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The Purpose of the Christian

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

To say the least, there are many advantages to being a Christian!  Not least of these is that it gives meaning and purpose to our lives.  Think about it.  If you’re an atheist, you have to believe that life is meaningless and purposeless.  Your existence represents nothing more than a chance combination of atoms, you don’t have free will any more than a dog does, and after you die, in a few hundred years, it will be as though you never had existed.  There’s no point to any of it.

Of course, the lives of millions who aren’t conscious atheists aren’t any more meaningful.  They go to work every morning to get the money to buy stuff that doesn’t make them happy.  They distract themselves from the banality of their existence with a steady diet of TV, video games, and cat videos on YouTube.  They spend their lives chasing a peace that is always out of reach.

We, by contrast, are blessed with lives that are meaningful, not because of our concentrated selfishness, but because we have given them over to someone else.  To see how this works, let’s see what Peter says about the purpose of the Christian.

First, consider his words about GROWING INTO SALVATION.  Here, let’s read 1 Peter 2:1-3.  Like many passages of Scripture, this one is about spiritual renewal.  It’s about getting rid of some things while pursuing others. 

The get-rid-of list, though is really interesting.  We might expect Peter to warn us to get rid of drunkenness, adultery, theft, and all the other sins we think are really terrible.  That’s not where he goes, though.  Instead, he highlights the dangers of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. 

These are all subtle sins, sins that we could practice while sitting on a pew on Sunday morning for decades.  And yet, they also are the ones that Peter singles out as most likely to hinder our purpose.  He wants us to see that the sins that corrupt the heart are the most dangerous.

It’s also worth noting that these things are opposed to longing for the word.  All my life, I’ve thought of this list as sins that originate in us.  However, that’s not how the word works.  Instead, it’s something that we take in.  In the same way, I think, we need to beware of the malice, deceit, and slander that we also can take in that will corrupt us.

As the old computer-programming saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.  In our politically charged era, it’s not hard for Christians to find malice and slander that accords with their political views.  Brethren, those things will eat us up like rust on a backyard grill!  If we spend our days drinking partisan venom rather than the pure milk of the word, that will make us useless in the kingdom.

I have a challenge for you, then, for the next week.  You can keep it up for longer than you like, but try to keep it going at least for a week.  For the next seven days, then, for every minute you spend on politics, reading or watching the news, worrying about the country, spend a minute reading your Bible.  Drink deep.  Grow spiritually.  Taste that the Lord is good.  I think that even after a week, it will give you a whole new perspective on life.

Second, Peter discusses our relationship with OUR CORNERSTONE.  This discussion appears in 1 Peter 2:4-8.  The imagery here is fascinating.  Peter tells us that we come to God as living stones, precious to Him.  However, He doesn’t want us so that we can sit around isolated like a rock garden.  Instead, He wants to build us together into a spiritual house where we can offer sacrifices to Him through Jesus. 

We don’t find meaning in life by ourselves.  We find meaning in life as part of the church, and apart from one another, life can only be meaningless.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’d be just fine without God’s people.  The only purpose we can have is the purpose we share.

In this spiritual stonework, the cornerstone must be Jesus.  Back in the day, apparently, the cornerstone was a stone with perfectly square edges, such that you could use those edges to line up the rest of the building.  So too with Jesus. 

If we want to be part of His spiritual temple, we have to line our lives up with Him.  Our society is not the standard.  Our friends are not the standard.  Our Lord is the standard.  What He says needs to go for us in everything.

Sadly, lining up with Jesus is not the alternative that most take.  For us, he’s the cornerstone.  Others, though, reject Him and find Him to be the stone that they stumble over.  He says things and tells them to do things that they can’t accept.

As I said last week, if we think everything Jesus says is easy, we aren’t listening hard enough.  However, whether we listen to the hard sayings of Jesus determines the course of our existence.  If we hear Him, we are destined for everlasting glory.  If we reject Him, we are destined for everlasting failure.

The first option is possible, though only because we have been PREPARED FOR GOD’S PURPOSE.  Let’s finish our reading with 1 Peter 2:9-10.  In this text, Peter contrasts Christians with the world.  They are doomed, but even now, we have been glorified with Christ.  We are the spiritual race of Israel.  Every one of us is part of His royal priesthood.  Our whole nation has been consecrated to His service.  We, and we alone, are His own special people. 

