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Enlightenment Through Christ

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Because it is still 2021, our theme for the year continues to be “Be the Light”.  Clay and I don’t have another light-based sermon series scheduled for a little while yet, but I thought it was appropriate to revisit the theme in a one-off sermon anyway. 

In particular, I thought all of us could stand to be reminded that even though we’re supposed to be the light, we aren’t supposed to be the source of the light.  Instead, that source is Jesus.  If we want to know what light is, we should look to Him.

However, this doesn’t merely mean looking at what Jesus said and saying the same thing.  Rather, we need to consider the whole pattern of His life and teaching.  2000 years ago, many people rejected Jesus, and they continue to do so today for the same reasons.  Even the people who believed in and listened to Him ran into problems with that, and if we think we are above those problems, we are sadly mistaken!  This morning, then, let’s look at a context from Mark 8 to see what it can teach us about enlightenment through Christ.

The first of the three stories in the chapter that we’re going to be considering concerns THE PHARISEES.  Here, consider Mark 8:11-13.  As always when we study Mark, it’s important to remember that the gospel is only loosely chronological, but it is tightly thematic.  When Mark puts two stories next to each other, it’s not necessarily because they happened sequentially in time.  Instead, it’s because the stories have something to do with each other and offer commentary on each other.

Here, the Pharisees have come to Jesus asking for a sign.  On its face, this request sounds reasonable.  However, the opposite is true.  Jesus has just worked the mighty miracle of the feeding of the 4000, but that’s still not enough for these guys.  They want another sign!  Jesus declines to jump through their hoops, but based on their previous performance, if He had obliged them instead, they only would have looked for an excuse to ask for yet another sign.  Their problem is not absence of proof.  It is the absence of a good heart.

In the same way, we must consider whether we are coming to Jesus with a good heart.  This has to do first of all with His divinity.  We have plenty of evidence that He is indeed the Son of God.  The question, though, is whether we are looking for reasons to believe or excuses to disbelieve.  If the latter, no apologetic argument ever will be enough to convince us.

The same holds true of the authority of Jesus.  There are two hearts with which we can come to the word.  We can come to it wanting most of all to carry out our own desires, or we can come to it with the desire only to please Jesus. 

Here too, we must be honest.  Do I study the Scriptures looking for the tiniest clue about what Jesus wants, so I can do that?  Or, instead, do I reject any but the most overwhelming evidence, insisting that my obtuseness leaves me with the right to do whatever I want?  If the latter, we have company among the people of 2000 years ago, but it’s not the company we want!

Next, let’s consider how the enlightenment of Jesus affects THE DISCIPLES.  Let’s continue with our reading in Mark 8:14-21.  In this story, we see a clear difference of priorities between Jesus and even His closest followers.  Jesus is concerned with the evil hearts of the Pharisees and of Herod, who also is a problem.  Using metaphor, He warns His disciples to watch out for the leaven of their influence. 

That’s not where the disciples are.  Apparently somebody goofed, and they neglected to lay in provisions for the boat ride ahead.  They’re out of bread!  As a result, when Jesus starts talking about leaven, their minds go to the yeast in the wheat products they eat. 

From our perspective, this might seem like a reasonable mistake to make, but Jesus doesn’t take it that way.  Instead, He uses the language of Old Testament prophecy to condemn them.  These were men who had seen Jesus make meals for 5000 and 4000 people out of a tiny amount of food.  If they had thought about that, they would have realized that it didn’t matter whether they had bread, as long as they had Jesus.

Brethren, this is one to which all of us need to pay attention.  As with the disciples, our preferred state is to have both bread and Jesus.  We want our relationship with God, but we want all of our earthly comforts and blessings too.  When we lose those things, where is our focus?  Do we seek Jesus, believing that He is enough, or do we start worrying because we don’t have any bread?  As we see, the latter can be a problem even for good-hearted disciples, but if it’s a problem we have, it highlights our need for growth in understanding.

Finally, let’s consider the miracle of healing THE BLIND MAN in Mark 8:22-26.  This is surely one of the most difficult miracles in the whole ministry of Jesus to understand.  The blind man is brought to Jesus, Jesus lays hands on him, but his vision is not fully restored.  Rather than seeing clearly, in his own words, he sees men like trees walking around.  Only after Jesus lays hands on him again does he begin to see clearly.

When we consider this miracle in isolation, we find ourselves asking, “How in the world does this make sense?”  If Jesus had enough power to heal the guy at all, why did it take two tries to get it right?  Did He have to get a power-up from the Holy Spirit before He could try again?

