One OR Done

Please take a moment apart from your busy-ness to read Ephesians 2:11-22 in your Bible. I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

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One of the best meetings I ever attended was at an elementary school.  The principal had called a meeting to discuss how our community might to meet the needs of a family whose poverty was causing the children to fail in school.  I had been invited to attend because the mother had identified me as her pastor.  I was to bring to the table whatever means our church could offer to support them.

What pleased me so much was the positivity of the meeting.  Without any pretense, compliments and praise and gratitude flowed like a river.  It was contagious; I found myself looking for praise-worthy things so I could join in the fun of being positive.

The other thing that set this meeting above all others was the focus of the group.  We all wanted to help.  School faculty and staff, counselors, social workers, and I were compiling all the forms of assistance we could offer in order to keep t kids in school.

Afterward, I was hit with a pang of jealousy.  It occurred to me that in all the meetings I had attended for church functions, I had never attended as pleasing a meeting.  It was a secular meeting in a secular place, joining people who may have had little or no agreement about God but it shone above all the meetings that supposedly had those advantages.

It may help us to know that God expects us to be in unity and gives us all we need to experience it.  Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus and set forth God’s standard.

  1. Without Christ we are separate from God and from one another.

The Ephesians were Gentiles when Paul wrote these words; GENTILES AND UNCIRCUMCISED, EXCLUDED FROM CITIZENSHIP IN ISRAEL (11-12) but because of Jesus, that distinction no longer mattered.  Where birth, ethnicity, and nationality once divided the saved from the unsaved, Jesus came to save everyone.  Contrast these strong words describing division with Paul’s promise in v. 19 that all who believe in Jesus are FELLOW CITIZENS.

Before Christ, being Gentile meant you were WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD IN THE WORLD (12).  Without Jesus, people have to live in the present without HOPE for the future or God’s grace to forgive their past sins.  To be hopeless and godless is horrible; it ought to frighten us into having faith instead.

  1. Jesus acted to make us one. (He did five things.)

ONE = Jesus sacrificed Himself.  God did it THROUGH THE BLOOD OF CHRIST (13) and THROUGH THE CROSS (16).  Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for every person’s sins.  Since it has been bought at so great a price, we show our gratitude when cherish our unity and protect it, rather than toss it.

TWO = He became OUR PEACE (14+15) and HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE (17).  Unity brings peace and is threatened when the peace is disturbed.  Jesus’ presence gives us peace.

These verses agree with Matthew 5:9; “BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS, FOR THEY WILL BE CALLED SONS OF GOD.”  God’s children are characterized as being peacemakers.  They will make sacrifices and have courage in bringing people together.

THREE = He DESTROYED THE BARRIER, THE DIVIDING WALL OF HOSTILITY (14) and HE PUT TO DEATH THEIR HOSTILITY (16).  On a historical level, this is another way of describing the Jew vs. Gentile dynamic.

On a personal level, we know that unity cannot be found when people have divided into opposing camps.  Unity brings people together, destroying barriers/walls, not putting them up.

FOUR = He abolished IN HIS FLESH THE LAW WITH ITS COMMANDS AND REGULATIONS. (15)  This verse parallels Paul’s earlier teaching about the BLOOD of Jesus and the CROSS: Jesus’ physical death abolished the Law by meeting all its demands.  He was the perfect sacrifice for sin and thereby brought an end to the need for any sacrifice for sin.

As the Law is part of what kept Gentiles and Jews separated (the Jews had it, the Gentiles didn’t), this verse parallels vs. 11+12.  Jesus’ sacrifice made this division inappropriate, bringing us all together in one family and citizens of one kingdom (v. 19).

FIFTH = He IS THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE …IN HIM THE WHOLE BUILDING IS JOINED TOGETHER. (21)  (We will talk about this later.)

  1. Descriptions of our unity.

The first benefit of unity is obvious: unity brings us together!  Paul wrote, YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY HAVE BEEN BROUGHT NEAR. (13+17)  No matter what measure you use to describe the distance, it no longer exists.  The worldly things that ensure separation lose their significance in Jesus and are no longer a reason for keeping us apart.

God’s unity effectively makes us ONE. (14+15)  This verse reminds me of the statements made in the Bible about marriage (see Genesis 2:24 & Mark 10:7); the two persons becoming one.  Ideally in married life, the partners are to think and act as one.  So it should also be in a church. This is Jesus’ PURPOSE: He has worked to make us unified.  We are to receive it, then avoid breaking the unity God gives.

Jesus brought us together so that IN THIS ONE BODY (His) He aimed TO RECONCILE BOTH OF THEM TO GOD. (16)  Unity is both the product of and the means to reconciliation.  Jesus’ greatest purpose is our union with God.  That must happen first. Then, the degree to which to which we have union with God, we will experience unity in our church.

A second benefit of unity is that it empowers our prayers.  In Matthew 18:19 Jesus promised, “I TELL YOU THAT IF TWO OF YOU ON EARTH AGREE ABOUT ANYTHING YOU ASK FOR, IT WILL BE DONE FOR YOU BY MY FATHER IN HEAVEN.”  Here in 2:18, Paul explained how we have that kind of power in prayer: THROUGH HIM WE HAVE ACCESS TO THE FATHER BY ONE SPIRIT. (18)

The word ACCESS refers to prayer.  It is having a means of communicating with a king.  As Romans 8:26-27 teaches, the Holy Spirit facilitates prayer.  Even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit makes prayer happen; effective communication with God occurs.

The third benefit to unity is belonging: We are a holy nation, the Kingdom of God.  As Paul expressed it here: YOU ARE NO LONGER FOREIGNERS and ALIENS, BUT FELLOW CITIZENS.  And YOU ARE…FELLOW CITIZENS WITH GOD’S PEOPLE AND MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD. (19)  CITIZENS have a responsibility to respect one another in civility and keeping the law.  More than that, Christians are GOD’S PEOPLE AND MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD; having relationships deeper than citizenship.

Put another way, we are God’s temple, the people among whom He dwells.  GOD’S HOUSEHOLD is BUILT ON THE FOUNDATION OF THE  APOSTLES AND PROPHETS. (20)  Paul also referred to A CORNERSTONE in vs. 21, which is the most honored part of a building because it is a symbol of the actual and moral foundations on which the building was built.  In ancient times, it was also the first part of the building erected.

The rest of the building was measured and built around the fixed point of the CORNERSTONE.  In these senses, Jesus is the origin and the most honored part of the church.

In verse 21 Paul wrote that the Church people are A HOLY TEMPLE IN THE LORD.  Similarly, in 1 Peter 2:4-5, Peter described the Church as being made up of LIVING STONES.  Just as it takes many bricks to create a structure, every church is made up of several individual persons coming together.  A stack of bricks is not a building.  It is only when the pieces are put together with Jesus they become a place on earth fit for God.

Paul expressed this truth a third way in verse 22: YOU ARE…A DWELLING IN WHICH GOD LIVES BY HIS SPIRIT.  God created the Church for many different reasons.  However, we must remember that necessity is not one of those reasons.  He does not need a place to live but He wants a people in a place that give evidence to the world that He exists and He loves all people. To be a church we have to do more than maintain physical property; we have to BE the people of God in this place.  We have to cherish and protect the unity God gives us.

You’ve heard the expression “one and done” used in sports.  When teams compete in a single-elimination tournament and are eliminated by losing their first game, we say they were “one and done.”

I want to suggest a variation on that slogan that puts the importance of unity in its biblical perspective.  Based on this passage and others, I say “One OR Done.”  This means that we are ONE as a church or we DONE being a church.  A local body of believers that perpetuates disunity has ceased to be a church and has become something else, something less than what God has commanded.

Unity is a precious gift from God.  It is worth every sacrifice, every effort, every slice of humble pie or crow we have to eat to maintain it.

Unity is a precious gift from God.  It is worth defending against every pretender, peace-breaker, and offender of the cross.

Unity is received, not achieved.  We partner with God when we protect our unity because without it we cannot be a church.

Unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

 

RESOURCE USED:

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

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Lively Former Corpses

no-zombies

(This image saved from http://www.allposters.com.br/-sp/No-Zombies-Allowed-Sign-Plastic-Sign-posters_i9896033_.htm.)

Please read Ephesians 2:1-10 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Sin is the cause of the “Walking Dead,” God raises the dead to receive salvation and life.

It’s a free country (at least at the moment) where everyone’s entitled to indulge their interests as they see fit.  However, speaking solely for myself, I don’t understand the popularity of zombies.  What had been for decade a minor sub-genre of horror, zombies have grown in popularity and become big business. For example, in 2011, NBC news estimated Americans spent $5 million on zombie entertainment products.

Money is one numerical way to gauge popularity.  In our time, another way to assess trends and objectively gauge popularity is to track internet searches.  I found some data that is seven years old – a eternity in pop culture – but I found the popularity of the undead has been growing since 2010.  By this measure, West Virginia was the state most interested in zombies, with South Dakota being tenth most interested.

When something becomes this popular, people want to explain why it has become so big.  The most obvious reason for the popularity of zombies is people’s fascination with things that are horrible, gross, and evil.  It’s like going to a hockey game hoping for a fight or a race hoping for a spectacular wreck.

A less obvious reason is that zombies don’t require a lot of thinking or feeling.  Their motivations are simple and the response of the living is simple.  We all want life to be less complicated.  Watching this stuff may require a stout gag reflex, but it won’t challenge your brains too much.

Some internet commentators want to dive more deeply into the zombie phenomenon and see zombies as being symbols of what’s wrong with modern American culture.  Or modern Americans.

Which interests me because today’s Scripture passage employs a symbol not unlike zombies.  Please read that correctly.  I am not attempting to legitimize “zombie culture” or say that it is in any way biblical.  I’m simply pointing out that Paul depicts life without Jesus Christ as dead people walking.

“BC” (Before Christ) persons have a form of life, but have no real life.  They are in bondage to forces beyond their control.  In the real world, people can be saved from zombie-like living, but only God can do it.  In this zombie-like state, they are insensitive to God, blindly pursuing just about any else instead.

  1. We were dead in our sin. (1-5)

We were “dead men walking” in ungodliness. (1+5)  Literally and metaphorically, DEAD means separated from life, which is found only in God (see Colossians 2:13).  In this passage, Paul uses death as a metaphor for a spiritual condition; a person as unconscious and unresponsive to the word and will of God as a dead person is unresponsive to everything.

The words TRANSGRESSIONS and SINS are two words for the same thing: the cause of our spiritual death.  In Romans 5:17 Paul explained this spiritual death is part of the curse of being Adam’s children but in Romans 6:23 he wrote that it’s our own fault because of the sins we chose to commit.  Adam’s sin brought death into the world, but we have condemned ourselves by our own choices to bring it into our personal experience.

We were “under the influence” of three masters.

#1 – We were following the WAYS O/T WORLD (1).  We were under the influence of the culture around us; bowing to peer pressure, fashion, and media without questioning whether the popular thing was the right thing.  The WAYS OF THIS AGE (2) is an equivalent expression.  Both refer to this present time; between the creation of this world and the world to come.  Both terms refer to a culture that has aligned itself against God (see John 15:18-19 and 1 Corinthians 3:19) and antagonizes those who truly want to love and serve Him.

#2 – We were serving Satan. (2)  We were under the influence of our Enemy, Satan, the RULER OF THE KINGDOM OF THE AIR.  He was tempting us and sending trials our way to distract and discourage us.

Paul is in agreement with John’s Gospel that Satan is the RULER of the worldly systems that oppose God (see John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).  THE AIR describes the sphere of Satan’s influence; it covers the earth but falls short of heaven.  This language reflects Jewish belief that demons flew in the air and the pagan belief that evil spirits flew around.  In both Hebrew and Greek the word for SPIRIT can also be translated as “wind”.  The influence of the spiritual evil ruled by Satan is expressed in NOW AT WORK IN THOSE WHO ARE DISOBEDIENT.

#3 – We were serving selfishness. (3)  We were under the influence of self-centeredness; an orientation typical to humans.  When we are very immature, a certain amount of self-centeredness helps us survive and grow.  But as we mature, we must become God-centered, discarding childish and selfish ways.

Paul used the term SINFUL NATURE (“flesh”) to denote the part of our inner nature that has an appetite for doing wrong.  It is one way self-centredness manifests itself.  It is like a separate entity within a person that constantly tempts and misdirects us away from God and toward sin.

My belief is that the SINFUL NATURE is the part of our inner life that was CRUCIFIED WITH CHRIST (GLS 2:20) and no longer lives.  This extreme selfishness that seeks satisfaction through sin no longer affects the believer because it is dead.  We still struggle with sin because our human nature is with us in the form of our bodies.  Human nature is more oriented to self-centeredness than sin; it is not always encouraging evil actions.  Human nature is more the weakness and limitations imposed by our physical frame than a frequent source of sin.

The result of the influence of the “Three S’s”: we were OBJECTS OF WRATH. (3)  WRATH means two things.

In the short term, it means alienation from God.  Until forgiveness is obtained by repentance, prayer is useless.  God will not tolerate sin and will distance Himself from sinners.

In the long term, God’s WRATH will be poured out on the wicked and unbelieving on Judgment Day.  Their choices will land them in hell.

The phrase LIKE THE REST is meant to take in the entirety of humanity.  All of us are born under a death penalty because we inherited a sin nature from Adam.  God’s unique solution to the problem of sin is Jesus substitutionary sacrifice on the cross and it alone is effective to solve the problem of sin.

  1. We live because God gave us grace. (4-10)

Grace is the answer to the problem of sin.  We can approach our need for grace by asking three questions Paul answered for us.  The first is this, “What did God do for us?”

God the Father MADE US ALIVE WITH CHRIST. (5)  This is the key thought of the passage. This one verb (the Greek word is 14 letters long) supplies the main action for the passage: resurrection.  The change wrought in us by salvation is so dramatic and so complete that it feels like a dead person being raised to life again.  On the one hand, death is an apt symbol for life without Jesus.  Before Christ, we are as lifeless and hopeless as a pile of bones.  On the other hand, with Jesus, we are saved; the bones come to life again: we have hope and a future.

GOD also RAISED US UP WITH CHRIST. (6)  Paul saw the believer as having participated in the crucifixion of Jesus, to the effect of his/her sin nature being killed.  This phrase takes things a step further to say each believer has participated personally in the resurrection of Jesus too.

GOD…SEATED US WITH HIM IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS IN CHRIST JESUS. (6)  Here Paul makes it sound as if we’ve already been taken to heaven.  We have to learn not to get too wound up about verb tenses in the Bible.  Instead, we can be excited to know that the benefits of God’s GRACE are not just for the future, but have also redeemed our past and give us a confident future.  We can have experiences of heaven in this earthly life (see 1 Corinthians 15:47-49; 2 Corinthians 12:2-3; Galatians 4:26; Philippians 3:20).

In 1:20 we learned that Jesus was exalted to sit in the place of authority and access; at the RIGHT HAND IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS.   Paul repeated that language here to give the faithful further encouragement; “Heaven?  You are there already, dudes!”  Especially in Ephesus, he wanted the believers to know they were not subject to spiritual evil of any kind; they already enjoyed heavenly authority being in relationship with Jesus Christ.

Lastly, Paul reminded them of their origins; WE ARE GOD’S WORKMANSHIP. (10)  This word could just as easily serve as part of the answer to the next question.  God acted to save us because we are His.  But it is also part of the list of things God has done for us – He created us.  The word WORKMANSHIP could just as easily be translated “creation.”  However, the word also conveys skill, intelligence and achievement in execution, like “masterpiece,” “handiwork,” or “work of art.”

Verse ten is a counterpoint to verse nine: verse nine says we are saved by GRACE, not by WORKS, which would seem to render WORKS unimportant.  Verse ten reveals that WORKS do play an important role in life after salvation.  In fact, they are the very reason God created us.  We were CREATED IN CHRIST JESUS TO DO GOOD WORKS, so a well-spent life was part of God’s plan before the universe was created.  This interpretation is supported by a second phrase that means exactly the same thing: WHICH GOD PREPARED IN ADVANCE FOR US TO DO.

