Jesus, Lamb of God

 

Introduction

I think it’s easy to underestimate everything that Jesus has done for us. I’ll go further – no matter where you are in your Christian walk, you and I have already underestimated and continue to underestimate everything the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords has done, is doing, and will do for you and me.

Today we are going to study Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Old Testament

We’ve been walking through the Chronological Bible this year, and we need to recap a little about God addresses sin. The first sin, of course, was in the Garden of Eden, breaking forever the unblemished relationship between man and our God.

God promised the serpent the sin would not go unpunished, in Genesis 3:15,

And I will put enmity
   between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
   and you will strike his heel.

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As for Adam and Eve, whom He loved, God began the sacrificial system when God slew an innocent animal and covered man’s nakedness in Genesis 3:21,

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.

Slide3.JPGFor the next several centuries, those who walked with God understood this concept of substitutionary death. Alters were built and sacrifices made by Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But God’s sacrificial system was taken to another level while the Israelites suffered under bondage by the Egyptians. In this first Passover, 4 days prior to their exodus out of Egypt, each Israeli household was to choose a lamb without defect. The lamb was slain, roasted, and eaten on the night of departure.   The lamb’s blood was smeared on lintel and doorpost of each Hebrew home, signifying to the angel of death that death had already occurred in that home. God’s wrath would then “pass over” that home.

Slide4.JPGIn the 40 years of the wilderness, God still had a desire to be close to His people, despite their sin nature. The sacrificial system was expanded, and introduced a high priest and an altar, the holy of holies, and substitutionary sacrifices were made annually on the Day of Atonement.

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The Israelites lived their entire year in their sin, anticipating their Day of Atonement to be free of their sin, living in the light of this promise of redemption.   The sacrificial lamb saved them from their sins.

But as we learned through the books of Kings and Chronicles, the people of Israel continued to do evil in the sight of the Lord. Despite God’s instruction to observe Passover every year, this celebration lapsed. The people God loved would not cleanse themselves regularly to restore their relationship.

God began to lay out the prophecies of a messiah who would rescue them from bondage, none of them so clear as Isaiah 53 when we are told our savior would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.   And in Isaiah 53:7,

He was oppressed and afflicted,
   yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
   and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
   so he did not open his mouth.

God would send a savior to pay the price for our transgressions. God’s own son would pay the price for our sins. As fully man, Jesus would identify with us, be tempted like us, understand pain like us. As fully God, though, He would be able to pay for the sins of the whole world.   But prophecy also said that when the Lamb of God was sent, He would be rejected by His own people.

God’s people fell into bondage again in the hands of the Babylonians and spent years enslaved and compromising their beliefs. God became silent. He seemingly stopped intervening, instructing or interacting with His people for over 400 years. During this time, the rituals, laws and traditions took on even greater importance to the Jewish people – not because they fully understood their need for a relationship with God, but because it was the thing passed down from generation to generation. It was their defining characteristic. That rigid structure was something tangible they could control, and they used it to create systems, divisions among the people and hierarchies.

The religious texts promised that God would send a deliverer, but unlike when He sent Moses, this savior would set up a kingdom greater than any they had ever known. The scriptures foretold of a Messiah that would save the Jewish people from oppression, and they clung to their understanding of what that meant. Now under control of yet another invader, the Roman empire, the Jewish people longed for the day their king would come. They just didn’t realize their king would look very different from what they expected.

Lamb of God – New Testament

And in our Chronological study, we arrived a few weeks ago in the New Testament, and John the Baptist is baptizing with water at Bethany, and the Jewish leaders accuse John the Baptist of being the Messiah.

John replies in the book of John 1:23,

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

John is quoting from Isaiah 40. And just a few verses later in verse 29,

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

When John recognized Jesus, John announced Him according to prophecy that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament promises of redemption. John understood that Jesus came to die as a sacrificial substitute, and that Jesus will rise from the dead to demonstrate God’s acceptance of Christ’s death as payment for guilty sinners. But not all prophecy had yet been fulfilled. Isaiah 53 had spelled out exactly how our Messiah must die.

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The Jewish leaders who had become powerful and wealthy based on their legalistic interpretations of Jewish law were horrified by the notion that Jesus was the foretold Messiah. The Jewish leaders wanted a kingdom to rule over the surrounding nations as had been done to them, but Jesus preached a very different kind of life. He encouraged the people to be meek and mild.   He preached that one should love even those who did not follow the commands they had been taught to fear. The more popularity Jesus gained among the people, the more the religious leaders set out to accuse and convict Him through both a Jewish trial and a Roman one – trials meant to execute Jesus and lasted less than a day.

Jesus is King

After the betrayal by Judas, Jesus was arrested in the dark hours of a Friday morning. He was bound and taken to Caiaphas, the high priest, and the ruling members of the Sanhedrin in what was really a preliminary hearing. Matthew 26:59-66 (Chronological Bible, November 2nd, pg 1409) –

Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none.

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 Remember, the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin are legalistic and use the Law to elevate themselves in positions of power. Here they are using the rules from Deuteronomy 17 about how the court system should work, particularly Deuteronomy 17:6-7a –

On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person [who blasphemes] is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, and then the hands of all the people.

The hands of all the people are to be involved in the death of Jesus, but the Sanhedrin are first trying to find 2 people who agree, so they march a line of false witnesses that don’t tell the same story so the Sanhedrin can’t make a case. But then, continuing in Matthew 26,

But at last two false witnesses came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’ And the high priest arose and said to Him, “Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death.”

Based on this brief exchange, Caiaphas (the high priest) and the Sanhedrin find Jesus guilty of blasphemy. The goal of the Sanhedrin, though, was not to bring a religious indictment. The Sanhedrin lacked the power of a death penalty under Roman law, and the Romans weren’t interested in a religious squabble.   So the goal of the Sanhedrin was to bring a political allegation that would anger the Romans.   If Jesus claimed to be king, Caesar would have Jesus executed.   So ironically, the Sanhedrin sought to prove that Jesus claimed to be king so the Romans would get rid of him.

The book of Matthew also makes the case that Jesus is king, but for a very different reason.   Matthew spends 26 chapters making a case that Jesus was the foretold Messiah and fulfilled all the prophecies of the coming kingdom of God so that the injustice of His trial and ultimately His death would be seen as fulfilling scripture for the coming messiah, and how Jesus’ actions before and after the Sanhedrin fulfilled Scripture’s promise of a final, atoning, sacrificial Lamb.

Isaiah 53:7 – He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. Matthew 26:63 – But Jesus kept silent.

Matthew 27: 12 – …He did not answer.

Matthew 27: 14 – And He did not answer…

Jesus is Lamb

Later, that Friday morning as the run was rising, with their charges of blasphemy documented, the Sanhedrin then send Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. The Roman trial begins, but look how the Sanhedrin twist the charges to inflame the Romans in Luke 23:1-2 –

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”  

So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.  

Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”

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Pilate wants nothing to do with this. Pilate discerns that this is a religious matter and sends Jesus to Herod for interrogation. If Jesus claims to be king of the Jews, well, then Pontius will send him to the king of the Jews, Herod.

It says in Luke 23:8,

When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort.

Slide15.JPGHerod was happy to receive Jesus. Maybe he thought it would be great entertainment and see if Jesus would do some tricks. But Jesus stood there silently. So Herod questions Jesus and then mocks Him and sends Him back to Pilate dressed sarcastically as a king.

Matthew 27: 11-14 –

Now Jesus stood before the governor. And the governor asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus said to him, “It is as you say.” And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing. Then Pilate said to Him, “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?” But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly. (Chronological Bible, November 3rd, p. 1411)

Pilate was amazed by Jesus’s willingness to accept the charges against Him.

