Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians which we are studying, after talking about the church’s lack of maturity, uses one of their greatest problems as an example of how bad things had gotten – that problem being “division”. The church is divided – in many ways – but the way that the Apostle addresses first is that they have divided themselves according to their favourite teacher.
Of course, these divisions weren’t solely based on their favourite teacher, but went much deeper. They had divided over all kinds of things – all of which are still present in the modern church. They disagreed about how to worship God, what laws they had to follow, and how they should live their lives. They had created division on their different races and cultures, their social statuses, and even by their spiritual giftings.
The rich abused the poor, the Greeks wouldn’t talk to the Jews (and vice-versa), those who spoken in tongues looked down on those who didn’t, the teachers thought they were better than the servants. Some wanted to follow the whole Law of Moses while others wanted to incorporate worship styles from the culture around them. Some people wanted full sexual liberty, while others were trying to convince everyone that they had to remain unmarried virgins all their lives. Some people loved having big bar-b-cues with the leftover meat that had been used when the animals were sacrificed to the pagan gods, while others refused to eat anything other than vegetables. The church was incredibly divided – and so Paul addresses this first.
And of course, as with any group dedicated to raising themselves up and demonizing another, they had created a civil war among themselves and needed to pick some heroes to lead the charge. And so, without telling them, they had each picked their own favourite apostle, preacher or teacher to represent their group.
Some had picked Peter, the hot-headed, blue-collar, leader of the apostles, who struggled with getting along with non-Jews. Others had picked Paul, a highly educated, genius level Jewish scholar, who had seemingly turned away from his Jewish heritage and dedicated his life to sharing the gospel with the gentiles. Still others chose Apollos, the non-apostolic, but super talented, super popular, super knowledgeable preacher, who was widely known for his boldness in publically defending Christians and Christianity.
These men had no idea that the Corinthian church was using them as unwitting leaders of these various factions, and as excuses for their sin. “Paul said that we didn’t need to follow the Law of Moses, so that means that I can do whatever we want!” “Well, Peter still lives in Jerusalem and follows the whole Law, and he’s the leader of the Apostles, so obviously he’s right!” “Well, if Apollos were here, I know that he would be on my side!”
The church is just as divided today as it was then. It’s really not any better. I’m not just talking about denominations – which get kind of a bad rap, actually – but true divisions based on race, culture, worship style, theological arguments, and more. There are black churches that won’t accept white people, white churches that won’t accept black. There are suburban churches that won’t help the poor and inner city churches that hate rich people. There are churches dominated by well educated professionals and those by working class folk. There are churches for the young, for the old, and for those in between. There are religious churches that have hundreds of rules and disciplines, and others dedicated to freedom and exploration. And even within the ones that look mixed, there are cliques and factions and groups.
And yes, there are divisions here. There are people sitting in this church today who refuse to have other people from their church in their own home, and still hold bitter resentment against them. There are people sitting here today who literally hate others in this church. There are some who tiptoe around others for fear of setting them off, and others who gossip about and mock their brothers or sisters in Christ behind their back. There are some who use the feeblest excuses to avoid being with others in the church, who would choose a dozen other things to do rather than pray with, study with, play with, eat with, or help people in their church.
There are some who couldn’t care less what was happening in the lives of those who they have attended church with for years, and are secretly happy when something bad happens to them – even people within their own family. Some are jealous of the success that others have achieved, the house they have, the car they drive, the phone they use, the state of their marriage, their family achievements … while others look down on their fellow Christian because they disagree with the lifestyle they lead – not that the choices are sinful, they just don’t like it. Some, though they would never say it, are annoyed by the presence of children, while others are annoyed by the presence of old people. They want to be in a place built only for them, literally wishing that the people around them were gone so they could be more comfortable.
Many people here today don’t pray for the people that attend their church. Not a single word lifted up to God on behalf of the people they worship with every week. In fact, if you asked them to name the people sitting around them – let alone share something important about them – they couldn’t do it anyway. Many couldn’t care less whether the people that are sitting around them came to church or not and literally refuse to take me up on my encouragement to follow up with those who are missing. If half the church got hit by a bus this Wednesday, they might not even notice for weeks to come.
There are people here today who divide themselves from the church simply refuse to serve. They’ll come, sit, stand, sing, and then leave – but they won’t serve. Why? Because they see this church the same way they see Tim Hortons. Those around them aren’t real people – just workers that make the coffee, seat fillers in a faceless crowd, non-people that aren’t worth the time to get to know. They’ll smile politely while quietly judging them by their clothes, hair, or whatever – but until they need something, they won’t bother to even acknowledge their existence.
They don’t care if a deacon, teacher and other worker burns themselves out. If one of the deacons worked themselves into a sickness, or feels the only way out from under their church workload is to leave, they would either not notice – or worse, blame them for not being strong enough.
They don’t care if the parents around them need a break. They don’t care if the kids need a smile and a kind word because they had a rough week. They don’t care if the musicians showed up an hour and a half before they did. It doesn’t even cross their minds. Church is like Tim Hortons. They come, float past everyone, consume whatever they like, dismiss what they don’t, hope nobody bothers them, and then leave without ever making a mark in anyone’s life – or allowing anyone to make a mark in theirs. And then have the audacity to complain about the overburdened servants if things don’t go their way!
A Good Year
I love you guys enough to tell you straight, that our church has divisions.
We’ve grown a lot in the past year. God has blessed us with new families, new opportunities to serve, and new challenges that required us to support one another. We’re having one of our best financial years in a long while, and have been blowing our missions giving away! We’ve seen lives changed, people saved, dedicate and rededicate their lives to Jesus. We’ve had relationships grow, grown deeper in our theology, and witnessed true miracles happen among us. This has been an amazing year, and it’s been my privilege to be your pastor.
I’m not saying that we are a bad church. Far from! In fact, by all the forms of measurement I know, and based on my own reading and life-experience, this is an exceptionally good church! I have never felt more love in any other church than this one. And as I’ve talked to many of you, especially those who haven’t been coming for very long, I’ve heard that you’ve felt the same thing.
Now, I’ve attended churches with huge divisions and factions. I’ve pastored churches with such obvious cliques that people literally sat in clusters during the service, leaving large spaces between them and the ones they didn’t want to talk to. One church I pastored had people who refused to even speak English after service so they could separate themselves from the new people.
My home church, a few years after I left, went through a hugely messy and painful church split. Hearts were broken and people left the faith and never went to church again. I promise you that we are not there. I thank God that this church is more characterized by love and joy now than it was when I first got here. I can’t speak about times before, but I know some of you can, and you’ve told me about some of the hard things you were going through before my time. And please realize, I’m not taking any credit for this, at all! That is as far from my point here as possible. All glory to God for the growth we have seen here!
But I will tell you this. The potential for a split is here. We may not have factions and fighting right now, but we are not as united in spirit as we could and should be. Everything I’ve just said about the divisions among us is true. I didn’t exaggerate.
And I think many of you know this. I believe that the Holy Spirit has been moving in the hearts of the people here and many of you don’t feel as connected to God or your brothers and sisters as you know you should be. Your Bible reading has suffered, as has your prayer life. You’ve been convicted by the Holy Spirit that something is wrong. You’ve tried to pray more and read your Bible more, but there’s still something wrong. I’m saying that the issue isn’t just prayer and study – but that you need to engage with your church.
You’ve heard God prompt you to have more people over to your house, to be part of a small group, that there are people you need to forgive and grant forgiveness too, that you haven’t been obeying God’s command to love, encourage and support the believers around you.
I believe that some of you have felt that there has been a blockage in your spiritual life, a spiritual hurdle that you haven’t been able to jump, and I think that for some of you this is it – you’ve filled your life with too many things, some of them good, others pointless, but they have prevented you from being obedient to God by connecting to your church – and it has left a vacuum in your spiritual life
Open up to 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 and let’s read it together:
“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:9-15)
Here we see Paul shifting his illustration. Last week we talked about how the church is God’s field, but here in verse 9 the illustration changes. “You are God’s field, God’s building.” And then Paul talks about the importance of making sure that the church is built on the right foundation and being made of the right stuff? Why? Because the day of fire is coming.
The “You” there is plural. He says, “You”, the whole church, are “God’s building”. Paul says that he knows that he came in and laid the foundation of their church of the pure preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He didn’t mess around. Remember in chapter 2 he said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Anyone who has built anything – from a Lego project to a fence to a house – knows the importance of a good foundation, and Paul knows that the foundation he poured was built of the right stuff. He used good fill, no garbage or dirt inside it. He packed down the base well, making sure he preached the whole of the gospel, the story that comes from Genesis to the prophets. He poured consistently and took the time to cure it well, answering their questions, defending them from attackers, staying for a long time to make sure it was strong. He built the church upon the person and work of Jesus Christ and nothing else.
The foundation of their church was strong, as I believe our church’s is. It was planted by godly men preaching God’s word, filled with people who wanted to know Jesus better and proclaim His name. And today, my hope is that I continue to preach an unadulterated gospel – teaching the pure word of God and the message of Jesus Christ as it applies to our lives.
Building on the Foundation
But notice that the object of the teaching changes from plural to singular. “You” all are “God’s building” turns to “Now if anyone builds on the foundation… each one’s work will become manifest… the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
When it comes to building the church, the responsibility rests upon the individual. Paul laid the foundation, and then gave it to the individuals to build the church. Building the church isn’t even the pastor and elder’s main job. Listen to Ephesians 4:11-12,
“And he (that is God) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are a small group within the big church. Most people in the church aren’t given those roles because only a few people are required to teach and equip the church – and then everyone else is sent out to do the work God calls them to do.
This is how it works in a lot of arenas in life. A good country needs a few good politicians, a few good law makers and a few good law enforcers, but many, many good citizens. A sports team requires a bunch of players, but only a few coaches and referees. For a new skyscraper to be built downtown, it needs an architect, a few engineers, a few supervisors, but a whole bunch of workers to build it.
