Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year. This week we present a full-length sermon from Pastor Al entitled “Jesus as Tabernacle”.
*AOTCN Followers: I’m double dipping this week so the sermon audio is also the CT audio! Sermon Text is below
Christmas time has a lot of symbols attached to it. In fact, marketing teams have worked really hard to try to attach logos and symbols to the various celebration days we have so that they can sell us targeted things. At Easter everything is covered in bunnies and colourful eggs. On Valentine’s Day everything is covered in hearts. Thanksgiving turkey, Halloween pumpkin, St Patrick’s clover. Each one gets a colour scheme too, right? St. Patrick’s Day is green. Halloween is orange and black. Thanksgiving is brown and orange. Valentine’s Day is red. Easter gets a bunch of pastels.
But Christmas seems to be a bit more difficult. If you asked yourself what the standard symbol of Christmas is, it’s hard to pin down. Some use the holly and ivy, others poinsettas, some use silver bells, others a Christmas tree, or gold stars. Some use snowflakes or Santa’s face or a present. The colour scheme seems to be all over the map too. Red and green and brown and white and silver and gold… it’s almost like no matter how hard the marketing teams try, the Christmas season is too big to be nailed down to one symbol or theme.
I watched some “man on the street” interviews where they asked people what Christmas meant to them and the general theme was getting together with family and eating, but that’s too generic. If you ask them what Thanksgiving or New Years or September Long Weekend was all about they’d probably give the same answer.
In the Christian church, we’d like to believe that we’ve got this nailed down, but we don’t. There are a lot of self-professing evangelicals reject even the most foundational Christian beliefs. Ligonier Ministries just did a huge survey of thousands of Christians across America and the findings were shocking.
Almost half agreed that God accepts worship from all religions, not just Christianity. Half believe that they have to do good deeds in order to get to heaven. Most of the people, well over half, said that God won’t punish people for little sins. Christians are confused too. Over half believe Jesus was God’s first creation. Half of the people who said that God is the author of the Bible also said that modern science discredits what the Bible even says. So it’s no surprise that when the interview said, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”, that the results were split down the middle with half agreeing and half disagreeing.
After all, if you believe that God doesn’t really punish sins, that we save ourselves through good deeds, that Jesus was just another created being, and that science has basically discredited the Bible, then why bother telling anyone about Jesus at all?
Christianity, and Christmas, to most people, even though they love the season – and most would say Christmas is their favourite time of year – has been almost completely drained of meaning because Christianity has been almost completely drained of theology. Which is likely why, when we ask the question: “What is the Christmas symbol? What is Christmas all about?” all we get from most people is an array of plants, presents, pretend things and some vague statements about family get-togethers.
Expecting a Saviour
Turn to Luke 1:31-33. We must, as Christians, settle in our hearts the real meaning of Christmas and be absolutely clear, laser focused, on what we are celebrating and why. If we are not, if we allow the vagaries and trappings to overtake us, we not only risk losing the story (as we talked about last week), but risk losing the Gospel, the story of salvation, the only way to be saved from Hell. Let me explain what I mean.
Over the last two weeks we’ve been setting up the drama of Christmas. The people of God living as the least important province of a pagan nation, in some kind of miserable half-life, facing famine, enemies, luke-warm worship, corrupt priests, and declining faith… to which the prophet Malachi’s brings a message that God save them and restore them, and to watch out for the forerunner of God, the one who would come before, who would be Elijah.
We then wait 400 years in silence, between the Old and New Testaments, until an angel comes to an old priest named Zachariah, who has an old, barren wife named Elizabeth, who is told that he will be the father of John the Baptist, who would come in the spirit of Elijah. And the drama continues to build when 6 months later, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, an angel tells a young, unmarried girl named Mary, that the promised forerunner has come and she has been chosen to be the mother of the promised Saviour. The angel says,
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
As I said last week, these words have become too familiar to us. So familiar that we almost dismiss them, but you must understand that this wasn’t what anyone was expecting. The promised Saviour of the world, the One who has been promised for thousands of years, was never expected to come this way.
Thinking of this from our own perspective might help. We are used to Jesus as the great moral teacher, Jesus as the Saviour on the cross, Jesus as the social revolutionary who changed all the rules, Jesus as the friend of sinners. We are used to the Jesus who did impossible things like raise the dead, calm storms with a word, feed thousands from a child’s lunchbox. Jesus turning over tables in the temple, Jesus staring down and calling curses upon the corrupt Pharisees, Jesus surrounded by sinners and social rejects. We are familiar with all those pictures of Jesus – and they very much reflect what Israel was expecting.
They expected a miracle worker, a military conqueror, a superman who would overthrow the evil government, rebuild the great temple, and take over as King of the planet with the Jewish people in their rightful place as the nation of priests for planet earth. They expected Moses mixed with Elijah mixed with David mixed with Solomon, exploding on the scene draped in majesty and wielding unstoppable power.
That’s generally what we expect too, when we stop for a moment and get honest with ourselves. That’s the Jesus we would write into our story. We want the Jesus who stops our problems in a second, who gives us everything we want in a moment, who destroys everyone who has ever wronged us, who showers us with pleasure and comfort and prestige and success – and we, like the nation of Israel, don’t understand, and react very poorly, when Jesus comes in a very different, much quieter, much more patient, much more humble, much more time consuming way. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons we know that this wasn’t made up, because no one – literally, no one – would have come up with this.
Jesus Broke Expectations
Mary was promised a son who would be named Jesus. Jesus means “Saviour”. She was told that he would be “great” and be called “the Son of the Most High”. That was a name for God that went all the way back to Genesis 14. Jesus wouldn’t be a man like every other human being, who had a sinful, human father, but would be like Adam, created perfectly by God without a sinful nature.
And this One who was Son of God and Saviour would be given the “throne of… David”. Remember the state of the nation: conquered, under corrupt pagan rule, taxed almost into oblivion, unable to do anything without going to Rome for permission. King David was the great, conquering King who conquered the enemies of Israel and united the nation, ushering in the greatest time of peace and plenty in Israel’s history. And a long time before Mary, David was promised that Someone would sit on his throne forever, that one of his descendants would inaugurate a Kingdom would be established forever, that it would be unconquerable. Jesus would “reign over the house of Jacob”, meaning all twelve tribes of Israel would be united again, and that kingdom would have “no end”.
That was everyone’s picture of the coming Messiah, and though it perfectly describes Jesus, He didn’t arrive the way they expected, He didn’t live the way they expected, He didn’t do what they expected, and He didn’t conquer in the way they expected. Which is one reason why so many people rejected Him.
Jesus own family, even Mary, and Jesus’ closest followers took a long, long time to wrap their heads around what Jesus was doing and what it all meant. They simply didn’t have a box to put Jesus in, they had no template prepared that could fit the real Jesus. All of their preconceptions, all of the things they had assumed about God and God’s plan, all of the things they had been focusing on up to that point needed to be completely reorganized, completely re-understood, because of Jesus.
Now, it’s important to know that Jesus was doing anything wrong! He didn’t come and change anything. He didn’t just reinterpret the Bible in a weird way that no one had though tof. No, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to be counter cultural – it was that everyone’s assumptions about Him were all wrong. They had created their own Saviour template, created their own God-box, and thought Jesus would fit into it.
Sometimes we think that we need to live up to other people’s expectations. We change ourselves to fit what other people think about us, or we do things that we thing other people expect us to do. We succumb to peer-pressure because we want to be accepted, we stop doing things we actually like because the crowd says we’re weird. We stare at our closets, our car, our homes, and we wonder how we can make things more acceptable and impressive to others.
I know, for myself, I often feel pressure to fit the mould that people have designed for me. Some people think I’m smart, and I like that, so when I don’t know the answer to something, it’s tempting to dance around and try to make something up. Some people think since I’m a pastor there are things I should and shouldn’t do, so it’s tempting to be hypocritical and fudge parts of my life so that I live up to their expectations. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way, changing how you talk to sound more like the crowd, leaving out information about yourself because you’re embarrassed to admit certain things to that group of people.
God isn’t like that. God does not feel constrained by our assumptions about who He is or how He should do things. He is not swayed by democracy or popular opinion. He doesn’t change Himself to gain more followers or try to impress His constituency or His fan base. God doesn’t answer prayers He doesn’t want to answer because you have correctly manipulated Him. God is immutable, unchangeable, perfect.
Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son…” The plan to send Jesus Christ on that day, in that way, to live that life, and die that death, was exactly what He had intended to do all along. It’s just that humanity wouldn’t, or couldn’t, understand or accept it. But that wasn’t going to change God’s plan.
Jesus Tabernacled with Us
With this in mind, turn with me to John 1 and I want to read the Christmas story from a completely different perspective. Normally we read the beginning of Luke and Matthew at Christmas time, and that’s appropriate, but that’s not the only Christmas story in the Bible. There are others that teach us about Jesus from other perspectives.
John’s gospel, for example, was written some decades after Matthew, Mark and Luke, and therefore teaches us a lot about Jesus that we don’t find in the other gospels. And the way He introduces Jesus is different than the other three. Matthew and Luke start at Jesus birth. John backs up the story to help us understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God by starting the story before the beginning of time, introducing Jesus with the same words as the start of Genesis, showing us that Jesus is God, uncreated, existing with God, as God before time, before He was named Jesus. Let’s read it together:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And then, like the other Christmas stories, we start with the end of Malachi, the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist. Verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
Who is this “true light” which the darkness cannot overcome? John continues by giving a brief summary of the life of Jesus as it reflects Israel’s relationship with God. God is perfect, the source of life, but was continually rejected by Israel, just as Jesus would be. Continue in verse 10:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So, how do we receive him? What do we need to believe? How are we born again? Now comes the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of John, in verse 14:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’’) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is God, and is the Word of God, and at one point in History, which we call Christmas, God took on flesh. “The eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person.”
The words, “dwelt among us” are super-important and introduce a critical concept that gets lost in translation, and if we don’t understand them we completely miss the whole point of the Christmas story. It literally means that when the Word, the Son of God became flesh, he was “pitching his tent among us”.
Every Jewish person reading this would immediately know what this meant. It was a picture of the Tabernacle, the tent that God lived in among the Israelites. In the beginning God created both Heaven and Earth, two complimentary places designed for one another, with the Garden as God’s meeting place and Adam and Eve as the ones who cared for it. But now because of sin, that connection was broken and an impassable wall, an uncrossable chasm was now between them.
But, in God’s grace, no matter where Israel wandered, no matter how far humanity would fall away, there would be one place on earth where Heaven and Earth would touch, a sort of Heavenly embassy, a single holy place where God would choose to condescend and dwell so we would not be utterly without contact or hope. That place was the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and instead of Adam and Eve attending it, it was Aaron the High Priest and his family the Levites.
