freedom

Free To Forgive

 

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When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them.  (2 Corinthians 2:4)

“If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him.”  (Jesus, in Luke 17:3)

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What are Paul and Jesus actually asking of Christians here? Is this forgive and forget? Do I have to feel really good about the perpetrator? Do I have to like them in order to forgive them? Do we have to be friends? Must we hang out? Am I supposed to move on and act like nothing happened?  Let’s look to Scripture…

1) Jesus sets the standard for forgiveness. Paul wrote elsewhere,

“For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ (Colossians 1:13-14)

“ In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us…” (Ephesians 1:7-8)

We were all in in the dominion of darkness.  We have so much sin that we deserve death. Jesus in his mercy paid the penalty for us.  We are hardly in a position not to extend forgiveness.

“Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”– C.S. Lewis

How many times has my anger been inexcusable? My judgment, my lust, my greed, my harsh and cutting words, my failure to respect and honor my parents, my wife and my kids; my laziness, my pride? How many times have they been inexcusable? All of them. And yet I have repented, and God has forgiven – and the people around me have forgiven me over and over. Christians forgive the inexcusable, because Jesus has forgiven the inexcusable in us.

2) Forgiveness is mandatory.

“But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failures.” (Matthew 6:15)

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too." (Mark 11:25)

As an idea, that sounds really good. I really want other people to get this.  But what if I was personally were the one damaged by sin? “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”  C.S. Lewis

Peter once asked Jesus if forgiveness was to be offered seven times. The Jewish rabbis at the time taught that forgiving someone more than three times was unnecessary. Peter was suggesting more than double the mandated maximum. They would have been stunned by Jesus’ lavish answer of 70x7 (which was a very Jewish way of saying there is no end). They were used to a law that had limits, not a grace that did not.

Jesus followed that up with the  parable of the unforgiving servant. God has forgiven us an enormous debt; how ungrateful must we be if we don’t do the same for others?

If I may note the wisdom of this on a practical level: we will probably assume God and others forgive us in the same way we forgive others. If we forgive partially and reluctantly and keep score somewhere, that’s probably how we view the forgiveness of God and others. This is the advice of a loving Father: forgive as God forgives. Forgive fully and freely. It will help us understand the nature of God’s forgiveness.

3) Forgiveness is patiently anticipatory

The Parable of the Two Sons (or the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15 reminds us that it is God who will wake people up in the midst of their sin. We may be the instrument God uses, but we may not be also. And I can almost guarantee that people who sin against you won’t respond with your sense of timing.

We can be so quick to want people to repent NOW. Did you? Or did it take some time to really see and understand your sin? How long did people faithfully invest in you before, like the Prodigal Son, you “came to your senses” by the grace of God?

Meanwhile, the father was alertly watching and waiting for the return of his son. The father had not closed the gates and turned his back. He wanted his son to come home. His heart was for his son’s healing. In spite of the hurt and humiliation he had experienced, one of his greatest joys would be having his son come home.

He was eagerly anticipating the moment of restoration and the life that would follow. When the prodigal moved toward the father, the father moved toward him. I would find it easy to defend the father if he just sat on the porch and waited; maybe even had a servant tell the son that he was in the back 40 and the son would have to wait. Or not respond to the son’s email for weeks. None of this happened. The father was watching; he saw the son returning, and he ran to meet him.

Do we move with forgiveness toward those who are moving toward us with broken repentance? Or do we wait, passively at best and defiantly at worst? How many times do people around us make gestures of repentance that we ignore because we don’t think it’s enough?

When I was coaching, there was a parent who really didn’t like me.  He would write me letters several pages long chronicling all the ways I failed. He would glare at me all the time. He disinvited me from his son’s wedding. Then Braden decided that this man was the coolest guy in the room during basketball games, and would climb to the top of the bleachers to sit with him game after game (Braden was probably 3 or 4).  One night after a game this man was waiting for me. I braced myself. All he said was, “You and I have had our differences, but you must be doing something right as a father.” That was the most I was going to get. I took it. We’ve been good ever since.

Do we move toward that offer of connection? My wife and I have an unspoken “connector” when there is tension or distance between us. We have to sit on the couch together rather than on separate chairs (that’s step one), and then we have to have physical contact (that’s step two). That’s the peace offering: “I know things are not well. They will be okay. We will work this out.” And in those moments the one of us who feels most offended – and we take turns on this – has a choice: do I move toward the one who is moving toward me, or do I make them do all the work?

There’s an entirely different discussion to be had about not staying in damaging, manipulative cycles of abuse where the supposedly repentant people are manipulating people around them.  If you think that’s what’s happening, talk to someone you trust who has wisdom in this area. But generally speaking, I believe we are called to move toward those who move toward us.

4) Forgiveness does not delete our history; it covers our history. The Bible uses language of God’s forgiveness that at a quick glance appears to say that God forgets our sin.

  • “All their sins and iniquities I will remember no more.” (Hebrews 8:12)
  • “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)
  • “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

Every commentary I read noted that this is not literal amnesia. It’s the best human language we have to explain that God does not hold our sins against us when our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus.  Paul remembered his sins and wrote about them to churches. If God had forgotten, then Paul remembered something about history that God does not. If I pray and ask God for ongoing healing for my past forgiven sins, God is not confused by my request. He knows why I’m asking.  He just does not hold them against me.

Memory was not part of the fall. It’s one of the good gifts God has given us. We are meant to learn from our past successes and failures. It’s part of how we mature. 

  • We will never gain necessary wisdom if we forget what it was like to be in chains to sin. 
  • We will not appreciate the forgiveness God and others show us if we forget how much we gave them to forgive.
  • We will not be able to encourage others with our testimonies of God’s grace if we can’t remember why God showed us grace in the first place.

5) Forgiveness does not cancel ongoing accountability. Extending forgiveness is not the same as overlooking the impact of sin. Accountability and protection can go along with forgiveness. Charles Stanley wrote, “Forgiveness is relational; consequences are circumstantial.”

  • After Adam and Eve sinned, God provided a means of forgiveness…but also explained what the fallout was going to look like.
  • God forgave Moses…but Moses did not enter the Promised Land.
  • Jesus forgave the thief on the cross…but the thief still died that day.

Paul noted in Galatians 6 that we will always harvest what we plant. It’s a principle God has embedded in the world, and God will not be mocked.

  • If I steal your wallet, but return the wallet and ask for forgiveness, forgiveness should be granted. But are you going to leave your wallet out again when I am around?  Wisdom would suggest you keep your wallet close, at least until I have shown myself to be trustworthy.  
  • If I share a deep secret you told me in confidence, and I repent and ask you to forgive me, you should extend forgiveness. But you probably shouldn’t tell me a deep secret again until I have shown myself to be trustworthy.
  • If you hurt or offend your spouse or a friend, ask for forgiveness. But don’t become annoyed if they put up some boundaries so they don’t get hurt again.

Life is not an etch-o-sketch. We can’t just shake the picture that we’ve drawn and pretend it never happened. We have hurt people. Our actions have consequences. It’s going to take time to draw a new and better picture.The goal of forgiveness is to restore fellowship with God and others. Circumstantial consequences may or may not adjust in connection with the forgiveness; if they don’t, it does not mean no one was forgiven.  It might just mean those who forgive are also wise.

6) Forgiveness is worth celebrating.

The father of the Prodigal Son was overjoyed the son had returned. It was the legalistic brother who said, “How dare you celebrate the lost.” How easy is it for us to think that if we forgive too lavishly we are somehow overlooking or enabling or smoothing over whatever sin someone is leaving? The celebration doesn’t deny the past; the celebration revels in the present and the future. There are still consequences that will play out because God has made a world of cause and effect, but in that moment, and (if the parable continued) for many days to come, the father would celebrate, because his child who was lost has come home. 

This one is hard, especially if you are the one who has been wounded by someone else’s sin. Yet I think our reaction to other situations are instructive here. Don't we love that the Amish community forgave the shooter? Don’t we love the stories of parents who forgive their child’s killer? We applaud, as we should. We aren’t opposed to the principle. It’s just hard when it applies to us. This is the cross we take up; this is cost of discipleship; this is what God commands – and equips us to do.

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END NOTES ABOUT GOD’S MEMORY  

“’Will I remember no more’ - This is evidently spoken after the manner of men, and in accordance with human apprehension. It cannot mean literally that God forgets that people are sinners, but it means that he treats them as if this were forgotten. Their sins are not charged upon them, and they are no more punished than if they had passed entirely out of the recollection. God treats them with just as much kindness, and regards them with as sincere affection, as if their sins ceased wholly to be remembered, or which is the same thing, as if they had never sinned.” – Matthew Henry, on Hebrews 8:12

“’And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more’; by which are meant all kind of sin, original and actual; sins before and after conversion; every sin but that against the Holy Ghost, and that God's covenant people are never guilty of; these God remembers no more; he casts them behind his back, and into the depths of the sea, so that when they are sought for, they shall not be found; God will never charge them with them, or punish them for them: this is another phrase to express the forgiveness of sins, and distinguishes the new covenant from the old one, or the former dispensation; in which, though there were many typical sacrifices, and a typical removal of sin, yet there was a remembrance of it every year.” Gill’s Exposition Of The Bible, on Hebrews 8:12

“’As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.’ God's mercy is the cause, the removal of sin the result. The two are commensurate, and are "described by the largest measures which the earth can afford." Pulpit Commentary, on Psalm 103:12

“’As far as the east is from the west’ - As far as possible; as far as we can imagine. These are the points in our apprehension most distant from each other, and as we can conceive nothing beyond them, so the meaning is, that we cannot imagine our sins could be more effectually removed than they are. “ Barne’s Notes On The Bible

“Christ engaged as a surety for his people; Jehovah the Father considered him as such; and therefore did not impute their sins to them, but to him; and when he sent him in the likeness of sinful flesh, he removed them from them, and laid them upon him; who voluntarily took them on himself, cheerfully bore them, and, by bearing them, removed the iniquity of the land in one day; and carried them away to the greatest distance, and even put them away for ever by the sacrifice of himself; and upon the satisfaction he gave to divine justice, the Lord removed them both from him and them; justified and acquitted him, and his people in him: and by this means so effectually, and so far, are their transgressions removed, that they shall never be seen any more, nor ever be imputed to them, nor be brought against them to their condemnation; in consequence of which, pardon is applied to them, and so sin is removed from their consciences, as before observed; see Leviticus 16:21.”  - Gill’s Exposition Of The Entire Bible

“Our thoughts of God as the All knowing preclude the idea of any limitation of His knowledge, such as the words “I will remember no more” imply. What is meant is that He will be to him who repents and knows Him as indeed He is, in His essential righteousness and love, as men are to men when they “forget and forgive.” He will treat the past offences, even though their inevitable consequences may continue, as though they had never been, so far as they affect the communion of the soul with God. He will, in the language of another prophet, “blot out” the sins which yet belong to the indelible and irrevocable past (Isaiah 43:25Isaiah 44:22).”  Elliot’s Commentary For English Readers, on Jeremiah 31:34

“’For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’; there was forgiveness of sin under the former covenant, but the blood of Christ was not then actually shed for it; it was held forth under types; and there was a remembrance of sin made every year; and saints had not such a clear and comfortable sight of pardon in common as now; and it was known and applied but to a few. This is the staple blessing of the covenant, and the evidence of all the rest.”  - Gill’s Exposition Of The Entire Bible

Goodness (Freedom Series)

Let’s start with a story from the Gospel of Mark. (I’m combining several accounts and helpful commentary to ‘flesh out’ the details). When He had traveled on, a young man came and knelt in the dust of the road in front of Jesus.

Young Man: Good Teacher! What good thing must I do to gain life in the world to come?

Jesus: Why are you so concerned about that good thing, and why are giving Me, teacher, the title of ‘good’? Don’t you believe and teach that no one and no thing but God and God alone has this honor?

You know the answer you have been taught. If you want to be good enough to enter into the world to come, you have to keep the Commandments of Moses: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not slander, do not defraud, and honor your father and mother.”

Young Man: Yes, Teacher, I have done all these since I was a child.

Then Jesus, looking at the young man, saw that he was sincere and responded out of His love for him.

Jesus: Son, there is still one thing you have not done. Go now. Sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor so that you will have treasure in heaven. You have forgotten the most important command: Have no other gods in my presence. After that, come, follow Me.

The young man went away sick at heart at these words because he was very wealthy…

[Jesus teaches on the dangers of wealth becoming an idol]

The disciples: Then who can be liberated (saved)?

Jesus: For human beings it is impossible, but not for God: God makes everything possible. (Mark 10: 17:26 )

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We lack good people in our world.

The Harvey Weinstein story has brought this front and center in a very particular area: sexual harassment and assault. He has opened the floodgates, and now you can’t read a news story without another actress –and a few actors – talking about cases where they have been the victims of sexual sin. Sadly, this seems to have simply shone a spotlight on what women have always known and men have too often dismissed. There’s a reason #metoo has been trending.

Meanwhile, many women around the world have turned to the men in their life and said, “I am so glad you are not like that,” and the men have been more than happy to agree that indeed they are not, and to remind their wives and girlfriends how lucky they are to have a good man like him around. Good men are hard to find. Thank God we made ourselves so obvious.

But for Christians, the standard for all of our conduct is much higher than simply that which can be observed. Jesus said that adultery – sexual unfaithfulness expressed in action - is bad, but those who nurture sexual unfaithfulness in their heart are also guilty of adultery (Matthew 5:28). In other words, obeying God’s law outwardly is important, but it’s not the ultimate standard of goodness. Good people don’t simply do good things; good people have good hearts. Good people desire the good as well as do the good.

Which puts us all in a really uncomfortable spot.

We do not all commit the same outward sins, and we don’t all struggle with the same kinds of sins, but we have all given in either outwardly or inwardly to some form of sinfulness. If we haven’t done it, we’ve thought a lot about doing it, and liked the idea. We dreamed about it. We pondered how it might be accomplished. We envied those who did the things we would never do but really, really wanted to do. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could have the testimony where I partied like a rock star and then settled down with Jesus?” Our hearts have been ravaged by the sin that has crouched at our door (Genesis 4:7).

This is what we call bad news. “The heart is deceitful, and desperately wicked. Who can trust it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Christianity demands that we never stand on a pedestal and point down toward the ‘losers’ who have given in to sin. We kneel on the level ground at the foot of the cross with everyone else and offer our hearts to a Savior who alone can heal.

Let’s talk about what I mean by level ground. Jesus said there are some things that deserve greater condemnation (Matthew 23:14). There is something unique about sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:18). You dare not hurt kids. (Luke 17:2). Does this mean some of us are greater sinners?

I think this has to do with the ripple effect of what we do. Some sins leave more brokenness in their wake than other sins, and some do more damaging formation in people’s lives. A physical assault hurts a body; a sexual assaults hurts a soul. Both are bad; but one damages in a way the other does not.

I have not done what Harvey Weinstein has done, so I have not left that terrible legacy. But I don’t have to do what he did to have a soiled heart that expresses itself in broken actions that leave their own kind of damage. I’m not suddenly good just because Harvey is terrible. Harvey Weinstein is not the standard of goodness. In fact, the minute we start to establish whether or not we are good by comparing ourselves to others, we are in trouble. We can live in such a way that we lower the condemnation we deserve – and that would be good, because that would mean people around us weren’t being hurt - but that is not the same thing as being good.

• What if the Las Vegas shooter only shotone person? What if he sat around all day in a room filled with loaded weapons and thought about it but did nothing? Each of those would deserve less condemnation in that his immoral “footprint” would be smaller, but that wouldn’t make him good. If you found out your neighbor was watching people through the scope of his rifle all day long and pretending he was killing people, you wouldn’t clap him on the shoulder and say, “Love your self-control, dude. Well done!” You would say, “Uh, brother, you need help.”