That’s how the church works too. The apostles and prophets give us the scriptures, the foundation of our relationship with God. The evangelists come and plant a church, and then the pastors and teachers work to equip and train everone in how they are to follow God every day.
This is why Paul changes from plural to singular. Every single person here is responsible for how they build themselves and this church. No one is exempt from the responsibility to do what God has called them to do. If you’re not doing what God has asked you, then you are sinning. And if you’re doing someone else’s job, then you are sinning.
Of course, I don’t mean that everyone has to volunteer to do something on Sunday. Some people will do things like that, but most won’t. Paul, later in 1 Corinthians, is going to break down a whole bunch of ways that people work together as the church. Paul says in chapter 12:4-11,
“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.”
And that’s not even the whole of possibilities in scripture. In Romans 12 we read about the gifts of encouragement, generous giving, leadership, service, and teaching. In Ephesians 4 we read about the gifts of evangelism. Other places talk about the gift of hospitality. There are so many ways that God has given people to build up the church. It’s the pastors and elders job to work hard to make sure that everyone is equipped to do whatever God has called them to do, not just plug them into existing programs, and then it’s the individuals in the church that go out and do it together!
And that’s the thing. It all has to happen in community. There’s not a single gift God gives us that can be done without getting involved with someone else. If you are an encourager, you need someone to encourage. If you’re a leader you need people to lead. If you’re a helper you need someone to help. Teachers need students, discerners need problems, and administrators need people to organize. And while we are working in our gifts, doing all the “one anothers” in the Bible, God is pleased with us and we will grow spiritually.
But as long as we are divided, or fractured, or splintered, or neglecting one another, or ignoring one another, or jealous of one another, then we will remain spiritual infants – and worse, set ourselves up for Satan to split our church.
The Day of Fire
This passage warns everyone here, me included, to make sure we are evaluating what we are building our spiritual house out of. Our foundation is secure, those who are saved are secure – that’s verse 15 – but that doesn’t mean that what we’ve built here is guaranteed to survive.
My first church was divided. One generation refused to serve the other. It closed shortly after I left. My home church was amazing while I was growing up, and then imploded, almost on the verge of total collapse, shortly after I left. (Take that coincidence however you like.☺)
Neither of these churches ever thought they would suffer a huge split. No one does. No one gets married assuming they will divorce. No one plants or pastors a church expecting a church split. But it happened. Why? Because division crept in and when the day of fire came, their house didn’t stand.
The day of fire is coming. In context here that means the day Jesus comes back, but it also means days of trial and strife. They are coming for you, your home, your neighbourhood and your church. I know some of you have already been through a day of fire and your spiritual house was evaluated – and it showed you the parts that were made of gold, and the parts that were made of straw.
Are you ready? Are we ready? Are we united enough here, loving enough, supportive enough, gracious enough, to weather the days of fire to come? Are we practicing generosity, serving one another humbly and sacrificially? Are we bearing with one another in love, seeking harmony and forgiving everyone in the church? Can you honestly say you can greet everyone here with a handshake without there being any kind of animosity?
Or on the other side: Have you let others into your life? Are you working to make friends here that you trust? Have you opened your heart to those around you? Do you know what their biggest struggles are, and have you shared your own with some people here?
Check your heart. I’ll say it again: the day of fire is coming. Soon is coming a day when your faith and all that you’ve built in your life will be tested. A time is coming when your family will go through a trial. A time is coming when our little church will be tested to see “what sort of work each one has done.”
This is going to sound harsh, but when it comes, can the church lean on you because you have built your life out of Godly materials? Will the life you have contributed to this church family stand strong on the day of fire – when Christianity is illegal, when someone falls to public sin, when a madman bursts through the doors, when a family has a major tragedy – will your faith be strong enough to help those around you weather it, or will you (and everyone who counted on you) find out that your faith is built of nothing but straw.
I invite you to examine yourself.
Somehow this sermon got missed in the shuffle, so it’s a little our of order and the illustrations are a little dated. Sorry!
Every year I watch the SuperBowl. It’s the only football game I watch all year long. I don’t watch the CFL or the NFL at all. I don’t keep track of teams, scores, standings, or the players. And yet, every year for the past decade or so, I’ve sat down to watch the SuperBowl. I don’t care who wins, so I arbitrarily choose a team, grab some snacks, and watch the spectacle. I actually enjoy it a lot, but I know that I’m missing a lot of what’s going on.
One problem is that I don’t even really know the rules that well. While I’m starting to get a hang of it, I know I’m missing a lot. The ref blows the whistle, flags fly, the people I’m sitting with throw their hands in the air, and I just sit there waiting for someone to explain what’s going on – which doesn’t really help anyway because I have no idea what “an incomplete handoff by the backfield in the red zone after a false start which instigated a pass interference” even means. I usually just say, “Oh!” and eat another Taquito.
I feel the same way when try to follow politics. I know that I don’t understand enough to know what’s going on, but I find that more and more these days, perhaps because of my age or the moral insanity our nation is experiencing, I feel the need to at least pay more attention. And a recent event was an interesting one to watch. Did you see what happened? It was all my Facebook Feed was talking about.
During an important vote a while back, Prime Minister Trudeau felt things were taking too long, crossed the floor, grabbed the Conservative Opposition Whip Gord Brown and cussed and pushed him through a group of NDPers that were blocking his way. In his anger he elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest, hurting and shocking her enough that she ended up leaving the House of Commons and missing the vote. It got very dramatic as people left their chairs to shout foul language and point fingers at each other. But again, just like with football, there’s so much jargon, politics, media spin and parliamentary procedure, I barely know what happened and I’m sure what’s supposed to happen now.
All I know is that after watching the video a few times, I found myself disappointed with everyone involved. It was frustrating to watch the drama unfold and sin rule the moment. I was grieved by all the parties and angered by the wholesale immaturity I witnessed from people who are supposed to be discussing the incredibly serious matter ophysician-assisted suicide! Instead of giving it the gravity it deserved, as the lives of so many vulnerable Canadians hang in the balance, they turned the floor into a gong show of pride and political maneuvering.
Thankfulness in Tough Times
So, how am I to react to things like this? Should I leap into action, and send letters to the heads of all the parties? Maybe. Should I turn to social media and complain about it to everyone? Maybe – and in fact, I did. What should I do though? Or more importantly, what should I do first?
As a Christian, my first response should be to pray. I’ll admit I didn’t do very good on that. I hopped on the internet and wrote a Facebook post, and then I visited my MP’s office and talked to whoever was there about it a bit, but my first reaction wasn’t to pray. I’ve done it since, but it wasn’t my first instinct.
But what’s even more personally condemning is that when I did pray, I didn’t start in the right place. I jumped straight into asking God to fix the hearts of the MP’s, bring order to the nation, and put Christians in influential positions. I asked for forgiveness for the times that I’ve been impatient, immature, and hot-headed too – but after some reflection and study, I realized that I missed a crucial part of my prayer. I missed what was supposed to be the starting point. I didn’t thank God for what happened.
That’s a confusing statement to a lot of people. What is there to thank God for in a group of adults acting like kindergarteners when they were supposed to be talking about suicide? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? But the Bible says we are supposed to be thankful.
I think this is something that I forget too often, and I’m fairly certain that a lot of other Christians do too. Most praying people are pretty good at confessing their sins, asking for forgiveness, and then asking God for what they need – but a lot of Christians fast forward past the thanksgiving part of prayer so they can get on to the part where they ask God for things.
Sure, we say grace at meals (which I think is hugely important, by the way) or start out with a “Dear God, thanks for this day.”, but really the meat of our prayer life are often requests. Even unbelievers often find the words, “Thank God.” spilling out of them when something good happens, but how much of us really dwell on the thanksgiving portion of our prayers. Not that there’s anything wrong with asking God for things. He tells us to do that. But, I hope what we are going to learn today is that when we pause and get very specific about giving God thanks that we can allow the Holy Spirit to change our perspective on a lot of our deepest hurts and confusions.
It’s easy to thank God for the beautiful sunshine, the rain that feeds the flowers, the joys of our life and all the other good things that come our way, but what about when bad things happen? Are we to thank God then? Isn’t that strange, or even a little masochistic, to thank God for the pain we feel? And yet, over and over in scripture, we read that we are supposed to give thanks to God “continually” and in “all things”.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
- Ephesians 5:20 says Christians are to be “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
- Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”.
- In Psalm 136, which tells the story of the plagues of Egypt, wandering for decades in the wilderness, international wars, and oppression by their enemies, begins, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”
- The author of Hebrews, writing to a group of people who were suffering so much because of their faith in Jesus that they were considering turning their backs on God says, “…let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (Heb 13:15)
That doesn’t make sense, does it? It seems unreal, almost illogical, for the writers of scripture, who are giving us the very Words of God, to tell us that no matter how bad things get, no matter how much we suffer, or are rejected, or are forgotten… no matter how much evil we see in the world… to be thankful. How is that even possible?
The Problem With “Count Your Blessings”
I know that there are some here that are going through some really difficult times and it’s hard to find things to be thankful for. For some, your loved ones are physically, emotionally and spiritually suffering; how are you to be thankful for that? Others are regularly witnessing evil acts all around you that make you feel powerless and like the world is out of control. Sure, the sun comes up every day, but that doesn’t make up for the stains of sin that permeate the lives around you. Some of you fight depression, anxiety, fear and worry every day. Your mind is against you, and no matter how much you argue with yourself, you can’t force yourself to be the faithful, joyful person you want to be – and think everyone else is. Some feel lonely and forgotten. Others feel like total failures and it colours every aspect of your life. No matter how good things seem on the outside, it gnaws at you that you have failed in your relationships, failed in your spiritual life, failed in your pursuit of purity, failed in your parenting, failed as a student, failed as a son, daughter, husband, wife, or friend.
