Messy People

I.      Introduction

Sometimes I read the bible and the message is so easy.  Just one God, honor your Ma and Pa, don’t take things that ain’t yours, that sort of thing.  Other times, the message is obscure and difficult to plow through.  Ever sat down to read the bible and read it cover to cover?  How many of us got stuck in the begats, as in “Adam begat Seth, Seth begat Enos, and Kenan and Mahaleel and hundreds of other unpronounceable names?”

Today’s study sort of starts that way, the message in the Word seemed esoteric, and I’m not even sure what “esoteric” means.   For instance, here’s our first study verse for today in 2 Samuel 3:8 –

Then Abner was very angry over the words of Ish-bosheth and said, “Am I a dog’s head that belongs to Judah? Today I show kindness to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers and to his friends, and have not delivered you into the hands of David; and yet today you charge me with a guilt concerning the woman.

My first thought when I read this was, “what?”  But the key to understanding scripture is context, or as a pastor I heard put it, “location, location, location.”  I think we need some background before we can begin to understand this verse.

II.      Background of Messy People: David

So just in this first verse, I see at least 4 people discussed by name.  There’s Abner, Ish-bosheth, Saul, and David.  There’s also a woman mentioned, as well as brothers and friends of Saul.  I read ahead over the next several scripture verses – sometimes I do that when I’m studying – and there are several more people that will be mentioned later.  There’s another woman named Michal, a man named Paltiel the son of Laish.  And there’s at least two names that aren’t mentioned, Jonathan and Joab, that influence the events in today’s scripture. 

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Of all the names listed, David is probably the most familiar.  He’s also one of the most complicated.  David was a horrible failure and David was a wonderful success.  David committed murder in his later years and had an affair with Bathsheba.  And yet, David was described as a man after God’s own heart.  Sometimes when I read stories on David, I wonder what I’m missing. 

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But I think a key to understanding David is to recognize the sinner in all of us.  Are we a people after God’s own heart?  We might look at our own lives and say, well, no, It doesn’t look like I’m not a man after God’s own heart.  Look at all the things I’ve done that are bad.  If they could see who I really am, they would know me for what I am.  A sinner.  Just like David.

But God teaches us that what is important is not so much what we do, but what’s inside.  Back in 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel was seeking a king over Israel.  The Lord sent him to Bethlehem because the Lord had selected a son of Jesse to be king.  When Samuel got there, he saw Jesse’s son Eliab who apparently looked like Thor and said, “whoa…

“Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord answered in verse 7,

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Slide4And there’s the answer.  David’s heart, despite his sinful nature, was always pointed at the Lord.  When confronted about his sin, David didn’t just confess his sins, he repented and went to the Lord for forgiveness.  When faced with overwhelming odds like when he faced Goliath the giant, David trusted in the Lord.  David meditated on God’s word and wrote over half of the Psalms.

       III.      Background of Messy People: Saul

So the Lord chose David to be king of Israel, but like I said, people are messy.  There was already a king in Israel, his name was Saul.  Saul also demonstrated successes and failures like David, but there was a big difference.  Even when Saul knew what the Lord’s will was, he often would do something else.  Including trying to kill David because of Saul’s jealousy. 

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Saul had 4 sons and 2 daughters.  Of the sons, Jonathan was the oldest; then came Abinadab, Malchishua and Ish-bosheth.  There’s some confusion that in 2 Samuel 21:11, 7 sons of Samuel are put to death, but those include grandchildren because at least one of them was a son of Jonathan.  And the two daughters, Merab and Michal.

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Saul’s jealousy was complicated; he seemed to alternate between loving David as a son and trying to kill David as an enemy.  David was close to Saul’s family; David’s best friend as a child was Jonathan, and Saul’s daughter Michal was in love with David.  In 1 Samuel 18:17, Saul promised to give his oldest daughter Merab to David as a prize for killing Saul’s enemies.  But Saul double crossed David and gave Merab to some other man. 

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But since Saul was jealous of David and knowing David was in love with the younger daughter Michal, Saul promised David he could have Michal if David attacked the Philistines.  Saul was hoping David would be killed in the attack, but David won, so Saul had to give Michal to David for his wife.

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Saul tried to kill David outright at this point, but David’s wife Michal helped David escape.  That apparently made Saul mad, David not dying like he was supposed to, escaping with the help of his daughter.  Saul declares the marriage null and void, then Saul then gave Michal to different man, and Michal was married to Paltiel, son of Laish.

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Despite Saul trying to kill him, David didn’t retaliate against Saul.  If David was aware of the New Testament (which he wasn’t), he might have considered this verse, Romans 13:1-2,

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.

David may have been selected by God to be king, but David respected the office of King Saul.  David spent years hiding in deserts and caves while Saul hunted him.  One of my favorite stories about David is in 1 Samuel 24.  Saul is hunting David, and had to stop and tinkle.  So he went into a cave, but David was already hiding there.    While Saul is tinkling in a corner, David sneaks up and cuts a corner off of Saul’s robe to prove that David could have killed Saul but didn’t.  What I find funny about that story is that David feels guilty about it.  He should have never cut a piece of garment off of the king’s robe, that’s just wrong, even if the king is trying to kill him.

David had another chance to kill Saul in 1 Samuel 26.  Saul is hunting David, again, but Saul gets tired, so that night Saul lays down to sleep, but he has a bodyguard, Saul’s cousin Abner.  David sneaks into Saul’s camp, finds Saul sleeping next to a spear.  He could have easily killed Saul with Saul’s own spear, but instead David takes the spear, runs over to the next hill and taunts the bodyguard.  “Hey Abner!  Is that how you guard your king?  I could have killed him, but instead, I have his spear!  Neener neener neener!”

This goes on for many years, Saul hunting David and David hiding, but Saul has another set of enemies, the Philistines, and there’s a big battle brewing between Saul and the Philistines at Mount Gilboa.  Saul of course seeks spiritual advice, but Saul believes the Lord has stopped talking to Saul, probably because Saul is trying to kill the Lord’s anointed king, David.  So Saul consults a witch instead.  I’m going to suggest that if for some reason you cannot hear the Lord speaking to you, then spend time in the Word until you do.  Don’t consult a witch, ok?  In fact, let’s take a quick look at 1 Chronicles 10:13-14,

Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.

Slide24So, don’t consult a witch, ok? 

 IV.      Background of Messy People: Abner and Ish-Bosheth

So Saul is dead, and David is finally king, right?  I told you people are messy.  Abner, Saul’s cousin and bodyguard, is very well-connected.  David becomes king over the tribe of Judah, but Abner takes Saul’s remaining son Ish-bosheth, and makes Ish-bosheth king.  Abner is able to get the other 11 tribes to unite around Ish-bosheth.  And I wish Ish-bosheth had an easier name to pronounce because saying Ish-bosheth several times in a row is a real tongue-twister.

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Actually, Ish-bosheth does have another name.   When Ish-bosheth was born, his name was Eshba’al which means “Man of the Lord.”)  Here’s a rabbit hole we’re going to follow for just a wee little bit: the definition of “ba’al” means “lord,” or alternatively “master” or “husband.”  The word had been around in early Hebrew as a generic term, but in later years the Canaanites started using “Ba’al” as the proper name of their pagan god.  The Philistines eventually started worshipping Ba’al but changed his name to Beelzebub.  In later Old Testament scripture, “Beelzebub” became known as a major demon, and Christians know the name Beelzebub as another name for the prince of demons.  In the year 1818, Jacques Auguste Simon Collin de Plancy wrote a book called “Dictionnaire Infernal” or a book on demonology who described Beelzebub as having the ability to fly.  He then became known as “The Lord of the Flyers,” or later, “The Lord of the Flies.”

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Anyway, yuck.  That’s enough of that rabbit trail.  Back to Eshba’al, Saul’s remaining son established by Abner as king over 11 tribes of Israel, the Northern Kingdom couldn’t bear to call him Eshba’al because it sounded like a profanity, being ruled by man of demons.  So they changed his name to Ish-bosheth which translates as “man of shame.”  Not exactly a flattering name, “man of shame,” but better than sharing the name of a demon.

Anyway, Ish-bosheth was sort of a puppet king over 11 tribes of Israel, controlled by Abner, and between them continued to wage war against David, the king of Judah.

I think they got tired of fighting so often.  In 2 Samuel 2, Abner’s men meet David’s men, led by David’s captain named Joab, at the pool of Gibeon, and they decide rather than everybody fight, each side would select 12 people to fight each other.  It says in 2 Samuel 2:16,

Each one of them seized his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side; so they fell down together.

It sounds to me like everybody died, but commentaries say that David’s captain Joab won the battle.  Abner and his men run away, and David’s men start to chase.  Joab has a brother named Asahel who spots Abner and chases him, but when he catches up to Abner, Abner abruptly stops and kills Asahel with a spear.  Joab is inconsolable and vows to kill Abner some day, but for now, Abner escapes back to safety.  These two sides fight for the next 2 years with David’s army generally winning and Abner’s side generally losing.

So Abner gets back to Ish-bosheth, and Ish-bosheth makes an accusation.  The old dead king Saul, Ish-bosheth’s father, had a concubine named Rizpah.  Apparently Rizpah belongs to Ish-bosheth now, but Ish-bosheth accuses Abner of having an affair with Rizpah.  All of this background information just to bring us to the first scripture we’re supposed to study today, 2 Samuel 3:8 which we looked at earlier:

Then Abner was very angry over the words of Ish-bosheth and said, “Am I a dog’s head that belongs to Judah? Today I show kindness to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers and to his friends, and have not delivered you into the hands of David; and yet today you charge me with a guilt concerning the woman.

Slide2Ah, now I have a better understanding of what’s going on.  Location, location, location.  Abner has spent his life playing political games, first with Saul and then propping up Ish-bosheth as the so-called king.  And this is how Ish-bosheth repays him, by accusing Abner of having an affair with Rizpah the concubine?  Abner is furious. 

I re-read this scripture several times and couldn’t help but notice Abner said he was innocent of the charges.  He’s just mad that he’s been accused.  In fact, Abner is so mad, he tells Ish-bosheth that he’s going to give the 11 tribes of Israel to David so David can finally be the king over all Israel, just like the Lord said he would. 

And Ish-bosheth is too scared to say anything.  What could he say?  Abner had all the power, Ish-bosheth was just a puppet.

             V.      Background of Messy People: David and Michal

So Abner goes to David and tells David, “hey, let’s stop fighting.  You agree not to kill me, and I’ll agree to give you the rest of Israel.”  David goes, “hmmm…. Let me think.”

And David agrees, on one additional condition.  Remember Michal?  Saul’s youngest daughter than Saul gave to David for his wife, then took Michal away and gave to another man named Paltiel?  David wants her back.  Abner can come work for David, and all David wants is all of Israel and his wife Michal back.