The mistake here, of course, is considering the miracle in isolation.  When we’re talking about the One who did all things well, the only reasonable conclusion is that He healed the man in this way because He meant to.  In the context of stories about people who refuse to understand or who understand only incompletely, His purpose in doing so is clear.

Here, then, is what is going on.  Just like Jesus healed the paralytic to show that He had authority on earth to forgive sins, He healed the blind man in stages to show that our spiritual enlightenment comes in the same way—in stages.  Nobody is presented with a perfect understanding of Jesus and His will the moment they’re baptized.  Instead, we have to seek Him and learn from Him in order to conform our understanding to His.

This certainly happened with the apostles.  In the next chapter, Peter is about to have a big leap in spiritual understanding when he confesses that Jesus is the Christ.  However, even then Peter wasn’t done.  On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, his violent response shows how much more he has to learn.

So too with us.  None of us have it all figured out, nor will we.  However, the more diligently we seek the Lord, and continue to seek Him, the more enlightenment we will find.

The Upside-Down Gospel

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Groucho Marx once observed that he wouldn’t want to belong to any social club that would have him as a member.  The point, of course, is that many people join various organizations because those organizations are exclusive.  If you belong to a group that keeps out the riff-raff, it shows that you aren’t riff-raff.

By contrast, the strategy Paul sets forth in 1 Corinthians 1:20-31 aims at the opposite effect.  He acknowledges that the gospel that he uses to attract converts is foolish, at least in worldly terms.  Any Jew or Gentile with sense is going to steer well clear of him!

As one might expect, the catch brought in with such a net is various.  Most of it isn’t very impressive:  the foolish, the weak, and the poor.  However, Paul notes that God is going to do something amazing with such unpromising raw material.  He is going to use it to reveal worldly wisdom as foolishness, worldly power as weakness, and worldly wealth as poverty.  In the end, everyone will be forced to acknowledge that for all their arrogance, they didn’t have any reason to boast in themselves either.

Not surprisingly, this radical first-century message quickly became corrupted.  Using the name of Christ as a cloak, people have been using the gospel (or a version thereof) to advance their own worldly concerns for centuries.  The magnificence of various church buildings all across the globe does little to reveal their owners as have-nots!

These problems can crop up within the Lord’s church too.  We don’t typically go in for cloth-of-gold vestments and cathedrals, but there’s a part of us that wants to have a nice church filled with only nice people.  That photogenic couple down the street with 2.4 kids and a white picket fence is perfectly welcome.  How about the guy who struggles to hold down a job?  How about the woman with a criminal record?

The church in Corinth would not have lived up to anybody’s standards for niceness.  All of the problems we read about in the church did not spring up out of nowhere.  Instead, due to the unselectivity of the screening process, all those new Christians brought enough baggage with them to fill up the hold of the Queen Mary. 

And yet, these were the called and chosen of God, the ones whom He had selected to humiliate everyone else.  What’s more, they did.  The organization to which the riff-raff belonged continues to this day.  The wealthy, wise, and powerful of Corinth?  Not so much.  Indeed, on the day of judgment, the disparity between those who sought after Christ and those who didn’t will only become more obvious.

Today, then, we need to worry a lot less about the raw material of potential converts and a lot more about the power of the gospel.  As always, it’s the people who don’t have their lives together and are well aware of the fact who are most likely to embrace global change.  They might not look very inviting in the church photo, but they are more than enough for God to use for His glory.

Paul-Style Elder Appreciation

Friday, June 25, 2021

As obnoxious as the pandemic has been, one of the silver linings to the cloud has been the way that it has brought recognition to the elders at Jackson Heights.  Normally, much of the work that the elders do remains in the background, but the crisis brought it to the foreground.  They were faced with a complex problem involving danger, uncertainty, and deeply divergent beliefs among brethren, but they navigated the challenge with wisdom and skill.  We continued to assemble nearly without interruption, nobody caught COVID in any of those assemblies, and nobody got mad and left because of the elders’ handling of the situation.  Can’t ask for better than that!

Many of the members here (myself included) have expressed their appreciation to the elders for their work.  However, if we pay attention to Paul’s admonitions in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, we see that in context, there are other ways we ought to be recognizing our leaders for their work.

Regard them very highly in love.  Christians are notorious for feasting on roast preacher on the way home from services.  Sad to say, it’s too often true that elders also find a place on the menu.  It’s very difficult to serve as an elder, but it’s very easy to criticize and second-guess the decisions that the elders make. 

However, this kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking fails to show respect either for the office or those holding it.  Elders are generally wise, compassionate men, but they always end up dealing with the hard cases and difficult choices that nobody else in the congregation can handle.  Are their conclusions always going to please every member of the church, or even necessarily going to be the best option available?  Of course not! 