And the idea of being thankful for that part of your life doesn’t make any sense. How? How can you be thankful for the pain you have caused yourself and others? How can you be thankful for an accident? How can you be thankful for someone purposefully hurting you?
These are complicated issues, and I don’t intend on giving you some kind of simple solution today. I’m not going to tell you to “count your blessings”, because inherent in that advice is almost a tacit denial of your pain. It’s almost as though the advice to “count your blessings” is saying, “Pretend that the bad things aren’t happening and only think about the god things.” That’s denial, and it’s unhealthy and unbiblical. I’m not going to do that.
What I want to do instead, for the rest of our time today, is examine what God has done in Paul’s life here and how he has learned to be thankful during difficult times. I want to draw a few things out from what he says he thanks God for, and perhaps give ourselves a couple of new thoughts about ways we can look at our own hurts and begin the process of healing our souls through thanksgiving.
Remember the Context
First, and as always, remember the context here. Paul is one of the most passionate followers of Jesus in history. He went from being a man who hated Jesus so much that he would track down Christ-followers to have them arrested and even killed to being Jesus’ most effective missionary and apologists. The moment when Jesus met Paul on the Road to Damascus altered his life forever because he had experienced the amazing and abundant grace of a loving Saviour. He knew he didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but Jesus saved him anyway.
He brought that story to Corinth, one of the most corrupt and spiritually messed up cities in the world. No one there was giving God a second thought, because they were too busy relishing in every form of darkness and deplorable sin imaginable. And yet, just like Paul, God worked a divine intervention, giving grace to those who didn’t deserve it or ask for it, birthing a Christian church in Corinth. Paul’s conversion, and the conversion of every member of that church – from the pagan Greek man who was addicted to all the forms of sexual perversion the city had to offer – to the Jewish men who rejected Paul’s message so violently that they had dragged him before the proconsul and beat their own leaders for failing to have Paul persecuted – were a miracle. No one wanted, had asked for, or deserved to be saved by Jesus – and yet, there they were.
This letter comes about because Paul had been receiving reports that this church full of saved people, that Paul had been pastoring for a year and half, who were supposed to be loving Jesus, loving each other, and following God’s Word weren’t doing any of that. Instead, they had forgotten Jesus, were fighting with each other, were being corrupted by their environment, and were on the verge of telling the Apostles and the Bible to get lost. Paul’s heart was certainly broken over and over as he heard more bad things coming from the church in Corinth, and we know that he had a lot to say to them.
And yet, Paul doesn’t start his letter with a reprimand, does he? I probably would have. People in the church are fighting, calling Paul a fool, are up to their eye-balls in sexual perversion (one guy is even sleeping with his step-mom)… there were things that needed to be addressed. And yet, he doesn’t start there. Instead, he begins by reminding them of their special calling and sanctification through Jesus Christ. And then, instead of jumping straight into a lecture about all the messed up things they were doing, Paul tells them why He spends so much time giving thanks for them. Let’s read it together:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
1. Thank God for His Grace
Let’s see what he’s thanking God for her, and see if we can learn from it.
The first thing we see him giving thanks for is “the grace of God that was given [them] in Christ Jesus.” He starts with the most important thing. No matter how bad things get, this is where we should start: thanking God that He has given everyone in that situation grace, and continues to extend it despite all the pride and sin.
Jesus said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God isn’t up in heaven zapping people who do bad things, but instead is giving more and more grace.
2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
An old proverb says, “Where there is life, there is hope.” As long as we are on this side of the dirt, we are experiencing the grace of God. Every breath we take is overseen by our Divine Creator. He knows all of our thoughts, deeds and motives, and yet He loves us anyway.
That’s the first place we need to start, by thanking God for the grace that He has shown us, and for the grace He has shown to the person or group that has hurt us. Even if it’s a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood, we can still know that we are experiencing the grace of God because His final judgement has not come.
I think this helps us because, no matter what happens, when we start with a realization that we are people who have received God’s undeserved grace, being bought by the shed blood of Jesus, it gives us a better perspective on our problems, and increases our ability to love, forgive, and offer grace to others. (Col 3:13; 4:32; 1 John 4:19)
For example, once we recognize God’s grace in our lives, we can begin to pray “God, thank you for saving me and forgiving me even though I didn’t deserve it. I’ve received your grace in innumerable ways, and I know that I’m continuing to receive your grace now. I could be in hell, but I’m not because you loved me. And that person, or group, or situation, which seems so hurtful, is also receiving your grace. It’s not out of control, because You are in control. I thank you for the relationship I have with that person, or group, or church… my wife, husband, father, mother, child, or friend… because them being in my life wasn’t my idea, it was yours. And even though I don’t feel it right now, I know you put them in my life as an act of grace. Thank you for giving me grace, help me give them grace too.”
2. Thank God for His Activity
The second thing we see Paul thanking God for are the gifts that God has given. The grace we receive from God isn’t just our salvation, but also daily gifts that show up every day. He says he gives thanks because, “…in every way [they] were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that [they were] not lacking in any gift.”
This forces us to take a moment to realize Who is in charge of this situation? Who is in charge of enriching this church? Paul or God? God. Who is in charge of fixing their speech? God. Who is in charge of changing their knowledge, or the way they think? God. Who is in charge of giving them what they need to repair whatever problems they have? God is. And further, who has been at work since the beginning of time, making sure everything works towards His end, His glory and has the best in mind for His people? God.
What about your problem? Who is in charge of it? You or God? God is.
But consider for a moment those four things Paul is thanking God for: their “speech”, their “knowledge”, “testimony” and “gifts.”
This is a bit ironic considering that one of the criticisms that Paul gives later is that they were putting far too much emphasis on having the gifts and not nearly enough on loving the One who gave them! They were treating the gifts God had given them like if at Christmas a family member gave you a new iPad and instead of saying “thank you” to them you completely ignore them and instead start showing off to everyone how cool you are now, and how many awesome things you can do with it. We know it’s wrong to forget the gift-giver in favour of the gift itself, right? That’s what the Corinthian church was doing. They were using and abusing God’s gifts, but forgetting the Gift-Giver.
And yet, Paul still thanks God that He gave them those gifts. Why? Because He knows that without God having changed their hearts, their “speech” and “knowledge” and “testimony” would be as corrupt as everyone else’s in Corinth. But now, because of the work of Jesus, they knew the One, True God. They now had greater knowledge and understanding of spiritual things than anyone else in Corinth. And even though they had gone wrong, that didn’t take away from the fact that God had given them this gift and He should be thanked.
The challenge is to ask ourselves what God-given gifts we can see in the difficult situations. We can say things like, “God, even though that person or group or situation is driving me crazy, I can see that you’ve been at work. You’ve given us your Word, your Spirit and Your Truth. And yes, they’re not listening to it, but the truth is available to everyone. And, you’ve even given that person gifts. They are here for a reason. They are good at this, they can do this, they have done this in the past. They couldn’t have done that without you, which mean you are to be thanked for their existence. I can see you at work and I thank you for it.” Even in a disaster, like Fort McMurray, we can see God at work.
Mr. Rogers, who was a Christian pastor at one point, said that when he was young and there was bad news on the radio or in the newspaper, he would get scared and his mother’s advice was, “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.” And this brought him hope.
The point is sound and I would expand it for our purposes today: When we are faced with difficult times, and we go to pray, we need to start with thanksgiving. How do we do that? We look for how God has already been at work in the situation, who God has already provided to help, and what good has already happened. The Corinthian church was pretty messed up, but Paul says, “I can see God has been at work in you, that He has changed you on a fundamental level. Yes, things are a mess right now, and darkness is casting a shadow, but God’s light is still present, just as it has always been.”
Thanking God for that changes our perspective and allows us to pray, “God I’m thankful you are in charge and at work. I’m not the one who can change their minds, only You can. I’m not the one who will change how they talk, how they think, how they conduct their lives. Only you can do that. You are good, your love endures, and I’ve already seen you do good things. For that I’m thankful. I look forward to seeing what you will continue to do. You are writing a story here and I’m only in the middle of it.”
As Philippians 1:6 says that God will finish what he started. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Who began the good work? God did. Who will bring it to completion? God will. For that we can be thankful.
3. Thank God for Sustenance
The third thing that Paul thanks God for is the sustaining power of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says, “…you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
This is similar to the previous point, with an important difference. We are here reminded that in our thanksgiving prayer to God, the power to deal with the situation is not in our hands. We do not have the ability to save anyone – even ourselves.
We are reminded in Ephesians 6:12-13 that
“we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
Our salvation is not in our hands. Our guiltlessness before God is not of our making, but because Jesus’ blood has covered our sins. Similarly, the weapons we fight evil with are not of our own creation. Our sustaining power to face, combat and overcome the evil in our life and around us is not something we can generate within ourselves. Every self-help book that says you just need to “tap into your inner strength” is utter garbage because you do not have the equipment within yourself to combat the “cosmic powers over this present darkness.” There’s not enough willpower in the world to conquer our sinful nature. You need a Saviour who will dress you in His armour and give you the strength to “withstand in the evil day”.
And so, in our prayer of thanks, we can say, “Lord Jesus, thank you that I am not the one who has to keep this person from the fires of Hell… but You can. I’m not the one who has to defend their mind and their hearts… but You can. I thank you that you have taught me that by myself I am utterly powerless and witless to withstand my real enemy… but You can. And you generously give me all I need to face this trial when I trust in Your strength. I know you’ll never quit on me, or quit on the person or situation I’m struggling with. All of humanity is one prayer away from accessing your power. You say that not even the gates of hell can prevail against Your people (Matt 16:18). You say that if You are for us, no one can be against us (Rom 8:31). This is your world and your work, God, not mine. For that I am thankful!”
So, my encouragement to you this week, as you face the difficulties of the world around you, the relationships you are in, or the ones inside your own heart, is to pray about it, of course – but to begin that prayer with thanksgiving. Before Paul started to address the many and varied problems he was facing, he got on his knees and got his heart in the right place by thanking God. It was the right thing to do, and we are commanded to do it too. Why? Because willing ourselves give thanks radically changes our own hearts in regards to whatever we are facing. It takes our eyes off of the problem and puts God back on the throne of our universe.