When we consider all of Paul’s teaching, we realize two things about GOOD WORKS.  One, GOOD WORKS is not the same as fulfilling the Law.  Instead, Paul meant for us to do things fulfilling the Law of Love and demonstrating the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in everyday words and deeds (1 Thessalonians 1:3).  Two, God chose both His people and how His people would behave.  This is what Paul wrote in 1:4; HE CHOSE US IN HIM BEFORE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD TO BE HOLY AND BLAMELESS IN HIS SIGHT.

Paul’s second answer is to this question, “Why would God save such creatures?”  When you take notice the descriptive words in v. 4, GREAT love…RICH mercy…INCOMPARABLE RICHES of grace, it is clear God is generous with His people!

God showed us grace BECAUSE OF HIS GREAT LOVE. (4)  LOVE is the word that best summarizes the character of God in BOTH Old and New Testaments.

His LOVE is unconditional, positive, and always moves us toward greater good and maturity.

We have been offered GRACE because GOD…IS RICH IN MERCY. (4)  The merciful side of God’s nature is explained in Exodus 34:6-7, where we read that God only holds the sinner guilty, not his family.   He forgives sin.

This word was understood by Bible writers to mean “covenant love;” that God is faithful to keep His promise to love us, even when we are unfaithful to our promise to love Him.  GRACE, MERCY, and LOVE have a lot of overlap in Paul’s writings.  There’s no need to create strong differentiations between the three words.  As we saw in chapter one, this passage also underscores the fact that God took the initiative to save us even though we are completely unworthy (see Titus 3:5).

God showered us with GRACE that HE MIGHT SHOW THE INCOMPARABLE RICHES OF HIS GRACE…IN CHRIST JESUS. (7)  God’s purpose is always to draw us to Him.  When the Bible talks about God’s “glory,” that’s what it means.  God’s GRACE brings glory to Him because He is so generous with forgiveness.  His act of creating t human race and then saving us from ourselves is to resound throughout eternity as the greatest deed ever.

God offers GRACE to complete our original purpose: we were CREATED TO DO GOOD WORKS. (10)  GOOD WORKS are not a means to salvation, but a product of salvation, a means of deepening our spiritual maturity, and a proof that our claims to salvation are genuine.  When we do the GOOD WORKS we were created to do, it is for God’s glory and our pleasure.  GOOD WORKS bless everyone!

The third and final question Paul answered in this passage is “How did God do this for us?” Paul’s answer was two-fold.

First, God saved us by His gracious offer of salvation: BY GRACE YOU’VE BEEN SAVED. (5+8)  God deserves to be the focus of our lives, the object of our gratitude because He saved us by His grace, not our merit.  Paul wrote this twice (in verses five and eight) to make sure we don’t miss this essential truth.  GRACE means we are spared the WRATH of God (3) because God has guaranteed our salvation.  Neither this day nor Judgment Day holds any fear for us.

In verse eight Paul provided a little more explanation; God’s GRACE is ours BY FAITH.  Having FAITH does not make us any more deserving; it is the sole means by which we can be saved.  By FAITH we believe GRACE is available and receive it ourselves.  IT IS NOT OF YOURSELVES; IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD can refer either to GRACE or FAITH or both.  Which is interesting; we can’t really even have faith on our own; God supplies that too!

Second, GRACE is God doing for us what is impossible for us to do for ourselves (8-9).  Saving ourselves is not even a possibility: that’s what the phrases THIS IS NOT FROM YOURSELVES…NOT BY WORKS mean.

– Good WORKS won’t save us.

– Keeping God’s law won’t earn eternal life for us.

– Attempting to manipulate spirits by practicing magic (as the pagans of Ephesus did) won’t accomplish a single thing.

– Positive thinking and impulse control have value in this life, but are powerless to save us.

Why is it important for us to recognize that salvation is purely God’s action?  SO THAT NO ONE CAN BOAST means that no one should think they’ve earned or somehow deserve God’s grace or are in any way deserving.  That would be a fatal error, the worst kind of self-deception possible.  To think we can gain heaven on our own two feet would be to deny our need for a Savior and thereby cheat ourselves out of salvation by not seeking and finding true faith.  FAITH gives credit where it’s due and relies on God’s power, not ours.

Sin is the cause of the “Walking Dead,” God raises the dead to receive salvation and life.

God saves us from enslavement to the “Killer S’s” of sin, Satan, and self.  He does this in order to grant us true freedom to live in love; this is true life.  We must acknowledge the truth in order to live and to help others find life.  Part of that truth is that we were in a trap and had no way out that we could employ as an exit.  Jesus is God’s means of leaving the trap and living.

Paul’s message must’ve seemed strange to the people of Ephesus.  They were used to thinking of gods and spirits as beings whom you appeased to avoid their wrath or bribed with sacrifices to manipulate them into giving blessing.  As Paul presented Him, God did not operate in either of those ways.  People today are still surprised to find that God is not what they expected.  Too many reject a caricature of God without having any experience of Him or even of His Church.

Paul taught that sacrifice and praise were grateful responses to God’s prior acts of love and gracious gift of salvation.  His faith is not a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of exercise, but the humble acceptance of a generous gift.  Once accepted, that gift makes all the difference in the way we want to live.

God offers life.  Choose to accept it and celebrate it by doing good.  Let’s be the lively people of God, not the “walking dead.”

 

RESOURCES:

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

Love Without Limits

(Please read Matthew 18:21-35 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Those of us of a certain age will recognize the name W.C. Fields, the rest of you will have to google it.  A famous comic actor in the black and white era of motion pictures, Fields played mostly grumpy old men in his movies.  It turns out that off-screen, he was a grumpy old man and a drunken rascal.

W.C. Fields was also a notorious atheist.  That’s why a friend of his was astonished to discover Fields, at the end of his life, reading the Bible.  He asked Fields, “Why in the world are you reading the Bible?  Are you looking for answers?”

The comedian replied, “No, I’m looking for loopholes.”

Looking for loopholes.  That pretty well describes human nature doesn’t it?  We want maximum gain with minimal effort.  We expect to be rewarded above and beyond our lukewarm commitment and selfishly motivated actions.  Justice and mercy are things we want when they benefit us, but are far less concerned about them for the sake of others.  Particularly for people whom we do not happen to like.

The last time I preached on this passage was 20 years ago.  At that time, God was using a peculiar method to teach me about mercy.  God used Woofie to give me daily opportunities to show forgiveness.

Woofie came into our lives as “Wolfie;”  we changed her name to make her sound less aggressive.  The change of name had no effect on her nature, however.

Woofie was the poster dog of the local Humane Society.  Really.  She was a stray who’d been hanging around a cemetery, barely eking out a living, in bad shape when she was caught.  Life on her own did not prepare Woofie to be a house dog.

She loved everyone in the family and hated all other life forms.  She was a barker.  A jumper.  She bolted every chance she could get, so we had to devise an elaborate and strong pulley system to let her outdoors.  One of her favorite tricks was to walk up next to Melanie and bump her with her backside, sending Melanie, then a toddler, sprawling and bawling on the floor.  When we watched a movie and ate popcorn, she would bark angrily if you didn’t frequently flip a kernel her way.

The story has a happy ending.  Woofie lived with us for more than a decade.  She peacefully lay down to sleep one day and never awoke again.

What eventually made the difference was love.  And forgiveness.  Lots and lots of forgiveness of her canine sins.

Now, twenty years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We adopted Rue from the Sioux Falls Humane Society just before Christmas and her list of doggie offenses is growing.  I must be a slow learner to have to go through this again!

  1. The occasion: Peter asked a question.

Rabbis (Jewish teachers) are and were tasked with applying the Law of Moses to everyday life.  When they did so, they tended to use a very legalistic approach.  They taught that a person might be forgiven three times for a repeated sin.  On the fourth occasion, however, no one was required to  forgive something a fourth time.

