The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.
Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and shines like a beacon in a dark place. And those who first heard it really needed a beacon because even though things weren’t at their darkest, it still wasn’t a great time in the life of Israel.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene in the years after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinstituted the sacrificial system, but things were still pretty bleak. Though things were going ok for the generation that had come back to their homeland of Judah things were far from perfect. The prophets that had encouraged them to rebuild their temple had given promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, peace, that would come when God’s glorious presence would once again come to the temple.
But when they looked around at their life they were disillusioned – it wasn’t anything like that. Sure, they were no longer being oppressed in a foreign land, but the glory days of expansion under King David and the peace and prosperity under King Solomon were long distant memories. Now they were the least important territory in Persia under Artaxerxes, were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, and were constantly fighting with their neighbours.
It wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them, there was also a spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt, but it was much smaller and spiritually inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple that the miracles would automatically rain down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
Of course, the problem wasn’t that God was gone, but that their hearts were far from him. Their worship was lethargic and empty of love or passion. They constantly complained about God’s lack of love and how he was unjustly punishing them. They even withheld their tithes because they were worried they wouldn’t have enough. It can be summarized in Malachi 3:13-15, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? What’s the point of following God? Where’s the gain in following all God’s rules, doing things His way, which is almost always harder, and then things just getting worse? God is the “Lord of hosts”, the “God of gods”, the “God of angel armies”, but where is He? The arrogant, self-willed, atheistic, non-believers all seem like they are doing better than us. And people who are outright committing evil, mocking God to His face, are getting away with it! What’s the point in believing in God when He never does anything to make our lives any better?
That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. They were tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God and then losing every other battle to those which they used to conquer easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing, so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi doesn’t allow for that. Malachi comes to God’s defense. He reminds them that God is more than happy to bless them, but refuses to bless their sin. He reminds them that God was the one that chose Israel and has stayed committed to them, showing them great love even when they had completely turned their backs on Him, and then restored them back to their land. And what was their response? To worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? No… it was to grumble, complain and dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings – to withhold their worship, love, and obedience – to commit sexual sins, divorce each other, and marry unbelievers – to dishonour and live unjustly towards one another – and to live as hypocrites who say one thing and do another.
He tells them that they aren’t receiving God’s blessing right now because their hearts and lives are a mess… which is a story we’ve all heard so many times, right? Almost to the point we’re tired of it. I know I can start to feel that way.
God, where’s the good news!? Why is everything so hard? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. This world is a whole other thing. I don’t understand what the government are doing, corporations seem to be getting more powerful and sometimes more evil, people seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have crazy scientists who are doing all sorts of terrible things like creating human embryos and then destroying them, messing with human genetics, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
Our spirits cry out to God, we hit our knees, we cry out to God and nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for an hour or two, but invariably it all comes crashing back on us. Or worse, we come into church hoping for an uplifting message with some answers and just hear once again how our problems are somehow all our fault – and we go home feeling even more miserable. Seems to be the same story over and over, right?
Then it’s easy to slip into the mindset that Malachi was writing about: What’s the point of all this religious stuff? What’s the point of believing in God if things are just going to be miserable anyway? Where is God when all this insanity is going on? We hear stories about amazing things happening in India, China, and Florida – but what about Beckwith, or Ottawa? And like Israel, we get disillusioned and disappointed with God and start to back off our faith.
Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little more back each week because we are worried about the budget. We think, “God hasn’t given us enough money, so how can we afford to tithe?”
We start to skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries – after all, there’s lots of work to be done and attending church hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises about “finding joy in suffering”.
We start to indulge a little more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – and it gives us that little rush we weren’t getting when we were trying to connect with God. Sure, it produces some shame… but if we keep at it we know that the shame will eventually be quieter.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music, because it all just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either just as miserable or better off– and I don’t want to hear from either one of those people.
So we head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution, and they are more than happy to give us something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.
Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it just produces more guilt and we rarely pray, except to complain to God about how unfair life is, how He’s not doing His job, how if He’d just fix things then we’d come back to doing what we’re supposed to. But the prayer bounces off the roof, nothing changes, and we start to contemplate not only why we started to believe in the first place, but whether God even exists at all.
It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. That, by definition is hopelessness, and that’s not only where a lot of people are today, but where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, except for a few people, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? The simple answer is hope. “Hope that does not disappoint”, as Romans 5:5 puts it. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart and who were losing hope? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Open up to Malachi 3:16. After all the complaining and faithless and disobedient had had their say against God, another group immerges:
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
Pause there a second. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God, there was one group that was still faithful, one group who had not bowed their knee to another god, one that had continued to remain obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How?
Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”. I’m sure most of you have gone camping and had a camp fire. These days they make you buy your wood from the store at the campground, and it’s really expensive, so you really need to enjoy every little piece. You start with a nice fire, but as the night wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, until there is only one little charred block, with a tiny flame, surrounded by orange embers. So what do you do? You stoke the fire, right? When the flames are dying down, and you’re all out of wood, what do you need to do to make sure it doesn’t go out? You bring the embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.
In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should be drawing together to keep the flames of faith alive. And what did they do? They spoke with one another. What did they speak about?
