During the season of Lent is the time when we fast and contemplate the sufferings of Jesus, what they teach us about Him, and what they mean to us.
Please open up to Mark 8:27-38:
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?”’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “’Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”
Suffering should be no surprise to Christians, but it always seems to be. Yet, Jesus was so crystal clear about what following Him would look like.
If you look at the passage today you’ll see that Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and then Jesus starts to unpack what that really means. He describes what the rest of His life on earth would look like, preparing His followers for what would be happening during that year. He tells them of how this would be His final journey to Jerusalem, how difficult it would be, how much rejection He would face, and how the leaders of the city, even the priests and the scholars who knew God’s word best, would challenge Him, despise Him, reject Him, and ultimately work to get Him executed. But to remember that wouldn’t be the final defeat as in three days He would rise again from death.
But look at Peter’s response. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples – especially Judas’ Iscariot’s – concept of Christ’s mission was a very different one. Their whole picture of what it meant to follow Jesus, what that life would look like walking with Him, and how their lives would end – didn’t include suffering – especially unjust suffering. That’s what Peter was rebuking. His idea was to march into Jerusalem as a conquering hero, overthrow Rome, re-establishing Israel as a great world power, call down some angels and fire, spread health and wealth to the people, kick out all the bad rulers and install the 12 disciples as the new regents under Jesus. Victory upon victory. No place for suffering. But Jesus completely shuts down that idea.
Suffering MUST Happen
It all comes down to one, very important word in verse 31: “must”. “…he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…” This is the issue that burns in the minds of so many. Why “must” suffering be a part of life? If Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah, the most perfect, most loving, kindest, most sinless person in the world, you’d think He’d have a charmed life. Why “must” the King of Kings “suffer many things”? And, by extension, why should everyone who follows Him be required to take up a cross and suffer along with Him?
God is all-powerful, all good, all-knowing, all-loving – and yet He allowed His Son and all who would follow Him, to face unbelievable heartache, betrayal, and pain. It doesn’t make sense – which is why Peter had such a strong reaction. It’s the same reaction we have when the suffering gets piled on, isn’t it? It goes against our natural inclinations and causes us to question everything.
When we’re hit with sickness, death, pain, or sadness, these are all-natural questions: Why am I suffering? Am I even allowed to call this suffering in light of all the terrible things others are going through? What does it mean to suffer? What purpose does this pain have? Why am I going through this? Why is the person I love facing this? If God is all-good and all-powerful, can’t he come up with a better way? If I were God I know I could…
As we ask and read and pray, talk to some Christians, and more time passes – especially when we look back at other times of suffering – we start to understand more, but not completely. We start to see a little purpose in the suffering, some reasons behind it, some fruit that has come from it, and start to see some of God’s reasoning – but the question still lingers: “Wasn’t there a better way? How can this level of suffering be God’s perfect plan? Must it really be this way?”
The Sufferings of Christ
For the answers to these questions, we look to the life of Christ. If Jesus lived the perfect life and was perfectly loved by the Father… if Jesus is the perfect model and standard for living… if Jesus is our true teacher and friend… if His Father is our Father… if, once we are saved, His perfection is our perfection, and we are truly saved and fit for heaven… then whatever His life looked like – and whatever His follower’s life looks like – is going to give us a hint as to what is normal or normative or usual for all believers. Especially since He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
So, did Jesus have to suffer? Theologically speaking, one thing we know for sure – and we’ve talked about this a lot – is that Jesus’ suffering was the only way to destroy the curse of sin.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Hebrews 9:22 says,
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
It was only through His suffering that we could be saved. Listen to Colossians 2:13–14,
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Now turn to Romans 5:1–11,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Our peace with God comes through the shed blood of Jesus. That was the price. God said, “Those who break my law must pay the penalty of suffering and death.” Jesus said, “I will suffer and die for their sake.” And anyone who accepts that is saved.
What we don’t usually understand though is that the sufferings of Christ that led to our salvation were not just in the final week of his life. His whole life, from birth to death, was one long passion walk. Isaiah 53:3 says the Messiah would be,
“despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”
As you wonder about your own sufferings, consider Jesus’ life. Philippians 2:6-7 says that coming to earth was an act of supreme humiliation. Jesus, who is God Almighty,
“did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”
When He was born his parents could find no good place to stay so He was born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Not long after, when he was only a couple years old, Jesus barely escaped being murdered by King Herod (Matt. 2:14) and had to flee his country and live as a refugee. When He came back He lived in Nazareth, a town that some people despised (John 1:46). It is thought that his adopted father, Joseph, died when he was a young man, which is why Jesus waited until he was older to start His earthly ministry. Then when He did, His family called Him crazy and tried to shut him down (Mark 3:21). When he came back to his hometown of Nazareth to spread the gospel, they chased him out of town so they could throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). The scriptures say that for His whole life Jesus knew thirst (Matt 4:2), exhaustion (John 4:6), poverty, and homelessness (Luke 9:58). Consider Luke 19 when Jesus wanders off by Himself to a hillside to look over the city of Jerusalem, which He loved so much, and we see Him just burst into tears.
The devil tempted Him harder and more than any other person (Matt 4:1-2) and his enemies hated him more than anyone else (Heb 12:3). He was falsely accused many times of being a glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, and child of the devil (Matt 11:19, 9:3, 12:24). His friends and disciples were weak in faith and support, and often worked against him. The people around Him mostly only liked them for what they could get out of Him and then rejected Him when He wouldn’t perform. Near the end, when we see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He is alone, forsaken by all His disciples, and so overcome with sorrow and fear that in His agony He literally sweats blood (Luke 22:44). Then He faces trials, beatings, mocking, and torture in the worst way humans have ever devised – a Roman cross.
All of this suffering, every bit, was totally undeserved. When we contemplate our own sufferings, we know that many of them are deserved, right? We mess up a relationship, get addicted to something, lash out in anger, don’t plan ahead, spend too much money, and it causes suffering in our lives. We might complain or try to spread the blame, but deep down we know it was our own fault. Theologically, we know that all sin leads to suffering – that our sinful souls, and the sin of others, even if we don’t realize it, are always getting us in trouble, pulling us from God, leading us into sin, causing ripple effects of suffering in our lives and those around us.
But Jesus never deserved any of His sufferings. None of them. He never did anything wrong. He had no sinful nature. Everything He suffered was undeserved. And every time He was given the option to take the easy way out – by Satan or circumstance – whenever there was a way to avoid suffering, He almost never took it. Why?
Because the Christ, “…the Son of Man must suffer many things…” That was His mission. To face a lifetime of suffering that only got worse and worse. As the Christ, Jesus had a job: to suffer. Suffer to bring God glory. Suffer to set an example for us. Suffer to pay for our sin debt. The perfect plan for Jesus’ life was to suffer. That was the best way for Him to bring glory to God and accomplish the mission the Father had given Him.
Hebrews 2:10 says,
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
Hebrews 4:15–16 tells us that it is because of Jesus’ sufferings that we know that HE is on our side, that He understands what it’s like for us to go through tough times, and that allows us to know how compassionate He is towards us. It says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
But why would He do this? What did Jesus get out of it? Surely there was something He got out of it. Some payoff that made it worth all the misery, right? We feel this way, right? We’ll go through the suffering if it means that we’ll get something in the end – we get more stuff like Job, we get treasures in heaven, we get the adulation of others for being so strong, praise from our peers for facing such difficulty, more ministry opportunities because we’ve faced so much. We’re willing to suffer, but we want a payoff. What motivated Jesus?