Matthew 27:22-26 –

Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!” Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.” And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified. (Chronological Bible, November 3rd, p. 1413)

Though they knew he was innocent, the crowd demanded the blood of Jesus, thus fulfilling scripture.   Jesus was indeed the unblemished Lamb of God. The crowd wanted Barabbas instead to be released to them. Barabbas was known for leading groups of insurrectionists against the Roman government. The crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus. The crowd chose a “messiah” of their own design. The crowd chose one who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Rome’s power over the true Messiah with the true power to save them.

Jesus is Savior

It’s only mid-morning on Friday, mere hours after Jesus’ arrest, but with the crowd’s decision, Jesus’s trials were over. Jesus was convicted, sentenced to be crucified at Golgotha.

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The scourging of Jesus was brutal. The crucifixion of Jesus was brutal. But yet again, Jesus fulfilled the scripture. Isaiah 53, remember, we are told our savior would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

By the middle of Friday afternoon, the brutal crucifixion was nearing its completion.   Jesus would die by asphyxiation, unable to lift his body on the nail through His feet so He could draw His breath.   You may remember the last words of Jesus from John 19:30, “It is finished.”

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Which if you look at the original Greek, Jesus chose a unique final word. Our English translations use “finished” like it was the end of a race, which is true, but doesn’t convey the meaning I believe Jesus intended. Jesus chose an accounting term as His last breath. The word Jesus used was “τελέω teléō. Or two verses earlier, he uses the more commonly known form of the verb Τετέλεσται tetelestai, and the full meaning is that the debt is paid and nothing left is owed.

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It is finished.   Our debt is paid. We are freed.

And Jesus didn’t go out with a last gasp, a weak goodbye. Matthew 27:50 says the final words of Jesus were cried out in a loud voice.   They were the triumphant words of victory, it is finished! Jesus had completed what He had come to do – to be our King, the sacrificial Lamb of God, our savior.

Conclusion

Jesus didn’t just die for a cause He believed in. He wasn’t just a martyr. God raised to life, overcoming death, demonstrating God’s acceptance of the sacrifice of His son. Jesus did not just die. He overcame death, hell and the grave. His earthly story ends with a miracle just as big as the one with which it began.

Matthew 28:1-6 –

Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. (Chronological Bible, November 4th, p. 14151416)

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Over the centuries, there has been so much controversy around the question of who put Jesus on the cross. Did the Jews put Jesus on the cross? Saying that the Jews put Jesus on the cross is wrong and has fueled terrible acts of antisemitism over the years. But it is just as incorrect to say that the Romans put Jesus on the cross or even, as some claim, that “we” put Jesus on the cross – all of us for the wrong we do and the sin that separates us from God. None of those statements are accurate. None of those groups sent Jesus to His death.

Jesus put Jesus on the cross. Jesus died for the sole purpose of raising from the dead. He died willingly and sacrificially to save a world He loves who could not save themselves.

And not just the world – distant and unknown. He died for you. And me. His death is intimate and personal. It happened a long time ago in a place you may never visit, but it is personal and it matters. It happened TO Him, but it happened FOR you.

Yes, Jesus is King. Jesus’ death fulfills the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning Messiah.

Yes, Jesus is Lamb of God. Jesus’ death satisfies the requirements for a sacrifice for sin.

Yes, Jesus is Savior. Jesus’ death is a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. Jesus’ resurrection declares His deity and demonstrates the Father’s acceptance of His work on the cross.

But He is not just any king. Jesus is YOUR king. He is YOUR lamb, and He is YOUR savior.

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To God be the glory.   Amen.

The Keys to Happiness

I. Introduction

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Me, I wanted to fly a jet for the US Navy. Something about being at sea, landing on that aircraft carrier. Of course, if I understand it, they use a system of green lights and red lights to tell you when it’s ok to land. And I’m red/green colorblind. That would have been even more exciting.

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Doctors, lawyers, policemen. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Business Insider ( https://www.businessinsider.com/american-kids-youtube-star-astronauts-survey-2019-7 ) did a survey of what today’s American kids want to be when they grow up. The number one answer? Youtuber.

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They want to be famous youtubers, be their own star of their own YouTube channel and be famous. Fame will make them happy. They see football sport stars, reality television stars, viral videos and think fame will make them happy.

And before we criticize them too much, we’re all guilty of seeking happiness from something worldly. Money, people, shopping, food, social media, toys. Of course we want to be happy. But these things don’t bring happiness. Even in the bible, Solomon was the richest and most famous king that Israel ever had. Solomon had wealth, fame, wisdom, his own YouTube channel… everything except happiness.

Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times somebody that’s going through difficult times has told me, “God just wants me to be happy.”   The most extreme version I’ve encountered in my life was a friend of my wife, who, 10 years ago desperately wanted a husband. And then she started dated a married man. She said, God told her it was ok because God just wants her to be happy.

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I know that God wants good things for His children, and good things make us happy. But way too often we go to God and tell Him to give us something we want that will make us happy. But that’s not how God tells His children to approach the problem of happiness.

God knows everything. He knows, better than we know, what will make us happy. God wants us to rely on Him, not on our ideas, on how to find happiness. Just ask God and He’ll tell you and me what we need for happiness.

In fact, He already did. And surprise surprise, He wrote down His instructions in the Bible for us to find. Today we are going to study the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

II.  The Beatitudes

The word “beatitude” is a weird word. It’s a kind of Englishized translation of a Latin translation of a Greek word, and it’s not even found in the bible. No wonder I don’t use it in everyday conversation. Matthew, author of our Good News today, wrote in Greek, and word he used was “makarios.” It means “divinely happy and supremely blessed,” or happiness that comes from the divine. Weirdly, the English word that is derived from this is “macro”, sort of like “I summed it all up” or “I’ve got everything.”

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Then one of the earliest bible translations from the original Greek into Latin translated this word into “beatus” which means “happy” or “blessed.”

And so Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this first portion called The Beatitudes, are literally instructions on how to be happy. And just as we mistakenly believe happiness comes from fame or fortune, the Jews that were listening had their world upside down. They believed that Makarios, divine happiness, was based on material blessing and prosperity provided by God. They were also looking for a Messiah to rescue them from Roman occupation, physical happiness. Jesus turned everything upside down, challenging the people to reconsider their idea of blessed and happy by focusing on God’s desires. Moreover, this state of being blessed isn’t anything man can earn, but the result of a declaration from God.

III. Spiritual Bankruptcy

Matthew 5:3, Jesus begins,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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The word poor in the original Greek is “ptochos” which means having literally nothing, totally broke. It’s a recognition that everything we have – our jobs and our house and our family and the light of the sun and the air we breathe and gravity itself are all gifts from God. The world teaches that you can do it all, have it all, and you deserve it all.   But being poor in spirit means recognizing that we bring nothing into this world and we bring nothing out except the very soul God gives us.

In Isaiah 66:1-2,

“Thus says the LORD, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? “For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD. “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”

What do you think you have that God didn’t give you?

Who do you think you are that God didn’t make?

One of the keys to happiness is learning to stop depending on yourself, and realize God already did everything. Poverty of the spirit is the most important of the beatitudes.   It is how you compare yourself to God.   Do you look at God as a power that can assist you in your goals? Or do you look at God as sovereign ruler of all and how you can assist God in His goals?   To experience true happiness, recognize that God is greater than anything you are, anything you can do, or anything you can imagine.

IV. Comprehension of Sin

The second beatitude, Matthew 5:4,

Blessed are those who mourn,

   for they will be comforted.

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You’re probably thinking I’ve lost it.   The 2nd key to happiness is to be unhappy.

