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Living God's Love

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The longer I serve the Lord, the more I gain an appreciation for the cunning of the devil.  I don’t like it one little bit, of course, but I have to give him credit for how effectively he works, even in the lives of Christians.  His ultimate goal for all of us is to lead us to hell, but short of that, he labors tirelessly to make all of us less effective disciples than we ought to be.

In this effort, one of his primary tools is distraction.  He would prefer to distract us with the worries and cares of life, but if he can’t do that, he will use even the smaller commandments of God’s law.  This is what he did with the Pharisees.  They got so caught up in the details of the law that they forgot justice, mercy, and faithfulness. 

This certainly can happen to us, so what I’d like to do this evening is to examine the greatest commandment of all:  love.  A couple of weeks ago, Landon suggested that I ought to preach on 1 John 5:3, but as I looked at the context, I decided there were things there that I had to tie in too.  As part of our yearly focus on living for Jesus, then, let’s consider living God’s love.

In the passage that we’re going to be looking at, which stretches from the end of 1 John 4 through the beginning of 1 John 5, I see three major themes.  The first of these is LOVE AND FEAR.  Look at 1 John 4:16-18.  The first thing that we learn in this context is how essential love is to our spiritual lives.  John tells us that if we remain in love, God remains in us, and we remain in God.  Here’s what I think this is saying:  If we live lives that are filled with love, our actions show God to those around us, and we remain in fellowship with Him.  On the other hand, if we do not remain in love, we fail to glorify Him, and we stray from Him. 

John then goes on to point to two consequences of remaining in love:  confidence in the day of judgment and casting out fear.  The first calls us to a global let’s-be-honest check.  Right now, considering my life as a whole, does my life express God’s love, or does it express selfishness?  If the former, we can be easy in our minds about the state of our souls.  If the latter, we desperately need to change!

Finally, let’s consider the interplay between love and fear, not only at the judgment, but throughout our lives as well.  Often, we think of love and hatred as opposites, but John wants us to understand that love and fear are too.  Love values others, but fear values the self.  As a result, the devil is able to use fear to lead us to harm others in ways that we think protect us.  I think this is evident in the news right now.  As fear increases, evildoing does too.  In God, though, we don’t have to be afraid.  He will protect us, so His love frees us to love others.

This takes us to our second main theme, the relationship between LOVE AND THE BRETHREN.  Here, let’s read 1 John 4:19-5:1.  I said that the previous section had a let’s-be-honest check.  I think this one is a check on our honesty.  It’s very easy to blithely say that we live a life filled with love, but actually living that love-filled life is not easy!

John zeroes in on one litmus test:  our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Sad to say, the relationships between brethren are not always marked by unfailing love.  All of us who have been Christians for very long have seen brethren get into it.  Maybe we’ve been the brethren who have gotten into it!

Regardless, all of us need to pay attention here.  All of us claim to love God.  That’s why we’re here tonight.  However, John tells us that if we make that claim but don’t love our brother, we are lying, we are making loving God impossible, we are breaking God’s commandments, and we are rejecting His spiritual family.  Basically, failing to love other Christians is a spiritual train wreck.

This tells us, then, that if we want to go to heaven, we have to get down there in the mud and do the backbreaking, heartbreaking work of loving one another.  The problems don’t come when we’re dealing with Christians who are lovable.  As Jesus said, even the sinners and tax collectors love people who treat them well. 

Instead, this gets difficult when we are faced with Christians who do not behave well and are not particularly lovable.  Because the devil is hard at work, this happens all the time.  Our brothers and sisters frequently say offensive things, gossip, behave rudely, and generally make nuisances of themselves!

Even then, we still are called to love them.  We must not become angry or hateful ourselves.  We must not return evil for evil.  We must put on a heart of patience, compassion, and kindness.  By our willingness to imitate the perfect love of God, we show our love for Him.