It’s possible that when Peter offered the number SEVEN, he was surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus had commanded in 5:20. (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”)  Or Peter may’ve settled on SEVEN since that was seen as “the perfect number,” the number for God.  (Six is the number for man; always one short.)  In either case, Jesus had just been talking about the steps in restoring fellow church members from sin to forgiveness and this sparked Peter’s questioning mind.  He wanted to know if there were any loopholes in this matter of forgiveness and restoration.

In the first part of His answer, Jesus one-ups Peter and adds a second seven.  (In some texts it’s plus seventy, in others, it times seventy.  Since we’re NOT dealing with a legalism here, the difference makes no difference.)  Jesus sometimes uses humor and exaggeration to make His point and I believe that’s what’s happening here.  SEVENTY-SEVEN and 490 are both ridiculous numbers if you intend to make it a law.  Who would have the capacity to keep such a command?  How would keeping an exhaustive count of offenses make anyone feel better or make you more godly?

No, SEVENTY-SEVEN is obviously a metaphor for a limitless number.  Once they’ve had a chuckle over the first part of His answer, Jesus goes on to tell them a story that will justify effectively limitless forgiveness.

  1. The one main point of the parable: “Forgive one another as you have been forgiven by God the Father.”

We will show how Jesus’ parable develops this truth in just a moment.  For now, we note the large strokes.

The KING is God the Father.  Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, He forgives the massive, impossible-for-us-to-fix debt of our sin.

We are the unforgiving servant when we take out our petty anger on the people around us, who are represented by the FELLOW SERVANT.

The unforgiving servant had no mercy, so he received justice instead; justice in the form of judgment.  The warning in v. 35 could not be clearer: people who are unwilling to forgive will miss out on God’s forgiveness.

  1. The sub-points of the parable:

One: The debt the king forgave was impossible to repay.  In Jesus’ world, it was possible for servants of a KING to amass a debt in the course of their service to the king.  They were tasked with managing their master’s assets and logically their management wasn’t always successful.  In such cases, the master didn’t write a loss off, but held the manager accountable, counting the loss as a debt owed him.  (This system sounds a bit like riding a tiger; choose carefully which end you face!)

Even so, this amount is another purposeful exaggeration: Jesus used an impossibly large amount of money to create the impression that the debt was impossible to repay.  For context, I refer you to a 2010 article by Philip Massey who calculated the debt to require 200,000 YEARS of labor to repay.  The 2010 equivalent, his math said, was $7.04 billion.

– OR, the net worth of Bill Gates.

– OR, more than the national debt… in 1917!!

<Retrieved from http://chimes.biola.edu/story/2010/oct/27/parable-two-debtors/ on 1/6/17.>

The king did the math and realized that even if he sold this man’s entire family into slavery (as he did in v. 25), it would not make a dent in his losses.  His original motive must’ve been to get what he could and make an example of this servant and his horrible mismanagement of the king’s funds.

He orders the servant and all his family and possessions seized for the debt.  Our sympathy may naturally go to the servant, but think about it: if the indebted servant realized the debt was impossible to pay, his pleading with the king to be PATIENT, promising to repay all, was a lie.

Let’s note the character of the KING on the basis of his response to his servant’s plea.  His character is substantiated in v. 27: it was PITY, not the empty promise of repayment that motivated the king to cancel the servant’s debt.  Let there be no doubt this king is a figure symbolizing God the Father.

– Each person’s sin is an insurmountable debt, a problem we can’t fix.

– Not because of our empty promises to be good, or anything else we can do, the debt is cancelled.

– Does this help you understand the incredible seriousness of your sins AND the depth of God’s forgiveness?

– Remember, the money is a metaphor; the actual situation is even more dire, for the wages of sin are DEATH (RMS 6:23).

Two, the debt the servant did not forgive was tiny in comparison.  The modern value of A HUNDRED SILVER COINS would be up to $45,000.  That is a princely sum for most of us, I would guess, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to $7.04 billion.

This is a third exaggeration, a sum chosen carefully by Jesus.            On the one hand, it is not so small a sum of money that a person could easily forgive the debt and not miss it.  A needy or greedy person would be motivated to insist on repayment.  On the other hand, it is not so large a sum that it compares at all with the debt this servant’s master had JUST CANCELLED.

In v. 29, the second servant’s plea reads almost exactly the same as the plea the unforgiving servant has just made with the king.  Here Jesus is using irony to make sure that we connect the unforgiving servant with the one who owed him money.  The unforgiving servant takes the place of the KING and the second servant takes his place.  Though the debts are very much different, the situation, through the wording, is very much the same.  What is different is the outcome.

It is a terrible, immoral deed that the unforgiving servant does to his peer, throwing him in prison over this comparatively tiny debt after he has been forgiven so much (30).  What he did was as illegal as it was immoral.  According to the law of the land, you could not sell a person into slavery for a debt that was worth less than the person’s life.  In other words, the unforgiving servant was trying to not only recover his debt, but make a profit too.  This detail exposes the unforgiving servant as greedy, not needy.

Three, the king’s justice is an example of God’s justice.  The injustice of the unforgiving servant’s actions was not lost on his peers.  Jesus says they were GREATLY DISTRESSED (31).  Probably at some personal risk, they went to the KING and told him what had happened.  This makes even more sense if the actions of the unforgiving servant are illegal AND immoral.

In vs. 32-34 we are pleased to see that this KING, who was so good-natured as to forgive such a massive debt, also had a good sense of justice.  He was indignant at the unforgiving servant’s actions and rebuked him for his pettiness, his unwillingness to demonstrate the same kind of mercy as he had recently received.

In righteous anger, the KING delivered a just condemnation of the unforgiving servant.  The word translated in the NIV as JAILERS is really too tame a choice of words.  It should read “torturers.”  The justice and mercy of the KING are a stark contrast to the greed and injustice of the unforgiving servant.

Four, let unforgiving folk be warned (35).  God’s justice is perfect; He knows who is guilty and the punishment always fits the crime.

This warning could not be more clear.  Unforgiving people betray the true status of their soul as themselves being unforgiven.  There is a cause and effect relationship between being shown mercy and giving mercy.

This warning could be more serious.  Our eternal destination is at stake.  Just as the unforgiving servant was handed over to the “torturers,” so can an unmerciful person expect only the wrath of God.

This warning could not be any more certain.  The unforgiving servant was exposed and justice was rendered.  He may have gone away from his first encounter thinking he’d fooled the king but his true nature emerged and he was dealt with justly.

Several years ago, on a beautiful spring day a man walked along a country lane to enjoy the sun.  He chanced upon a farmer plowing his field with a mule.  He was having a tough time of it.  The mule was not very responsive.

The visitor waved to the farmer and motioned for him to come over to the fence.  The farmer mopped his sweaty brow as he came over to the fence to greet his friendly visitor.

“Say,” the visitor said, “I’m not one to tell a man how to do his business, but I think that mule would be more cooperative if you’d say ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ to him when you wanted him to turn.”

The farmer considered this advice for but a moment and replied, “Reckon that’s so, but that mule kicked me five years ago and I haven’t talked to it since.”

Holding a grudge against people makes about as much sense, doesn’t it?  As this parable makes plain, grudge-holding and all forms of being unforgiving and unmerciful have no place in the life of a follower of Jesus.

Instead, just the opposite is true.  A claim to faith by a person or a church is proven by a character of mercy.  This quality of a fellowship (church) is also necessary to attract and retain new people in a church.

When You’re Rubbed the Wrong Way

Please read Colossians 3:12-17 in your Bible.  I used the NIV for this post.

Successful conflict resolution (peace-making) is the work of all genuine disciples.

The ability to get along with others requires a great deal of effort.  Our natural tendency is to push for our own way, even at the expense of relationships, and that’s where unity dies.  Whether in good times or in bad, it takes intention and effort to get along.

How do we resolve conflicts and settle disagreements before unity is lost.  We learned Wednesday night that God’s word suggests casting lots to decide the winner (see PBS 18:18).

In other cultures, differences were sometimes settled by fatal duels.  As odd as this may sound, there was a time in history when two men attempted to settle their dispute by casting lots AND having a duel!