When Israel finally stopped wandering and had taken back most of the Promised Land, God allowed King Solomon to change the portable tent into a more permanent home called the Temple. It too would be the place where Heaven and Earth would touch and where God could be found. If anyone in the world wanted to meet God, offer sacrifice, and gain forgiveness, the only place they could come would be God’s embassy, God’s one house, the Temple. This is why the Temple is the heart of Israel’s national life, and why it’s destruction was so utterly disheartening to the people living during the Babylonian exile.
But remember why it that happened. The meaning of the Temple had been lost. Just as so many have lost the meaning of Christmas and turned it into a dozen different symbols and vague traditional recollections around food and songs, so had they done to God’s Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant, which was God’s Throne, the Holy of Holies, and the Temple itself had turned from a Holy Place where one could meet God and be cleansed from sin – into a talisman, a lucky charm, a national tradition – a mixture of symbolism and superstition that had very little to do with a relationship with God – just like Christmas is today. The chief priests became worldly and wealthy, kings would use the temple as an excuse for violence and warfare, and by the time of Malachi (as we said before) God had basically left the Temple. It was just an empty hall surrounded by hypocritical religious people going through empty ceremonies. Much like Christmas for most people.
And then, 400 years later, when everything was at its darkest, “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26–27) A light pierced darkness, for the darkness had not overcome it. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” The Son of the Most High, the Word of God, “became flesh and [Tabernacled, pitched his tent] among us, [so] we [could see] his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
No longer would the presence of God staying in one place, instead, the Holy of Holies would move around again, but in a completely different way. Now, instead of walls of canvas or gold or stone, human flesh would be the tent in which God would dwell.
Jesus, the baby we celebrate at Christmas time gives us everything God requires for Salvation. Jesus was born as the perfect Adam and never sinned. Jesus is the perfect Israel who never wandered from faith. Jesus is the perfect prophet and priest who always and only spoke the words of God. Jesus is the perfect temple, the very incarnation of the love of God in the world, face to face with humanity. And Jesus is the perfect temple sacrifice, taking God’s wrath against sin, dying on the cross in place of sinners, shedding His blood as the spotless, Passover lamb, so we might be saved.
This is what Christians celebrate at Christmastime. This is what we must never forget: Jesus of Nazareth, born as a baby in a manger was the climax of God’s salvation story, the fulfilment of every symbol in scripture, the living embodiment of God.
 ESV Study Bible notes
This morning, in the light of Palms Sunday, I want to talk about the history of the world — from the beginning to the end — the story of God and humanity.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the start of our story. Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there was ever a heaven or an earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, the sun, the moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly molding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them. And then He formed the woman from a part of Him, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image and carry inside us His divine breath. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease wasn’t heard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that Eden wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t aloud to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good choice. There was only one bad one.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be the option of choice. There must be a way to choose not to love, not to obey, not to believe God’s Word. If there is to be free will, rejection must be an option. There must be another choice.
And Adam and Eve made the other choice. They chose not to trust their Creator. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that which they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. It was at that moment when sin entered the world. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they didn’t want only the knowledge of life, they wanted the knowledge of death too. They knew that once they ate it, they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “good”… but after they fell to temptation, they would know “good and evil”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, and He can’t be around evil – He has no part with evil or evil-doers. Their action made it so that He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people anymore. Things had changed.
The sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle and the stewards of creation, and now that they had sinned, all of creation was marred – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Soon after the Fall we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… weeds, toil, pain, frustration… everything changes because of sin. God’s wrath and justice are at work, but in an act of divine grace, they were cast out of Eden so they would not eat of the Tree of Life as well and be trapped forever in their sinful state.
And, as God had promised, Adam and Eve knew death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobedience is the need for just judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. The punishment for sin is death.
All bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope in the whole midst – the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promises Eve that there will one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come as an enemy of the serpent, who though He would be struck, would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, there was still hope for humanity.
Chapter 4: Noah
Now even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated. The Bible says that Adam lived 930 years and someone can have a lot of kids in that amount of time!
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, disregarding their Creator completely.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. So He decided to send a flood to wipe them out. Not to destroy humanity, but to destroy the wickedness of that generation which had gotten completely out of control.
But again, there was grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great grandson x 8. God decided to save Noah and his family, the one family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? No, but He did love God and seek to live like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved, but that He was the only one listening to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God used Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. He started over. That’s what God does. He takes in an impossible situation and adds creativity, and grace, and love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus in that we are reminded that even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long because there was a deeper problem, an internal problem with humanity, a darkness and depravity that went to every human’s core that needed to be dealt with. Sin wasn’t just about doing bad things – it is something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah, possibly even the same year, a man named Abram was born. God’s narrative of grace continues as He decides to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to work through, and who was willing to listen and obey. God says to him, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and Abram obeys.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen, married to a barren wife, and had no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have two children, and his grandson would be a man named Jacob. Abraham’s second son, Jacob, was the one who would really see God’s blessings taken to another level, as his children became the 12 patriarchs for the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers to save the whole family from starvation, years before a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was personally tragic as his brothers sell him into slavery, he’s falsely accused of rape, and is sentenced to jail for many years. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God gave Joseph the opportunity to interpret a bad dream the Pharaoh was having – a dream about a terrible drought to come – and Joseph was put in charge of preparing for it.
In an amazing way, God rose Joseph up to take care of His people by bringing them down to Egypt to be saved from a famine that would have wiped them all out, and then prepared them for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob and these 12 brothers were down in Egypt and were doing fine for a long time until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about Joseph or the promises that the previous administration had made to his family. And instead of being thankful for them, he started to fear Jacob’s family (who were now being called “Israelites”), and instead of talking to them or keeping his promises, he decided to make the whole nation his slaves. They were in slavery for hundreds of years, suffering, but still having children.
One of these children was named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
But first, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them. He wanted to make an agreement that as long as they would commit themselves to being His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world. “Know that I am the only God and worship me only. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good, and to make sure that the relationships between Him and themselves could continue. And though God can’t be around sin, He gave them a religious system, centering around the shed blood of an innocent lamb, by which they could finally approach their Creator, know Him better, and get temporary forgiveness for their sins. All of this pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the perfect, sacrificial lamb, who would give people permanent forgiveness and restore humanity back to being like they were before Adam and Eve Fell.
Israel was now free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, laws to protect them, and God’s promise to care for them… but of course, still being marred by sin, broken in their souls, they rejected God and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the creator – even wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even a good leader and a Law written by God Himself, accompanied by earthquakes and miracles wasn’t able to keep people from committing evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat
The next chapter in human history is sort of the in-between time which you can call Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings, and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and when Jesus the Saviour would come a lot of things happened, but it seemed to keep to this endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history. They even took down the tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in a holy city.
A lot of bad things happened too. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, committed adultery, dishonoured their parents, broke the Sabbath, and even sacrificed their own children to demons. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He somehow wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that he picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before.
They put kings in place who kept messing up, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to the way back to Him. We have a lot of these prophet’s writings in the Bible. Each of the prophets would share God’s mercy, remind them of His hatred for sin, about how much He wanted the people to come back to Him, warn them that if they continued on the path they were on that He would have to discipline them for their own good.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would talk about Promised One that would finally come and end this repetitive cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. They reminded the people of the One who was promised to Adam and Eve, the One who would come through Abraham’s tribe, the One that would conquer evil, sin and even death. The coming of Jesus is spoken of in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, and all the while God was continuing to prepare the world for Jesus. He was showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
They needed one who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey the law perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would conquer their enemies, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed one. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift to the world. But He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world from their greatest problems. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
No, as the old Hymn says, “He had no stately form, He had no majesty…”. He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a humble stable, in a tiny village – a nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) are looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
And what did humanity do with Him? Well, His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. What did people do when they finally found out this Messiah that had come?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. It would be mostly rejection, not loving acceptance, would be the pattern of Jesus’ life.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that the followers of Jesus worshipped Him as Messiah, laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. They were celebrating the forthcoming conquest of the Roman army, the overthrowing of their political oppressors, their new position as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to anger.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. He was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! These were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge and spread the news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. We murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead. Right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story. Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. There is no greater hero than One who would give His life for others. The name of this Hero is Jesus Christ. He gave His life for us.
At the beginning of the story, God said that the consequence of sin would be death. The Messiah was going to come and defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human victory. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire… the greatest enemy in this world is death – death that came because of sin. So what needed to be conquered? Sin.
The judgement and effects of sin – physical and spiritual death, and the total removal of the grace, love and presence of God is called Hell. Sin entered the world with Adam and Eve and has poisoned every human soul, putting us on a one way path to Hell. And that needed to be dealt with. God’s righteous judgement, His wrath against sin, needed to be poured out to bring about perfect justice. He can’t just let humanity get away with it. He can’t just ignore sin. He must punish it.
We will never understand the full measure of the punishment that Jesus took for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus came to exchange Himself for us – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God.
Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that all of humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, and then offered the freedom that He bought with His own blood freely to anyone who would believe in Him.
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement. We are living at the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high. We are living in the days of epilogue before God brings His story to a close at the Final Judgement. Every day gets us closer to the end of this story and closer to next book, the story of eternity.
This Epic gives us the greatest message that can be known: That you were created for more than just what you see and touch. You were designed by a loving creator who gives you a hope and a purpose. Your life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and a career.
You are a created being whose decisions have eternal consequences. You need not fear death, and you can trust that even your most difficult times can be turned into great victories because of our awesome God. You can experience divine love, be cleansed, and made new. God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
Last week I gave you a brief introduction to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide. (If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you start there.) I said that the system I’m teaching isn’t the only way to meet with God, but it is one way that has worked for me and I want to pass on to you.
What I’m going to be teaching today is how to have a conversation with God every day. Not a one-way prayer, but a conversation. I’m not talking about a type of mysticism where we hear special revelations from God, but a system where we bring our sins and needs, cares and concerns, desires and fears, before God, and then listen to Him as He talks to us from scripture.
This isn’t a free-flowing, off the top of your head, whatever you feel like saying, prayer – it’s a conversation. It’s not us trying to shoe-horn God’s Word to say whatever we want it to say either. It’s us speaking our heart to God, and then opening ourselves to hearing what God wants to say to us.
Last week I introduced the concept by looking at some practical tools to get us started. The majority of our time was spent talking about why there are so many kinds of bibles and which one would be best to use, so this week I want to look at the rest of the story. First, why journaling is important, second, how to set up your Bible to get a balanced scriptural diet, and then third, I want to share the technique of using scripture to guide to what you are going to say to God and then listening to what He wants to say to you. Ready?
So let’s start with the question, “Why Journaling?”
Let me start with the assumption that you have agreed with the last 5 sermons. You agree that God’s voice is available and that you want to hear it. You agree that your heart is hard, twisted and deceptive and you need God to give you a new one and then explain how it works. You agree that God’s Word is more important than your daily bread and that without connecting to Him in a meaningful way, you will spiritually starve. You agree that the Bible is like our umbilical cord to Jesus, the way that God has given us to connect to Him. You agree that the Bible has supernatural power, and that God uses the reading of it to reveal our souls and make us more like Jesus.