Here’s the thing. He gained – nothing. Before His incarnation He had everything. He is God. Perfect relationship with the Father, the worship of angels, all power, all glory, everything was already His. So why suffer?
Turn to Isaiah 53:2-12.
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
This is why we sing “Amazing Grace”. Jesus gained nothing through His suffering. But it is through His suffering that we were saved. Romans 6:23 that
“the wages [the payment] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why did Jesus suffer? The Great Judge of the Universe demanded justice. Sinners must be punished. Now, this is something we all agree with. Even the most liberal person in the world agrees with this. If someone commits a crime, our God-given internal sense of justice demands that it be made right. And we inherently know that the punishment must fit the crime. If someone steals a candy bar from a corner store and the judge gives them the death penalty, something inside us cries out injustice. If someone rapes and murders and tortures a dozen families with young children – and the judge gives them a $5 fine and sends them on their way, that same feeling arises and we know that injustice has been done. If someone hurts us or someone we love, our heart always cries out for justice. Why? Because we are creatures made in God’s image and we have an inherent need for justice.
Now, I ask you – having this sense of justice in you – what should the penalty be for breaking God’s law? Think about this for a moment.
Two people are brutally murdered. One of them is a terrible person. He’s been a thief, murderer, drug dealer, liar, and cheat for 70 years. He’s fathered a dozen children from a dozen women, and abused and neglect all of them. In his time he’s corrupted hundreds of people, destroyed the lives of hundreds more.
The other person is a 6-year-old girl, friend to everyone, her mother’s beloved only child, and the apple of her father’s eye. She’s smart, pretty, kind, generous, and sweet. Everyone who knows her loves her, and she lights up every room she’s in.
Now, if these two people – the terrible man and the little girl – were murdered in the same way, at the same time, should the murder receive the same punishment? Our inclination is to say no, right? The purity, innocence, loveliness, specialness, and potential of the little girl makes us want a greater penalty for her murder than the terrible man’s. Why?
Because something inside of us knows that the more special, beautiful, and innocent, something is – the more it should be protected, and the greater tragedy it is that it was taken.
Now I ask you – how much more does this matter when the offence is against a perfectly holy, perfectly loving, perfectly kind, perfectly beautiful, perfectly majestic, God? If we believe the penalty for sin must be increased in proportion to the offence – then it only makes sense that rebelling against the Law of God, the Word of God, the Person of God, and the Presence of God, by squandering all that He offered us, preferring sin and self, and turning into His enemies – should require quite a punishment, right?
Seeing the devastation that sin has caused in our own lives and world, makes us angry. How much more wrath does God have against sin? Jesus took that wrath for you. Jesus faced that suffering for you. Galatians 3:13 says,
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”
I want you to contemplate this for a time this Lent. That suffering is part of God’s plan, and that it’s not the exception. The world hates this message. They refuse to believe that suffering has value and they run from it. They refuse to follow a suffering Saviour or listen to a God who tells them that the best plan for their life is one that includes suffering. That’s why 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is because of our faith in God’s perfect plan, which includes suffering, that Christians believe Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Our feelings betray us, our hearts give out, our bodies long for release, but when we are Christians, our spirits can know – even in the midst of suffering – that God can be trusted. Is there a better way? If there was, that’s what God would have done. Jesus demonstrates and the Bible teaches that none of our sufferings, no matter how terrible, will be forgotten or go to waste. They all have a purpose. God is not cruel, He is compassionate and merciful.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afraid, overwhelmed, weeping, sweating blood, not wanting to face the cross. His body was falling apart. Just like us, He wanted escape, release, freedom from suffering, for some other way. Jesus knows how we feel. But what did He say? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) He turned His suffering over to the Father.
That’s all we can do. Tell God that it hurts, that we wish it could be different, but then say, “But I trust you. And I’ll keep going into your will. ” I think of the words of Job in 13:15,
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.”
These are the words of a faithful man. Regardless of suffering, my hope is in God. I’ll keep bringing all these things to Him, keep pouring my heart out, even arguing – but in the end, I will trust that God knows what He’s doing. He will punish those who have wronged me. He will restore all that was taken from me. He will see all the things I’ve done that others have overlooked. He will strengthen me when I’m weak and let me take another step and face another day. He will raise me if I’m humble, give wisdom when I need it, establish and hold me fast because He is my foundation. My suffering has value, and God is perfect in Justice. My salvation is assured, and I will wait for the Lord.
This is how it worked for Jesus, Paul and all the Apostles, and all those who call themselves followers of Jesus. Your suffering is not the exception – it’s the rule. Every step you take carrying that cross has value, though neither you nor anyone else may see it. And God has promised that He will use it for His Glory and your good. That’s a guarantee.
At this time of Lent, and in your daily suffering, look to Jesus and talk to Jesus.
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent, something Christians have been observing for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Traditionally, this has been a time of fasting and prayer – when Christians avoid certain foods or meals so they can take that time to talk to God and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ instead. These days, modern believers have expanded the definition of “fasting” to include almost anything that we find pleasurable or distracting, like TV, internet, desserts, video games, or chocolate. The idea is to remove something we like and replace it with something we like better. To consider the habits of our life, mortify the sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves, and more about Jesus by setting aside time, energy and effort to concentrate on our spiritual lives.
This isn’t easy, especially when most of us aren’t fans of religion, don’t like denying ourselves the things we want, and live in a hyper-consumer driven culture.
Does anyone remember when the TV signal used to shut off every night? I remember when I was a kid staying up late at night and then the TV channel I was watching would say, “This concludes our broadcast day”, play the national anthem, and then just put up a test pattern until the next morning. Do you remember having to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons? What about setting your VCR to record a show you wanted to see because it would be on at a certain time, only once, and then it was gone forever?
That’s not the world we live in anymore. TV is available 24 hours a day. All our favourite sources of media are now “on-demand” whenever we want them. If you like crossword puzzles, you used to have to buy a book of them or wait until the newspaper came the next day – but now, you can fire up the iPad and do as many crossword puzzles as you like!
And our culture doesn’t help. Every week seems to have another holiday, birthday, anniversary, or special day of some kind. Every store has a sale something we want. Every day there’s another “must-see” concert, game, or movie. Everything is always hyped to the max, making us constantly feel like we’re always missing out on something.
This is all terribly bad for our hearts and spirits. Living in a constant state of distraction, never feeling satisfied, always feeling like we deserve a reward, is bad for us. Our spirits cry out for silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but the moment we try to give them what they need, we remember something we have to do, someone asks for something, we run out of milk and eggs, we remember there’s a sale somewhere, the car needs gas and the gas station has a good points program that’s only for today, another episode of our show is available or there’s a new movie premiering that night, our phone dings to tell us someone wants to chat, or needs an answer, or has scheduled a meeting for us, or reminds us of the thing we were supposed to be doing.
It’s very hard on our spirits to live in that state, and it will inevitably cause damage to our souls – we start to spiritually starve to death. We go from thing to thing, distraction to distraction, event to event, job to job, feeling hollow. We may get enough sleep and eat our veggies, enjoy our work, and have a generally happy life – but something deep inside feels hollow, empty – like part of us is starving and there’s nothing we can do to feed it.