Finally, let’s contemplate LOVE AND OBEDIENCE.  Our reading for the day concludes in 1 John 5:2-3.  We see 1 John 5:3 quoted by itself a lot as a way of emphasizing the importance of obedience.  I don’t think that’s a misuse of the passage, exactly.  Indeed, I think it generally is true that love for God and commandment-keeping go together.  You don’t have commandment-keeping without love for God, and you don’t have love for God without commandment-keeping.

However, contextually, there’s more going on than simply that.  V. 3 isn’t just an unconnected proverb floating in space.  Instead, when we look at v. 2, we see that it ties back to the discussion of loving God’s children.  This is another honesty check.  Just as we show that we love God by loving His children, we show that we love His children by keeping His commandments, especially with respect to them.

Here too, it’s easy to see how we go astray.  Plenty of Christians duck the force of the end of chapter 4 by insisting that they do love other Christians, really they do!  However, once you start comparing what they’re doing to other Christians to their claim of love, a different picture emerges. 

They say that they love other Christians, but they get in arguments with other Christians all the time.  They say that they love other Christians, but they are rude and abrasive in what they say to them.  They say that they love other Christians, but they insist on getting their own way instead of allowing other Christians to have theirs.

It may be that at this point in the sermon, we’ve got this little smile on our faces, and we’re thinking of names of brethren who were like that.  Let me tell you what, brethren:  we need to be thinking of our own name.  I think it’s fair to conclude from John’s words here that godliness is most difficult within our own family and within our own congregation.  If we will struggle with anything, we will struggle with this.  We need to be vigilant against the appearance of sin in our hearts and our lives, and we need to dedicate ourselves to living out the love of God with respect to one another.

Reclaiming John 10:28

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

It is sad but true that often, the most emphatic refutation of doctrinal error is another error.  Consider, for instance, Martin Luther’s reaction to the Renaissance Catholic practice of selling indulgences.  He objected, and rightly so, to the notion that we could purchase our salvation, whether with money or with righteous actions. 

However, he concluded that only faith, apart from any action whatsoever, is all that is necessary for salvation.  That’s no more correct than the sale of indulgences is!  In their turn, some brethren, in response to faith-only salvation, have taught that we earn our way to heaven, which also is not true.  And so the cycle continues.

I believe a similar process is at work in the way that many Christians handle John 10:28.  This is a famous Calvinist proof text.  They argue that it teaches the doctrine of eternal security, that once someone is saved, it is impossible for them to fall away.  Most in the churches of Christ have significant problems with this claim and point to the host of passages that imply or state explicitly that falling away is possible.

However, in the course of so doing, they strip the passage of much of its comfort.  They spend so much time dwelling on what the text doesn’t mean (“Yes, we can fall away!  See Hebrews 6:4-8.”) that they minimize what it does mean.  As a result of this and similar exegetical failures, countless Christians are uncertain of their salvation and live in fear that they have fallen away without realizing it.

The solution to the problem is to focus less on Calvinism and to focus more on the words of Christ.  John 10:28 isn’t a disconnected proverb.  Instead, it’s part of an argument, and all we have to do is read one verse up to see who the “they” 10:28 is.  According to 10:27, Jesus is talking about the sheep who hear His voice and follow Him.  Those are the sheep who cannot be snatched out of His hand.  He makes no promises concerning the sheep who have stopped listening and following.

Thus, if we want to know whether the guarantee of 10:28 applies to us, all we have to do is ask whether we have met the conditions of 10:27.  Do we hear His voice?  This does not demand perfect comprehension of us, because no one understands God’s revelation perfectly.  It does require, though, that we are interested in His voice and are seeking to understand it.

Second, do we follow Him?  This does not require perfect obedience.  As we learn in 1 John 1, even those who walk in the light still sin.  It does mean, though, that in the overall course of our lives, we are striving to be obedient.

