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Finishing the Race

Monday, January 14, 2019

 

American society has many quirks, but one of the strangest of them all is our cultural denial of old age and death.  Everybody tries to keep the same youthful body type they had when they were 18.  We have Rogaine and Botox to conceal the effects of our advancing years.  We hide our elderly away in nursing homes where nobody has to look at them, and many funeral homes these days are in financial trouble because nobody goes to funerals anymore.  Basically, Americans want to pretend that we’re all a bunch of perpetual teenagers who will continue to live on this earth forever.

However, all of us are here tonight because we know better.  Our earthly lives are not limitless.  Indeed, the opposite is true, and every day, each one of us moves one day closer to the end. 

This is a sobering thought, but it doesn’t have to be a hopeless one.  In Christ, every one of us can have the hope of a life that is limitless, though it is not here.  However, if we want that hope, we have to be faithful to Him until the end.  With this in mind, let’s consider the apostle Paul’s thoughts about finishing the race.

In the first of these final reflections, Paul encourages Timothy to PREACH THE WORD.  Here, let’s read from 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  There are two things in this text that we need to attend to, and the first has to do with our work.  Not all of us are preachers, but all of us have a ministry to fulfill.  All of us have some work that God has given us to do in His kingdom, and we are responsible for carrying out that work in the same way that Timothy was.  We have to do what we know is right, and we have to continue doing it, regardless of what anybody else says or does.

We also must pay attention to the kind of hearer of the word that we are.  As Paul observes, some Christians will have itching ears.  They are more concerned with hearing things that please them than hearing sound teaching from the word of God.  Indeed, they are offended by sound teaching.

At this thought, all of us will say, “Oh, no!  That’s not me!”  However, we need to pay attention to ourselves to make sure it isn’t us.  Let me ask you this.  The last time you heard a preacher say something you didn’t like, how did you react?  Did you check his teaching against the Scriptures and show him his error from the Scriptures if he was in error?  Or instead, did you get mad about it and complain about it to him or others?  Brethren, hearing the truth and not honoring it is a sign of having itching ears.  We all must make sure that we endure sound teaching, especially when we don’t like it.

After this injunction, Paul contemplates HIS DEPARTURE.  Look at 2 Timothy 4:6-8.  Even though Paul speaks euphemistically, it is clear that he is about to die.  We might expect to die at home, or perhaps in a hospital bed someplace.  Paul knew that wouldn’t be his fate.  If tradition is accurate, and we have no reason to doubt it, he met his end by the sword of a Roman executioner.

However, Paul’s faith is such that he contemplates his imminent and violent death with joy.  He says with confidence that he has done what God expected him to do, and because of that, he knows that he will receive the crown of righteousness. 

From this, we must learn that it is possible for a Christian to die with assurance.  We don’t see Paul being all wishy-washy here:  “Oh, I hope I’ll go to heaven!”  Instead, he knows he’s going, and he’s left his confidence on record for 2000 years. 

He doesn’t have this confidence because he thinks he’s so perfect.  After all, in 1 Timothy 1, he calls himself the foremost of sinners.  Instead, his hope is founded on Jesus and His word.  If we will set our hope in the same place, then every one of us can die with confidence too.

From here, Paul turns his attention to INCONSTANT BRETHREN.  We see his description of recent events in 2 Timothy 4:9-15.  Basically, he wants Timothy to come to Rome to see him because pretty much all of his other companions have gone elsewhere.  Some of them are off working, one has left the Lord, and one has even started actively opposing Paul!

From this, we should learn to put our trust in the Lord rather than in other Christians.  We tend to think of ourselves and others as relatively stable, but the reality is that all of us change and sometimes change dramatically.  Sometimes the change is good.  Mark is the same guy who left Paul in the lurch during his first missionary journey, but now he’s useful for service.  At other times, though, the change is for the worse, and if somebody we depend on is headed in the wrong direction, we’re in a world of hurt!

In my experience, one of the most common reasons that Christians give for falling away is that the other people at church weren’t treating them right.  I’m not going to get into what I’ve seen of the validity of those accusations, but I will say this:  if the bad behavior of Christians can damage your faith in Christ, your faith was never in Christ to begin with.  People change.  People let us down.  The Lord doesn’t and won’t.

In fact, Paul’s closing thoughts are about THE LORD’S RESCUE.  Let’s wrap things up by reading 2 Timothy 4:16-18.  Paul reveals that this isn’t the first time that Christians let him down. During his first trial before Caesar, everybody abandoned him for fear of their own lives!  However, the Lord was with him through the whole process, start to finish.  Jesus got him through it.