As you begin to pray about this trouble, ask yourself, or even ask God, these three questions:
First: What free grace (undeserved favour) have I, and everyone involved, already received?
Second: Where have I already seen God at work before and during this situation? God is consistent. He will send help, hope and healing. He will continue to complete the good work He began. Ask, where can you see Him at work?
Third: What resources has God given me to combat this evil? He offers wisdom beyond your ability, peace that passes understanding, spiritual protection, and the fruit of the spirit which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) They are offered to all who ask.
You’ve probably heard of Charles Shultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip and cartoon series. Many people know and love his Christmas special, but another classic is the Halloween one called “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”. The Charlie Brown Christmas was extremely popular and the CBS Company was more than happy to air another show that would be just as popular – and that’s where the Halloween special came from. Not just a one-off show, but something that could be shown every year to a new group. And it worked. A lot of people, since its first release on Oct 26, 1959 have seen it.
I really enjoy the TV specials and comics, not only because they are cute and funny, but because Charles Shultz was amazing at sneaking in contemporary issues and, specifically, views about faith and religion, into the story. Shultz himself spent his life on a religious journey and we see it played out in the lives of his famous characters.
For most of our post-Christian culture today, these references go by as quick jokes, but if like me, you’ve been a Christian and lived among “church people” for a long time, then the depth of these moments comes out in fairly stark detail.
The Linus character is always the religious one of the bunch. In the comic, Linus talks about philosophy and theology, and actually quotes scripture quite often. One of my favourite lines, which I’ve used many times, comes from Linus. Lucy is looking out the window at the rain and is worried that the whole world will flood and Linus tells her of God’s promise to never do that again and the sign of the rainbow, and she says, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind.” Linus responds with, “Sound theology has a way of doing that.” I love that line and use it all the time.
That reference is pretty on the nose and everyone can see it, but when it comes to the Halloween Special and the Great Pumpkin, the spiritual allusions are a lot sneaker. The whole show is about practicing false religion and worshipping a false god!
I want to use this favourite cartoon classic as a jumping off point to talk about the difference between false religion and true Christianity. Here’s a clip so you can get the flavour of the program.
Linus believes in The Great Pumpkin; something that no one understands, nor has ever seen, nor has ever heard of. It is an invention of Linus’ mind, but He believes in it with all his heart. At the beginning of the show, all of the other characters take turns mocking him for his beliefs. His sister, Lucy, begs him to give up his strange faith because it makes him weird and people mock her for it – she even threatens violence if he doesn’t give up his faith. One character says, “You’re wasting your time on a fake!” and Linus writes in his letter to The Great Pumpkin, “If you are a fake, I don’t want to know.” He’s so attached to his religious beliefs that he’d prefer ignorance to truth!
Even mailing the letter – perhaps referencing prayer or religious devotion – is a chore since Linus is too short and no one will help him. He overcomes the difficulty through an act of his own intelligence – and by casting his prayer upon the wind in faith it will enter the mailbox and his prayer will be heard. Of course, his prayer letter, even though it goes into the box, will ultimately end up nowhere because the object of his faith simply doesn’t exist!
Many of us likely know someone like that – “My mind is made up! Don’t confuse me with facts!” Linus’ faith is a blind faith – which is something that Christians are often accused of having. People assume that in order to be a believer, one must “take a leap of faith” – meaning that there is a point at which one must give up their brain so they can believe in God. This is a huge struggle for some people, but I want to tell you today, that this is not what Christians believe.
Yes, our God is mysterious and bigger than we can fully process – because He’s God – but He’s not unreachable; nor does He demand we check our brains at the door when we come to church. Unlike Linus, we believe in a historical God, whose actions are testified to in a historically accurate book, substantiated by other historical books. We are one of many generations of people who have told the same stories of true, accounts of historical events.
The Bible is a book written by real men who, in partnership with a real God, told the story of God and humanity. It is a collection of 66 books, written by 40 different authors of a variety of backgrounds (like shepherds, doctors, prophets, and kings) in three different languages, on three different continents (Africa Asia and Europe) over a period of 1500 years, that have no historical errors or contradictions and contain one common theme: God’s love for humanity and his plan of salvation for our sinful souls. That’s beyond amazing.
So, we are not like Linus, having blind faith in a god of our own design, but believe in a God who revealed Himself and who desires to be in relationship with us. We don’t believe in an idea, but in a historical person – Jesus Christ, the main character of the Bible – who is spoken about from the first book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 we read a whole list of historical facts and foundations for Christian belief. It says:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He doesn’t tell the people he’s writing to to simply have faith, but instead challenges them to look into it! Talk to Cephas (or Peter), to James, to the 500 witnesses that saw Jesus alive after being crucified and buried for three days… go check out the historical fact of Jesus resurrection! Ours is not a blind faith.
Let’s keep going in our Peanut’s story. When Linus finally does get a conversion to his new religion it’s Charlie Brown’s sister Sally who is only there because she has a crush on him.
For the rest of Halloween, Linus goes to “the most sincere pumpkin patch, one without hypocrisy, nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see”. He teaches his new convert that the most important part of his religion is that they are absolutely rock solid in their sincerity, their earnestness, their faith, their total commitment and lack of doubt – because the Great Pumpkin “respects sincerity.”
Now, though scripture does say that we should “fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Jos 24:14), but that’s not what Linus is talking about. Christian sincerity is that quality of life that shows a person has pure motives and is not full of deceit. It’s associated with words like “truth”, “genuineness”, and “godliness”. A sincere preacher is one that preaches without any reason to feel guilty or disingenuous.
That’s not what we see in Linus. Here we get a glimpse of truly religious person who, even though they know the object of their faith is questionable, and that they have invented much of it, they believe they can overcome their doubt through sheer willpower.
These are the people like Oprah Winfrey who believe in belief, who have faith but no object to their faith, who have invented their own version of god and then assume that their “sincerity” will somehow make the object of their faith come to life.
This was crystalized to me during an interview that Stephen Colbert had short time ago with Oprah Winfrey where he asked her if there is a difference between “belief” and “faith”. Her answer was a mumble-jumble of post-modern religiosity that detached faith from an object of faith. Here’s what she said:
“Yeah there is, because there are a lot of people who don’t think they’re faithful people, but have beliefs. You cannot be in the world without believing in something, even if you don’t call it a deity. So there are people who believe in working hard and striving for their best, but don’t necessarily have a religious belief. Faith is very different, I think. Faith is knowing that no matter what, you’re going to be okay. And I’ve always been a part of that faithful.”
Then she went on to share her favourite bible verse. It’s Psalm 37:4 which says, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” which for a Christian is pretty simple to understand. It means make your whole life about pursuing the joy of knowing God, and He will shape your heart so that you desire the right things. Not things that will harm you and drive you away from him and others – but things that will help you, bring you closer to Him, and help you love others. Easy exposition there and the rest of the Bible agrees with it.
Here’s what Oprah said:
“Now what that says to me, ‘Lord’ has a wide range. What is Lord? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the Lord is revealed. Delight thyself in goodness, delight thyself in love, kindness, and compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart. It says to me, if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come – which is also the third law of motion –which is also karma – which is also the golden rule.”
Faith in faithfulness, belief in belief, “Lord” can mean whatever you want (actually, it’s literally the word YHWH, the proper name of the God of the Israel). It makes my brain melt and my heart hurt. Her beliefs are an absolute mess of made up, reassembled, religion. But would anyone dare to question Oprah’s sincerity?
We’ve all heard this one too: “How dare you question my strongly held beliefs! I can believe whatever I want! Even if it contradicts reality and seems utterly confused, is unsupported by any authority, and is a jumbled mess – I believe it! Even though I made it up from my favourite scraps of other people’s religions, it’s what I believe and my ‘sincerity’ will make it count for something!” That’s Linus.
A Christian, as we said before, believes in historical facts and stands on what God has revealed about Himself. We don’t make it up, instead we go to the inerrant word of God and discover what God has said about Himself, and then believe that. We work hard, not to invent a god from the scriptures, but to learn about the God that is revealed in the scriptures. Do you understand that?
Think of it this way. Two men spend their life looking for treasure. One man comes across a treasure map with a big red line that leads to an X on the ground. As he studies it he sees that the map leads through burning deserts, across vast oceans, and finally to an X in a cave on the top of a huge mountain. He invites the second treasure hunter along, but the second treasure-hunter says that sounds like too much work and he has a better idea. So instead, he makes his own treasure map. One that has a much shorter red line that goes through nice hotels, shopping malls, and ending up at a lovely park. It’s a better trip.
Which one will get to the treasure? The one that follows the treasure map, right? But what if the second man truly believes, with all his heart, that his treasure map will lead him to the treasure? No? Why? Because no matter how sincerely you hold a false belief – it’s still a false belief.
Let’s go back to Linus. There he is spending the night in his “sincerest pumpkin patch”. He’s exercising his religion like a monk in a monastery, giving up the worldly pleasures of candy, parties and friends, so he can impress the Great Pumpkin with his religious zeal and be rewarded with a glimpse of the object of his faith.
His friends make a special trip to the pumpkin patch, more than once, to try to convince him to join them, but he staunchly refuses, keeping his vigil in the patch – only accompanied by his singular convert, Sally – who is gets more and more impatient. Linus starts to get more and more nervous that his sincerity, his faith, his religion, just isn’t enough to make The Great Pumpkin real.
Then, in a moment of religious fervour, Linus mistakes Snoopy for the Great Pumpkin and gets so overwhelmed that he faints. But his convert, Sally, stays awake and realizes, with great anger and disappointment, that she’s wasted her whole night. This was to be her first Halloween! She could have had treats, toys and fun with friends – but instead she wasted her time practicing a useless religion that ended with utter frustration and disillusionment.