Well, that’s not exactly what this verse means. Certainly there is sorrow in this world, and Revelation says every tear will eventually be wiped away, but remember, the beatitudes are teaching us not to tell God what makes us happy, but to ask God what makes Him happy.

This verse, then, is about spiritual mourning. Maybe we don’t think of God as having emotions – except anger, maybe. And love, for God so loved the world. But God mourns when His people turn away from Him.

Do we mourn for the lost? Do we mourn when God’s will is ridiculed? A lesson I seem to be learning when, as I get older, is that we don’t live forever on this earth. I know, I just found out. But when people die, there’s a great deal of emotion around the loss.   But usually those emotions are for us – we’ve lost someone – or for others – they’ve lost someone.

When somebody dies without accepting Jesus as their savior, God has lost someone. God gives them what they’ve always wanted, a life without God, and God mourns. I think of the story of Jonah I taught earlier this year, especially at the end when Jonah was upset when God didn’t wipe out those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Ninevites . And God taught Jonah that God gave them life and nurtured them and while God agreed that they were terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people, God mourned that He would never have a relationship with them.

Sin separates us from the love of God, paid for only by the shed blood of Christ. And you know God grieved when His son paid that price for us, but today Jesus is resurrected and sits at the right hand of the Father. And we, too, mourn over the sins that separate us from God, but we will be comforted that our sins are washed away so that we have fellowship with our heavenly father in a way we can barely comprehend today.

So the 2nd key to happiness is to mourn over our own sins and failures, the sinfulness of the world, and that God is not given the glory and honor due Him.

V. Humility in Outlook

Then Matthew 5:5, beatitude #3,

Blessed are the meek,

   for they will inherit the earth.

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The Greek word used by Jesus in 5:5 is “πραΰς“ or “praus” which means ‘mild, gentle, humble, kind, forgiving’. It is an attitude toward others of compassion and gentleness. Jesus used this word in Matthew 11:29 to describe himself:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Our daily challenge to meet this beatitude is also illustrated in Philippians 2:5 –

‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who … made himself nothing.’

That’s what we are – ‘nothing.’   Apart from God we are nothing.   We depend on him for our physical existence and for our spiritual life. To be ‘meek,’ to be gentle, is to live with an awareness that Christ lives within us. We want no glory for ourselves and we are therefore willing to be nothing in order to provide good for others.

“Meek” does not mean spineless or weak. Jesus, the Lord of Glory, was meek, and yet, He was tougher than nails. Being meek is deliberate, not passive, actively looking to be kind and good to others. Meek is Jesus, Almighty God, becoming man. Meek is Jesus, the King of kings, permitting the Roman soldiers to hammer the iron nails into his hands, and refusing to call down legions of angels because He loves us. The key to happiness is the gentleness of Christ being evident is everything we say and do.

VI. Need for Righteousness

Ready for beatitude #4? Matthew 5:6,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

   for they will be filled.

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To be happy, we hunger and thirst for righteousness. There are two parts, a) hungering and thirsting, and b) righteousness.

It’s not enough to enjoy righteousness. It’s not enough to admire righteousness. To be happy, we hunger for it with a consuming passion. To be happy, we don’t seek happiness. We don’t seek fame or fortune or power or beauty or sexuality or anything else. We must understand the first 3 beatitudes of our spiritual bankruptcy, our sin nature, and letting the meekness of Christ live with us, and hunger for it. We should strive to know how far short we fall and hunger for His righteousness.

Too often, this hunger is misplaced.   We hunger for the righteousness of men.   We hunger to be accepted. We see society preaching at us to accept the immorality of the world in the name of loving our fellow man, and we want to be accepted, so we say yes. And this yearning for acceptance leads to destruction of lives and families because our hunger is for the wrong things.

Or we understand the need for righteousness, but it’s a passing thought. We have our busy lives. Who has time for righteousness when we’re looking for a new job or trying to find that perfect outfit to wear Friday night? And when there is no hunger for God’s righteousness, there’s no righteousness at all.

To be happy and blessed, we hunger and thirst for His righteousness. God knows what will make us happy, better than we know ourselves.   In Matthew 6:33, Jesus says,

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

To be happy, hunger for God.

VII. Empathy for Others

The next instruction for happiness is in the next beatitude, Matthew 5:7 –

Blessed are the merciful,

   for they will be shown mercy.

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This is not the same as the earlier beatitude of being meek and gentle toward others. This is a recognition that we live in a fallen world full of sin, in ourselves and in others, and to practice forgiveness.

Because we all sin and stumble in many ways. And when we sin, besides the separation from God, it can cause injury to others.

And when someone injures or insults us, of course there should be justice. They need to pay. They should be punished. But you know what? Not by us.   God promises to make everything right, and leave all vengeance to Him. Our job is to forgive.

When I hear about somebody offering forgiveness in an extraordinary way, it’s powerful. This week I heard it from a story in Dallas, you may have read about the trial. Officer Amber Guyger entered the wrong apartment and says she mistook it for her own.   Botham Jean was sitting on the sofa, watching tv and eating ice cream, when Officer Amber Guyger shot him and killed him, thinking he was a burglar. A jury disagreed and convicted her of murder.

But this next part is where I see Matthew 5:7 in action.

The victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, begged for permission to hug the defendant. He told Officer Guyger, “I forgive you. I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad on you.”   Afterwards, shocking many, the judge also hugged her, presented Officer Guyger with a bible, and the 3 of them prayed together.

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Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Because we all sin and stumble in many ways, and we all deserve punishment from God.   But thank our Lord Jesus Christ that He has mercy on us and that we do not bear the punishment for our own sins.   Jesus calls us to share that same forgiveness with everybody that sins against us, the same way He forgive us for our sins. In fact, He puts it this bluntly in Matthew 6:15 –

But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

So let it go. You’ll find that the forgiveness you give is the happiness you receive.

VIII. Align with Christ

Matthew 5:8 –

Blessed are the pure in heart,

   for they will see God.

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Who can claim to be pure in heart?   We all know that we are not pure, we have thoughts, attitudes, desires which are not pure. We may hide it from others, but we cannot hide it from ourselves or from God.

And ‘pure’ is an absolute term.   You cannot say a heart is ‘purer’.   Being pure means that it is not defiled, polluted or mixed with impurities.

There are so many impurities that we may think will make us happy, but they don’t. They are empty, dead ends, failures. But true joy and happiness is realizing this world has nothing to offer, and Jesus offers everything.

So, how can we make our hearts pure? It is beyond our ability. It is God who initiates, sanctifies and perfects the heart of man who put his trust in Him. It begins when we realize that we cannot do it on our own. Throughout our life, we go through the process of sanctification that will be perfected when we are glorified in Christ Jesus.

This sanctification is a difficult process. Gold has to go through the furnace to be perfected, to burn off the impurities.   1 Peter 1:6-7 –

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith, of greater worth than gold which perishes even though refined by fire, may be proven genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

So, how can we be pure in heart?   By constantly seeking an active fellowship with God through daily personal time with God in His words and prayer, allowing God to purify us though His Holy Spirit in us.   Philippians 1:6,

Be confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

IX. Identify with Others

Two more beatitudes to go.   Matthew 5:9,

Blessed are the peacemakers,

   for they will be called children of God.

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Jesus said that to be happy, be a peacemaker. This statement would have shocked the Jews in the crowd. Jews were looking for a military messiah to overthrow the Roman Empire and establish an earthly kingdom. But Jesus supports peace and encourages the peacemakers. Once again, Kingdom of Heaven defies the norm of earthly kingdom, which is established by power and wars.