If these things are true of us, guess what?  We’re safe!  Jesus has promised to protect us, not because we’re perfect (if we were, we wouldn’t need Him) but because we aren’t.  So long as we are with our Shepherd, the devil cannot snatch us out of His hand. 

Of course, if we abandon our Shepherd, we place ourselves in deadly danger.  However, by definition, that’s what faithful Christians haven’t done.  So long as we remain faithful, then, we can be assured of inheriting eternal life, not because of ourselves, but because of the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. 

Blessings from COVID-19

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Since the beginning of this year, the coronavirus has dominated the news and our attention like no other story in my lifetime.  I suspect we probably haven’t seen an event this consequential since World War II.  The problems brought by the pandemic are obvious:  serious illness, death, economic disruption, civil disorder, and brethren arguing endlessly about masks on Facebook.

However, even though God, for reasons of His own, periodically allows the devil to wreak havoc, this still is God’s world, not Satan’s.  Thus, every tragedy or disaster we encounter has something in it that we can learn from and use to grow spiritually.  COVID-19 is no different.  I don’t claim to know the purposes of God, but I do know that He always has a purpose, and the arc of history always will bend toward His glory.

Last week, Rufus suggested, and I agree, that we ought to consider how we should be learning and growing through the pandemic.  This morning, then, let’s examine at least some of the blessings we have received from COVID-19.

The first of these is that WE ARE HUMBLED.  Look at the words of David in Psalm 39:3-7.  As a society, the United States tells lots of lies to itself, but the biggest probably is the lie of our own sufficiency.  We live in the country of the American dream and the self-made man.  According to our national narrative, it’s possible for any of us, using our own abilities, to ensure happiness for ourselves forever.

Of course, this is not true, but we go to great lengths to preserve the myth.  Everything from Botox injections to nursing homes works together to hide the reality of aging and death from us.  The store shelves always are full, the credit card always swipes, and the party never ends.

Well, 2020 has been the year the party ended.  Death is an inescapable feature of the national conversation.  A few months ago, those store shelves didn’t have any toilet paper on them.  We laugh about it now, but I think all of us know in some corner of our minds that next month it could be bread and beans and rice that aren’t around.  Our brightest political and scientific minds have tried to solve our problems, and they have failed to protect us.

In short, we have been stripped of our illusions of self-sufficiency.  That’s why, I think, there’s an undertone of terror in the nightly news reports.  People have spent their lives trusting in themselves, and now they have realized that they can’t.

I think David’s conclusion in v. 7 has to be ours.  Because our lives are so short and fragile, because we are so powerless, we must put our hope in God and wait for Him.  That’s a hard realization for many.  When you bow before your Creator, you also must admit that He has the right to tell you what to do.  That doesn’t sound as much fun as a life of sin and selfish pleasure!  Nonetheless, in this time, it is plain to see that hoping in anything else or anyone else is vain.

Second, the coronavirus has DRAWN US CLOSER TOGETHER.  Consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22.  Now, I recognize it sounds weird to say that this is a time of greater closeness in the church when our Sunday morning attendance is 2/3 of what it was, but I think that when all this finishes shaking out, that’s how things will be.  I fear that there will be some, not many, but some, who will fall away because of it, but I think the rest of us will be closer than we were before.

I was brought up by godly parents, and ever since I left home, I’ve been faithfully attending services someplace.  That means that the time of the lockdown a couple of months back was the longest time that I ever have spent without assembling with a congregation.  I recognize that I was better off than most—at least I got to go to the church building and see a few Christians! 

Nonetheless, the longer that time went on, the less I liked it.  I heard preaching and teaching.  I heard prayers.  I partook of the Lord’s Supper.  However, I wasn’t doing those things with all my brothers and sisters, and even though online services were the best we could do, it felt like the difference between eating a meal and pretending to eat off an empty plate.  It didn’t satisfy me.  Indeed, I know that right now there still are many members here who are staying at home because of health concerns, who are still trying to do the best they can with empty-plate Christianity.