Have you been there? A lot of people have. They got wrangled into some kind of belief system that doesn’t work out. They put their faith in some kind of faith in a false messiah and they are left utterly disappointed. This doesn’t even have to be a form of god or religion. People put their hope for happiness and fulfillment in things like money, politics, friends, their spouse, their career, an experience – and when it lets them down it colours the rest of their world. It makes it harder to trust anyone. The money goes away, their government is found to be corrupt, their friends let them down, their spouse breaks their heart, they lose their career, and the experiences no longer fulfil.
Sally leaves the patch feeling as though she’s been tricked and she “demands restitution”! She missed out on everything. I know people who have felt that way– even after coming to church. They attended a church, but never really met God or Jesus. Instead, they came for a bunch of other reasons – to make friends, a religious experience, business contacts, to explore morality, because of the music or the inspirational talks – but they never really connected to the true God of the universe and it ended up feeling shallow.
That’s a mistake that a lot of people make. They mistake religion for relationship. They mistake the traditions, decorations, experiences and ceremonies for having a relationship with God. Not that those are bad things – but they are only a means to an end.
We don’t read the bible because it’s a good book – but because it teaches us about our relationship with God. We don’t sing songs merely because it’s enjoyable– but because we are worshipping God. We don’t have potlucks because we merely enjoy eating together – but because it is a way to obey God’s command to grow in love together. We don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper because it’s tradition – but because it reminds us of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and Friend of Sinners, Jesus Christ. We don’t listen to a sermon because they are interesting – but because we believe God works through the reading and teaching of His Word. We don’t pray to impress others or manipulate God – but to get to know Him better and give Him the opportunity to speak to us and change our hearts.
In Isaiah 1, God has some very serious things to say to His people about their confusion of religion and relationship. Let me read what He says. Keep in mind God is talking to His people and starts by saying they are as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, which He destroyed because of their wickedness! Look at what He says about their religious festivals. (I’m going to read out of The Message because I think it will help us understand it better.)
“Listen to my Message, you Sodom-schooled leaders. Receive God’s revelation, you Gomorrah-schooled people. Why this frenzy of sacrifices?’ God’s asking. ‘Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that—all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?
Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.’”
God is pretty clear about his hatred of empty, hypocritical religion, and yet, somehow, people still keep getting caught up in it. “Commotion”, “worship charades”, “prayer-performance”, “meetings, meetings, meetings!” Like poor Sally, following Linus into the Pumpkin patch, they show up to do their religious duty, go through the motions, and walk away empty – because that’s all it was. It wasn’t pointed at God, they didn’t meet God – it was just worthless, religious activity.
This truth is all over scripture. God doesn’t want anything to do with “religion for religion’s sake”. If it is merely empty gestures, God wants you to keep it. He says that for worship, prayer, charity, and everything else. God despises empty religion – and really, so should we.
A Fickle God
Let’s close with two more and then we’ll be done.
In the next scene we find out that Linus sitting in his pumpkin patch, alone, and is visited one more time by his friends. He rejects them again and yells out, “If the Great Pumpkin comes, I’ll still put in a good word for you!” and catches himself. Oh no – a moment of weakness of faith! He said “If” and not “when”! He mutters to himself, “I’m doomed! One little slip like that can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by!”
A lot of people see God like this – which is why they get caught up in religion. Linus’ god is not one of love, compassion, kindness, mercy and grace, but one of rules and commandments, fickle and unpredictable, spiteful and petty – in other words, the Great Pumpkin is God is not the God of the Bible. He’s more like the Greek god Zeus than the Christian God. So Linus spends the rest of the night trying to make up for his momentary lack of faith. He stays out all night, until 4am, freezing, passing between sleep and wakefulness until he finally passes out from exhaustion. Lucy eventually comes and brings him home having never seen The Great Pumpkin.
This is the god that a lot of people think of when they describe the Christian God. They only know the parts about the 10 Commandments, the Jewish Laws, the Temple Ceremonies that had to be done exactly right. The only church they know is the one that is against everything. No stealing. No lust. No anger. No playing cards. No movies. No beer. No mowing the lawn on Sundays. Etc.
The ones who see God like this don’t understand how Christians can call their God “loving”, because they only hear about the one who kills disobedient people with plagues and disasters. This is a God who wants everyone to feel guilty all the time, gets angry when we step out of line, and then punishes them for it. This is Linus’ god, and the god that many people think we Christians believe in.
This is not a good description of the God of the Bible. The God we preach of created us good and put us in a good environment, and then gave us the choice to love and obey Him or not. That’s why the tree and the deceiver were there – to give us the choice. He didn’t want robots programmed to love him, or people locked in a gilded cage with only one option.
He gave us free will and then we chose to sin. And we’ve all been choosing to sin ever since. We go against our conscience – we do things we know are wrong, without ever even having to read the Bible to know it’s wrong – and that sin makes it so that we can’t be in the presence of a holy, perfect, good God.
Sin lead to spiritual and physical death, and that broke God’s heart, and He didn’t want to leave us that way. So, before He ever created the world, He worked out a plan for our salvation. The penalty for sinning needed to be paid for by every human being – but He would accept a trade. For the Israelites, He would allow the death and shedding of the blood of animals to pay for sin for a short period of time. Sin means death, and God allowed that animal’s blood to be traded for ours, for a time – but that wasn’t the end of His plan.
No, He wanted a permanent solution. So what He did was send His Son to earth to be born as a human being. He would live a human life, but would never sin. The world would hate Him and reject Him, just as Adam and Eve rejected God in in the beginning, and would take His Son and kill Him. But God would use that terrible crime for good. He would let the death of Jesus Christ be the permanent trade.
The wrath of humanity wouldn’t just be on Jesus, but the wrath of God almighty. All of God’s hatred of sin, all of the punishment that was due for humanity’s sin, would be poured out on Jesus Christ. God would punish Him instead of us – and would then offer the trade to humanity. Again, because of His love for free will, God won’t force us to accept the gift, but He will offer it. He will even go so far as to show us the darkness of our sin and contrast it with the light found in Him – and then make it possible for us to accept it. God does all the work of salvation, and allows us to make the choice to accept that free gift.
That’s the love of God. He’s not Linus’ poor, fickle copy. He’s a God of mercy and grace.
Don’t Be Linus
Allow me to close on this. In the final moments of the program, Linus and Charlie Brown sit at their famous brick wall and bemoan their failed Halloweens. Charlie Brown got a bag full of rocks and Linus missed the Great Pumpkin once again.
Charlie Brown comforts his friend, “Well, don’t take it too hard Linus. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life too.” We would think that Linus would say, “Yeah. I’ll never do that again.” But no. Linus epitomizes mindless religion, blind faith, and the prideful, stubborn refusal to humble himself and change his mind.
As the credits roll, he yells at Charlie Brown, “Stupid? What do you mean, stupid! Just wait until next year Charlie Brown, you’ll see! Next year at this same time, I’ll find a pumpkin patch that is real sincere and I’ll sit in that pumpkin patch until the great pumpkin appears.” As the camera slowly pulls back and the credits continue to roll, Linus waves his hands, grits his teeth, and keeps blasting Charlie Brown with the passion only found in a religious fanatic, until it fades to black.
My application for you today is simple: Don’t be Linus. Don’t live a blind faith that has no connection to reality. Remember that you can be sincere, but you can also be sincerely wrong. Dig into studying the One, True God and don’t get fooled into weird, religious nonsense that someone has made up or that you are making up for yourself.
And remember that God loves you so very much – and that love is not based on how obedient or religious you are. He loves you exactly as you are today, and couldn’t love you any more than He already does. He’s a good father that loves you so much that He doesn’t want to leave you in your sin, but will do whatever it takes to save you from death, hell and the effects of wickedness in your life. All you have to do is ask for forgiveness, give up the throne you sit on, and turn control of your life over to Him.
And finally. Don’t be stubborn – be humble. If you’re wrong, admit it. If you don’t something, admit it. Allow God to speak into your heart. Listen to what He’s saying. Read His word and let it do the work in your heart. Put down your religious fervour or willful pride, and listen to someone else for a change.
The world is going to fade to black. Don’t let your stubbornness keep you from knowing and finding God.
We just finished going through the Gospel of Mark together, and it took 43 weeks, so for this series I want to do the opposite – I want to do four books in four weeks. Today I want to start a four-week series that I’m calling “summer shorts”, where we are going to go through four of the shortest books in the Bible, each from the New Testament: Philemon, Jude, Second John and Third John. Each of these books is less than a chapter, less than 500 words, in fact.
Now, to call them “books of the bible” is a little misleading. They’re not books, they’re letters. Each one of these letters was sent to their respective churches to address a very specific issue, and I believe that studying them will help and inspire each of us to grow in that respective area. I’m really looking forward to this mini-series and I hope you are too.
Let’s get started by looking at the letter from the Apostle Paul to Philemon – just 335 words long. Before we read it, I want to give you a little background on what is happening here.
This is a letter, written by the Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome (which we’ve talked about before), and was delivered to the same place as his letter to the Colossians. As he sat under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, he wrote letters to some of the churches he visited during his missionary journeys or that had been planted by those churches. There were various motivations, but mostly it was to address issues that had cropped up in the churches – like false teachers, bad theology, church fights, etc. – after he had left.
He had various helpers around him while under house arrest, sometimes people he had brought with him to train further, sometimes people that had tagged along, and others that had sought him out. When they came, they brought him letters from the churches, financial support, and, of course, news about what was happening at the church – which all prompted the letters.
One of the letter carriers was a man named Onesimus, who had a unique story. He was originally from Colossae, but was now in Rome, and had come across Paul’s ministry – and became a Christian. Pretty soon, he and Paul became friends and ministry partners, and as they worked together, Onesimus’ story came out. It turned out that he was a runaway slave, who, in the providence of God, had actually ran away (and stole from) one of the key leaders in the church that Paul had planted in Colossae – a wealthy man named Philemon.