• If I found out a friend was indulging in fantasies about someone else’s wife but didn’t actually do anything, would I congratulate him on his goodness? I’m glad he’s not acted on his thoughts, and I would affirm that, but we have to address the fact that he wants to offend. He wishes he could. He might protest: “My immoral footprint did not step on her.” Well, no, but not for lack of wanting it to. And he knows – we all know - that while it is a good thing not to follow through on the sinful desires of our hearts, our self-control alone does not make us good people.

None of us have lived up to the standard Jesus set. So while we rightly condemn the physical actions of moral monsters, as Christians we must do so while recognizing that our hearts have something in common with theirs: they are desperately wicked and in need of a transplant.

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This is where the good news of the Gospel begins. There is a solution.

God can create in us a new heart and renew a right spirit within us (Psalm 51:10). The desires of our hearts can become so transformed that God will give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4) Jesus even talked about how blessed people are who are pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). God commands us to become good, and God will empower us to fulfill his command.

So how does this work? Let’s do a little background first. The Hebrew word for good, Tob or Tov, is about ‘superlative goodness and beauty.” When Moses met God on Mt. Sinai, he asked to see God’s glory. God responded that He would show His goodness, but even then Moses could only handle his “back,” which some have understood to mean God would show him how His presence leaves a mark of goodness on the world.

David wrote:

“You [God] are good (tob), and what you do is good (yatab)…” (Psalm 119:68)

Goodness begins in God – it’s part of God’s nature – and is revealed in His works. His creation is tob (Genesis 1:18); His intrinsic tobness is seen in the land (Psalm 27:13). But even though we see it, we only glimpse the surface.

The New Testament uses different language to capture the same idea. Agathós describes something that is inherently or intrinsically good. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and Ephesians 5:9 describes it as being one of "the fruit of the light" for Christians who have been made new in Jesus.

Do you remember our baptism imagery? Immersion has to do with pickling. Baptism into Christ is an immersion of who we are into who Jesus is, and in that spiritual immersion we are fundamentally, spiritual changed. Now we have been pickled (?) in God’s goodness. It is changing who we are - which means it is changing how we live. God makes us good so that we can do good.

“A good (agathos) man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)

So there is some really good news here: we, who are inherently not good people, can become good people through the presence and work of a good God in our life. “What good thing can I do that will make me deserving of eternal life?” asked the young ruler. None. There is nothing you can do that makes you good enough. But…. “with God all things are possible.”

This is the good news of the Gospel: we whose hearts are desperately wicked have a God who responds to prayer: “Create in me a new heart, O God.” And God, who is rich in mercy, does this.

So what does this mean to us when we walk out of here today? I have three thoughts; I am sure there are plenty more to add.

This should give us hope. When we give our lives to Jesus, He can bring goodness into our life where there is none currently. We don’t have to live in despair about our failures and sins. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)

This should point us toward God when we fail. The Bible calls us to actively pursue moral excellence, but when we fail – and we will – we can rest in the knowledge that God’s grace will help us. God knows the heart you were born with, and he know you need a new one. He has begun a good work in you, and he will be faithful (Philippians 1:6).

Christian community should be a place where we don’t have to live in shame about our lack of goodness. (Luke 11:4) I sometimes smile at the optimistic promises in wedding vows. I have these interjections that I keep to myself:

• “I promise to never disappoint you.“ (Oh, you will.) • “I will honor you every moment” (Well, not every moment. Not when you’re tired, or sick, or maybe even awake) • “You will always feel the warmth of my love (You might break that one by the end of the reception.) • “There is nothing that will distract me from you!” (Except Netflix, The Lions next loss, bacon, and Candy Crush.)

Our goodness – our attempts at doing the right thing on our power – will never be enough. We must acknowledge this or we will either hide or judge. We will hide out of fear that we will never be enough and will be rejected because we can’t be perfect, or we will judge those around us because they just aren’t good enough for us and should be rejected.

This is not the freedom God has prepared or you and that Jesus offers to you. The freedom is this: though we are all broken sinners, Jesus saves, delivers and heals. Jesus will empower us to confess our lack of goodness to God and others, and he will empower us to offer forgiveness. “Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive those who sin against us.”

And then we raise our voices together in prayer and ask the God of goodness to increase while we decrease (John 3:30), to be strong where we are weak (2 Corinthians 12:9), to shine through the cracks of our brokenness (2 Corinthians 4:7) not just for our collective good – not just so we can now have a good ‘moral footprint’ instead a bad one – but so that the glory of a good God can be seen in the transformation of our lives.

Kindness (Freedom Series)

Kindness: Xrēstós (chrestos): to furnish what is suitable; useful; well-fitted; beneficial. God’s kindness is shown through actions which are eternally and ultimately beneficial for us. http://biblehub.com/greek/5543.htm * * * * *

Kindness is very similar biblically to goodness and grace . Stephen Witmer says, “It’s a supernaturally generous orientation of our hearts toward other people.” Let’s put those ideas together:

Biblical kindness is expressing God’s supernatural orientation of our hearts in purposeful actions that benefit others practically and spiritually.

1. TRUE KINDNESS IS FROM GOD

A. It is embodied in Jesus

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness (chrestos) to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:1-7)

B. It is shown to all

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind (chrestos) to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:32ff)

C. It is a fruit of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not our own power

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness (chrestotes), goodness, faithfulness gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

“As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become useless (from achrestros); there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

2. GOD’S KINDNESS IS FOR US

“ Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness (chrestos) of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) “My yoke is kind (chrestos) and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)

3. GOD’S KINDNESS IS MEANT TO BE PASSED ON

“Be kind (chrestos) to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32

* * * * * So true kindness comes from God and is empowered by God, and it is oriented toward our good. As we then seek to live as disciples of Jesus, what does this look like in our life as we pass on the kindness we have received from our Savior to all of those around us?

Kindness may or may not be “nice” (as we understand “nice).

As a kid, I wanted to help the baby chicks in my dad’s incubator. They would struggle so hard, and I figured I could help them by peeling open the egg for them. Why not make their life easier? Except that I would doom them. It was in the fight to get out that they became strong enough to survive. I was nice, but I wasn’t kind.

This is why niceness is not a biblical virtue. In fact, if you are a Christian, God insists that you not be nice (at least in the way our culture understands the word) to some people who claim the name of Jesus:

• Blasphemers (Acts 18) • Hypocrites (Galatians 2; Matthew 12) • Sinners (Luke 17, Matthew 18 – rebuke them) • Wanderers From The Truth (James 5) • Those In Need Of Reproof And Correction (2 Timothy 3) • Rebellious Christians (2 Thessalonians 3) • Divisive Christians (Titus 3; 2 Timothy 2) • Worldviews Set Against God (2 Corinthians 10) • Sexually Immoral Christians (1 Corinthians 5) • Lazy Christians (1 Thessalonians 5) • The Proud (1 Corinthians 5)

We can’t be “nice” in these situations and follow Jesus. We must be kind –that is, we must “actions which are eternally and ultimately beneficial for others.” It might not feel nice; it might become tense; it might embarrass. But it’s the kind thing to do.

“We’re all guilty on some level of being unwilling to be honest with people for fear of hurting their feelings, looking less spiritual or losing a friend. Oftentimes at the expense of our own well being, we overbook, over commit and extend ourselves in the name of being a good Christian… we have wrongly believed that being “nice” is akin to being “godly.” We don’t want to ruffle feathers… we don’t want to speak honestly and we don’t want to say no. Why do we do this to ourselves? Because we’re too nice… (“Jesus Didn’t Call us To Be Nice” https://relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/jesus-didnt-call-us-be-nice)

I get it: “nice” is the casual language we use. Let’s not get hung up on all the times we told our kids to play nice or be nice or talked about someone as being a nice person. I think we all understand what we mean by that: they weren’t mean. That’s not a bad thing.

I’m just pointing out that “nice” is an English word that does not do justice to the biblical definition of kindness. Kind people say things nice people never would, like “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23) to those they love, or “You are whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27) making disciples of hell” (Matthew 23:15), or “Your father is the devil” (John 8:44) to those religious hypocrites who need genuine holiness.

Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is not to be nice.

• Nice people let their friend drive drunk; kind people take their keys. • Nice people let their friends jump into another terrible relationship without making any waves; kind people try to stop them. • Nice people say, “All roads lead to God” because they don’t want to make anyone upset and because they can’t imagine a nice God demanding a justice that includes punishment. Kind people speak the gospel truth.

This isn’t an excuse to be mean. It’s just that niceness unhooked from holiness far too easily becomes enablement or avoidance.

Be kind like Jesus was kind. Kind people cast our demons, and preach the gospel, and confront sin, and exercise godly judgment, and fight for justice, demand holiness, and lay down their lives. Be nice if you can do so without compromising truth and holiness, but don’t get hung up it, because that’s not your goal. Be kind.

Kindness is understanding (but not enabling)

We read in Titus 3 beginning in verse 3:

"At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.”

There is some empathy here. “I get it. I’ve been there. I know the temptation and understand the struggle. When I say I am going to walk through this with you, I mean I know where to help you step and how, because I walked this road.” It is crucial that people feel understood. One of the beautiful things about the incarnation of Jesus was that no one can say to God, ‘You don’t get it. You don't know what it’s like to be human.” Yes, he does. One of the ways in which we honor that ultimate incarnation is to unashamedly identify with people. “I know what it’s like” is a powerful phrase. But there is more to the this thought:

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy." (Titus 3:3ff)

But we don’t stop there. “Me too” is a great start, but that needs to be followed up with, “and you can now experience the salvation that Christ offers too.” God loves us as we are, but too much to leave us as we are.

Kindness shows empathy and understanding; it just doesn’t stop there, or it would not be kind. If I saw someone having a heart attack and just sat down and said, “Man, this really sucks, doesn’t it?” I suppose I would be nice, and I would certainly be understanding, but if I stopped there when I could do more, I would have failed to show kindness.

Kindness says, “I get it. Now let’s get help.”

Kindness is persistent and invested

This is a point that came up in our class discussion after the sermon. It’s not like we can invest in everyone in the world, but with those in our circle of influence, we must be faithfully present in their lives, and we must recognize that kindness will cost us something. I suspect there are no easy acts of kindness.

Is Jesus not the ultimate example of this? He came to us; He gave his live practically and ultimately for us. Invested? No question. “There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13) Even now, his Holy Spirit is persistent and faithfully present in our lives.

If we are to embody the kindness of Jesus in the world, we must consider the implications for our lives.

Kindness is gentle (but not passive)

Biblically, gentleness is “kindness of behavior, founded on strength and prompted by love.” I love this passage’s description of what gentleness looks like in action:

"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." (Isaiah 42:1ff)

The kind are gentle, and they nurture both those who are dying and those who are coming to life. The kind help those who have given up and are falling into the depths of sin as well as with those are moving toward the light of truth. I need to quote at length from MacLaren’s Exposotions, because I think he captures the beauty and importance of this passage in Isaiah.

But, blessed be God! There emerges from the metaphor not only the solemn thought of the bruises by sin that all men bear, but the other blessed one, that there is no man so bruised as that he is broken; none so injured as that restoration is impossible, no depravity so total but that it may be healed, none so far off but that he may be brought nigh. And so my text comes with its great triumphant hopefulness, and gathers into one mass as capable of restoration the most abject, the most worthless, the most ignorant, the most sensuous, the most godless, the most Christ-hating of the race….

There is a man in Paris that says he has found a cure for that horrible disease of hydrophobia (rabies), and who therefore regards the poor sufferers of whom others despair as not beyond the reach of hope. Christ looks upon a world of men smitten with madness, and in whose breasts awful poison is working, with the calm confidence that He carries in His hand an elixir, one drop of which inoculated into the veins of the furious patient will save him from death, and make him whole. ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ ‘He will not break,’ and that means He will restore, ‘the bruised reed.’ There are no hopeless outcasts. None of you are beyond the reach of a Savior’s love, a Savior’s blood, a Savior’s healing….

* * *

Whether, then, the dimly-burning wick be taken to symbolize the lingering remains of a better nature which still abides with all sinful men, yet capable of redemption, or whether it be taken to mean the low and imperfect and inconsistent and feeble Christianity of us professing Christians, the words of my text are equally blessed and equally true. Christ will neither despise, nor so bring down His hand upon it as to extinguish, the feeblest spark. Look at His life on earth, think how He bore with those blundering, foolish, selfish disciples of His; how patient the divine Teacher was with their slow learning of His meaning and catching of His character. Remember how, when a man came to Him with a very imperfect goodness, the Evangelist tells us that Jesus, beholding him, loved him…

How do you make ‘smoking flax’ burn? You give it oil, you give it air, and you take away the charred portions. And Christ will give you, in your feebleness, the oil of His Spirit, that you may burn brightly as one of the candlesticks in His Temple; and He will let air in, and sometimes take away the charred portions by the wise discipline of sorrow and trial, in order that the smoking flax may become a shining light. But by whatsoever means He may work, be sure of this, that He will neither despise nor neglect the feeblest inclination of good after Him, but will nourish it to perfection and to beauty. MacLaren’s Expositions http://biblehub.com/commentaries/isaiah/42-3.htm

And we are called to be like Jesus. Can we do any less that to show this kind of kindness to the bruised and the smoldering around us?

Peace (Freedom Series)

There are many things that can rob us of peace. First, our peace can be shattered by circumstances around us that impact us. Maybe it’s relational instability or pain. Maybe it’s sickness and the death of a loved one, or bankruptcy, or politics, or being put in situations where taking a stand for our faith brings some sort of suffering. Maybe it’s some form of abuse from those around you, or an addiction. There are so many things that impact us, and it’s understandable that in the midst of these things we are inclined to lack of sense of peace.

Second, our internal peace can be hurt when our identity is based on a wrong idea of what gives us a sense of dignity, worth and significance.

• Health or Beauty – If I stay fit or look good, I will be happy. • Productivity – If I can accomplish just a little more, I can relax. • Organization – If I can manage things just right, life will be okay. • Knowledge – If I read and study enough, I will understand life. It will all make sense. • Money – If I didn’t have to worry about the next bill, I would be okay. OR If I could just vacation there or live there, I would be content. • Relationships – If I just had friends or spouses who were this pretty with that personality, I would never be unhappy. • Reputation – If other people to always view me well, then I’d be okay. • “Neededness” – Maybe if I’m indispensible, I will feel that elusive sense of worth.

If we find our worth or goodness in this way, we will never be at peace. What is everyone thinking? What if I lose this? Who will I be if I don’t have this? Am I good enough? Will people leave me if I fail? _____________________________________________

The Bible makes some bold claims about peace:

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

“"I am leaving you with a gift--peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don't be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)

There is some sense in which we are free as Christians to experience peace. Yet that often seems to elude us. So let’s look more closely at God’s Word, starting with the birth of Jesus. When the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth, they proclaimed a message of peace:

“Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace to those on whom His favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

Not peace to the whole world. As Jeremiah pointed out 650 years earlier, there are plenty of people who will cry “peace, peace when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Ezekiel talked about the same thing (Ezekiel 13:10). Jesus mourned that Jerusalem longed for peace, but it was hidden from their eyes (Luke 19:42).

This is not a problem unique to the Jewish people in the biblical era.