When this time is over, none of us should forget that feeling.  Whenever we start taking our brethren for granted, we should recall 2020 to our minds and remind ourselves how vital they are in our spiritual lives.  Even now, there are things I want to do that I don’t feel like I should do.  I don’t think it’s wise to try to pack 30 people into our home to study right now, and I miss that too.  The fellowship that we have here is priceless, and I think God has used the virus to show us how priceless it is.

Finally, I think the events of this year should have RENEWED OUR SENSE OF MISSION.  I couldn’t put that mission any better than Jesus did in Matthew 5:14-16.  We are the light of the world.  Through our good works, we are supposed to shine so that others will glorify God.  We must remember too that the greater the darkness becomes, the more brightly our lights will shine.

Times are hard now, and they’re going to be harder in the future.  There are lots of hurting people out there, and there are going to be more:  those who lost loved ones to the virus, those who lost jobs, those who suffered from these times of loneliness and isolation.  I don’t care who wins the election in November; no human being is going to be able to make all the pain go away.

We can’t solve everybody’s problems, but we can solve the problems that are before us.  We can be generous to the poor and hungry.  We can comfort the bereaved and the lonely.  We can be the visible sign of the compassion of Christ.

Most of all, though, we can point those around us to God.  Let’s be honest, brethren.  The answers that the world has been dishing out to the coronavirus problem haven’t been very good, and increasingly, people with eyes to see will start looking for different answers. 

We have answers.  We have very good answers.  Indeed, we have the only possible answers.  The troubles of our time are too big for anybody but God.  When we find people who are humbled and mourning, with compassion and love, we can lead them to Him. 

I think it’s probably true that 2020 will prove to be a transformational year in the history of our country.  I don’t know what the future will look like, but I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that it will prove to be a time of spiritual transformation, a third Great Awakening.  It may well be that never again in our lives will we have an opportunity like this one.  Let’s take advantage of it!

Blindness and Sin

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

John 9:39-41 contains one of the more enigmatic exchanges in the Bible.  In the rest of the Bible, blindness (either literal or metaphorical) is a bad thing.  When Jesus calls the Pharisees “blind guides” in Matthew 23:16, He is not complimenting them!  However, in John 9, blindness (at least initially) is a good thing.

The conversation begins in v. 39, when Jesus reveals that one of His works is vision transformation.  Through Him, those who are blind will see, spiritual versions of the blind man He just physically healed, but, provocatively, those who can see will become blind.

The Pharisees who are with Him don’t like the sound of this.  They believe that, spiritually speaking, they are among the people who can see.  They’ve got it all figured out.  However, Jesus’ words predict an ominous fate for them.  They don’t like that idea, so they press Jesus for a less offensive clarification.  When You said that people who see will become blind, Jesus, You weren’t talking about us, right???

However, Jesus doubles down with a paradox.  He tells them that if they were blind—clueless, lost in darkness—they would have no sin.  However, because they claim to be spiritually sighted, their sin remains.

Man!  What’s a poor self-confident spiritual elitist to do?

Jesus’ implied answer is “Repent!”  The Pharisees thought they had it all figured out, but they didn’t.  They thought they were righteous, but they weren’t.  The kind of sight they had wasn’t true spiritual vision.  It was self-delusion. 

What’s more, their form of spiritual blindness was even more dangerous than the blindness of the tax collector or the prostitute.  The latter at least could come to an awareness that they needed help from Jesus.  They didn’t think they saw.  The Pharisees, however, believed that they saw already, so they never would seek help for a problem they refused to acknowledge

It's easy for us to think of outsiders we know who have this problem.  The self-assured member of a denomination who refuses baptism for the forgiveness of sins because he already “got saved” certainly is present in this passage.  If you think you see already, your sin remains.

However, it is much more difficult for us to consider ourselves in the mirror that Jesus holds up.  We know what the Bible says.  We know and follow the truth ourselves.  We see, right?