Hebrews 10:23-25 shows believers who were in a very similar situation. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
They confessed their hope to one another: “What brings you hope this week? How have you seen God this week? What do you remember of God’s covenant to us? How has He been faithful to you this week?”
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. “How have you been doing this week? How can we help you? How can we help others? Have you been caught in sin? How are you doing with forgiveness?”
What else did they speak about? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but you’re doing great. I know you feel lonely but I’m here. I know you feel your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I know you feel stuck, but I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it. Don’t give up!
Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…” Which all makes sense right? Sinning by drinking or doing drugs isn’t really going to help, right? But look what he says next, because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
Verse 19, “…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? When the fires are going out in your heart? Satan will tell you to get alone. Turn away from God, away from friends, away from prayer, away from church, away from your spouse and children, to get alone – so you are an easier target. What does God say? Not just “Speak to each other.” But “sing to each other!”
He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, get together and sing to each other! Sing your praise, sing your thanks, sing about God, sing about Jesus… but not just to feel better, but out of submission and reverence for Jesus. When we sing songs of faith together our hearts knit together, and then fall before Jesus.
How do you fire up dying coals? Blow on them! So how do you encourage yourself when you feel your faith is dying? Draw together with other believers and speak and sing!
Elijah is John the Baptist
Let’s close by reading the end of Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament, starting in 3:16 again,
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. ‘They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”
I can almost hear the words of the faithful in response to this, “Yes God! We will keep meeting together, keep remind one another, keep speaking your name and singing your songs. We believe you will completely save us one day. But when, God? When will you come and deal with the evil once and for all? When will you come and raise up your people like the sun? When will healing come? When will you tread down the wicked and cause us to leap for joy?
And God tells them the sign to wait for in 3:5 that will kick off this glorious time,
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Who was this one that would come right before the “great and awesome day of the Lord”? Who would come to prepare the land so it wouldn’t be “utterly destroyed”? According to the Bible and the words of Jesus it was John the Baptist, who would come and proclaim Jesus’ coming as Son of God and Saviour of the world. (Matthew 11:7-14; Luke 1:17).
Choose to Meet
Next week we enter into the Advent season, the season of waiting and preparing ourselves for Christmas. I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you are looking forward to, and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know that for some of you, you’ve got so much going on in your life and in your souls that even the idea of celebrating Christmas seems like more of a chore than a blessing.
My encouragement to both of you is to keep doing the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then that’s great, come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses for people to get together and invite those from outside your usual circles so more people can encourage one another. And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations so you can be with your fellow believers more and more. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, and to find ways to sing and talk with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, that’s the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?
 Acosta, D. R. (2016). Lord of Hosts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.
Christmas is coming and I’m very excited already. I went to the Christmas store at the Carleton Place nursery and officially got myself in the mood. There was free mulled cider, cookies, Christmas music playing in the background… I love the colours and lights and trees and everything. I’m a huge fan of Christmas and though I’m practicing some self-control by not putting up my tree yet, I’ve already busted out a shuffle of my Christmas Music Playlist and have sung along to such wonderful hymns as “Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”.
And while I love all the colours of Christmas I’m just like anyone else and know that a big part of the season is the exchanging of gifts. I’ve already sent out my list to some key family members, ordered some for people online, and have been talking with grandma about what the kids want.
I was thinking back as to the best Christmas gift I ever received. And while I’ve gotten a lot of cool gifts there was one that stuck out in my mind as the best one. It was 1989, I was 11 years old, and desperately wanted the hottest new item of the season – the one that none of my friends had and which would complete my life so I would never need anything again. I didn’t grow up in a family with a lot of money and this thing would cost a lot. I was cool about it though. I didn’t beg or remind my parents over and over. I just sort of left out a picture of it on the counter, circled it in the Sears catalog and kept turning to that page and leaving it open, and just, like, casually bringing it up naturally in conversation. Nothing annoying.
I absolutely didn’t think I was going to get it – at all. But on Christmas morning, on grandma’s couch, I couldn’t believe when I opened up the box that it was there… a Nintendo GameBoy complete with Super Mario Land and Tetris! The greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life. It was a huge moment and I barely contained myself.
I loved that thing for a long time, got every accessory, and played it constantly – until the Sega Game Gear came out two years later. The Sega Game Gear had something that the GameBoy didn’t – a colour screen. And I was hooked, but I knew that my parents would never get me another game system, especially since the one I had was still great. So what to do?
[This is a painful, regretful memory actually. I get a little misty just talking about it.]
The Game Gear came out in October of 1991 and was $150. The GameBoy, brand new was $100, but I had all the accessories.
So 13 year old me, by myself, without my parent’s knowledge, went down to the only pawn shop in town and sold it to the guy. It was insane. Somehow, between his talking and my idiotic mind, I ended up giving him my GameBoy, all the games, and all the accessories and walking out with something like $40 or $50. I still remember standing outside the store, with the money in my hand, wondering what happened, and wondering where I was going to get the extra $100. I never did. [Ugh, that hurts to share.]
