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Disobedience and Unbelief

Monday, May 03, 2021

The epistle to the Hebrews might be the most tightly reasoned book in the whole Bible.  Sentence by sentence, clause by clause, the Hebrews writer constructs intricate arguments that establish the superiority of Christ over Moses and the folly of Christians returning to Judaism.  The more closely we read Hebrews, the more we will learn.

The care with which Hebrews is written makes the apparent logical disconnect in Hebrews 3:18-19 all the more surprising.  In context, the writer is discussing the Israelites who died in the wilderness during the time of Moses.  He says, “And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, if not to those who disobeyed?  So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”  

Hold on here, Hebrews writer!  You’ve given us evidence that God kept the Israelites from entering Canaan because of their disobedience.  Why are you acting like you’ve shown us that they had an unbelief problem instead?

The writer, and indeed the Holy Spirit, make this logical jump because they want us to realize that they aren’t making a logical jump at all.  Once the writer has established that the Israelites had a disobedience problem, he doesn’t have to prove that they had an unbelief problem—because disobedience and unbelief are THE SAME THING.  If we don’t believe God’s promises, we will not obey His word.  If we don’t obey His word, fundamentally, it is because we do not believe His promises.  Faith and obedience are inseparable.

This understanding is vital to us for at least two reasons.  First, it answers the tedious argument that we are saved by faith, not by works, so we don’t have to be baptized to be saved.  In reality, baptism is not an attempt to justify ourselves at all.  Instead, it is an expression of faith in the promises of God.  We believe that when the Holy Spirit says that baptism saves, He means it.  Accordingly, we obey the gospel.

 Second, it shows the importance of preaching, teaching, and study that builds faith.  Some brethren are interested only in preaching that is practical.  They want to be told about some godly thing that they can go home and do.

Instruction in righteous living is invaluable, full stop.  However, if we’re not careful, too much focus on the nuts and bolts of practical discipleship can leave us short on the motivation to be disciples.  Obedience is not and cannot be a just-because thing.  If hearing is not united with faith in us, we will not obey.

Instead, if we want to be obedient, we must look too to the parts of the Bible that build faith.  However remote the stories of the righteous men of old may seem to us, they all proclaim the same lesson:  God is a God who keeps His promises, so if we rely on Him, we will not be disappointed.  So too, the stories of the miracles of Jesus and His apostles, particularly the story of His resurrection, assure us that what He has promised, He is able to perform.  When our minds are filled with these things, it becomes much easier to make the right choices—because we know how deeply they matter.

Why Is the Lamb Worthy?

Friday, April 30, 2021

Revelation 5:10-10 presents one of the most stirring scenes in all of Scripture.  John has spent the previous chapter painting us a picture of the eternal glorification of God that goes on around His throne.  However, in the first part of this chapter, a problem arises.  God holds a book with seven seals, a book that represents His purpose on earth.  However, no one can be found who is able to fulfill that plan.

No one, that is, besides the One described as the conquering lion of the tribe of Judah.  John’s angel guide assures him that this One will be worthy. However, His appearance is not that of a lion or a conqueror.  Instead, He looks like a lamb, the meekest of animals, and a lamb that has been brutally butchered at that!  Nonetheless, all the hosts of heaven begin bowing down before Him and acknowledging His worthiness.

In this lamb, of course, we recognize Jesus, the capital-L Lamb of God.  He is indeed the One who has been given the name above every name.  But why?  Why does Jesus deserve to be worshiped by all the inhabitants of heaven and indeed by us too?  Why is the Lamb worthy?

Helpfully, the text before us provides three reasons.  Jesus is worthy to carry forward the purpose of God because HE WAS SLAUGHTERED.  This shows up in the first part of Revelation 5:9.  At first glance, this doesn’t seem like much of a recommendation.  Usually, when we go looking for someone who can accomplish a mighty plan, we don’t pick someone who meekly allowed his enemies to kill him!  In fact, we might think that choosing such a champion would only lead to our defeat too.

However, the fact that Jesus was slaughtered shows His worthiness in several different ways.  First, it proves His humility.  The purposes of the flesh might be best advanced by an arrogant leader, someone who dominates others and exerts his will over them because he believes he is superior. 

Jesus, however, did not and does not regard Himself in that way.  Even though He is the only begotten Son of God and literally is worth more than we are, He did not count Himself as worth more than we are.  Instead, He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on the cross. 

Second, Jesus’ willingness to be slaughtered shows His obedience.  He did not come to earth or die on His own initiative.  This was not Jesus’ idea.  It was God’s idea.  God asked Him to leave behind the eternal glories of heaven for death on a criminal’s cross, and Jesus did it, just as He did everything else His Father asked of Him. 