What’s interesting about peace is that the foundation of peace is the love received from God. But what about our enemies who hate us? Jesus says in Luke 6:27-28 –

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

It sounds counterintuitive, like many things from heaven, but to find happiness, don’t just find peace.   Create peace. Actively love our enemies.

The reward for peacemakers is very unique. “They will be called sons of God.” That would bring me happiness, to be called as one of God’s children.

X. Do What is Right

This last beatitude is the most contradictory of all the beatitudes. How can we be happy when we are going through insult, persecution, suffering, even death for doing what is right? Matthew 5:10 –

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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Jesus very clearly proclaims happiness for those who are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Now, two different ways we can be persecuted for “righteousness” –

[1] Gospel righteousness, by which we have ceased to trust in our own performance and depend solely on the righteousness of Christ, is offensive to both the nominal believer and the unbeliever, because people do not like to think that salvation is free. Somehow it must be earned.

Every religion of man tells them they have to, and can, earn their way to heaven. But Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship. And it is not about man trying to earn his way into heaven, but about our incredible loving God paying for our way to heaven. Gospel righteousness is therefore a threat to both human pride and human religion.

Some people think that the Christian’s assurance of salvation is actually ‘self-righteousness’ and therefore accuse believers of either hypocrisy or pride. But it is not self-righteousness that allows me to proclaim that I am saved. It is righteousness in Jesus and the trust in His promises that allow me to proclaim that I am saved because He is Lord.

[2] The practical righteousness or goodness which Christians demonstrate in their lives is threatening to the ungodly; it accuses them and exposes their ungodliness and guilt.   This persecution because of Gospel righteousness is the evident background to several of the New Testament letters, where those who trusted solely in the righteousness of Christ were persecuted by those who wanted to base their relationship to God with their own performance of law and ritual.

We find it difficult to grasp rejoicing in suffering because we have not seen the complete picture. Even among many Christians, there is a growing tendency to focus on earthly blessings.   It is not to say that we should not desire good in this life, but Jesus and His disciples always focused on future hope and glory.

There are parts of the world, where people are being persecuted for Christ. For them, following Christ means suffering, rejection and even death. They are blessed and privileged to share in suffering with Christ.

We may not go through physical persecution or suffering, but we all feel being constantly chased after by the enemy of Christ. When we pursue righteousness, we may find being constantly running or fleeing from the spiritual forces, who are after us to knock us down.

It is not in the suffering or pain, we rejoice, but it is in the hope of God’s glory to be revealed. We Christians rejoice in suffering for righteousness, because we participate in the suffering of Christ, that we bear his name, and that we will be overjoyed when Christ’ glory will be revealed in us. It is our privilege to suffer with Christ.

XI. Conclusion

So what are the keys to happiness?   Don’t tell God what will make you happy. Let God tell you what will make you happy.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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To God be the glory.

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,

 

Slide14

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,

Slide16

“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.”

Slide5

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.”

Slide6

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.

Slide7

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.

Slide17.JPG

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.

Slide18

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.

Slide20

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.”

Slide21

To God be the glory. Amen.

Jews & Gentiles, Legalism & Antinomianism

I.      Introduction

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of teaching from my assignment in Leviticus 26.  In that lesson, we discussed about the Lord’s promises to provide blessings to Israel if they put they followed God’s will, and the Lord’s promises of curses that follow if Israel turned away from the path God had set before them.

And then we discussed how Jesus Christ bore those curses on Himself and fulfilled the Old Testament Law so that we would be free of legalism and free to live a life that honors our savior. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but this week’s assignment is Acts 15 and I’m pretty sure it’s the exact same message from a different point of view.  Leviticus looked at God’s plan for us from the Old Testament point of view, and Acts 15 will make an argument against legalism but this time from a New Testament point of view.

II.      Acts 15 The Jerusalem Council

Let’s put ourselves in history and see who is talking to who and when they’re doing the talking.  It’s the year 50 A.D, and Paul has been preaching the gospel for 13 years.  Acts 15:1 begins with,

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Slide2.JPGThis event is commonly known as The Jerusalem Council, and it’s an important part of the early church.  See, the early church wasn’t full of Baptists or Catholics.  The early church was full of Jews who had spent their entire faithful lives as pious Jews, observing the law.  The Holy Spirit was getting ready to work in the church leadership to establish the identity of the church.  Was the new church just a new sect of Judaism?  Or was this new church something completely new?  Were the converted Jews to abandon their centuries of following hundreds of daily rules in favor of this newfound freedom in Christ, or were new believers to become Jews and adhere to the Old Testament Laws?

       III.      Jews and Gentiles

So in this struggle between Jews and Gentiles, it’s helpful to understand who Gentiles are and what it means.  Let’s start in Genesis – of course – this time in Genesis 12.  Abram is living in a world filled with pagan worshippers and idolatry, and God separates Abram in order to establish a covenant, to raise a great nation of those who would follow the Lord.  Genesis 12:1-3 says that when Abram was 75 years old, the Lord said to him,

Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
 
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
 
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Slide3Abram was to live apart for the Lord’s purposes.  Remember that God never changes; these promises are forever.  And Abraham’s descendants proclaimed the one true God to the world.  Those that did not descend from Abraham were allowed to stay if they worshipped the Lord or keep traveling through.  Strong’s definitions says the word “gentile” comes from this word: 

gôwy, go’-ee; rarely (shortened) גֹּי gôy; apparently from the same root as H1465 (in the sense of massing); a foreign nation; hence, a Gentile; also (figuratively) a troop of animals, or a flight of locusts:—Gentile, heathen, nation, people.

Slide4.JPGNow, the word refers to any non-Jew that cannot trace his lineage to Abraham.  Or a locust.

God’s plan was to separate Abraham into a great nation to demonstrate the Lord’s power and glory.  But the gentiles aren’t forgotten; it’s just that God directed His plan through Abraham as His chosen people, and gentiles would see the glory of God through the nation of Israel and be blessed.  The verse we just read, Genesis 12:3 ended with this:

And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Not just the Jews would be blessed by Abraham’s obedience, but all the earth.  Sometimes God doesn’t want to leave scripture open to interpretation, so He repeats it with a definition just to make sure we get it.  So this line is repeated in Galatians 3:8,

The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.”

Slide6.JPGGod’s eternal plan has always had a special role for the Jews, a plan in the past and still a plan for the future.  That’s the purpose of Romans chapter 11, to clarify to the Gentiles what God is doing with Israel.  The first 6 verses of Romans 11 says that God is still disciplining Israel; if God had rejected Israel, there is no reason for discipline.  God is still fulfilling His covenant with Abraham.  Then Paul tells us in Romans 11 verses 11-24 that us gentiles shouldn’t become conceited just because the Jews are being discipline; our faith grafts us to the olive tree of Israel.   We gentiles owe the Jews a great deal.  From the Jews, we received the bible, our savior, and the path to our salvation.  In return, Paul tells us that we should show the Jews mercy so that they will receive God’s mercy.

What’s God’s plan for the nation of Israel?  Romans 11:25-26,

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;  and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, 

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
“This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”

Slide8.JPGToday, Israel has still rejected their Messiah, and the purpose of the gentiles is to demonstrate that God’s mercy has come to all on the basis of faith.

          IV.      Old Testament for the Jews

So 13 years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity, Paul is preaching that we are saved by faith alone, not by the Law.  Orthodox Jews who believe in Christ are saying that, even with faith, obedience to the Law is still necessary, so if you want salvation, you have to follow the Law.  These orthodox Jews run into Paul and Barnabas and a big argument breaks out.  Acts 15:1-2 says these Orthodox Jews required Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem so that the church could straighten them out.

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.  Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.

You might think that the church is summoning Paul to give him a stern talking to, but in reality, it’s the Holy Spirit living in Paul that sends him to Jerusalem to straighten the church out.