I’m sure you’ve gotten some pretty memorable Christmas gifts, right? Maybe even ones that you, hopefully, still have and cherish to this day? Well, today we are going to open up to 1 Corinthians 12 and read about something that God gives all believers, which the Bible calls “Spiritual Gifts”. So please open up to 1 Corinthians 12 and we’re going to read it together.
As you open I want you to marvel at our giving, generous God. God gives us life and this amazing world to live in – and then we sin and mess it up. And then God gives us His Law to guide us and teach us how to live the best way together – and then we sin and mess ourselves up. And then God sends prophets and teachers and leaders to guide us back to Him – and we don’t listen to them, even going so far as to reject and murder them. And then, even while we were yet dead in our sins, having made ourselves His enemies, God sends His Son to show us how to live, teach us the truth, inaugurate His kingdom, and then take the death and punishment we deserve, having God the Father’s wrath poured out on Himself, exchanging Himself sinners. And then He rose again to conquer death and offers us the free gift of salvation, justification, sanctification, for all who would believe – not for all who would do amazing works, or follow the rules, or perform religious acts – but simply by faith in Jesus as the Risen Saviour.
But the gifts don’t end there. Once we accept Jesus as Lord the gifts keep on coming, and the greatest gift that Christians receive is the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us. Just as God’s presence dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle with Moses, or the Temple in Jerusalem, so now the Spirit of God dwells in everyone who believes(1 Cor 9:19). When His disciples wondered why Jesus would be dying and then leaving them to take His place in Heaven, He said, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) Jesus said that it is better to have the Holy Spirit inside us than Jesus walking beside us! And He does some amazing things for us.
In John 16 Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will be our Helper, helping us with evangelism, convicting the world of sin, showing us how to be righteous, warning us of spiritual dangers. He helps our minds to see the difference between good and evil, lies and truth, light and darkness. It says that He helps us understand the Bible. It’s not just priests and preachers and scholars that can interpret the Bible, because every believer who is dependent on the Spirit will be taught by Him. In John 14 the Holy Spirit is called the Counsellor who comes alongside us to encourage us, guide us, inspire our good works, and never leave us (Jn 14:16). He binds Christians together with God and each other, causing us to love Him and one another (1 Cor 12:13). He teaches us who Jesus is and helps us to worship and glorify Him (John 15:26, 16:14; 1 Corinthians 12:3).
It is the Holy Spirit that causes us to produce Godly fruit. When we are convicted that we do not love enough, that we are at war within ourselves, that we are too angry, or out of control, Galatians 5:22-23 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” 
That is a LOT of gifts from God to Christians. And yet, how often are we like me at age 13, taking these awesome gifts and disregarding them, ignoring them, or just callously throwing them away in favour of something else the world has to offer – that just ends up not working out anyway.
1 Corinthians 12
Let’s read though 1 Corinthians 12 together and see what we can learn. We’re going to do a quick study of it because there’s a lot there, and then at the end of this message I’m going to point you at a good resource where you can really dig deeper into it.
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
First, I want you to notice that Paul wants to make sure that believers are not “uninformed” about Spiritual Gifts – which means it behooves us to put some time into public and private study regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the discovery and use of our spiritual gifts.
There’s a few ways to do this. One is private study of course. Taking it upon yourself to read and study scripture and some good books on this topic. Second is to go to RightNow Media and watch something called “Your Divine Design” by Chip Ingram. I watched a couple of them and they are a great overview. And third, I’m actually going to be working with the leadership team to put together a 36-week leadership training course for the church where one of the things we cover is how to discover and use our Spiritual Gifts.
The second thing I want you to notice here is the contrast of influences we see here. Before you were saved you were “led astray” or “influenced” toward useless, pagan, idolatrous things. He talks about “mute idols”, pointing back to what we talked about during our discussion of eating meat offered to idols, right? That the actual statues of the gods were just mute, stone carvings. But even though the statues were mute, the followers were not. These cultic religions were full of wild displays and all kinds of ecstatic speech where they would claim to have special words from the gods or the afterlife.
Paul acknowledges that this happens and gives the warning again that there are only two teams: Team Jesus and Team Satan, and sometimes they look similar. Both have great influence over their followers. Satan often makes false copies, or imitations, of what God does in order to confuse and tempt people away from the true faith.
But Paul gets down to brass tacks and says, “These pagan idol worshippers are absolutely being influenced by the spiritual realm and have some kind of ‘gift’ from the demons, but they are forgeries of what God gives. How can you know the difference? Because when the Holy Spirit gives a gift to someone it always points them and everyone else to Jesus. All the other influences, the false gifts, the demonic powers, all point people away from Jesus. That’s the litmus test.”
We’ll see that later in the chapter, but that’s an important place to start. We see a lot of gifted people, some with some incredible sorts of power, even spiritual power. How do we tell if it’s from God or from Satan?
The same way we tell whether we have a good compass or not. A good compass always points North. A bad compass wobbles around and points all sorts of other directs. The Holy Spirit always points to directly to Jesus as Saviour, Lord and the focus of our worship. The other powers won’t. They will wobble around and point everywhere else except Jesus. This tells us something important about why we are given these gifts, right? We are given them to point people to Jesus! Not to lift ourselves up, not to build our popularity, not to keep to ourselves, not even to draw people to our church, but to bring glory and praise to Jesus and accomplish the works He has given us to do!