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Abner agrees.  I mean, it’s not like Abner is giving away anything of his own, right?  David sends a message to Ish-bosheth, and without Abner telling him what to do, Ish-bosheth doesn’t know what else to do.  Of course David can have Michal.  I mean, it’s not like Ish-bosheth is giving away anything of his own, right?  2 Samuel 3:15-16,

Ish-bosheth sent and took her from her husband, from Paltiel the son of Laish.  But her husband went with her, weeping as he went, and followed her as far as Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, “Go, return.” So he returned.

Aww. People can be pretty messy.  David might have loved Michal, but Michal had a new husband, and Paltiel loved her very much and followed her like a lovesick puppy until Abner stopped him and told Paltiel to go back home.

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All David’s conditions are met, Abner has surrendered, David has Michal back as his wife, and our study scripture for today ends in 2 Samuel 3:20-21a,

Then Abner and twenty men with him came to David at Hebron. And David made a feast for Abner and the men who were with him.  Abner said to David, “Let me arise and go and gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may be king over all that your soul desires.”

And David finally becomes king of all Israel, fulfilling the Lord’s selection as king.  I thought this was kind of a weird spot to end or story today, though.  Most soap operas continue week after week after week, but we get about 30 minutes, and we have a lot of unanswered questions.  Did they all live happily ever after?

          VI.      They All Lived Happily Ever After.  Not.

Short answer:  No.  Not really.

Michal was not happy to be returned to David.  In the years they were apart, David wasn’t exactly pining away for her.  During the years they were separated, David took a 2nd wife and then a 3rd, each time making political marriages to secure money and supplies.  While David was living in the dessert, Michal’s affection for David began to fade.  When Abner sent for he and gave her back to David, Michal pleaded to stay with Paltiel, the lovesick puppy. 

By all accounts, Michal and David never regained intimacy; the scripture says that Michal remained childless.  The last time we hear about Michal is after she and David fight when the Ark of the Covenant is brought back into Jerusalem, and scripture doesn’t mention her again.

Abner probably had aspirations of becoming a powerful figure under David, but those aspirations were unfulfilled.  Joab, David’s captain, had been away during this time, but when he returns and finds Abner at the city gate immediately kills Abner in revenge for killing Joab’s brother Asahel.

Joab stayed in Israel for many many years, serving King David, until later in David’s life.  David’s son Solomon is set to inherit the title of King from his father David, but Joab offers his allegiance to David’s oldest son Adonijah and eventually flees, assassinated years later and buried somewhere in the wilderness.

Ish-bosheth was assassinated shortly by two of his own army captains shortly after Abner gave away Israel to David.  David honored Ish-bosheth as a king and had him buried in Abner’s grave.

       VII.      Conclusion

There are lots of little lessons in todays scripture.  Perhaps you saw something in one of those characters that resonated with you.  Broken dreams of love.  Aspirations of power to rule.  Revenge against those who hurt you.  I wanted to focus just on the history today, just to lay a groundwork of how messy people can be. 

Probably what I found so compelling is that everybody was messy, everybody had problems, everybody made mistakes.  And yet, our of all thes dysfunctional people, David was considered a man after God’s own heart. 

And it occurred to me that a good summary could probably be the same thing the Lord told the prophet Samuel when David was selected over his older brother Eliab.  People look at what we say and what we do.  The Lord look at our heart.  It doesn’t matter if we succeed or fail, the Lord loves us for who He created.

David did indeed become king of all Israel.  David begat Solomon, and then a great many begats occurred in Matthew chapter 1 until approximately 1000 years later, our Lord Jesus Christ was born to show us how non-messy people are supposed to live.  And He has invited us to invite Him in, so that we are not defined by our own failures, but by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ who lives within us.

I don’t know if I’m as messy as David or Abner or Michal.  I know I make my own messy mistakes.  But praise be to Jesus that I’m not defined by what I made, but by what He made.

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David was a man after God’s own heart, and received an earthly crown.  If we seek Jesus, we too receive a crown.  Scripture mentions the joy of receiving these crowns, the Crown of Righteousness, the Crown of Victory, the Crown of Life, the Crown of Glory, the Crown of Rejoicing.  In the times yet to come, the book of Revelation tells us we joyfully throw these crowns at the feet of Jesus when we all get to heaven.

When we all get to heaven

What a day of rejoicing that will be

When we all see Jesus

We’ll sing and shout the victory

To God be the glory.  Amen.

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Finding Strength

             I.      Introduction

We continue this week in our study of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, and this week we will focus on 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 –

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The first word is “therefore,” and I’ve heard it said that when you see “therefore,” you must ask yourself what it’s there for.  Paul is referring to his amazing experiences, both before and after Christ.

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I think we can all agree that Paul was such an influential Christian.  The letters he wrote contained amazing insights, Paul met Jesus personally on the road to Damascus.  He performed signs, wonders and miracles, and we know that because in verse 12, Paul says he demonstrated signs, wonders and miracles.  And if Paul is speaking about himself in verses 2 onward, Paul visited heaven itself and was witness to a great many more things he cannot express to us.

In fact, here’s a picture of Paul.  See that halo around his head?  You don’t get those by being a pretty good person.  Those were only given out as prizes at the Best Christian competitions in the Middle Ages.

 

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But seriously, Paul says in our first verse today that he received a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited.  What was this thorn?

          II.      The Thorn in the Flesh

There are many theories about this thorn.  Medieval theologians believed it represented Paul’s earthly lusts.  Still others have theorized that Paul had a speech impediment.  One theory I find plausible is a pain in the eye, an eye inflammation.  Paul was literally blinded on the road to Damascus.  You can find support for this position in Paul’s letter to the Galatians; in Galatians 4:13-15 Paul writes

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.

And signs the letter in Galatians 6:11,

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

Did Paul have difficulty in his vision?  It’s possible.  It’s also possible, though not likely, it was an actual thorn.  I know a bible study teacher in Sugar Land that was hospitalized about two months ago with sporotrichosis, it’s an infection in the skin caused by a puncture by a rose thorn.  This infection can spread to joints, the lungs, the lymph nodes, even the brain.  The teacher I know was hospitalized 3 days because of a thorn.

Still others hypothesize Paul’s metaphorical thorn in his side was certain people causing him grief.  There is good rationale for this hypothesis.  Did you know that “thorn in your side” has biblical origins?  In Numbers 33:55 and Judges 2:3 (King James version) the Lord says,

Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.

This phrase is used to describe adversaries but never used to describe illness or pain.  Paul had issues with people causing him troubles, especially Alexander the coppersmith, who Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:14 caused Paul “a great deal of harm.”  Paul may have been referring to Paul’s opponents who confused the message and opposed Paul’s efforts to spread the good news.

So what was this thorn?  We will never know this side of heaven.  Whatever this thorn was, Paul goes on to describe this thorn as a “messenger of Satan.”  Whether physical, emotional, social, spiritual, it’s clear that Paul’s thorn is from the devil with evil intent, and despite Paul praying to the Lord three times to remove it, the Lord allows it to remain in Paul’s life.

       III.      Purpose of the Thorn

The Lord answers prayers, does He not?  If we’re doing good things for the Lord or for the church like Paul was doing, that’s the definition of being in God’s will and so the Lord should always answer prayers, shouldn’t He?  Shouldn’t the Lord do what we tell Him to do?

There’s a whole lot of pride in a statement like that.  God doesn’t bend to our will, oh no.  God is sovereign and perfect and He is executing His plan, not ours.

Paul had a great many reasons to be full of pride.  Before Paul became a Christian, he was an amazing Jew both by birth and by works.  He lists many of them in Philippians 3:4b-6,

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more:  circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

And then Paul had one of the most amazing testimonies a Christian could have, beginning with meeting Christ Himself on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:3-5,

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”  And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.

 

Paul had a direct word from God at least 6 more time mentioned in scripture, in Jerusalem (twice, Acts 22:17-21, Acts 23:11), At Troas (Acts 16:8-10), in Corinth (Acts 18:9-11), and on his journey to Rome (Acts 27:22-25), and Paul’s vision of Paradise here in our book today, 2 Corinthians 12 verses 1-6.Slide9

Paul had a lot of reasons to feel like he was an important person, an important Christian.  And the early, church, too, had every reason to look at Paul as an awesome person.  He was awesome, and everybody should know it.  Right?

But Paul received a “messenger from Satan,” this thorn in the flesh.  This messenger, this thorn, “buffeted” Paul, it beat him up.  No doubt this thorn from Satan was intended to hurt Paul and derail his mission, to keep people from hearing the good news. 

Why did Paul receive this messenger from Satan?  To bring him humility.  It says in 2 Corinthians 12:7,

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me — to keep me from exalting myself!

Paul says that without the thorn, he’d exalt himself.  He’d praise himself.  Look at me, look at what great work I’m doing for the Lord.  But the thorn kept him grounded in the Lord’s will.  Paul isn’t awesome after all.  He can’t remove a simple thorn.

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Pride exalts us.  Pride tells us that we don’t need God, we can do anything under our own power.  And when we do things under our own power, we pat ourselves on the back and say, “job well done.”  The glory that belongs to the Lord, well, we decided we’re going to keep it for ourselves.  We deserve it.

But God won’t use people full of pride.  God wants people that will humble themselves unto the Lord.  Paul’s thorn reminded Paul that Paul wasn’t God.  Paul was just… Paul.  With a thorn.

          IV.      Paul’s Reaction to the Thorn

Our scripture says in 2 Corinthians 12:8,

Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.

Raise your hand if God has answered every prayer you’ve had with a “yes.”

God doesn’t always answer prayers the way we want.  In fact, in many cases, I know why God doesn’t answer me, it’s because I’m praying for God to change somebody else.  I’m fine, they’re the problem.

Some problems in our life are our own doing, but many times these problems in our life are often mischief or evil from the devil.  1 Peter 5:8 says,

Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

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The devil is not omnipotent, he is not all-powerful, he cannot win any battle with God.  But God allows Satan to mess with us, to interfere with us, to become a thorn in our side.  Why?  Often, just as with the case with Paul, it’s to keep us humble and reminded that our power is small, and God is big.  If we want to fight the devil on our own terms, we will lose.  We let God fight the devil through us, God will win every time. 

The rest of this verse says the same thing, that we need humility if we are going to let God fight these battles through us,

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.  Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

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We cannot do it on our own, but we forget so easily.  When things go right, we say, “look at me, look how great I’m doing!”  It’s when things go wrong that we say, “Lord, I need you.”

Azalea shared her testimony a few weeks back about being a diamond in God’s eyes, amazing testimony.  But I was thinking about the last lesson I taught about being clay in the potter’s hands.  How do I reconcile being a diamond and being a big blob of clay?  In one of the many ways God performs miracles in our life, we must be humble enough to let God shape and form us into a diamond.  If we resist, well, we can remain clay if we want.  God will give us our desire.