French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas, best known for his novel, The Three Musketeers, once had a heated quarrel with a rising young politician.  It was decided that the only way honor could be satisfied was by a duel.  However, the problem was that both men were excellent shots and they feared a duel might result in both of them being killed.  For this reason, they cast lots to determine which of them would be spared, the loser was to shoot himself.

Dumas lost the drawing.

Pistol in hand, he withdrew in silent dignity to another room, closing the door behind him.  The rest of the group waited in gloomy suspense for the shot that would end his brilliant career.  It rang out at last.

His friends ran to the door and flung it open.  They were shocked to see Dumas standing there unharmed, the smoking pistol in his hand.

“Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened,” he announced.  “I missed.”

Fortunately, God has given us better ways to resolve our differences.  In Jesus Christ we have the ultimate means of getting along with one another, even with people who rub us the wrong way.  Let’s learn about Jesus’ way of peace as we look at Colossians 3:12-17.

  1. Take the high road (12-14).

God chose you to take the high road.  Paul’s teaching about God choosing His people (for example Romans 8:33; 16:13) is always for the purpose of emphasizing grace.  Verse twelve describes our God-given identity in three terms:

– CHOSEN = God chose us to faithfully represent Him in this world & be rewarded in heaven.

– HOLY = to be set apart from the usual, worldly uses to serve God in unusual, spiritual ways.

– DEARLY LOVED refers to the love God has for His children; unconditional love, full of grace.

Verses13-14 describe our God-directed activity

– BEAR WITH EACH OTHER is an important biblical command. See 1 Corinthians 13:5 = [Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Proverbs 12:16 = Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult.  Proverbs 19:11 = A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.

– FORGIVE AS THE LORD FORGAVE YOU. Follow His example; forgive and forget.  See Psalm 103:8-12 = THE LORD IS COMPASSIONATE AND GRACIOUS, SLOW TO ANGER, ABOUNDING IN LOVE.  HE WILL NOT ALWAYS ACCUSE, NOR WILL HE HARBOR HIS ANGER FOREVER; HE DOES NOT TREAT US AS OUR SINS DESERVE OR REPAY US ACCORDING TO OUR INIQUITIES.  FOR AS HIGH AS THE HEAVENS ARE ABOVE THE EARTH, SO GREAT IS HIS LOVE FOR THOSE WHO FEAR HIM; AS FAR AS THE EAST IS FROM THE WEST, SO FAR HE HAS REMOVED OUR TRANSGRESSIONS FROM US.

– OVER ALL THESE VIRTUES PUT ON LOVE, WHICH BINDS THEM ALL TOGETHER IN PERFECT UNITY. LOVE “binds” all virtues together because it is the chief virtue.  It is what motivates us be virtuous.  PERFECT UNITY is the outcome.  It is the condition of the fellowship in which people love one another.  See 1 Corinthians 13:13 = AND NOW THESE THREE REMAIN: FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE.  BUT THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.

Peace cannot be forged if your mind is on “getting even.” Taking the high road sometimes requires letting go of our “rights.”

God has demonstrated the way he wants us to live.  God always acts in holiness and love in perfect balance.  He always does what is best for us.  The entire Bible is a record of the various ways God has demonstrated these attributes.  He calls us to follow His example because He knows then we will truly act in ways that are in our best interests.  When we choose self-interest instead, when we prefer our petty dramas to His high standards, then we’re walking the toxic road of sin.

  1. Actions are more important than feelings (12).

We act differently because we live in our NEW SELF.  In v. 10 Paul wrote about “putting on” our NEW SELF, as if this new life in Christ were a change of clothes.  He continues that image in v. 12.  However, unlike a change of clothes which we can easily see, this improvement of character may be a little more difficult to perceive.  Here’s how we know we’ve made the switch; we know it’s happened when the virtues listed in verse 12 become part of our character.  These virtues closely resemble the Fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 and there we learn that these marks of godly character are a gift from God by means of the Holy Spirit.

– COMPASSION = is one word made by combining the Greek words for affection and sympathy.

– KINDNESS is a friendly willingness to help the needy.

– HUMILITY involves seeing yourself as God sees you, not falling into the extremes of narcissism or self-loathing.

– GENTLENESS is consideration for others that goes so deep one is willing to waive one’s “rights” to revenge.

– PATIENCE endures trials without exasperation.

It’s genuine because it comes from God.  It’s true that putting on a red hat does not make me a fireman.  Similarly, verse twelve is not about putting on these virtues in a hypocritical way, to make others think we are God’s children.  These are all virtues that come forth through action and we all know actions speak louder than mere words.

  1. Make Christ the center of every conversation (16).

Verse sixteen is not limited to worship though it sounds like it, with the mention of teaching, admonishing, & singing.  It’s really about consistency; if our conversations have a different moral character inside and outside church, what does that say about the genuineness of our faith?  It says, as James taught, that we all struggle with our tongues (see James 3:2).

In the very next chapter Paul wrote, LET YOUR CONVERSATION BE ALWAYS FULL OF GRACE, SEASONED WITH SALT, SO THAT YOU MAY KNOW HOW TO ANSWER EVERYONE. (Colossians 4:6).  This is what Paul meant by LET THE WORD OF CHRIST DWELL IN YOU RICHLY.  THE WORD OF CHRIST doesn’t only mean the Bible, but also the person of Jesus Christ.  The word RICHLY means “having ample room,” or “having great treasure.”  Jesus should dominate our thinking and as He does, He will be expressed more abundantly in what we say and do.

We should ask “WWJD?” and “WWJS?”  S = SAY.  If we would ask ourselves, “What would Jesus say in this instance?”  The act of stopping to think about it would help us avoid sins of the tongue.

  1. Passionately pursue personal peace (15+17).

We’re promised peace the passes UNDERSTANDING.  This is obviously not the kind of peace the world can give, the kind that is more than avoiding conflict or calming fears.

Instead, it is a settled state of mind, a feeling of contentment, and an attitude of patience that is BEYOND UNDERSTANDING because it is from God, not our circumstances.  This kind of PEACE is so profound that it cannot be lost because troubles or trials appear.

Peace is to RULE over us and our relationships.  The word RULE originally meant “to act as an umpire.”  This means every situation that pits Christians against one another must be resolved in a way that leads to PEACE.  There is nothing fake about this; this is the highest-possible-standard PEACE described in verse fifteen.

We are called to PEACE.  We are called to PEACE as much as we are called to salvation: PEACE is the foundation of our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.  If we truly follow Christ we will value this peace much more highly than we will the little things that tend to divide us.  We will prize this PEACE and guard it against self-interest and factions.

This kind of PEACE always produces a grateful response as it directs our attention to God: this response is described in two phrases in verse seventeen.

– WHATEVER YOU DO, WHETHER IN WORD OR DEED, DO IT ALL IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS. In these three different ways Paul expressed one thought; all that you do, do it as a disciple of Jesus should.  (This will logically exclude sinful activities.)  This includes all parts of our daily living but excludes all things that are not of Christ.

– GIVING THANKS TO GOD THE FATHER THROUGH HIM. When you think of this fantastic PEACE God gives, gratitude is the most appropriate response.  Plus, when we express our thankfulness, we direct the attention of others to God.

ENCOURAGEMENT AND ACTION:

  1. YOU ARE LOVED = Loving God leads to loving others
  2. THERE IS HOPE = Home and Church are the training sites for love and the world is the place where we practice love. With God, we can DO THIS!
  3. HOW TO GET STARTED = take the steps of “UNITE.”

U = “U” as in You (in texting language). Unless you seek peace, it will not happen.

N = Note your feelings & own them by talking about them with “I” statements.

I = Inform the other person about your desire for peace.

T = Talk about how to avoid this situation repeating itself in the future.

E = Enjoy a healthier relationship as you put your solutions to work.

Why’d He Do It? FREEDOM

(Please read GALATIANS 5:1-12 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I have cited the NIV in the article below.)

Jesus surrendered His life on the cross to secure our freedom from slavery to sin and from the Law.