What are the Gifts?
So, the natural next question is “Ok, so what are the gifts?” That’s what Paul covers next. Start in verse 4:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
That is a lot of different gifts, and it’s not even all of them because he lists more in verse 28, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” And there’s even more listed in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4.
Now, this study can go deep because each one of these gifts requires some study, right? What does it mean to have the gift of prophecy or miracles or discernment or tongues? What does it mean to have the gift of helping or administrating? And is this even the full list? For example, in the Old Testament Joseph and Daniel are given a gift from the Spirit of God to interpret dreams (Gen 41; Dan 1) and Bezalel is given a spiritual gift to help him make works of art (Exo 31). What about those?
Well, I’m not going to explain every gift because we can study privately, but let’s pull out a few things and see some important points are here.
A Variety of Gifts
First, from 4, notice that there is a “variety” of gifts. One of the problems in the Corinthian church that seems to carry forward today is that people were belittling some of the gifts and only desiring the ones that put on a good show – like tongues. They wanted their church to look like the pagan temples where people were flipping out and speaking in crazy languages, and Paul knew that this sort of thing was not of God.
They didn’t want what the gifts God had given them, but wanted what they had before. They didn’t accept the gift that the Holy Spirit gave them, but complained and wanted something more flashy, more exciting, more interesting.
The Babylon Bee is one of my favourite websites because it gives satirical articles about different things going on in the church and culture. One recent one was entitled, “Unlucky Charismatic Gets Boring Gift Of Hospitality” and part of it said,
“’A man with the ‘really cool’ gift of prophecy reportedly moved throughout the room at Wade’s church and read each member’s aura to determine which spiritual gift the Holy Spirit had granted. Wade grew more and more excited as he approached, but was devastated as he learned he just had the “super lame” gift of hospitality.
‘Ugh, hospitality, are you serious?’ Wade said as the church prophet announced he had detected the Christian virtue as Wade’s supernaturally bestowed talent. ‘I was really pulling for something cool like tongues or healing.’
‘Heck, I’d even take teaching at this point. This sucks,’ a downcast Wade added. At publishing time, Wade had consoled himself by focusing on the fact that he hadn’t gotten something even worse, like giving.”
That’s a perfect example of what was happening then and what happens now. Christians who haven’t learned about the Spiritual Gifts get a little understanding of what they are and then immediately want whatever one gives them the most strokes. They want evangelism so they can be the next Billy Graham, or Teacher or Pastor because they think then they can be a super Christian that everyone looks up to, or healings or miracles or tongues so that everyone can see the power coming out of them.
Do you see the problem there? They are really only concerned about their own glory. And what was the difference between spiritual gifts from Satan and ones from the Holy Spirit? That they point to Jesus. This was the danger that the church was falling into, and that some churches fall into today. The Satanic work of stealing God’s glory.
Look at verses 12-26. This is what they were doing to each other in the church as they disparaged their own gifts and belittled others:
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
This is where we get where we call Christians the “Body of Christ”. The Apostle Paul equates the parts of a church to be like the parts of a human body. Sure, there are some upfront parts that everyone sees – eyes, muscles, skin – but there are a lot more parts that people don’t see that are just as important – like our heart, liver, and pancreas.
No part of the body should tell another part of the body they are more or less important. That would be crazy! In the same way, no part of the church should call their own, or any other Christians gift unimportant! This brings division to the body.
We do this all the time in the church. Say someone is an “encourager” or a “helper”. That’s their gift. They love sending notes and cheering people up. Or they love to show up and help do the chores in the church. What do we do with them? “Oh, you’re friendly! You should be in charge of all the greeters! Oh, you’re a good helper, you should be a Deacon!” Hold on! Do they have the gift of leadership? Do they have the gift of administration? Nope. Which is why when they end up being “promoted” they are miserable at it, which makes them miserable, and everyone else miserable. But what happened? We took them out of their gifting and put them somewhere they weren’t meant to be! We took a hand and tried to make it into a mouth. We took a heart and tried to turn it into a pancreas. And it didn’t work.
I want you to notice something really neat in verses 22-25,
“…the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”
This is a huge part of being in God’s Upside Down Kingdom. Who gets all the glory in worldly kingdoms? The warriors and intellects, right? People that are strong, fast, smart, clever… and everyone else is less important, right? What does the world do with “weak”, and “less honourable” parts like the mentally challenged, sick, hurting, immature, elderly. We hide them. We avoid them. We lock them away. Worse, these days we kill them.
What does this verse say? It says that the weaker parts of the body are “indispensable”. The parts with “less honour” or need to be taken care of, are bestowed greater honour. The parts that require protection we protect.
Think of your own body. There are certain parts we take really good care of, right? We wear eye protection and athletic cups because eyes are really sensitive.
What happens when you poke someone in the belly or get something in your eye? The whole body constricts. The head drops, the elbows and arms come in, the knees come up, the muscles contract, to protect damaged area. When one part of our body gets hurt, the other parts naturally protect it. That’s a picture of what’s supposed to happen in the church.