Paul and Barnabas set out on their way to Jerusalem.  I like this verse 3 above; Paul and Barnabas are not worried about this meeting with the church; on the contrary, they’re happily spreading the good news to the gentiles along the way that they are free from the Law. 

The church had some stern words for Paul when he arrived in verses 4-5,

When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.  But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

The orthodox Jews, the Pharisees, required the gentiles to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses.  And this became a stumbling block to the gentiles.  In other words, the same Law that the Jews were unable to fulfill for centuries before Christ the savior came was now being imposed on the gentiles.

             V.      New Testament for Everyone

Two of the Apostles stood up to speak.  The first is Peter, who appealed to the Jews on behalf of logic and a vision Peter received.  The vision we briefly touched on last week in Acts 11.  In that vision of a great sheet being lowered from heaven, he is told to get up, kill, and eat, even though Leviticus has strict dietary rules.  When Peter objects because the animals are unclean, God says in Acts 11:9,

But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’

Slide11And at first, Peter understands the Law has been fulfilled through Christ, so the Leviticus dietary restrictions are no longer necessary, but then he realized that Christ sacrifice did a lot more than allowing Peter to eat shrimp and grits.  It cleansed the believer, and what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.  Later in Acts 11:16-18,

And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”  When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

So Peter understand that if Christ truly fulfilled the Law, then the Law doesn’t save us.  The Law only tells us where we fall short, and our shortcomings are already paid for by Christ Jesus.  So what possible reason could the church have for insisting on circumcision for the gentiles?  They are already cleansed by God.  So now Peter tells the church in Acts 15:7-11,

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.  And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;  and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

Why put a heavy yoke of burden on the gentiles, when Christ Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy and his burden is light?  Jesus Himself made this statement in Matthew 11:28-30,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Slide14The yoke of the Pharisees was heavy and burdensome.  The yoke of the Pharisees was legalism and self-righteousness. The yoke of the Pharisees was not intended for the Pharisees, but for the Pharisees to impose upon the people.  And Jesus rejected all of that, saying that a saving faith in Christ Jesus was easy.

The burden of legalism was carried by Christ.  Christ perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament Law in active obedience.  He carries our burden for us and then became the sacrifice for us because He knows our sins are too heavy for us to bear.  As believers in Christ, our burden is light.  Romans 12:1-2 tells us what our burden is,

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

In other words, love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.  And we do not do this alone, for the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and constantly encourages us to be Christ.  This yoke of faith is light, it’s easy to bear, and where we stumble, we are constantly encouraged and forgiven. 

But the heavy yoke of self-righteousness and legalism says Jesus’ sacrifice was insufficient.  A heavy yoke says we must continually strive to make ourselves acceptable to God through works.  Don’t get me wrong; God loves our works.  But our works do not save us or make us acceptable.  It is the sacrifice of Jesus, alone, that makes us acceptable to God.

The other apostle to stand up and speak is James in Acts 15:13-18,

After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.  Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.  With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
 
‘After these things I will return,
And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen,
And I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will restore it,
So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’
Says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.’ 

James is pointing out to the Jews that Christ came for all.  God’s plan was to work through His people of Israel, but when God sent His son, the sacrifice of God Himself was too big to be limited to a chosen few.  The sacrifice of Jesus saved all who would come to Him.  Moreover, James is saying that the sacrifice of Jesus for all people is not something Christ changed; it is prophecy that Christ fulfilled.  God knew from the fall of Adam that mankind would need a savior, and that savior would be Christ Himself for all mankind.

I find it interesting that Peter and James both reach the same conclusion from opposite points of view.  Peter says, why go back to the Law and impose the Law on the gentiles?  Close your bible, Christ has fulfilled the Law.  James on the other hand says, “Open your bible.  See how Christ has fulfilled the Law.”

Slide17.JPGYou and I should do the same.  Open our bibles to the Old Testament and understand everything that Christ fulfilled.  The Law convicts us of our sin, but Christ frees us from the burden of the law.  And then close our bibles when the urge to impose a heavy yoke of legalism says we must still work our way to heaven.  Christ already fulfilled the Law, and the yoke of Christ is far lighter than any yoke of obedience.

          VI.      Balance Obedience and Freedom

So, if Christ frees us from the Law, are we free to do anything we want?  Well, yes.  And no.

One argument that could be made is that Christ died for our sins, then I should go on sinning.  The more I sin, the more it’s apparent how big Christ’s sacrifice was, right?

Slide18.JPGThere’s actually a term for this.  Two Greek words, “anti”, meaning “against”, and “nomos”, meaning “law.”  Antinomianism takes the biblical teaching of the freedom of Christ to an unbiblical conclusion that there is no low, not even moral law, that Christians should obey.  Paul talks about this heresy in Romans 6:1-2,

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?  May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

 There is still a purpose to Old Testament Law.  Romans 7 tells us it convicts us of our sin.  The Law illuminates God’s moral code and how we ought to live our life.  It shows us how far we have fallen.  But obedience to the Law cannot save us. 

But if obedience cannot save us, then disobedience certainly cannot save us.  If we know we are saved from our sins and take the attitude that we now have permission to go on sinning, it’s like crucifying Christ all over again.  Living in sin enslaves us, defiles us, shames us, and it spreads death and corruption in our lives.  It keeps us from the abundant life that Christ promises.  To avoid sin, we follow the Law.

Here’s the balance each of us must learn.  If we love Christ and are saved from our sins, then we obey the Law.  But if we obey the Law, then we must obey the whole Law.  If we obey the whole Law, then what was the purpose of Christ sacrifice to fulfill the Law?

Balance legalism and antinomianism.  Antinomianism leads to living in sin and never knowing the abundant life.  Following the Law, on the other hand, leads to legalism and judgmentalism that so corrupted the Pharisees.  So do we obey the Law, or don’t obey the Law?

And that’s how Acts 15 wraps up in verses 19 and 20.  After listening to Peter and James, James and the church agreed like this:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.

There are things we do as Christians that can demonstrate the love of Christ within us, especially when we are obedient to Christ’s teachings.  But there are also things that, even though permitted, can lead people away from Christ.  James asks the gentiles to abstain from things that make us a bad witness. 

This applies to a great many things that we should or shouldn’t do.  We must open our bibles and follow the Law.  We must close our bibles and follow our hearts.  We must do both if we are to strike a balance between legalism and antinomianism.  We are free indeed in Christ, but we are not to so indulge in that freedom that we become a stumbling block to others that are seeking to grow closer to the Lord.

So in your daily walk with Christ, remember your freedom.  Christ came to us, born of a virgin, to become a perfect sacrifice, because the sacrifice of God himself covers both Jew and Gentile, all who seek the Lord.  Balance our lives between being a between legalistic Jew that must follow all of the Old Testament Law and free-loving gentile who is free from the Law because of Christ’s sacrifice for us.  Balance our lives between being a judgmental Pharisee and a wild, uncivilized antimomialist.  Follow the law, and remember that you are also free of the law.

And if you don’t get that balance exactly right?  It doesn’t matter because God knows your heart.  That’s the best Christmas present ever. 

Slide21.JPG

To God be the glory.  Amen.

Encouragement

Slide2

Kind words do not cost much. They never blister the tongue or lips. They make other people good-natured. They also produce their own image on men’s souls, and a beautiful image it is.

– Blaise Pascal

Every spoken word, every action we take, effects another person.  We either affect somebody positively or we affect negatively.  Even many neutral actions, since they don’t affect another in a positive way, can be considered negative.  We label ourselves as either an optimist who sees the glass half full, or a pessimist who sees the glass half empty.  Or as an engineer, who sees the glass as excessively sized for the application.