There’s a part of our culture that’s just crazy about inventing new names for things.  To beat them at their own game I call this movement the “irreligious orthodoxy,” aka “political correctness.”

No matter how you feel about the issues, you’ve got to wonder about what folks hope to accomplish with this nimble nomenclature.  For example, in my youth, people had to go to Sweden to get a “sex change.”  A couple years ago, people started talking about “gender reassignment” and I just learned last week that the title du jour is “gender confirmation.”

One of the places where this jargon-swapping seems inappropriate is when “slavery” is referred to as “human trafficking.”  I’m not at all sure what we gain by softening the impact of the practice of slavery by calling it “human trafficking.”

I recently received a mailing from our denominational headquarters about the practice of slavery as it exists in the world today.  So that you understand how really precious your freedom is, I want to share some of these statistics with you.

  • The average cost of a human being is just $90.
  • It is estimated there are 35.9 million slaves in the world today.
  • 750,000 slaves are taken across international borders every year. As many as 17,500 are brought into the U.S. annually.
  • In the U.S., the average age of persons forced into sexual slavery is 12 to 14 years old. Over all kind of forced labor, it is estimated that 26% of them are children.
  • Slavery is the third biggest form of international crime (behind drugs and guns), with annual profits reportedly at $32 billion. (Almost half those profits come from supposedly civilized industrialized nations.)

Clearly, whatever name you slap on it, the buying and selling of human beings is not something that ended with the American Civil War.  It is a world-wide industry that exploits people, treating them as if they were just another natural resource to be torn from the earth.

(Statistics from ijm.org/casework/forced-labor-slavery and do something.org/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking.)

The condition of slavery is real and appalling.  We more awareness of the problem and more active opposition to it.  For centuries, the Christian Church has lead the world in respect for human life and loving treatment of slaves.  Persons of our faith have lead the charge against this form of inhumanity.

What is more widespread and even more serious (as it has eternal consequences) is spiritual slavery.  This is a self-inflicted bondage to sin and/or legalism.  Today we learn that Jesus Christ gave up His life as a sacrifice to save us from spiritual slavery.  The spiritual freedom we enjoy because of Him is what we gather to proclaim and celebrate today

  1. The principle (1).

The principle is this: Jesus set us free in order to enjoy freedom.  Do not surrender your freedom!  Verse one is the key verse to the entire book of Galatians.  It shows us that holiness does not come with meticulous rule-keeping, but by grace through faith.  It is God’s gift.  By means of his reference to the CROSS in verse eleven, Paul sets this freedom in Jesus’ sacrificial death.

Paul expressed the principle in two contrasting statements.

– IT IS FOR FREEDOM CHRIST HAS SET YOU FREE. This sounds like one of those obvious statements, doesn’t it?  Or it might be said to be a fine example of circular reasoning.  To put it another way; “Jesus Christ paid for your freedom so you would live as free people.”  Jesus willingly laid down His life so that we can be FREE people.

– DO NOT LET YOURSELVES BE BURDENED AGAIN BY A YOKE OF SLAVERY. The Jews of Paul’s time referred to their faith as “taking the yoke of the law upon yourself.”  This must be why Paul referred to the YOKE OF SLAVERY; revealing the nature of legalism.  Jesus turned this image around & invited people to take His YOKE, which, by contrast, was EASY, a LIGHT BURDEN (see Matthew 11:29-30).

In his letters, Paul identified 2 kinds of slavery:

– Slavery to sin. This is our sin nature, manifest in our rebellion and appetites for things we know are toxic to our health and maturity.

– Slavery to the letter of the Law of Moses, or any kind of legalism. This is the issue addressed in Galatians.

  1. Abandonment of the principle: legalism (2-6).

The general issue was the demand by false teachers that non-Jewish converts to Christianity submit to the Law of Moses as part of their conversion. One aspect of this general issue was the specific requirement of the Law of Moses that men be circumcised.  Circumcision was originally intended as a physical symbol of the spiritual relationship between the men of Israel and God.

Using blunt language, Paul disputes the teaching with three warnings.

First, Christ will be of NO VALUE to you (2).  As Paul will point out in v. 6, it is not circumcision that’s at issue; it is surrendering one’s freedom in Christ and submitting to legalism instead.  Whenever someone wants to put a plus sign after Jesus, saying you need “Jesus and something” to be saved, it really amounts to a minus sign in front of Jesus: it no longer amounts to a saving faith.  I can’t imagine a worse consequence than this one; it is a dire warning of being eternally lost.  In 1 Corinthians 7:17-20, Paul advised the Corinthian men to not be circumcised.  It was not necessary to follow Jesus.

Second, every man who submits to this one part of the Law will be required to keep all of it (3).  Logically, an honest person can’t pick and choose which parts of the Law they want to keep or ignore.  EVEN THOUGH that is the very error we see in some people and churches today.  Instead, it’s all or nothing.

Third, the legalists urging this “judaizing” are not in Christ.  Paul states this in two different ways.

– ALIENATED FROM CHRIST refers to the fact that they tried to earn their salvation through “Jesus plus the Law.” That plus sign is false and is actually a minus sign, as Christ is not present in them.

– FALLEN AWAY FROM GRACE does not mean losing one’s salvation. Instead, it means that the person is self-condemned because they have rejected grace and chosen legalism instead.  They “fell away from” grace before they ever took hold of it.

Why do we do it?  Why do we surrender our freedom to legalism?  I can think of three reasons.

One, the law is easier to understand and apply than grace.  Our human nature tends to be lazy and prefer the easy path.  But grace is about granting exceptions, forgiveness, and favors to people that may not, in our opinion, deserve it.  That’s hard work.

Two, it gives us a false sense of control and a false sense that we can earn God’s love.  Pass or fail, heaven or hell, some of us desire control so strongly we embrace the law as something we can manage.  Grace surrenders control to God and resists management.

Three, we’ve been lied to.  Legalism can be a burden transferred from one generation to another.  Traditions are meant to be guidelines not straightjackets, but they can bind us to legalistic, religion-centered approaches to faith rather that receive grace by faith.

What is the truth?  The truth is that FAITH sets our HOPE on the RIGHTEOUSNESS that comes through the HOLY SPIRIT, not the Law (5).  It is BY FAITH, not by works.  In fact, we EAGERLY AWAIT it!  It is made available to us THROUGH THE SPIRIT who is our DEPOSIT that GUARANTEES our faith is reliably placed in God and is trustworthy (see 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5 and Ephesians 1:14).  Our HOPE is to be judged righteous, but not by means of our own good works, but by means of the gift of RIGHTEOUSNESS through the cross.  In the Bible, HOPE refers to things that are certain but have not yet come to completion.

One aspect of the FREEDOM Jesus gives us is that circumcision is rendered meaningless (6).  All attempts to keep the Law are equally valueless.  No matter how good the deed, if God is not in it, it has no value regarding salvation.

To followers of Jesus, THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS IS FAITH EXPRESSING ITSELF THROUGH LOVE (6).  This statement counters the false teaching that, because of grace, works don’t matter at all.  Godly actions continue to be essential, but they are essential expressions of a life of faith that truly exists, not the means to attain a life of faith.  Faith is the first gift of God we accept.  Having truly accepted it, then we live out our days making decisions to accept the LOVE that motivates us to do good deeds.

  1. Advisers against the principle: legalists (7-12).

Paul warns them that this false teaching…

…will keep them from OBEYING THE TRUTH (7). Using an athletic metaphor (a RACE), Paul is saying that legalists – ironically – disqualify themselves from staying in the race because they don’t obey the simple truth of the Gospel: saved by faith.

…does not come from God, who called them (8). God’s revelation does not contradict itself.  The Old Covenant of works has been revoked in favor of the New Covenant of grace.

…will corrupt the entire church if not checked (9). Paul was fond of this yeast analogy: he also used it in 1 Corinthians 5:6.  It is a word-picture of how false teaching – even something that is mostly true – can work its way into an entire congregation.  This ought to raise their level of alarm and motivate their diligence.