Paul expects this to be the invariable outcome.  He says that Jesus will rescue him from every evil deed and deliver him safely to heaven.  In light of what we just read a few minutes ago, this sounds like Paul has lost his mind.  He’s expecting to get beheaded, and yet he says that the Lord is going to keep him safe???

The truth is that the safety that concerns Paul isn’t the safety of the body, nor should the safety of the body be the primary concern of any Christian.  Ever since Genesis 3, it’s been true for all of us that if the earth continues, sooner or later we won’t. 

Instead, Paul is concerned with the safety of his soul, a soul that has a much more fearsome enemy than any Roman emperor.  He knows that only Jesus can keep his soul safe from the evil one, and he knows that Jesus will do it.  For that, he anticipates praising Jesus forever and ever.  We should too.

Finding God in the New Year

Monday, January 07, 2019

 

Even though I still have to think to make sure that I don’t write “2018” at the top of my sermon notes, 2019 is officially upon us.  There’s really nothing that makes January 1, 2019 any different from December 31, 2018, it’s still a time that many of us use to take stock and consider the year ahead.

Of course, pondering the future is an activity as old as mankind, and we certainly see it in the Scriptures.  For instance, in 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells Timothy what the future will hold for him and what he should do about it.  Because the wisdom of God is timeless, these same things apply to us today.  Let’s consider Paul’s words, then, to learn how we can find God in the new year.

In this text, Paul first warns against WORLDLINESS IN THE CHURCH.  Look here at 2 Timothy 3:1-5.  Much of this text is taken up with a horrendous catalogue of sins, but of it all, the part that most concerns me is v. 5.  There, Paul notes that the people who will practice these things have the appearance of godliness but have forsaken its power.  In other words, all of these awful sins will be committed by people who outwardly look like Christians! 

Brethren, this is the future that the devil wants for every one of us, and we can rest assured that he will spend 2019 working as hard as he can to make sure that this is where we end up.  He wants us to be people who show up for church on Sunday morning but have lives that are every bit as rotten and corrupt as the people around us.  One Christian like that does more harm to the cause of Christ than a hundred atheists! 

This year, before we gossip, before we look at porn, before we nurture hatred in our hearts, let’s remember the devil’s goal.  Let’s resolve that whatever else happens, we’re not going to let him put us in this category.  We can’t control the choices that the world makes, but we can and must control ourselves.

Next, Paul predicts WORLDLINESS IN CHURCH LEADERS.  Let’s keep going in 2 Timothy 3:6-9.  There are two main problems that the apostle identifies in this text, and the first has a very modern ring to it.  It is the problem of leaders in the church using their position to sexually abuse and exploit others.

All of us are familiar with the child-molestation scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church for decades.  However, in recent years, similar problems with the abuse of girls and women have emerged among some evangelical churches.  Those things are bad enough, but it’s even worse when churches cover up sexual misconduct by their leaders.

That must never happen here.  I hope and pray that this never becomes an issue, but if it does, all credible accusations of criminal sexual activity by church leaders here must be reported to the authorities.  In that event, we can’t worry about the damage reporting it will do to the reputation of the church.  It would be far better for this congregation to close its doors forever than to be engaged in sheltering evil.

As Paul observes, part of the problem is that those who prey on the weak and vulnerable will also end up abandoning the truth.  You can’t let Satan have that much real estate in your heart and remain useful for preaching Christ or serving Christ or shepherding others in Christ.  Leaders, we have a job to do.  Let’s pursue godliness so we can do it.

In contrast to this, Paul urges Timothy to FOLLOW HIM.  He explains what this means in 2 Timothy 3:10-13.  He first of all notes that Timothy has been doing this, but that what Timothy has seen from Paul doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence.  Yes, Paul’s life has shown faith, patience, love, and steadfastness, but the result of this for Paul has been persecution and suffering.  Not much of a recommendation!

However, as Paul notes, this is to be expected.  Persecution is for everybody who is trying to live godly in Christ Jesus.  In fact, as other parts of the Scriptures observe, pushback from others is an important sign that we’re on the right track. 

This certainly can be about people giving us grief because of our faith in Christ, but I think the applications are broader than that.  We can’t expect doing the right thing to result in earthly blessing.  Let’s say that Brother Joe Bob has a rotten marriage.  He decides that he wants to make his marriage better, so he dedicates himself to loving his wife, Emma Sue, as Christ loved the church.  However, his better behavior does not guarantee her better behavior.  She may well continue being a hag.