• We think that if our nation were more peaceful, life would be better. This has some truth, but our nation could be one politically and economically and socially, and that would not guarantee our peace. • We think that if everything around us was just like we wanted it to be, then we would have peace… and this has some truth, but that would not guarantee our peace. • We think that if we could have the perfect job, and have no financial problems… and that would help, but that would not guarantee our peace. • And we can point to friends or family, and say that if we just had ideal parents, or ideal spouses, or kids who make our lives easy in everything they did… and life might look like we want it to look, but that would not guarantee our peace.

None of these things are bad things, but every solution on those terms is mistaking temporary peace for real peace. It’s putting a bandaid on gushing wound and saying “Ta dah!” while knowing it didn’t resolve the issue, and knowing the bandaid is going to come off at any moment.

When the angels came and announced that peace had arrived on earth, it was not because Herod was dethroned, or the Jewish people agreed on who the King of the Jews really was, or because schools were exempt from tragedy, or because there would be no more hurricanes, or because cancer was gone or because we had solved health care and immigration concerns.

The angels announced a peace that could be found not around those who have God’s favor (though that happens too) but within those who have God’s favor; specifically, those who have experienced salvation.

“Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)

What is peace? First and foremost, it is reconciliation with God through Christ.

Skip ahead about 70 years after the birth of Christ. Paul was writing letters to the start-up churches helping them to better understand the true message of the gospel. When he wrote to the church in Ephesus, he was writing to a largely Gentile (pagan) audience. They were having trouble forming a church community with the Jewish converts. Paul lets them know how God helps this problem, and here we begin to see an even clearer explanation of peace:

“Remember that at that time you (Gentiles) were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace….

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.“ (Ephesians 2:12-17)

What is peace? First and foremost, it is reconciliation with God through Christ, empowered by His Spirit. We see it alluded to here again. But that peace will make more peace: In this case in Ephesus, Jesus can end hostility between the Jewish and Gentile converts. For today, think, ”Those who are near and far from Christ.” Or maybe, “Those who we think are amazing Christians and those we post memes about and protest and have given up on.” (Side note: If God has not given up on those far from him, why should we?)

So peace is reconciliation with God through Christ, empowered by His Spirit; peace creates ‘one new humanity’ in Christ. But there are also other places in Scripture note that peace with God should bring a “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:6-7) in all situations (2 Thessalonians 3:16).

In other words, even in the worst circumstances in life, Jesus brings his presence and offers his peace. This is not the same as happiness or feeling carefree. I don’t think it means we don’t feel things deeply. Jesus himself clearly did (John 11:35). I think it means there is an awareness that Jesus is real, and present, and faithful, and that no matter what else happens, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

• Health? “You look old/sick/frail!” My body grows older. I’m getting a new one some day. • Life? “I’m sorry, but it’s time to call hospice.” To live is Christ; to die is gain. • Beauty? “Where did you buy that!?” My fashion taste is lousy. Good thing I am clothed with righteousness. • Productivity? “You have a dead-end job! Wow, you really wasted your Saturday!” My accomplishments are straw. It’s what I do for God that matters. • Organization? “How could you have forgotten that thing? How could you overlook that person?” I am not perfect. My boast is in Christ. • Knowledge? “I can’t believe you haven’t heard of this person or this organization or the latest international event!” I don’t know everything, but I do know Christ crucified. • Money? I have the wealth of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience (Romans 2:4) • Reputation? “People are gossiping about you.” Let them. It’s God’s opinion of me that counts.

But that’s the fruit of peace, not peace itself. If we focus on peace, I think we will miss it. We have to start by focusing on Jesus, and when we find Jesus, we get peace thrown in to the deal. Peace started at the cross in the person of Jesus, and then moved inside those on whom God’s favor rests: that is, those who have given their lives to following Jesus.

Only people reconciled with God through Christ and empowered by His Spirit can truly find peace with God, bring about a lasting peace with others, and experience a holy peace within.

Truth (Freedom Series)

Jesus : 31 If you hear My voice and abide in My word, you are truly My disciples; 32 you will know the truth, and that truth will set you free. Jewish Believers: 33 We are Abraham’s children, and we have never been enslaved to anyone. How can You say to us, “You will be set free”?

Jesus: 34 I tell you the truth: everyone who commits sin surrenders his freedom to sin. He is a slave to sin’s power…. if the Son comes to make you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8, excerpted, from The Voice)

Let’s talk today about three ways in which the truth brings freedom.

FROM SPIRITUAL SLAVERY TO SIN

I am not going to spend a lot of time on this because I think I’ve covered this several times recently. The bottom line: Without Jesus, we were spiritually dead, chained into our sinful habits and compulsions. The death and resurrection of Jesus brought us to life and broke the chains. We call this salvation. In the process we call sanctification God is in some sense constantly at work in us, breaking the chains we keep dragging back on ourselves.

Let’s try an analogy.

We were all enslaved on a spiritual plantation, chained by our lust, pride, greed, envy, self-loathing, etc. Jesus shows up and says, “Would you like to be free?” And we all say, “Absolutely!” So Jesus knocks the chains away and says, “You’re free. Go! Live!”

But we say, “I kind of like this chain here. That lust one actually felt good sometimes.” So we clink it back on. The slave master didn’t do it. We were “drawn away by my own lusts” (James 1:14) But even then, it’s not like Jesus throws up his hands and says, “Well, your on your own.” He waits, and when we say, “I was wrong. I don’t want this one,” he gladly breaks it for us.

So we leave that place of death and pain, but as we are walking down the road we see lots of other places where we could now live. We remember that the reason we ended up there was because we didn’t know how to tell the good places from the bad. But Jesus gave us a guidebook that reveals the truth about the all the options in front of us. We can see now which places will draw us into death and chains, and which places will draw us into life and liberty.

Jesus is the Truth; He cannot help but tell the truth. His word gives the Truth. Freedom from the chains and eternal penalty of sin is the primary meaning we see in this passage about how He sets us free. However, I believe there are other ways in which we can clearly see how truth brings freedom.

God’s design is for our good. God demands that we be people of truth because He loves us, and He knows what is good for us. So with the foundation in place of Jesus as the Truth and His Truth setting us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2) let’s talk about some practical implications of being people of truth.

1. WE ARE FREED FROM THE RIPPLE EFFECT OF LIES

First thing to note: Lying makes God mad really mad.

• Proverbs 6:16-19 There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. • Proverbs 12:22 Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord… • Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

I can think of at least three very practical reasons that God hates this kind of sin: it hurts us; it ruins relationship/community; it harms God’s reputation.

It Hurts Us

I believe there is a basic human tendency to think others view the world like we do. We project ourselves into them. If we are liars, I suspect we assume others are liars as well. And what happens if we assume that?

• We live in fear of being caught, so we build walls. If no one can get in, no one can see what we are hiding. • We never trust others, because they are like us, right? • We are forced to build a web of lies (“Oh, what a web we weave…”) • We don’t believe promises, compliments, and assurances. Why would we? There’s a good chance none of it is true.

This is not freedom. That is a life of bondage. It’s not just that the truth of God’s Word that sets us free from bondage to sin. It’s the belief that there is truth and that it’s important, and that the commitment to honoring it all the time matters. And the more we honor the very concept of truth, the more we don’t have to hide and cover up. The more we begin to assume the best of others. Our default cynicism turns into default trust. We can accept promises and compliments. We begin to hunger for truth.

It Ruins Relationships/Community

Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? He lied so often that Eventually no one believed him. There are other stories that get a lot more uncomfortable:

• The spouse who says “Everything’s fine!” when it’s not. • The child who says, “Yes, mom,” but doesn’t do it. • The person who breaks promise after promise. • The friend who tells you that you are doing great; meanwhile, you are ruining your life. • The one who makes up false excuses about why they didn't do something with you - and you find out.

I believe God intends us to live in relational community. There is no way we can do this in deeply meaningful ways if we are not people of truth. This is the kind of scenario that breeds suspicion, distrust, anger and resentment.

It Harms God’s Reputation

When we read in the Bible about being ambassadors, the image is that of being the face of Jesus. If you saw the Lord of the Rings: “I am the Mouth of Sauron” was like saying, if you listen to me, you listen to Sauron. And however you treat me is how you treat Sauron. In The 300, Xerxes sends an ambassador to the Greeks, and this ambassador expects to be treated as if he were Xerxes. When Leonidas killed him, he sent a clear message: he was ready to kill the King. The ambassador, the representative, helps you know what the King is like.

We are ambassadors. Like it or not, we help others know what the King is like: How we speak, act and think sends a message about the King we serve. In other words, when people see me, they see what they assume to be a representation of Jesus. And among many other things, Jesus is Truth. This is why lying is such a big deal.

• The Christian who says, “I love God!” and hates his brother or sister (1 John 4:20). • The person who says “God’s return date is September 23” but it’s not. • The Christian who sits on a Family Values board and gets caught using Ashley Madison to try to line up an affair

Your reputation will take a hit, yes. But because you are an ambassador of Christ, so will He, as will His Word and His Church. No wonder lying makes God angry.

Now, considering this short list, does it sound like lying or truth leads to real freedom?

Option 1: Lie and implode as you hide, harden your heart, and grow increasingly suspicious and cynical of others. Lie, and lose your reputation. Lie, and tarnish the name of God.

Option 2: Tell the truth, build your reputation, position yourself to be able to enter into relational community in a healthy and honest way, and maintain your integrity as an ambassador of Jesus and thus honor His reputation. So you are healthier, your friendships are stronger, and God is glorified in the testimony of your life.

God is for you. His was – His truth – is designed to bring you life. Every time we obey Him, it is for our good and His glory.

2. FREED FOR THE GOSPEL AND THE KINGDOM

I can’t tell people what Jesus has done for me and to me if I am not committed to truth. Do you want to hear a cleaned up version of my testimony? It will bore you death. A guy who looks spiritually good on the outside gets forgiven for some incredibly minor sin that almost doesn’t count as a sin, it’s more like a faux pas, and now my life is sunshine, Reece’s Pieces and Ohio State wins every day!

That’s not just boring, it’s a lie. To quote an old hymn, “I was in sin’s prison, o so dark and cold.”

• Anger that boiled over onto my friends and my wife. • Lust that kept me in the chains of pornography for 10 years. • Pride. • Selfishness. • Judgment. • Envy. • Jealousy. • Identity based far more on what others thought of me than what Jesus does.

God has been faithful in my life, and as He has been freeing me from these things – I’ll be a work in progress until I die - his power and glory keeps becoming clearer to me. And if I want to tell other about what Jesus can do for them, I have to tell them what He has done for me.

We have to let truth tell the glorious story of God’s saving grace.

You know why I can speak so honestly about my marriage up here? Because Sheila and I have nothing to hide. She’s not going home thinking, “Where did that come from?” We both knew about it already. We both know that God has worked miracles in our relationship, putting together broken pieces that we couldn’t. What else can we do but talk about it? Why would I hide the beauty of what Jesus has done in two very broken people?

This week our small group has an assignment: Let your spouse ask you about your idols. As in, they get to identify what they see as an idol in your life – and ask you why. You don’t get to choose a petty one and gloss it over. It’s ‘throw yourself under the bus’ time!

But why wouldn’t we?

What’s to be gained by avoiding and hiding? How do I benefit by saying ‘it’s all good’ when it’ not? How will I grow if Sheila can’t say to me, “I think this is an idol in your life”?

God knows I don’t want to have that conversation, because I know what I would say if I was her, and I don’t want to face it. But that confrontation will force me to the truth of God’s word. And that’s the truth that will set me free.

Now imagine a church community where everyone practices this. • If you see honesty, maybe you can be free to be honest too. • If you see people reveal their worst and still be loved, maybe you can bare your soul too.

But this relational freedom can’t happen without first experiencing the spiritual freedom Jesus brings. When Jesus forgives us, He frees us from guilt and shame. He frees us from needing to look good. I’ve always liked the trajectory of Paul’s confession of just how bad of a person he was. He starts with “I am the least of the Apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9) and ends with, “I am the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Paul grew increasingly honest about the depth of his sin while becoming increasingly free to talk about it. I suspect that freedom is part of being one whom the Son has set free. You know Jesus did his work; now you have nothing to hide. You can live in the light.

And that is freedom.

Love (Freedom Series)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5: 1-6)

We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you.” If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector. If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching. It's just business. It’s entirely conditional. If I don't like the product, I move on. This is what we know – and in America we are very good at it.

This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when we begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. We say to our friends, family or spouses: “If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good. I will stick around only if you make it worth my time.” It’s a CONSUMER approach to relationships. It’s entirely conditional. If people don’t give us what we want, we dump them and move on. This leads to disaster.

• If you think you are being consumed you will never be free to openly admit failures and flaws. • If you think you are being consumed, you will feel a desperate need to impress. • If you are being consumed, you will never be sufficient. • If you are a consumer, you will never be satisfied. You will always demand more than others can give. • If you are a consumer, you will always want to be the one who has less invested in the other person. You were never here for them anyway; they were always here for you.

Part of the good news of the gospel is that we are being transformed into the image of a COVENANT GOD. Covenant brings the stabilization of commitment. Someone in covenant love does not say, “If you please me, I will stay with you.” Someone in COVENANT love says: “No matter what, I will be faithful.”

Because of this kind of love from Jesus – seen primarily in the Cross and in the Bible’s ongoing assurance that He will be faithful to us - we become a new kind of people when it comes to our ability to love. I want to talk today about how there is freedom in this kind of covenant love. Here’s the morning’s premise:

When we live in and for Christ, He frees us to live in covenantal love with others.

As we become more like Christ – as we are being transformed into the image of Jesus - we will increasingly love like He loves. In the New Testament, agape, a word which describes how Jesus loves us , is used 320 times.

Agápē is "unconditional love that is always giving and impossible to take or be a taker. It devotes total commitment… no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not."

This is the love that “has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” when we became His children (Romans 5:5; cf. Galatians 5:22). Once we experience this, we pass it on.

We will grow in our ability to become a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of person: patient, kind, not self-seeking, keeping no record of wrong, protecting, trusting. I like this quote (I don't know who said it):

“The truth is that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you will see their flaws. That’s just the way it is. This is why marriages fail, why children are abandoned, why friendships don’t last. You might think you love someone until you see the way they act when they are out of money or under pressure of hungry, for goodness’ sake. Love is something different. Love is choosing to serve someone and be with someone in spite of their filthy heart. Love is patient and kind, love is deliberate. Love is hard. Love is pain and sacrifice, it’s seeing the darkness in another person and denying the impulse to jump ship.”

This kind of love is not an option for Christians.

- “This is my command: love (agape) each other.” (John 15:17) - I am to love (agape) my wife like Christ loved (agape) the church (Ephesians 5:25) - “Anyone who does not love (agape) does not know God, because God is love (agape).” (1 John 4:8)

So what does this look like?

We are free to love unconditionally. When the love of Christ flows into me and through me, I’m not waiting expectantly for my wife to reciprocate when I do something really loving. She can totally overlook it and that’s fine, because I didn’t do it to be noticed. She can see it and just not think about responding, and that’s okay because I didn’t do it to get a reward. I am free from getting angry or depressed when my offering of love is misunderstood or rejected.

Living this way frees me from keeping score. There’s no more charts of how much I invested in a friend’s life. “I ask them all the time about how they are doing, and they never ask me. I always instigate getting together and they never call me first.”

Don't get me wrong: you need some people in your life who give to you, because we all need to be filled up at times or we will run out of relational fuel. But I Corinthians is clear that ‘love keeps no record of wrongs.” We are free, when we truly love with the love of Christ, to stop keeping track of the balance we have with others. Thank God that Jesus does not do that for us. We just love.