Some people in the church are designed by God to be the arms, legs, knees, elbows, and muscles. Able to take a beating and keep moving. Other members are designed to be weaker. Not less important, but weaker so they can do a special job. A knee can’t do what an eye can do, right? But when the eye gets hurt? Everything stops, right? The rest of the body surrounds it.
What is a church supposed to do with weak and hurting people? We surround them, help them, protect them, care for them, using our own gifts to serve them. Maybe the knee and the elbow can’t come up with a good plan, but the brain can, and the knee and elbow use their strength to protect. The brain can’t cry out for help, but the mouth can. We all work together.
The whole point is that there are a variety of gifts given by God on purpose. So Paul says, “There aren’t just three gifts meant to bring attention to yourself, there are a whole variety of gifts, and none of them are accidents or unimportant.”
Whatever gift you have, it wasn’t your idea. These gifts are not earned. You didn’t ask for the gift you got. They are not chosen or appointed or voted on by people. It is God alone, the Holy Spirit, who administers the gifts among His people. To reject or call one better or more important than another is a great sin. God controls the gifts, not us. It is the believer’s responsibility to seek God’s guidance, read His word, pray and listen to see which gift God has given you and how God wants you to use it for His purposes!
For the Common Good
And that’s the second point, found in verse 7.
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Paul answers the questions, “Where do the gifts come from?” From the Spiritual Realm. “How can we tell which ones are from the Holy Spirit or a demon?” Because the good ones point to Jesus. “What are the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives?” He says there are a variety and gives examples. Then he answers the question, “What are they for?” They are given by God for the common good of the church.
Incidentally, that’s what Paul means in verse 31 when he says, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts.” We know after some study that he doesn’t mean that some gifts are better than others, right? He just told the church to stop competing with each other and belittling some people because of their gifts. So what does this mean?
The encouragement is to desire gifts that will spread more and love for the common good, not to bring attention to ourselves. It means that instead of desiring gifts that put on a good show and make us look good, to instead earnestly pursue that which would build up the church and glorify God the most. It leads directly into what Paul is going to talk about in chapter 13, that no matter what gifts we have they need to be motivated by and done with love.
Let me conclude with this: Ephesians 2:10 says, Christians are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Part of those good works are simply the helpful life that all Christians are meant to lead, but it also has to do with the spiritual gifts you have been given. You and I were shaped to serve God and the church. And we won’t feel like we fit until we are working in the place we were designed to be. You will never feel more joy or satisfaction than when you work within your spiritual gifts. And conversely, as long as you are trying to do things you weren’t designed for, jealous of someone else’s gift, or belittling others, you will never feel the satisfaction that comes with serving God with His special gift to you.
So my encouragement to the Christians here is to take some time to further study this passage and discover your spiritual gift, then tell others what it is, and then allow us to help you live it out! Check out that Chip Ingram study called “Your Divine Design”, check out GotQuestions.org and read some more about it, and prepare yourself to do the leadership course we’re starting soon.
Finding and using your gift means you’ll have to say yes to some things and stop doing other things, but that means you’ll be coming more in line with how God created you to live, which is always better. It is God who builds our church, not us. His way is best, not ours. His glory is our highest purpose, not ours. Our task is to simply follow His plan to work together as an effective body.
 Life Application Bible Commentary, 1&2 Corinthians, Pg 169-170
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“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
Mortification of Sin
We’re jumping in and continuing on from last week, still on the topic of self-discipline and are continuing our discussion of what it means to take following Jesus seriously.
When we become a Christian and start following Jesus we are given an inward drive towards becoming more like Jesus – more holy, more righteous, more loving. “Be holy as I am holy”, God says to His people, and then gives us the help to do that.
We’ve talked before that we don’t do this in order to get saved but out of love and obedience for the One who saved us. We know we’ll never achieve perfection in this life, and that, because of our sinful nature we’re going to keep breaking God’s laws and doing wrong – but now that we are Christian we hate that sinful part of us, because it was sin that has messed up the world, our lives, and is what required Jesus to die on the cross. So we confess those sins every day in prayer, are thankful that God’s grace is so big and that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins past and future so we can be forgiven, and then we ask God for more help, more love, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more self-control in the coming day to live better. Not just to be a holier than thou Christian prude, but because we’ve seen how sin hurts us, others, and our relationship with God.
That’s how Christians see sin. That’s why we work hard to get rid of the sins in our life – what believers used to call the “mortification of sin”. We work with God to try to mortify, or kill, or subdue, the fleshly, sinful desires inside us that cause so much trouble.
God uses some pretty serious, life and death language when speaking of how we should deal with our sin and practice self-control. Listen to Colossians 3:1-6 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming.”
So, because sin is so serious, a believer engages in a process called sanctification. To sanctify something means to set it apart for special use, to be made holy. Grandma’s special china collection is sanctified by the fact that it is cleaned and then kept carefully in a china cabinet. Your favourite hockey card is sanctified by you taking it from the collection, putting it into a special protective case, and then mounting it on the wall. You are sanctified by Jesus as you are taken from the enemy camp into his kingdom, from death to life, from slave to sin to freedom in Christ, and made one of His special people.