Nonetheless, doing the right thing, even to the point of suffering, does guarantee that God will be with us as He was with Paul, and that’s what truly matters.  The wicked can go on fooling themselves right on into destruction, but only the righteous will please their Creator.

All right.  If we want a bright future, we have to continue to follow God, but how do we do that?  Paul tells Timothy and us both to look to THE SACRED WRITINGS.  Let’s finish up our reading with 2 Timothy 3:14-17.  In this text, there are two things that we must appreciate.  The first is the extent of what Paul is talking about.  Notice that Paul tells Timothy that these are the sacred writings that he has known from childhood.  That can’t be the New Testament.  It has to be the Old Testament. 

Sometimes, I’ll hear Christians grump and complain about studying the Old Testament.  “Why bother with this stuff?” they grumble.  “Everything we need is in the New Testament anyway!”  Well, Paul tells us otherwise.  Timothy needed, and we need, the Old Testament to make us wise for salvation too.

Second, let’s pay attention to Paul’s words about all Scripture, which of course includes both testaments.  He tells us that the Scriptures are both inspired and adequate.  They come from God, and in them, we have everything we need to know to equip us to serve Him.  If it isn’t in the Bible, we don’t need it. 

However, if we don’t know the word and incorporate it into our hearts and our lives, it won’t do us any good.  Last week, Shawn urged us to make sure that we read our Bibles every day.  Let me echo his words.  Let me make you a promise. 

Even though every chapter in this year’s reading is in the Old Testament, if you will dedicate yourself to doing every reading, by the end of this year, it will change your life.  If it doesn’t, I will give you your money back!  Seriously, though, the word of God is powerful and active.  It is certain to transform us if only we will let it.

Spiritual Wisdom and the Internet

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

 

The Internet is one of the most powerful inventions in human history.  If we use it to seek the Lord, it can accomplish great things for Him.  Without the Internet, I certainly wouldn’t be able to blog, and I probably wouldn’t be able to write hymns.  This is to say nothing, of course, of the many opportunities the online world gives us to encourage one another.

However, anything so powerful is also dangerous.  Fire can warm us, but it can also consume us.  So too with the Internet.  Used wisely, it can be powerfully edifying.  Used foolishly, it can be powerfully destructive.  Let’s consider, then, the subject of spiritual wisdom and the Internet.

First, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SEE.  Consider our Lord’s wise words on the subject in Matthew 6:22-23.  If we look at good things, they will elevate and ennoble us.  On the other hand, if we look at evil things, they will degrade and corrupt us.

This starts, of course, with pornography.  I’m sure all of you have heard multiple sermons about porn, and yet I’m equally sure that it continues to be a problem in this congregation and in congregations all across the country.  There are so many ill effects from porn use that I hardly know where to begin.  Like most sins, it tends to be addictive.  The more we use it, the less we enjoy it.  It enslaves us so that we seek out viler and viler things for less and less reward.  Thus, passing pleasures of porn lead us to lasting misery.  Porn is also destructive of our relationships, relationships with present and future spouses, but especially our relationship with God.  We may think that we have concealed our habit from others, but we have not hidden it from Him.

Porn, however, is not the only thing on the Internet that is sinful and tempts us to sin.  Lying is a sin, outbursts of wrath are a sin, contentiousness is a sin, divisiveness is a sin, and there are millions of websites that promote falsehood, anger, contention, and division.  Sad to say, brethren are often very open about their patronage of these sites, especially in the political realm, because their prejudices blind them to the dangers.  As a rule, friends, any time we read something that confirms the best that we want to believe about our political side or confirms the worst that we want to believe about the other side, the site is probably lying!  If we uncritically swallow this dangerous brew of falsehood and bitterness, it will poison us.  Like porn, it will corrupt us in ways that we never would have imagined.  We need to be careful what we put our eyes on.

Finally, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SAY.  Look here at Ephesians 4:29-30.  Today, our speech is not limited to what comes out of our mouths, and our keyboards, apps, and cameras have every bit as much power to corrupt.  Let’s start by considering communication that is sexually provocative.  Over the past couple years, one of the big movements online has been the appearance of “Stories” apps:  Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, and their predecessor, Snapchat.  The big draw for all of these things is that they allow temporary posts on the Internet.  24 hours go by, and it’s gone, so that that way the dirty picture you sent your boyfriend or the video of your drunken party won’t show up when your grandmother or a prospective employer does an Internet search on you.