We are free from the haunting emptiness of being a consumer lover. A consumer never has enough. Nothing is good enough. There is always something better somewhere that will fill me better. It takes me forever to choose a movie to watch on Netflix. What if there is a better one? I find myself impatient for a movie to end so I can get on to something that is surely better that I have not yet found. We can do this with people if we are consumers. We are haunted by the idea that there is always better conversation, better sex, better personalities, better vacations, better humor, better listeners… There is always someone better somewhere who will complete me!!!

Covenant, agape love frees us from this restlessness. It says, “I am committed to you. You don't need to complete me because this is not based on what you can do for me. This is based on how I want to serve and love you.” An obvious example is marriage, but I think this applies in other relationships as well.

Now, the book of Proverbs is clear that we must choose our close friends wisely lest they draw us into sin. But barring the toxic people (what Proverbs might call ’perverse people” or ‘fools’) we are called to stay close:

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:7)

Speaking of adversity, here is an inescapable reality of covenantal, agape love: If you are going to serve in love, it will be demanding and intrusive and inconvenient at times. It will cost you something.

Love will be costly because it will break our hearts. It will force us to walk into the hard work of life when all we want to do is wrap ourselves carefully with hobbies and luxuries and silence and entertainment and selfishness. We are willing to be the more invested in a relationship, to offer love even when those receiving it don’t understand or appreciate it like they should. Did Jesus not model this as the ultimate example?

When we set out to love people with the love Christ showed to us, it will cost us something. Like Paul said, there will be times we are poured out like an offering (Philippians 2:17).

- I cannot love my wife without a cost to myself: conversations about hard things; household chores I don’t want to do; juggling responsibilities; talking about budgets and schedules without getting really irritable; learning how my words and my attitudes can build her up or tear her down.

- We cannot love our friends without a cost to ourselves. Sometimes it’s messy when hurtful things are said or done.

- We cannot love our neighbors without a cost to ourselves. Love – real love – will be costly as we get to know and understand, as we listen and love, as we seek to speak truth with love and grace, and we seek to represent Christ and speak the gospel with humility and boldness. Do you know how hard it is to do this with our online neighbors? The one who posts something mean or cutting about us? The one we just want to posterize for all of facebook world to see? If you want to love them with the love of Jesus, it will cost you. You will have to pray…think…retype…maybe submit your response to others to proof…search your heart to surrender your pride and anger to Christ…

- We cannot love the church, the body of Christ, without a cost. We are not perfect people. We will have to “bear each other’s burdens,” because we all bring burdens that other people will have to bear. It is not a question of if. It is a question of when. Showing the kind of love to others that God showed to me demands something of my life. Love is costly.

As our understanding of love changes - as our worldview changes - we freely become broken and spilled out for others in the same way Jesus was broken and spilled out for us.

But the cost is only part of the story. What Christ offers in exchange for that cost is transformation.

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24) When Jesus came, he offered LOVE, and in this love was the hope of transformation of the world that is also played out in individual lives all the time. It wasn’t some generic “Heal the World” campaign; it was a deeply personal offer to transform you into something new, and keep transforming you until, in eternity, all that is bad in you will be undone.

I would argue that just as we are transformed when we receive Christ’s love, we are transformed when we give Christ’s love.

• I can’t remain as proud as I once was and give agape, covenantal love, because that kind of love is not about me. • I can’t remain as self-centered as I once was and give agape, covenantal love, because that kind of love is not about me. • I can’t settle for being resentful, as short-tempered, as mean, as lustful, as calloused as I once was and give agape, covenantal love, because none of those things are about the well-being of others.

I am convinced – and I couldn’t find a specific verse for this, so you can challenge me if you think I’m off base here – that it’s in the process of showing Christ’s love that some of our greatest transformation takes place.

We weren’t meant to sit back while God waves a magic wand over our character and personality. If you ask God to make you more loving, He’s probably going to put people around you who are hard to love – just like he answered the prayer of others by sending them you.

Once again, we find freedom.

• Freedom from being trapped in the bondage of our selfishness. • Freedom from pride as we realize we are the hard-to-love person in somebody’s life. • Freedom from shame as it sinks in that letting others know we are imperfect is okay. We are all in this together, with Christ at the center, faithfully completing the good work He has already started. • Freedom from loving others on our own power. God is working in us, pouring His Holy Spirit into us, building us up with His word and His people. We are not alone.

“This is my command: love (agape) each other.” (John 15:17)

Free Indeed

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." (Gal. 5:1)

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17)

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32)

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We have a particular kind of cultural view of freedom:

  • “No matter what they say, I’m doing to do whatever I want.”
  • “Break the rules. Find your freedom. Live your life.”
  • “Walk where your heart leads you.”
  • “Run without a destination, and you’ll finally see what freedom can be.”

I think of it as a fish jumping out of a fishbowl that it considers to be this horrible confinement…and goes nowhere. All it wants to do is leave, but it has no destination.  It does what it wants, it finds its freedom, it jumps where its heart leads it, and it jumps without a destination.  But it doesn’t jump to freedom. It doesn’t realize it is leaving behind the very thing that brings it life. We know this principle is true. We see it everywhere.

  • A train needs to run on tracks
  • Drivers need rules for driving
  • Our diet needs restraint
  • Fireworks need guidelines
  • A band needs to be in agreement about the constraints of the song in order to make music to which anyone wants to listen.

At the heart of the culture is the idea that freedom is simply having choices or being able to do what we want.  Yet that clearly is not true. A book called The Paradox of Choice pointed out that too many choices often immobilize us or make us unhappy. When we have too much in front of us, we don’t want to choose out of fear that we will choose something that is not the best, and when we do choose we are unhappy because we assume we are missing out.

Even worse, there are freedoms that bring bondage.  Paul said he did not want to become enslaved by permissible things that were not beneficial (1 Corinthians 6).

  • I am free to eat what I want – but I will probably gravitate toward unhealthy foods made to hook me and then hurt me.
  • I am free to use social media – but I can easily become addicted or narcissistic.
  • I am free to spend money to enjoy life – but I can become greedy and materialistic if I’m not careful.

There must be more to freedom than merely the license of choice.[1]

Let’s go back to the fish imagery. Mere choice says the fish is free if it jumps anywhere it wants to jump. But the choice that brings life and real freedom is the jump from a bowl into a lake or the ocean. That’s still not a life without limits: even the ocean has boundaries. But it’s life with the kind of limits that allow us to flourish. The fish can now live a fully life – whatever that means to a fish – because it’s in an environment where it was made to live.

At the heart of the gospel is the idea that true freedom is not freedom to do whatever we want; it’s the ability to become what God intends us to be.

“Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us.”—Tim Keller

This is a principle we hear repeated a lot of places.

“There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.” Charles Kingsley

“Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.”  Theodore Roosevelt

“What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.” –U.S. judge Learned Hand, in his speech "The Spirit of Liberty"

This is a universally recognized truth: genuine freedom is not the license to do what we want. It’s the ability to do what we should – and as Christians we would add a very important point: so that we can flourish in God’s design. This is a biblical principle that God in his grace has made clear outside of His Word.

  • You are free to eat what you want or watch what you eat. The first will liberate your choices and hurt your health, the second will constrain your choices and liberate your health.
  • You are free to be lazy or productive. The first will liberate your time and hurt you, the second will constrain your uses of time and free you economically.
  • You are free to be greedy or generous. The first will liberate you from the burden of self-sacrifice and enslave you in the rat race; the second will constrain a self-centered use of your time, energy, and priorities and free you from the power of money.
  • You are free to be resentful or to forgive. The first will constrain your peace, your health, your understanding of grace. The second will constrain your selfish desire to be right and hold a grudge, but it will free you and bring you peace and a better understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness for you.

We are free from the bondage of the law of sin and death to serve God and in so doing, truly live. But we will have to live within the constraints of that new freedom.

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Galatians 5:13-14

“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.” 1 Peter 2:16

There is the paradox of Christian freedom.[i] Jesus said:

 "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matt. 16:25)

The love of God, as seen in Christ, demands that we lay down our lives so that we can truly be alive as we are continually molded into the image of Christ. The more we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Christ and in the service of others, the more we are free to bless those who persecute us, to love those who hate us, to forgive those who hurt us.

This kind of love constrains us, but it liberates us as well.

 “When we obey God, we become more, not less, free, in the same sense that your automobile will run more freely if you obey the owner's manual sent with the car by its manufacturer, and thus take good care of it.  The car has a given nature which can be abused and damaged. 

Human beings likewise have a given nature which can be abused and damaged, thus eroding our freedom, or destroying it all together.  God gives us a Manufacturer's manual by which we can maximize our ability to act, and pursue our rightful and most joyful life -- the ‘pursuit of happiness’”. [2] (F. Earle Fox)[ii]

Christian freedom is a directed, purposeful pursuit of the life given and empowered by God that allows us to increasingly participate in the character of Christ.[iii]

We are created in the image of God; genuine freedom, then, is found in conforming to that image, not rejecting it. 

When we say, “I am a Christian,” what we say, what we do, what we post, what and how we picket, what we laugh and cry at, how we show Christ’s love, how we balance justice and mercy, how we balance law and grace, how we prioritize our life, how we engage in relationships, the kind of person we commit to becoming in our homes, our workplace, at church, in sports leagues…. These all matter. Every moment leads us further away from or further into the likeness of Christ, and with it the freedom Christ offers.

We must stop fixating on ‘my freedom’ as though it were not bound up with everyone else’s. We realize that our lives are intertwined with the lives of others, and we “put on” a commitment to live like Christ, and we sacrifice ourselves for others. We give up our pride, our greed, our selfishness, our lust, our pettiness, our jealousy and bitterness.  We use our freedom to serve others.

Christian freedom shows us what to “put on,” and promises that God will help us accomplish this in ways we never could on our own. We are free to become what God created us to be: children and ambassadors who are constantly being transformed into the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18)

Don’t be discouraged if the path of freedom is a struggle. God will help you. You have been given the Holy Spirit, God’s word, and God’s people which will all work together to transform you into the image of Jesus. God has begin a good work in you; he will be faithful.

Remember: you are a child of God. He is the perfect Father who will love and chastise and encourage and prune and build. God will work faithfully on you for your good and His glory so that we can experience not just life, but the abundant life (John 10:10)offered in the Kingdom of Heaven.

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[1] Check out this most excellent article at Christianity Today online called “The Bonds Of Freedom.” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/october/bonds-of-freedom.html

[2] http://theroadtoemmaus.org/RdLb/21PbAr/Eth/Freedm.htm

[i] Martin Luther wrote in On Christian Liberty: "A Christian… is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian… is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone."

[ii] C.S. Lewis noted, “The lost enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded.” The opposite is that the saved can forever enjoy the freedom that have been graciously given.

[iii]The Word of God teaches that the Christian is a free man and should “stand in the freedom which Christ has made him free.” What is meant by Christian freedom? What is freedom in general? We answer: it is not the right and the ability to do as one pleases, but the ability to move without constraint in the sphere for which God made us. Freedom therefore is not inconsistent with limitation and law. The bird is free only when it can move in the air unhindered. A worm is free when it is not prevented from moving in the ground–in a sphere which would mean bondage and death for many other creatures. A locomotive is not free unless its motion is confined to the two rails on which it was made to run. Man was made in the image of God to be like Him and to reflect his holiness. Consequently he is free only when he moves without constraint in the sphere of holiness and obedience to God’s law.” –“Christian Liberty,” in “Report of the Committee on Worldly Amusements,” Agenda: Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, To convene June 13, 1928 at Holland, Mich., p. 22.

 

Free - From Slavery To The Shadows

Plato told a story in which people are trapped in a cave, watching shadows on a cave wall and thinking it’s reality. Occasionally, some of them recognize the shadows for what they are and leave the cave, entering into the sunlight of Truth and experiencing Reality for themselves. It might surprise you to know that the Apostle Paul tells a very similar story.

The Colossian church had a problem with living in the shadows. Paul started out his letter by stressing the preeminence of Christ in everything, then noted how glad he was that the Colossians were rooted in and built on Christ, because He was the source of all that mattered.

“Be strong in the faith, just as you were taught, and always spill over with thankfulness. Make sure no one deceives you through some misleading philosophy and empty deception based on traditions fabricated by mere mortals. These are sourced in the elementary principles originating in this world and not in Christ. You see, all that is God, all His fullness, resides in Christ.” (7-9)

Paul goes on to say that God, through Christ, has beaten all the principalities and powers – that is, every spiritual or supernatural force - and publicly displayed their ineffectiveness and Christ’s effectiveness. Then he adds:

“It was God who brought us to life with Him, forgave all our sins, and eliminated the massive debt we incurred by the law that stood against us. He took it all away; He nailed it to the cross. He disarmed those who once ruled over us—those who had overpowered us. Like captives of war, He put them on display to the world to show His victory over them by means of the cross.

But here comes the problem. There are those who want them to rob them of the freedom Christ has offered. There are those who want them to go back to the world’s “elementary principles” that will keep them in a spiritual cave. And Paul tells them what this will look like:

Don’t let anyone stand in judgment over you and dictate what you should eat or drink, what festivals and feasts you should celebrate, or how you should observe a new moon or Sabbath days—  all these are only a shadow of what shall come.* The reality, the core, the import, is found in Christ. Don’t be cheated out of the prize by others who are peddling the worship of heavenly beings and false humility.[i] People like this run about telling whoever will listen what they claim to have seen; but in reality they testify only to an inflated mind, saturated in conceit—not in the Spirit. They are detached from the very head (Christ) that nourishes and connects the whole body (of Christians) with all of its nerves and ligaments, a body that grows by the kind of growth that can only come from God. Listen, if you have died with Christ to the world’s legalistic ordinances, then why are you submitting yourselves to its rules as if you still belonged to this world? You hear, “Don’t handle this! Don’t taste that! Don’t even touch it!” but everything they are obsessed about will eventually decay with use. These rules are just human commands and teachings. They may seem wise, but they are promoting self-imposed forms of worship, self-humiliation, and bodily abuse. No matter which way they try to tether their bodies, they cannot harness their desires. (Colossians 2:13-23)

Shadows aren’t bad things in and of themselves, because they point toward the real thing. In a drought, you want to see the shadow of clouds across the land. On a hot day, you want to see the shadow of a tree. But those don’t exist without the cloud or the tree; we would be foolish to exalt the shadow and ignore that which cast it.

The same it true of spiritual realities. The Old Testament was full of shadows: the Law; various people whose lives we now see as in some ways prophetically revealing of God; the promise of physical blessing to Israel that pointed toward spiritual blessing in Christ.

One could argue that even the pagan cultures had shadows. Tolkien and Lewis were fond of pointing out how fictional myths of the gods captured our greatest fears, longings and desires. They were stories we made up about what we feared or longed to be true. In Jesus, all the deepest human longings and hopes were fulfilled truly and ultimately in history in a real world in a real way.

So shadows aren’t bad things. They point us toward the Shadow Caster. But a "shadow" is an imperfect representation of the thing it reveals. Problems arise when people mistake the shadows for the Real Thing.

Paul identifies two ways of “staying in the shadows” that can rob us of our prize: that is, rob us of 1) fullness of the new life and freedom he has given us in this life, and 2) our heavenly reward. I’m going to address two shadows in this passage that Tim Keller calls moralism and mysticism.

“What you eat and drink”

This refers to Old Testament laws that focused on diet and hygiene. The problem was not in the regulations; it was that this physical “clean” was only a shadow of the genuine spiritual “clean” that Christ gives to us. For us, it’s probably not “Don’t go to Red Lobster or eat bacon.” It’s probably more along the lines of, “I don’t have a TV… I only listen to Christian music and read Christian books… I don’t shop at certain stores.”