Paul says he prayed three times for the Lord to remove the thorn.  Do you know who else prayed three times for the Lord to do something?  Matthew 26:36 –

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

Three times Jesus prayed to the Lord to take away the cup from Him.  But Jesus also prayed in verse 39,

My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.

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God’s will is sovereign, God’s will be done.  When we pray, both Jesus and Paul prayed persistently, earnestly, specifically for something.   

             V.      Paul’s Reaction to the Lord’s Answer

And did the Lord answer Paul’s prayer?  Of course the Lord answered.  But like Jesus, Paul didn’t get the answer he wanted.   God’s answer to Paul was not, “here, let me help you with that thorn.”  God’s answer was in 2 Corinthians 12:9a,

My grace is sufficient for you.

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What can the world throw at us that God cannot overcome?  We complain about the problems in this world, but God has an answer.  He has a better place for us.  He sent His own son to die for everything we’ve ever done wrong or ever thought about doing wrong so that we may dwell forever in the house of the Lord.  We don’t have to earn it; God’s grace is freely available to those who believe.

What, then, is a thorn to us?  2 Corinthians 4:17,

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

A thorn is nothing compared to the grace of God.  God’s grace is sufficient.  God sacrificed everything He is because he loves us. 

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God’s answer to Paul was also,

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.

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God is there for us when we need Him.  But too often we think we don’t need Him.  We can do it on our own. 

I know I’m guilty sometimes of “saving” God as a last resort.  I can do this on my own, I don’t need to bother God about it. And when things go right, hey, I did it myself.  I didn’t need God after all. 

It’s when I can’t do it on my own that God demonstrates His power.  As a result, I find myself praying more and more, not just about the big things but about the little things.  And every time God answers, I can offer thanks and remember, “Every good gift comes from the Lord.” 

Paul prayed three times and didn’t get what he prayed for.   But He received something better.  2 Corinthians 12:9b-10 –

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul rejoiced.  When Paul is committed to rejoicing in the Lord, he can expect trials, tribulations, difficult times.  Many of those times challenge our understanding of God’s work in our life, and we want to respond in anger or sadness.  But Paul says if we can rejoice in unanswered prayers, then we are trusting that the Lord knows best for us. 

Everyone of us has gone through a trial, most of us more than one.  I shared part of my testimony a few months back about how on my own power I failed in marriage and in my weakness finally bowed my knee to God and told Him I was ready to follow Him instead of trying to drag Him around like a merit badge or “shown and tell”.  I was ready to honor Him and follow Him, and I needed His help to learn how to do that.  And that I saw miracle after miracle as God moved me overseas, taught me about the love of Christ, moved me back, and then restored my marriage.  I’ve thought often about unanswered prayers during that time, thinking at the time that if my prayers would have been answered, I’d have been a lot happier.

Or so I thought at the time.  Doing things God’s way brought more challenges, pain, tears.  But it also brought me far closer to Him as I learned to depend on Him instead of myself.  To do things God’s way instead of trying to fit God into a box I built for Him.  And during this journey, found more joy than I could imagine, bringing me closer to Him.

I know you’ve been through challenges.  Lost parents, children, siblings.  Lost a job, lost health.  And if you’re like me, you’ve found that depending on God because we realize we are weak has brought you even closer.

Knowing all that, make that same prayer again.  Pray for God to show us our weaknesses.  They say the hardest thing to pray for is patience because God will answer that prayer.  God will give you a reason to need patience.   But I say that prayer is easy compared to the lesson we learned today.  Pray for weakness.  Pray for God to bring us to our knees and show us His power in our lives.  When we are weak, then the we are strong with the power of Christ within us.  We can rejoice in our trials and tribulations because we know that God is at work in our lives.

          VI.      Conclusion

Our human nature urges us to show the world around us how strong we are, how fast we are, how smart we are, how rich we are.  It’s all about us and our human pride.

But pride in our own strength is ridiculous.  We aren’t strong.  We can’t move a mountain, we can’t calm a storm.  We can’t remove a thorn.  In our Christian spiritual walk, it’s a paradox that we do not get stronger.  We get weaker so that Christ may be demonstrated.  The more we rely on the Lord’s power instead of our own, the more we bring glory to the Lord instead of to us. 

Let’s look at our verses one last time:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

  • Verse 7: Protect me from my pride
  • Verse 8: Remind me to pray persistently
  • Verse 9a: Remind me of the grace You provide.  If your grace can save me from Hell, it can surely delivery me from temporary pain.
  • Verse 9b: Remind me that your power is perfected in my weakness.
  • Verse 10: Remind me of the proper perspective of Your strength and power.  Please Lord, teach me to be weak so that your power is demonstrated, for your power is unmatched.  When I am weak, then I am strong in you.

What are you struggling with?  What is your greatest challenge?  Are you trying to solve it under your own power?  Maybe it’s time to stop, breathe, and confess to the Lord that there is no power like His power. 

It’s time to stop telling God how big the storm is.  It’s time to start telling the storm how big our God is.

To God be the glory.  Amen.

In the Hands of the Potter

             I.      Introduction

We are continuing our study of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, and today’s scripture is 2 Corinthians 4.  It’s a simple topic.  It’s instructions on how to live our lives as Christians.  When I studied for this lesson, I began by thinking how entirely unworthy I am to give a lesson on how to live a life as a Christian.  Some of my sins I’ve shared with all of you, others are between me and God.  All of which makes me entirely unfit to give advice to other Christians.

My prayer to God when preparing for this lesson was, “please God, find something within me that you can use.  I surrender to you because I know I cannot do it on my own.”  And that might have been the whole lesson for today, “Find something within me that you can use.”

What was the purpose of the trials in my life, or the life of any Christian?  Isn’t the life of the Christian filled with love and happiness and the abundant life?  If God is good to His children, then why do we lose our jobs, lose our health, lose a loved one?  What is God doing with us, and how are we supposed to respond?

Since our scripture today begins with verse 1,

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.

I decided not to lose heart.  Continue with the ministry God has given me.   I know it’s a stretch, but that’s how I understood this verse.  I run into trouble when I study when I think the lesson has anything to do with me.  Sure, I bring in experiences and abilities that God has given me, but it’s not about my experiences or abilities, any more than if Chris taught this lesson it would be about Chris.  Or if Theresa taught, the lesson is about Theresa.  We’re in bible study, not Michael study.  Verse 5-6 of our lesson,

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

Slide4This is the purpose of our existence in this world.  Let the world see Christ within us.  Let me get out of the way and let the love of Christ be known.  Or as John the Baptist put it in the book of John, verse 3:30 –

“He must become greater; I must become less.”

Slide5So who am I to teach about Jesus?  Nobody.  Jesus is everything.  But God created me to have worth to Him and bring glory to God, and I’m thankful He has given me work to do.  Not that the work saves me or makes me a better Christian, but shines the light of Christ so that others may be drawn to Jesus.

          II.      Genesis 2:7: The Breath of Life

God created each and every one of us for a purpose, given each one of us spiritual gifts to use, and we are all here this morning because each of us has heard that voice and we are coming here to know God better.  God has been making people for His purpose since the beginning of time, starting in Genesis 2:7,

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.

Slide6God created man from dust of the ground.  Like the way a potter will begin making a vessel by beginning with dirt and water mixed together to form clay. 

After the potter has the clay he needs, the clay is ready to give instructions to the potter.  Or is that just me, trying to tell the potter what he is trying to make? 

Many of our struggles in life are the result of trying to tell the potter what to do.  I want God to make me something I’m not instead of me accepting who God made and using the tools He gave me.  I want God to listen to me, I know how to run my own life.  I know what’s best for me.  Don’t I?

Do you know how God answers me when I argue with Him over what’s best for me?  Jeremiah 18:5-6,

Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”

The almighty Lord is omniscient, omnipresent, and all powerful.  His will be done.  But he has the patience and the love to let us struggle until we realize it on our own.  And my struggle continues until I surrender, as it says in Isaiah 64:8 –

Yet you, Lord, are our Father.

We are the clay, you are the potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

When we examine ourselves and our own personal struggles, who are we trying to be?  The potter, or the clay?  Is Gold molding me, or am I trying to mold Him?

       III.      Jars of Clay

I read an article by a professional ceramic artist with a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art on the making of a ceramic vessel to understand the metaphor of being a “jar of clay,” and it was illuminating.  I want to share with you the process –

A.    Wedging

Slide9A ceramic artist, a potter, starts with a large block of clay and to cut a piece the right size and begin “wedging” it.  The unformed, unworked block of clay is full of lumps and air pockets and one cannot simple spin it into a beautiful work of art.  Wedging involves kneading the clay like dough, softening the lumps and letting the air bubbles work themselves out of the clay.  Before the clay can be placed on that spinning wheel, this wedging takes time, otherwise the clay is structurally unsound and full of imperfections.

You probably see where I’m going with this.  New Christians, selected by God, are first wedged by God.  On our own, our characters are shaped by our upbringing, our good and bad decisions and experiences.  God selects us as lumps of clay, just as we are, decisions and experiences and abilities and all, to be used for His purpose, but before He can begin to use us, he wedges us, kneading out the major imperfections and pockets of resistance.

It’s not punishment.  It’s not punishment any more than wedging the clay is somehow punishing the clay.  It’s just that we are being prepared for His use.  Remember when John the Baptist baptized Jesus?  Here is Matthew 3:16 – 17 –

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Do you think God the Father loved Jesus?  Read that last sentence again.  God loved Jesus and was well pleased with Him.  But you know what the very next verse says?  Matthew 4:1 –

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Every Christian is wedged and prepared for God’s purposes. 

B.    Centering

After the clay is wedged, plop, it’s thrown into the center of the potter’s wheel and the potter spins it in a process known as “centering.”  The potter adds water to the clay so that it glides easily through his fingers.  The spinning force tries to throw the clay off the spinning wheel, and the potter pushes the clay firmly back toward the center.  It’s important to get the clay perfect centered; this sets the foundation for all the remaining work on the clay.  If the clay isn’t centered, the vessel will be lopsided, or worse, topple completely.

Slide12Just like the clay, if we want to be used by God, we will allow Him to push us, center us in His will as we learn about God and build a foundation of knowledge.  When we are off-center, we can feel it, we feel lopsided and out of kilter, like things are going out of control.  That’s when we learn to be still and know that He is God.

C.     Creating the Form

Once centered, the potter decides the basic form.  For a vase, the potter pushes and pulls in just the right way to open the vessel up.  Both hands are constantly on the vessel, and opening up the center and pulling the walls up by constantly adding water. 

Slide13Like a vase, God begins to pull and push us with His tender hands constantly on us, shaping us to be the beautiful work He created.  He opens us up, fills us with the Holy Spirit, and pulls up the walls so our shape reaches up toward our maker.

Does the vase argue?  Of course it does.  “I don’t want to be a vase.  I want to be a bicycle.  No wait, I want to be a unicorn.  I want to be unique so people will notice me.  I want a big house and a loving family and lots of money and a great job that pays me too much and has 50 weeks of vacation every year.  And a boat.  I want to be a boat.”

