Rome, the procession wound its way through a series of victory arches. In a procession, there was an order:

• State officials and Roman Senators usually preceded the parade, followed by trumpeters.
• The spoils of the war (i.e. The Menorah, local shields, etc.) were displayed.
• Pictures of the conquered land, models of ships destroyed, and citadels captured were set on floats and paraded.
• A white bull was usually publicly sacrificed.
• The captives walked behind in chains: enemy princes, generals and leaders to be executed.
• Roman Lictors: minor officials bearing fasces (bound rods) who cleared the way for the person(s) to be honored.
• Behind him were musicians, and priests carrying censers of perfume.
• Finally, the general was drawn in a chariot by 4 horses. He wore a purple tunic with gold palm leaves and over it a purple toga with gold stars. He led his family and some key soldiers of his army wearing their decorations and shouting “Lo triumph!”

Beside the triumph were a line of soldiers holding flowers and soldiers holding urns of burning incense. The aroma would be sweet to the victors, but signal death and enslavement to the captured.

Paul called the Colossians to walk the triumph of their Savior, and recognize His victory for them!

Defrauded Faith

Finally, Paul warned them they may have a defrauded faith. They may have WON, but been told they did not. He wrote:

Colossians 2:16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. 20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

Paul wrote thirteen epistles (at least) and wasn’t afraid of telling people what God wanted them to do. He didn’t hate rules. He wasn’t calling people to a “free for all” walk with Jesus. What he WAS doing was making a point: the Gospel is settled. Jesus paid for your sin. Any call to follow Jesus plus was a call to get control of your life in the hands of some power-hungry group.

The key to staying on the path of our faith is keeping Jesus at the center of all we believe and do.

He was sixteen when he came to Jesus. He had some baggage in his life. His girlfriend was not a Jesus follower. His music selections left something to be desired in the purity department. His hair was too long and his mouth was often foul. When he came to Jesus, he wasn’t sure what was going to happen. At first, he started to read his Bible and pray. Soon, religious leaders told him he needed to get rid of his albums, cut his hair and join a Bible study group. By seventeen, even his family couldn’t recognize him. He was clean cut, well-spoken and… a Pharisaic legalist. He preached to everyone he saw. He picked on their clothing. He derided their immoral way. He offered condemnation with every sentence. The sweetness of grace and the message of Jesus were buried under a pile of religious requirements. A few years passed. He was cut out of the lives of virtually all of his former friends. Even his family dreaded having him at holiday seasons. Then something happened. On the job, he tried his tough words on a Jesus follower who was mature and happy in his walk with Jesus. At first, the young man’s words were harsh, but after a while in desperate need of friends, he settled down. The older and more mature believer pulled the young man to his office and sat him down privately. He gave him only one piece of advice – but it changed the young man’s path for the rest of his life. He told him, “Stop following a list and start inviting Jesus to walk with you every day. You were right to trust Him for your salvation. Trust Him for your daily walk. Read His word with thankfulness for what He has done. Ask Him to challenge you, rather than using His name to challenge others.”

I met that young man years later. He was one of the key men who helped to mold my life to follow Jesus. I am glad he listened and put Jesus at the center of all he wanted to do.