You agree that you’ve struggled with forgetting that being a Christian means being in relationship with a real person named Jesus Christ, and that you’ve sometimes slipped into perfectionism (trying to “do your devos right”) or carelessness (where you shortcut your time with God). And you agree that you want to connect with God in a consistent, meaningful way, and are open to trying something different to see if that helps you grow closer to Him.
So, beginning there, the question is this: Why can’t I just say it in my head? Why do I need to write it down? What’s so important about writing my prayers?
Let me start with this. You don’t have to write your prayers, but I encourage you to try it. I said that this is my system and that you should try it, and then adapt it. If you find it helpful, then keep it. If not, then try something else. There’s nothing in scripture that says that writing out your prayers is more holy, or more effective, than speaking them aloud or in your mind. However, I believe there are some benefits to journaling your prayers. (I really appreciated Stephen Eyre’s section on journaling in his book “Drawing close to God: the essentials of a dynamic quiet time”)
People of the Book
First, Christians are people of The Book. We love the Bible. For centuries people have used Scripture as a key text in their spiritual, moral, family, governmental, and educational lives. For a lot of people in the world, as missionaries translate the bible into more and more languages, the Bible is the first book they ever read. As we’ve said before, we believe God gave us the Bible and that His written word has power.
Therefore, reading and writing have always been an important part of Christianity. God introduced us to Himself by asking prophets to write down what He was saying. Throughout the years Christians have written more and more books to help believers grow closer to God. And, although in our journaling we are not going to be writing scripture, and perhaps no one will ever read our journal, humanity’s relationship with God has been indelibly tied to the written word.
Writing Helps Us Process
Second, writing things down helps us process what is going on inside. You’ve probably experienced trying to pray and having a log-jam of thoughts and emotions all come crowing to the front. Or, sitting down to pray and realizing you have absolutely nothing to say. You know you should. It’s not like your life is perfect and you know everything – but you don’t know what to say.
Having to form sentences and choose words – and then write them down – helps our brains to process the complex thoughts and emotions that are rolling around our hearts and minds. It might be hard to start writing sometimes, but as you start, you’ll find that more thoughts start to come. Maybe you start with a question or a request. It doesn’t matter how you start writing because what you are doing is beginning a conversation with God. He’ll take you where He wants you to go. You’re obedience to sitting down, concentrating and opening His Word gets the ball rolling and gets you set to both speak and listen.
My journal entries more often or not start with either the words “Good Day, Lord.” Or “Bad Day, Lord.” And it starts to flow from there.
Writing Makes Our Prayers Feel More Solid
Third, writing out prayers makes them feel more concrete to us. Our prayers are always heard by God, but sometimes our prayers feel like they float away into the ether – they don’t feel very solid. Sometimes after we’ve said amen, we don’t remember what we’ve just said, we’re not really sure what to expect an answer to, and we can’t remember what God had been saying. Certainly, if you were to ask a week later what our heartfelt conversation with God was about, we wouldn’t remember hardly any of it.
However, once you start to write out our prayers you are able to see a record of what you’ve been thinking, feeling and experiencing with God. You’ll be able to look at a transcript of your conversations with Him, see patterns in your prayers over a period of time, and be able to see how God is answering prayers in specific ways. You’ll see that when you ask questions, someone is answering those questions. You can look back, even after a year, and see how God has given you new perspectives, new understanding, and changed you into a different person. You may not have even realized it, but God had been doing some really good work in and through us, incrementally, in small steps – and when you are consistent in meeting Him every day, and writing down your conversations, you can see His work in a tangible way.
Let me give you an example from my own journal of what I mean. This is an actual entry in my Journal from April 22nd this year. This is how it started:
“I don’t feel very good, Lord. Not sure what’s wrong. Too much uncertainty of good and near certainty of bad, I suppose. That and changing my diet, the spiritual attack of Holy Week, my constant distractions, and all the rest… I’m not angry, just… I don’t know. So, God, I just need a rest in you. I’ll take what you give me, but I just need a rest in you for a bit.”
You can see that I didn’t really know what to write, or where to start, or what I was feeling – I just knew I needed God. Then I got into my Bible reading. I’ll explain my Bible Reading System in a moment, but let me first show you what God did so you can see some of the fruit. Remember, this isn’t me choosing my favourite verses or searching through my concordance for certain words. This is just me reading whatever came next in my plan.
First I came to the book of Philemon. It’s only a chapter long, so I read the whole thing. And verses 6 and 20 jumped off the page. Verse 6 says, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” And verse 20 ends with the words, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Here’s what I wrote:
“That’s what I need, Lord. And you remind me that being active in sharing my faith will give me an understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. God help me share my faith and please refresh my heart.”
I then turned to Luke 18:33-43 which tells the story of the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus. I wrote this: “Lord, in the same way as the beggar, I have no idea how you can do it, but I need your help. God, changing things isn’t much fun and I’m already facing resentment for it. God help my attitude. Help me be a better husband, father and Christian.”
Then I read Isaiah 40 which starts, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” and ends with:
“Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
I didn’t go looking for these passages. They were just next in line in my reading plan. I wrote in response:
“God, I’m weary, give me strength. I’m weak (so weak, Lord), give me power. I’ve stumbled and fallen and I don’t know where to walk, renew my strength. Help me to live in your promises.”
Then I opened to the next bookmark which was at Psalm 146 and says,
“Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.”
And I wrote:
“God, you are hearing me, I know. Another reminder of your goodness to the weak. I fear, that when I close this book I will go back to sadness, but for now I’m so thankful for your words of hope.”
And then I read 1 Chronicles 17 which has the prayer of David where he says,
“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men. What more can David say to you for honoring your servant? For you know your servant, Lord. For the sake of your servant and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made known all these great promises…. You, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. So your servant has found courage to pray to you. You, Lord, are God! You have promised these good things to your servant. Now you have been pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Lord, have blessed it, and it will be blessed forever.”
I simply wrote:
“God, you bless and protect your people out of your love and generosity. I trust your love and generosity today. God, help me live in it.”
I remember feeling then, and still feel, so very overwhelmed by how specifically God was speaking to me. Gently reminding me of his love, showing me how to find strength, and then closing by reminding me of this promise that my salvation and blessing is secure because He is God. He has promised me great things and though it is sometimes hard – just like David’s life was blessed, but hard – I am one of His children.
I don’t tell you this to show off or make myself seem super spiritual, but to show you that Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as Your Guide has deeply affected me, and it is my great prayer that passing it along to you will help you as well.
I needed to hear from God so badly that day. And God was there, just as He always is. And I can look back over and over to read that promise, and it is just as precious to me today as it was the day when I had that conversation with God.
5 Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet
This all comes from scripture, so what I want to do now is explain to you a way that you can set up your Bibles in a way that I call “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet.”
The Danger of Only Reading Favourites
Let me start with a picture: A friend calls you up sounds pretty desperate to have a conversation with you. You suggest that they come over to your place, or go out to a coffee shop where it’s quiet, so you can talk. A short time later, you’re together and they say to you, “I really appreciate your friendship, and I value your advice. You know me better than anyone, and I have a few problems right now that I want to run past you.”
You take a sip of your coffee and look at your friend, concerned and full of love for them, and say, “Ok, sure… what’s on your mind?”
And as they begin, they reach into their back pocket and say, “Well… before we start, I’ve got a few recipe cards here that I’ve written some of my very favourite things you’ve ever said to me. They are so powerful, easy to remember, and really wonderful to hear. So, I’m going to tell you everything, but when you answer me, it would be great if you’d only answer by reading from these cards, ok?”
That doesn’t give you a lot to work with, does it? But that’s what we do with God when we choose only a small pile of verses to read or live our life only reading certain parts of the Bible.
I love memory verses and we all have our favourite passages of scripture. Some people even have a life-verse that they hang onto and is special to them. But, to hear from God in a balanced way, we need to be reading the whole book, not just our own favourite parts. In order to have a conversation with someone, we need to let them speak to us freely, not assuming what they are going to say and then giving them a multiple-choice answer sheet to pick from.
RE: Bible Reading Plans
So what we need, to make sure we are reading the whole Bible, is reading plan. There are lots and lots out there. Some go through the Bible in a year, others in 90 days, others in 3 years. Some take you through the Bible from cover to cover, others jump around, others go through it chronologically.
I don’t think it matters which one you use as long as you remember that a bible reading plan is guide, not a rulebook. Stick to the plan as much as you can, but if you find yourself getting behind, don’t stress out, just keep going. Remember, you’re not in a race to get to the end, but having a conversation with God.
I’m sure you would find it frustrating to talk to someone who kept telling you to hurry up and talk faster so you can get to the end. And you wouldn’t want your friend to feel the need to talk to you for 17 straight hours because they forgot to call you last week. Just go at the same rate and you’ll either catch up, or you won’t. Getting to the end isn’t the point anyway.
So here’s my method for setting up your “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet”.
This plan is setup to be done 6 days out of the week and requires putting bookmarks in five different sections of the Bible. When you get to the end of a section you just put the bookmark back at the beginning and start over.
Bookmark 1 goes into the Stories of the Old Testament, also called the “Law and History” by some people. It starts at the beginning of the book of Genesis and goes to the end of the book of Esther. That’s 436 chapters, and if you read it 6 days out the year you’ll get through the whole thing in about a year and a couple months.
Bookmark 2 goes into the Poetry of the Old Testament, also called the “Wisdom and Worship” books. It starts at the beginning of Job and goes to the end of Song of Songs. That’s 243 chapters, and if you read it for 6 days a week, you’ll get through it in around 9 months.
Bookmark 3 goes in the Prophecy of the Old Testament, also called the “Major and Minor Prophets”. It starts at the beginning of Isaiah and ends in Malachi. That’s 250 chapters and if you read it 6 days per week, you’ll get through the whole thing in around 9 months.
Bookmark 4 goes at the beginning of the New Testament in a section about Jesus and His Church, also called “The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.” It starts at the beginning of Matthew and ends in Acts. It’s 117 chapters and if you read it for 6 days per week you’ll have read it almost three times in a year.
The last Bookmark, number 5, goes in the Letters of the New Testament, also called “Theology and Eschatology”. It starts in the book of Romans and goes to end of the book of Revelation. It’s 143 Chapters and if you read it for 6 days out of the week, you’ll have read it more than twice after a year.
Doing this has a couple advantages:
First, it will keep you from getting bored. Maybe it’s just me, but reading 4 chapters of Leviticus in a day – and knowing that that’s where I’ll be for the next month – and only looking forward to the book of Numbers – isn’t much fun.
That’s why I set it up this way. So when your slogging your way through Leviticus, you only have to read one chapter and you know that you’ll be getting to a story in Kings and the Gospel, and you’ll be able to read a Psalm. When the Prophecies get confusing and you’re not getting much out of the Psalms that week, something in the Letters will be a spark for you. Not every chapter of every reading will be mind-blowing. Sometimes it’s about just reading and seeing the big picture of the story of the Bible.