From time to time, I’ll talk with Christians who like to run down the church and other Christians.  They zero in on the flaws and imperfections, sneering at congregations of the Lord’s people.  Brethren, people like that are judging what God has consecrated, and that is a very dangerous thing to do!  When we deny the glory of His spiritual creation, we indict Him as a failure.

Because of our spiritual position, we can do something that no one else can do.  We can proclaim the excellencies of the One who saved us.  Indeed, that is precisely what we ought to do.  We ought to give our lives over to declaring the glories of God.  If we truly understand what we have in our salvation, we won’t be able to be quiet about it!

However, our special status shouldn’t give us a big head.  We can do these things not because we are intrinsically fit to do them, but because God chose us as His people and poured out His mercy on us. 

Sometimes, I think we get this mixed up.  We put the burden of our salvation on our own shoulders and spend our lives worrying about whether we’re good enough.  That’s a silly thing to worry about!  Of course we’re not good enough.  I’m not, you’re not, none of us are. 

Instead, it is Christ who is enough, now and forever, and rather than worrying about our own goodness, we need to trust in His.  Without Him, we never could succeed in the work to which we are called.  With Him, we cannot fail.

Making Others Be Righteous

Monday, November 23, 2020

The betrayal of Jesus into the hands of His enemies is the beginning of the darkest sequence in human history.  However, according to John 18:10-11, this grim scene contains a tragicomic episode.  Peter, in apparent fulfillment of his promise in John 13:37, reveals his willingness to die for Jesus by his willingness to kill for Jesus. 

The untrained fisherman produces a sword and takes a wild swipe at a slave of the high priest named Malchus.  He’s likely aiming for Malchus’s skull, but instead he connects with Malchus’s ear.  At this, Jesus intervenes, telling his would-be bodyguard to put away his weapon.  He surrenders Himself into custody, and His disciples flee instead of fighting.

Though it might seem that the situation is unique, in reality, Peter has faced a temptation that many of us experience regularly.  It is the temptation to make others be righteous. 

Last week, a brother posted a picture on Facebook of a T-shirt he had received as a gift.  It read, “Other People’s Free Will Stinks.”  To that, many disciples would give hearty amens, myself included.  Other people’s free will does stink!  They use it to make all kind of horrible, evil decisions, from cheating on their wives to becoming atheists to having abortions to helping arrest the sinless Son of God.

(We, of course, would never, ever use our free will to sin.  Oh, no!  Not that!)

When faced with stinky free will, many of us want to respond in a way that is positively Petrine.  If they’re not going to choose to be righteous, we’re going to make them be righteous!  If they want to arrest Jesus, we’re going to use force to make them back off.  If they want to have an abortion, we’re going to stop them by passing laws to make abortions illegal.  If they want to leave the Lord, we’re going to browbeat them and make their lives pure misery until they come back.

On one level, these strategies appear to offer success.  Jesus remains unarrested.  Babies don’t get aborted.  The straying Christian is filling a pew once more.

The problem is, though, that coercing someone into changing their behavior never results in a changed heart.  Even if the high priests’ posse is defeated, the high priests won’t hate and envy Jesus any less.  Preventing a woman from having an abortion does not lessen her fear or increase her natural affection.  Forcing a Christian to assemble does not inspire them to worship.

Indeed, attempts at coercion often fail to produce outwardly good results too.  If Jesus’ disciples defeat a posse, the chief priests will show up with a Roman cohort next.  The fearful woman is likely to seek an illegal abortion.  The browbeaten Christian often will persist in falling away, bearing a new cargo of bitterness over their bad treatment.

If we truly want godliness in others, then, we must look not to change behavior, but to change hearts.  We must rely not on coercion, but on persuasion.  God isn’t looking for sullen compliance.  He wants devotion instead.

This is hard to do.  The more we care, the more we want to fix others’ ungodly decisions by hammering them flat.  We want quick results rather than engaging in the slow, patient work of winning a heart.  However, only the latter can produce the fruit of genuine righteousness.

Psalm 5

Friday, November 20, 2020

Give ear to my appeals, O Lord,
And listen as I groan.
My King and God, I cry for help
And pray to You alone.