If you remember way back in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 it told us, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We cannot be righteous without Jesus. We can’t redeem ourselves. And we cannot purify or sanctify ourselves without Jesus. The Gospel of Christ tells us the consequences of our sins – death, hell, pain, suffering, fear, addiction, brokenness. It tells us that Jesus has come to save us from all that by taking the penalty for sin upon Himself, wiping out its effects by taking God’s wrath against sin for us, dying on the cross, and then rising again to show that He has destroyed sin’s power – and then invites us to follow Him. This is what it means to be born again. When we are chosen by God and accept His invitation we are immediately sanctified. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice made it so that all our sins are perfectly dealt with and if we died today we would be with Jesus forever.
But at the same time, while we still live on earth we continue to deal with the echo effects of sin all around us. So, while we are perfectly clean in God’s eyes, perfectly accepted, perfectly redeemed, we also enter the process of sanctification in order to become more like Jesus every day. We use a lot of different phrases to describe this today. We talk about growing in God or becoming spiritually mature, but whatever we call it, part of that process is the mortification, or killing, of the sinful parts of ourselves that affect our daily walk in this world. We will never become perfect, but we continue to struggle against and work towards holiness. We “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]…”
Going Through the Motions
Now, just like today, some of the people in the Corinthian church thought that since they professed faith in Jesus, went to church, and joined in the Lord’s Supper, they could then live however they wanted. Remember the context of eating meat offered to idols and causing those around them to stumble in their faith by going against their consciences. They figured that since they were Christians, they could do whatever they wanted! Paul wanted them to be absolutely clear that wasn’t true, it was a false belief, and so he used multiple examples
This still happens today. Young people who have gone to church their whole life are especially in danger of this way of thinking. They have gone to church for as long as they can remember, can quote verses from the Bible, serve in a couple places each week, go to Youth Group or Small Group, they can answer some Bible Trivia questions and take communion each month… so they figure they’re good. They’re covered.
The Bible says, be careful. There’s a big difference between saving faith and merely going through the motions of a believer. Of course, this isn’t just about youth. I’ve seen this at all ages. People who attend sometimes, do a little volunteer work, and say they believe… maybe they even had a tearful conversion at a summer camp or walked down an aisle at a crusade – but they’re not engaged in the daily battle against sin. And they’re not just disengaged, they don’t actually care.
This is most acute when the young person turns 18 and moves out or goes off to college or starts a job and is getting paid and is then given the freedom of an adult. Suddenly it becomes clear that their faith is extremely thin, they haven’t been working on their sanctification at all, and within a short time, they are in real trouble. They weren’t Christians, they were merely covered by the grace of their Christian parents.
It wasn’t they that decided not to look at pornography, it was the fact that it wasn’t available in the house. It wasn’t they that decided not to waste hours on the internet and video games, it was their parent’s rules and schedules. It wasn’t they that decided to watch their tongue, it was the peer pressure from their Christian friends. It wasn’t they that decided reading the Bible. going to church, being cautious about friendships, and the rest was important, it was enforced in by house rules.
And when they get that first taste of freedom from those rules, their true level of sanctification really shows. Soon they are addicted, indebted, depressed, lethargic, have turned their back on the church, and have just enough understanding of God to blame and resent Him for all their problems. Again, I don’t want to pick on just young people, I’ve seen this in seniors too, where the only thing that kept them from blowing up their life was external pressure, not internal sanctification.
This too is all over scripture. The wheat and the chaff, the good seeds and bad, parable of the sower, the sheep and the goats, wolves in sheep’s clothing, whitewashed tombs, play actors (Matt. 3:12; 13:1-30; 5:15; 25:31-46; 23:25-27) are all phrases where Jesus talks about people that look like Christians to everyone else but are not really saved. These people talk about God, come to church, and receive the blessings of being a Christian without ever turning away from sin and towards Jesus.
Think of it like a strong smell. Coffee shops have a distinct smell. So do hockey and curling rinks. So does a workout gym or the Body Shop store. You’ve probably had that experience when someone comes home from a night out and you can tell exactly where they’ve been just by the smell, right? They walk by and immediately you just what they’ve been doing because they carry the smell with them. My wife used to work at a place where she always came back smelling of bagels. She’d have to change her clothes and wash her hair before it would come out. I had the same problem when I worked at the pulp mill. I always came home smelling of black liquor, which is basically the waste product from turning trees into pulp. It smells a lot worse than bagels and there were times I would have to strip down right in the doorway and leave my clothes in the garage rather than bring them in the house.
In the same way, a non-believer who comes to church and hangs around Christians can pick up their smell – their lifestyle choices, their joy, kindness, high morals, honesty, etc. but not actually have faith in Jesus at all. They can even stay so long they start to believe they are Christians without actually giving their life to Jesus.