None of those things are bad in themselves. If God convicts you that in your life this is important, honor Him with your obedience. But if they become the standard by which you think you or others can become clean enough for God, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble. This is still a version of “Don't Handle, Taste or Touch!” which come from the idea that if I just try hard enough that I can be clean enough for God.

Eventually, nothing else will matter as much as your self-imposed regulations of what it means to be good enough, and you will constantly be looking for all the ways in which you are currently failing as well as how you are succeeding. If you do well, you will tend to become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t do what you do. When you fail, you will tend toward despair because you believe God and everyone else thinks you are a terrible person. 

“Festivals, feasts, moons and days”

There was an understanding that honoring the festivals and feasts pleased God and brought reward, and dishonoring them displeased God and brought punishment. Their conclusion? Faithful observance made them good, holy people. Once again, the problem was not in the holiday or festival or in obedience; it was that they were just shadow pointing to the reality of Christ, and the people had made them the most important thing.

What do we do? We have Sundays, Christmas, Easter, the National Day of Prayer, The March for Life, 40 Days of Purpose, Prayer Circles, and every big push in Christian circles that is promoted as being the crucial thing that will bring God’s blessing if we just observe them properly.

Once again, if God convicts you that in your life it is important that you observe any or all these things in a particular way, then by all means do so. That’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you attempt to honor God and therefore earn his blessing, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble.

When you do well, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who aren’t as committed to the cause (“Are they embarrassed of Christ? Don’t they care like I do?) When you fail, you will despair because you believe you have let God down, and now you are in trouble, and probably everybody else around you thinks of you as a failure – so you try even harder the next time to do even more.

Here, I think, is a good question to ask in relation to the quest to do the right things: Is doing good things about honoring God or elevating the person?

  • Is my self-control about my work or the fruit of the Holy Spirit in me?
  • Am I doing this to be good or as an act of worship to honor the God I serve?
  • Do I need to be noticed?
  • Am I more interested in behavior modification or heart transformation? (Do I want to ‘surrender my desires’ or merely ‘tether my body’?)
  • When I tell my testimony about a changed life, does Jesus increase while I decrease? Do people go away talking about me or Jesus?
  • When I look at others, do I try to see what God is doing in them or settle for what they are doing for God?

“Worship of Heavenly Beings/False Humility”

Some of the Jews thought angels were intermediaries between God and men. Other sects actually tried to be an angelic presence on earth. There was a desire to know more about God, but they got so enamored with the messenger that they forgot the message. They began to believe that superior knowledge and experiences made them important.  What should have fostered a desire for others to know and experience God instead became a desire to be known and seen for their experience.

And to make it worse, they expressed false humility. Elliot’s Commentary explains it well:

“Humility is a grace, and is unconsciousness, and cannot live except by resting on some more positive quality, such as faith or love. Whenever it is consciously cultivated and “delighted in,” it loses all its grace; it becomes either “the pride that apes humility,” or it turns to abject slavishness and meanness. Of such depravations Church history is unhappily full.”

There are still people and groups in Christianity that put a lot of stock in those who convey information about visits with angels, or being caught up into heaven, or having supernatural encounters in which they spend time with really important people and are given crucial insights, or even simply having overwhelming ecstatic experiences.[1]

If you have a genuine supernatural encounter with God, that’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if those moments become the standard by which you gauge if you are doing things right or getting to know God, or if your experience becomes the measure by which everyone else’s walk with God is judged, you are giving in to mysticism, and you are in danger of worshipping the shadow rather than the One who casts it.

The pursuit of or fascination with angels and visions will take you captive when nothing else matters as much as your experiences. If something glorious happens, you will tend become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t have the connection with God that you do. Sometimes people even feel pressured to lie about what they’ve experienced. When you don’t have them, you will despair because you believe something is terribly wrong with you, and you will become increasingly radical in what you will do to recapture the experience.

Here, I think, is a good question to ask in relation to genuine supernatural encounters with God: When I think or talk about it, who increases: me or Jesus? Does what happened cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my story of emotional rapture cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my testimony of healing cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my miraculous conversion story cause people to think about me or Jesus?

  • I wonder if this was why Paul wouldn’t talk about being caught up into heaven, and why in his epistles he never talked about raising a young man from the dead (maybe because his sermon killed him, I don’t know J (Acts 20:9-12)
  • Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes. I think I would probably love to tell that story if someone thought I was a god. Paul never talks about it.
  • Peter heals the lame (Acts 3) and paralyzed Acts 9), gets visions from God (Acts 10), and raises a woman from the dead (Acts 9). People tried to position the sick so his shadow would fall on them (Acts 5)  – and Peter never talks about it in his New Testament writings.

What they experienced brought them closer to Jesus, and what they did pointed others toward Jesus. We don’t read that they continued to pursue a replication of those things. They just faithfully did what God put in front of them to do. I wonder if that’s why Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind, I press on…” In the context of that verse he was not talking about hardship or failure. He was talking about success (Philippians 3).

The Law is a good thing  - it is a ‘schoolteacher’ to show us how God has designed us to live – but it is a shadow of the Lawgiver who fulfilled it. We can settle for trying to ‘tether our bodies’ when what Jesus offers is a transformation of our desires that will transform our hearts (and our bodies will follow). We will never find the freedom to flourish in God’s Kingdom through behavior modification. Because of Jesus, we are freed from the bondage of perfect living on our own power and drawn into righteous living through the power of God.

Supernatural experiences are a good thing – they reveal the reality of “God with us” – but the experiences are a shadow of the One being experienced. We are free to simply pursue Jesus, and allow God to decide if, when, and how He will reveal Himself in a miraculous way.

So what is Paul’s solution?

“So it comes down to this: since you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand.  Stay focused on what’s above, not on earthly things, because your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is now hidden in and enmeshed with Christ, who is in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

But we will talk more about that next week...

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* Some examples of the types and shadows in the OT that point toward Christ:

Feast of Unleavened Bread – holiness: "Purge out therefore the 'old leaven' that ye may be a 'new lump,' as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast, not with 'old leaven,' neither with the 'leaven of malice and wickedness.' but with the 'unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.'" 1 Cor. 5:7,8.

The Law: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (Hebrews 10:1)

The Temple: “The priests serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” (Hebrews 8:5)

Offerings: “In the first covenant, every day every officiating priest stands at his post serving, offering over and over those same sacrifices that can never take away sin. 12 But after He stepped up to offer His single sacrifice for sins for all time, He sat down in the position of honor at the right hand of God.”  (Hebrews 10:11-12)

[1] Read up on the New Apostolic Reformation. The book God's Super Apostles: Encountering The Worldwide Apostles And Prophets Movement is a good place to start.  Tim Challies offers a good review/overview of the book. 

[i] An unusual word that appears to reference athletes who won the Games, then had their rightful reward taken away.

[ii] “It might seem strange that on the rigid monotheism of Judaism this incongruous creature-worship should have been engrafted. But here also the link is easily supplied. The worship of the angels of which the Essenic system bore traces, was excused on the ground that the Law had been given through the “ministration of angels” (see Acts 7:53Galatians 3:19), and that the tutelary guardianship of angels had been revealed in the later prophecy. (See Daniel 10:10-21.) For this reason it was held that angels might be worshipped, probably with the same subtle distinctions between this and that kind of worship with which we are familiar in the ordinary pleas for the veneration of saints. It has been noticed that in the Council of Laodicea, held in the fourth century, several canons were passed against Judaising, and that in close connection with these it was forbidden “to leave the Church of God and go away to invoke angels”; and we are told by Theodoret (in the next century) that “oratories to St. Michael (the ‘prince’ of the Jewish people) were still to be seen.” The “angels” in this half-Jewish system held the same intermediate position between the Divine and the human which in the ordinary Gnostic theories was held by the less personal Æons, or supposed emanations from the Godhead.”  - Elliiot’s Commentary

 

Freedom From Slavery (John 8)

As part of the series we are in on the Gospel of John, I (Jeff Martin) will be speaking from John 8:31-59. This passage in John 8 continues to focus on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem.

It describes an encounter in the Jerusalem Temple between Jesus and a group of Jews from Judea, which included a number of Pharisees. Recall the context from last Sunday – this is right after the incident with the Woman Caught In Adultery. The Pharisees were very publicly reminded of their sinfulness.

There is quite a bit of back and forth in this encounter with Jesus. The Pharisees rarely concede an inch to Jesus on any of His points. Almost every time Jesus makes a proclamation, the Judeans, led by the Pharisees immediately make a rebuttal or negation of Jesus’ statement. At one point, Jesus just unloads. It’s quite stunning, and shows the passion that Jesus has for the truth, specifically how He defines it. Let’s read this passage together.[1]

John 8:31-59

31b So Jesus said to the Judeans who had trusted him, “If you obey what I say, then you are really my disciples, 32 you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 They answered, “We are the seed of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone; so what do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Yes, indeed! I tell you that everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. 35 Now a slave does not remain with a family forever, but a son does remain with it forever. 36 So if the Son frees you, you will really be free! 37 I know you are the seed of Abraham. Yet you are out to kill me, because what I am saying makes no headway in you. 38 I say what my Father has shown me; you do what your father has told you!”

39 They answered him, “Our father is Abraham.”

Jesus replied, “If you are children of Abraham, then do the things Abraham did! 40 As it is, you are out to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did nothing like that!  41 You are doing the things your father does.”

“We’re not illegitimate children!” they said to him. “We have only one Father — God!”

42 Jesus replied to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me; because I came out from God; and now I have arrived here. I did not come on my own; he sent me.  43 Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? Because you can’t bear to listen to my message. 44 You belong to your father, Satan, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. From the start he was a murderer, and he has never stood by the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he is speaking in character; because he is a liar — indeed, the inventor of the lie!  45 But as for me, because I tell the truth you don’t believe me. 46 Which one of you can show me where I’m wrong? If I’m telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?  47 Whoever belongs to God listens to what God says; the reason you don’t listen is that you don’t belong to God.”

48 The Judeans answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying you are from Samaria and have a demon?”

49 Jesus replied, “Me? I have no demon. I am honoring my Father. But you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking praise for myself. There is One who is seeking it, and he is the judge.

51 Yes, indeed! I tell you that whoever obeys my teaching will never see death.”

52 The Judeans said to him, “Now we know for sure that you have a demon! Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever obeys my teaching will never taste death.’ 53 Our father Abraham died; you aren’t greater than he, are you? And the prophets also died. Who do you think you are?”

54 Jesus answered, “If I praise myself, my praise counts for nothing. The One who is praising me is my Father, the very one about whom you keep saying, ‘He is our God.’ 55 Now you have not known him, but I do know him; indeed, if I were to say that I don’t know him, I would be a liar like you! But I do know him, and I obey his word.  56 Abraham, your father, was glad that he would see my day; then he saw it and was overjoyed.”

57 “Why, you’re not yet fifty years old,” the Judeans replied, “and you have seen Abraham?”

58 Jesus said to them, “Yes, indeed! Before Abraham came into being, I AM!”

59 At this, they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus was hidden and left the Temple grounds.

In verses 31 through 59 of John chapter 8, I believe Jesus is offering a way to freedom from slavery to sin.  The Jews reject Jesus promise for freedom. Instead, they make a claim to freedom via their inheritance as the seed of Abraham. Jesus assures the Jews that His way is the only way to true freedom in this life and eternally, and that they would do well to “do the things Abraham did!”, if they want to make the claim to his inheritance.

We will look at why would we want this freedom Jesus offers, what this freedom looks like, Jesus’ promise ( You Will Know The Truth and The Truth Will Set You Free!), and where we begin.

WHY WOULD WE WANT THIS FREEDOM JESUS OFFERS?

So we can be free from sin (v.34).  One of the effects of sin is shame. Our shame ultimately causes us to withdraw from those we love, including Jesus, our family and friends.

  • To honor God as our father (v.42)
  • To gain eternal life (v.51)
  • To carry out God’s desires (v. 43), which will help us grow deeper in love with Him and strengthen our faith and trust in Him.

As our love, faith and trust in Him grows, we will look to Him no matter the circumstances of our lives. Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 [2], which states that He was sent to:

  • heal the brokenhearted;
  • proclaim freedom to the captives;
  • let out into light those bound in the dark;
  • comfort all who mourn.

We see Jesus doing this all throughout the gospel of John (the Samaritan woman, the lame man, the woman caught in adultery), and I have clearly seen him do this in my life (more on this later). The love we experience as we move deeper in relationship with Him, enables us to do these things for others as well.

As I grow into deeper faith in Jesus, I understand one major difference between the old me and the new me, and that is:   My faith was shallow and weak. I did not trust in the leadership of Christ Jesus then, as I more fully do now. 

WHAT DOES THIS FREEDOM LOOK LIKE?

Maybe this is best described by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians in that all of us, who have turned to Jesus as Lord, will see, as in a mirror, that we are slowly being changed into His very image. Not into Him, but someone that we, and others, would begin to recognize as reflecting Jesus, in our thoughts, words and deeds. [3]

So, from the time we begin to place our trust in Jesus as Lord, until the time of His return, or until our last breath, we should see progress in the transformation of our lives, to be more like Him.  From the old to the new, we are reborn!]

JESUS’ PROMISE - YOU WILL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE!

In verses 31 and 32 below, we see how Jesus calls into obedience, those Jews who have placed their trust in Him, with freedom as the outcome. Please note the logic or sequence in verses 31 and 32: first trust and obey, then freedom follows.

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had trusted him: “If you obey what I say, then you are really my disciples, 32 you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Immediately thereafter, in verse 33, the Jews make the appeal to their inheritance.

33 They answered, “We are the seed of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone; so what do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”

What does Jesus mean?

34 Jesus answered them, “Yes, indeed! I tell you that everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin.  35Now a slave does not remain with a family forever, but a son does remain with it forever.

Paul explains in Romans 6:16, when we present ourselves as obedient slaves, then to the one we obey, we are slaves. Either we are a slave to sin, which leads to death. Or we are enslaved to obedience to God, which leads to our being made righteous. Jesus then reinforces that He is the source of freedom from slavery to sin.

36“So if the Son frees you, you will really be free!”

There is a kind of natural deconstruction of verses 31, 32 and 34. What do we need to do? Be a disciple. How do we become a disciple? By obeying Jesus. What do we need to know?  The truth. Why do we need to know the truth? To be set free from slavery to sin. So, obeying Jesus by being His disciple leads us to the truth, and the truth leads to freedom from slavery to sin.

WHERE DO WE BEGIN? Be a Disciple!

In Jesus’ era, there were many rabbis (which means scholar or teacher). Rabbis had disciples who were their students or followers. The use of this word “disciple” by Jesus is intended to describe this relationship. The relationship between a disciple and their rabbi is very close:

  • not only did the disciple learn facts,
  • reasoning processes and
  • how to perform religious practices from their rabbi,
  • the disciple also regarded their rabbi as an example to be imitated in conduct and character.

The rabbi, in turn, was considered responsible for their disciples. [2]

You can see from Jesus’ use of this word disciple that He expects us to go deep in our respective relationships with Him:

  • By learning truth from Him, through reading the Word and in prayer,
  • Understanding His reasoning processes,
  • Participating in His religious practices, and
  • Imitating Him.

This requires us to engage in more than just a head level knowledge of who He is and what He is about. He in turn has a responsibility to us! Which He fulfills via His Holy Spirit who is the comforting Counselor who convicts us of sin, leading us to righteousness and the Spirit of Truth, guiding us into all truth – primarily through the study of His word and by prayer.