This complicated matters because, under Roman law, a running away and stealing from one’s master was punishable by death. Paul knew that the best thing that could happen would be for Onesimus to go back and make things right with Philemon, but who knew how he would react. Onesimus was scared that Philemon, though a good guy and a Christian, might be angry, or think that he needed to set an example of him to the rest of the people that worked in his household. But returning was the right thing to do, so Paul wrote two letters – one to the church, addressing their theological and practical issues, and one to Philemon himself, addressing the Onesimus problem.
So as we read, picture Onesimus, the runaway slave, walking towards Philemon’s house, letters in hand, then standing before his former master, holding up the letter and having him read these words:
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Who Was Philemon?
Let’s talk about the main character first, so we can get an idea of what’s happening here. It says that this letter is addressed to a few people: Philemon, Apphia (who is likely Philemon’s wife), and to Archippus (who is probably Philemon’s son and a teacher in the church in Colossians.) This family was the host family for the church in Colossae. Very wealthy, very involved in the church, and very well known in the community.
Paul and Philemon are clearly friends and ministry partners. Paul calls him “beloved” or “very dear” to Him. He’s a man who loved others, had a strong faith, showed generosity and hospitality to many people in his church and community. He was a good, Christian man who shared his faith and his finances with others.
Paul opens with a prayer for his friend Philemon, one of thanks to God for him and all the good memories Paul has of the kind of man he is. Paul, sitting under arrest and awaiting a trial that might cost him his life, had a lot of things on his mind, but Philemon was such a great guy, such a helpful Christian, such a powerful influence for good to so many churches (especially in Colossae) , that he was memorable to Paul. He likely funded some of Paul’s missionary journeys as well as supporting the hurting people of the church in his city.
Paul also says that he “hears” (using the present tense) that Philemon has kept up the good work. Even after Paul moved on, and with all the difficulties of having a big home, a business, and being in ministry, Philemon has continued to be an example of faith and generosity. Verse 7 says that Paul gets much joy and comfort just by thinking about Philemon.
His love for Paul is evident, but it’s more than that. It’s because so many local Christians and missionaries abroad have been “refreshed”, encouraged, had their weight lifted, their work eased, and their hearts filled by Philemon’s generous ministry.
Do you know anyone like that? A good, generous hearted person that, when you start to think of them, you can’t help but smile? I know a few. They’re the people you don’t need to worry about offending because they’re not looking for a problem – their patient and kind. They’ve got your back. They’re the people that you can go to with a problem and you know you’ll get help without strings attached. They’re the people that, when crisis hits, they always seem to be there with an encouraging word and something to ease the struggle. They don’t have a personal agenda, they’re not trying to fix you, they’re just there, helping, loving, giving, and making you feel loved.
I remember a time, after I was going through the darkest period of my ministry, I discovered a few of these people that make me smile when I think of them. One person stands out in particular. I had recently resigned from my church with nowhere to go, after a very difficult ministry. The government was taking its sweet time in getting us our Employment Insurance, and we were at the end of our money – literally, less than a dollar in the bank. There were no prospects on the horizon and it looked like we were in trouble. It was a tough time for my family.
One day we got a call from a lady who wondered if she could come by and bring us some strawberries. She was a quiet person – someone who never popped up on anyone’s radar. I said, “of course” and she showed up at our house a short while later. She handed me the strawberries and thanked me for letting her bring them over, and then gave me an envelope. After handing me the envelope, she literally ran to her car as fast as she could. I tried to start a conversation with her, but all I could manage was a quick thank-you as she popped into her car and sped away.
We hadn’t told anyone about our financial struggles, but had agreed to trust God for our needs. I gave the strawberries to Anita, and opened the envelope – to find a very generous amount of money – exactly what our family needed until the EI came.
The word that Paul uses in verse 7 is exactly the right word – we were “refreshed.” Her action not only blew our minds, but gave us a huge amount of encouragement at exactly the right time. It showed us the generosity of God and of our fellow believers. It renewed our faith in God and revived our weary souls. It reminded us that we weren’t alone, that God supported our decision to leave, that He would take care of us, and that not all Christians are hypocrites who do more harm than good – which is how we were starting to feel. We were “refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I hope you do. Are you someone like this? I know that some of you are. You are a Philemon, one who brings joy, comfort, love and refreshment to the saints around you because of your willingness to encourage people and be there to ease their burdens. It brings you joy, and brings joy to the ones you help. You show us the heart of God, often when we need to see it the most. And we smile when we think about you.
Remember Who You Are
Was Paul just buttering up Philemon because he was about to ask him something difficult? I don’t think so. It is more likely that Paul was absolutely genuine in his praise and thankfulness – but that Philemon would need a reminder of who he was. He would need a reminder that he was a good, Christian man before Paul moved on.
We all need that kind of reminder sometimes. Sometimes, when we’re feeling low, forgotten, depressed, tempted, angry, afraid, we are presented with something that goes counter to what we believe. Satan’s voice starts to get a little louder, and more seductive. “Why no do that? You deserve it. You’ve been good, so you’ve earned it. No one will know. Why not?” and sometimes, the answer we need to give is that “We’re Christians” and that means something.
We’re not Hindus or Buddhists or Islamic pagans who believe that we just need to do more bad than good. We’re not atheists or agnostics who do things out of pragmatism or self-interest. We are Christians who believe that God is good, His ways are good, His word is good, and we want to be like Him. We are Christians.
We sometimes need to remind ourselves what we believe.
- I believe that sin is wrong.
- I believe I’m not the centre of the universe.
- I believe that God has a law that is to be obeyed.
- I believe that Satan is real, is tempting me, and wants to harm me and the people I love.
- I believe that Jesus is better than anything else.
- This is what I believe and where I’m going to stand.
- I’m committed to God and He’s committed to me.
I think Paul was saying, “Listen, Philemon, I know you possess the love of God in your heart, that you love believers, and that you have a generous heart – but in a moment I’m going to test that. Remember who God has made you to be. Remember who you are.”
On one side was Philemon, on the other was Onesimus – the runaway slave who had fled his position, stolen from his master, and was standing awaiting judgement. I know we’ve all been there, on both sides of this relationship. We’ve all been the offender and the offended. We’ve all been the one who got hurt and the one who did the hurting. We’ve all been the one who took, and the one from whom it was taken. And now the two parties, not friends but master and servant, employer and employee, stand face to face. All the power is in Philemon’s hands because Onesimus has chosen to humble himself and courageously do the right thing.
What needs to happen here is forgiveness and reconciliation, but if pride sneaks in, vengeful feelings take hold, fear rules the day, or Philemon’s or Onesimus’ heart gets hard, it could go very wrong. So now, let’s see how Paul sheds the light of wisdom on this situation. This is where we really start learn from this letter:
1. Forgiveness is a Command
First, when we look at verse 8, we see that forgiveness is a command. Paul starts this part saying, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…”. In other words, Paul had the scriptural authority, pastoral authority, spiritual authority and apostolic authority to command Philemon to do this. That’s an important realization. Forgiving others and pursuing reconciliation in relationships isn’t optional, depending on how we or the other person feels, how long it’s been, or anything else. Forgiveness is commanded.
The clearest place we read this is the words of Jesus right after He teaches the Lord’s Prayer. He says that when we pray, we are to say:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:9-15)
Without even pausing for a breath, Jesus ties our understanding of the forgiveness we have from God to our willingness to forgive others. The implication is that we cannot say we understand how much we are forgiven, and how deep our sin debt was, if we are unwilling to forgive others. Therefore, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, but commands that His people forgive.
The command to forgive is something Paul had to continuously remind his churches about. To the Colossians, Philemon’s church, Paul says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (3:13 NIV) to the Ephesians he says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (4:32 NIV)
2. Forgiveness From the Heart is a Blessing
But! God doesn’t want us to forgive and seek reconciliation with people merely because we have to. He wants us to want to, because of our love for Him and our love for others. Paul says to Philemon, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you…”
Paul doesn’t want to coerce Philemon’s love for Onesimus. He wants it to be genuine love, motivated by His love for God and for all believers – which he has demonstrated over and over and over in the past. Paul wants the love to be authentic. It is so much better, so much more of a blessing to everyone around, so much richer for both parties, so much more of an act of worship to God, if the forgiveness and reconciliation of the relationship comes not only as an act of the will, but an act of the heart. Love from God, to us, that pours out onto the person that hurt us.
Paul says in verse 14 that he doesn’t want Philemon’s “goodness” (which he spoke so highly of earlier) to merely be motivated out of “compulsion” – whether compelled by obedience, or by Paul’s order, or assumed because Onesimus stayed in Rome – but done with “consent”.
The idea of loving and serving out of compulsion is an interesting point in scripture. When Paul tells the Corinthians to give to help the suffering Christians in Jerusalem he says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) It is better if done with love.
When Peter speaks to the elders of the church he says, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you …” (2 Peter 5:2) A leader in the church should not only serve because he feels he has to, but because he wants to. Service, leadership, discipline, preaching, counselling that is motivated by love is far better than that which is motivated by obligation.
I think we all know this deep down. Which is better, the gift given out of love, or the one out of obligation?
- “Here’s your birthday gift. I had to get it because it’s your birthday.”
- “Here’s a rose. I’m supposed to get my wife flowers because I read it in a book somewhere.”
- “C’mon honey, it’s Thursday night. Let’s go to the bedroom and get this over with.”
Everything is better when motivated by love rather than obligation, right?
3. Give Mercy & Grace
Now we move to the next part. Forgiveness is commanded, but what happens after that is situational – it will change depending on the circumstances. Remember, we’re still on Philemon’s side of the ledger and there are a lot of things that he can do to Philemon. Philemon can say, “I forgive you, but the law says I can have you killed or beaten.” There were a number of things that Philemon could do if he wanted. He was well within his rights to take his “pound of flesh” (literally and figuratively), but Paul doesn’t want that.
