Kingdom Liberty

Introduction

 

We’ve been progressing through the Chronological Bible this year. We spent a long time in the Old Testament and I feel like we just arrived in the New Testament, and there are only 6 weeks left to wrap up our one-year journey.

The Old Testament had many rules, and until this year it never struck me how much man deserved all those rules. The rules God put in place were to prevent man from self-destructing. In the Garden of Eden, there was only one rule.   Of course, we broke it. There was no need for Ten Commandments when we couldn’t follow One Commandment.

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Soon after, Cain slew Abel. Abel didn’t last very long. He was first mentioned in Genesis 4:2 and by verse 8 he was gone. He only lasted 6 verses. The sanctity of life through the ages is clear in our studies, and God said that Abel’s blood called out to Him from the ground.

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So God gave us more rules to protect us. The Ten Commandments included, “Thou shalt not murder.” And then ten commandments grew into hundreds of rules and laws as we read in the book of Leviticus.

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And then came the New Testament. And many feel that the New Testament rules on top of all the Old Testament rules are overwhelming.

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I used to think that #1 rule for Christians was to attend church every week. You know what I learned after I started going to church every week? The church meets throughout the week, too. Many churches have bible study on Wednesday nights. If you want to be a good Christian, you must go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday. Sometimes there are bible studies on Tuesdays and Thursdays.   Friday nights often have church sponsored socials, those are mandatory, and don’t forget Saturday evening service.

There never seems to be anything scheduled on Mondays, though. Weird.

And different churches have different rules, so if you want to be saved, you must follow all the rules. If you go to a Pentecostal church, you must speak in tongues. If you go to a Baptist church, no dancing or drinking is allowed. And if you go to a Catholic Church, you can drink and dance but you can’t speak in tongues. It’s complicated, being a devout Christian.

 

Paul & Peter, Gentile & Jew

 

We are in Galatians 2 and we are going to focus on verse 11 following. Paul is in Jerusalem and writing to the church of Galatia and he’s dealing with the “Judaizers”. These were former Jews who claimed now to be Christians, and these Jews wanted the gentiles that converted from Paganism to Christianity to also submit to Jewish law. After all, there are a lot of rules if you want to be a Christian. These Jews were essentially proclaiming a “Jesus Plus Moses” doctrine. Yes, believe in Christ, plus do all these things Moses taught.

I’m going to read verses 11-13 from The Living Bible. Paul is telling the Galatians about a discussion Paul had with Peter at Antioch:

But when Peter came to Antioch I had to oppose him publicly, speaking strongly against what he was doing, for it was very wrong. For when he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile Christians who don’t bother with circumcision and the many other Jewish laws. But afterwards, when some Jewish friends of James came, he wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore because he was afraid of what these Jewish legalists, who insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation, would say; and then all the other Jewish Christians and even Barnabas became hypocrites too, following Peter’s example, though they certainly knew better.

These “Judaizers,” these “Jesus plus Moses” Jews in the Christian Church were so persuasive that the apostle Peter changed his behavior, then Barnabas, then apparently many others in the church. There are rules for being a Christian, you know. Apparently even who you eat with will determine your salvation!

Paul both confronts Peter and identifies with Pater. After all, they are both Jews by birth and for their entire lives followed Jewish Law. They heard Jesus admonish the Pharisees for all their strict rules and regulations that not even the Pharisees could follow. And both Paul and Peter know that, even if they could follow the Law perfectly – which they could not, nobody can – obedience to the Law would not save them from their sins. Here is Paul’s message to Peter in verses 14-15 –

When I saw what was happening and that they weren’t being honest about what they really believed and weren’t following the truth of the Gospel, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Though you are a Jew by birth, you have long since discarded the Jewish laws; so why, all of a sudden, are you trying to make these Gentiles obey them? You and I are Jews by birth, not mere Gentile sinners, and yet we Jewish Christians know very well that we cannot become right with God by obeying our Jewish laws but only by faith in Jesus Christ to take away our sins.”

Paul calls Peter a hypocrite because Peter feared men more than he feared God. In the first century the Greek word for hypocrite, “hypokritḗs” was used to describe an actor’s mask. Off stage he was one person, but when he stepped on stage to be seen by others, he would put on a mask and be another person.

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The word for hypocrisy reaches back even further, though, to 400BC. Hippocrates was one of the most influential men in medical history. Doctors today who practice medicine swear in by the Hippocratic Oath.   Hippocrates is famous for practicing medicine in the ancient world under what is now known as the tree of Hippocrates in Kos, Greece.