Some Christians look at the people around them and find fault with them.  *They* gossip too much, they only hang around with their friends; they don’t serve like they should.  Other believers seem to have a good word for everyone they meet.  Which type of person do you like to be around?  Which type of person are you?

If we’re critical of others, we make excuses for our behavior.  I don’t feel good.  I woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  It’s just the way I am.   God made me this way.  Or, they’re just out to get me.  They deserve it.  Or we hide our criticism behind the phrase, “bless their heart.”  You can say the absolute meanest, despicable things about somebody as long as you add the phrase, “bless their heart” to it.  “He’s just a blathering idiot, bless his heart.”  “She’s a wicked gossip who smells bad and dresses like a vagrant, bless her heart.”

Why do we do this?  Like many sins, this one, too, is based on pride.  *We* are better than them.  If they don’t know that, then we can drag them down and push ourselves up by criticizing them.  We think so highly of ourselves that we don’t consider the other person’s feelings before we open our mouths.

That’s not God’s plan for us.  God wants all His children to encourage and lift one another.  Proverbs 10:10-11,

He who winks maliciously causes grief,
and a chattering fool comes to ruin.

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.

And Hebrews 3:13,

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

What day is it?  That’s right, it’s Today.  I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.  And 1 Thessalonians 5:11,

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

And Ephesians 4:29,

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Slide3Ok, so does God want us to encourage one another?  Who can guess the answer to that question?

Today we’re going to study Acts 11 starting in verse 19 about a great encourager.  This is a difficult time for the early church; the early Jews preaching the gospel were persecuted by Herod.  Stephen had been stoned to death, and the early Christians were scattered.  There was some confusion around this time about the good news of the gospel and who could receive it.

Then Peter has a vision.  In Acts 11:1-3,

The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Criticism is everywhere; here, early believers are criticizing Peter, one of the original 12 Apostles.  I can imagine them saying, “Well!  He may have traveled and listened to Jesus for 3 years, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Why, just the other day, he was eating with so-and-so, you know, that ‘gentile’.  He calls himself a follower of Christ but you sure can’t tell by the way he’s behaving.”

As a devout Jew, entering the house of an unclean gentile under Jewish Law would cause Peter to become unclean, a fact other Jews pointed out to him.  But Peter has a vision, and in verse 4, Peter tells them about this vision.  He repeats it “precisely” to them;  he saw a sheet coming down from heaven, and inside were four-footed animals, and a voice from the Lord saying, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”

Slide5

Peter’s initial response indicated Jewish thinking; he cannot eat those animals because Jewish law forbids it.  “Surely no, Lord!  Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth!”  And the Lord responds, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

When we study God’s word, we often stop right there and think that God’s message is that it’s ok to eat pork.  Or shellfish.  Or… scorpions.  Or whatever.  And indeed, the scripture tells us this.  When you couple this vision with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” we can also conclude that we are not bound by the Old Testament laws because Jesus completed them.  We are free in Christ.

But for Peter, the vision he received also addresses the salvation of gentiles.  Gentiles are also made by God.  Gentiles are non-Jews, not part of God’s chosen people.  Gentiles can also be made clean by God.  The Holy Spirit came upon some gentiles in Acts 11:15-18,

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

Slide6.JPGIn verse 19, after the stoning of Stephen, the early Christians scattered but continued to preach.  Those that went to Phoenicia, Cypress and Antioch taught only to Jews.  Other early Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene also went to Antioch, but began to teach the gentiles, the Greeks.  The early church began to grow rapidly.  Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the early church there began to hear of the conversion of gentiles in Antioch.  Verse 22-24, 

News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Slide7Barnabas is a great example of the Christian God wants us to be.  In Acts 4:34-37, scripture introduces us to this man.

There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.  Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Slide8His given name was Joseph, but the early church gave him the nickname “Barnabas”.  A complete reading of the word “barnabas,” gives a more complete picture of his name.  Barnabas means –

  • Son of encouragement
  • Son of prophecy
  • Son of refreshment
  • Son of comfort
  • Son of consolation
  • Son of preacher

In Hebrew names, the prefix “bar-” meant “son of.”  For instance, in Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah.”  It meant “Simon, son of Jonah.”  If Jesus had said, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Smith & Wesson,” that could also mean “blessed are you Simon, you son of a gun.”

The selection of Barnabas by the early church was a wise decision.  Barnabas is described in glowing terms in verse 24.  He is the only man in Acts called “good.”  He is “full of the Holy Spirit” and “full of faith.”  And then Barnabas gives 3 examples of who we are to encourage.  First, by going to Antioch to share the gospel with gentiles in verses 19-22, Barnabas encourages new Christians.  These new Christians came not from Jewish backgrounds, but from pagan backgrounds.   It is because of this encouragement that (verse 21) “the Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

Why do new Christians need encouragement?

  • May have zeal and happiness, but not knowledge of scripture
  • May fall into old secular habits easily
  • If not welcomed, may seek inclusion elsewhere

We can definitely encourage new Christians by assuring them that God is at work in their lives, that God loves them and gave His son for them.  We can encourage new Christians, not by looking at what they are doing wrong, but by affirming the positive qualities they have and the positive actions they do.  We must approach them in love, not criticism or condescension.

I look at these early Christians, the aggressive evangelism they do to spread the Word, and the persecution they endured, and compare it to the safety and comfort of our modern church.  We’re coddled by Christianity, but it’s the suffering of the early Christians that produced the hope and character of zealous Christians.  I once heard it said that they did so much with so little, while in our modern comfortable lives, we do so little with so much.

Another person Barnabas encouraged was Saul.  Verse 25-27,

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Slide11Saul wasn’t exactly a new Christian; Saul was an educated Pharisee, a very devout Jew who had persecuted the Christians until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus.  When Saul converted to Christianity, there was a lot of suspicion about him.  After all, Saul was a witness to the stoning of Stephen; how could this man be so changed after his encounter with Jesus?

Barnabus went specifically to search for Saul and bring him to Antioch and together they helped grow the early church there.  This was not the first time Barnabus had encouraged Saul; in Acts 9, immediately after Saul’s conversion, the Jews conspired to kill him and Saul tried to join the early church.  But the Christians there were afraid of him and distrusted him.  Then Acts 9:27, “But Barnabas took Saul and brought him to the apostles.”

Saul became Paul and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit wrote most of the New Testament, including the letter to the Hebrews, verse 3:13, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today.”  While we think of Paul has an incredible teacher, how much of Paul’s writing can be attributed to the encouragement and joy of Barnabas?

Why do established Christians need encouragement?

  • Initial zeal of forgiveness fades, tempted by world
  • The stronger the Christian, the more Satan steps up his attacks
  • Like Paul, Christians we encourage may contribute to God’s work in ways we could never imagine

It says here in Acts 11:26 that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.  Here’s the rabbit trail for this week; up until this time, followers of Christ had sort of an identity crisis.  For a while in Acts 1 through 4 they were called “believers”.  In Acts 5, they referred to themselves as the church, and then in Acts 6 they called themselves disciples and then brothers.  In Acts 9, they called themselves “The Way,” I assume because Jesus called himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  They also called themselves the Lord’s people in Acts 9, the Followers in Acts 17, and the Flock in Acts 20.  But it was here in Acts 11 that followers of Christ were first called Christians.

Slide13So back to Barnabus; he’s encouraged new Christians, he’s encouraged experienced Christians, and now Acts 11:23 it says Barnabus encouraged all of them, the entire church of Antioch.  So Barnabus has shown by his example we are to encourage new Christians, established Christians, both individually and in groups.  Did we miss anybody?

Acts 11 ends on a note that a severe famine began to spread throughout the Roman worlds, and in verse 29-30,

“The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.”