What would make Paul, and God, happiest, would be to see amazing grace. We all know this feeling right? A person comes to us, admits they are wrong, and we know we have to forgive them – but what about after that? Now they’re on our turf! They’ve admitted they’re wrong! They’ve opened themselves up for anything! And the temptation is to strike, right? Hurt them as much as they hurt us. Make them pay. How sorry are you really? Maybe we can get them to jump through some hoops for our pleasure. Maybe we can get them to publically humiliate themselves. Maybe we can just keep this in our back pocket and jab them with it whenever we want to. After all, it’s our right! We were the offended people!
Paul points out that even though Onesimus made a lot of mistakes, has shown remarkable growth as a Christian and is truly repentant. Yes, he was once a “useless” person, no good to anyone, but now that he’s given his heart to Jesus, he’s “useful”! His repentance is genuine, his heart is right with God, he wants to be right with you, and he has demonstrated that he wants to make it right. Honour him and what God is doing in Him by NOT exacting your right to discipline him or taking what you are due. This is an appeal to grace and mercy.
We don’t have to punish before we can forgive. All over scripture we are told to treat our enemies well – how much more-so a believer who comes to us repentant and in need of forgiveness! If the person is a Christian, then Jesus was punished for that sin. We need not add to it. Let’s not answer repentance and humility with more pain, but with grace.
4. Never Assume
Verses 13 and 14 are an interesting section because they make the point that Paul didn’t want to assume that Philemon would do the right thing. Paul didn’t want to order him, nor did he want to merely assume that Philemon would forgive Onesimus. If Paul would have kept Onesimus with him in Rome, that would have been assuming. No, reconciliation had to happen face to face. It needed to come from Philemon to Onesimus.
We should never assume anything when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to work it through. Yes, sometimes its awkward, often risky, usually emotional, and definitely challenging, but it should never be assumed that all is right with the world. I’ve really learned the lesson about dealing with things quickly, even willing to ask the embarrassing questions like, “So, are we ok? Have I done anything to offend you? Have you forgiven me?” Sure, it’s a little hard, but it’s scriptural. Jesus says,
“…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser…” (Matthew 5:23-25)
Ephesians 4:26 says,
“…do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
The implication of both of these is that we need to take the time and make the effort to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, or we leave Satan the occasion to do more harm. We all know what it’s like to go through a night of uncertainty after a fight with someone. Do they still love us? Are we still friends? What happens now? Why did I say that? What can I do? Maybe it’s too late.
Dealing with it soon stops bitterness from taking hold and keeps our connection to God and others strong. So we must deal with it quickly and face to face. Onesimus had to travel 2000 kilometers to get from Rome to Colossae to be face to face with Philemon. We ought to follow his example and be willing to do the hard work of meeting with people to make sure we are forgiven and reconciled.
5. God Can Use This Too
Verses 15 and 16 are probably my favourite of the letter. They say,
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
In other words God has a plan and can use this too. Even though this was a difficult situation, and even though Onesimus was wrong, God is still sovereign over all things and can use this for His glory and the benefit of His people.
He almost seems to be saying, “Maybe this was God’s plan all along. Maybe this is the only way you would be able to see Onesimus as more than your servant or slave, but able to see him as a fellow human being, a brother in the Lord. Maybe this is part of God’s plan to finally break down the walls between masters and slaves, owners and servants, upper class and lower class, and bring unity to your home, your church, and your nation. Maybe God is setting you up as an example to follow so that more people will put away their prejudice and embrace their fellow man – no matter what class they are – as brothers and sisters in Christ. God has a plan, Philemon, and this could be the beginning of something beautiful – and you’re on the forefront of it! So… don’t get in the way!”
When our hearts are soft and our grace is abundant, God can use us to do amazing things. Paul was willing to risk his friendship Philemon because he knew that God could do something much bigger, if they could get this right. That’s big picture thinking on Paul’s part, and he invites Philemon, and the rest of us, to join him in trying to see past our arguments, hurts, and relationship issues to the bigger, gospel picture. The one that shows the whole world that we are people of love, forgiveness and acceptance; and nothing does that better than when people see forgiveness and restoration among our relationships.
6. Reconciliation Means Putting Things Right
Let’s end in verses 17-20. The final part of this section of Paul’s letter to Philemon reminds us that there are still some things that need to be put right. Onesimus did steal from Philemon, after all, and that needed to be paid back.
We spent a lot of time talking about Philemon. Paul wanted Philemon to come to the Onesimus with a generous, gracious, open and loving heart. On the other side was Onesimus, who needed to come with a repentant heart, willing to pay back what he owed. Now, that was probably extremely difficult. He was a slave, therefore probably broke, especially after traveling from Rome to Colossae. The only person that had any money in this relationship was Philemon. But that doesn’t mean Onesimus didn’t need to try. The right thing to do would have been for Onesimus to have tried to pay it back, whatever that meant, because making it right, paying it back, fixing what was broke, and doing whatever it takes to repair the damage, is an important part of asking forgiveness.
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (vs 18)
What Paul does here, in light of the situation, is what Jesus does for us – Paul asks to take Onesimus’ sin onto his own shoulders. Just as Jesus was the propitiation, the payment, for our sins when God charged our sins to Jesus’ account, so Paul wanted Onesimus’ theft charged to Paul’s account.
There’s a great line in vs 19 where Paul says, “I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” It’s a great line because it reminds Philemon that he was converted to Christ, and learned about salvation through Jesus from Paul’s ministry. Therefore Philemon “owed” Paul something much greater than whatever Onesimus stole – his eternal life.
Don’t take that too far, as though Paul was saying that he was really Philemon’s saviour. No, it’s more a reminder of the thing we all need to remember when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation: That we are all sinners, that we were all damned and headed to hell, until someone told us about Jesus and we were saved by grace. Understanding that grace, how much it cost to save us, and remembering Jesus’ death on the cross for our sake, makes the sins of others seem very small in comparison. Paul knows that it is so much easier to forgive people when we look at them in the light of eternity and with our eyes fixed on the cross of Jesus Christ and His gospel. It puts everything into perspective. That’s what Paul wanted to do with Philemon.
We end where we ought to: on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we forgive? Because of Jesus. How can we confront? Because of Jesus. How can we have the strength to take the long, difficult walk towards someone we need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from? Because of Jesus.
Let’s remember Philemon and Onesimus’ example, but even more, the example and love of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for our sins so we might be reconciled to God.
Last week we talked about the first purpose of Christmas, which was to Celebrate the Love that God has for us and how he proved it by giving up so much for us. Big cost, big love. I said there that one of the challenges for us this Christmas season was to live be purposeful about what we do, and to not let all of the extras push the true meaning of Christmas out of our minds. And I believe the way we do that is to purposefully concentrate and bring the Gospel of Jesus to the front of our minds. If we fill up with Him and His story, we leave less room for the other things to crowd it out.
This week we move a little deeper into our reason for celebration by talking about the second purpose of Christmas – Salvation. I really enjoyed our reading in “The Purpose of Christmas” this week because Rick Warren hit the nail on the head. His presentation of the Gospel was spot-on!
Again, it’s based on the words of the Angels to the Shepherds during the Christmas story of Luke 2. This time he pulls out verse 11 which says
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
We Need a Saviour
I really appreciated how Warren presented the Gospel, and his model is a good one for us to follow. Not only when we are talking to others about our faith, but when we are talking to ourselves – when we are reminding ourselves about the true meaning of Christmas; the true meaning of life.
He began by reminding us our desperate desire for a Saviour. When we look around at what we are doing in our lives, we begin to realize that much of what we do – in our own energies – is driven by fear. We want to be free, saved, helped, to have hope.
We have worries about the uncertainty of the future, so we prepare our homes, save our money, buy insurance just in case, get RRSP’s for later. But even they fail us when disaster strikes, the economy collapses, and our health fails us. Then our worries drive us to seek control, put ourselves above others, to hoard and to neglect to share.
We have fear of abandonment, so we sell ourselves short to make friends we shouldn’t have. We buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t really like. We take up bad habits so that we can distract ourselves from our loneliness. Then our fear drives us to push people away so they can’t hurt us, or to give ourselves away so they will stay with us.
In our hearts we deeply long to break this cycle of fear – but we know that we cannot do it ourselves. How do we know? We’ve tried. We’ve built up piles of money and stuff and accomplishments and trophies and still feel hollow. We’ve surrounded ourselves with entertainment, friends, food and drink, and when it quiets down we still feel sad, guilty and broken. We give, and share, and bless, and volunteer, and help, and no matter what we do the needs only grow and the problems are too overwhelming to solve, so we feel like a failure, despondent, disappointed in ourselves and others, and want to give up.
We’ve looked inside and we know that there is something wrong. So we try diets, and self-help books, we get more education, build ourselves up with degrees, skills, careers and awards. Maybe if I go to a good school, maybe if I get a good job, maybe if I get married to the right person, maybe once I have kids, maybe once I get a house, maybe once I get a bigger house, maybe once I retire, maybe once I write that book, join that group, climb that mountain, make that art – maybe then I will feel good about myself, confident in myself, crush this habit that I keep going to, feel like I’m a good person. But it never comes. It never works. God never allows those worldly, human, limited things to be enough. They will never fill the God-shaped-hole He built into us.
Religion Doesn’t Save
Why? Because the problem isn’t physical, or emotional – it’s spiritual. We are trying to use physical things, like pleasure and possessions to solve a spiritual problem. We are trying to use emotional things, like relationships and accomplishments, to solve a spiritual problem.
That’s why there are so many religions – because everyone in the world is trying to solve their spiritual brokenness. The problem is that, for most of them, it’s not working. Why? Because they are trying to fix themselves.