Finally, Jesus’ death shows His love.  In John 15, Jesus tells His disciples that no one has greater love than to give his life for his friends, and we are the friends of Jesus if we do what He commands us.  There’s a problem there, though.  None of Jesus’ apostles did what He commanded, and we don’t either.  Jesus didn’t only love us enough to die for us as His friends.  He loved us enough to die for us when we were His enemies.

Second, the text tells us that the Lamb is worthy because HE PURCHASED US.  This shows up in the second part of Revelation 5:9.  Once again, there’s a lot for us to unpack here.  First of all, it tells us why Jesus allowed Himself to be slaughtered.  It’s because He wanted to redeem us from hell, and the only currency that could accomplish the task was His own blood.  The whole earth and everything on it would not suffice to purchase even a single soul from the devil’s bondage, but the lifeblood of Jesus is enough to pay the ransom of billions.  There are spiritual concepts that are impossible for human minds to understand, and I think that one of them is just how precious the blood of Jesus truly is!

Also, notice that the text says that Jesus purchased us for God.  In other words, the blood of Jesus didn’t merely cleanse us of sin.  It also reconciled us to God. 

This was not easy.  God is perfectly holy, perfectly just.  On our own merits, none of us could expect to appear in His presence and live.  He would destroy us instantly because of our sin, and He would have every right to do so. 

However, through the blood of Jesus, His great wrath has been propitiated, and God welcomes us into fellowship because Jesus has suffered what we should have.  When the price has been paid, no debt remains.

Last, this text tells us that those who have been purchased for God have been brought out of every tribe and language and people and nation.  In reconciling us to God, Jesus also has reconciled us to one another.  We know how hard that is.  Every time we look at the news, we see evidence of the divisions that lead people to treat one another in horrible ways.  I see no reason to hope that in this fallen world, human division and hatred ever will come to an end.

However, this impossible task has been accomplished by Christ.  We were many before we came to Him, but now we are one, and in Him, those divisions are far less important than the love that we share and the blood that marks us as His brothers and sisters.

Finally, the Lamb is worthy because HE MADE US A KINGDOM.  Look at Revelation 5:10.  This is deeply significant.  Most of us have trouble appreciating it because we’ve spent our lives as citizens of the United States, the mightiest nation on earth—for now, at least.  However, imagine what it would be like to be a penniless refugee, someone who couldn’t rely on any country to take them in and protect them.  Before Jesus made us His kingdom, that’s where all of us were.  However, Jesus is our King now.  He watches over us, and His might makes the United States look positively inconsequential in comparison!

Second, we see here that Jesus made us priests to God.  Remember how just a moment ago we talked about how dangerous it is for the sinner to approach God?  Now, though, we are not merely God’s people.  We are God’s priesthood.  Every one of us has the right to approach Him now, and we need no other intercessor but Jesus. 

The world is full of all kinds of self-described spiritual experts and holy men.  They want us to believe that we need them to go to God for us.  That’s a lie.  Because of what Jesus did, every one of us can seek His throne not with fear, but with boldness.

Finally, we see the one item in the list of the Lamb’s attributes that is a promise instead of an accomplishment.  He is worthy because we will reign.  This is not necessarily obvious.  None of us look like kings right now.  In the first century, Christians commonly looked very much not like kings!  However, Jesus didn’t look like royalty when He was on the cross either, yet He was.  The day will come when every proud thing that exalts itself against Jesus will be brought low, and His humble people will be lifted up.  The final proof of the worthiness of the Lamb will be in what He does for us for eternity.

A Note About Grace

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Preaching on grace is vital, but grace without sin is a solution in search of a problem, and grace without hell is meaningless.  If the good news of the gospel is segregated from the ugly truths of human existence, it ceases to be good.

What's the Problem with Porn?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

In recent days, my daughter’s reading tastes have begun to shift from tween lit to young-adult fiction.  Though I’m not sorry to say goodbye to the likes of Dork Diaries, this shift also awakens some unease in my wife and me.  We know that YA fic has become increasingly racy in recent years, and in any event, it won’t be long before the advent of physical maturity exposes both of my children to the temptations of pornography.

To say the least, the struggle against porn has not gone well for God’s people over the past several decades.  Few indeed are the Christian men these days who haven’t had problems with porn.  Increasingly, though, smut salesmen have figured out how to peddle their wares to women too.  Take, for instance, the hot new Netflix series Bridgerton, which is perhaps best described as pornography dressed up like Jane Austen.  Men are hardly the target audience there!

In the face of this onslaught, the old standby argument of lust-is-a-sin-so-don’t-use-porn, though true, has proven inadequate.  If we want to safeguard ourselves and our children from pornography, we have to arrive at a more profound understanding than that.  Porn use isn’t merely a problem because it violates a thou-shalt-not.  It’s a problem because it subverts and corrupts God’s intent for human sexuality.