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The tree is massive, with branches that reach far out. All around the tree there is scaffolding used to uphold its branches.   On the outside we see the structure of the tree but here is the strange thing: the tree is hollow. On the inside, there is no substance. The tree appears healthy, but underneath the surface there is nothing.

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Slide11.JPGThe Apostle Paul is telling us, that those who are hypocritical may have an outward appearance of godliness but inwardly they have hollow faith. They have the structural appearance of being healthy, but they lack the substance.

Peter presented himself as an adopted Gentile to one group and as a Law-keeping Jew to another group. If we are honest, we are all guilty of the same sort of hypocrisy. We present ourselves one way at church but can act another way at work. We sing loud praises to God in Sunday Worship, but as soon as we get in our car after Church and get in Houston traffic, what comes out of our mouth is most certainly not praising God. We read scripture about how to love one another, then we ignore or insult people than annoy us. We believe Jesus loves the whole world, but we refuse to love those who are different than us.

Then Paul tells Peter that the very Jewish Law that Peter is pretending to follow wouldn’t save him anyway. It’s not the Law that saves. Paul says in Galatians 2:16,

“And so we, too, have trusted Jesus Christ, that we might be accepted by God because of faith—and not because we have obeyed the Jewish laws. For no one will ever be saved by obeying them.”

Paul’s argument throughout the book of Galatians can be summarized by this one verse. He tells us repeatedly we are not saved by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Remember, there were false teachers in the church in Galatia with the view that they were justified with God because they both believed in Jesus and kept the Law. They were teaching a “Jesus Plus Moses” doctrine so that their works under the Law would give them salvation.

Paul’s emphasis is that we are not declared righteous by keeping the Law. Our level of righteousness in God’s eyes is not upheld by our good works. Instead, our righteousness in God’s eyes is upheld by Jesus’ work: Jesus’ death on the cross for us.

We do not need to uphold the dietary restrictions that the Old Testament prescribes in order to be declared righteous. We will not be deemed unclean if we wear clothes with mixed fabrics as declared in Leviticus 19:19. And even if you boiled a baby goat in its mother’s milk in the past month or so as prohibited by Exodus 23:19, you are still saved.

Remember, this letter was to the Church, to believers. It is a reminder that we cannot earn our way into God’s presence by being at every Bible Study and small group. We do not earn favor with God because we prayed today. We do not earn favor with God because we memorized three Bible verses this week.   We do not even earn favor with God by listening to Christian radio, although KJIC 90.5 Country Christian Radio comes pretty close.

In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says,

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’   Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

This is obviously true, because Jesus said it. “Only the one who does the will of my Father.” So is Jesus saying that works can save us? But then the rest of the verse says that even people doing the will of Jesus will be told to leave because Jesus didn’t know them.

What is the will of the Father? It is for all of His children to place their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He doesn’t ask us to drive out demons.   He just asks us to trust in Jesus. By faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone.

Nothing we do, except for our faith, saves us, and even the faith we have has been given to us.   Two verses in Ephesians 2 makes it clear, verses 4-9,

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

By faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone. It’s all about Jesus and it’s never about what we do or don’t do. God made us alive when we were dead. We have nothing to do with raising ourselves to life.

And that’s exactly what Paul is pointing out to Peter in his letter to the Galatians:

You and I are Jews by birth, not mere Gentile sinners, and yet we Jewish Christians know very well that we cannot become right with God by obeying our Jewish laws but only by faith in Jesus Christ to take away our sins.

What does it take to be saved? Faith alone, and that faith has been given to us by God’s grace. We have been freed from the bondage of performance slavery.   Jesus liberated us from believing that religious practices and rites save us. As a Pharisee and member of the straight-edge religious elite of Judaism Paul knew what it was like to struggle with trying to earn God’s approval with his behavior. He found rest in the Gospel that the only thing that makes us righteous is faith in God. Whether you are a son or daughter with good behavior or bad, nevertheless you are still a son or daughter of God.

 

Misconceptions About Salvation

 

There are many misconceptions about what it means to be saved. As Christians, we probably cause that confusion. We might have heard the phrase “Jesus Plus Nothing” but we have such a hard time practicing it. Let’s discuss a few of them.

      • Ask Jesus into your heart.

Do you have to do this to be saved? I read a testimony from an evangelist who had shared the gospel and told his student he would be saved if he invited Jesus into their heart. But later the student was mad when he found out scripture said Jesus was the only way to God. The student was a follower of eastern religions that believed there were many prophets that could point to God, and to cover his bases, he had invited Jesus into his heart along with all the other prophets. This phrase, “ask Jesus into your heart,” is confusing and incomplete.