Slide14God says, I designed you to be a vase.  Perhaps ordinary looking by human standards, but beautiful in my eyes.  I want you to hold flowers and bring smiles and love and joy to others around you.  And you won’t be able to show off my handiwork in you if you’re … a boat.”

Of course we argue.  He’s molding us, we’re fighting back.  He wants us to surrender our pride and give Him glory for being the Lord.  And if we continue resisting?  God gives us what we ask.  The potter steps back and lets us attempt it without Him.

We try to make a boat or a unicorn or a bicycle out of our clay using our own will and ability.  We are completely unqualified to be anything other than the vase God has designed us to be, but we try on our own.  Sometimes we ask for help from others – hey Tony, how can I become a unicorn?

One of two things happen.  We can look at the mess we created and say, “Lord, I’ve messed up.  I want what you want.  Use me for your glory.”  And God begins to shape us, again, into the vase he designed us to be.  Or we can turn our back on God, and say God doesn’t exist, or God doesn’t love me, or I don’t ever see God at work in my life.

C.S. Lewis put it this way in his book, The Great Divorce, when he describes Heaven and Hell.  C.S. Lewis says,

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

Slide15Those that seek God’s will return to the pottery wheel and again ask the potter to continue the work He began in them.

Here’s a short video called 4 Steps of the Potter to help visualize the making of a unique piece of pottery:

D.    Drying

But wait, there’s still more.

Slide17Once the form has been created, the potter sets it aside to dry.  During this period, some fine details are added, like adding a handle.  And the potter is patient and follows His perfect timing.  If the potter waits too long, it is impossible to add details such as the handle.  And if the potter is impatient and moves to the baking stage, then moisture will expand and crumble the vessel.  Sometimes the vessel will explode, and any other created vessels nearby will also be damaged.

God’s timing is always perfect.  Sometimes He says, “No.”  Other times He says, “Yes.”  And sometimes, “Not yet.”  God knows when we are ready for Him to continue His work in us.

E.     Baking

The potter then takes the dried vessel and puts it in an oven to bake.  The clay is soft when it is put in the oven but tough and hard when it’s taken out.  They say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  Sometimes the trials of life seem to bring intense heat upon us, but there is a purpose to these trials.  We are stronger than before we experienced the heat.

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F.     Glazing

But though the baking process has made the vessel stronger, it is still not finished.  There is a glaze or paint to be applied with care and the true purpose of the vessel starts to become apparent.  Without the glaze, the vessel won’t hold water, it’ll seep through the porous sides and bottom.  To reach it’s potential, it’s time to put it through fire. 

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G.    Firing

Wait, didn’t we already go through the heat?  Weren’t we already baked and dried to make us stronger? 

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Our growth, our sanctification, our spiritual walk becomes stronger through the trials of life.  If we attempt to get through it on our own, we don’t fulfill our potential and God’s plan.  If we rely on God, if we put our faith and trust in Him, we are stronger still. 

This is a lifelong process.   Each time the heat is turned up, we learn, we grow, we depend on God and we bring glory to Him for what He is doing.  And I know in my own life, each time I’ve been through a time where I felt overwhelmed and in over my head and I’ve trusted in God to get me through it, I’ve grown closer to God.  My foundation is more firm, my faith is more firm, I see God’s work in my life like I never saw before the trial.  I am so much closer to the God who loves me.

And knowing all that… can I then pray for God to put me through another trial?  To apply the intense heat yet again and put me through the fire?  I know it’s for my benefit and it’ll grow my faith even more than the last time.  Can I pray for more trials to come to me?

James 1:2-4 puts it this way,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

God has a plan for each and everyone of us.  Sometimes it’s hard to see that purpose, we are so focused on being a unicorn that we don’t even notice God’s work in us.  But when we center ourselves and go through fire for God’s purposes, we begin to fulfill the plans He has for us. 

          IV.      Death in Us to Show Life to Others

Let’s go back to our scripture for today.  We earlier read 2 Corinthians 4:5-6,

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

This is the vessel God has created, to show Jesus Christ within us, for us to get out of the way of the message and stop trying to do things on our own power and our own will.  2 Corinthians 4 goes on in verse 7-9 –

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Slide23God kneads us like bread, centers us, shapes us, bakes us, glazes us, and puts us through fire, and the crazy thing is that it’s not even for our own benefit.  It is to show that joy in the Lord and the gift of salvation is greater than anything the world can throw at us.  And our joy through the fire is to demonstrate the love of Christ to others so that they, too, may taste the joy of salvation.  Our trials, our spiritual walk, our lives in this world has a purpose.  It is to show Christ within us to a lost and dying world, that they may know joy and peace and life eternal.

Our vessels are made of clay.  From dust they were created and to dust they shall return.  But our treasure within this jar of clay is the life of Jesus within us.  Death will come to each one of us; we all have an expiration date.  Our purpose to is to show that though death may overtake our earthly bodies, eternal life is available to all who accept the gift that Christ so freely offered to us while we were still sinners.

            V.      Conclusion

There is nothing more important than sharing the Word of God.  Everything God puts us through in this life is to make us stronger and draw us closer to Him so that when the lost look at us, they see Christ at work in our lives.  Here’s a short video of our study scripture 2 Corinthians 4 verses 1 through 15 taken from The Contemporary English version.  God has shaped us for His good pleasure to demonstrate His love to others:

Ephesians 2:10,

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

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To God be the glory.  Amen.

Serving God’s People

I. Introduction

I remember as a kid playing games upstairs in the hallway with my sister and brother. Sometimes we played Chinese Checkers, Monopoly, Hot Wheels, occasionally we would work on jigsaw puzzles. Or we might just play Solitaire with a deck of cards.
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We didn’t always get all the pieces back in the box. Hot Wheels cars or section of the racetrack would go missing, some marbles from the Chinese Checkers. It was ok, though, we could still play.

But other games, not so much. I remember how frustrating it was to work on a jigsaw puzzle for hours and then get stuck, looking for a particular piece that was missing. Eventually, we’d have to just give up. We’d push all the pieces back in the box, probably dropping another piece or two under the table, and then put the box back on the shelf.
We’d never work on that puzzle again. Why we didn’t throw it out, I don’t know.  Probably the same logic all of us use when looking at 3-day old leftovers in the fridge. It looks ok, but I’m not going to eat it. Better to leave it in the fridge a few more days until it definitely goes bad, then throw it out.
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And playing Solitaire without a full deck – and I’m talking about the deck of cards, not my brother or sister playing without a full deck. Or me. Hard to play to play Solitaire when you only have 50 or 51 cards.

You know what’s interesting about playing Solitaire with only 51 cards? It doesn’t really matter which card is missing, whether it’s the 8 of spades or the jack of diamonds. The game is crippled and unwinnable without all the cards. Every card is important.

II. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, Many Spiritual Gifts but One Spirit

Our study today is from 1 Corinthians 12 on Spiritual Gifts, so let’s open our bibles and we’ll begin with 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 –

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

I found it interesting the full Trinity is listed here. The same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God. Each one of us is unique. Some are more unique than others. We are all very different, from our experiences, our desires, our abilities. But the source of all spiritual gifts is from God. The energy to use the gift is from God. Even where we live, work, worship and apply our spiritual gifts is from God.

Biblical scholars posit that Paul wrote this letter to the church at Corinth to help direct their spiritual gifts. The Corinthians apparently were using their gifts for their own benefit and to try build themselves up, perhaps saying that one person’s gift was more important than another’s, sort of like the 9 of clubs saying that it’s more important than the 8 of hearts. But Paul says here that the purpose of the gift given to each believer is for the common good. You can tell it’s a spiritual gift if it benefits others, not yourself. The gift each person is given is for the common good of God’s people.

Does everybody have a spiritual gift?

When I was a younger Christian and first heard about spiritual gifts, I thought it sounded like a good idea. Maybe they sold them in the gift shop. Or maybe spiritual gifts were something only spiritual people had. And being a young Christian, I just didn’t have any. Or if I did, maybe this was my spiritual gift:

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I don’t think “pew sitting” is a spiritual gift. Maybe I didn’t have a spiritual gift.
But 1 Corinthians 12:12 says, “but to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Not to some people. Not even to most people. But to each one. Including me. Including you.

Corinthians 7:7 puts it this way,
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But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

The NASB version translates this as “his own gift;” the King James translates it as “his proper gift from God.” The Greek word used is “idios” (ἴδιος) and implies that the gift has been “fitted” to you. Like going to DSW to buy shoes. One person may be buying hiking boots in size 10, and another person is getting running shoes in size 8. They are fit for the purpose, unique to you and the purpose God has.

III. 1 Corinthians 12: The Various Gifts

What are these gifts? Let’s continue with verses 8-10,

For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.

This isn’t the entire list; Paul only listed some of the spiritual gifts here. If we look further down the page in verse 28,

And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.

Is that all? No, Paul also wrote about gifts in Romans 12:6-8,

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Some study guides also list some gifts described in Ephesians 4:11:apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, but those seem to be describing church leadership positions more than gifts. But in any case, in none of these verses does Paul say this is an exhaustive list of the spiritual gifts, and differing biblical studies may list anywhere from 16 to 26 spiritual gifts.

I debated about whether to get into the gifts themselves. Maybe I’ll just talk about the most important ones. But if we get anything out of this lesson today, I think it’s that each one of us is uniquely valuable with unique gifts given to us for the purpose of building the church up. I couldn’t even decide how to limit the discussion of gifts; could I prioritize them? And that means I’m not understanding my own lessons, like somehow that 7 of spades is more important to the church than the 9 of diamonds. Every gift is important, duh. And no gift is more important than another.

So I selected the gifts described in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, bearing in mind that there may be other gifts that may be used for building up the church that are not specifically spelled out in scripture. And also I want to stress that a gift is not the same thing as a talent. One can have a talent for singing, for instance. But singing can be exhibited in a way that can does not bring glory to God. But this is a fairly complete list and as we go through these, see if they stir up a passion within you.

The ones listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 include word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues.

Slide12• Word of Wisdom. This is described as a “word” of wisdom so it is likely Paul was describing a speaking gift. Biblical wisdom is available to all believers and is different than human wisdom – you probable remember Proverbs 3:5,

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

If you lack biblical wisdom, just ask. James 1:5 says,

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

So when Paul says “Word of Wisdom,” Paul probably means someone gifted in understanding and speaking forth biblical truth in such a way to apply it to life situations.

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• Word of knowledge. Also a speaking gift, this gift involves understanding truth with insight from the Holy Spirit, who understands biblical text and can explain it to others. At my wife’s church is a pastor that can explain the book of Daniel using the book of Revelation in a way that makes me go “wow, so that’s what that meant.” I believe he has the gift of the word of knowledge.