Second, you’ll be amazed how the themes and history of scripture come together. You’ll read things in the Old Testament that will make passages in the New Testament make so much more sense. The names of Jesus, or some of Paul’s illustrations for the church, will come alive as you see that theme in Genesis, and the Psalms and Prophets. Stories you read in the History books will make all those weird prophecies start to make sense. The stories you read about the life of David will bring so much more meaning to the Psalms he wrote.
So, now that you have your bookmarks in the right place, your Bible is open, your pencil is in hand, and your Composition Book is sitting in front of you, what do you do? Here’s the technique and it takes me about half an hour to finish – sometimes more sometimes less. And this is where the importance of the margins I talked about earlier comes in.
1. Write the date and the day of the week on the top corner of the page. Why? Because when you look back on it, you’ll be able to get a lot more out of it if you can see when you did it. You’ll see things like “Oh, that was close to my birthday and I didn’t even notice how much it was bothering me.” or “I seem to get tempted in the same way on the same day of the week.” or “I can’t believe how much the winter affects my attitude. I’m such a different person in the springtime.” or “God was really preparing me for the Easter season, or for that tough thing that was coming in my life. Even months before I can see him getting me ready.”
2. Write what’s going on in your heart at the top of the page. God is there and He’s listening. You are going to talk to Him, He will talk to you and you will listen. This is where you start the conversation. The rest of the journaling may not go where you expect it to because maybe God has something different for you, but many times you’ll find that God meets you exactly where you are at and gives you what you need. And it all starts here.
So just start writing, as we talked about before. You don’t have to be eloquent, but you do need to be honest. Write from the top of your head and just begin. What is your most pressing concern, need, fear, praise, hope, desire… start there. What question do you need an answer to? What series of questions are bugging you? It can be a short sentence or two, or a whole paragraph. Sometimes mine takes more than a page because there’s a lot on my mind, but as you saw in my example, sometimes it’s only a jumble of thoughts and feelings in a short couple sentences.
3. Read the first bookmark and talk to God about it. Sometimes I start from the Old Testament and go to the New, other times I start with the New Testament and go to the Old. It doesn’t really matter. You’ll be amazed how whatever you’ve just read connects to the paragraph you just wrote off the top of your head. Or, you’ll see something else and God will start to build a new idea in your mind.
You’ll begin to realize that he’s answering the question or concern you just raised in a way that you would have never seen before, and that is far more than coincidence.
Now remember as you read, that it’s not a race. There will be times that you’ll read a chapter from beginning to end and that’s good. Other times you’ll want to continue the story and you’ll read a couple. Sometimes it’s a list of names, so you skim them over for a few chapters. By the way, when you get to those lists of names, don’t go too fast or you’ll miss some good stuff. Look for descriptive phrases like “he was a mighty man” or “they cried out to God and trusted him” or “they broke faith with the God of their fathers.” They are little nuggets that speak volumes about these names, and that God can use to speak to our own hearts.
Sometimes (and this happens to me in the Gospels a lot) you read only a couple of verses and they hit you like a two-pound hammer, and that’s more than enough for the day. That’s ok. Just leave your bookmark there and come back tomorrow!
Once you’ve read your section for the day – whatever the length – write down what you see there.
- What did God just tell you about Himself?
- What did you just learn about humanity?
- What sins where there? What blessings?
- What kind of promises di you just read?
- Were you convicted of anything, or did you learn anything?
- Did God bring to mind something you need to do?
Write it down as a prayer to God.
- “God, I see this in here…”
- “Lord, I see a mistake that this person made and I’ve done that too…”
- “Jesus, I hear your promise here, and it means this to me…”
- Sometimes I’ve just written: “I have no idea what this means, and I don’t know what’s going on, but I am reminded that you are God and I am not.”
And as you’re writing, that’s a good time to highlight the specific passage that God spoke to you through. Maybe you don’t have one for each chapter, and that’s ok. But there will be sometimes that God really speaks through a specific verse or section. Highlight it, make a note next to it, circle it. Interact with the text and your journal as you are having a conversation with God.
You’ve probably had conversations with people who like to draw things out, right? They grab a napkin or a piece of paper or they set-up the salt-shakers and spoons to explain what they’re talking about. That’s what I’m talking about. God is there talking to you. Highlight the text, circle the word that jumps out. Draw a line under the sentence and then draw a big line across the page to the verse it connects to, and a star next to it. It doesn’t have to have any more rhyme or reason than that it is your interaction with your Bible as you are interacting with God.
4. Work your way through the bookmarks. Then move to the next bookmark and do the same thing. Watch for themes as God starts weaving His message out for you. Listen for God’s voice to speak to you. Don’t try to shoehorn meanings in there, just take what is naturally in the text, and write down what you are hearing God say. Have a conversation with God. You speak, He speaks, You reflect and speak, He speaks some more…
5. Look back through your conversation. When you get to the end, take a moment to read what you just wrote and look over the highlights in your Bible. See the conversation as a whole and realize that God was speaking to you. I’ve even taken to circling some of the things that connect together and have drawn a line from point to point as God spoke.
6. Optional: Write a Title for the day. At the very top of the page, if your time with God was especially meaningful that day, and it’s something you just know you’re going to want to look back on later – either to remind yourself or share with someone else (because sometimes God gives you a message for someone else and it’s way easier to give the message if you’re reading it!) – then write a title on the top of the page. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve written things like “this is how to pray” or “the dangers of sin” or “God wants humility” either as a title, or right in my bible.
7. Pray through your prayer list. The last thing you do, before you’re done, is to pray for others. In the little margin, on the left side of the page is a perfect little section to keep the names of people you’re praying for. Start with your immediate family and work outwards to your friends, church, neighbourhood, country and the world. Write down each name. Then, when you come back the next day, you’ll have a list to start with and to add to.
So there’s the system. If you have any questions or comments, please leave it in the comments section below or contact me personally.
As the sun gets warmer and the trees start to bloom, I find myself looking forward to summer vacation. I’ve heard of one place that sounds nice… but I’m not sure that I’d ever go there for a holiday. I think you’ll understand why once I tell you about it.
A Not So Lovely Vacation Spot
Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, little wood-lot on a hillside where people are often seen lying in the sun or reclining in the shade, as squirrels and other little forest creatures play in the trees.
It is out on this hillside where a man named Arpad Vass, a scientist at the University’s Anthropological Research Facility, works every day. All those folks spread out there in the Tennessee heat didn’t get there on their own. They are not lying down because they need a tan, but because they’re all very much dead — they are cadavers, sprawled out intentionally as a way of studying modes of human decomposition.
They are the lifeless bodies of people who have donated their bodies to science, and it is Doctor Vass’s job is to evaluate how these bodies decompose under various conditions: buried in shallow graves, stuck in car trunks, wrapped in plastic bags, submerged in a man-made pond, just to name a few. He figures out all the different ways the human body can be disposed by a murderer. The data collected helps detectives throughout the world catch murderers.
Maybe you’ve heard of this. There is a TV show that I used to watch called Bones. At its core, Bones is a drama about forensic science. Each episode focuses on solving the mystery behind someone’s murder by examining the remains. They are brought to Dr. Brennan’s forensic anthropology team at the Jeffersonian Institution, and by studying whatever is left over of the person, they are able to figure out ‘who-dun-it’. The series is somewhat based on the life and writings of a real life forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.
The truth is that in the 21st century, death has been almost thoroughly sanitized for our protection. We simply don’t like to think about death. We don’t even like to say that someone died. We’ve come up with all sorts of nicer ways to say it. They “Passed away”, are “deceased”, have “ceased to be”, are “no more”, have “gone to the other side”, , “shuffled from this mortal coil”, “gone into that good night”, are “in a better place”, have “crossed over”, are now “asleep”, are “dearly departed”, “pushing up roses” or have simply “kicked the bucket”. We’ll come up with any way to say it other than, “They died.”
Consider funerals. Many people spend thousands of dollars to pay an expert to prepare the body for us, so we don’t have to see it. We get them to put makeup on the body so they will look like they are only sleeping and not really dead. Then we pay them to put the dead person into very nice clothes, complete with jewelry and a new hairdo, and lay them into ornately carved, plush box full of silken pillows. Then after paying all this money to dress up the body, we close the box so no one has to see it, cover the box in flowers, so we don’t have to think about the box, and then we bury it in the ground — and put up a very expensive, beautifully carved piece of stonework to mark the spot. Even the hole we dug for the body gets decorated.
And sadly, people don’t even have to be dead for us to put them out of sight. It seems that anyone that reminds us of death is locked up and sent away. The elderly, the sick, the dying are stuffed away in special hospitals and homes, away from eyes of our society, so we don’t have to think about death – especially not our own.
Easter & Death
The way we celebrate the Easter season points to our phobia about death. These days, when most people think of Easter, their minds are filled with pink bunnies, new bonnets, marshmallow chicks, plastic grass, colorful eggs and candy! Even crosses – the symbol of the bloody death of Jesus Christ – is sanitized and decorated to make it easier on the eyes. We want to fast forward to Easter Sunday – and forget about the crucifixion.
But, scripture teaches us that as important as new life in Christ is – and the wonderful truth of the resurrection – it doesn’t overshadow the death of Jesus. Please open up your bibles to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 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.”
Nearly every year since it came out I’ve watched “The Passion of the Christ.” Not because I like the movie, but because it remind me of the price that Jesus paid for my sin. It shows me courage Jesus showed on His march to the cross. It reminds me of the love our Heavenly Father has for us, that He would send His Son to go through that for our sake.
Think back to you you’ve done on Good Fridays in the past, and how you’ve responded to Holy Week – from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Have you taken the time to remember what happened – to acknowledge the death of Jesus Christ – or do you avoid thinking about it in favour of more pleasant things?
The thing is, if we had to pick a decoration theme that the Easter season, it wouldn’t include flowers and bunnies – it would more resemble Halloween! There’s a corpse, burial clothes, embalming, a tomb, ghosts, screaming, torture…
I hope you come to the Good Friday service this week. Even though I don’t have control over what all happens there, I do get to preach, and it is my hope to remember the Amazing Grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Good Friday that was necessary because of our sins.
Why? Because, as Paul said to the Christians in Corinth, it is of “first importance.”
You see, along with our discomfort with death comes the same kind of discomfort with Good Friday. We know the story and want to skip to the good part. We don’t like the part where Jesus is wrongly arrested, falsely accused, beaten, tortured, abandoned, crucified, stabbed in the heart and then placed in a borrowed tomb, alone. We want to skip to the good part on Easter Sunday.
We like to forget that the disciples and the women who went to the tomb on Sunday morning were fully expecting to the dead and already decaying body of their friend and teacher, Jesus. They did not go to His tomb to see His resurrection. They intended to make certain that the body of their friend, their mentor and their rabbi was properly and respectfully prepared so that it could decompose quickly and with dignity. That’s what the spices they were carrying were for. And then, later, the bones could be taken and put in an ossuary or “bone box” and then buried somewhere else.