Slide14Barnabus’ encouragement was not limited to words; he also encouraged them by his acts of service.  There are many ways of providing encouragement; here’s a list called “8 Simple Ways to Encourage Others”

(http://www.ismckenzie.com/03/18/8-simple-ways-to-encourage-others/):

  • Take an interest. I believe this is one of the most effective ways of encouraging others. Show that you’re interested in what they’re doing. Get them talking. People like to talk about themselves and once you get them talking, you fire up their enthusiasm.
  • Acknowledge what’s important. When you acknowledge what’s important to another, you provide validation about who they are and what they’re doing. Whether we admit it or not, each of us craves acknowledgement. Affirmation fuels confidence and self-esteem.
  • Acknowledge a job well done. Worthwhile accomplishments take time and effort. You can encourage by acknowledging someone’s effort. A simple “well done” or “thank you” can have a strong effect, which can make the difference between going on or giving up.
  • Show your appreciation. It’s common courtesy. Thank someone when they do something for you. Thank your partner after they cook a nice meal. Thank a friend for lending you a book. A simple thank you lets others know what they have done is meaningful to you.
  • Return the favour. If someone does something nice for you, show your appreciation by returning the favour. This should not be seen as an obligation, nor as a contest. You’re not trying to top the other’s contribution, but to express what their actions mean to you.
  • Do something unexpected. This is a step beyond returning the favour. Respond with something unexpected: out of the blue. Such a response has a strong impact and can reach others at an emotional level.
  • Ask for advice or confide in them. Haven’t you felt important when someone asked for your advice or confided in you about something important? Didn’t you find you were energised and eager to help. Taking someone into your confidence can motivate them to show your faith in them is well founded.
  • Lend a hand. Waiting for someone to ask you for advice is passive. You can take the initiative by offering to lend a hand. If a person sees you are willing to commit your time and energy to their interests, they will be more committed to seeing it through and less likely to give up.

Slide15What about you?  Are you an encourager?  Do uplifting words come from you, or do words of condescension and criticism come from you?  Are you a Barnabas?  Or are you a barnacle?

Let’s keep in mind that all Christians need encouragement.  For new Christians, simply going to them and offering help is encouraging.  For maturing Christians, we can encourage them by affirming their good work and character and helping them apply their spiritual gifts in service to the Lord.  For all Christians, just being concerned about them and helping them is encouraging.

Nicole Johnson, a Christian author and encourager herself, wrote

“Encouragement is to a friendship what confetti is to a party.  It’s light, refreshing, and fun, and you always end up finding little pieces of it stuck to you later.”

Slide16.JPGLet’s go be encouraging confetti to someone today.

To God be the glory.