Of course, the Pharisees gave the same answer for the same reason.  They knew Torah.  They devoted themselves to keeping the Law.  The problem wasn’t the things they saw.  It was the things they didn’t—their hypocrisy, their greed, their arrogance, and their hard-heartedness.

The same is true for us.  The most dangerous sins in our lives aren’t the ones we see.  They are the ones we don’t see, the Scriptures we gloss over, the evil actions we excuse in our hearts.  The problem is the dark corners of our lives where we are blind.

Rather than priding ourselves on our vision, we continually must humble ourselves before the Lord because of our blindness.  We must seek ever greater clarity of vision, but most of all, we must seek mercy from the God who helps us when we cannot help ourselves.  Our hope never can be in our own clear sight.  It must be that He sees us clearly yet loves us regardless.

Singleness in the Church

Thursday, July 30, 2020

As Bible students, one of our greatest challenges is separating what the Bible says from what we think the Bible says because of 200 years of Restoration tradition.  Often, the problem is not so much one of doctrine as one of emphasis.  Because we focus on one aspect of truth over another, we distort the overall picture.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to familial relationships.  Marriage and the family is not a major theme of Scripture.  You have the divorce passages in the gospels, the early part of 1 Corinthians 7, and instructions on Christian submission in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter.  That’s about it.

Nonetheless, marriage and the family is one of the major themes of preaching and teaching in churches of Christ.  We have gospel meetings, marriage-enrichment classes, books, and outside seminars galore!  With the aid of pop psychology, those few texts are inflated into one of the most important themes of the faith. 

By contrast, we take the opposite approach to 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, a text about singleness that is longer than any of those texts about marriage.  The way most brethren teach it, the most important thing in the context is the three words, “the present distress”.  They allow us to gloss over Paul’s comments about the spiritual advantages that the unmarried have, perhaps because we’re worried about sounding like we’re endorsing a celibate priesthood.

However, all of this creates in the minds of brethren the misconception that to be a Christian, you really ought to be married, and if you aren’t married (especially if you’re a woman), you’re a second-class Christian.  This has pernicious effects.  It certainly makes single Christians (a numerous tribe) feel inadequate, and it most likely pushes people into marriage who should not be getting married.  Would there be so many troubled marriages in the church if we spent more time emphasizing singleness as an acceptable alternative?

Don’t get me wrong.  I am pro-marriage and indeed happily married.  However, I’m pro-single Christians too.  There are many reasons why they are where they are.  Some haven’t gotten married yet.  Others have been widowed.  Others have gotten divorced.  Still others don’t want to get married.  All of those states can be every bit as valid for the child of God as marriage is.

What’s more, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, single Christians are able to serve God with their undivided attention in a way that married Christians aren’t.  I love my wife and children, but being a godly husband and father takes a lot of time and effort!  Without those obligations, there are many ways in which I could serve my God, my brother, and my neighbor that I now can’t contemplate.

To my single brothers and sisters, then, I say:  Don’t regard singleness as the unhappy waiting room you sit in before your real life as a Christian begins.  Don’t feel like it condemns you to second-class Christianity. 

Instead, serve the Lord where you are with what you have.  Use your precious gift of time to glorify God.  Be eager to help in the church.  Be active in your community.  Seek God diligently by yourself.  Study.  Pray.  If you doubt the value of such quiet moments, ask a Christian mother with children under the age of five!

Most of all, trust God.  He did not create you to have a meaningless, pointless, empty existence.  Though it is not good for man to be alone, our greatest need is not for marriage.  It is for Him, and only He can fill that need.  I know people who have tried to make marriage fill the God-shaped hole.  On the other hand, I also know those who never married and dedicated themselves to Christ instead.  Guess who has lived a happier, more fulfilled life? 

In time, all marriages come to an end, but the Christian’s walk with God does not.  What matters most is not whether we are married or will be married or anything of the sort.  What matters most is whether we seek completion in Him. 

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