Israel and Us
Let’s turn back to our passage. As we saw last week Paul used himself as an example of spiritual maturity and self-denial, but now he goes the other way and uses Israel as an example of spiritual immaturity. “The perfect example of believing the false notion that one can be saved and then live a faithless, God-less life can be seen in what happened to the Jews’ ancestors in the wilderness…” He phrases this as a warning, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
These were people who were saved by God as Christians are. They had multiple, manifold, manifest spiritual blessings. Miracles galore. Their story is every Christian’s story. They were rescued at a great cost from an oppressor, delivered from death by the blood of the lamb, redeemed from slavery, and given a new life. They were guided by God’s presence, given direction in the wilderness and darkness of life. They had a law-giver and spiritual leader to follow, just as we do in Jesus. As they trusted in God their enemies fell before them and behind them. And all along, they were given daily provision to sustain their bodies and souls. Every day they saw a new act of God’s love for them. Paul then drives the point home reminding them that Jesus is God and was the one protecting and providing for the Israelites, just like He does for us!
A People Overthrown by God
But now look at verse 5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” This should give us all great pause. God worked miracles, set them free from slavery, and provided for them along the way – but their hearts were not with Him. They were like the young person living with Christian parents, or the citizen living in a civil country. They had the blessings of being a child of God, surrounded by the smell, but their hearts were not with Him.
The word “most” is a pretty big understatement since out of the thousands that left Israel, only two were allowed into the Promised Land! The rest were left to wander and die in the wilderness. They were people of God, who saw God’s miracles, but died in faithlessness.
So, what happened? It is the same story from the beginning of Genesis all the way to the end. They didn’t have faith, they didn’t believe what God had said, they didn’t trust in God alone for their salvation. That’s what God desires. The path of Salvation is fairly simple. It means trusting that what God says is true and believing that His way is the only way.
It was like that for Adam and Eve, many stories of the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Pharisees and Judas in the New. God’s message was clear, they chose not to believe it, and were therefore condemned and “overthrown” by God.
In verse 6 we read, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Sometimes people wonder why we have the Old Testament when we have the New, or what value there is in the Old Testament. It’s ancient, full of difficult things to read, and the New Testament seems so much nicer.
This verse tells us one reason why. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is immutable, unchangeable. The God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, killed everyone in the flood, and instituted blood sacrifices as the only way to appease His wrath against sin is the same God who came to earth as a baby, wept over Jerusalem, died on the cross, and taught us to love our neighbours. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, the Apostle’s Bible, and the first church’s Bible, and was perfectly sufficient for teaching about faith, salvation and life. The Old Testament doesn’t tell a different story, but gives us the beginning of the story and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t study it. Paul says that the stories we read of the Israelites and how God dealt with them are examples for us that we should learn from.
So what are we to learn? There are four main sins that are highlighted. Let’s read together, and notice how serious these warnings are. Starting in verse 7: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The temptations the ancient Israelites went through are the same as we go through today, and the sins they commit that separate them from God are the same too. The stories of the Bible are there to instruct us, warn us, encourage us, and teach us about ourselves and God. So I’m going to ask you to do a little digging in your soul to see if these are represented there.
The first mentioned is idolatry, which references the story of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and while he was there Aaron and the rest of the Israelites crafted an idol to worship in place of God. It wasn’t that they were simply tempted to put their faith somewhere else, it was that they actively chose to reject Yahweh, formed a false god of their own, and then “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”, meaning they copied in the cultural, pagan festivals they saw around them.
They did, essentially what I’ve been talking about with young people and cultural Christians. While Moses was away they threw all their beliefs out the window and then worshipped, feasted, drank and danced the way they always wanted to, showing what was really going on in their hearts.
We do the same today as we turn away from God and put our faith and trust in things of our own design – money, insurance, diet, human authorities, or when we dabble with pagan things like horoscopes or superstitions. We can make money, comfort, food, or sex our idol as we turn to it to save us from pain, guilt, shame, fear. Remember the context of the Corinthian church eating food offered to idols and realize that Paul was also speaking of Israel’s example of eating, drinking and partying like unbelievers, throwing off God’s standards and doing whatever they felt they wanted to do regardless of how it affected themselves or anyone else.
If you want to know what idols you have in your life, ask yourself: what you do and what do you reach for when you hit a crisis hits or when you want to celebrate?
The second temptation for the Israelites was sexual immorality. Pornography, lustful thoughts, wandering eyes, sexual fantasy, adultery, and the rest. For them, this was tied to their idol worship. They used the golden calf and worshipping false gods as an excuse to sin sexually. Once they had crafted a god of their own, or borrowed one from a neighbouring nation, they worshipped it as the unbelievers did – which included sexual sins. As we’ve already learned, this was a huge temptation in Corinth, but just as much in ancient Israel.
The further you wander from God, the more you believe what the world believes and act like the world acts, the easier it is to fall for the temptation toward sexual sin. We’ve already talked a lot about that so I won’t belabour the point, but notice God’s punishment here. You might think, “Well, that’s back in the olden days, God doesn’t do that now!”
Listen to the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5-8, at the end of the Bible: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”
You may think Jesus is the warm and cuddly version of God that doesn’t care about sin, lets everyone do what they want, and lets everyone into heaven, but I assure you, He’s the same as He was with the Israelites. He may wait on the punishment, but I assure you that your faith is revealed in your actions and though you may not take your sin seriously, but Jesus sure does.