We can make no mistake. The women and disciples expected to find a corpse. Although Jesus had told them of His resurrection all the time, they really didn’t get it. Even though He said that He would rise in 3 days, they didn’t really believe it. Jesus said in John 14:1-3,
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Jesus said it over and over, but on Easter Sunday, there was absolutely no doubt in the minds of the women who were coming to the tomb (Luke 23:56-24:1, 10), that that when they arrived they would find the lifeless body of Jesus… and they wouldn’t need a forensic scientist to tell them how He died. Most of His followers didn’t have the stomach to stay and watch, but they knew. He’d been on a Roman cross – and while you go up on a cross alive, you always come down dead.
That’s why they panicked! Let’s read the story from John 20:
“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).”
In a lot of translations there’s exclamation point there on “Rabboni!” That’s possibly the most under-rated exclamation point in the entire Bible. Seeing Jesus alive was the most incredible thing that she had ever seen – and the last thing she would ever expected!
And that’s the point the apostle Paul drives home in 1 Corinthians 15 when he writes to the church about 20-30 years later. Verses 3 and 4:
“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…”
You see, back then there was no funeral homes to preparing bodies for burial. Family and friends were the default morticians. Their culture knew what death smelled like, what death looked like, what death does to a body. Tombs were closed, barricaded by large rocks and stone, but everybody knew what was happening inside the darkness of the sealed tomb. In fact, before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Martha reminded Jesus of how much it would smell.They knew what tombs were like, and what went on in them.
When Easter happened, those first witnesses saw something unprecedented in the history of human remains. The material, fleshly body of Jesus of Nazareth, somehow became a former-dead-body! They had seen Lazarus come to life after 4 days, sure… but that was Jesus healing someone else. What they were seeing here was different. This was someone actually bringing himself back to life! No one performed a miracle. There was no doctor, no prophet, no prayers. But He came back!
Even modern science hasn’t found a way to change dead bodies into live ones. They can take the parts from a recently dead body and transplant them into the living – like heart or lung…. but they can’t raise the dead.
The Miracle of Resurrection
When Paul is writing this to the Corinthians he’s addressing something that was being wrongly taught in the church. Some people were saying that there was no resurrection from the dead… no life after death. Even people today have a problem with that concept. But the church in Corinth had people who were teaching that there was no such thing as someone rising from the dead. Paul’s whole point here… his whole reason for writing this section… is to give proof and testimony to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a critical, uncompromising part of the Christian faith. It is the central part of the Christian faith – that DEATH HAS BEEN OVERCOME!
Paul hammers this message here: Jesus was dead, and then He was alive. And Jesus, as a live, post-crucified person, was seen by numerous individuals whom he lists in verses 5-8.
“…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.”
The disciples did not make the resurrection up. To them it was a crushing defeat. Peter returned to fishing… the disciples has scattered… the followers of Jesus knew He was dead. They were not just gullible witnesses who were testifying to a hope that they had… they were people who were telling the story of the hard evidence that had stood right in front of them!
Resurrection = Hope
Here’s why it’s important: Look at verses 16-19 of this same chapter:
“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
This is how monumental the death of Jesus is to Christians. Our salvation is only possible if Jesus died and rose again. As Hebrews 9:22 says,“… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That’s a restatement from the Law of Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement…” Jesus had to die.
If Jesus didn’t die, our sins wouldn’t be paid for. And if He didn’t die, then he couldn’t be resurrected. And if there is no resurrection, then we have no hope.
If Jesus wasn’t raised, if the tomb isn’t empty, if death can’t be reversed somehow, then, as verse 14 says, “your faith is futile”. If Jesus’ death didn’t pay our penalty for sin… then we “are still in our sins.” If There is no resurrection, then all those who have died before us… no matter what they did… “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” They’re dead in their sins because “the wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ …”(Rom 6:23)
Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the only reason that we are Christian is because of the perks we get while we are alive on earth… then we are to be pitied. One of my commentaries says it this way:
“If all the preachers lied (15:15) and no one will be raised, then not only is faith meaningless for this life, it is meaningless in death. Those who believed in Christ believed a lie; those who died because of persecution for their faith perished for no reason. The consequences of believing the lie that there will be no resurrection shake the very foundations of the Christian faith…. If the only promise of the Christian faith applies to this life, then why believe in it? Why believe in a faith that brought –in this culture and even still in many places in the world – persecution, sorrow, death, ostracism, separation? Without the resurrection, there would be no hope for final judgment and justice or hope for a final dwelling place with God. There would be nothing but death to look forward to. If the end is the same for everyone, then why not live like the pagans in sensual pleasure (15:32)? Why deny oneself? Why be miserable if the other choices bring the same result?” (Life Application Bible Commentary – 1 & 2 Corinthians)
The bodily death and burial of Jesus is truly of “first importance” and is the very linchpin of human history. His dead body, coming to life, has made all the difference, and has given hope everyone who believes.
Three Things to Remember
So there are three important things that I want us to remember during the next week of the Easter Season, and they are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
1. Jesus’ Death was Always the Plan
First… Jesus died for our sins “according to the scriptures”. The death of Jesus as the substitute for our sins wasn’t something that the church or the Apostles came up with. It’s wasn’t something that God came up with on the spot. The crucifixion of Jesus was always God’s plan to save humanity from the consequence of sin, right from the beginning.
The Phrase, “according to the scriptures” refers to the Old Testament prophecies regarding this event that would come true in the future. Plans that God wrote into every book of the Bible. Plans He would carry out.
The People of Israel were waiting for God to send them a Saviour, and the reason they were waiting was because of the prophecies about the Messiah that would come, that God would send!
It is so important that we know that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice on our behalf wasn’t a way to make good of a bad situation. It was exactly the way the scriptures said He would save us – hundreds and thousands of years before.
2. Jesus Was Buried
The second thing I want us to remember is that Jesus was “buried.” The fact of His death is revealed in His burial. Everyone in Paul’s day there were false teachers of trying disprove the death of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus did die on the cross and was buried in a tomb. It’s a historical fact. Some have tried to say that Jesus only passed out… usually called the “swoon theory”. But consider that it was a Roman Soldier who told Pilate that Jesus was dead… not a follower of Jesus or someone with a political agenda.
And remember, they didn’t break His legs because they knew He was dead. They even stabbed Him in the side, right into his pericardium (his heart sac), making “blood and water” pour out of Him (John 19:34). Then Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took him and wrapped his whole body in traditional fashion and placed it in the tomb themselves (John 19:38-42). Then the enemies of Jesus, the Pharisees, stationed a round-the-clock guard so no one could mess with the body. Jesus did die.
Consider for a moment the lives of the apostles after they saw Jesus alive. One theologian (David Strauss) said this, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to His sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that He was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which He had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it a [mournful] voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”
3. Jesus’ Resurrection is a Historical Event
And the third thing that I want us to remember is that it is this week, as we gather together to celebrate and remember Holy Week, is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Permanently. He did not die again.
This is not just a belief, but a historical fact. Jesus said Himself that He would be in the tomb for three days and rise again… and even though no one believed Him… He did. He was seen in the flesh by many people, and even ate and taught publically only days after his very public crucifixion. Hundreds of witnesses attested to this fact. Look at 1st Corinthians 15:6. Paul seems to be saying, “If you don’t believe me ask one of these other 500 or so people. Don’t take my word for it… go ask one of the witnesses who had seen Him live, die, be buried, and then come back to life!”
Believe it or not, there are those who doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. And there are lots of supposed “arguments” against the resurrection.
Some say that the women went to the wrong tomb… but they were present when Jesus was placed there and new the area well. (Matthew 27:61)
Some say that the followers of Jesus stole the body and then pretended He rose again.… but no one questions that there were soldiers stationed there to guard against that.
Most of the disciples ran away like scared little girls when the guards came to get Jesus in Gethsemane, so it’s hard to believe that they would suddenly became so brave that they would be willing to face a detachment soldiers to steal Jesus’ body and fake a resurrection.
Some say that Jesus’ resurrection was some kind of group hallucination, but it’s hard to believe over 500 people had the same hallucination. Not to mention that if it was all in their minds, there would be an actual body that could be produced to discount their story.
We simply cannot get away from the fact the historical evidence points to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Sure, the details of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus is a subject of debate among scholars, historians, philosophers and theologians… I admit that. You almost get the sense in reading chapter 15 that Paul himself was trying to describe a process that is somewhat mysterious to even him. But the bottom line is that somehow, at God’s initiative, and through the resurrection of Jesus, death became a lot less about blood and guts, bodies and decay, and a lot more about the power of new life – and the very temporary, unscary nature of death – now that Jesus has defeated it.
After His resurrection, Jesus invited His disciples to check him out — to put their hands in the wounds, feel inside, touch him. To be sure that it was Him, and that He had conquered death. It was a proclamation to everyone that this secret, dark world of the grave had been exposed — the gruesomeness of Friday had turned into the glorious light of Sunday morning.
For a while there’s still a lot of darkness in this world, but believers have the promise that it won’t always be that way. The cure for death has been found — and we learned it from the only One who could teach us… from the one who Himself died… and was buried… and rose again… so that we might live with Him.
I’m so proud of our Sunday school kids, and the teachers, for taking the time to memorize the Romans Road to Salvation over the past few months. Memorizing of scripture takes time, concentration, and energy – and it is a way to worship God. That time is never wasted and these kids will be amazed at how many times in their life God will keep bringing these verses up in their minds during times of crisis and trouble. When they are in a tough spot, or need encouragement, God will bring these verses to mind because they have stored them where no one can get them – in their hearts.
In doing this they have echoed the praises of Psalm 119:9-16. Let’s turn there and talk for a moment about what happens when we study, memorize and meditate on scripture.
A Pure Path
An old German version of the Bible has a great title for Psalm 119. It calls it “The Christian’s Golden ABC of the Praise and Love of the Power and Profit of the Word of God.” That’s exactly what Psalm 119 is. The author of the psalm uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to create an intricate, acrostic poem in thanks and praise for – and commitment to –the Word of God. Each section has its own theme and takes apart that theme in 8 lines – and each line starts with the same letter. It’s a beautiful piece of poetry about the “vital ministry of the Word of God in the inner spiritual life of God’s children.” (Warren Wiersbe – Be Exultant)
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” (Psalm 119:9-16 ESV)
Notice it starts with a question. “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The two key words there are “way” and “pure.” The word “way” can also be translated “path”, “highway”, or even “caravan”. The word “pure” can also be “clean” or “clear” or “blameless”.
How can someone without experience, keep their path clean, their highway clear?
The picture the psalmist is painting for us is a young man setting off on the journey of his life, starting out from his door and looking ahead at the horizon to the endless expanse in front of him. He looks back at his parents, knowing he is now too old to be under their full-time guidance and it is time for him to make his way in the world.
He steps forward, opens the gate, and looks up to God and says, “God, how can I make sure the path I’m walking on is the right one? How can I keep from stumbling? How do I keep from getting lost? How can I keep my life pure so that I can hear your voice and know I’m heading the right way? How can I be confident in the way I’m going? How can I live a life where all the problems come from outside me – not from a bunch of dumb things I bring on myself? Lord, how can a young man keep his way pure?”