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• Faith. Don’t all believers have faith? Of course they do, or they wouldn’t be believers. In fact, some of these gifts are shared by all believers to some extent. But some seem to be ably to rely on faith, depend on faith, exhibit faith with a strong, unshakeable confidence that God will answer. Remember the movie, “War Room?” Miss Clara has just heard that God has answered a prayer, and this was her reaction:

That is somebody with the gift of faith.

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• Healing. God still performs miracles, especially in healing. In the first century, the apostles healed the lame and raised the dead as evidence their message was from God. Most biblical scholars put this gift in a special category of gifts called the sign gifts, available only to those that preached the word in the first century and had direct contact with Jesus. When people are miraculously healed today, God now does it directly and miraculously and not through men, otherwise the hospitals would be full of these gifted people raising people from the dead. Another of the “sign” gifts is –

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• Miracle powers. This involved performing supernatural events that could only be attributed to the power of God. Paul, Peter, Stephen, and Phillip all exhibited this gift in the book of Acts.

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• Prophecy. This doesn’t mean telling the future; the Greek word is “prophēteia” (προφητεία) and means to talk with “divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God, whether by reproving and admonishing the wicked, or comforting the afflicted, or revealing things hidden.” The gift of prophecy is the gift of preaching the Word of God. In many ways, Dr. Young prophecies when he speaks from the pulpit. Peter puts it this way in 1 Peter 4:11 –

“Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; . . . so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.”

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• Distinguishing between spirits. This same gift is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:29,
Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said.

This gift is dedicated to spiritual discernment in the truth because many false prophets twist and distort the truth. Those with the gift of discernment can help separate truth from error, as it is said in 1 John 4:1,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

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• Speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues. This gift has differing opinions, some saying that it is a speaking gift of earthly languages like those mentioned on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, and others say it is an “ecstatic” or “heavenly” language like those taught in the Pentecostal churches. It is a legitimate gift of the spirit, but speaking in tongues comes with a lot of guidelines described in 1 Corinthians 14. Many misinterpret the gift of tongues as a sign of salvation or of a special closeness to God, which it is not.

Romans 12:6-8 has another list of gifts from Paul –

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Some of these duplicate those we just reviewed, but there are some new ones listed –

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• Service. This is a general term for all ministry within the church. Those wonderful classmates of ours that write us cards and letters during Wednesday night outreach or handle our class administration every week or write our weekly newsletter or arrange lunches or welcome new visitors or direct our class or lead us in prayer or any other effort that provides help to one another in the church.

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• Teaching. This one isn’t important, let’s skip it. Ok, no seriously, this gift is much like prophecy that Dr. Young has, and certainly one who prophesies probably also has the gift of teaching. But while prophesying involves proclaiming God’s revelation, teaching is the systemic and regular instruction in God’s Word, any place where God’s Word is taught. I certainly don’t claim any special revelation, and I am not a preacher, but with the good Lord’s guidance, perhaps I can faithfully share what God says in His Word. The Great Commission tells us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, . . . teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” For all of us whenever we tell someone about Jesus, we owe it to them to give a faithful and truthful message about the good news.

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• Exhortation. This is from the Thesaurus version of the bible. Most people would use “encouragement.” This gift enables one to advise, plead, warn, strengthen, comfort one another. I think the talent of singing, when used in worship, usually is part of the gift of exhortation, to encourage others. The Christian walk is not always a walk of roses and sunshine. We go through thorny patches, we go through storms. And we need those in our lives with the gift of encouragement to stay faithful, trust in the Lord’s goodness and mercy. I thank the good Lord for those that have an uplifting word of encouragement during difficult times. Sometimes the gift of encouragement can strengthen a weak believer into resisting sin. In Hebrews 10:24-25, the gift of encouragement is described like this –

Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Should the gift of encouragement be used sparingly or only in emergencies? Hebrews 3:13 says,

Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,”

So only encourage people today.

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• Giving. Like most of the other gifts, we are all to give generously to one another. Luke 3:8,11 says,

Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.

But some have the gift of giving that gives sacrificially. And one with this gift gives *of* himself, not *for* himself. Most that have this gift never receive recognition because they feel all the recognition should go to the Lord. And while giving can refer to money, it can also refer to time and effort. Any time somebody gives up something sacrificially to a brother or sister in Christ to bring glory to the Lord, they are exhibiting the gift of giving.

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• Leading. This is also sometimes called “administration” and the Greek word used means “to guide” and refers to someone who pilots or guides a ship. Here’s a favorite poem of mine about leadership, I saw it years ago on a business trip, it’s called “The Leader,” by Roger McGough:

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

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The funny thing about those with the gift of leadership is that most of them didn’t ask to lead. They just led. They saw something that had to be done, and they made it happen. They made it happen now, they made it happen as soon as they saw the need.

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• Mercy. Demonstrating sympathy, genuinely caring about the needs of others to strengthen and encourage them. They may visit hospitals or jails or the homeless or the poor or the handicapped, those with this gift find joy in ministering to others who need help.

IV. 1 Corinthians 12:20-27, We Are All the Body of Christ

In the rest of today’s scripture, Paul describes how all these gifts fit together. 1 Corinthians 12:20-27 says,

As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

And the 10 of spades cannot say to the 9 of hearts, “I don’t need you.” No gift is greater than another; the director and the pastor and the janitor and the secretary and the trombone player all work together to bring glory to God. Whatever gift you have, use it. The more you use it, the more God will give you opportunities to use it. It’s like learning to play the piano. You may have the gift, but you have to practice.

V. Conclusion

Of course you have a spiritual gift that can be used for the common good of the body of Christ. It’s like a muscle, and some muscles atrophy and shrivel if they are not used. But if you exercise your spiritual gift for the glory of God, you will find that God provides more and more opportunities as your spiritual muscle grows stronger.  Together, the muscles and the eyes and the hands and every part of the body grow stronger when we all practice our spiritual gifts. What is your gift?

Bree shared this link a few months back; it’s a questionnaire that you answer that will help you figure out your spiritual gift. Everyone has one; find yours and share it with us because the rest of the body needs you.

Spiritual Gift Test

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To God be the glory. Amen.

Keeping Commitments

I. Introduction

It is not LOVE that is our first commitment. It is TRUTH.

I didn’t want to teach today’s lesson.

It’s not that the scripture to study today is difficult to understand. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s too easy to understand. It’s just impossible for many to follow. Including me. Teaching a lesson about the meaning and purpose of marriage to singles, marrieds, and divorcees that stays encouraging and doesn’t hurt anybody just seemed to be a task that was beyond my ability.

I even tried to find something else to teach. I reached out to a pastor and told him that I found it impossible to teach today’s lesson without upsetting many. The word will sound harsh. The lesson talks about husbands and wives and the promises we make to one another. And I know several in here have been divorced. Some are in the process of getting a divorce. I myself have been divorced. Twice. I bet you never knew that. I’m pretty sure you don’t know that because I don’t like to talk about it. Those are my failures. They are both my personal failures, and when I read today’s scripture, I understand they are my failures toward God.

I told my wife I had argued with God and I told God thanks for the suggestion, but I’ve decided to teach from a different chapter.

My wife sided with God.

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In the end, I stumbled across this phrase while studying, “It is not LOVE that is our first commitment. It is TRUTH.” Too many want to teach only the feel-good aspects of the bible, the prosperity gospel, the social gospel, the loving gospel, and here I was, getting ready to do the exact same thing. I wanted to teach the love, even when the lesson is about the truth.

And isn’t that part of the Armor of God that we should put on every morning? The Belt of Truth?

The bible is not about just love, or even truth. It is about God’s glory. When we short-circuit God’s plan and express love without truth, we diminish His glory. So after losing the argument with God (again), I sat down to do as He asked. So we are going to study the purpose of marriage. And in the end, I pray that we will see that there is truth, there is love, and above all, there is God’s glory.

II. 1 Corinthians 7:1-5: Purpose of Marriage (Human Perspective)

Let’s start with the first 5 verses of 1 Corinthians 7 –

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Scripture is clear that our priority should always be to the Lord. Not only is He number one, but He is also Alpha. And Omega. He is our All in All. And everything I’ve ever read in scripture, from the Old Testament to the end of the New Testament, is that there is only one thing that provokes God, and that is to put something else in front of Him.
And that includes other people. Now, don’t get me wrong; of course, we are to love others. It’s just that God deserves and is jealous for the #1 position. We don’t love others despite God; what an awful arrangement. No, we love others because of God, not instead of God.

So Paul starts with “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” He’s not saying this is best, only that it is not necessary to have a fulfilling life with Christ if one is not married. My opinion? I’ve met so many single people over the years that are laser-focused on finding a spouse. They join a church to find a spouse, they join a sport to find a spouse, they go to bars and single events to find a spouse. To me, that is a sure sign the priorities are misplaced. Singles often go looking for somebody to “complete them.” That’s the phrase that makes me cringe. “I just want somebody to complete me.”

That tells me they are an incomplete and needy person. There is a God-shaped hole in their heart they are trying to fill with a person. We long for someone wo will always be there for us, who will be 100% faithful, who will never falter, who forgives us when we falter, and who will stay with us until the very end. And no matter who they find, that person will never fill that hole because that hole was never meant to be filled by a human. And then the disappointment starts. And then the blame for that disappointment. And then anger and bitterness. And all because they tried to find a human being to complete them in a way that only Jesus can.

Far better to be complete already. To be overflowing with the grace and mercy and kindness that comes from a perfect relationship with Jesus. When we realize the perfect love from Jesus, then we no longer have the need to be loved by a person the way a person that has just stuffed themselves at Thanksgiving doesn’t need to eat. We are satisfied, we are complete. Then, with the overabundance of love can we contribute to somebody else. Instead of each person contributing 50% and arguing over whether somebody is doing less than their share, both doing 150% and overflowing with love and there is abundance.

But we walk in a broken world and ruled by Satan. And stumbling blocks to that perfect relationship with Christ are everywhere, both to believers and nonbelievers. And the news media loves to find pastors that stumble and hold them up to the world and say, “behold, yet another fallen Christian who preaches one thing and does another. The church is full of hypocrites.”

Paul says that one of the purposes of marriage is to help guard against this sort of sin. Each man should have a wife, and each wife should have a husband. But look at how Paul orders these verses; a man doesn’t take a wife in order to prevent his own sin. That’s self-centered. When our goal is to be like Christ, of course we take care of ourselves, but we live for others like Christ lived for us. Paul says the reason for a man to take a wife is to fulfill his duty to his wife. And it is the wife’s duty to fulfill her physical duties – that’s a euphemism for sex, please don’t make me explain that – the wife fulfils her physical duties to her husband to help him resist sin.

Again, it’s not what marriage can do for us. It is what we can do for the marriage. And one of the purposes of a God-centered marriage is to do what we can, in a positive and encouraging way, is to provide physical intimacy to our spouse as a gift to make it easier for them to resist sin.

III. 1 Corinthians 7:10-16: Let Your Yes be Yes

Let’s continue with verses 10 through 13,

But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away.