…can be seen in no other light (10). Paul was confident that he was teaching them God’s truth and never wants to be a party in diluting the truth to be a people-pleaser.

…will result in God’s wrath on the false teachers (10). THE ONE means Paul believed that one person had thrown them all into this confusion.  Like Paul, we need to trust God that He is not confused about any of it and will one day dispense justice and vindicate our faith.

…is not what he teaches (11). One thing that distinguishes the false teaching is that it is different from the teaching they received from Paul.  In this case, Paul never taught them that it was necessary for Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised.

…reduces Jesus’ death to a needless act (11). Theologically speaking, if it were possible for a person to earn standing with God by means of obeying the Law, then there is no purpose in Jesus’ death.  He died to create a New Agreement between God and humanity to eliminate any need for the Law; to give us freedom from its binding rules and all other forms of legalism too.

Paul concludes this section with a strong ridicule of the legalists’ logic: if they followed their own reasoning to its conclusion, they wouldn’t stop at circumcision, but would go all the way and emasculate themselves (12).  This is a startling statement.  It is an exaggeration that is designed to make a point, like some of the things Donald Trump says.  Emasculation was practiced in the ancient world at about the same rate that gelding in practiced in the horse world of our modern times.  So Paul isn’t just pulling this out of the air, it is part of the context of civilized life in his time.

Paul did not write this to be funny or malicious, but to underscore how ridiculous this whole false teaching is.  It is based on bad theology and flawed logic; it should be rejected by people of faith and opposed when encountered in the church.

Legalism is not limited to churches or religions.  Earlier I alluded to the legalism found in our secular culture today.  As we conclude, let me share with you an example of how legalistic worldly people can be.

Whole Foods pulls pre-peeled oranges off shelves after Twitter backlash

BY Nicholas Parco NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Friday, March 4, 2016, 5:40 PM

“Whole Foods listened to the numerous furious Internet users Thursday by removing pre-peeled oranges packed in plastic containers from stores.

“The backlash began after Nathalie Gordon shared a photo of the fruit in a California Whole Foods on her Twitter page with the caption ‘If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.’

Just three hours later, Whole Foods responded: ’Definitely our mistake,’ @WholeFoods tweeted. ‘These have been pulled. We hear you, and we will leave them in their natural packaging: the peel.’

“Gordon’s complaint has nearly 70,000 retweets and likes each.

“This is not the first time Whole Foods has been criticized for and caved to consumer complaints over a product.

“Last year, the store came under fire when they sold asparagus water, H20 with a stick of the vegetable in a bottle, for $6.”

<Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/foods-pulls-pre-peeled-oranges-shelves-article-1.2553475 on 3/5/16.>

It’s amazing, isn’t it?  The American culture most likely to cry “don’t judge me” is so quick to condemn and on such a grand scale, aided by all the social media access they carry in their pockets.  I get razzed about something wrong in the bulletin, but that’s nothing on this scale!  Maybe now that we’re putting sermons on YouTube…?

The Apostle Paul was lead by the Holy Spirit to address the problem of legalism in the church in Galatia.  False teachers were trying to bind non-Jewish Christians to the Law of Moses, or at least part of it.  As Paul refuted that notion, he revealed one of the reasons Jesus went to the cross: to set us free.

When He surrendered His life, Jesus set us free from slavery to sin.  We are no longer bound to our bodily desires – to satisfy their instinctive urges – but are free to pursue spiritual maturity instead.

Jesus went to the cross to set us free from slavery to legalism.  We are not bound by bullies who wield the letter of the law, but are free to live our life of faith as led by the Holy Spirit.

As Jesus said of Himself, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)  In Christ, you ARE free.  Live a life of freedom!

How to Undo Love

(Please read Luke 15:11-31 prior to reading this post.  All citations are from the NIV.)

We can choose to love or undo love.

When the great American storyteller Mark Twain was asked, “Who do you think is the best storyteller every lived?” Mark twain answered, “Jesus Christ.” “Then which story is the greatest story every told?” He replied, “The Story of the Prodigal Son.”

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-samuel-stone-quotes-parableprodigalson-18971.asp on 1/29/16.>

Of course, Mark Twain is right on both these answers.  The parable of the prodigal is the greatest story because it gives the keenest insight into both human nature and divine nature.  The two sons demonstrated what love is not, the father demonstrated what love is.

  1. Both of the sons chose to undo the father’s love.

Though they went about it in opposite ways, they both made the same choice.

The younger son chose the aggressive way to undo love.  He was in line for a third of the inheritance, but he aggressively insisted on his “right” to possess it before his father died.  Though he was in a home where he was safe and loved, he scorned these gifts and wanted a more exciting, more self-directed life.

Most of us do not applaud the father’s action: it seems like spoiling the son, giving him what he wanted and not what he needed.  Though Abraham had given Isaac the greater share of his holdings while he lived, there was no law requiring the father to honor the younger son’s request.

Predictably, the younger son wasted the money his father had given him.  He became a “conspicuous sinner.”  The phrase WILD LIVING literally means “unsaved.”  When the money ran out, so did the younger son’s so-called “friends.”  No one offered him any help.

Left with no visible means of support, he turned to the job that Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have seen as the worst but well-deserved job possible: tending pigs.  The mention of FAMINE would’ve been seen as God’s verdict on the son’s lifestyle.  Not only was a swineherd, but he was so hungry, he wanted to eat the pig’s food; carob pods.  The Jews had a saying; “When Israel is reduced to the carob-tree, they become repentant.”

Having finally come to the worst possible end (Jesus exaggerated the details, so his extremity cannot be expressed too strongly), the younger son was forced to admit that even the hired help back at home had it better than he did.  Suffering will train us where character fails.  The result of suffering’s training?  HE CAME TO HIS SENSES: literally, “he returned to being himself.”  This sinful life is an untrue life; it is not our real or best self.  Home was fixed in his mind as a good place; he knew he’d be better off there.

Still stuck in his unloving frame of mind, he devised a confession that would allow him to come home even if his father wanted to lather him from head to foot with “I told you so” and was angry with him.

On the other hand, the elder son chose the passive-aggressive way to undo love.  He symbolized the Jewish clergy who opposed Jesus.  On the basis of the context, I would argue that the older son is the true focus of the parable.  We have misnamed this parable; it should be called “The Parable of the Grumpy Son.”

The older son is an example of “passive-aggressive” behavior.  That kind of behavior is defined in a person who is no less aggressive, but has learned indirect means to exercise their aggression.  Like the older brother, a passive-aggressive person appears to be obedient and often insists on the letter of the law, even perfectionism.  However, his legalism is self-serving and unloving.

Grace and love figured into his thinking only when it was to his advantage.  For example, reflect on verse 29 = “I’ve never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”  I bet he never asked for a goat either.  Criticizing people for not doing things, especially things that were never asked for or required, that is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior.

The older brother wanted to see little brother punished – not because he had an interest in justice – but because he selfishly believed that if his brother was punished it would vindicate his choices in life.

He saw the gracious acts of his father and utterly rejected them.  Note what happened in verse 28: HE BECAME ANGRY AND REFUSED TO GO IN.  He did not storm into the party and demand an explanation.  He did not confront anyone.  Instead, he stood outside and pouted and paced until his father came out to explain.  This is another classic act of passive aggression.

Legalistically, one might argue that he has a “right” to be angry.  After all, no one bothered to tell him there was a part going on, never mind how unfair it is to throw a party for his undeserving brother!

But truthfully, its hypocrisy, isn’t it?

With passive-aggressive people, their complaints are rarely the real problem.  In this case, the eldest son didn’t really care about the party; he only cared that the party was not in HIS honor.  Regardless of the letter of the law or his own slanted views on justice, the older son chose to undo the love of the father by being selfishly angry.

The choice that both sons made is the thing that will quickly “undo” love: selfishness.

The younger son was selfish in wanting his father to fund his sinful lifestyle. He was selfish in wanting to go his own path on his father’s money.  He had been loved by his father but undid that love by selfishly insisting on his own way.

The older son behaved more responsibly, but was selfishly using the letter of the law to beat down his younger brother and elevate himself. He had also been treated graciously by his father, but undid his father’s love by selfishly insisting on the law instead of grace.