CONCLUSION

The Lord encounters us every day, in His creation, and most importantly in His word and through prayer. He has sent His Spirit, the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. To bring revelation of scripture, to guide us into His truth. The Lord loves us. He desires us, to be in relationship with us. He wants our hearts. To this there can be no doubt. Just consider what He did for us on the cross. He wants to free us from bondage to sin and usher us into an ever deeper understanding of what it means to be children of the Living God.

I can’t escape this sense that I am to share my story, about the sin in my life and the goodness of the Lord in setting me free from the bondage of sin bit by bit as we move deeper together in relationship.

I am a modern example of the prodigal son. That is, I spent about 35 years of my life, living life my way, which was away from the Lord and deep into sin. I was knee deep in the “miry clay” of sin and it is Jesus who has lifted me out of the clay and set me on the rock of His salvation.

I grew up in a Christian home. We went to Church nearly every Sunday. We attended Bible Camp in the summer, attended missions in the inner city of Detroit with my Grandmother, and I read my Bible regularly. But, as a teenager, I engaged in activities that were in rebellion, otherwise known as sin, toward God. These activities included a fair amount of partying with various drugs and alcohol.

More critically I entered into a very intimate emotional and physical relationship with my first girlfriend, which, given our ages, neither one of us was prepared for. This relationship resulted in her pregnancy, which was terminated. I have not interacted with her since that time, but given how this impacted me, I can only venture that she was impacted far more deeply than I can imagine. This was a pivotal experience that shook the foundation of my life, and rather than repenting and turning to the Lord, I turned away and I decided I could “fix” the emotional mess I was in, on my own.

This was a bad decision.

What started out as an attempt to resolve the emotional issues I was facing as part of my losing a child and the inadequacy I felt about not being able to live up to my responsibilities – due to my age, I lived my life by going deeper and deeper into behavior that was in clear rebellion against God, resulting in my having multiple marriages, and my not walking in the light of the Lord’s Word for nearly 35 years.

Fortunately for me, God is gracious and merciful and He never stopped pursuing me.

I finally began to respond to the Lord’s pursuit of my heart. And the best way I knew how to respond was to start going to church. This was in 2009. We attended church in the typical Sunday morning manner. But there was a problem for me. You see, I can get pretty uptight about being late. Adriana, in contrast, doesn’t. We are, thankfully meeting somewhere in the middle on this issue. So, we frequently arrived late to church, where we were ushered right up to the only empty seats – in the front row. To say the least, my heart was not postured in a way that allowed the Lord to penetrate it.

I think by providence, my sister and her family were attending a church here in town that met at 5:00pm on Sunday. Ahh, now I had plenty of time to get to church on time.

We started to attend this church at 5:00. Many of the times in worship were spent by me on my knees weeping as I began to turn my eyes away from me and toward Him. The Word of the Lord that our Pastor, Pastor Jim Roe shared, went straight to my heart. I can recall many times sitting in the pew just weeping over the Lord working me over – about the way I lived my life, calling me into repentance and more importantly about how much He loves me. Through continued worship, time in His Word and in prayer, I have been in Jesus’ school of character development ever since, as He sets me free from my sin.

Here’s the big question: What are we to do? We are to be obedient, obedient to Jesus as His disciple, by:

  • Worshipping Him.
  • Serving Him
  • Learning the truth about Him and what He taught by studying the scriptures.
  • Understanding His reasoning processes – thinking like He does.
  • Participate in His religious practices  (communing with Him and receiving truth of and from Him, through study of His Word and by prayer)
  • Imitating Him, by being gracious and loving others as He does.
  • Trusting in His promises.
  • Interceding via prayer with Him on our behalf and on behalf of others.

The questions are - how will you respond? Will you go deeper? Do you desire the freedom from sin Jesus held out to us in His promise?  Imagine your life becoming freed from those chains that bind us.

In closing, I would like to read a couple of stanzas from an old hymn.

In 1887, at a revival meeting hosted by Dwight Moody, a young man stood to speak, and it soon be­came clear he knew lit­tle Christ­ian doc­trine. But he fin­ished by say­ing, “I’m not quite sure—but I’m go­ing to trust, and I’m go­ing to obey.” These words were jotted down and turned into the hymnal, “Trust and Obey”.[3]

 

When we walk with the Lord In the light of His word

What a glory He sheds on our way

While we do His good will He abides with us still

And with all who will trust and obey

 

But we never can prove the delights of His love

Until all on the altar we lay

For the favor He shows, for the joy He bestows

Are for them who will trust and obey

 

Trust and obey For there's no other way To be happy in Jesus But to trust and obey

________________________________________________

[1] Stern, David H.. Complete Jewish Bible: An English Version of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and B’rit Hadashah (New Testament). Messianic Jewish Communications. Kindle Edition.

[2] Luke 4:18-19.

[3] http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/t/r/trstobey.htm

New Life: Risen With Christ (Colossians 3:1-3:14)

So it comes down to this: since you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on heaven above, where He is seated at God’s right hand. Stay focused on what’s above, not on earthly things, because your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is now safely enmeshed with Christ, who is in God. On that day when the Christ—who is our very life—is revealed, you will be revealed with Him in glory!" (Colossians 3:1-4)

 

This is the solution to a life in which we are enslaved to sin (read Colossians 2 to see what that looks like). Awesome! But…how does that work? How do we “set our minds” and “stay focused”? Let’s keep reading (picking up in verse 5):

"So kill your earthly impulses: promiscuous sex, impure actions, unbridled lust, evil desires, and greed (which is idolatry). It’s because of these that God’s wrath is coming, so avoid them at all costs. These are the same things you once pursued, and together you walked in the path of evil. But now make sure you put off such things: anger, rage, spite, slander, and abusive language. And don’t go on lying to each other since you have traded the old self and the evil it did for a fresh new you, which is continually renewed in knowledge according to the image of the One who created you. In this re-creation there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and conqueror, or slave and free because Christ is above all, and dwells in us all. Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together. Let the peace of God control your heart (the peace you were called to as one body), and be thankful. (Colossians 3:5-14)

 

In this passage, we see three important principles that should help us find the freedom of new life in Christ.

Identity: Know who you are (1-4)

The Bible gives at least three images to describe our life “enmeshed” with Christ:  Getting out of jail, being adopted, and putting on new clothes.

  •  Getting out of Jail: It used to be the case that we were in chains, slaves to our sinful nature. We could not live freely. We might have moments of good living when we thought we had been set free, but we were just walking in the courtyard. No matter what, we would enter lockdown again. Christ opened the prison door; He set the captives free. Now we can truly walk out of the prison of sin.
  •  Being Adopted: It used to be that our character, reputation and nature were the result of the Family of the World – priorities, worldview, default reactions, loves, habits, tendencies.  Christ brings us into the Family of God, where all these things undergo a process of change. My priorities increasingly reflect God’s, etc. As we go through sanctification, we begin to naturally reflect our new family’s character, reputation and nature. We will fail at times, but that doesn’t mean we get kicked out of the family. In this family, we pull each other closer with the love of the Father.
  •  Changing Clothes: We make a decision: will I dress with my family colors or not? Will I present myself in such a way that when people see me, they see who I am now? Do I wear a jail uniform even though I am no longer a prisoner? Do I wear the styles and slogans of the Family of the World, or the Family of God? I have to dress myself every day. What will I put on?

 We have to remind ourselves of this identity. It won’t necessarily be easy. Old habits die hard. We could keep on our prison clothes and go hang out in the yard. We could pursue our old family and honor their habits. We could keep the old clothes.

Clarity: See who you were (5-11) 

In order to make the decision to “kill” our earthly self (stay out of jail, new clothes, etc), we need to understand what is at stake. If we don’t think our old life was that big of a deal, we probably won’t make changes that last. So, why do you need to “kill” these things? Why is God angry? Look at the life that unfolds when you indulge your earthly desires:

  • Greed -  You have a lust for more, be it sex or anything else. You want what is not yours. If you get it, it’s still not enough.  It doesn’t matter who you hurt or what impact you are having on others, you take what you want. It’s relentless; you are driven, you are always hungry for more.  Paul starts with an external activity, then moves into the heart – it’s greed, and it’s idolatry. You are worshiping things (at least on the surface); ultimately, you are worshiping self.
  • Anger – Of course, you are never satisfied. There is a “slowly building, settled animosity” as your frustration boils over, the rage – you lash out since you have no reserve. If you are a person who struggles with anger, Paul identifies at least one reason for it: greed or lust. You are driven to get something you want but don’t have, and when you don’t get it, or when you do and it fails to satisfy, your anger builds and then spills over onto the people around you. First you used them as simply things to satisfy your demand for more – sex, attention, respect, money, authority, admiration, comfort – then you abuse them verbally and emotionally (slander and abusive language).
  • Deception  -  You live and speak deceitfully. This may simply mean they had a problem with lying, but I wonder if this doesn’t have more to do with the duplicity of their lives. They claimed to be followers of Christ, but they were still living in lust, greed, and rage. The phrase translated as “abusive language” is the same word for “blasphemy” – somehow, they were blaspheming the name of God as the lashed out at other.  The Jewish converts knew the commandment, “Don’t take God’s name in vain,” which was actually not an admonition against swearing. It meant don’t claim allegiance to Christ falsely.  Don’t lie; particularly, don’t lie by claiming allegiance to Christ while living in allegiance to the world.

 What’s at stake? More than just a relationship with Christ. Your relationship with others matters too. That list of contrasts (slave or free, etc) highlights the problem of  division, where people tend to reject others with prejudice. This list covers nationality, religion, education, and social status. This is an issue of pride. I am better than you. Why? I am American…I have more money…I have an education or skill set…I don’t work for other people…I have a good reputation…I understand the finer things in life… (All of these have their opposites, I might add. Look how redneck I am! A country boy can survive!)

We might think, “It’s not a big deal if I sleep around. No one is getting hurt. It’s not a big deal if I am greedy – why shouldn’t I want more? It’s not a big deal if I get angry – it’s justified; they had it coming! Slander? I am just telling people what that jerk is really like!” If you don’t understand how destructive these things are, you will never understand why God is angry. If, however, you see the impact they have on you and on others, you will begin to get a little angry too. Your heart will begin to break for the damage people experience.

 If you or someone you love has been sexually used and discarded, or experienced the damage that rage can bring, or lived with chronic lying and the untrustworthiness that follows, or had their faith rocked by hypocrisy. - if you or someone you love has experienced this, you know why God is angry. They more you begin to understand the heart of God for those whose lives are wrecked by lust, greed, anger, gossip, and lies, the more you will put that away from you.

Priority: Be who you are (13-15)

"Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together. Let your hearts be ruled by Christ’s peace (the peace you were called to as one body), and be thankful."

 

Here’s the thing: Your identity is given to you Christ. Your clarity will result from the work of the Holy Spirit in you. Your freedom is a gift from God. But you choose your clothing. And how your dress yourself will have a huge impact in how you experience life in the Kingdom of God.

 I think we have a tendency to be complacent. “God saved me; He wanted me in His family. Awesome. He can do the work.”  So we sit back and wait to stop being angry, or lustful, or jealous, or peaceful.  We just expect to start feeling kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, loving, and thankful. That’s not how it works (according to Paul).

 You have been freed from the power of greed, lust, anger, lies, and pride. But you must make a choice: Will I dress myself in the clothes of my new identity, or will I put on the uniform of all those things I once was? You didn’t have a choice before; now you do. You are free to become who you are.

  • Do you want to be compassionate? Clothe yourself with compassion.
  • Do you want to be kind? Clothe yourself with kindness
  • Do you want to be humble? Clothe yourself with humility.
  • Do you want to be gentle? Clothe yourself with gentleness.
  • Do you want to be patient? Clothe yourself with patience.
  • Do you want to be forgiving? Clothe yourself with forgiveness.
  • Do you want to be loving? Clothe yourself with love.

This is the opposite of the idolatry of self – every action is a sacrifice you make for the sake of Christ and with the help of Christ for others.  It will bring freedom from the control of sin and self-destructiveness in your life, and it will bring peace to your family, church and community. It’s one of the beautiful ironies of life with Christ: it’s when we lose our life that we find it. It’s when we offer ourselves in service that we find freedom and bring peace.

We have to connect to Christ. We have to understand our identity. We have to see ourselves and our lives with clarity. We have to prioritize the life Christ has given us. We have to commit to what we have been given. Then we have to choose to dress like a Child of the King.

 

True Freedom: Secured By Christ (Colossians 2:16-2:23)

Plato told a story in which people are trapped in a cave, watching shadows on a cave wall and thinking it’s reality. Occasionally, some of them recognize the shadows for what they are and leave the cave, entering into the sunlight of truth and experiencing Reality for themselves.

It might surprise you to know that the Apostle Paul tells a very similar story. The Colossian church had a problem with living in the shadows. Paul started out his letter to them by stressing the preeminence of Christ in everything, then noted how glad he was that the Colossians were rooted in and built on Christ, because He was the source of all that mattered. God had brought them to life.

“Be strong in the faith, just as you were taught, and always spill over with thankfulness. Make sure no one deceives you through some misleading philosophy and empty deception based on traditions fabricated by mere mortals. These are sourced in the elementary principles originating in this world and not in Christ. You see, all that is God, all His fullness, resides in His body.” (7-9)

 

 These elementary principles all come back to one thing: I can save myself. I am good enough. Paul goes on to say that God, through Christ has triumphed over every force (spiritual or physical) that would tell you that you can save yourself and publicly displayed their ineffectiveness and Christ’s effectiveness.

“It was God who brought us to life with Him, forgave all our sins, and eliminated the massive debt we incurred by the law that stood against us. He took it all away; He nailed it to the cross. He disarmed those who once ruled over us—those who had overpowered us. Like captives of war, He put them on display to the world to show His victory over them by means of the cross."

 

But here comes the problem. Some false teachers wanted them to go back to the world’s “elementary principles” that would keep them in a spiritual cave. So Paul tells them what this will look like: 

"Don’t let anyone stand in judgment over you and dictate what you should eat or drink, what festivals and feasts you should celebrate, or how you should observe a new moon or Sabbath days—  all these are only a shadow of what shall come. The reality, the core, the import, is found in Christ.Don’t be cheated out of the prize by others who are peddling the worship of heavenly beings and false humility.People like this run about telling whoever will listen what they claim to have seen; but in reality they testify only to an inflated mind, saturated in conceit—not in the Spirit. They are detached from the very head (Christ) that nourishes and connects the whole body (of Christians) with all of its nerves and ligaments, a body that grows by the kind of growth that can only come from God.Listen, if you have died with Christ to the world’s legalistic ordinances, then why are you submitting yourselves to its rules as if you still belonged to this world? You hear, “Don’t handle this! Don’t taste that! Don’t even touch it!” but everything they are obsessed about will eventually decay with use. These rules are just human commands and teachings. They may seem wise, but they are promoting self-imposed forms of worship, self-humiliation, and bodily abuse. No matter which way they try to tether their bodies, they cannot harness their desires." (Colossians 2:13-23) 

______________________________________________________________________________________________

Let’s put some context to this discussion.

 The Jewish converts had been raised on the book of Leviticus, a book about how sin may be put away. It gives different types of laws to avoid sin (ceremonial, moral, civil, dietary); it provides five offerings to make up for all the times they still sinned anyway. There were feasts and festivals (some associated with the New Moon) and a temple full of symbolic things and activities. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the "types" are but the “shadow of good things to come.”(Hebrews 10:1) – specifically, Christ.*

It pointed toward the real thing. It was meant to give hope. It represented something greater in a way that served as a promise: So it’s  not that shadows are bad – in fact, people need to be faithful to God if they felt that strictly adhering to these customs were important for their spiritual growth and maturity:

There may be a believer who regards one day as more sacred than any other, while another views every day as sacred as the next. In these matters, all must reach their own conclusions and satisfy their own minds. If someone observes a day as holy, he observes it in honor of the Lord. If another eats a particular diet, he eats in honor of the Lord since he begins by giving thanks! If yet another abstains from that same food, he abstains out of respect for the Lord and begins his meal by thanking God too.” Romans 14:5-6

 

So there is a way to honor the Lord with these observances. But a "shadow" is an out-of-proportion, imperfect representation of the thing it reveals. Problems arise when people mistake the shadows for the Real Thing. Paul identifies two ways of “staying in the shadows” that rob us of the ability to be fully united with Christ, and as a result be denied the fullness of the new life and freedom he has given us. These two shadows are moralism and mysticism.