Starving for God
Christians should understand this and know why it’s happening. Turn with me to Psalm 63 and consider the words of David when he was living as a refugee in the wildernesses and deserts of Judah, far from his throne, far from the Tabernacle, running away, hungry, thirsty, attacked, afraid, hunted by his own family and people.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1–8)
He may have felt physical hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but as a man of God he knew that his real problem, the real danger, wasn’t lack of food or weariness of his body – it was the weariness of his soul. His complaint wasn’t that God wasn’t around, but that he missed God’s special presence in the Tabernacle, in corporate worship, in hearing the prayers and singing praises with God’s people, in meeting God in a unique way in the sanctuary. Being driven from the regular times of worship, sacrifice, songs, covenants, the reading of God’s word, was causing his soul to starve – so in the wilderness, he prays alone, sings alone, meditates alone, and declares that it is God alone – despite missing the trappings of religion – that would be his spiritual sustenance.
Have you ever experienced spiritual starvation? The spiritual atrophy that comes from the neglect of the care of your soul.
There’s a line in the Lord of the Rings movies that often comes to my mind. After years, even decades, of living with the One Ring in his pocket, it’s power having extended his life far beyond normal, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf,
“I feel old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.
If we are not careful, the many wonderful things that our homes, town, nation, and modern life have to offer will actually work against us. You’ve likely heard the term “empty calories”, right? It describes food that taste amazing – like pop, candy, or fast foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt, but contribute nothing to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. No vitamins, mineral, protein – just food that tastes good on the tongue, fills the belly, but actually starves the body. A lot of our modern life is like that, but for the soul. It takes time, feels good while doing it, has a semblance of meaning, relationship, depth – but is actually starving our souls.
1 Peter 2:11 says it this way,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 says this,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
The Bible tells us over and over that the satisfaction we seek deep in our souls cannot be found in anything this world has to offer. Instead, these things we spend so much time, energy, money, and attention on, wage war against our soul, killing our joy, and then they “pass away” – like empty calories.
Jesus said to those who are hungry for real, spiritual food,
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
Psalm 107:9 says to those who are yearning for more than this world has to offer,
“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
At the very end of his book, the prophet Habakkuk, after hearing God’s voice, says that no matter what is happening around him, his connection to God is what will sustain Him.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
Jesus’ disciples were often worried about eating and food and money and safety – to the point of being so distracted that they could neither hear nor understand Jesus’ teaching. In John 4:31–34 the disciples came to Jesus with some food, urging Him to eat because he had gone many hours without food. He responded to them,
“‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’”
As Jesus said,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The Apostle Paul understood this better than most. When looking back at the totality of his life before he met Jesus, said,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him….” (Phil. 3:8–11)
This world has many wonderful things to offer, but as Christians, we must be so careful about how we treat them. Food and drink are wonderful gifts from God, but gluttony and addiction are a prison. Sexual pleasure is a wonderful gift from God, but outside of God’s control, it causes devastation and heartache. Parties and celebrations are a wonderful gift from God, but drunkenness and debauchery lead to the destruction of your life and happiness. Work and education are wonderful gifts from God, but workaholism, anxiety, and elitism destroy relationships. Having money, wealth, comfort, and safety are wonderful gifts from God – but laziness, selfishness, the belief that your stuff will protect you or make you happy, or refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, will drive you to misery. Hobbies and movies and video games are wonderful gifts from God, but choosing a fantasy world over reality, or ignoring your friends, family, and self-care for the sake of that fantasy, poisons your soul. Social media and the internet are wonderful gifts from God that have great potential to build people up – but we all know that they are also rife with temptations that destroy lives.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to examine these things, to do an inventory of our lives, to finally listen to the outcry of our hearts and decide to feed our souls the good food of God’s word and the presence of Jesus Christ.
The only way we are going to be able to see the ways that we are being fooled and manipulated by the enemy of our souls is to purposefully give ourselves to what the church fathers have called the spiritual disciplines.
Consider our study of Jesus cleansing the Temple in John 2 and how 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that since the resurrection of Jesus, God’s people, you, me, and those who worship at this church, are now the Temples of the Holy Spirit in which God dwells. If you are a Christian, then God has made His home in your heart, in your soul, and has placed His Holy Spirit within you as a seal of your salvation and to knit you together with Him. You have the Holy of Holies inside of you.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:17–32.
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
There are some who need to hear this today, but cannot hear it because the corruption of the world has deafened their ears and darkened their souls. Their minds have grown futile, their understanding darkened, they are alienated from God because of the hardness of their heart. Some who hear this are on the edge. You want to hear God, you want your mind renewed, you want to worship with purity and joy, but there are corruption and impurity in you that continuously leads you away from Jesus and towards sin.
But here’s the problem – you may not even know it. Sometimes the things that Paul describes here come so naturally, are so ingrained in us, that we don’t even know we’re doing them. We don’t even see it. Falsehood replaces some truths because the little white lies make our lives easier. We are angry, and sin in our anger, but we don’t even realize we’re angry. We steal like a thief, but we don’t acknowledge it because it’s from the government or big corporations or because it’s something small and no one will notice. We go to work and care for our families, but somewhere in us is a refusal to share with people in need because they don’t deserve it, or because there might be less for us. We participate in “corrupting talk” like coarse jokes, swearing, sexual innuendo, double-entendres, gossip, mockery, slander, but we don’t even notice it because it’s such a part of our vocabulary, or because we do anonymously online.
What the Bible is saying here is that we need to do an act of will where we, as Christians, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”. How? Through obedience. Through spiritual discipline. Through fasting, prayer, and study. By asking God to look into our hearts and see how our lives have been corrupted “through deceitful desires” and how we have given an opportunity to the devil to do us harm. By asking God what way you have allowed the enemy a foothold in your life, home, and church.
I read the words of the 17th-century puritan pastor Richard Baxter this week and it gave me pause. He wrote this specifically to pastors, but I think there’s a message here for everyone who desires to do the will of God.
“The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instrument of your own ruin.” (Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor”, Nisbet, 1850, p.85)
How can we know if we have corrupted our souls with sins we can’t see, crippled our personal worship, or let false gods or false ideas worm their way into our hearts, lives, spirits, relationships, and church? The only way is to ask Jesus what He thinks of the conditions of our souls, and then sit quietly and listen for an answer. And that takes time, effort, energy, humility, and careful attention.
But the good news is that it is never, ever too late. The Good Father is always on the lookout for the prodigal son and daughter. The Good Shepherd is always looking for His Lost Sheep. He will always accept you when you decide to get right with Him – and will help you grow closer to Him when you ask. He will do the work, but you must let Him by giving Him permission and room to work. I encourage you to consider cutting some things out of your life for the sake of fasting, praying, and meditating on the condition of your soul during Lent.
Let me close today with the words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea, because I think it’s appropriate. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14–22,
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year. This week we present a full-length sermon from Pastor Al entitled “Jesus as Tabernacle”.