I said earlier that it’s not difficult to understand the scripture. It says what it says, and any mental hoops we jump through to justify some other meaning doesn’t change what this scripture says. Believers should not divorce their unbelieving spouses. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:37,

“Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’”

I looked into divorce statistics this week in preparation for this lesson. You’ve probably heard that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and I’m happy to say that’s a bad application of statistics. The highest rate of divorce in a 2001 survey was 41% for men and 39% for women. Still pretty high. And since 1980, the divorce rate has been slowly dropping, but not always for the best reasons. In many cases, people are just deciding to live together without getting married. If you never marry, you never divorce, right?
And you’ve probably also heard that Christians are just as likely as everybody else to get divorced, though that’s probably bad statistics, too. Conservative Christians who go to church regularly are 35% less likely to get divorced. One common thread in successful Christian marriages is that both partners put Jesus first, and their spouse second. They value their relationship more than they value winning any argument.

On the other hand, people who call themselves Christian but do not go to church regularly are 20% more likely to get divorced. And those without religious affiliation or with different religions are 35% more likely to get divorced.

Why? Too many reasons to list. Every marriage is different, every failed marriage is different. In some cases, the two people may be “unequally yoked,” a phrase from 2 Corinthians 6:14 that says,

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

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When two oxen are yoked together, the two oxen can pull better than one. When one stumbles or grows weak, the other can take up the slack, and each supports the other. But unequally yoked, the oxen aren’t even pulling in the same direction. The work is just as hard, and on top of that, they are struggling with the other.

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Those that understand this scripture live this scripture and make sure they do not become yoked with an unbeliever. Help an unbeliever, sure. But enter a relationship with an unbeliever? Marriage has so many challenges even when you are heading the same direction, and it’s impossible if you’re pulling in opposite directions.

But when we find ourselves unequally yoked, Paul says we should honor our marriage vows. If the unbeliever wants to leave, let them leave, but don’t initiate a divorce. And if one is married to an unbeliever, Paul tells us the God will use us for His purpose in 1 Corinthians 7:14-16,

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

If we are unequally yoked, Paul tells us to stay married because we have a mission field of one: We are to be a witness to the unbelieving spouse. It’s a one to one witness like no other.

So that is what a perfect Christian spouse married to an unbeliever should do. And as Jesus says in Matthew 5:48,

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Be perfect. Never make a mistake, never come up short. Be perfect every single time.
Trouble is, I don’t know any perfect Christian spouses. Including me. My wife comes pretty close, especially when she’s admonishing me to teach the lesson I was given and not the lesson I wished I had. But she’s not perfect. In fact, I don’t know any perfect people. Every person I know is a failure at something. Romans 3:23 says,

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Every single person, except Jesus, has failed. Including me. Including you. Including your spouse or ex-spouse or future boyfriend or ex-girlfriend or your oldest son or youngest daughter or best friend or worst enemy. Every single person has failed and fallen short of the perfect plan that God has planned for them.

In many ways, we are like God’s chosen people. At first there was only one rule – don’t eat the fruit of that tree over there. Then it was Ten Commandments and then all those rules in Leviticus and then 613 mitzvots.

So many rules. So many ways to fail. So many ways to fall short of the glory of God. Israel worshipped idols and married pagans and did evil in the sight of the Lord for centuries. The rules became so difficult that there was no way anybody could follow them all.
Until the Son of God came. Jesus was perfect. Hebrews 4:15,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.

Jesus was perfect, and willingly sacrificed Himself on the cross as a punishment for our failures so that we may have eternal life. The punishment for our sins is death and the wrath of God, but it is paid in full by the Son of Man. And that verse that said we have all fallen short? There’s good news; here’s the rest of that verse –

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Jesus knows I am a sinner, I’ve fallen short. And yet He willingly died so that I may live. It’s a miracle that just keeps on giving because I’m apparently not done sinning, despite my best efforts to be perfect.

So did I wander away from our topic today? That married couples are supposed to have sex to help their partner avoid sin and that believer should not divorce their unbelieving spouses?

I don’t think so. Of all the things we do in this life, trying to maintain our relationships with one another in love is the most challenging thing we will ever do, whether it’s our spouse or friend or child or stranger. And if we fail in the little things like stealing a pencil from the office or telling a little white lie, then it’s no wonder so many of us will fail, have failed, in the big things like marriage and divorce. But our God is bigger than any of our sins.

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Thomas Moore, a poet from the early 1800’s, wrote a poem that captures our gratitude for this sacrifice, that God is bigger than our sins. The first stanza goes like this,

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Whatever our failures are, God already knows. God has already paid for them. And God loves us despite our many failures.

IV. Revelation 19:7-9: Marriage Supper of the Lamb

So 1 Corinthians 7 has scripture that is easy to understand yet difficult to live. If we’re single, recognize that marriage isn’t a chance to make ourselves complete, but to help another to be complete. If we’re married, recognize God’s will is that we hold nothing back from our spouse, and if our spouse is not a believer, then we have a mission field of one to show how Christ lives in us. And then recognize that this is the biggest challenge of living, the relationships we have with others, and that we are going to fail.

And despite scripture that tells us to be perfect like Christ, we are human and we’re going to fail. But Christ never fails. His love is perfect.

And Christ demonstrates this love in his own marriage.

What? You didn’t realize Jesus Christ was married? That there is a Mrs. Christ? Here’s a description of the wedding in Revelation 19:7-9,

Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.

Then he *said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’” And he *said to me, “These are true words of God.”

In case you haven’t figured it out, Mrs. Christ is the church of all believers. To fully understand the vision in Revelation, though, we need a quick study of the wedding customs in the time of Mr. Christ.

There were three major customs of the wedding. The first custom was the marriage contract, signed by the parents of the bride and the groom, and the parents of the groom would pay a dowry to the bride. This is the betrothal period or the engagement.

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The second custom occurred a year later. The groom, accompanied by his male friends, would go to the house of the bride at midnight, making a parade with torches through the streets. The bride would know ahead of time that he was coming and she would be waiting expectantly with her maidens, and then all the grooms and groomsmen and the bride and the maidens would all parade to the bridegroom’s father’s house and make their new home together. This custom is illustrated in one of Jesus’ parables of the ten virgins in Matthew 25.

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The third custom was the wedding and the feast which could go on for several days, as in the wedding that Jesus attended when He turned the water into wine.

In John’s vision in Revelation of the wedding feast, he’s describing this third custom, the wedding feast, the marriage supper of the lamb, but all three customs have been observed. The first custom, the dowry, has already been completed. Each person, when making their decision to place their trust in Jesus, requires a dowry from the groom’s father. God the Father provided this dowry by shedding the blood of our savior on the cross, paying all debts in full.

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The church of believers is betrothed to Christ, we are engaged, and the night of the wedding approaches. Like the wise virgins in the parable, we should all be watching and waiting for the Bridegroom to appear. This is the rapture when Christ appears to claim His bride, the church, and take the bride to His father’s house.

Then we get to the third custom in Revelation 19, the marriage supper of the Lamb. The bride has made herself ready and blessed are those who are invited, there is a glorious celebration of all who have wed themselves to Christ.

And unlike fallible humans like you and me, Christ will never fail and never go back on His word, His promise endures forever. Jesus will succeed where we could not, and our marriage to Christ will last then thousand years and then forevermore.

V. Conclusion

I heard this hymn last week and I thought it was perfect to wrap up today’s study of 1 Corinthians 7. Written in 1860 by Samuel John Stone, we are reminded that the promise of Jesus to bring His church unto Him was bought with a great dowry and comes with a promise that will never be broken.

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By spirit and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.

To God be the glory. Amen.

Always on Mission

I. Introduction

We are finishing our study of Acts this week, and Paul is visiting with the Jews of Rome and pleading with them to open their hearts to the good news of Christ. Which is interesting to me because many of these same Jews have been trying to kill Paul for years.

II. Acts 20-25: Ephesus to Jerusalem to Caesarea

To understand Paul’s final words in Acts 28, we have to back up a long way. When I last taught from Acts 20, Paul is saying his goodbyes. He knows his time is short, and we talked about what it meant to live a good life. The Holy Spirit has compelled Paul to return to Jerusalem before Pentecost, Acts 20:16,Slide2.JPG

For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

As Paul sails past Ephesus, he calls the church elders from Ephesus to him, and in Acts 20:22-25, Paul tells them that he has been bound by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and the same Holy Spirit tells Paul that trials and tribulations await, and that despite the fact that the church elders will never see Paul’s face again, Paul is still preaching the good news and finishing his life’s race with joy.Slide3.JPG

“And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face.”

But then the trials and tribulations prophesied by the Holy Spirit catch up to Paul. Paul makes it to Jerusalem and begins to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Good News of Christ to the Jews.

The Jews hate this message and want to kill Paul. But the Jews couldn’t kill Paul themselves because Israel was under control of the Romans. Only the Romans could put Paul to death legally. It’s the same conundrum the Jews had when they wanted to kill Jesus; they had to use political and devious methods to convince the Romans to crucify Jesus. Now the Jews are hearing the gospel from Paul and they think Paul should die for blasphemy.

The Jews in Jerusalem accuse Paul of defiling the temple with his words, and they seize him and begin to beat him, and Acts 21:31 says the Jews were trying to beat Paul to death, but then the Romans hear about the uproar and show up. You might remember Jim’s awesome retelling of this uproar and how Paul spoke Aramaic to the crowd and the crowd became silent. Paul begins telling them that he used to be Saul and persecuted Christians zealously, but then he met Jesus and now wants to tell everyone that salvation is at hand. The Jews listen for a while but then the uproar begins again.

The Roman commander tries to find out what started the fight, but the roar of the crowd was so loud, the Romans couldn’t get to the truth. All the Roman commander knows at this point is that Paul is somehow involved, so he arrests Paul and takes him to the Roman barracks.

And here’s one of those thought processes I don’t understand in Acts 22:24,Slide4

the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way.

We don’t know why they’re mad at you, so we’re going to rip your skin off and see if that helps us find the truth. Fortunately for Paul, the Romans find out he’s a Roman citizen and release him. But then the Jews go into an uproar again, and the Romans arrest Paul again in Acts 23. In the Jerusalem Roman barracks, Paul hears from the Lord, Acts 23:11,Slide5

But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.”

Paul is in Jerusalem, but now he knows he’s headed to Rome. How wonderful to know your final destination. I know mine; you can know yours, too.

The Jews now try a different tactic; their plan is to request the Romans bring Paul to the Jewish council, and the Jews will try to ambush Paul when he’s out in the open.

But the Romans have had enough of the Jewish shenanigans, so under heavy guard they escort Paul to Caesarea and present him to the governor there named Felix.

Now Governor Felix holds some private discussions with Paul, and of course Paul shares the gospel with Governor Felix. Acts 24:24-26a,Slide6

But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.” At the same time too, he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul.