We should pay much more attention than we do to the fact that in Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul by the Holy Spirit compares the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and the church.  It’s commonplace for ministers performing a wedding to describe marriage as sacred, but most Christians, even married Christians, don’t want to contemplate the sacredness of marital intimacy. 

Like all of God’s handiwork, it is nourishing, affirming, and life-giving (in many senses).  As husband and wife grow spiritually and in their relationship with each other, their delight in coming together grows too.  In the affection, understanding, and trust of the marriage bed, we expose ourselves completely, body, heart, and soul, and we rejoice to find ourselves known and loved regardless.  This is perhaps the closest we can come on earth to experiencing what it is like to be seen and known and loved by God.

Godly sexuality is one of His most beautiful creations, so we should not be surprised that Satan hates it and yearns to destroy it.  His malice is evident in unhappy marriages, in sexual immorality, and increasingly in enslavement to pornography.  Like all that Satan does, these things are counterfeits of the original, having the appearance of God’s good work without its reality.

This is most obvious with porn.  Immorality at least involves a one-flesh experience with somebody, but porn use doesn’t involve anybody.  Pleasure is present, but intimacy is always, devastatingly, absent.  Porn does not create, for it is sterile.  It does not enrich, for it is empty.  It does not unite, for it is lonely.

Pornography certainly existed 2000 years ago (witness the frescoes that have been unearthed in the brothels of Pompeii), but Paul never could have used it to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.  That relationship is fundamentally selfless.  Christ surrendered everything to His bride in death; she surrenders everything to Him in life.  So too, God intends for husbands and wives to surrender everything to one another in the intimacy of marriage (of which sexual intimacy is both a part and an analog). 

By contrast, porn is selfish.  You have no thought for anyone else; it’s entirely about you.  Thus, the porn user falls prey to the great paradox of selfishness.  There is great joy in serving others, but there is no joy in serving the self.  Instead, selfishness hollows us out like a worm in an apple.

There are no happy, contented, flourishing porn users.  No one returns repeatedly to that first picture, that first video, finding it ever more fulfilling than it was the first time.  Instead, the pleasures of porn swiftly begin to pall.  What was once captivating quickly becomes boring, and so the porn user (or, by this time, more properly “porn addict”) begins a futile, frantic search to rediscover what they have lost. 

Over time, they turn to depictions that are ever more shocking and extreme, but more and more, those things offer less and less.  They learn that the hardness of heart caused by sin is most of all a problem for the sinner.  Eventually, the greatest depravity that the Internet has to offer elicits scarcely a quiver, but still the addict continues, miserable but hoping desperately that what they find with the next swipe, the next mouse click, will help them feel something again.

Sadly, the addict becomes insensible not only to evil but also to good.  In training themselves to focus on seeming rather than substance, they lose the ability to appreciate union with their spouse.  In marriage, physical attraction is only the tip of the iceberg, but if all you care about is physical attraction, no flesh-and-blood spouse can compete with the airbrushed impossibility available online.  Living waters flow from following God’s design in marriage, but the addict returns futilely to the broken cistern of pornography, hoping to find there what it never can offer.

Such a combination of misery and enslavement always has a diabolical origin, but anyone who truly wants to be free can conquer through Christ.  The road out of porn addiction, as with any addiction, is long and difficult, but escape is possible.

It is far better for all of us, though, to learn to see the trap surrounding the bait before we take that first bite.  We need wisdom to avoid the snare that Satan has laid, and we also need courage to teach others about it.  Sex is nobody’s favorite topic in Bible class or at the dinner table, but the more we emphasize the joys of obedience and the dangers of sin, the more likely we are to evade temptation.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Pressing On.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Among the various other websites I frequent, I commonly visit a forum called Bogleheads, which focuses on investing in index mutual funds.  A couple of things set it apart from the other things I read online.  First, there are many Bogleheads posters who celebrate what we might call old-fashioned virtues:  discipline, hard work, frugality, and patience.  Second, the posters there are much wealthier than the Internet or national norm.  None of them would be so gauche as to brag about their net worth, but they spend a lot of time talking about tax issues that aren’t relevant unless you’ve got a pile.

I don’t think this is coincidence.  Having those old-fashioned values doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to end up with a lot of money.  As the book of Ecclesiastes says, time and chance can overtake anybody. 

However, if you don’t have them, it is nearly certain that you won’t prosper financially, and if you do, you won’t be able to hold on to it.  This is usually what happens to lottery winners.  They have the money, but they don’t have the character.

Of course, laying up treasure on earth is much less important than laying up treasure in heaven.  However, those old-fashioned values that play such a large role in the former are significant in the latter too.  This morning, let’s spend some time considering a Biblical ideal that encapsulates them all, the ideal of perseverance.