*AOTCN Followers: I’m double dipping this week so the sermon audio is also the CT audio! Sermon Text is below
Christmas time has a lot of symbols attached to it. In fact, marketing teams have worked really hard to try to attach logos and symbols to the various celebration days we have so that they can sell us targeted things. At Easter everything is covered in bunnies and colourful eggs. On Valentine’s Day everything is covered in hearts. Thanksgiving turkey, Halloween pumpkin, St Patrick’s clover. Each one gets a colour scheme too, right? St. Patrick’s Day is green. Halloween is orange and black. Thanksgiving is brown and orange. Valentine’s Day is red. Easter gets a bunch of pastels.
But Christmas seems to be a bit more difficult. If you asked yourself what the standard symbol of Christmas is, it’s hard to pin down. Some use the holly and ivy, others poinsettas, some use silver bells, others a Christmas tree, or gold stars. Some use snowflakes or Santa’s face or a present. The colour scheme seems to be all over the map too. Red and green and brown and white and silver and gold… it’s almost like no matter how hard the marketing teams try, the Christmas season is too big to be nailed down to one symbol or theme.
I watched some “man on the street” interviews where they asked people what Christmas meant to them and the general theme was getting together with family and eating, but that’s too generic. If you ask them what Thanksgiving or New Years or September Long Weekend was all about they’d probably give the same answer.
In the Christian church, we’d like to believe that we’ve got this nailed down, but we don’t. There are a lot of self-professing evangelicals reject even the most foundational Christian beliefs. Ligonier Ministries just did a huge survey of thousands of Christians across America and the findings were shocking.
Almost half agreed that God accepts worship from all religions, not just Christianity. Half believe that they have to do good deeds in order to get to heaven. Most of the people, well over half, said that God won’t punish people for little sins. Christians are confused too. Over half believe Jesus was God’s first creation. Half of the people who said that God is the author of the Bible also said that modern science discredits what the Bible even says. So it’s no surprise that when the interview said, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”, that the results were split down the middle with half agreeing and half disagreeing.
After all, if you believe that God doesn’t really punish sins, that we save ourselves through good deeds, that Jesus was just another created being, and that science has basically discredited the Bible, then why bother telling anyone about Jesus at all?
Christianity, and Christmas, to most people, even though they love the season – and most would say Christmas is their favourite time of year – has been almost completely drained of meaning because Christianity has been almost completely drained of theology. Which is likely why, when we ask the question: “What is the Christmas symbol? What is Christmas all about?” all we get from most people is an array of plants, presents, pretend things and some vague statements about family get-togethers.
Expecting a Saviour
Turn to Luke 1:31-33. We must, as Christians, settle in our hearts the real meaning of Christmas and be absolutely clear, laser focused, on what we are celebrating and why. If we are not, if we allow the vagaries and trappings to overtake us, we not only risk losing the story (as we talked about last week), but risk losing the Gospel, the story of salvation, the only way to be saved from Hell. Let me explain what I mean.
Over the last two weeks we’ve been setting up the drama of Christmas. The people of God living as the least important province of a pagan nation, in some kind of miserable half-life, facing famine, enemies, luke-warm worship, corrupt priests, and declining faith… to which the prophet Malachi’s brings a message that God save them and restore them, and to watch out for the forerunner of God, the one who would come before, who would be Elijah.
We then wait 400 years in silence, between the Old and New Testaments, until an angel comes to an old priest named Zachariah, who has an old, barren wife named Elizabeth, who is told that he will be the father of John the Baptist, who would come in the spirit of Elijah. And the drama continues to build when 6 months later, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, an angel tells a young, unmarried girl named Mary, that the promised forerunner has come and she has been chosen to be the mother of the promised Saviour. The angel says,
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
As I said last week, these words have become too familiar to us. So familiar that we almost dismiss them, but you must understand that this wasn’t what anyone was expecting. The promised Saviour of the world, the One who has been promised for thousands of years, was never expected to come this way.
Thinking of this from our own perspective might help. We are used to Jesus as the great moral teacher, Jesus as the Saviour on the cross, Jesus as the social revolutionary who changed all the rules, Jesus as the friend of sinners. We are used to the Jesus who did impossible things like raise the dead, calm storms with a word, feed thousands from a child’s lunchbox. Jesus turning over tables in the temple, Jesus staring down and calling curses upon the corrupt Pharisees, Jesus surrounded by sinners and social rejects. We are familiar with all those pictures of Jesus – and they very much reflect what Israel was expecting.
They expected a miracle worker, a military conqueror, a superman who would overthrow the evil government, rebuild the great temple, and take over as King of the planet with the Jewish people in their rightful place as the nation of priests for planet earth. They expected Moses mixed with Elijah mixed with David mixed with Solomon, exploding on the scene draped in majesty and wielding unstoppable power.
That’s generally what we expect too, when we stop for a moment and get honest with ourselves. That’s the Jesus we would write into our story. We want the Jesus who stops our problems in a second, who gives us everything we want in a moment, who destroys everyone who has ever wronged us, who showers us with pleasure and comfort and prestige and success – and we, like the nation of Israel, don’t understand, and react very poorly, when Jesus comes in a very different, much quieter, much more patient, much more humble, much more time consuming way. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons we know that this wasn’t made up, because no one – literally, no one – would have come up with this.
Jesus Broke Expectations
Mary was promised a son who would be named Jesus. Jesus means “Saviour”. She was told that he would be “great” and be called “the Son of the Most High”. That was a name for God that went all the way back to Genesis 14. Jesus wouldn’t be a man like every other human being, who had a sinful, human father, but would be like Adam, created perfectly by God without a sinful nature.
And this One who was Son of God and Saviour would be given the “throne of… David”. Remember the state of the nation: conquered, under corrupt pagan rule, taxed almost into oblivion, unable to do anything without going to Rome for permission. King David was the great, conquering King who conquered the enemies of Israel and united the nation, ushering in the greatest time of peace and plenty in Israel’s history. And a long time before Mary, David was promised that Someone would sit on his throne forever, that one of his descendants would inaugurate a Kingdom would be established forever, that it would be unconquerable. Jesus would “reign over the house of Jacob”, meaning all twelve tribes of Israel would be united again, and that kingdom would have “no end”.
That was everyone’s picture of the coming Messiah, and though it perfectly describes Jesus, He didn’t arrive the way they expected, He didn’t live the way they expected, He didn’t do what they expected, and He didn’t conquer in the way they expected. Which is one reason why so many people rejected Him.
Jesus own family, even Mary, and Jesus’ closest followers took a long, long time to wrap their heads around what Jesus was doing and what it all meant. They simply didn’t have a box to put Jesus in, they had no template prepared that could fit the real Jesus. All of their preconceptions, all of the things they had assumed about God and God’s plan, all of the things they had been focusing on up to that point needed to be completely reorganized, completely re-understood, because of Jesus.
Now, it’s important to know that Jesus was doing anything wrong! He didn’t come and change anything. He didn’t just reinterpret the Bible in a weird way that no one had though tof. No, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to be counter cultural – it was that everyone’s assumptions about Him were all wrong. They had created their own Saviour template, created their own God-box, and thought Jesus would fit into it.
Sometimes we think that we need to live up to other people’s expectations. We change ourselves to fit what other people think about us, or we do things that we thing other people expect us to do. We succumb to peer-pressure because we want to be accepted, we stop doing things we actually like because the crowd says we’re weird. We stare at our closets, our car, our homes, and we wonder how we can make things more acceptable and impressive to others.