When morning rises, I will speak,
For You will hear my voice;
In faith, I come with eagerness,
That soon I may rejoice.

You take no joy in wickedness;
No evil dwells with You;
They shall not stand before Your eyes,
The boastful and untrue.

You punish those who speak in lies
And all who dare transgress,
But in Your temple I will bow
To praise Your holiness.

Protect me from my enemies
And make my pathway straight;
No truth is present in their words
Of flattery and hate.

So hold them guilty, O my God,
Undone by what they do;
In their transgressions, thrust them out
For disregarding You.

Let everyone who trusts in You
Be jubilant in grace;
May they forever sing for joy,
Your strength, their hiding place.

Let those who love Your name exult
In what You have revealed;
You bless the righteous man, O Lord;
Your favor is his shield.

Suggested tune:  ST. FLAVIAN
("The Army of Our Lord")

Apostasy and Discipleship

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The other morning, I was bragging on my church family a little bit.  I like to do that as they give me opportunity!  I noted that that Sunday, I had seen Christians taking the initiative to take on good works in several different ways.  

One brother (not part of the church leadership) facilitated a brainstorming session about evangelism.  A group of women spent the afternoon teaching the middle-school to high-school girls of the congregation how to serve.  A new sister volunteered to make T-shirts for the girls.  A young sister continued to collect sleeping bags for the homeless.  Another brother (who happened to be a deacon, though he wasn’t wearing his deacon hat at the time) collected money after services for a poor man who came to the door asking for help.

It’s hard to imagine a more Ephesians 4:16 scenario than that!  Every part is doing its part.  In addition to being obviously praiseworthy and encouraging, I think all of these active Christians are doing something else.  They are protecting against false doctrine.

I’ve been arguing for years that authority problems are actually discipleship problems.  You start wanting to send money to the missionary society or the sponsoring church when you’re feeling guilty about your local congregation not evangelizing.  You start using church funds to help the world’s poor when your individual members aren’t helping them.  The discipleship failure creates the need that is filled by departing from the pattern.

However, if your congregation has a vibrant, healthy evangelism culture, the pressure to turn to human institutions becomes much less.  If your members are interested in and active in caring for the world’s poor, there is no need for unscriptural expedients to fill.  There is no problem to solve.  As they should, the disciples have got it covered.

I think we see something similar happening with the work of women.  In many progressive churches of Christ these days, there is tremendous pressure to abandon the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  Often, the people exerting this pressure make an emotional argument.  They exclaim over how awful it is that we are sidelining all these gifted and talented women by excluding them from the pulpit.

Well. . . Do the Jackson Heights women who spent the afternoon teaching seem sidelined?  How about the T-shirt maker?  How about the sleeping-bag collector?  I think anybody who thinks those women are sidelined needs to expand their definition of the playing field!

Of course, there is a scenario in which the sidelining argument becomes more potent—when members have abandoned discipleship so completely that their only meaningful activity occurs in the assembly.  According to the Scriptural pattern, men must lead in serving in the assembly.  If assembling is all a group of Christians does, then men will be the only servants.  Under those circumstances, sure, you’ve got a bunch of do-nothing women, but you’ve also got a do-nothing church.

The cure for the disease is not to abandon the pattern for the assembly.  It is to apply the pattern for Christian living to the lives of Christian women.  Titus 2:4 is sadly neglected in most congregations.  There are all sorts of good works in which any Christian may engage.  The woman who devotes herself to these things is no less a productive and useful member than the preacher or the elder.

I also have believed for a long time that the solution to any spiritual problem is “more Bible”.  More Bible study; more Bible application.  This is particularly relevant whenever a spiritual problem appears to demand apostasy as a solution.  In truth, we don’t need to reject what the word of God teaches about the use of church funds or the role of women.  Rather, we need to embrace what it teaches about the work of the disciple.  If we get that down, we will be amazed at the way that those apparent problems with the pattern will disappear.

Jesus, the Light of the World

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

In writing his gospel, the apostle John often likes to group Jesus’ “I am” statements with events that define that characteristic.  “I am the bread of life,” follows the feeding of the 5000, “I am the resurrection and the life,” precedes the raising of Lazarus, and so on.