If we want to persevere so that we inherit eternal life, there are three things that we must understand.  First, we must KNOW OUR GOAL.  Consider what the Hebrews writer says in Hebrews 12:1-3.  Here, he tells us to run with endurance, a Biblical synonym for perseverance.  In doing this, we should look to Jesus, who endured the cross but received the reward of sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God.  If we want to get what Jesus got, we have to do what Jesus did.

This too is nothing more than financial common sense.  Unless I know about how much money I want to save to ensure a comfortable retirement for my wife and me, I have no way of evaluating my current financial situation.  Have I saved too little?  Have I saved too much?  Who knows? 

However, once I settle on a goal, then I can tell whether I’m making the progress necessary to achieve my goal and what corrections I need to make.  I can also consider other decisions in the light of how they will affect my goal.  Sure, it would be fun to trade in my 12-year-old Toyota Corolla for a bright shiny new King Ranch F-150, but that’s not really the question.  The question is whether that King Ranch F-150 will keep me from achieving what really matters.

The same is true for us spiritually.  We have to fix our eyes on that goal of being with Jesus and make all our other decisions according to that goal.  Let me give you an example.  Because the COVID danger has abated somewhat, last week, the elders returned our congregation to our usual schedule of worship services for the first time in months.  Now, we have a decision to make.  Are we going to fully return to in-person services, or are we going to keep on with pajama church because that couch is so comfy? 

Let me suggest to you this morning, brethren, that if we make our decision about attendance without our goal in mind, we’re going to make the wrong decision.  The only way to make the right decision here is to ask, “Which choice about church attendance will be most likely to get me to heaven?”  If heaven is truly our goal, asking that question will tell us all we need to know about where we need to be when the church-house doors are open.

Second, we must KNOW OUR ENEMY.  James identifies this enemy in James 1:13-15.  That deadly enemy isn’t all the worldly people around us.  It isn’t even the devil.  After all, the devil can’t harm us spiritually at all without our consent and cooperation.  Instead, the worst enemy that every one of us has is ourselves.

This is certainly true in the world of finance.  It’s statistical fact that as a whole, individual investors underperform the market.  They’re not very good at picking which stocks are going to do well.  When they see the stock market at all-time highs, they get greedy and buy in very expensively.  On the other hand, when the market crashes, they get fearful and sell out, often for much less than they paid on the way up.  As a rule, the fewer decisions an investor makes, the better they will do.

In our spiritual lives, we don’t have the luxury of simply going through our days making no decisions of significance.  We call people like that “one-talent servants”.  However, we must be aware that the same fleshly biases that wreck investors are tools that the devil will eagerly use to wreck our souls.  Almost all people who go to hell will do so because they wanted something they shouldn’t have wanted or feared something they shouldn’t have feared.

As a thought exercise this morning, then, let’s pause to do what is sometimes called a pre-mortem.  Imagine that 1000 years from now, you have lost your soul.  You are immersed in an eternity of suffering and regret.  You look back on your life and you say, “If only I hadn’t. . .” 

If only you hadn’t what?  What is the one thing that you know, in the silence of your heart, has the potential to cost you your soul, or, worse yet, is in the process of costing you your soul right now?  Unless you are deceiving yourself, that tells you what your enemy is.  That tells you what you must guard against or change in order to inherit eternal life.

Finally, we must KNOW OUR PLAN.  Paul gives us the outlines of what it has to be in Galatians 6:7-9.  It’s not enough for us to know where we want to spend eternity.  It’s not enough for us to guard against the greatest danger to our souls.  It’s not even enough for us to do good.  We have to continue doing good, even when we’re tired, even when we want to get up.  Then and only then will we reap the harvest of eternal life.

Again, there’s nothing different here than is true in the world of saving for retirement.  They say as a rule of thumb, if you don’t have a pension, you should look to have 10x your annual salary saved up by the time you retire.  Now, I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that most of us have 10x our salary sitting around someplace, waiting to be thrown into a retirement account.  To me, at least, that’s a whole, whole lot of money! 

So how do you get there?  Simple.  One investment at a time.  You put something aside month by month, year by year, decade by decade, and as that money starts to compound, by the time the day comes, you’re ready.

In the same way, I think we’re best off if we take our salvation one day at a time.  If we’ve got some spiritual struggle, if we know we’re not where we need to be, the magnitude of the change we need to make can be overwhelming!  Let me tell you a secret.  None of us are perfect, and none of us are ever going to be perfect, but what every one of us can do, every day, is be better.  We can find five extra minutes to read the Bible or pray a little more.  We can summon up the willpower to fight off that one temptation.  We can send that one encouraging message to a brother, friend, or loved one.  In short, we can grow and be faithful.  If that’s what we do, then by the grace of Christ, it’s going to be enough.

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