And the rest of the section – in fact the whole of Psalm 119 – is an answer to that question. See what his answers are.
Setting up Guardrails
First, as we look at verse 9, he says that he needs to guard his way according to God’s word. In other words, for a person to walk in a straight line, not get lost, and be assured of his destination, he must set up safe-guards on the sides of the road; guardrails all the way along, so that when things start to go wobbly in life, there is something there to bounce off of so one’s life doesn’t careen over the edge.
I’ve driven on some fairly precarious mountain roads, and I’ve been very thankful for the guardrails along the sides. They give me a sense of security that if I blew a tire, or lost control that I wouldn’t go over the cliff, but would bounce off the guard rail. Sure there would be some damage, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. That’s the first benefit of studying, memorizing and meditating on scripture – it tells us where to set the guardrails in our life.
People in this world believe that what really want is “freedom”. They say that in a perfect world there would be no rules and everyone would be able to do whatever they wanted free from oppression and outside influence – and the world would thrive. You’ve probably heard that a lot.
Think of the words to John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. “Imagine there’s no heaven, no hell, no countries, no religion… imagine all the people living life in peace.” That’s the definition of freedom for a lot of people: no God, no government, no rules. But that’s not freedom, that’s anarchy. The human heart is not able to deal with that kind of world – it’s simply impossible. Every nation that has eliminated God didn’t find a time of peace and freedom, but instead saw the rise of oppressive leaders who devastated and oppressed the people. Think Joseph Stalin, Mau Zedong, Pol Pot, or Che Guevera. Their atheism didn’t spawn a life of “peace”, but chaos.
The Broad Road
Jesus would call the kind of “freedom” that Lennon sang about “the broad road”. A life, without walls, without guardrails, without rules. And he says this: “…wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)
The “broad road” “leads to destruction”, not life and peace and flourishing. It is the heart that seeks God, which is guarded on both sides by the Word of God that finds life.
Even as I write that I realize how difficult it is to understand, much less apply. To agree with Jesus about choosing the narrow road requires a movement of the Spirit of God. And often, it requires that a person travels the broad road for a while, has their life spin out of control, and then careens of the edge and explodes. That’s the testimony of so many men and women I know.
“I was on the broad road. I was living for myself and I didn’t care what people thought of me. I did what I wanted. And it lead me to sin, and sin more and more, darker and darker, and then I realized what I thought was freedom was actually a trap. I wasn’t controlling my life, it was controlling me. My addictions, my desires, my appetites, my way of life was controlling me. I was captive to my ‘freedom’ and I couldn’t get free. And then things really started to spin out of control. I lost my closest relationships, my friends turned out to be enemies, everything I thought was secure fell apart – and I hit rock bottom. It was only there that I finally looked up and saw Jesus offering me forgiveness and life.”
And their testimony almost always ends the same way: “I’m telling you all of this horrible stuff that I went though because I don’t want you to go through it! Don’t make the mistakes I did. I’m trying to teach my kids not to do what I did. Not to even start down that path. I want them to walk the straight and narrow – to flee the broad road to destruction that I went down.” (Go to “I am Second” for a long list of inspiring testimonies)
In fact, much of the wisdom literature in scripture (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and more scattered throughout the other books) is written to try to warn people away from taking the broad road that leads to destruction. Look at the beginning of the book of Proverbs.
“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck. My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. … my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.” (Proverbs 1:8-10, 15-16)
Can you hear the pleading of the parents to their son to stay on the straight and narrow? The rest of the book of Proverbs is a series of sayings meant to help an immature person find maturity the easy way – without having to crash and burn to learn it. How many of us wish that we would have learned the lessons from our parents and not had to repeat their mistakes?
The very beginning of the Psalms starts the same way, right from the first verse: talking about choosing the right path to walk on in this life.
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2)
All through the Bible you can read the voice of the Prophets, and the voice of God, saying “Here’s how life is meant to be lived. Follow these rules and you will have peace, and flourishing, and joy, and righteousness and purity, and know the heart of God! You will avoid much suffering and pain if you just follow this path.” And chapter after chapter is stories of people looking at the narrow path and saying, “I want to go my own way.” And then walking down the broad road – which leads to their destruction.
The prayer of the Psalmist is:
“With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:10-11)
The first benefit of studying, memorizing and meditating on scripture is that it gives us the guidelines for how to thrive in this life. Having it in our minds keeps it ready for us. Here is how I’m supposed to deal with anger. Here is how I find the will of God. Here is how I flee temptation. Here is what I say when Satan shows up. Here is how I should pray. Here is the kind of friends to have. Here is how I should spend my time. Here is how I should treat my money.
Learning and Teaching
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.” (Psalm 119:12-13)
The second benefit of memorizing scripture is that as we study and learn and remember, the Holy Spirit uses that time to teach us, and then gives us the words to teach others.
When Jesus was about to be crucified His followers were quite worried about losing their teacher and connection to God. But Jesus looks at them and says something very important. Turn to John 16:4-14.
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:4-14)
This is what happens when we spend time reading, studying and memorizing scripture. The Holy Spirit of God comes in and teaches us about sin and righteousness. He gives us insight into the ways that Satan works. He expands our minds so that we can tell truth from falsehood. He teaches us how to glorify God and what true worship looks like. And then gives us the words to speak when we are sharing the gospel or in a spiritual battle.
God Breathed Answers
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Some people are afraid to share their faith because they might get questions they don’t have answers to. Others think that there is no real way to know God and they speak as though He is some great mystery. But Scripture, the Bible, has been “breathed out by God” and given to us “for teaching”, so that we can be taught the ways of God, the thoughts of God, the plan of God, the will of God. Between the Bible and Holy Spirit is inside of us, we can have a pretty good idea of who God is. And when we are sharing our faith with others, the Holy Spirit promises to remind us of what God has said about Himself and His plan of salvation.
Some people say they aren’t sure what God thinks about certain things – they can’t really know what is good or bad. Scripture has been given to us “for reproof”, or “for conviction”, or “for rebuking”. That means that within the Bible is everything we need to be able to expose false teachers and expose personal sin. Right and wrong, good and evil, wisdom and foolishness isn’t a grand mystery. Scripture has the power to point out mistakes and clarify how we can make it right.
Some say that they aren’t sure if they can ever know they are truly saved. But the scriptures were given “for correction” which is a word that means it tells us “how to restore ourselves to a right place before God.” In other words – the Bible tells us how to correct this problem of sin and death. It’s only the Bible that gives us the good news of hope in salvation through Jesus.
Some say they don’t know what to do with their life. What should I do? Where should I work? How should I parent? What should I do with an empty nest? What should I buy? The scriptures were given “for training in righteousness” so that we can know how to live a holy life. The Bible is an instruction book for life. I’m convinced that 99% of everything we need to know about how to live in this world is captured within this book – and the Holy Spirit will give us special knowledge about the other 1% when we need it.
That’s why the Psalmist says to God in Psalm 119, “Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!” He knows that the only way he can live well is if God is his instructor.
Delighting in God’s Word
The third benefit of memorizing, studying and meditating on scripture is that it brings delight! Let’s read Psalm 119:14-16:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
This is something that a lot of people simply don’t agree with. Using words like “memorizing”, “studying” and “meditating” in the same sentence as “delight” makes no sense to them because it all sounds like work. And it is work.
But once you have experienced the Spirit of God entering into your life in a new way, guiding you in life, protecting your spirit, battling for your purity, teaching you new things about yourself and God, reminding you about the love you have in Jesus Christ – you can start to see how the psalmist feels.
Psalm 119:97-104 says it this way:
“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”
I like learning – but there’s something special about my time with God. It’s more than learning – it’s experiencing the presence of God. I understand what the psalmist is talking about! The Word of God comes alive for me when I read it in the mornings. There are times when I’m studying for a sermon and insights that I never had considered start flowing into my mind. I start welling with emotion, getting excited, or sometimes it hits me and I feel a terrible sense of conviction, sadness or anger. Reading, studying and meditating on scripture is an experience for me.
There are times where I walk away from a time with God, and I’m literally breathless because of what I’ve just learned from Him. There are times when God brings to mind a scripture and it protects from doing something harmful, and I am so thankful that he did that for me – because I watch others around me crash and burn because of that same error. There are times that reading the Bible depresses me because I start to feel God’s heart on a particular subject – and He shares His grief with me.
It breaks my heart how distracted most of us are – me included. The cares of the world, finances, fears, entertainment, and so much more, draw us away from the Word of God. We go to so many other things for life, knowledge, peace, joy, hope, help, guidance, and peace. But it all comes up short. Why do we keep going back?
When we lose sight of the word of God, the temptations start to grow, fears start to creep in, unrighteous anger fills our stomach, jealousy and bitterness take root – and a time of meditating on God’s word, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, wipes so much of that away!
Examples of Delight
Consider what the children recited today, and think of the hope, the joy and the wonder that they will have in their hearts for the rest of their lives as the Holy Spirit brings that back to them.
They start to think, “I’m a good person. I don’t need Jesus and all this religion. I don’t need a saviour. I can save myself. God saves everybody because we are basically good and God loves everyone, right?” And the Holy Spirit says,
“Remember Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. and Romans 6:23, ‘For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’’”
Satan comes in and says, “God doesn’t love you because you sinned. You need to earn your salvation! You haven’t done enough to impress God. You need to be better! God’s disappointed in you! You don’t have enough faith. You need to be a better person and clean up your life before you come to God.”
And the Holy Spirit says, “Remember Romans 5:8, ‘But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’”
Satan tells them to keep quiet. “Don’t share your faith. Keep it to yourself. It’s between you and God. Religion is personal. You don’t have to be uncomfortable. Just keep it to yourself.” And the Holy Spirit says,
“Remember Romans 10:10, ‘For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’”
And then, when they eventually fall into sin, the backslide, and Satan turns up the heat and starts to condemn them. “God hates you now. You’re dirty. God says He loves you and then you turn around and do that? You let him down over and over! He’s done with you. He’s not listening to your prayers anymore. There’s no point in reading your bible. He’s heard you confess that sin so many times that He’s sick of it! Maybe you were saved before, but you just lost it. And you’ll never get it back.”
And, the end of the Romans road comes from Romans 8:1 and 38-39.
The Holy Spirit says, “Remember, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”
That’s where delight comes from. That’s the power of memorizing and studying scripture. I hope you know that delight.
Valuing the Bible
Do you value having a Bible? How much do you value having study guides and thousands of hours of sermons and books to read about the bible? Can you imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you didn’t have a copy of the Bible? If you knew Jesus, and were saved, loved the one true God, but you couldn’t read about him every day, how different would your life be? What would your life be like if there was no bible in the English language? Would it be different? I hope so.
We are so fortunate. So blessed. Let’s close by watching a short video, but let me set it up first.