This certainly is the case with His statement in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.”  In John 9:1-8, Jesus illustrates this claim by using His power to give sight to a man who was blind from birth. 

However, this narrative focuses not so much on the miracle itself as it does on the reactions to the miracle.  Even though several different groups see the light of Christ, only one person reacts favorably to it.  Sadly, today many people reject Him for similar reasons.  Let’s consider these things this evening as we ponder Jesus, the light of the world.

In this story, Jesus appears in three different ways, and the first is as A CHALLENGE TO TRADITION.  Look at John 9:9-17.  The Pharisees’ reaction here is fascinating.  Rather than marveling that a miracle has taken place right there in their neighborhood, they get hung up on the fact that the miracle was performed on the Sabbath.  

Some argue, unsuccessfully, that they should pay more attention to the miracle than to when it happened.  However, the consensus that emerges is that Jesus can’t be from God because in working a miracle, He broke the Sabbath.  Rather than evaluating their traditions in the light of the Lord, they evaluate the Lord in the light of their traditions.

Obviously, there are lots of potshots we could take at the denominational world for the way they reject Jesus in favor of their traditions.  However, focusing on somebody else’s spiritual problems never made any of us more righteous.  Instead, we must ask whether our own traditional views keep us from seeing the true Jesus.

Indeed, if the Jesus we see does not challenge us, we are not seeing the true Jesus.  The true Jesus exalts the poor and pronounces woes on the wealthy.  The true Jesus reaches out to the marginalized and unwelcome.  The true Jesus celebrates the humble heart of the penitent sinner while condemning the religious elite.  The true Jesus warns us not to be distracted by political issues from the spiritual issues that will destroy us.  He tells us that we must take up our crosses and follow.  Our Lord is an amazing Master, but if we find Him easy to hear, we aren’t listening hard enough.

Second, this story presents Jesus as A THREAT TO SOCIAL STANDING.  Let’s keep going in John 9:18-23.  In their quest to expose Jesus as a fraud, the Pharisees summon the blind man’s parents.  Even though the parents surely must have known that a miracle has happened, in their answers to the Pharisees, they are as evasive as they possibly can be.  They know that if they acclaim Jesus as the Messiah, they’ll be thrown out of the synagogue, so they refuse to acknowledge the truth.

On one level, this works really well.  They don’t make the Pharisees angry, so they get to stay in the synagogue.  The problem is that Jesus really did heal their son and really is the Messiah, so they knowingly have rejected their hope of eternal life to avoid social discomfort.  They knew the truth about Jesus, but they refused to tell the truth.

It’s easy for us to shake our heads in contempt at the blind man’s parents.  They knew that Jesus worked miracles, but that mattered less to them than staying on good terms with the Pharisees.  Pretty dumb, huh? 

Well, how about us?  We know the truth about Jesus.  Every one of us who is a Christian has professed that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. 

However, how often in our lives is the truth about Jesus less important than our social standing?  How often do we have an opportunity to share our faith with an outsider, but we remain silent because we’re afraid it will ruin our relationship with them?  Maybe the light of Jesus shining on our lives reveals that we are more like the parents of the blind man than we care to admit.

The final perspective on Jesus in this story, though, is that He is A MAN FROM GOD.  Consider John 9:24-34.  In his own words, the formerly blind man is a man with one idea.  He knows that he was blind, but now he can see.  He is willing to follow that fact where it leads.  Because Jesus could not have done that if He had not been from God, Jesus must be from God.

This is a deeply unpopular conclusion.  In response, the Pharisees ridicule Jesus.  They try to pick holes in his story.  They ridicule him too.  In response to it all, the formerly blind man clings to the one thing he knows.  In the face of that one thing, the Pharisees lose the argument, and they acknowledge that they have lost by throwing him out of the synagogue.

This looks like a deeply negative outcome for the formerly blind man, and in some ways, it is.  However, it also is a deeply positive outcome because he is the only one who pleases God. 

Our application is simple.  Like the formerly blind man, we need to know one thing.  The apostle Paul knew one thing.  He tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2 that among them, he determined to know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified. 

So too for us.  If the one thing we know is that Jesus is the Christ, and we are willing to follow that fact wherever it leads, we will end up in the right place.  The true problems in our lives don’t arise when we remember that fact.  They arise when we forget it.

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