In other words, Felix says the bible sounds scary, but if you give me some money, I’ll let you go. How long did this last? Acts 24:27,

But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.

Two years this goes on, with Paul witnessing to Felix the whole time. Then Felix is replaced by Festus, and the Jews petition the new governor Festus to execute Paul. When that doesn’t work, they ask Festus to bring Paul back from Caesarea to Jerusalem, and the Jews plan that same ambush along the way to kill Paul. Paul’s been imprisoned in Caesarea for 2 years, but this ambush plot to kill Paul is still alive and well.

Festus asks Paul if that’s a good idea, to send Paul back to Jerusalem. Paul answers for probably the millionth time that he’s done nothing wrong except preach the gospel, but if the Romans think there’s a problem with Paul, then the Romans ought to send Paul to Caesar himself in Rome. Festus thinks this is a great idea, he can wash his hands of this whole mess, he’ll send Paul to Rome to stand trial. The only trouble with this plan is that Governor Festus doesn’t even know what Paul should be charged with. When King Agrippa, the High Priest from Jerusalem, comes to visit Festus, and Festus tries to get an understanding why this man has been in prison for two years. Acts 25:24-27,

Festus said, “King Agrippa, and all you gentlemen here present with us, you see this man about whom all the people of the Jews appealed to me, both at Jerusalem and here, loudly declaring that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death; and since he himself appealed to the Emperor, I decided to send him. Yet I have nothing definite about him to write to my lord. Therefore, I have brought him before you all and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that after the investigation has taken place, I may have something to write. For it seems absurd to me in sending a prisoner, not to indicate also the charges against him.”

What is this an opportunity for Paul to do? Share the gospel, of course. All of Acts 26 is Paul’s explanation of the resurrection of Jesus, and the High Priest King Agrippa listens carefully to Paul quoting from the scriptures, and then in Acts 26:28,

Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.”

Agrippa actually agrees that Paul shouldn’t be in prison. Festus doesn’t know why Paul is being held or what the charges should be, but he seems eager to get this mess behind him and decides to send Paul to Rome anyway, thus unknowingly fulfilling the scripture we read about a moment ago in Acts 23 when the Lord told Paul he would go to Rome. And besides, just releasing Paul would cause all sort of problems with those same Jews that have been trying to ambush and kill him for the last 2 years. Instead, Paul gets an all expense paid trip to Rome.

This was no small journey; Rome was a long way away, and the Holy Spirit had already told Paul this trip would be full of trials and tribulations. Here’s a map showing the distance.

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Winter is approaching, and the optimum time to sail has already passed. Paul tries to warn them in Acts 27:9, but the captain and the Roman centurion were set on leaving anyway. What could possibly go wrong, except the shipwreck in Acts 27:14? And being bit by a snake in Acts 28:3? The ship ran aground on the shore of some uncharted desert isle, with Gilligan… the skipper, too. All the while, Paul sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. It was three months before they were rescued and finally made their way to Rome, thus fulfilling the Lord’s promise that Paul should share the message of Christ with the gentiles of Rome.

Which brings us to our actual verses of study today in Acts 28, the final chapter of Acts. Paul is under house arrest, a single soldier guarding him, and who does Paul send for?

III. Acts 28:17 Love Your Enemies

Paul sends for the local Jewish leaders to tell them about the good news of Christ Jesus. Of course he does. Paul tells them starting in Acts 28 verse 17 that Paul is preaching the good news of the gospel to all Jews, despite the fact the Jews he speaks to all seem to want to kill him. And he’s headed for Rome, and being a Roman citizen, it won’t be Paul on trial, it will be Israel because Paul is a Roman citizen. But Paul has no plans to accuse Israel. Paul wants to save Israel. And the only way to salvation is through Christ Jesus.

Do you see the pattern in Paul’s life? Paul’s mission in life as given to him by the Holy Spirit is to preach the good news to the lost sheep of Israel, to let them know that the Messiah has come, to repent of their sins and accept the sacrifice of the Messiah. And that message is met not just with hostility, but the people he’s speaking to want to kill him. And yet, Paul isn’t mad, he doesn’t take revenge on his enemies, he doesn’t retaliate, nor does he shy away or run from his enemies. He stands his ground and repeats the Good News for all who will listen: the Messiah has come, the Messiah has died, the Messiah is risen and is seated at the right hand of the Father. In other words, Paul is showing us with his very life what it means to love your enemies. Jesus once said to His disciples in Matthew 5:43-48,Slide11.JPG

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I wondered as I studied this how well I was doing in my evangelism. I have a field to work in, provided by God, to share the good news. Do I share the message with those who will be openly hostile to the good news? I don’t think I do. I think I share the Good News with just those that are friendly to me. I have opportunities, at work, when I travel. And I know I often mention my faith when somebody asks, “so, what did you do this weekend?” But I wait to hear a friendly response before I share what it means to have eternal life. I’m much more likely to discuss, say, how many Olympic gold medals the USA curling team has won.

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I’m reminded of the great Billy Graham that went to be with the Lord this week at the ripe old age of 99. During his life, people would ask him why he didn’t do more for, say, racial justice. His answer? That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to spread the gospel. “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” He was friends with Richard Nixon after Nixon resigned, and people pressured him to stop appearing publicly with Nixon. Graham would respond, I’m sharing the good news of salvation.  For a while, there was a movement for Billy Graham to run for Senate. His response? That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to spread the gospel. Billy Graham never wavered from his message, the only message that ultimately matters.

Paul is bold. I like that. And it’s almost as though he completely ignores any animosity toward him as though it’s unimportant. And he’s right – compared to eternal life, well, sticks and stones my break my bones, but Jesus gives life forever. The Good News is not the most important thing: it’s the only thing.

IV. Acts 28:24 Not All Who Hear Then Perceive

When we ask, “what is our purpose for life?”, we should ask first if God has a plan for our life. And He does. Each one of us has a unique story only we can tell, unique abilities only we can fulfill, unique passions God has given to us individually. That’s why some are engineers, some are grandmothers, some are teachers, some are Olympic athletes.
But despite our individual uniqueness and our individual passions, there’s a plan for each of us that we all have in common.

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Our purpose in life is to know God and to make God known. But our job stops there; we share what we know about God. The job of actually convicting somebody of their sin, leading them to repentance, and giving their life to Jesus Christ is not our job. That job belongs to the Holy Spirit.

And I think too many times we tell people what we think the bible says, and not what it actually says. We give them our opinion of what they’re doing wrong in their life and what they must do to be a Christian, when instead we should be sharing the love of Christ with them, encouraging them to read for themselves what God will say to them.
I find it interesting that should one accept the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, all the glory goes to God for the salvation of a soul. But rejecting the Word, the fault lies solely on the sinner.

Paul was a terrific evangelist. He shared the gospel with everybody, with all his friends, acquaintances, and even his enemies. Frequently he shared the gospel with people trying to kill him. Paul shared the gospel with anybody who would listen. Acts 28:24,

 

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Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe.

Again I say, It’s our job to share the gospel, but it’s not our job to convict. That’s above our pay grade. It’s the other person’s choice whether to believe or not, whether to respond to the Holy Spirit telling Him there’s a purpose for him in this life and the next.

There are many reasons why a person will not respond to the good news. Stubbornness. Selfishness. Even intellect, some feel they are too smart to believe and never understand the irony that they are finite beings that do not understand an infinite God, so they chose not to believe what they cannot understand rather that admit they are not all-knowing. All the excuses, though, come down to pride. In our sinful hearts, we want to do things our own way. But 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 puts it this way –

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And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Paul was 100% successful in sharing the gospel, but he did not have a 100% conversion rate. And neither will we. Of course, if we don’t share the gospel at all, we will have a 0% conversion rate. But we are to share the good news and leave the results up to God. He is capable. He is more than capable.

V. Acts 28:25-27 Quoting Isaiah

Paul knows that not everyone will believe. Some people are bound and determined to go to Hell and they’re not about to stop and ask for directions.

When some of the people turn away from Paul, Paul tells them that God knew in advance that many would reject God and turn away. As they turn away, Paul says to them,

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“The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, saying,
‘Go to this people and say,
“You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull,
And with their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes;
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.”’

Paul quotes from the book of Isaiah, chapter 6 beginning in verse 9. This Old Testament scripture is quoted five times in the New Testament; it’s quoted by all four gospel writes, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, then it’s quoted by Paul. God is saying in this verse that His grace and healing is available to everyone, but many have closed their eyes and ears to the Gospel.

What do we do with such people? Exactly what Paul does. We tell them that Jesus loves them and gave His life so that they may have eternal life with Him. The Holy Spirit will compel them, but some people have become quite proficient at ignoring God’s call. But we go on sharing the love of Christ anyway.

VI. Conclusion

There is nothing more important than sharing the Word of God. Everything else in this life – houses, cars, spouses and children, money or power – is only temporary. We are only temporary stewards of what God has created. Only our eternity is eternal. Psalm 73:25-26,

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Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

We live in a lost world where many have closed their eyes and closed their ears, but the message we share saves eternal lives. Every person that is not yet reconciled with God remains an enemy of God. And every person reconciled is a cause for rejoicing in Heaven.

We are to know God and to make God known. We start first by reading the bible. That’s how we get to know God. The excitement of sharing the gospel comes from knowing God. If we barely know God, why would we want to talk about Him? So get to know God by reading His word.

Paul is an excellent example of sharing the gospel at all times with all people, friends and strangers and even enemies. That’s our job, too. Our earthly task is to know God and to make God known every day.

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To God be the glory. Amen.

A Life Well-Lived

I. Introduction

What does it mean to live a good life?

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I know what the world shows us. It shows us we should look good and feel good. Nothing more important than being rich. We should have it all. A successful life is defined as having as many toys and as much money as possible. But only if you’re also good looking and have good hair.

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Or success is defined as defeating everybody else, being stronger or more powerful and winning more than anybody else. Even if you have to cheat to get there.

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And I also think it’s interesting that the same things the world teaches us that we should desire are the same things the world uses to bring us down. The world’s richest people have their mansions and their yachts, but then the Occupiers of Wall Street demonstrating against the 1% that have mansions and yachts at the expense of the underprivileged. Or winning a Super Bowl one year, but if you can’t win it again the next year, you’re a loser.

Do handsome actors and pretty actresses define a life well-lived? Does having a super yacht define a life well-lived? Does winning the Super Bowl define a life well-lived? Or is there something else worth living for?

II. Testimonials

The bible is consistent in teaching us more. In Luke 12:16-21,

And [Jesus] told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

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The rich man was primarily worried about providing for his body in this life instead of providing for his soul in the next life. There was a famous French statesman named Tallyrand, appointed to the position of Foreign Minister by Napoleon in 1799, who said this near the end of his life,

“Eighty-three years have passed! I am not sure I am pleased when I think back over how those years were spent. How many useless uproars there were; how many failures; how many outrageous complications; how much wasted emotion and energy, and how much wasted ability! Hatreds have been aroused, illusions lost, tastes jaded. And with what result? Moral and physical exhaustion, complete discouragement with respect to the future, deep disgust with respect to the past.”