Nonetheless, we still owe them deference and grace.  When the elders are down in the trenches fighting for people’s souls, the last thing they need is to start taking casualties from friendly fire!  When we disagree with the elders, rather than offering criticism, let’s start offering prayers for them instead.  Every one of them will tell you that they need it!

Be at peace.  As many difficulties as COVID created for the church, one of the elders confided to me that it was far from the most difficult problem that he had faced during his leadership tenure.  You know what gives elders more headaches and heartaches than a global pandemic?  Christians who can’t get along with each other and dump their garbage in the elders’ laps, each expecting to be vindicated.  That’s when the elders start buying Tums in bulk.

For all of us, the solution is simple, though difficult:  start acting like real Christians instead of nominal ones.  Don’t turn your marriage into a museum of every wrong your spouse has ever done you.  Don’t take every thoughtless comment that a brother makes in the worst way possible.  Don’t assume that the sister who passed you without speaking to you did it on purpose.  In short, view others in the best light possible while harshly examining your own soul for the self-righteousness, self-deception, and selfishness that all of us love to harbor.  Don’t make your spiritual problems the elders’ problems too! 

Addressing Spiritual Problems

Thursday, June 24, 2021

There are few things that are more difficult for Christians and churches than when another Christian falls into sin.  It’s very easy and straightforward for us to interact with one another when everybody is living faithfully; indeed, the fellowship we share in Christ is one of the great joys of earthly existence! 

However, one of the characteristics of sin is that it makes everyone else’s choices more difficult.  All of a sudden, that easy camaraderie is shattered.  Now, every time we see the Christian who is doing wrong, a host of questions leap into our mind.  Should we treat them normally and act like nothing’s wrong even though we know it isn’t true.  Should we say something?  If so, what?  Should we go to the other extreme and avoid them entirely because it ends up being much less awkward for everyone?

These are difficult questions, but thankfully, the Holy Spirit does not leave us without help.  There are several contexts in Scripture that probe this subject, and one of them appears in our Bible reading for this week.  Let’s turn to 2 Thessalonians 3, then, to see what the apostle Paul has to teach us about addressing spiritual problems.

In this context, I see three main lessons for us, and the first is that we must IMITATE THE APOSTLES.  Here, let’s read from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10.  Here, it becomes obvious that the Thessalonian church has a problem.  There are several members of the congregation who are refusing to work. 

We don’t know why this is.  Many commentators have speculated that it’s because they were expecting the imminent return of Jesus, so what’s the point in working?  It’s also possible that they thought it was easier to sponge off other Christians than it was to work.  Regardless, these Christians who should be productive members of society are idle busybodies instead.

In addressing this problem, Paul first encourages the church to imitate him and his companions.  Paul did the Lord’s work during his time in Thessalonica.  He had the right not to do secular work.  However, he chose to work to show the Thessalonians how important and godly working was.  His behavior was their standard.

Today, early Christians aren’t merely our standard when it comes to working.  Their behavior is our standard when it comes to everything.  It’s vital for us to acknowledge this standard for two main reasons.  First, it shows us what’s right and what’s wrong.  We can resolve every important spiritual question by referring to what our first-century brethren did.

Second, it shows us how we must live if we want to help Christians who are walking disorderly.  They have to be able to see us obeying the commandments that we want them to obey.  I guarantee you that if we try to correct a brother or sister, and they know that we aren’t living right ourselves, the first thing out of their mouths will be an accusation of hypocrisy!  Sadly, an exchange like that is actively harmful because it gives them an excuse to reject correction even from a brother who is living right.  If we want to clean up somebody else’s act, we must clean up our own act first.

Next, we must be willing to COMMAND AND EXHORT.  Here, let’s consider 2 Thessalonians 3:11-13.  Notice how formally Paul uses his authority here.  As an apostle, in the name of Jesus Christ, he tells the busybodies to knock it off and get back to work.

Both parts of this formula are vital.  The first is the command part.  This is not something that culturally sits well with us.  On Facebook, Americans are lions, but in person, we’re a bunch of cowards.  We don’t do face-to-face confrontation well at all!

However, experience has taught me that if you want somebody to change, the only way to get them to change is to talk to them face-t0-face.  There is no substitute for looking in somebody’s eyes and telling them they need to straighten up for their soul’s sake.