  • Morality is a good thing, but Moralism says, “If I do, I can be good enough.” It detaches us from Christ because we are trying to harness our own desires: that is, to live lives of holiness and purity on own power.  
  • Supernatural experiences are a good thing, but Mysticism says, “If I experience enough, I will be good enough.” Both are shadows that will detach you from Christ.

If you are content with either of these approaches to God, you will either become proud or be driven to despair. With these two categories in mind, let's look at the breakdown of shadowy problems in the CO 

“What you eat and drink”

This refers to Old Testament laws that focused on diet and hygiene. The problem was not in the regulations; it was that this physical “clean” was only a shadow of the genuine spiritual “clean” that Christ gives to us. For us, it’s probably not “Don’t go to Red Lobster or eat bacon.” It’s probably more along the lines of, “I don’t have a TV…I grow kids God’s Way… I only listen to Christian music and read Christian books…I only watch movies rated PG or less…”

 None of those things are bad in themselves. If God convicts you that in your life this is important, honor Him with your obedience. That’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you think you can become clean enough for God, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble. This is still a version of “Don't Handle, Taste or Touch!” which come from the idea that I can be in control of my holiness and goodness – I can manage my life if I just try hard enough that I can be clean enough for God.

 Eventually, nothing else will matter as much as your self-imposed regulations of what it means to be good enough, and you will constantly be looking for all the ways in which you are currently failing. When you do well, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t do what you do. When you fail, you will despair because you believe God and everyone else thinks you are a terrible person. 

“Festivals, feasts, moons and days”

In the OT, it clearly mattered to God whether or not his people did this with sincerity. Many times, the prophets warned of God’s anger and frustration at how callous, shallow, hypocritical of forgetful his people had become. There was an understanding that honoring the festivals and feasts pleased God and brought reward, and dishonoring them displeased God and brought punishment (often in the sense of, ”If you don’t honor my presence, I will remove my presence.”) Conclusion? Faithful observance make me a good, holy person. Once again, the problem is not in the holiday or festival; it was that they were just shadow pointing to the reality of Christ, and the people had made them the most important thing.

We aren’t Jewish, so we don’t observe the Feast of Trumpets, for example. What do we do instead?  We have Sundays, Christmas, Easter, the National Day of Prayer, The March for Life, 40 Days of Purpose, Prayer Circles, Blood Moons, and every big push in Christian circles that is promoted as being the crucial thing that will bring God’s blessing if we just observe them properly.

Once again, none of those things are bad. If God convicts you that in your life it is important that you observe any or all these things in a particular way, then by all means do so. That’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you attempt to honor God and therefore earn his blessing, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble.

When you do well, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who aren’t as committed to the cause (Are they embarrassed of Christ? Are they Laodiceans?). When you fail, you will despair because you believe you have let God down, and now you are in trouble – so you try even harder the next time to do even more.

“Worship of Heavenly Beings/False Humility”

Some of the Jews thought angels were intermediaries between God and men. Other sects actually tried to be an angelic presence on earth. There was a desire to know more about God, but they got so enamored with the messenger that they forgot the message. They began to believe that Superior knowledge and experiences made them important.  What should have fostered a desire for others to know and experience God instead became a desire to be known and seen for their experience.

 There are still people and groups in Christianity that put a lot of stock in those who convey information about visits with angels, or being caught up into heaven, or having supernatural encounters in which they spend time with really important people and are given crucial insights. If you have a genuine supernatural encounter with God, that’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you gauge if you are doing things right or getting to know God, this is mysticism, and you are worshipping the shadow rather than the One who casts it.

 Here, I think, is a good rule of thumb: When the story deflects glory, drop the story. If people give a message so that others will follow them and not the One who is the point of the message, that is precisely the kind of person you should not follow.

 The pursuit of or fascination with angels and visions will take you captive – nothing else will matter as much as your experiences. If something glorious happens, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t have the connection with God that you do. When you don’t have them, you will despair because you believe something is terribly wrong with you, and you will become increasingly radical in what you will do to recapture the experience. 

Do you see what is happening here? If we live in such a way that we mistake shadows for the real thing, we are disconnected from Christ and we can’t grow. We will long for the fullness of life with Christ, but we will never find genuine peace, joy, love, hope, contentment. We will never understand genuine grace, or forgiveness, or worth, because we sought them in the shadow of the One who offers them.  So what is Paul’s solution?

“So it comes down to this: since you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand.  Stay focused on what’s above, not on earthly things, because your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is now hidden, enmeshed with Christ, who is in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

 

It's a huge worldview shift.  In the next post in this series, we are going to look more closely at what Paul means by the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

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* Some examples of the types and shadows in the OT that point toward Christ:

Feasts

Unleavened Bread – holiness: "Purge out therefore the 'old leaven' that ye may be a 'new lump,' as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast, not with 'old leaven,' neither with the 'leaven of malice and wickedness.' but with the 'unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.'" 1 Cor. 5:7,8.

 Law: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (Hebrews 10:1)

 Temple: “The priests serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” (Hebrews 8:5)

 Offerings: In the first covenant, every day every officiating priest stands at his post serving, offering over and over those same sacrifices that can never take away sin. But after He stepped up to offer His single sacrifice for sins for all time, He sat down in the position of honor at the right hand of God.”  (Hebrews 10:11-12)

The Best Way To Change A Culture (Insights from Philemon)

Paul, a prisoner of Jesus the Anointed One, with our brother Timothy, to you, beloved Philemon, our fellow worker… I make this request on behalf of my child, Onesimus, whom I brought to faith during my time in prison. Before, he was useless to you; but now he is useful to both you and me. Listen, I am sending my heart back to you as I send him to stand before you, although truly I wished to keep him at my side to take your place as my helper while I am bound for the good news. But I didn’t want to make this decision without asking for your permission. This way, any goodwill on your part wouldn’t be seen as forced, but as your true and free desire.

  Maybe this is the reason why he was supposed to be away from you for this time: so that now you will have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave—as a dear brother. Yes, he is dear to me, but I suspect he will come to mean even more to you, both in the flesh as a servant and in the Lord as a brother. So if you look upon me as your partner in this mission, then I ask you to open your heart to him as you would welcome me. And if he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Look, I’ll put it here in my own handwriting: I, Paul, promise to repay you everything. (Should I remind you that you owe me your life?)    Indeed, brother, I want you to do me this favor out of obedience to our Lord. It will refresh my heart in Him. This letter comes, written with the confidence that you will not only do what I ask, but will also go beyond all I have asked. 

- From the book of Philemon, The Voice

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Though Paul’s letter to Philemon is often used to accuse Paul of supporting (or at least being okay with) slavery, the criticism misses the deeper purpose of this letter. Paul presents a radical message that to Philemon would have undermined everything he had been taught about masters and slaves, and could only lead to a world without slavery. 

Slaves made up about 40%  of the Greek and Roman population. This seems like an astonishingly high number, but slavery in some fashion formed the backbone of their economy. I say “in some fashion” because slavery could mean a lot of different things at that time. There were absolutely brutal forms of slavery (particularly for captured soldiers and criminals), but there were other forms that bear little resemblance to what we think of today. The Apostle Paul used the word “doulous,” which can mean anything from a servant to a slave.  It’s a term that was used freely in the New Testament to describe quite a few different positions in society or relationships:

  • Jesus took upon himself the nature of a doulos (Philippians 2:7)
  • We are all either the doulos of sin or of Christ (Romans 6:17-18)
  • Paul said he was a doulos to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:19)
  • Onesimus was a doulos (Philemon)

I appreciate the succinct way in which the translators of the ESV summarized the problem of translating both the Hebrew and Greek words that the biblical writers used to talk about slavery:

"A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. 

For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context.    "The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave” 

There were no bankruptcy laws, so indentured servitude was how the lower class or bankrupt found work and worked off debt. This type of doulos was very different from the image we have of slavery. Many were highly educated, and were doctors, professors, teachers, administrators, public servants and even policemen. Since Onesimus was apparently an indentured servant (specifically one who worked in the household and not the fields), I want to focus on that aspect. 

Household doulos were much better off than even the free-born poor. The poor were often day laborers competing for jobs that went to the doulos. Slaves like Onesimus were paid for their work, which provided them the means to eventually buy their freedom. Some owned other doulos themselves (think of the parable of unforgiving servant, who owed his master – but was in turn owed by another worse off than he was). 

In Judaism, the ebed (a word used to cover slaves, servants, ambassadors, subjects, or simply those who were indebted to another) were released after 7 years, and they were given a portion of herds, crops, and lands. In Greek and Roman culture, doulos such as Onesimus had typically earned their freedom by the age of 30 after an average of 10 years of work. In the city of Rome, a freed doulos enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership but also active political freedom, including the right to vote. The even had a title: “the free ones.” 

This system was the way for someone like Onesimus to move up in society and become a successful free man. Even nobleman were known to sell themselves into the service of greater noblemen so they could move up in the Greco-Roman world.  Onesimus himself probably did not ask Paul to abolish the institution of slavery, since what most likely had awaited him on the other side of his service to Philemon was a comfortable life and reputation. For a doulos who was a bondservant or household servant, their story often ended well.  

There were, however, three bad ways the story could end poorly.

If a freed doulos had not earned the patronage and favor of his owner, buying one’s freedom was not necessarily helpful. A doulos had to be, above all things, useful (which is what “Onesimus” means). The doulos were commodities, investments. It’s not as if the owners were educating them and giving them responsibility out of the goodness of their heart. The useful doulos earned the master’s “stamp of approval.” The lazy ones did not.For those that did not, their eventual freedom would not necessarily be a good thing. They would become one of the working poor who scrabbled to survive and lost the day jobs to the doulos with patronage. They might choose to stay with the household even though they were free, but if they had not shown themselves to be useful, they now served in a reduced status with only a taste of freedom and a portion of the master’s provision. 

A runaway doulos was a nobody, a nothing, outside of his usefulness to his master and the state. As much as a doulos could gain honor, privilege and status when he was useful, he lost it all immediately and usually irretrievably when he ran away. Runaway doulos were now useless because they were untrustworthy, and they forfeited all their ties and privileges. They were a lost cause. Their owners could pretty much do with them what they wanted. Typically, a captured runaway was either: 

  • sent to hard labor, which was a death sentence.
  • branded (the Latin word for fugitive began with an “F,” which was burned on their forehead)
  • crucified 
  • whipped to death

Escape was basically a death sentence, if not literally than economically and socially.

When doulos revolted, the Romans brutally crushed the individuals involved and slaughtered the groups with which they associated. Spartacus (70 BC) had more than 70,000 in his rebellion; Rome eventually smashed the revolt and crucified 6,000 slaves. 

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Philemon was apparently a wealthy man, so Onesimus was probably in the category of “household servant.” Assuming that the biblical portrayal of Philemon is accurate, Onesimus was probably not running away from abuse and poverty; he was most likely publicly humiliating a man who invested time, money and trust in him, and whose patronage was giving him access to a better life than many around him had. And now, he was in trouble. Captured and awaiting impending judgment, Onesimus sought out a new person to serve. His choice of Paul – himself a prisoner - shows the level of desperation.   

Paul must be wise. 

Paul could write a blistering missive that condemns the whole system. He could command Philemon to free Onesimus and take on Rome. But the early church was already under suspicion for challenging Rome’s social norms -  they took care of widows instead of the forcing them to follow the typical custom of going into temple prostitution to support themselves. Since Rome tended to view any shaking of the social order as suspicious, the early church was already under scrutiny. A Roman guard would read his letter and see what he was recommending to his followers. If it looked like Paul was encouraging revolution, Paul and the letter’s recipients would probably be killed, and nothing would change.

Even if he could start the overthrow of Rome’s social order, the people would just substitute one form of injustice for another. We see it in history (the French Revolution); we even see it in the popular stories today (think of The Hunger Games, or Captain America). If you change the laws on an issue but don’t change the hearts of the people effected by the issue, the same problem will just keep coming up.

Paul it goes for something much bigger than merely Onesimus's freedom: His goal is to change Philemon’s heart. Paul cared about the life of the doulos in Rome (more on this in the next post), but he knew that to truly change a cultural of slavery and serventhood he had to get to the root of the problem: sin, which resides in the human heart, which can only be resolved through Christ. As important as an outward transformation is, the message of the Gospel neither starts nor ends with external control:

Mark 7:20-22: “Jesus went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' " 

Luke 6:45: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

Paul is challenging the hearts of society’s gatekeepers, the ones who stand to benefit from this inequality. He knows that changed hearts change cultures. Paul is challenging those who demand that those around them be useful, or they are worth nothing. Paul is challenging the way in which we can see people as things that exist to serve us and make us happy, not image bearers of God for whom Christ gave his life. 

A transformation inside - if it’s genuine – will inevitably result in a change outside. In this case, the best way to change a culture of inequality, dehumanization, and injustice is to change the hearts of those who perpetuate it. Paul wants to turn all the subservient and abused doulos into human beings of intrinsic value and worth. According to historical records, the early church responded to this teaching in a way that sent a clear message about the value of all people in all situations in life.

  “They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh…They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all….They are poor yet make many rich… they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… They are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers….”  From“The Epistle to Diognetes”, (130 A.D.)

“[They] pray… for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of [Christ’s return]… On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God's Church, they [minister to them].But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another…”   From “The Apology of Tertullian” (197 A.D.)

Historian Rodney Stark summarizes this way in The Rise of Christianity: 

"Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable."

So what's the best way to change a culture?

Through a loving, faithful presence that  challenges injustice and exhorts people to let their hearts to be transformed with the truth and justice of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

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SOURCES and RESOURCES

The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary , N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon,  Douglas Moo

"New Testament: Philemon," (enterthebible.org)

"Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline," (bible.org)

"The Epistle to Philemon," (www.ccel.org)

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (pastoralized.com)

 “Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli, andynaselli.com.

“What Were Early Christians Like?” at Christianity.com

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

"Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians," by Mike Rogers (healingtothenations.net)

“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/slavery_01.shtml).

Inheriting the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:13-21)

Maps do several important things.

First, they show you where you are at the moment.  Being in the center of the Sahara Desert is different than being in the center of New York City. Knowing where you are affects your planning and decision-making.

Second, they will help you accomplish a goal.  If, for example, you are in New York City and you need to be in Charleston, South Carolina, the map will help by showing you that you must travel in a southwesterly direction.

Third, they will help you to identify obstacles such as mountain ranges and major congested cities.  A good map will also help you maximize advantages such as timesaving freeways and bypasses around bottleneck areas. In both cases, knowing these things will impact your travel. 

Paul writes in Galatians in 5:17, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.”  There are only two natures descriptive of mankind – the first is our fallen, sinful nature and the second is a regenerated, Spirit-led nature. We are all born into the first category and remain there unless we humbly repent of our sinfulness, accept the forgiveness provided by Christ’s death on the cross, are reconciled to God, and receive His Holy Spirit within in us as a guiding influence.  