I know, for myself, I often feel pressure to fit the mould that people have designed for me. Some people think I’m smart, and I like that, so when I don’t know the answer to something, it’s tempting to dance around and try to make something up. Some people think since I’m a pastor there are things I should and shouldn’t do, so it’s tempting to be hypocritical and fudge parts of my life so that I live up to their expectations. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way, changing how you talk to sound more like the crowd, leaving out information about yourself because you’re embarrassed to admit certain things to that group of people.
God isn’t like that. God does not feel constrained by our assumptions about who He is or how He should do things. He is not swayed by democracy or popular opinion. He doesn’t change Himself to gain more followers or try to impress His constituency or His fan base. God doesn’t answer prayers He doesn’t want to answer because you have correctly manipulated Him. God is immutable, unchangeable, perfect.
Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son…” The plan to send Jesus Christ on that day, in that way, to live that life, and die that death, was exactly what He had intended to do all along. It’s just that humanity wouldn’t, or couldn’t, understand or accept it. But that wasn’t going to change God’s plan.
Jesus Tabernacled with Us
With this in mind, turn with me to John 1 and I want to read the Christmas story from a completely different perspective. Normally we read the beginning of Luke and Matthew at Christmas time, and that’s appropriate, but that’s not the only Christmas story in the Bible. There are others that teach us about Jesus from other perspectives.
John’s gospel, for example, was written some decades after Matthew, Mark and Luke, and therefore teaches us a lot about Jesus that we don’t find in the other gospels. And the way He introduces Jesus is different than the other three. Matthew and Luke start at Jesus birth. John backs up the story to help us understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God by starting the story before the beginning of time, introducing Jesus with the same words as the start of Genesis, showing us that Jesus is God, uncreated, existing with God, as God before time, before He was named Jesus. Let’s read it together:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And then, like the other Christmas stories, we start with the end of Malachi, the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist. Verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
Who is this “true light” which the darkness cannot overcome? John continues by giving a brief summary of the life of Jesus as it reflects Israel’s relationship with God. God is perfect, the source of life, but was continually rejected by Israel, just as Jesus would be. Continue in verse 10:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So, how do we receive him? What do we need to believe? How are we born again? Now comes the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of John, in verse 14:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’’) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is God, and is the Word of God, and at one point in History, which we call Christmas, God took on flesh. “The eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person.”
The words, “dwelt among us” are super-important and introduce a critical concept that gets lost in translation, and if we don’t understand them we completely miss the whole point of the Christmas story. It literally means that when the Word, the Son of God became flesh, he was “pitching his tent among us”.
Every Jewish person reading this would immediately know what this meant. It was a picture of the Tabernacle, the tent that God lived in among the Israelites. In the beginning God created both Heaven and Earth, two complimentary places designed for one another, with the Garden as God’s meeting place and Adam and Eve as the ones who cared for it. But now because of sin, that connection was broken and an impassable wall, an uncrossable chasm was now between them.
But, in God’s grace, no matter where Israel wandered, no matter how far humanity would fall away, there would be one place on earth where Heaven and Earth would touch, a sort of Heavenly embassy, a single holy place where God would choose to condescend and dwell so we would not be utterly without contact or hope. That place was the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and instead of Adam and Eve attending it, it was Aaron the High Priest and his family the Levites.
When Israel finally stopped wandering and had taken back most of the Promised Land, God allowed King Solomon to change the portable tent into a more permanent home called the Temple. It too would be the place where Heaven and Earth would touch and where God could be found. If anyone in the world wanted to meet God, offer sacrifice, and gain forgiveness, the only place they could come would be God’s embassy, God’s one house, the Temple. This is why the Temple is the heart of Israel’s national life, and why it’s destruction was so utterly disheartening to the people living during the Babylonian exile.
But remember why it that happened. The meaning of the Temple had been lost. Just as so many have lost the meaning of Christmas and turned it into a dozen different symbols and vague traditional recollections around food and songs, so had they done to God’s Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant, which was God’s Throne, the Holy of Holies, and the Temple itself had turned from a Holy Place where one could meet God and be cleansed from sin – into a talisman, a lucky charm, a national tradition – a mixture of symbolism and superstition that had very little to do with a relationship with God – just like Christmas is today. The chief priests became worldly and wealthy, kings would use the temple as an excuse for violence and warfare, and by the time of Malachi (as we said before) God had basically left the Temple. It was just an empty hall surrounded by hypocritical religious people going through empty ceremonies. Much like Christmas for most people.
And then, 400 years later, when everything was at its darkest, “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26–27) A light pierced darkness, for the darkness had not overcome it. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” The Son of the Most High, the Word of God, “became flesh and [Tabernacled, pitched his tent] among us, [so] we [could see] his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
No longer would the presence of God staying in one place, instead, the Holy of Holies would move around again, but in a completely different way. Now, instead of walls of canvas or gold or stone, human flesh would be the tent in which God would dwell.
Jesus, the baby we celebrate at Christmas time gives us everything God requires for Salvation. Jesus was born as the perfect Adam and never sinned. Jesus is the perfect Israel who never wandered from faith. Jesus is the perfect prophet and priest who always and only spoke the words of God. Jesus is the perfect temple, the very incarnation of the love of God in the world, face to face with humanity. And Jesus is the perfect temple sacrifice, taking God’s wrath against sin, dying on the cross in place of sinners, shedding His blood as the spotless, Passover lamb, so we might be saved.
This is what Christians celebrate at Christmastime. This is what we must never forget: Jesus of Nazareth, born as a baby in a manger was the climax of God’s salvation story, the fulfilment of every symbol in scripture, the living embodiment of God.
 ESV Study Bible notes
Over the past couple of weeks we have talked about the importance of making the daily reading of scripture the core part of our lives, and the foundation of our relationship with God. This all started because I wanted to share a way that God has spoken to me through my devotional times. I’ve noticed that most Christians don’t have a daily devotional time with God – in prayer and Bible reading – and that breaks my heart because they don’t know what they are missing.
Christians in Crisis
I watch as believers run around chasing after foolish things, distracted by the world and frittering away their lives. I see them struggling with temptations, falling over and over, and not knowing what to do. They try will-power or setting up guards and traps for themselves, but it doesn’t work and they feel like spiritual failures all the time so they just give up and go home.
I watch Christian people come to church, but never really engage with the worship music or the fellowship of other believers. They come because something draws them, but they float 6 feet above everyone, seeing what is happening but never experiencing what it means to truly meet God, know Christ, or be part of a church.
I watch as marriages and families disintegrate around me because the men and women are selfish and weak, addicted to money or porn, don’t know how to work through their problems in a biblical way, and refuse to ask for help because they are afraid of what people will think of them. Their faith is crippled by feelings of hypocrisy and shallow faith.
I listen to other pastors who lament the lack of maturity of the Christians around them. There is an absolute vacuum of good, godly leaders and elders. We scratch our heads as people who have been believers for decades stagnate in their spiritual lives, increase in their acceptance of sin and heretical beliefs, and continue to ask basic questions that should have been settled long ago. They remind me of when Hebrews 5:12 says, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food…” Churches full of spiritual babies who never get any older as the years go by. Year after year, same immature problems, same immature beliefs.
Single women and fatherless children are crying out for good, godly, mature Christian men who will love them like Jesus – but can’t find any. Young men are looking for godly mentors to follow and a mission to give their lives to, but they aren’t finding it in the church of Jesus Christ. Churches pull further inward, afraid of the culture around them that they don’t understand or want to be a part of. Christians are in moral, theological, spiritual and relational crisis because Christians are far from Christ.