As far as I’m concerned, the most important chapter of the little book we are studying is the one entitled “Jesus Came to Save You By His Grace”. The reason that these other religions don’t fulfill is because they always, always, leave room for doubt. Let me read what Rick Warren said,
“In practically every area of life—school, sports, work—we are judged by our performance.… So, when it comes to spiritual matters, many assume God relates to us with the same performance-based ethic. You may feel that you have to earn God’s approval, deserve God’s love, and work your way to heaven by doing good or trying to be perfect.” (Pg 67)
He then quotes John 6:28-29 to explain that isn’t how God works.
“Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
Let me quote a little more of what Rick Warren says,
“Religion is man’s attempt to please God. Grace is God reaching down to man. Every religion boils down to one word: ‘do!’ Do our list of things, and you will earn God’s love…. So God came to earth as Jesus essentially to say: ‘You guys have it all wrong! Of course doing good things matters, but it doesn’t make me love you any more or any less. My love for you is unlimited, unconditional, unchanging, and undeserved. So let me teach you a new concept called grace. You can’t purchase it, work for it, or be good enough to merit it. It’s a gift that will cost me a lot, but it is free to you.’
While religions are based on the word ‘do,’ salvation is based on the word ‘done.’ When Jesus died for you on the cross, he exclaimed, ‘It is finished!’… So, what is finished? The payment for your salvation! The phrase ‘it is finished’ is actually a single word in Hebrew that Jesus cried out. It was stamped on bills that had been paid off and on prison sentences that had been completed. It meant ‘paid in full!’” (Pg. 68-71)
That’s the solution to our spiritual problem – the Grace of God shown to us through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. He did everything. The question is, are we willing to accept the gift of salvation given by grace?
We Can’t Save Ourselves
For many, accepting grace is hard. We want to earn our salvation. We understand the religions that ask us to “do!” because we can then chart and how much we’ve done, and how much we need to do. Then we can boast (Eph 2:9) that we are the ones who saved ourselves, got ourselves to heaven, earned our rewards, and who didn’t need God. We so desperately want to put our confidence in ourselves and earn our way to heaven.
But, as I’ve been saying all along, it doesn’t work, does it? We cannot save ourselves. How do you know when you’ve done enough? If you ask any other religion of the world if they have assurance that they are saved and will achieve whatever the next level is – whether it’s heaven, or nirvana, or whatever – they just don’t know.
I once heard a great teaching on this (by Mark Driscoll). Religion will lead us one of two places – pride or despair. We will either feel proud that we have accomplished so much in our religion that we will feel above others, perhaps even above God since we become the judge of our own goodness and worthiness, or we will feel constant despair because we never know if we’ve done enough, gone far enough, served enough, given enough away, sacrificed enough, to earn God’s love. We just don’t know.
The Apostle Paul talks about this throughout his letters, but there is a section of Philippians 3 that really makes the point. He says in verses 2-3,
“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…”
Basically, he’s saying, “Watch out for these evil teachers who are trying to teach you that religion is the way of salvation and tell you to put confidence in your actions.” Then he does something remarkable in verse 4. He says,
“…though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:”
Paul is about to remind his readers about his own personal testimony. There was never a person so religious, so devout, so deserving of heaven than him. He says he was,
“…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
“If you think you have an impressive religious resume, you’ve got nothing on me”, says Paul. “I have followed every law since the moment I was born, am part of the chosen people, have a pure and uncompromised blood line. I was taught by some of the greatest teachers of all time and surpassed them, fought more passionately than anyone against Christians – helping to kill and imprison many because of my zeal. And there is not one person in all of Jerusalem, from the High Priest down that can bring any accusation against me.”
If there is one man who could have had confidence in his flesh, to earn salvation, it was Paul. But he says in the next verses (7-9), “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”
He tore up his resume and degrees, burned his trophies, and threw his self-confidence into the garbage. It was all worthless. All of his “righteousness” was just “rubbish”. He knew that when He would stand before Jesus on the day he would have to give account for his life, he wouldn’t measure up to the law. He had still broken it in his heart. He was still guilty before God. His righteousness didn’t come from his obedience, because every time he read the Bible, every time he read the 10 Commandments, every time he read the Torah, all he felt was guilt and fear. He still didn’t measure up. He knew it.
And so he traded all of his human accomplishments, for something better, “…faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Have you Given Up?
Rick Warren asks the very important question, “Have you given up trying to save yourself?” Have you released control of your eternal destiny, and your everyday life, and given it over to Jesus?
I said last week that Jesus taught that the way up is down. He also teaches us that the way to win is to give up. The way to win is to give up. That’s where spiritual healing comes from. That’s the message of Christmas. That’s what we are celebrating. Not that Jesus came to add to our burden, to give us more rules, to lay another burden around our neck, but to save us.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Good news, of great joy, for all people – a Saviour, a Christ (which means “Messiah”, “Anointed One”, “Chosen One”, “the divinely appointed one”). He wasn’t just another messenger like the prophets of old. He wasn’t just a priest that could bring you close, but not too close, to God. He wasn’t just a king that ruled a human kingdom. He is the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord.
You cannot possibly expect to have the power, ability, authority, resources, intelligence, or supremacy, that Jesus has! Why would you try to save yourself, when you know it isn’t working, and that Jesus Christ stands ready to give you the free gift of His grace?
Saved from So Much
In Luke 4:16-21 it says that after Jesus came back from his time of temptation in the desert, at the very beginning of his ministry, he went into his home church. It says,
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
All these fears we have, and all the things we do to try to quell them, are destroyed by faith in Jesus as our Saviour. We need good news – He is the ultimate good news. We are poor in spirit, needful of many things – He proclaims to us that He will save us. We are captive by sin, death, addiction, depression – He proclaims liberty and freedom to all who would believe. We are blind, wandering around in the dark, confused about how why we are here, what we must do, and how we are to live – and Jesus gives us light to see. We are oppressed by spiritual forces, by human enemies, by our own habits, weaknesses, dark thoughts and the weight of this world – and Jesus proclaims that we are the ones on whom His favour rests.
This is why, every Christmas, we read the Prophecy about Jesus in Isaiah 9, written hundreds of years before He was born. To help us remember and realize what we have been saved from, and who our Saviour is. The one who came, who died, who rose, who saves, who will come again. Let me read from the Living Translation:
“The people who walk in darkness shall see a great Light—a Light that will shine on all those who live in the land of the shadow of death. For Israel will again be great, filled with joy like that of reapers when the harvesttime has come, and like that of men dividing up the plunder they have won. For God will break the chains that bind his people and the whip that scourges them, just as he did when he destroyed the vast host of the Midianites by Gideon’s little band. In that glorious day of peace there will no longer be the issuing of battle gear; no more the bloodstained uniforms of war; all such will be burned.
For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder. These will be his royal titles: ‘Wonderful,’ ‘Counselor,’ ‘The Mighty God,’ ‘The Everlasting Father,’ ‘The Prince of Peace.’ His ever-expanding, peaceful government will never end. He will rule with perfect fairness and justice from the throne of his father David. He will bring true justice and peace to all the nations of the world. This is going to happen because the Lord of heaven’s armies has dedicated himself to do it!”
So celebrate this Saviour during this Christmas time. Fill your minds and hearts and homes with the story of Jesus Christ coming at Christmas to save us from so much. We have already experienced so much grace, and we are going to see so much more.
Turn your heart from all the other things in your life that you have set up to save you. Turn your mind away from all the ways that you are trying to save yourself. And turn yourself to Jesus, the only one who can save.
We shout for joy to You, God,
joining the praises of all believers across the earth.
We sing to the glory of Your name!
We give to You our praise!
How awesome are Your deeds, O God!
We are in awe of Your power.
So great is Your power that Your enemies cringe before You.
The whole earth worships You and sings praises to You;
they sing praises to Your name.
We come here in joy,
we are led forth in peace,
the mountains and the hills break forth into song,
the trees of the fields clap their hands.
We have been invited, and we invite
our family, our friends, our neighbours, and the world
to come and see what You have done in our lives, God.
You are awesome in Your deeds toward the children of man.
We remember when You turned the sea into dry land and Your people they passed through the river on foot.
In the same way we have felt beset by sin,
surrounded by the enemy of our souls,
fearing for our lives,
and You have delivered us across the impassable river,
and You have our feet set on dry ground,
and we walk towards the promised land
– towards You.
We rejoice in You alone.
God, You rule by Your might,
You keep watch on the nations.
We choose to believe that all the things happening in the world right now are under Your watchful eye
and that nothing is happening without Your permission.
We may not understand it, but we trust in Your love.
We pray against the rebellious, the evil, the sinful, the tempters
— let not the rebellious exalt themselves.
We thank You for keeping us among the living,
for giving us a hope and a purpose,
for keeping us in the faith,
and for not let our feet slip.
Our faithfulness is not of our own doing, but because of Your strength.
We even praise and thank You for our trials,
for You, O God, have tested us;
You have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
You laid a crushing burden on our backs;
You let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water…
many of us feel like we have been to hell and back…
but we know that because of Your grace You have given us an abundant life,
just as You promised.
And so we come to You in praise,
bringing the offering of song,
of our finances,
of our wills,
We will perform our vows to You, and not falter in our promises.
The words our lips have uttered today and in days past…
all of the things our mouths have said when we were in trouble,
we will keep.
Forgive us for making idle promises to You,
for taking Your name in vain,
and help us keep our promises.
We want to hear You today.
We come to You to listen.
We who fear God, want to hear all You have done for our souls.
We come to lift up Your name and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We cried out to You,
admitting our sins,
repenting of them,
and asking forgiveness,
and You have put high praise there instead.
We know that if we still love our sins,
if all we say today was only words,
that You have not listened.
But God, we do not cherish iniquity.
We truly desire You,
and God You have truly listened
and have attended the voice of our prayers.
Blessed be You, our God because You have not rejected our prayer
or have removed Yourself from us,
but continue to give Your love to us everyday.
We pray this in the name of our Lord and Saviour,
(taken from Psalm 66 & Isa 55:12)