I have a couple of thoughts about that.  First of all, I have a nasty suspicion that all that stuff won’t stay as private as its users hope.  Numbers 32:23 is still true, and sooner or later, our sin will find us out.  Even if that’s not true, all the dirty photos and dirty texts are still corrupting.  Even if you’re sending them to your spouse, I still worry about privacy concerns, and if you’re sending them to somebody else, you’re trying to tempt them to sin.  This is not a good idea!

Speech that is lying, angry, or contentious is equally corrupting.  Our society idealizes self-expression, but if our best reason for putting something online is to express ourselves, that’s a sign that we’re not behaving wisely.  We’re not thinking about the effect of our words on others.  We’re just looking to “tell it like it is”.  Friends, that’s about like throwing hand grenades while blindfolded.  The results are unpredictable, but they’re likely to be bad.  The next time we’re about to click share on that inflammatory meme or pound out an angry status update, let’s reconsider.  If we use our online speech instead to persuade, edify, amuse, and enlighten, we’ll all be better off.

Who Will Go to Heaven?

Monday, September 10, 2018

A few months ago, one of the sisters here suffered a miscarriage.  That’s certainly a difficult time for any woman, but in this sister’s case, she also found herself wondering about the spiritual situation of her baby.  She came to Shawn and asked him, “Does my baby have a soul?  Will they go to heaven?” 

Shawn was able to help her out, of course, but the conversation helped both of us to realize that this was a topic that we should be preaching on.  After all, “Heaven Bound” is our theme for this year.  We’ve preached multiple sermons on how important it is to go to heaven, but we haven’t really specified who is going to go there.  This morning, then, let’s answer the question, “Who will go to heaven?”

There are several different groups who will spend eternity with God, and the first of these is THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER SINNED.  Consider what God says in Ezekiel 18:19-20.  This text, of course, is not primarily a discussion of life under the sun.  We all know that somebody’s righteousness doesn’t have a whole lot to do with their lifespan.  Instead, the righteous will live spiritually, and the unrighteous will die spiritually.

What’s more, though all of us are responsible for our own sins, none of us will be held accountable for the sins of others.  My father was a good man, but even if he had been the most wretched sinner ever to live, I would not share in the guilt of his sin simply because I’m his son.  Of course, that doesn’t help me a whole lot by itself because I have sinned on my own, but it matters a great deal for those who have never sinned.  Because they have not sinned, they will live.

In this category, we must include those who die as children.  Look at what our Lord says about children in Mark 10:13-16.  Our sins separate us from God, but children have not yet developed the moral capacity to understand sin.  As a result, the kingdom of God belongs to them.  Their personal purity offers no obstacle to spending eternity in the presence of God.  In fact, if we want to go to heaven, Jesus tells us that we have to become like children.

This should be a source of tremendous comfort to everyone who, like me, has lost a child.  We can be assured that if we are faithful, even though we have been parted from those children here, we will be reunited with them there.  This is true for those who die at a young age.  It’s true for stillbirths.  Indeed, it’s true for miscarriages.  We know that even in the womb, children have identities and souls, and that soul is eternal.  Even the child who never sees the light of day will behold the light of the presence of God.

Additionally, this is true for those who may live longer but never develop a knowledge of good or evil.  For instance, somebody who has the mind of a 7-year-old will never sin, no matter how long they live.  They may become adults in their bodies, but they remain children in their minds, and they are no more subject to sin than a child is.  People like this also do not need a Savior because they are sinless on their own.

The other groups we’re going to talk about this morning, though, do need the grace of Jesus to make it to heaven.  The first of these is composed of RIGHTEOUS JEWS.  We know that those who served God under the old covenant received the eternal reward from passages like Luke 13:27-28.  In context, “the kingdom of God” here refers to heaven, and it’s clear that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets will be feasting in that kingdom.  The same will be true of the Israelites and Jews who were less famous than those the Lord mentions, but were no less faithful.  Here, for instance, let’s think of the 7000 mentioned in 1 Kings 19 who never bowed their knees to Baal.  God counted those people as righteous too. 

However, even though these people were counted as righteous because they faithfully followed the Law of Moses, the Law is not the source of their salvation.  Instead, Jesus is.  Look at the contrast that appears in Hebrews 10:11-14.  Under the Law of Moses, the priests continually offered animal sacrifices because of the sins of the people.  However, those sacrifices were not effective.  They weren’t powerful enough to truly take away sin.