Come to Jesus
What can be done? The only thing I know that can be done is to push, pull, draw and drag people back to Jesus. He is the one who builds his church. He is the one who defends it. He knows what plans need to be taken up and what needs to be cut off. The Holy Spirit knows how to worship God best. He knows where we are to serve. He teaches us how to fix our eyes on God and fix our relationships with others. He deepens us in maturity and guides our spiritual discipleship process. He is the source of all that will repair our relationships, fix our hearts and restore our churches.
That’s why I’m so excited about this series, and why I believe the message is so very important. If the answer to everything we need for our individual, familial and corporate spiritual lives is found in Jesus, then we all need to know how to connect with Him.
Why isn’t everyone connecting to Jesus? Here’s a few reasons I’ve come up with.
Some because they don’t understand what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. They think that Christianity means being nice, avoiding fun, following rules and going to church. Just like we said during the study of the Four Soils, they don’t know Jesus personally.
Some don’t do it because they don’t want to. They have no desperation for Jesus. They are like the rich young man who believe they have done everything that is necessary to get to heaven, and don’t really need to spend time with Jesus. And when Jesus tells them to give something up in order to grow closer to him, they walk away sorrowful, not wanting to give up their worldly comfort.
And there are some don’t do it because they don’t know how it’s supposed to work. They’ve tried, but it doesn’t work. They get bored, distracted, and get nothing out of prayer or reading the Bible. They try for a while, but the world gets busy and they put it aside thinking that it’s not really for them. Maybe it’s for other types of people who like to read and write – not for them. They do have a desire to meet God, but it’s too hard – and they just don’t want to try anymore.
And each of these people is spiritual starving. They are not coming to Jesus for their daily spiritual bread, they don’t have the everlasting fountain of life within them, and so they are spiritually starving. So they try to fill their gap with other things – pleasure, pain, knowledge, stuff – but it never gives them what they need. Because it never gives them Jesus.
Salting the Oats
That’s why, for the first two weeks, I talked about evaluating the condition of our hearts and cultivating a desperation for him. I can’t make you want to read your bible and pray every day. All I can do is try to show you the condition of your heart, and then try to help you see the benefits of being with Jesus.
Someone once said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And the response is, “Sure… but you can salt the oats.” That’s what I’m trying to do before I give you a practical guide to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture. There’s a million different helps out there, but none of them mean anything if you don’t want them.
I want you to get a thirst for the presence and power of Jesus. I want you to see the depravity of your heart, the lack you have in your soul, the desperate need you have for a Saviour, to get a good look at your foolishness and your need for God’s wisdom. I want you to see the problems in your soul and want a solution. And I want you to know that the solution is a deep relationship with Jesus.
I’m not advocating a religious practice. I’m not pointing to an easy solution. I’m not giving you a bible verse, and this isn’t about ‘name it and claim it’ prayers. I want to share with you a way to know the One and True God, and trust and depend on Him for everything.
So, before I give you the practical guide, I want to do one more week of salting the oats. I want to tell you about this book that I’m pointing you to. I want you to see how different it is from all the other books in the world, and why it is important to read this one.
I’m not talking about reading books about the Bible – but to read the bible itself. Put down the moral story books and read the source of morality. Put down Christian authors who tell you what’s in the Bible and pick up the book written by the author of life. The Bible is alive, and has power unlike any other book ever written.
Our Umbilical Cord
Turn to Hebrews 4:12-13. If you recall last week I said that I want you to read this passage as a plea from a pastor to his people to be desperate for the word of God. That he wants his church to experience the presence of Jesus by experiencing the power of the Word of God, the Bible. He wants them to see the words of scripture as their umbilical cord, connecting them to Jesus. I also said, last week, that it’s not about reading your bible, but seeking and wanting the presence and the person of Jesus Christ. Here, in Hebrews 4 we see the scriptures and the Lord Jesus connected together. The Word of God is Jesus.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
What I want to do for the remainder of our time here is go through this passage and look at the words that are used to describe the Bible, the “Word of God”.
Look at how it’s described in verse 12. “For the word of God is living and active…”
The word “Living” is the word ZAO, which is where we get our word Zoo, and it is used to describe life or living things. When a dead thing is given life, or something is fresh and strong, they are ZAO. It’s used of a fresh spring of running water. It’s alive and the source of life.
I want you to remember that the way the Bible is being described here is not the way we would describe words in a book, but as a living, breathing, personal being. These aren’t merely words on a page, but the active, alive, person of God – the very presence of Jesus.
Our interaction with the text is an interaction with God. As we read the words, it is not merely coming through our eyes and into our mind, but is the voice of God being spoken into our soul, our spirit, and our hearts. It is as though God is reading them to us. It’s as though Jesus was standing next to us, speaking in our ear the words we need to hear, reminding us of what He’s all about, what His plans are, how He sees you, and what His promises are.
This is why we talked about the importance of preparing and cultivating our hearts to be receptive to Him. He’s sowing seeds as we read… will they take root in our souls. This is why we talked about having desperation for His voice and presence. Do we care that He’s standing there, speaking the words of life? Are we thirsty for him? Do we realize that the words we are reading are Living words?
The next descriptive word is “Active”. It’s the Greek word ENERGES from which we get the English word “Energy”. The Bible is Alive and full of Energy. It’s a word used to describe something that is powerful, effective, able to make things happen. It’s a word used to describe land that is good for crops, ready to accept seed, full of potential energy.
I studied physics in school and there are different forms of energy. There’s “potential energy” which describes something that has yet to move, but can. All it needs is something to convert the potential energy into some other form. The Bible is full of potential energy for anyone who would read it. And the moment we open it and read it with receptive hearts, that energy is converted into Kinetic energy – moving us closer to God and making us active in God’s will. It’s converted into Thermal energy – heating up our lukewarm hearts and making us lights unto the world.
These are the words of Jesus, the same one who could speak to the dead body of Lazarus, buried four days in a tomb, and command him to “Come out!” (John 11:43).
These are same living and active, powerful of Jesus, who was able to rebuke the storm by saying, “Peace! Be Still!” (Mark 4:39)
These are the words of Jesus who can look at a demon and say “Be Quiet! Come out of Him!” and they must obey (Luke 4:35)
Just as God is Living and Active, able to make things happen, so God’s Word is Living and Active, full of Energy to make us alive and calm the storms in our heart.
The next word used to describe the word of God is “Sharp”. It is “sharper than any two edged sword.” A sharp sword is a dangerous weapon, but this word describes something even more dangerous. This is the word TOMOS which doesn’t describe a cut from a sword blade, but the precise incision of a scalpel. It’s not the swing of a sword, or the stab of a dagger, but the keen and direct cut of a surgeon.
You see the word TOMOS at the end of surgical words like “appendectomy” (the removal of the appendix), or “hysterectomy” (the removal of the uterus) or “rhinectomy” (the removal of the nose). When a surgeon removes an exact thing (and no more) they do an -ectomy .
This is what the Bible does. It slices us open. In the context we see that this whole section is about the scriptures being “sharp”, “piercing” inside of us, and splitting us open so that the very “thoughts and intentions of our heart” can be seen.