  1. Let’s not follow their example, but follow the example of the father;

a man who knew how to do love.

Whether our behavior is aggressive or passive-aggressive doesn’t matter.  Sin is sin.  Whether we try to mask it or are “at least honest,” being selfish undoes the love we ought to have for God & another.  The father’s love is the example we are to follow.

Remember, God is the hero of every Bible story, including this one.  His love is represented by the father’s loving actions in this parable.

We “do” love by being unselfish, we “undo” love by being selfish.  That is the simple truth of this parable.

“I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living.”  – Booker T. Washington, 20th century author, orator, and advisor to American presidents

“The secret of being loved is being lovely; and the secret of being lovely is being unselfish.” – Anonymous

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-quotes-christianlove-54602.asp on 1/29/16.>

2016 is a Year of Jubilee

(Please read Leviticus 25:8-22.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Message – God commanded a Year of Jubilee as a special Sabbath. We can do this in our own way.

  1. What the Year of Jubilee meant to Israel.

It meant freedom for indentured servants with the forgiveness of debts (39-43).  God did not free His people from slavery to the Egyptians (see the book of Exodus) only to make them slaves to one another.

In this culture, the “safety net” for poverty was for the head of the household to sell himself and/or family members into slavery.  We might call it “indentured servitude” to differentiate is from the other kind of slavery.  Indentured servants were countrymen and were generally assigned household chores.  Slave were Gentiles, became slaves by being conquered in war, and were not freed by the Year of Jubilee.  This allowed the man to work off his debt and when that was accomplished, everyone regained their freedom.

While this system his may sound cruel to our ears, I think it has some points to commend itself versus our system of welfare.  The indentured servants were provided a home, food, and work to do to restore their homes.  They were to be treated respectfully – as fellow countrymen – by their masters.  Our system creates a cruel dependency and a massive bureaucracy, both of which have been proven to be toxic to our social and political life.

While each approach to poverty has its strengths and weaknesses, the point is that the exception to this rule was the Year of Jubilee.  In this case, the debt that created indentured servitude was simply forgiven.

It also meant a second consecutive year of rest for the land (11-12; see Exodus 23:10-11).  It can be a little confusing because the term “Sabbath” is used in a variety of ways.

– The seventh day of the week was designated as the weekly Sabbath.

– The seventh year was designated as a Sabbath Year.

– I suppose you could say the Year of Jubilee was to be a “Sabbath of Sabbaths;” observed every 50 years, occurring after seven Sabbath Years were held (8).

In every case, however, a Sabbath is a rest from work, replacing work with worship and prayer. The term literally means “solemn rest.”  As God rested from His work of creation, so are His people to rest from their works.  But this was also a rest for the land.  The people were not to raise crops, but to trust God that He would provide for their needs through what grew on its own.  Imagine an entire year devoted to God!  What would 365 Sundays feel like?

I’m no farmer and have a black thumb, but I understand that land which is tilled and planted loses its vitality.  That’s why crops are rotated and occasionally land is left idle; to renew it.

The Year of Jubilee also required restoration of lands to their ancestral owners (10, 13).

This means that the land – the PROMISED Land – could not be sold permanently.  V. 23 = THE LAND MUST NOT BE SOLD PERMANENTLY, BECAUSE THE LAND IS MINE AND YOU ARE BUT ALIENS AND TENANTS.  This is the true theology of stewardship; everything belongs to God and He has appointed us as caretakers over it.  Our possessiveness, materialism, and pride are false and sinful because we don’t truly own a single thing.  How wonderful that every seventh year the people of God would get a powerful reminder not to put their hopes in money or earthly goods of any kind, but to trust in God instead.

The Year of Jubilee had practical as well as spiritual benefits.

– It emphasized the ties of family and brought them back to their origins: EACH ONE OF YOU IS TO RETURN TO HIS FAMILY PROPERTY AND EACH TO HIS OWN CLAN (10).

– It controlled inflation by resetting real estate prices every 50 years. (Today we use dollars in the way we used pennies 50 years ago and our purchasing power is diminishing.  Imagine how much better off we’d be with a 50 year reset!)

– It kept people from getting too far in debt. We know debt is hard on relationships.  (These days people are taking EIGHT YEARS to pay on a car, say nothing of 30 and 40 year mortgages!)

– Most importantly, it reinforced the essential truth that THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S (see Psalm 24:1).  This stops us from being selfish & materialistic.

By now you may be thinking of the ways in which the Year of Jubilee might be abused.  Notice that this passage required scaling prices according to the number of years until the next Jubilee (14-16).  This was a practical way to avoid abuse of the system.

Verse 17 provided a theological way to avoid abuse by forbidding abuse in principle: DO NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EACH OTHER, BUT FEAR YOUR GOD.  I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD.  This is exactly what GRACE is all about.  It risks abuse and misuse in order to make exceptions and aid others.

– The Year of Jubilee was to be 365 days of GRACE! WOW!!

– It was to be a whole year of trusting God to provide for you, not you busting your chops to grab all you can for yourself; a year of FAITH.

This sounds like crazy talk to worldly ears; utter foolishness.  Faith and grace have that effect on worldly-minded folk.  Grace is impractical and risky.  It has its own kind of logic that frequently opposes what the world says is reasonable.  The Year of Jubilee was also a practice run for the Kingdom of God, the ideal situation that will exist after the Day of the Lord.

The sad fact is that there is no biblical record of a Sabbath Year being observed, let alone a Year of Jubilee.  Apart from it being commanded in Leviticus and Numbers, it is never mentioned again in the Bible.  What a shame!  This wonderful command of God, so full of grace, was never adopted by the people of God.  What an opportunity wasted!

  1. What this Year of Jubilee will mean for us.

Freeing the captives and forgiving debts can be accomplished in our lives by our forgiveness of grudges and reconciliation of persons.  Forget about monetary debts; let us solve the relational problems in our lives by forgiveness.  We don’t need “drama and trauma” in our relationships.  God has called us to something far better: love.

One gauge of your spiritual life is the number of relationships that bring you joy compared to the number that are associated with negative emotions.  The more joy, the more spiritually mature you are.

An equivalent to resting the land can be taking rest from the tyranny of the ordinary and familiar.  Traditions and rituals exist to provide context, not constraint.  Spiritually mature people balance context with creativity and flexibility to follow the Spirit’s leadership.  Changing everything and changing nothing are ridiculous extremes and are scarcely worth mentioning.  Again, balance is key.  As human beings, we find joy in variety and familiarity.  This should balance should be sought as we make decisions together and live with one another.

In this, we can take as our example Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.  God created the institution for people, not people for the institution.

Being restored to our ancestral lands can take place by the restoration of our church’s place in our neighborhood and our attitude toward the people who live next to the place we call home.  I realize that the so-called experts say that neighborhood churches are a thing of the past, that everyone drives to church these days.  So what?  Be a neighborhood church!  Should any one of our neighbors die without receiving Jesus as Savior, let it not be because we failed to reach out and share the Gospel.

HOW WE GOT HERE – Pastor Dwayne and I were having a staff meeting, conversing about how difficult 2015 has been.  We decided to claim 2016 as a year of grace, of fruitfulness, and the fullness of God’s blessing.  “Let’s call it a Year of Jubilee,” we decided.  Something about that struck a chord, and we googled it.  We were surprised to find out that Pope Francis had already had this idea and announced it as such!

But we were even more surprised when we found that it we are already in an official Year of Jubilee according to the Hebrew calendar.  That is the traditional lunar calendar that is currently in year 5776!  According to that calendar, the Year of Jubilee began on September 23 of this year and will continue until the Day of Atonement next year.

SO, even though we’re a little late to the party, we’re going to adapt this biblical command to our church in the coming year!  I mentioned this later that day at the Nehemiah Prayer Group and we ran with it there too.  Since there are nine months left in the Year of Jubilee, we’ll emphasize one of the nine Fruits of the Spirit each month.  We pray that this emphasis improves church life and extends our outreach to our community.