Denying Christ

I. Introduction – What Do We Do Under Pressure?
It is easy to be a Christian at church.  We are in our safe place.  We have no triggers.  We are surrounded by brothers and sisters who encourage us.  So, it is easy to stand here and say, “I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”
But when we are in a less-friendly environment, do we still profess Christ?  There are good, biblical reasons to share our faith; first and foremost is because Christ Himself calls us to do so.  Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”  You can’t make disciples if you don’t tell them about Jesus.  At least, not any method I’ve found.
We share the gospel because God first loved us, and God continues to love us and forgive us despite our many failings, and wants us to share that love and forgiveness to each other and with the world.  It’s our calling.  Why else would we be here?
And that love from the Lord compels us to extend an invitation of eternal life to a lost and dying world, that others may know eternal life and not be sentenced to an eternity of hell because they choose not to belief that Jesus is who he says He is.
But when I am in the world, there are less-flattering words to describe the demonstration of my faith.  Reluctance.  Shyness.  Embarrassment.  I care too much what people think about me, and I don’t want people to think I’m some sort of religious nut.  And there are far more worldly people ready to judge me than there are sympathetic religious nuts like you and me.
When I was a younger Christian, I was not an example of a good Christian.  You couldn’t tell I was Christian by my lifestyle even though I grew up in the Catholic Church and believed in Jesus.  If I had to fill out a questionnaire and check a box about my religion, I was not afraid to fill in the little bubble that said “Christian.”Slide2
When God is calling you, as I believe God was calling me, He challenges your own belief.  If I say I have faith, then God says, well, let’s see if you have faith.  And He puts me on the edge of that faith to let me honestly see that my view of myself can be hypocritical.  I think I am a good person, but I fall short.
So in 1996, I divorced my wife.  It was, as you can imagine, a most difficult time for me.  I still loved my wife, but I divorced her anyway.  I was scared, I was selfish and I leaned on my own understanding on what I thought was best for me.  And I had trouble coming to grips with my belief that I was a good Christian with the truth that I had divorced my wife.
And I hit my knees for the first time in my life.  No more faking it, no more pretending I was better than I was.  I told God I was finally ready to trust in His ways because my ways sucked.  Whereas before I was going to church for the wrong reason, mostly to improve my social life, now I wanted to get to know God better.Slide3.JPG
Where God challenges, God also provides.  During this time, a pastor took me aside and spent several weeks repairing my foundation.  I’m reminded of this passage from Matthew 7:24-27 –
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
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I didn’t even realize my foundation had been built on sand.  Who does, until the floods came?  But I’m on my knees and studying and trying to figure out what it means for my life to be built on Jesus.
But what held me back from living a new life?  My knowledge that I was an awful Christian.  I spent years chasing women and hanging out in bars.  I was divorced.  The only evidence of my faith was some obscure questionnaire somewhere where I had filled in that little bubble that said “Christian.”  I may want to know God better, but I didn’t blame God if He didn’t want to know me.  I was an awful example of a believer.
Two pieces of scripture were key to my development as a Christian.  First was Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God,” and second was the story of Peter denying Christ.  Let’s watch a little movie snippet.  This is from the movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”  Jesus has been arrested and taken to Herod in preparation for the Jews to turn Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion.  Peter had told Jesus that no matter what trouble came, Peter would never leave Jesus.
II. Jesus’ Prophecy
The scene is chaotic; when I was young, I had pictured Peter in a safe place when He was asked about Jesus.  It was far from a safe place; Peter’s own life was in danger.
There are many things I learned from this scene.  The first thing I learned was that my failures were not secrets.  It’s not as though the failures in my life were completely unknown to an omniscient God.  Jesus knows all.  He knows exactly who I am, who I was, who I am going to be.
Theresa said something last week that I thought illustrated me perfectly.  I was frozen in my failure.
In the story of Peter’s denial, I found the story of myself.  I was Peter, and my faith was lacking.  Matthew 26:31, Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7 and tells of a future that has not yet happened.
Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written:
‘I will strike the Shepherd,
And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”
Slide6.JPGBut Jesus is not just going to fulfill this scripture, he tells the disciples that they, too, will fulfill this scripture.  The sheep that follow Jesus Christ will abandon him and scatter.
Peter has a lot of pride in his belief in Jesus.  Pride is putting oneself on the throne of God.  God may have said something, but it doesn’t apply to me.  God may have a plan, but I have something even better planned, and God just has to get on board with it.  I am a good Christian man who drank, chased women, and then divorced his wife.  Peter, like me, has a better plan, and tells Jesus that Jesus is wrong.  Verse 33,
Peter answered and said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”
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What arrogance to tell Jesus that Peter will never stumble, even though Jesus just prophesied that he would.  Peter knows better than God, just like I knew better than God what was best for me.
How is your pride?  Do you ever tell God what He needs to do?  Do you pray for people to change, for situations to change for your benefit, for good things to happen to you?  Do you do things that God disapproves of, but rationalize it somehow that it’s not *that* bad and God put you in this situation in the first place?
Pride is hard to eliminate.  Every time I think I’m getting a handle on humility, I think, “Wow, I’m getting really good at being humble.  In fact, I’m extraordinary at it.  I should get a medal or something.”  For me, it comes up most often when I compare myself to somebody else. Sometimes it’s skills – I am better at math, so I’m a better person than somebody who isn’t.  Sometimes it’s appearance: I may be overweight, but at least I’m not as overweight as *that* person.
Benjamin Franklin once said,
In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.
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Pride is something we all suffer from.  If we think we do not suffer from pride, then it is possible pride is blinding us to our pride.  Pride is real easy to recognize in others, though, isn’t it?  It’s because when we see pride in somebody else, we’re smugly saying, “*I* don’t suffer from pride like *he* does.”  Like Benjamin Franklin, we are being proud of our humility.
C.S. Lewis has this to say about pride:
According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, grief, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea-bites in comparison; it was through pride that the devil became the devil; pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind… In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that- and, therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison- you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see Something that is above you.
Peter’s pride led him to tell Jesus that Peter alone would never betray Christ, even if all the other disciples scattered.
And Jesus response was that, not only were Jesus and Peter going to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, there was a new prophecy just for Peter.  Matthew 26:34 –
Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”
III. Peter Denies Christ
You trying telling God you know better than Him and see how well that works out for you.  For me, it didn’t.  My sin led me to my knees, but I didn’t feel like my life was good enough to present to Jesus.  The Catholic Church had taught me to feel guilty, and that divorced people couldn’t receive communion.  I was a non-practicing divorced Catholic that chased women and was not allowed to accept Christ.  Where did I go wrong?
Of course when I was given an opportunity to tell people about Jesus, I hedged.  I changed the subject.  I talked about the weather.  I mean, seriously, I was such a bad example of a Christian there was no way I could tell people that Jesus was part of my life.  It would be an embarrassment to both me and to God.  I would never put a fish on my car because I was such a bad example, I didn’t want anybody to know.   I was afraid they’d look at the fish and then they’d look at me, and see right through my hypocrisy.  “You call yourself a Christian and you drive like that?  You are such a hypocrite.”
After the arrest of Jesus, the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin spit on Jesus.  They called Him names and struck Him in the face.  When they struck him, they taunted Him, saying, “Prophecy to us, Christ!  Who hit you?”
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And Peter was nearby.  Peter was not walking with Christ, but he was walking near Christ.  Peter was in the courtyard.  A woman said, “Aren’t you one of his students?”
Who me?  I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Another woman said, “Yeah, I’m certain I saw the two of you together.”
Um, nope. You’re mistaken.  I’m not one of the religious nutjobs.  I don’t know Jesus.
Others said, “You know, your accent gives you away.  You have a Nazarene accent just like him.  Your accent gives you away.”
And Peter got so frustrated that he cussed and said some sort of swear word, I. Don’t. Know. Him.
And the rooster crowed.
Of course, the prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled.  Of course, Peter denied Christ.  When the going got tough, Peter wanted to save himself.  He had a better plan than God.  It says in the book of Luke that at this point, Jesus turned and looked straight at Peter.
IV. Peter Weeps
Matthew 26:75,
And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” So he went out and wept bitterly.
Slide14.JPGI think many of us get to a place where we are broken.  When we realize we are not the person we wanted to believe we are and our eyes are opened to just how far we fall short of the glory of God, we’re broken.  Peter wept.
I used to look at Peter and say, “Man, what an idiot.    I can’t believe he’d deny Christ like that.  Doesn’t he know who Jesus is?”
And in my bible study with that pastor back in 1998, I realized I was Peter.  I was the idiot that denied Christ.  Despite telling myself that I was such a good person, I finally realized how far short of the goal I was.  I had decided I knew better than God what was best for me and I dragged around my religion like garbage I was ashamed of, and when it came time for me to choose between obedience and selfishness, between trust and pride, I chose me.  I denied the plan Jesus had for me because I wanted to save myself.  My plan was better than God’s.  And when I finally realized I was Peter, I wept.
No wonder Jesus had no use for me.  I was a terrible Christian.  I was lost.  I was on the outside looking in, and that I’d never be one of the sheep that Christ promised to hold in His hands.
Ever felt that despair?  That you’re not good enough?  Christ can’t use you because you’re flawed in so many ways?  I wouldn’t blame Jesus if He never spoke to Peter again, completely disowned him.  Just like I felt Jesus had disowned me because I had failed Him in so many ways.
I remember a story about a tribe with some skin disease, maybe it was leprosy, I couldn’t find the story again, but it was on that USB stick the church handed out, the audio version of the New Testament.  This tribe had lived apart, had a unique dialect, so these missionaries translated the New Testament into their language.  And when they got to the part where the unclean woman reached out to touch the robe of Jesus, they were all on the edge of their seats and they gasped.  And Jesus turned around and said, “who touched my robe?”  The unclean woman came and fell down at the feet of Jesus and confessed.
Then Jesus told her, “Your faith has made you whole, go in peace and be healed.
The tribe broke down and cried.  They identified with the woman as being unclean, and when Jesus turned around and said, “Who touched my robe?” they were sure Jesus would call down fire from the sky and punish the woman.  But Jesus responded in love.  Their disease did not prohibit them from receiving the love of Jesus.
I Repeat, have you ever felt that despair?  That you’re not good enough?  Christ can’t use you because you’re dirty and unclean?
V. Peter is Forgiven
But that’s not what Jesus did for Peter.  Despite Peter’s best efforts at running from Jesus, Jesus still loved Peter.   After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Jesus appeared to His disciples and has breakfast with them after fishing.  And rather than shun Peter, Jesus finds Peter and asks, “Do you love me?”
Slide15.JPGJesus doesn’t hold grudges; that’s what our sin nature does.  We hold grudges.  Jesus doesn’t have a sin nature, and He welcomes us in love, despite our failures.  Sometimes I think it’s actually because of our failures.  If we resist His will, He’s not going use us.  He wants us to go with Him willingly, without resistance.  And it’s only when we realize our failures and that Christ loves us unconditionally that we truly begin to understand the character of God.   It doesn’t have anything to do with us.
Theresa talked about prophecy last week, and I though how insightful it was that Jesus knew Peter would deny Him and yet Jesus took Peter to the Garden of Gethsemane anyway.  God knows we are weak.  He loves us anyway, especially if we agree with God that we are weak.  Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 12 when he pleaded for God to remove the thorn from his flesh:
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.
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I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Despite denying Jesus three times, Jesus loved Peter.  Not because of who Peter is, but because of who Jesus is.  Not because of who I am, but because of who Jesus is.
VI. Conclusion
Once I realized I was Peter and Jesus still loved me, it opened a door to a way of joy and peace for me.  I learned that my dirty life was not too filthy to be a follower of Jesus.  My filth helped me realize that I was indeed powerless to save myself, that thinking I was a good person was not the same thing as being a good person.  I had sinned, but I was in good company.  All have sinned and fallen short.  In fact, that’s the point, nobody is good enough.  But Jesus died for me, not because I was a good person, but because I wasn’t.  Without Jesus, I was destined for the fires of hell no matter how I tried to fool myself that it’ll be ok.  I needed a savior.
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Wherever you are in your spiritual growth, you’re not too bad that Jesus doesn’t want to get to know you.  There is nothing in your life that disqualifies you from a relationship with our loving, heavenly Father.
Despite our failures, or perhaps because of our failures, we just have to confess our sins to the Lord and he forgives and forgets as far as the east is from the west. Despite our failures, we are adopted children of the Creator of the Universe.
I am not ashamed of the gospel.  And now there’s a fish on my car.
To God be the glory.  Amen.