 Now, it would be nice if, at the moment that this happens, our old nature would just curl up and die.  But that does not happen. What happens, scripturally speaking, is that we now have options.  Now we need a map, because (as Yogi Berra noted),  if we don't know where we're going, we might end up somewhere else. 

 Prior to salvation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our old nature was ruling our lives unopposed. This is what Paul says is true of all of us until we are 'born again' and the given the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the freedom for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). This is good news, but we’d better understand what freedom means before we go too far. 

Freedom does not mean permission to be a jerk!  It does not mean I get to live my life any way I want, destroying myself and the lives of those around me with my selfish actions.  Freedom doesn’t mean that I get a free pass on sin with a promise that “it’ll all work out in the end.”

No, freedom means that we are no longer imprisoned by our old sinful nature. “Freedom” means that once we place our trust in the person and work of Christ we now have options. God’s Holy Spirit indwells us and will offer to lead us in the way that we should go. 

How do we get to the goal of experiencing true Christian freedom?  What does that freedom look like?  And how does God lead and guide us?

Like a navigation system in a car, the Holy Spirit is able to lead, guide, and empower, but He will not overpower!  He won’t force us to live righteously.  He will however, make righteous living a genuine possibility in our life. We were stuck in sinful self-direction. Now we can travel in the direction God has in mind.  

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Galatians 5:13, 14)

The goal of God’s restoration process in each and every one of us is that we set aside our self-serving lives and live in love and service of our fellow man. The Law is meant to show us what true righteousness looks like in practical, day-to-day life.

But if instead of showing love among yourselves you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another. So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 

The old sinful nature loves to do evil, which is just opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict. But when you are directed by the Holy Spirit, you are no longer subject to the law.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:15-21)

So, what are we to do with a list like this?  It’s pretty intimidating, especially given the fact that we all fit on this list somewhere! In the last part of verse 21, Paul says, “… anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”  That’s pretty strong language.

These “deeds” are the unavoidable traits or manifestations of the core problem: living a self-directed life that neither acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ nor allows the guidance of His Holy Spirit in our life. If these deeds are a fair description of your ongoing acceptance of a life characterized by habitual sin, then you have cause to question if you are following Christ at all.

Please note: If you are following Christ, temptation, and even momentary failure enters our lives.  This is the residue of our sinful nature that still wages war within us.  But as that temptation presents itself, there ought to be an ongoing struggle in your inner being when it comes to these “deeds of the flesh.”Paul is not saying that anyone who has been guilty or at a future time will be guilty of one or more of these deeds is outside of the kingdom! The Christian life does not demand perfection, but it does call for an unwavering devotion to the person of Jesus Christ.  

We’re told over and over in the New Testament that we are to be changed into His image. The distinguishing feature of this image change throughout the entire New Testament is love - an undeserved, unconditional, and almost unbelievable love.  

It is because of our new spiritual freedom that we are able to love and serve in a way that reflects the character and love of Christ. Conversely, it’s in the midst of loving and serving in this way that we find our freedom.  

The Only Thing That Counts (Galatians 5:1-8)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.” (Galatians 5: 1-8)

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We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you.” If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector.  If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching.  It's just business. It’s entirely conditional.  If I don't like the product, I move on. This is what we know – and in America we are very good at it.

This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when we begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. We say to our friends, family or spouses:“If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good.” It’s a consumer approach to relationships.  It’s entirely conditional. If people don’t give us what we want, we dump them and move on.  

The Gentiles were coming from a religious system in which their gods were consumer gods. They basically said,  “If you please me, I will reward you.” They had to impress their gods constantly so that the product – in this case, the worshipers – pleased them. If Zeus tired of them sufficiently, he would dump them and move on. Even worse, they weren’t entirely sure what pleased the gods, so there was the tremendous insecurity, which lead to desperate work to please as many gods in as many ways as possible so that they would be rewarded.

Paul had told them that God does not relate to us as a consumer God. We are not obligated to earn God’s blessing. Unfortunately, the teaching of the Judaizers was leading them back to their old way of thinking about God. Apparently, something about their understanding of God was flawed as well even though they were pulling from the Old Testament. To correct this misunderstanding with both parties, Paul needed them to understand what it means that God is a covenant God.

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God always relates to people through covenants. In the Old Testament we see a suzerain covenant in which the stronger party – the suzerain - initiated the covenant with the weaker party. Multiple records exist that show a common format in the nations of that time. In every other nation, lords or kinds made suzerain covenants with ordinary folk. In this case, God made a covenant with His people.

  •  Identify the suzerain
  • Historical prologue
  • Stipulations  (tributes, obligations, etc.)
  • Public readings
  • List of witnesses
  • List of blessings and cursings
  • Ceremony of agreement
  • Sealing the Oath. A covenant was sealed with a ceremony (the weaker party walking through the parts) as a way of saying, “If I break this covenant, may this be done to me.”

We read in Deuteronomy a reference to the ceremony when the Children of Israel entered into Covenant with God through the Mosaic Law. 

You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 29:12-13)

The stipulations (or laws) were written in Deuteronomy already, but so we read the “blessings and cursings” next:

“Keep the words of this covenant and do them so that you may prosper in all you do…When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.  The Lord will never be willing to forgive them; his wrath and zeal will burn against them.” (Deuteronomy 29:9, 19-20) 

In other words, God will uphold his end of the covenant. But you must continue to choose to be the kind of person you said you would be in the covenant if you want to live under the blessing. If you don’t, you will live under the curse. This is the essence of the Mosaic Covenant that the Judaizers were looking to for their salvation and righteousness. When the Judaizers read this, what stayed with them was the fact that they could screw up so badly that God would never forgive them. 

It was good to have a God who wanted to covenant with you, who wanted to bless you.  It was good to know the terms and conditions. But if they failed, the cursings (or the punishment) were overwhelming. No wonder obeying the law was a big deal to the Jewish converts. And yet there was more – they were building an understanding of God based on only part of the text. 

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 30:7-8)

Here we read that God will never break the covenant even if the Israelites don’t live up to their end of the deal.  No matter what they do, God will in a sense overlook it. God will not enforce the very consequences that he said just a couple chapters earlier. Do you see the tension here? How are we supposed to view God?

On the one hand, God cannot bless disobedient people. Justice can’t simply overlook guilt. But if God just punished them and walked away, then He was not a faithful God. So they had to work as hard as they could to please God. On the other hand, God said He would never leave, never give up, and never forsake them. But if God just gave in and accepted everything they did without consequence, then He was not a holy God.

What are we to think when it comes to a question of our relationship to God today? The Bible lets this tension hang all throughout the Old Testament. In order to resolve this, we have to look more closely at God’s covenant with Abraham. 

When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 (and following), He used the standard form of suzerain covenant-making I mentioned earlier. Abraham killed some animals, cut them in pieces, and arranged them to walk through.  But then God, the stronger party, passed through (as a fiery pillar) – but never made Abraham, the weaker party, do the same.

By passing through the slaughtered animal, God was saying that if He didn’t bless Abraham and honor the covenant, God – the stronger, initiating party - would have to pay the penalty. That alone would be unusual, but that wasn’t the most incredible point. God was saying that if Abraham doesn’t keep the covenant, God would pay the penalty for Abraham.

This was unprecedented. God was clearly not a consumer god, paying attention and blessing us because we made him happy.  God was a covenant god, but completely different from the wealthy, powerful lords of earth. He gave the rules, established the penalty of rule-breaking, then committed to paying that penalty for everybody.

What kind of God would do that? A God who arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the covenant by paying Abraham’s penalty. We commemorate this every time we partake in communion – His body broken, His blood spilled. The covenant must be honored. Someone must pay for breaking the agreement.

Jesus’ death and resurrection paid the penalty of  covenant breakers so that God could see them as covenant keepers.

If we break the law, we deserve punishment. We have to take the law as seriously as God does, and He thought it was so serious that death was the appropriate punishment. Fortunately for us, the One who kept it perfectly paid for those who couldn’t.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse by becoming the curse so the blessing of Abraham could come to us all by Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:13)  

God himself paid the penalty of our broken covenant. God’s love is a love that is offered freely to us in spite of who we are, not in response to us because of what we bring to the table. “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  Obedience to the law is not what we offer to impress God; it's what we are free do to express our faith through love (Galatians 5:6).

The law is not our savior; it is a gift from our Savior.

The law is not our lord; it is a gift from our Lord.

The law does not set us free; it shows us how to live freely.

The more we grasp the beauty of God’s covenant, the more we are driven by love and gratitude to do good for the privilege of delighting God and loving. The law is not a roadmap for earning salvation or righteousness, but it is a manual for how to properly express love for God and others.

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 Recommended Resources

"Slaves, Students and Sons" (from Galatians 3)

"Substitute Saviors" (Galatians 2-3)

"Living In Freedom" (Galatians 4:8-5:1)

Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You , as well as his podcast on "Covenant Relationship" to which I am highly indebted for helping me to think more clearly about Galatians.

Living In Freedom (Galatians 4:8-5:1)

Like most Greeks and Roman citizens, the Galatians  grew up worshiping the gods of the local pantheon. Three aspects of their worship provided a foundation from which they built an understanding about how people were supposed to relate to the divine. 

  • Votive offerings. The people gave gifts to the gods who then gave them gifts. The fundamental idea was that if you were nice to the god, the god was nice to you. God was a cosmic slot machine: you put your spiritual money in, pulled the lever, and hoped you won.
  • Competitions. These were the first Olympic Games. Nothing mattered but first place. To win, of course, you had to compete with everyone else. The gods would both notice and favor the winners, while the other competitors dropped of the radar of the divine until they did something to get noticed again.
  • Processions. These parades for the gods involved a lot of pomp and pageantry. People showed off how much they were willing to give, how far they were willing to walk, etc. Everyone around them could see how much the gods must love them.

In Galatians 4, Paul reminds the new Christian converts what they had put behind them - but not completely:

“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable spiritual principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” (Galatians 4:8-9)

While it is easy to equate idolatry with idols, idolatry is far more complicated than merely the statues to which people bowed. It’s the “weak and miserable spiritual principles” that live in the heart of idolatry. It's the worship of something other than God  - the giving of ourselves completely in the service or slavery of a particular thing that we think can fulfill our deepest longings or ease our greatest fears.

We worship that to which we give our heart, soul, mind and strength. It doesn't have to be a god from a classic pantheon. It can be the very Western idols of Approval, Comfort, Control, Independence, Achievement, Ideology, or  Image. When these are the things we trust to meet our deepest longings and desires, they will destroy us in some fashion. Idolatry is a hard taskmaster.

The late writer David Foster Wallace captured this concept of slavery well. He was not a Christian, but he seems to have understood the tyranny of idolatry: 

“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.” 

 When we give ourselves to the worship and service of Christ, we are freed from the destructive, never-ending tyranny of desiring false gods. The Galatian Gentiles had converted from following false gods to following the true God, but they had not yet learned how their worship needed to change. To understand why this disconnect existed, we have to go with Paul back to Genesis.

God had promised that He would provide Abraham with an heir to live in a land of promise (Genesis 12:1-4; 15:4-5), and his descendants would be the line through which salvation was brought to the world. 

Abraham was old and his wife Sarah was barren. The fulfillment of the promise seemed improbable ad best. So Sarah suggested that Abraham sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, so they could “build a family through her” (Genesis 16). This was a customary and legal (though not good) practice.  Abraham decided not to wait for God to enact the promise. Instead, he decided to get a son of promise through his own effort. Hagar conceived  and Ishmael was born. Fourteen years later, Sarah miraculously became pregnant, and Isaac was born (Genesis 21:1-3).

The Jewish people knew that they were the biologically the children of Abraham, descended from him through Isaac. They also believed they were heirs of God’s promise in the line of Isaac.  So certainly agreed when Paul wrote this:

“Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman [Ishmael] was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman [Isaac] was born as the result of a divine promise.” (Galatians 4:22-23)

So far, so good. The Jewish converts are tracking with him. Unfortunately, what Paul had to say next was not going to make them as happy:

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother…Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise… (Galatians 4:24-28).

WHAT!?!? Paul just said that the traditional Jewish understanding of what it meant to live in the line of promise was entirely wrong. Apparently, when the Galatians were becoming followers of Christ, they were being told that in order to enter into the line of promise (Isaac) they had to adopt all the Old Testament Mosaic law, because Moses was clearly part of the line too.

By conceiving a child with Hagar, Abraham was choosing to rely on his own capabilities to make God’s promises come to pass. So all the Jewish people who were relying on their own effort to gain the promise of salvation were actually in the tradition of Ishmael, not Isaac.

God chose to save the world through His promise not our power. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to meet our deepest longings, it’s idolatry. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to bring us salvation or righteousness, it is still idolatry.

“But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you…” (Galatians 4:9-12)

The Galatian converts had left their Greek idols that enslaved them, but looking to God's law to save them brought them right back into slavery. In fact, their new religious life looked a lot like their old religious life.

  • Christian votive offerings.  Remember - if we are nice to God, God will be nice to us.  We have more devotional time, tithe more, we volunteer more in hopes that we can force God’s hand.  Moral living, family, church attendance, Bible-reading, prayer — these can all become attempts to earn a response from Go
  • Christian Competitions. When something in our life falls apart we assume God is punishing us, and when it flourishes He is rewarding us. And we begin to assume the same of others, then wonder what they did or didn’t do to force God’s hand. If that is how we view God, then it becomes very important to know who is the most rigorous in obeying the Law. After all, it should be clear who is winning, right? The one who is most obviously, outwardly successful – by our measure of success – must be the one whom God favors.
  • Christian Processions. When we do “win,” we let everyone know. Apparently, our success means we’ve found the code. We have prayed a particular way, or read the Bible just right, or finally spent enough time doing some good deed… and God responded.

If you think God’s promise will only be achieved when you do those things to an acceptable level, you have placed something else in the position of telling God when He is free to extend His promise of salvation and righteousness.

That’s idolatry. Can you see how experiencing “freedom” and “life more abundant” will seem baffling in this context? This is why Paul is in “fear for” the Galatians. They were being pulled away from a God of grace and into a religion of works. It was not freeing them from idolatry. They were never going to understand or communicate a gospel ofpromise and grace. That's why Paul says:

“Those [false teachers] are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good…Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4:17-19)

Paul wants them to be full of excitement and commitment when it came to their new faith in Christ. But it had to be genuine, and to be genuine it had to embody the gospel of grace.

God is not a votive God. He isn’t waiting for a gift from me before He lets me experience life as his child.“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—“ (Ephesians 2:4-5). Living well has its own reward – if I spend time in the Bible, I am absorbing God’s truth. If I spend time in focused prayer, I am purposefully humbling myself to God’s will and power. If I volunteer and help others and watch every word I say and give my money freely – good things happen all around me and within me. But I don’t want to be zealous to earn God’s favor be noticed by others. I want to be zealous because I want to participate in the character of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

There are no Olympian Games in which I have to outperform others for God to love me. I don't have to constantly compare myself to others.  God is not arbitrarily cutting off the number of people who can come into His family.  Paul says other places that he runs his spiritual race with endurance (Hebrews 12:1) and care (1 Corinthians 9:27) while still recognizing that Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2). But that is so he can fully appreciate the life of grace and freedom God offers and spread the good news of the gospel without detracting from it (Colossians 1:29).

 I don’t need a processional. I don’t have to impress others by displaying my blessings or successes. There is no Mr. or Mrs. Kingdom of Heaven contest. I don’t have to impress a panel of earthly judges in order to be righteous before God. I am free to live without the need to self-promote because my identity comes from Christ. By the grace of God, I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:10). I am free to relax because Christ in me is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by the bondage of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

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I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.