True Christianity is “illegal” in China, but it is spreading like a wild-fire there. Some estimates are that there are 20,000 conversions per day. Police will search homes, confiscate CD’s, bibles, song books and calendars, and then arrest people who have “illegal religious gatherings” (The Empty Cross Pg 14) . I read this week that “In China, believers often share one copy of the Bible. Each person receives a page, and when they have memorized it, they get back together to exchange their portion of the Bible.” (Bible Smuggling) What you are about to see is a group of Chinese Christians receiving a bible in their own language for the first time.
Let’s start with a couple of short stories:
I remember, a while back, going to a fancy restaurant on my parent’s 25th anniversary. We had a great meal, and my brother had bought a bottle of Dom Pérignon, which was pretty good too. After the appetizer we were served a small bowl of orange sorbet. I thought, “Wow! An appetizer dessert! That’s a good idea! I love this restaurant!” My mom told me that the reason they served it was not for dessert, but because a citrus based sorbet would cleanse the palate so I could properly taste the main entrée.
Another short story: A while back, my wife and I were shopping for perfume. We went to the store together to try a bunch of different scents and see what we would like. They took the sampler, sprayed it on a little piece of paper, and then we would smell the paper… and we did this a whole bunch of times. By the 10th little piece of smelly paper we were both getting a headache, and everything was starting to smell the same anyway.
The problem was something that is apparently called “Nasal Fatigue”. Our brains and bodies were overcome by too many scents and it was hard to discern what was good and what was not so good. Then I saw a small container of coffee beans on the counter. I remembered reading somewhere that coffee beans are good at cleansing the palate between smells. So I took a deep breath of the coffee beans, and gave my wife the container. And sure enough, it worked. I could smell again.
A Calloused Heart
Why am I telling you this? Because within these two short stories is an important lesson. If we don’t take the time to cleanse our senses with a purifying agent, they get dulled and everything starts to taste and smell the same. They get overloaded with stimuli and lose the ability to discern the subtle differences in our environments. Left unchecked it could become dangerous because we wouldn’t know the difference between good and spoiled foods, good air to breath and bad air. We need to keep our senses sharp.
I think the same thing can happen in our spirits. We are inundated with stimuli all the time. Between our online life, the TV, books, magazines, newspapers, friends, coworkers, teachers, preachers, sportscasters, billboards, and every other voice and attention grabber around us, I believe it’s easy to get overloaded and lose our ability to discern things in a godly way.
Things that used to be considered to be sin, become normal, even celebrated. Things that used to make us flinch and recoil, don’t affect us anymore. News that should rend our hearts and bring us to tears has no effect, or worse, becomes a joke. Our relationships become more distant as virtual things become our preference. Our ability to trust falls away as we listen to voices that tell us to distrust everything. Our greed and pride grows by inches, and lust becomes common place. A callous grows over our heart.
Consider the “normal things” you’ve seen this week… things you might not even notice anymore. Television commercials and programs continually sexualize younger and younger men and women. You watch your favourite comedy show and ¾ of the characters are sleeping around and having sex outside of marriage. You watch your favourite action or drama and you tune-out the foul language, get used to witnessing murders, find yourself cheering for the corrupt police officer, and hope that the married character will leave their spouse so they can finally be with their “soul mate”. If you hear these kinds of sins enough times, they start to become normal… and excusable. That husband is a jerk… she belongs with the other guy.
Consider how many times you’ve been told how much “you deserve” this week. You deserve fast, excellent service, great taste, multiple choices, a great body, happiness, success and the car / house of your dreams. If you hear that you are the centre of the universe enough times, you start to believe it.
Consider how many things you’ve been told to be afraid of. They start the news by telling you that there are at least 4 horrible things happening right now, and they will tell you more soon. With dramatic music and graphics, and a clever title like “The end of everything you’ve ever known…” they explain about 10% of the problem. Then they squeeze in some “experts” that were available today who tell you how bad it’s going to get. Then they tell you that they will “bring you more as the story develops” – or they might completely drop the story and never mention it again if it turns out to be nothing.
Then, because they need you to keep watching, the next segment starts to tell you why you need to be afraid of your veterinarian, how the global economy is collapsing, why you should never by hot-dogs, and how your toothbrush could be killing you. It doesn’t matter if it’s all misinformation and half-cooked stories because you’re watching. And — if you’re told enough times that you need to live in fear, then you’re going to start believing it.
Spiritual Palate Cleansing
What we need is a spiritual palate cleansing. We need to have some way to reset our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can tell the difference between right and wrong, distinguish wisdom from foolishness, and be able to see, hear, and experience things as they really are.
During my devotionals this week I came across a book by Andrew Comiskey called “Naked Surrender” where he talks about this very thing. He says,
“I believe that we are living in a time of unprecedented… idolatry. The moral ozone layer has burned off. … We used to flinch…. We stopped flinching. Idols sear our skin, and we no longer feel it. Desensitized by all manner of evil…. Idols empower all the wrong things; they awaken lust and deaden conscience. We then act badly, in ways that rob us of clarity and virtue and leave us unfit for real relationships.”
Our damaged palate, our desensitized soul, our callous hearts, have deep effects on our lives, our families, our church, and our relationship with God.
Our Spiritual House
Why am I making this a big deal? Because I believe this is a big deal to Jesus. Turn to 1 Peter 2:1-9. You’re going to notice a similar theme to what we talked about during the Christian Integrity series, but I want to take it from a different angle.
“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
Once again we are talking about what makes up our spiritual house. And in this scripture we are reminded that Jesus is the capstone, or the foundation stone, the One on whom we are built. He is precious to us, necessary. If He moves, we all move. And, as we said before, He cares very much, and takes an active role, in how we are built. Peter says we “are being built up as a spiritual house”. In 1 Corinthians 3:9 we are called “God’s Building”. In Hebrews 3:6 we are called “God’s House.”
Let’s keep reading from verse 7:
“So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Unbelievers stumble over Jesus, the cornerstone. Instead of building their lives on Him, they see it as a hindrance. Maybe you’ve felt this too. Before you were saved you saw a relationship with Jesus as a hindrance – something that would get in the way of your life. Too many rules, too much baggage, not enough freedom. So you avoided Jesus and Christianity because you saw “the cornerstone” as a “rock of offence”.
This is what we are like before we are saved – and it’s what we do when we sin. People try to find a good, solid foundation to build their lives on, right? So they start digging down and searching for something solid. All at once they hit a huge, gigantic boulder under where they want to build! That’s Jesus. Some people see that and say, “Wow, that’s awesome. I’ve never found anything so stable, so secure, so helpful, so perfect in it’s ability to keep my house secure.”
But others look at it and instead of building on it, they try to dig it out. They resent its placement. They want their house over here, not over there. They don’t like the shape of it, and they want to form it in their own image, but it’s too strong. Having a stone like that as a foundation means they won’t get the life they want, so they try to chip away at it with bad doctrine and excuses. They get the large backhoes of world religions to try to dig it out, but they can’t move it. This huge foundational stone goes on and on and it forces them to either build there or leave it altogether. This stone, that should be their foundation, becomes a hated thing to them. But for those who have been chosen, who were destined to believe, that is the most precious stone in the world.
You are a Holy Place
Listen to Ephesians 2:19-21 as it echoes what Peter is saying:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
You see, this image is all over scripture. It’s corporate – we are God’s house – and it’s personal – you are God’s House. There are many ways to describe a believer, but one way scripture uses is to call us God’s Building, God’s Temple. The church corporately is God’s Temple. But also, each individual Christian is a Temple, built stone by stone, by the Holy Spirit as a special place for the person of God to indwells. That makes the soul of each believer a holy place, just like Mount Sinai when the bush was burning, or the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. You’re heart and mine – all believer’s hearts – are a holy tabernacle.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
God takes you, His temple, very seriously. If someone tries to corrupt His temple with false worship, with idolatry, with false doctrine, they will be destroyed. Anyone who takes on a believer will face the wrath of God. He loves His People, His Household, His Children, His Holy Place where He dwells. Within you.
Cleansing the Temple
Now, having established that we are the Temple of God, and I want to turn to how seriously God takes His temple — which is your body, your spirit, and this body of believers, let’s watch this.
This is the big idea that blew my mind this week. That I can get so plugged up with what the world gives me, things that I’m unquestionably shovelling into my life, that I lose the sensitivity to the voice of God, and the Holy Spirit inside me. I allow things into my mind and heart which pollute my relationship with God, and offend Him deeply. To the point where I don’t never know what’s right and wrong anymore. I can’t tell the difference between things that God finds offensive, and what pleases Him. I can’t tell an idol from the true God. I can’t understand His will, and I am indifferent to His presence and His word.
The money changers and those selling the animals for sacrifice had become a common site in the temple. In fact, even after Christ cleansed the temple at the beginning of His ministry, they moved right back in and He did it again at the end. It had become normal and excusable! People needed to exchange their foreign money for local currency. People needed to buy animals for sacrifice locally, instead of bringing them from far away. This made sense. No one cared. No one made a fuss. Not the religious people, not those buying, certainly not those making a profit. Who cares?
The Cathedral of our Heart
Let me another part of Andrew Comiskey’s book that really struck home for me,
“One of my favorite passages involves Jesus cleansing the temple. Here [Jesus] is at his least tolerant and inclusive. Here his radical love rids God’s house of all within that does not manifest him. Jesus does not dialogue with these detractors—he whips both man and beast and drives them out, overturning tables and shouting: ‘Get out!’ He cares about what goes on in the temple because the temple represents God to others. It is, after all, the house of the Creator.
[Now listen to what he says next because it’s the point that we’re making here.]
“…I am God’s house. …My ‘cathedral’ is still vulnerable to housing… idols: … gods and goddesses that have power to defile the temple and cripple my capacity to love others well…. ”
I love that word He uses – “My ‘cathedral’.” When was the last time you thought of yourself as a cathedral built for the honour and glory of Jesus? When was the last time you looked into a mirror and saw a cathedral? A beautiful work of art full of halls and rooms and intricacies that only few have ever seen, intricately planned and uniquely made, infinitely precious and incredibly powerful, the home of many holy things. When was the last time you considered yourself to be a house of God?
That’s how God sees you. Jesus is within the walls of your heart. And I believe He is just as passionate today about the condition of your heart today as he was about the Temple then. I believe He is just as angry, ferocious and violent about the sin that is housed in our hearts, and all the corrupt things that distract us and keep us from Him.
We don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s just a tv show. It’s just one night. It’s just a joke. It’s my culture.
But Jesus sees them as very big deals. We embrace the sin, play with it, roll it around our tongue, caress it with our hands, gaze at it with our eyes and store in our minds… as though it’s no big thing. We keep it in a special place in our cathedral. And Jesus sees it and wants to destroy it because it is corrupting His Father’s Temple!
How I wish that I had the vision of sin that Christ has. I wish I could hate it as much as He does. But I’m steeped in it. I’m used to it. My palate is too clouded to discern the things of God very well. My heart is still to calloused, my eyes and ears too used to profanity, my mind so full of garbage it’s hard to distinguish the sacred from the worldly. Sure, I can see better than I used to, but I still don’t see it the way Christ does.