Does that mean a Christian who sins sexually can lose their salvation? No. As we said before, the difference is sanctification. The difference is that you hate that sin and want to be rid of it. Do you?
The third temptation was put Christ to the test. What does that mean? It means questioning God’s reliability. It’s when we declare God unreliable and then force or demand that He proves himself to us. The Israelites “put Christ to the test” as they told Moses that God and him don’t know what they are doing, that they would surely die of hunger and thirst, that life was better under slavery, that God was holding out on them, refusing to give them their favourite foods, and ultimately that God wasn’t strong enough to defeat their enemies. Over and over they said that God had left them and demanded more and more miracles. (Numb 21, Exo 17)
The Pharisees “put Christ to the test” too. Even though they had heard of and even witnessed multiple miracles, they continued to bring false charges against Jesus, tried to trick Jesus into making mistakes, and then demanding Jesus prove Himself with more miracles (Mark 8:11, Matthew 12:38-39). They even did it as He hung on the cross.
Satan “put Christ to the test” in the wilderness as he tempted Jesus to work miracles for wrong reasons – even tempting Jesus to force God Father to prove His love and prove Jesus’ was special by jumping off the top of the temple!
Have you done this? Atheists love this game. They love mocking Christians and telling God to dance for them, write in the sky, do a crazy sign, and then claiming God doesn’t exist when He refuses to play their game. Do you do this? Do you ever tell God that you’ll believe or obey if He’ll do something for you? Do you ever put yourself in a situation where God has to act just so you can see if He’s real? Do you ever question if God is good or His ways are right, and then deny Him when things don’t go your way? The Bible is clear that is a very serious sin.
Jesus responds, “An evil and adulterious generation seeks for a sign…” Jesus never rebukes or corrects people who are genuinely seeking Him out of need, but He also knows when people are coming with wrong motives.
And the fourth temptation was what is here called “grumbling”. Grumbling isn’t simply talking to God about tough things in your life that you don’t like. God wants us to bring our frustrations, concerns, worries and all the rest to Him. Grumbling is akin to complaining. It’s that low-level murmer in the heart where you keep telling yourself how horrible your life is, how it’s out of control, how the universe is out to get you, that God isn’t helping, nothing is right, there’s not enough money, time, energy, health, or anything else. Your friends aren’t really that good, your house isn’t right, your technology isn’t good enough, your spouse isn’t good enough, your life is too hard, too hot, too cold, too noisy, too quiet… murmur murmer grumble grumble complain complain.
This one is very difficult for me and one of my greatest temptations. I’m a child of discontent and have a very critical heart. I know this about myself and I have to be very careful about it. Why? Because grumbling is spiritually destructive and debilitating. It shows a lack of faith in God, a belief that He is unloving towards you. It’s a lack of contentedness and shows a misunderstanding of grace. It is the belief that you inherently deserve more than you have and God is unfairly holding out on you. It destroys your worship, your prayer life, your relationships, and your witness to others. A grumbling spirit leads to fighting with others, and envy, jealousy, covetousness. (James 4:1-3) “I hate that person. Their life is better than my life, their job is better, the have more of what I want…. And I hate God too for not giving me what they have.” There’s a big difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Job complained to God but didn’t sin. Israel complained about God and did sin.
What about you? Are you a grumbler?
This section ends with, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
God is faithful. He is for you. He wants your sanctification and wants you to be more holy, because more holiness leads to more joy. He wants your spiritual success and knows what you need in order to grow. He knows your breaking points. Your temptations are not unique to you and he has given you scripture, fellow believers, and the Holy Spirit within you to help you understand them and get through it. And, when you are faced with the burden of temptation, God promises two things: a way out of the temptation, and the strength to endure it. The escape may not be immediate, but He promises that if you trust Him, lean on Him, ask Him, then you will have the strength to endure the temptation and mortify that sin within you – and then grow stronger in faith and in sanctification.
 Life Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Pg 135.
We do a data dump of the best resources for every stage of the Christian life. Whether you are a new believer, have some years in the church, or are a longtime elder, you’ll find something to challenge you!
Pilgrim Theology – Michael Horton
ESV Study Bible
NIV Life Application Study Bible
Reformation Study Bible
John MacArthur Study Bible
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (Abridged and in Modern English) by Tony Lane & Hilary Osborne
Podcast: The Briefing by Albert Mohler
Podcast: Mortification of Spin
Podcast: Renewing Your Mind by RC Sproul
Vodcast: Look at the Book by John Piper
40 Questions About Interpreting The Bible by Robert Plummer
Knowing God by JI Packer
Core Christianity by Michael Horton
Gospel and Kingdom by Graham Goldsworthy
What Is a Healthy Church Member? by Thabiti Anyabwile
The Peacemaker by Ken Sande
The Hour that Changes the World by Dick Eastman
Podcast: The Whitehorse Inn by Michael Horton
Preachers: Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, Martin Lloyd Jones, RC Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper…
Biographies: Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Confessions of St Augustine, William Tyndale, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, D. Martin Lloyd Jones.
Ligonier Ministries Resources: Tabletalk Magazine, “Connect”
The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen Nichols
Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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