It’s usually based on this scripture from Revelation 3:19-20 –

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

The key to understanding scripture is location, location, location. In this verse, Jesus isn’t speaking to nonbelievers.   These are not instructions on how to be saved. Jesus is speaking to the church of Laodicea, and He is speaking to followers of Christ who already believe. He is instructing believers how to have a closer relationship with Him.

Likewise from Ephesians 3:16-17,

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

Is this teaching that you must ask Jesus into your heart? Again, Paul is teaching believers here. Christ does indeed dwell in the hearts of believers, but it is a result *of* salvation, not a requirement *for* salvation. “Ask Jesus into your heart” is not anti-biblical, it’s just naturally what happens when you believe. It is the belief, it is the faith through God’s grace, that saves.

      • Be sorry for your sins.

Should we Christians beat ourselves up for all the bad things we did before we became Christian, and to be honest, for all the things we continue to do? Do we have to have regret to be saved? Let’s look at a couple of pieces of scripture. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul says,

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

But again, Paul is talking to believers that sin against the Lord. Such Godly sorrow leads one to turn from sin and leaves no regret. In other words, every Christian has a past. So just leave it there. There’s no reason to drag it around with you everywhere you go.

What about non-Christians? Should they feel sorry in order to be saved? This verse says “Godly sorrow.” How in the world are non-believers supposed to have Godly sorrow when they do not have the Holy Spirit inside them? No, feeling sorry for your sins doesn’t save us. If it did, this corrupted version of John 3:16 would read this way–

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever feels really bad about what they’ve done should not perish, but have everlasting life.

That certainly isn’t right. It’s whosoever *believes* in Him. I am saved by faith alone through Christ alone by grace alone.

      • Give up your sins.

This is probably one of the most difficult misconceptions to explain. We just covered a little while ago that bible studies and church attendance doesn’t save us. But what about repenting of our sins? After all, the bible is full of calls to repentance, isn’t it?

“Repentance” is indeed required for salvation. But I’ve discovered that the definition of “repentance” has been distorted through the years. Sometimes we define it as “turning away from evil and toward God.” Those are indeed things Christians should do, but are they required for salvation?

Well, let’s look at the word translated as “repent,” the Greek word is “metanoeō,” and it is defined as “to change one’s mind, to think differently, to reconsider.”

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In other words, change your mind about Jesus. Change your mind about God. That sort of repentance leads to salvation, a trust in faith through Christ that He died for our sins. The gospel of John mentions the word “believe” 85 times in order to be saved without ever mentioning the word “repent” a single time. The word “repent” does not mean “change your behavior,” though that often follows from changing one’s mind first.

So, is giving up our sins a sign we are a believer? If we are a follower of Christ and we are listening to the Holy Spirit dwelling within, repenting of sins is important for spiritual growth.   In this case, we are repenting, we are changing our mind, we are saying, “I am going to stop arguing with God.   I am going to agree with God about my sins,” and then giving up your sins and winning the spiritual battle over the flesh is what we are called to do. But that is after we are saved, not before. Jesus accepts us for who we are, where we are, in all of our filthy clothes. Thank the Lord we don’t have to clean up our act first before we are saved. Jesus cleans up our act after. Romans 5:6-8,

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

We do not have to clean up our act before accepting Christ or to be saved. We are saved through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone.

      • Pray a prayer.

All we have to do is say the sinner’s prayer and be saved, right?       After all, Romans 10:13 says,

“Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Let me put it this way: Can you say a prayer out loud while silently not placing your faith in Jesus? You’re thinking to yourself, I’m saying this but I’m not going to do it. The prayer itself has no power.

But can you place your faith in Jesus silently, without a prayer? Of course you can. There’s nothing wrong with the prayer itself, but it can lead one to a false sense of security that if they prayed correctly, then they are saved.   It is not the prayer that saves, is it the faith behind the prayer. I am saved through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone.

      • Give your life to Jesus.

Do you have to give your life to Jesus to be saved?       I can give you one major example of somebody who gave their life to Christ and yet was not saved:       Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Devoting your life to Jesus clearly doesn’t save you.

What does save you?   Acts 16:31,

They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

What all of these misconceptions have in common is that they are works of man. And we know that we can never be good enough, to work hard enough, to assure our place in heaven. How would we ever know it’s been enough? No, to be saved, we have to change our mind about who Jesus is, to place our faith in Christ. By faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone. Nothing else.