Think of the story of King Josiah reading the book of the Law after it had been lost for so many years, and then discovered when they were rebuilding the Temple. It says,
“When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. And the king commanded… saying, ‘Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’” (2 Kings 22:11-13)
After reading the word of God, King Josiah was taken apart and terrified by the judgment of God. It had revealed his disobedience and how far the people of God had fallen away from what God wanted. And it had revealed how God would punish. But it had also revealed how God would forgive His people when they turned back to Him so he calls to the priests, the government officials and the servants to get right with God!
This could be one reason that a lot of people avoid reading the Bible. For the same reason they don’t visit the doctor, or refuse to have an operation that could help them. They are afraid or they want to live in denial – and pretend they don’t have the problem.
Whenever they read the scriptures they feel the keen sting of God’s scalpel starting to cut open their chest to expose their hearts, and before God can go too deep, they close the book and tell God to go away. Sure, God’s going in there to cut out the cancer, to repair their heart, to remove the stones inside them, to cut out the dead flesh and restore life – but it hurts.
Jesus said it this way in John 15,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser (“Gardener” NIV). Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)
God’s word is sharp, like a scalpel, like a pair of pruning shears.
The next word takes God’s surgery a little deeper. It says that the word of God is “piercing”. “Piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow”. The root of the Greek word is the word DIA which simply means to go “through” something, to penetrate it, to reach through something. We all know what a piercing is. It’s when people put metal through parts of their body. God is so exact in his cutting that he is able to exposes the very core of our being – he pierces through us.
One of my favourite uses of this word is to describe projectile or range weapons like arrows, javelins, slingshots or catapults that can be shot with precision into enemy lines. Today, we’d call them a sniper. God’s word cuts through the mess, gets around the rest, finds exactly what the problem is, and like a sniper, finds the thing that needs to die and kills it. No collateral damage, no accidents, no unnecessary casualties.
It says it is able to divide the separation of “joints and marrow”. Literally meaning the joint where the bones connect and the marrow inside the bones. God’s surgery doesn’t make mistakes. There’s no accidental cutting. His word hits the mark every time.
It says that God’s word is able to penetrate so deeply and so perfectly, that it can separate one’s “soul” (PSYCHE – our inner self, motives, personality, what makes us who we are) from their “spirit” (PNEUMA – their spiritual self, used of Holy Spirit and demons, that part which is inspired by God.) We can’t see the difference, and I can’t really explain it, but God can.
How does this work? Well, we can put on a good show, be religious at the right times, but when we are confronted by the Word of God, our true hearts are shown. Someone hears God’s word read or preached (or they read it themselves) and it hits them exactly where they needed to be hit. It exposes their sin, their hypocrisy, their depravity and the evil in their hearts. And they are forced to contend with it. To repent and accept forgiveness, or to harden their hearts and turn away.
Or, in the positive sense, God’s word is read or preached and it speaks exactly the words of comfort they needed to hear. They find the answer their soul has been looking for, the healing which they so desperately have desired.
That’s the power of God’s word, and I believe with all my being that when we are in the word every day, prayerfully reading and interacting with God through the text, that he pierces and divides us, speaks to the core of who we are, shows us our exact intentions, doesn’t sugar coat things – but tells us exactly what we need to hear that day. And he can do it with only a few words because those words are sharp as a scalpel, as powerful as a sniper.
The final word used to describe God’s word is “Discerning”. It’s the Greek word KRITIKOS from which we get our English word “Critic”. It also means “judge”.
I would love to be a movie critic, and sometimes after watching a movie, I write little reviews on Facebook. A critic, whether for movies, music, wine, restaurants, consumer products, or whatever, is someone who is supposed to see things more deeply than the average person. They have more experience with more versions, and can tell you why something is empirically good or bad – and why. We depend on critics so that we don’t waste our time and money on worthless things, or so that we can set our expectations to the right level before we go somewhere.
God’s word is the ultimate and perfect critic. Because the Word of God is living, active, sharp and piercing, God uses it to “discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart.” God sees it, and the Bible shows it to us.
Remember last week when I said that our problem is that we don’t know our hearts? I read Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”. But the solution is that God does know our hearts, and that He gives us His word as a roadmap to our hearts. This is what I meant.
James 1:22-25 describes the word of God as being a mirror,
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
That’s a warning to us who read God’s word because it will show us who we are. This has happened to me so many times, I cannot tell you. I’ve even taken to circling them. I will start by writing out a concern, or a problem, or something that is bothering me, or a request, or a question – just something that is on my heart.
And over and over, as I read the words of God, He will open me up like a surgeon, pull out my heart, and then show it to me.
“This is what you got wrong there.”
“This is what you really meant.”
“This is what’s wrong with what you just said.”
“This is how I’m going to answer that prayer.”
In that moment, on that day, God speaks directly to me… and I can literally draw a line from my issue to God’s response. But there are so many days when I close the book, walk away, and forget the incredible thing that just happened! I forget that the God of the universe just spoke to me. And it shames me.
Perhaps you know this feeling too. You are reading scripture or listening to a bible teacher and God shows you what you are really thinking, feeling, and doing. He pulls out your ideas and desires and mental conversations and then shows you exactly what’s going on there. He replays them for you and then tells you exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.
He shows you that you are cultivating lust, or talking down to yourself, or are harboring bitterness or hatred, that you are being selfish and reinforcing bad behavior… in your mind… and he lifts the veil of your thoughts and shows you exactly what is happening in the background.
You start to pray, and you open the word, and he shows you your own intentions. He shows you what you were really thinking when you did that, why you really did it, and all the reasons behind it – that no one else really knew. He holds up a mirror to your very soul.
In this way He is softening your conscience and teaching you about yourself. He’s giving you a roadmap of your heart, a picture of who you really are. And it draws you closer to Him because you realize that you need Him to help you, save you, forgive you, change you, open you up and clean what is inside.
Where Can I Run?
Verse 13 of Hebrews 4 reminds us that
“…no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
For some, that nakedness brings nothing but shame and fear, so they close the book and refuse to open it. For others, being exposed to God is a comfort, knowing there is nothing between them, and that they are not hiding like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ashamed of their sin, but standing in the presence of their Creator, forgiven and unashamed. It is my prayer that you would run to God, that you would allow him to open you up every day, to do surgery on your heart every day, to bring you more and more healing every day – by reading and prayerfully interacting with His word.
Let’s close by reading Psalm 139, which is prayer to God thanking Him for His perfect knowledge.
O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you….
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
How Do You Devo?
Devos, Daily Devotionals, Quiet Time, Private Meditation, Time with God, 1-on-1 with Jesus, Daily Prayers — there are lots of names for it and likely as many ways to do it. And I want to know yours!
I recently filled my very first prayer journal and got a shiny new one to celebrate (pictured above). God has been doing amazing things during these times with Him. Every day God answers my concerns, points out new insights, convicts me of sin, reveals my heart, and gives me comfort. My time with God is very important to me and I want to spread the joy by sharing what I do.
But not only that, I want to know what you do! I searched for years to find a personal way to connect with God. I tried dozens of guides, systems, studies and techniques, but none captured my heart. Eventually I came up with my own and it has been truly incredible.