When we do this, though we must be loving, we must be direct too.  Too often we’re so worried about hurting a sinner’s feelings that we beat around the bush and couch our message in so many caveats that they easily ignore it.  I’m reminded, though, of a brother I know who is a recovering drug addict.  He says that what helped him wasn’t the people who tried to coddle him and downplay his condition.  Instead, it was the people who loved him who told him straight up that he was doing evil and needed to repent.  We too need to have the moral courage to call a spade a spade and a sin a sin.

As we do this, though, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of exhortation either.  Exhortation is positive.  It’s encouraging.  It offers a road map for change and improvement.  If we don’t offer this road map, all we’re doing is beating somebody down and making them feel bad about themselves without offering them a way to feel good about themselves.  Our goal isn’t to check boxes here.  It’s to provoke change, and if we want to see a change, we should tell the sinner what it is.

Paul’s final instruction is to NOTE THE DISOBEDIENT.  Look at 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15.  Though obviously any of us can exhort a brother to do good, this is clearly an instruction given to the whole church.  It’s similar to what we read in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5.  If we go to somebody, and they refuse to listen—other passages lay out the process here in much greater detail—we need to single them out for different treatment.

Interestingly, Paul’s words here are meant to help us avoid two different extremes.  The first is continuing in the same relationship with them as though nothing has changed.  The temptation here is obvious, isn’t it?  We’ve said our piece, they ignored it, so we shrug and move on in our relationship with them as though they didn’t listen to a hot stock tip we gave them. 

Of course, the gospel is much more than a hot stock tip.  In Hebrews 10, the writer tells us that Christians who fall away have trampled Jesus, regarded His blood as an unclean thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace.  It makes God very angry when His people turn their backs on Him, and for the apostate, their meeting with God on the day of judgment poses a deadly danger.  When we continue in friendly association with the sinner despite the doom that is hanging over them, we do them no favors!

At the same time, though, neither do we cut off communication with them entirely.  That would be regarding them as an enemy, and if we don’t talk to somebody anymore, it’s awfully hard to admonish them as a brother!  Instead, Paul is calling us to strike a difficult balance.  We need to continue in that relationship even though they have wrecked it, showing them by our conduct both that we love them and that we don’t approve of their actions.  This is awkward, and it’s meant to be awkward, but it’s also the last chance we have to save their souls from destruction.

Teaching Apollos

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Some of the stories that we read about in Scripture are impressive because of what we know about the laws of nature.  Others are impressive because of what we know of human nature, and in the latter category falls the enlightenment of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28.

Put yourself in Apollos’ sandals for a moment.  Here, we have a guy with a lot going for him, both in terms of ability and understanding.  He was an eloquent man, a powerful speaker, which even Paul wasn’t.  He was passionate about God and His word.  He knew that Jesus was the Christ, and he boldly proclaimed Jesus everywhere he went.

However, there was a problem.  Rather than proclaiming the saving baptism into Christ, Apollos knew only the baptism of John.  All of his powerful preaching about Jesus led to the wrong conclusion.

The disciples Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos’ flawed message, and they in turn had the courage to talk to him in private about his errors.  Then, an amazing thing happens.  Apollos listens to them!  Even though changing his message will mean open acknowledgment of his prior misunderstanding, Apollos does change.  Now, his eloquence is pointed in the right direction, and he helps the church greatly with his efforts.

Today, there are two great lessons here for us.  First, it shows us the importance of leaving space for others to be Apolloses.  Priscilla and Aquila did not, Paul-style, oppose Apollos to the face because he stood condemned.  Instead, because they knew the truth would be painful for him to hear, they went to him privately in order to spare his pride as much as possible.

God does expect us to be forthright with the truth, but He also wants us to use wisdom in figuring out the most effective way of presenting that truth.  After all, our goal in correcting error is hardly ever (or should hardly ever be, at least) to get somebody told.  Our aim is not to check off the stand-up-for-Jesus box.  It is to enlighten, to persuade, and to change minds and hearts. 

Maybe Apollos would have listened if Priscilla and Aquila had blasted him publicly.  Maybe somebody will listen to us if we present the truth to them with no consideration for their feelings.  However, our chances of success go way up when we speak truth in love.

Second, the day may well come when we find ourselves in the same place Apollos was.  We’ve been confidently proclaiming X, and some kind soul comes to us, Bible in hand, and says, “Well, actually, it’s Y instead.”

That’s not much fun!  Indeed, we will feel a strong temptation to continue clinging to X.  Few indeed are the preachers today who will, like Apollos, accept that they’ve been preaching the wrong baptism and change their tune accordingly.  Few indeed are the brethren who will easily embrace the truth after they’ve gone on record saying the opposite.  Nonetheless, only if we are willing to humble ourselves and acknowledge our misunderstandings can God be glorified in us.

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