 

Christ Did It All

 

Let’s turn back to our scripture in Galatians 2 and see what Paul says to Peter next, verse 17-21,

But what if we trust Christ to save us and then find that we are wrong and that we cannot be saved without being circumcised and obeying all the other Jewish laws? Wouldn’t we need to say that faith in Christ had ruined us? God forbid that anyone should dare to think such things about our Lord.   Rather, we are sinners if we start rebuilding the old systems I have been destroying of trying to be saved by keeping Jewish laws, for it was through reading the Scripture that I came to realize that I could never find God’s favor by trying—and failing—to obey the laws. I came to realize that acceptance with God comes by believing in Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not one of those who treats Christ’s death as meaningless. For if we could be saved by keeping Jewish laws, then there was no need for Christ to die.

What Paul is saying is that we keep trying to add things to Christ in order to be saved.   The Jews were promoting Jesus plus Moses. In effect, they were saying, Yes, Jesus came to fulfill the law, but *we* still have to fulfill the law, too.

That is not trusting in Christ. Paul says that if we could obey the law and be saved, then what was the purpose of Jesus?   What are we putting our trust in?   Our own ability to be good, or the sacrifice of God? Or maybe we’re hedging our bets. Sure, let’s trust in Christ, but to be on the safe side, let’s do all these other things, too. Circumcision, abstain from unclean animals like pork, mixing different types of fabrics in our clothes. Why don’t we obey all of those rules with a “Jesus Plus Moses” attitude?

Perhaps I should ask instead what “Jesus Plus” attitude is still prevalent today. We impose a great many rules for others – not for us, really, rules are for other people. Attending church once, twice, or even three times a week. Or attending church at Christmas and Easter.   Attending bible study. Walking the aisle when giving one’s life to Christ.

Let’s consider baptism. Is it required to be saved? Some Pentecostal churches believe that not only baptism is required, but when you come out of the water, you must speak in tongues. If you don’t speak in tongues, back into the water you go. I suppose this is repeated over and over again like some sort of loving Christian waterboarding.

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Let’s be clear about this distinction: I believe baptism is mandatory for believers. I believe it is a demonstration of our willingness to follow the Lord and it is almost always our first act of obedience… *after* we are saved. It is not a requirement *to* be saved. It is not required for salvation, it *is* required for spiritual growth. If you are Christian and haven’t been baptized, I think it’s time to put aside your resistance, call Jesus Christ your Lord and ask him to lead you to baptism.

But we are not saved by good works. We are saved for good works.

Let’s consider a light bulb. It’s wired up, and when the switch is flipped, it brings light to the room.   If we don’t flip the switch, though, is it still a light bulb? Of course it is. It’s just not a useful lightbulb. And if we have accepted Christ, the Holy Spirit gives us power, and we are asked to shine the light of Christ for others to see. We can refuse and stay dark, but we’re still saved. We’re just not useful.

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But are we saved?   Remember: By faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone. There is nothing we can add to that without taking it away from Christ.

 

The Simplicity of Christ

 

I know first-hand that living as a Christian has challenges. I also know those challenges have purposes ordained by God to train me in His way, to increase my faith and trust in Him, to encourage my spiritual gifts to be developed. There are a great many things I must do to grow as a man of God.

But there’s nothing that I must do to be saved. Christ did that for me, because I could not do it for myself. And my response to His sacrifice is to worship and praise a mighty God that loves me enough to die for me so that I may live.

While there are many challenges to living as a Christian, becoming a Christian is the easiest thing in the world. All we have to do is accept what has been done, and our eternal salvation is secure, firmly held in the palm of His hand, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and no one can snatch us out of His hand. It’s not that some of the work has been done for us, or most of the work has been done for us. All of the work has been done for us. We don’t have to say, “Hey, thanks for picking up dinner, let me pay for the tip.”

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There is simplicity in being in Christ. I know, because the bible says so in 2nd Corinthians 11:3,

But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.

The story of the bible is not what we do for God. It is what God has done for us.

 

Conclusion

 

It’s not “Jesus Plus Moses.” It’s not “Jesus Plus Church Attendance.” It’s not “Jesus Plus Feeling Guilty.” It’s not “Jesus Plus Anything.”

It’s just Jesus.   By faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone.

That is the simplicity of being in Christ.

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To God be the glory.   Amen.

Finding Strength

             I.      Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

          II.      The Thorn in the Flesh

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

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

And signs the letter in Galatians 6:11,

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

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

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

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

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

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

       III.      Purpose of the Thorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          IV.      Paul’s Reaction to the Thorn

Our scripture says in 2 Corinthians 12:8,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My grace is sufficient for you.

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

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

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

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

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God’s answer to Paul was also,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          VI.      Conclusion

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

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

Let’s look at our verses one last time:

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

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

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

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

To God be the glory.  Amen.

Always on Mission

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Acts 28:17 Love Your Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

V. Acts 28:25-27 Quoting Isaiah

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

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

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

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

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

VI. Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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To God be the glory. Amen.