When Jesus offered Himself on the cross for sin, though, His sacrifice was incredibly effective and powerful.  It cleansed from sin everybody who believed in Him during the time of the New Testament.  It reaches forward and cleanses us from sin today.  What’s more, it even reached backwards and cleansed everybody who was faithful to the terms of the old covenant.  God promised them forgiveness of sins if they were faithful, but He only fulfilled that promise in Christ.  Throughout the time of the Old Law, that promise was like an IOU that would only be paid with the blood of Jesus.  As a result, those righteous Jews will spend eternity in heaven, but they needed the Lord’s help to get there too.

Like righteous Jews, RIGHTEOUS GENTILES will also go to heaven.  Paul makes God’s perspective on them clear in Romans 2:9-10.  As he often does, Paul here is using “Greek” not to refer to people from the nation of Greece, but to refer to anybody who wasn’t Jewish.  Even though these non-Jews weren’t part of the Sinai covenant with God, they still could please Him by doing good and be justified at the judgment.

Gentiles before the time of Christ were subject to what are called the Noahide laws, the laws that God gave to all people before the Law of Moses.  Among other things, these laws forbade dishonoring God, murder, sexual immorality, and theft.  In some ways, it was more difficult to be a righteous Gentile than a righteous Jew.  The Jews had God’s expectations for them written down, but the Gentiles had to follow their own conscience. 

However, we do know that some Gentiles were pleasing to God even before Christ came.  Consider, for instance, God’s comments on Job in Job 1:8.  Job lived during the time of the patriarchs, a time when God’s word came directly to heads of families.  There’s no evidence that Job appears anywhere in the lineage of the Jews, so both by time and blood, Job wasn’t a Jew.  However, God clearly considers Job a righteous and God-fearing man. 

Nonetheless, even Job couldn’t be justified by his own human perfection.  Other than Jesus, there has never been any man who did good continually and never sinned.  Job must have sinned too, even though his sin is not recorded for us.  Consequently, even though he was faithful to God, he still stood in need of the grace of Christ, and he was saved by that grace, even though he lived thousands of years before Christ was born.

Finally, and most relevantly to most of us, FAITHFUL CHRISTIANS will go to heaven.  Once Jesus died on the cross, the old Jew-Gentile distinction was erased and those separate categories abolished, at least in a spiritual sense.  Now everybody is required to seek salvation through Him. 

If we do so, though, we can be assured of a reward.  Consider the Hebrews writer’s words in Hebrews 4:9-11.  Like the Sabbath came at the end of the week and was a day of rest, at the end of our lives, we can anticipate a Sabbath rest, a time when we can enjoy eternity in God’s presence. 

However, resting is for then.  Working is for now.  It is possible for every one of us to fall away, to be disobedient to God like the Israelites who died in the wilderness.  Thus, we are responsible for striving to enter that blissful Sabbath rest.

This is a thought that makes many Christians anxious.  They’re worried that if the Lord came back tonight, He would determine that they weren’t striving hard enough and so cast them into the outer darkness rather than admitting them to His rest.  As a result, they’re never quite sure of their salvation.

This is an important issue, and Shawn and I have already determined that we’ll use our last Heaven Bound series of the year to examine it.  However, I’m going to give you a sneak peek this morning.  Yes, we do have to strive.  We do have to work toward heaven.  However, striving does not mean the same thing as perfection.

Here, let’s read together from 1 John 1:7-9.  Did you get all that, friends?  To Christians who struggle with sin and are aware of their struggles and their imperfections, I say—good!  As John says, if we don’t admit that, we’re only lying to ourselves. 

What’s important is not whether we sin or not.  It’s whether we are walking in the light.  John tells us that if we are walking in the light and sin, the blood of Jesus will cleanse when we confess those sins.  This implies that it is possible to walk in the light—to be in a right relationship with God--and still have sin struggles.  In fact, this is where every faithful Christian is! 

This text calls us, then, to walk a path between two extremes.  On the one hand, nobody gets into heaven without trying to get there.  We need to strive toward that goal. 

On the other, though, it’s not our job to make ourselves perfect.  Jesus does that for us.  Yes, we should be sorry for our sins, but we should also trust Him when He promises us forgiveness.  As long as we are faithful to Him, He will surely be faithful to us, so that one day, we will live with Him forever.