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I think it’s sad to spend a life quarreling for table scraps and shiny trinkets that get tossed in the casket with the death of the body, when we could celebrate a life filled with purpose that serves God’s eternal plans instead of our own. God’s plans are so much better than our own.

I think of my stepfather who passed away last year. When he married my mother, he treated my brother and sister and me as though we were his own. We were already adults and too old to be adopted, but you would have never guessed we were not his biological children. He introduced me as his son. And as part of his family, he showed me greater love than I was ever able to return. While he enjoyed his job, the only time he would talk about money was to mention his goal of making sure my mother was well cared for. In return, we loved and appreciated all he did for his family. He was a rich man, and it had nothing to do with money.

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And I think of my grandfather who passed away thirty something years ago. He was a tremendous model of peace and joy and love no matter what was going on around him. He took me fishing on his boat when I wasn’t even 5 years old and spent the day with me, and for years later that event defined to ma what family love is. He taught bible study at his local church, I’m told, for over 35 years, and in every way I ever saw, he modeled a Christian life. He was a rich man, and it had nothing to do with money.

You probably have somebody in your life that modeled a life well-lived. When you think of a great role model and a positive influence in your life, who do you think of?

I have a letter to share from a Godly woman from my wife’s church; she has been a missionary in an unfriendly communist country, sharing God’s Word, and writing back to supporting churches telling them that the Good News was being received eagerly in dangerous places. She was diagnosed with cancer some time ago. She wrote this just 2 weeks ago, and I’d like to share it in whole, omitting the names because of her missionary work overseas –

Dear Friends,

The Lord gave us a wonderful Christmas! Thank you so much for praying. I have attached a picture of me with our 8 granddaughters. As good as the picture is, it doesn’t convey how special Christmas Eve with the whole family was, and how much fun! Although I could not stand longer than a couple of minutes because of weakness, I was able to participate in the full 3 ½ hour celebration of our Savior’s birth.

This will probably be the last time that I am writing to you. Starting after New Year’s I began to go downhill again, and signs of the beginning of organ failure are quite evident. The Lord is gracious in that the pain is still manageable, and although for about a week nausea was a real problem, that is now managed as well. We are grateful to the Lord for His care for me.

How can I give you all thanks for the decades of care and support for my husband and me? Way back in 1976 when I was a college student studying English in communist Poland, I met Campus Crusade staff members for the first time, translating for them at our “Oasis” camp deep in the Polish mountains. I was so impressed with their ministry that even before I had committed my life to Christ I asked them if I could do what they were doing, i.e. telling others about Jesus. Over the next 4 years I committed my life to Christ, came on staff (not openly, obviously) and married my husband. And, for the past 37 years, thanks to your prayers and support, I have been able to focus my time and energy on that very thing: telling others the gospel of Jesus Christ. After a couple years of experience and training, I began to help others share their faith as well. I could not have followed God’s call on my life without you. I thank you with all my heart and pray God’s greatest blessings upon you.

According to hospice, in about a couple of weeks (although, only God knows) I will lay down this temporal body. I look forward to that. I cannot claim to understand all of God’s ways with me. In the end, God has given me the grace to walk by faith with many of my questions unanswered. He is good, and He is sufficient. With this knowledge I am at peace.

“Now to our God and Father be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Phil.4:20

Your sister in Christ

This Godly woman passed away earlier this week. I can read her letter of goodbye that had not one bit of regret in it, full of joy and peace. And I know she had a life well-lived.

III. A Life Well-Lived

We’re studying the book of Acts and we’re in Acts 20 this week and Paul is reflecting on the life he’s lived and saying goodbye for he knows the time he has left in this world is coming to an end. And like everything Paul wrote, even his goodbye is organized and with purpose. There are three parts to his goodbye; first he reviews the past, then he discusses the present, and then the future. He concludes that his past, present and future has enabled Paul to live his life in such a way that he may finish his race with joy.

I reflected on this message from Paul, how he plans to finish his race with joy, and wonder if I planned my life that way. I think a great many of us make plans, but they’re short term plans, maybe with a goal. I’m going to get through high school or college. I’m going to get married. I’m going to buy a house. Those are all things, sure, that we work for, but I don’t think that just because I bought a house means I lived my life well.

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I think if you’re going to run a race that ends in joy, Paul’s messages of past present and future reflect the stages of the race. One doesn’t simply wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, I think I’ll run a marathon today.” No, a race requires training, endurance, and a strong finish.

IV. Acts 20:18-21 Training for the Race

First comes the training. If you’re going to run a race and finish with joy, you have to begin with purpose. Paul is talking to the elders of the church of Ephesus in Acts 20:18-21,

And when they [the elders] had come to him [Paul], he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s giving us his autobiography and telling us that his life was filled with purpose. He wasn’t an “accidental” that happened to be at church. Paul says “from the first day” Paul was devoted to his work.

Have you ever heard the phrase “ambassador for Christ?” I think the phrase is applicable, for we are all to be ambassadors for Christ. But too often we forget we have a purpose. Ambassadors have a purpose. Ambassadors know who sent them and why. Ambassadors take that purpose to a place or a people and represent the will of the one who sent them.

But ambassadors work out of a large building, an embassy, that’s also full of diplomats. Diplomats push the paper around and talk out of both sides of their mouths, so they do not offend anyone. Diplomats and ambassadors may share a building, but the ambassador has a purpose. Some people attend church as a diplomat and collect what they believe is a spiritual paycheck. Others attend church out of love and purpose, eager to see how God will use them today. Paul wasn’t a diplomat, he was an ambassador for Christ.

And Paul’s motive, his goal, is also in verse 21, his goal was to serve the Lord. While Paul ministered to people, he served the Lord. Paul lived a life unashamed of the gospel, never shying away because he was worried he’d upset somebody or offend them. The gospel is what it is, the good news of Jesus Christ.

And while we know Paul was unashamed of the Gospel, he shared the good news with “all humility.” He wasn’t a religious celebrity, he was a man who understood that Paul could do nothing on his own, he owed it all to Jesus Christ.

This is how Paul trained for the race. He shared the gospel with purpose to all from the first day. Paul recognized that a life worth living begins with training with a purpose, using the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of the Holy Spirit, never being ashamed and always with humility, knowing that it is the power of the cross that provides salvation, and nothing Paul or you and I do under our own power.

Using these gifts are sometimes met with failure. Paul did all this even through the failures, “with many tears and trials,” because he knew that the message was worth sharing no matter the cost to himself. All to share the message, publicly and from house to house to all those who would listen, that all should repent and believe in Jesus for there is no other means of salvation. Getting back up after failure builds our endurance. And endurance will be needed to run the race and finish the race with joy.

V. Acts 20:22-24a Running the Race

After Paul tells us about how he trained for the race, he shifts now to today and running the race. Acts 20:22-23,

And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself.

Paul shifts from past to present with “And see, now,” or “And now, behold.” Paul makes up his mind with purpose to accomplish today what the Holy Spirit asks him to do. In Paul’s case, he is called to get to Jerusalem before Pentacost, but also told by the Holy Spirit that the trip won’t be easy. Trials and tribulations await. But rather than just gritting his teeth and bearing what inflictions lay ahead, Paul sets his course with purpose. Instead of running away from difficult times, he gets into the boat and sails into the hurricane.

Because of the endurance he has developed, though, from his past exercise of his faith, Paul sets his sights on Jerusalem. Knowing the persecution that our brothers and sisters endure in other countries, I wonder if we are more faithful under persecution. Knowing they are about to die at the hands of extremists, story after story is told of our brothers and sisters proclaiming the good news. Yet, we, who are so comfortable in front of our television with our iPhone by our side keep our knowledge of the good news to ourselves so as not to make others uncomfortable.

Because of Paul’s endurance from His past devotion, Paul has commitment and energy to run the race today, despite the trials and tribulations that are always in front of every true believer. The devil is furious with Christians and sure to inflict trials. I once heard it said that if you’re not experiencing trials, perhaps the devil is comfortable with your faith.

But Paul does not shy away from confrontation; he says he does not count his life dear to himself. He uses an accounting term when he says he doesn’t count his life dear to himself; it’s as though he’s balancing the books, examining his assets and liabilities, and decided that Jesus Christ outweighs everything Paul has to offer. In Philippians 3:12-14, Paul puts it this way:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

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I heard a story while studying this about a man who decides to dedicate his life and his business to the Lord. Since it all came from God anyway, he was going to dedicate every bit of it back to God. And the next week, one his factories catches fire. As it burns to the ground, the man stands outside, watching it, with his son by his side. And his son asks, “aren’t you upset? Is this your reward? You give everything to God and it all burns up?” And the man answers, “It all belongs to the Lord. If God wants to burn it all up, that’s His choice.”

VI. Acts 20:24b Finishing the Race with Joy

Once we accept the eternal salvation offered by Jesus, we can just sit at the starting line and watch the other runners. We still get to hang a number on a piece of paper around our necks, we can still claim to have entered the marathon.

Jesus calls us to do more. Jesus wants us to enter the race, run the race, and finish the race. He wants us to acknowledge that we have received a precious gift that cost the son of God His very life. To decline this gift is eternal damnation. In Matthew 13:45-46, Jesus describes the goal at the end of the race like this:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

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We have each been offered a pearl of great price, our eternal salvation and life ever after. Are we willing to give up everything to achieve that prize? Or do we hold something back, something we are not willing to risk? What keeps us from celebrating the Good New daily? What keeps us from sharing the Good News daily so others may receive that same gift? Paul tallies up his balance sheet and the score is Jesus: 100, Me: 0. Apart from Jesus, I have nothing. In Acts 20:24, Paul is looking forward to the end of the race. He’s trained for it, he wakes up daily ready to run, and he sees the finish line.
But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

VII. Conclusion

I think a live worth living requires living a life with purpose, not just being a diplomat at the Church of Disgruntled Attendees. Whatever our past has given to us is fuel for the race, it has equipped us in a way that is unique to us. And fully-fueled, to live a life well-lived means greeting each day with purpose to accomplish the unique goal that the Holy Spirit has set before each one of us. And despite the trials ahead and the failures behind, recognizing that we are building endurance for the race ahead. And as we see the finish line approaching, finish it with joy. In 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul says his goal was to run the race well and finish well:

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

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We can sit at the starting line with a number hung around our neck and claim we entered a marathon. We can go to a lukewarm church and be lukewarm diplomats for Christ and hope we do not offend anybody.

Or we can run the race with joy and purpose, we can be ambassadors for Christ with joy and purpose. On that day when we face our creator, we can in all humility look forward to that crown of righteousness. How much joy will be in our hearts when we hear our Savior say,

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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To God be the glory. Amen.