I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with this. Many Christians struggle to have a consistent, daily time with God, and one repeated reason is that they “don’t know how”. The mission of this blog is to “give you the tools and inspiration you need to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with God” and I believe that sharing how we do our personal devotions is a way to help accomplish that mission. Once I gather some I intend to put together a special training night on “How to Journal Using Scripture as Your Guide” using insights from those who share! Then, for those who can’t be trained in person, I’ll post it on my blog.
Will you join me in helping others to spend more time with God?
My Devo Setup
I’ve made a commitment that the first thing I do when I sit at my desk is to take away the wireless keyboard, put on the isolation headphones (playing classical and jazz music), and open my prayer journal. I begin by writing out the prayers on my heart, asking forgiveness for sin and sharing the troubles that are on my mind. Then, I open up the Bible. I have 5 bookmarks in my tattered NIV and I journal a reflection after each chapter. As I read and pray I search for what God is saying to me for that day. I believe He will speak through His word, and He does!
Sharing Your Setup?
So, what’s your setup?
To share, follow these steps:
- Write a brief synopsis sharing where you are and what tools and methods you use.
- Take a picture of your environment and tools.
- Use the comment section below and link to your picture OR Send the comment and picture to my email (email@example.com)
- Pass this post along to your Christian friends so they can contribute too!
Thanks in advance to all who participate.
I gave a talk to a group of AWANA kids this week. It was “Heart Night” (celebrating Valentine’s Day) and I spoke on Love. I used some animated gifs in the powerpoint, which is where all the giggling at the beginning comes from. I linked to a few if you want a giggle too.
Here’s the audio (12 minutes):
How many of you are good at opposites? Let’s start off with a quick quiz.
Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day I want to talk about some of those opposite words.
Jesus taught a lot of things that seem opposite to us. He said things like: Help people without telling anyone (Matthew 6:3), lend things generously but don’t ask for them back (Luke 6:35), if someone hits you, let them hit you again (Matthew 5:39), if someone steals your shirt, you should give him your jacket too (Matthew 5:40), and He even said to “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27).
That’s a little confusing isn’t it? It’s not what we hear from most people. It’s easy to love our friends, but how can we love our enemies? The whole problem with an enemy is that they are someone who is trying to harm us! They trip us when we walk down the hallway, take our things, break our stuff, pull our hair, blame us for things we didn’t do. How can we love them?
The Fox and the Scorpion
Let me tell you a story about someone who trusted their enemy. It’s the story of the Fox and the Scorpion.
Once, long ago, in the vast lands of the desert, there was a great river that had to be crossed for so the animals could get food and water. One day, Fox came to the river and was looking for a place where it was safest to cross. As he searched, Fox’s lifelong enemy Scorpion crawled up on a rock near him and began to speak.
“Fox, I’ve been walking along this river bank, looking for food, and I noticed a very easy place to cross the river – where the water is not so deep and not so swift. I would like to cross over myself, but I am so small it would be impossible! Would you be willing to take me across if I show you the place?” asked Scorpion,
Fox replied, “Why would I take you across!? How could I trust you not to sting me since we are lifelong enemies?”
“Why would I sting you? For if I stung you it would mean that we would both drown!” said Scorpion.
Fox thought it over, keeping a distrustful eye on Scorpion, but eventually said, “Show me where this place is, and I will take you across.”
When they got to the place, Fox bent down to allow Scorpion to climb on his back. And as Fox was swimming across, when he reached the middle of the river, he felt a sharp STING on his back! As the poison filled his veins Fox cried out, “How could you sting me? Now we will both drown!”
Scorpion replied, “It is better that we both should perish, than that my lifelong enemy should live!”
That’s the problem isn’t it? Many people would hear this story and think, “Yeah, once I have an enemy. If I don’t like someone, or they prove that they don’t like me, then I shouldn’t ever be nice to them. I should stay away from them. If they are in trouble, I should walk away.” They make us mad! We want to hurt them back. We want to cry. We want to punish them.
But Jesus says that we need to love our enemies! Why? Why would He say that? Does Jesus want us to keep getting beat up? Does Jesus want us to be wimps? Does Jesus want us to be cowards? Doesn’t Jesus want the best for us? Of course He does! And He knows people a lot better than we do.
So, may I share with you three reasons why I think Jesus wants us to love our enemies?
1. Love Conquers Hate (Romans 12:17-21)
The first reason is that love conquers hate. Have you ever heard someone say, “You have to fight fire with fire”? What that means is that when someone does something bad, you should do something bad to them. But what happens when you fight fire with fire? You only get more fire! Everything gets burned up.
What should you fight a fire with? A fire extinguisher! Put out the fire! Hating and hurting our enemies won’t defeat our enemies. It will just create more, and stronger, enemies. When we love our enemies, it’s like pouring water on a fire, or blasting it with a fire extinguisher. We put out the hatered.
Romans 12:20-21 says, “…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Can you imagine what would happen to your enemy if you helped feed them when they were hungry? If you shared your lunch with them when they didn’t have one? If you gave them your juice-box when they were thirsty? What would happen then? They might become your friend! At the very least they would change how they think about you. You don’t overcome evil with more evil… you overcome evil with good!
2. Love Changes People (Luke 6:27-28)
Here’s another reason to love our enemies instead of hating them. We can’t change them – only God can. And the way that God changes people by us loving them and by His Spirit working inside of them.
If we do good to people who hate us, God can use our love to change their hearts. And if we pray for them, then God promises to answer prayers and change the world for us. He promises that when we pray, He will answer. Maybe He will make that person kinder. Maybe He will give you more patience when talking to them. Maybe He will help you know what to say next time they do something, or help you be strong and kind when they do something mean again. God does amazing things when we love people and pray for them.
That’s why Jesus says in Luke 6:27-28, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
3. Hate Is Like Poison
Here’s another reason Jesus taught us to love our enemies instead of hating them.
Have you ever felt angry with someone, and you wanted to hurt them and get back at them – and you had hate in your heart – and you felt so upset that you ended up treating people that you love badly? They didn’t do anything and now you’re mad at them too!
Maybe you have a bad day at school, or fight with your brother or sister, or someone said something mean to you – and instead of forgiving, you decide to stay upset and let hate into your heart. What happens when later? You yell at your mom. You’re grumpy with your friends. You are angry with yourself and stomp around. Hate has become like a poison in your heart.
The Bible says in Hebrew 12:15 to “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” (NLT) If someone hurts us, and we choose not to forgive them, not to pray for them, not to do good to them, not to love them… the hate inside of us acts like a poison – and that poison gets bigger, and can hurt many people.
Love Comes from Jesus
So, how can we do this? Loving our enemies is really hard, isn’t it? Here are two things to remember that I use to help me love my enemies, and I think they will help you too.
First, pray about it. Remember when Daniel was in the lion’s den, surrounded by hungry lions? What did he do? He prayed! So what should we do when we are surrounded by enemies? Pray! You’ve probably memorized lots of Bible verses about asking God for help. You are learning these because they are true! If you are having a hard time forgiving and loving, ask Jesus for help and He will help you.
And second, remember that love comes from Jesus. This is what Jesus did for us. The Bible, in Romans 5:8-11, says that even though we are sinners and enemies of God, that God sent Jesus to come and die for us! Jesus traded his life for ours because He loved us, even when we were his enemies. And then 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us!” So, since Jesus loved us, even when we were His enemies, and once we become His friends by believing in Him, He will teach us and give us the strength to love our enemies too.