We excuse it. We talk to others and they say it’s no big deal, that it’s part of our personality, that everyone is doing it… and because because we haven’t been cleansing our palate with the pure Words and Spirit of God, it doesn’t even taste wrong to us … so we ingest more and more, and we grow sicker and sicker.
This is why a season of fasting, repentance and renewal is such a critical time in the life of a believer! This is why the church fathers created the season of Lent as a time to practice giving up lesser things and cleansing ourselves from worldly influence. It gives us a chance to evaluate how we are treating our body, mind, eyes, hands, feet. It makes us look twice at what we put into our mouth, what we read without thinking about it, what we touch every day. And we realize that it’s a very big deal to Jesus, because it may be profaning His temple.
Now let’s read 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Before we start, I want you to notice all the quotation marks in the first few verses, this is Paul quoting back to the Corinthians some of their favourite slogans and excuses for why they don’t need to worry about what they are doing with their bodies.
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other.”
In other words, the Corinthian church had separated their spiritual lives from their physical lives. They disconnected their bodies from their souls and figured that you could do whatever you want with your body and it wouldn’t affect your mind, heart and soul. Have you ever heard that? “It’s just physical?”
They said, “Since I’m saved by grace, and everything is God’s, I can do anything I want.” Paul says, “Sure, but not everything has benefit”. They said, “But I’m free from religion and my soul is secure forever and now I can enjoy all the pleasures of this world!” Paul says, “Yes, but don’t let it dominate you. Don’t let it become your god… your idol… your master.”
Then it goes deeper and more sinister. You’ve heard this before. They said, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”, or in other words, “if my body says it wants it, then it’s obviously what I need to do.”
“My body says, ‘Eat!’ and I need to eat, therefore I’ll eat what and when I want to. It’s just food.”
“My mind wants distraction because I’m tired of concentrating. So I can watch whatever I want. It’s just TV.”
“I’m angry and my body wants to hit something. It’s not my fault that’s how I’m built. I’m just a violent person. I’m just doing what comes naturally.”
“My body says has natural, sexual desires and wants release, therefore I’ll get it wherever I want however my body wants it. It’s not my fault if I have natural desires! It’s just sex.”
And Paul replies, “And yet both are from God, and God can destroy them if He wants to.” In other words, “God designed you with desires. You get hungry so you can feed yourself — but that doesn’t mean you should eat addicting garbage. And you have sexual desires too, but that doesn’t mean you can fulfill them however you want. He gave them as good things, but wants you to use them in a healthy way. He wants you to experience joy and love and pleasure and grow closer to your spouse. He created it. He designed it. He knows how it works. Don’t use it in a destructive, sinful, harmful way.
Continue in verse 13 and see how this ties into what we’ve been talking about with our bodies as Temples of God
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Any kind of sin is incompatible with our unity in Christ – they all divide us from Him – but sexual sin is particularly evil. The word there is “PORNEIA” which includes all sexual activity conducted without your heterosexual marriage partner. That includes everything from adultery to masturbation. God brings out sexuality as special because sex has a uniquely spiritual component. You literally become “one” with the person. It’s not just physical. It’s not just a biological release – it’s a spiritual tying, and emotional connection. That’s why adultery – whether it’s with another person or in your mind though sexual imagery or sexual stories – is so damaging. It tears the soul – divides the oneness of the marriage.
And it profanes your body, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
A Disgusting Sanctuary
Think of it this way. You would be very surprised if you came in next week and found pornographic posters hanging all over the sanctuary, right? You would be offended, distracted, and probably never come back. Then why do you hang them in the temple of your mind where Jesus dwells? It’s the same to Jesus.
You probably wouldn’t bring your favourite porn star, pin-up girl, or someone who you are in an adulterous relationship to church with you because you’d be ashamed how people would look at you… but you’ll take someone online, or in a book, or at work, or in an old memory, and fanaticize about them – which lets that person into your heart – which is the Temple in which Jesus dwells. What’s the difference?
You’d probably have a problem if you came into church one day and the walls looked like a truck-stop bathroom stall… full of dirty limericks, swear words, filthy pictures, and profanity. And yet you will readily accept much of that into your own heart, and into your own temple. You might have a problem if the decorations in here were tributes to dollar bills, bloody violence, and revenge… all surrounding a golden recorder full of all of the gossip and bitter slander you could ever want to hear…, but is that what the walls of your personal cathedral look like? When Jesus walks through the cathedral of your heart, what does He see?
When he comes to sit with you at the communion table in your heart, does He have to sit next to a pile of your money and favourite possessions? What is there to eat? Good, healthy spiritual food, or do you only offer him the same bitter root that you’ve been chewing on for such a long time? Is your personal cathedral dedicated to comfort? No rough edges, nothing to bother you, no annoying people, no annoying rules, and at the centre is a you on a pillow – and Jesus can come in as long as He’s quiet, doesn’t disturb anything, and only gives you things that make you more comfortable?
Perhaps, in the cathedral of your heart is a cross – the symbol of the Christian faith. What other symbols are beside it, competing for importance? Maybe the make of your car, or your favourite technology? Is there a sports-team logo next to the cross? You identify yourself, in the cathedral of your heart, as Christian – and what? Is there a place of worship next to the cross, where you spend your time, your money, your energy, and your attention. Jesus gets part of your worship, but the other idols demand a sacrifice too.
You’ve been to lots of people’s houses and they all have sayings on their walls, on the fridge, in their bedroom. So, as Jesus wanders the halls of the cathedral, what is written on the walls of your heart? The scripture you’ve memorized, the prayers you repeat, the lyrics to a worship song pictures of your family and friends, concerns for your community and the world … right beside the dirty jokes you’ve been reading on the internet and the lyrics to hundreds of songs that celebrate hate, money, alcohol and sex, and all of the harmful, lying, abusive self-talk that you are so used to speaking to yourself as you call yourself stupid, ugly, worthless, and hated. Not the words of God on the walls of your cathedral, but the words of Satan, and you read them over and over.
And in a special place, all on its own, is the ornate carving of your favourite four-letter-word? The one you use in your mind constantly, and which slips out when you feel stress.
Has Jesus found the room you have dedicated to memories of your old girl or boyfriends where you like to spend time when you feel rejected or lonely?
What inhabits the cathedral of your heart?
Maybe you’re feeling convicted right now and you need to talk to God about the mess in your heart. You need to ask forgiveness and ask Him to start clearing that stuff out. You’ve tried, but it only gets worse. You need to ask Jesus to do it, and start replacing all of that garbage with holy things.
What the Church is Made Of
Here’s something you’ve perhaps never thought about: Whatever makes up your cathedral, is what our church is made of. This church is not made of stone and wood. It’s not decorated with paint and pictures. Our church isn’t our music or preaching style, the size of the building, or a weekly event. If we think that any of these things are what bring glory to God, improve our worship, or draw people closer to him, we’re dead wrong.
Our church is built out of the hearts and minds of the people that attend it. We have built this church day by day, deed by deed, decision by decision, sin by sin, idol by idol, fight by fight, prayer by prayer, sacrifice by sacrifice, act of love by act of love, over the history of this church. This is what we are made of, what inspires our worship, what God judge us by, and determines our blessings or need for discipline.
What we see when we are here together and behaving ourselves for an hour on Sunday is only the tiniest part of what we would call “church”. The church God sees, and is really concerned with, is the cathedral of our hearts. He’s concerned about what we are doing in our minds as we sing the songs and listen to the sermon. He’s concerned about what we think when we see the people around us, or think of the one’s not here. He’s concerned with the things we do when we are alone in our room, what we do when we hear of a need, what we communicate in our phone calls and e-mails. That’s what makes up our church.
Our church is built seven days a week out of our private thoughts, our actions and inactions, our secret good deeds, our personal worship and devotion, our love for one another, our sacrifice for each other and God… and it’s built from our private sins, our personal idols, our prejudices, our hate and our hypocrisy. That determines whether we are living by the power of the Holy Spirit, or are grieving Him. That’s why we need to take care of each other.
Jesus Hates Hypocrites
Jesus had some incredibly harsh words for the Pharisees who looked good on the outside, were amazing in their religious obedience, were pillars of the community and great church goers — but were absolutely corrupt on the inside. He said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25)
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…” (Matthew 15:7-9)
There are so many scriptures against hypocrisy that it is truly overwhelming.
Looking at Your Cathedral
Let me close with this question: What does the cathedral of your heart look like? Listen to Jesus speaking into your heart about your faith. Listen to what the scripture says about having your insides match your outsides.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25)
Some of us need a palette cleansing today because we have so filled ourselves with compromise and sin that we no longer even know right from wrong. The only way to know the condition of your heart, and to purify your cathedral, is to cleanse your palette through repentance and confession, and seek purity. Look deep inside for that which is dividing your heart.
Or in the words of 2 Timothy 2:20-22, which speaks about cleaning up the cathedral of your heart:
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
Here’s the Audio for this sermon:
For the past while we’ve been studying the characteristics of a person and a Christian of integrity. We’re asking the question, “what does it mean to look and act like a Christian, and a Christian church?” It all starts with the first verse, the question that is asked at the of the list, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” In other words, what do the people of God look like? What does a believer act like?
Let’s read the rest of the Psalm together. I’m reading from the ESV now.
“He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose yes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”
What we see in Psalm 15 are some very important words that describe what Christian Integrity looks like. We all want to be – we want our children to be – people of Christian integrity. We want to work with, compete against, and have friends who have integrity. But what does that look like? Psalm 15 tells us 5 critical things that we need to have in order to say that we have integrity. These are perfectly shown in the life of Jesus, who is our model for life.
If we are to be his people, then we must always be Truthful (we tell the truth all the time), Loving (we love all people and never discriminate based on outward differences), Honouring (we reject hypocrisy and hypocrites, but honour people who are working out their faith every day), we are Trustworthy (we never break our promises) and we are Generous (we use our money well). This week we are looking at the second part of verse 4 where it says that a man or woman of God, “…swears to his own hurt and does not change;”. I like the NIV translation of this verse which says, “…who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind;” or the New Living Translation which says, “…and keep[s] their promises even when it hurts.”
A Multivitamin Psalm
I’m amazed that this short psalm is so encompassing. It’s like a multivitamin — small, but full of important things we need to live. And in a way it’s also like a multivitamin because if we let it get inside us, it can do well, but sometimes chewing on it can taste pretty bitter. Psalm 15 covers our everyday actions (what we do), the motivations of our heart (why we do what we do), the importance of how we use our words, how we treat believers and non-believers, how to protect our reputations, and how we use our money. You can’t live on multivitamins though, which is why we are going to the rest of scripture to get a balanced diet – to help us understand more about what’s going on and how we can obey God’s word.
Divided in Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength
Integrity is rooted deep in the heart of all believers. To have integrity means being a whole Christian – worshipping and serving God all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind and all our strength (Mark 12:30). Not just our minds, or just our hands. It means not being divided between two things – ourselves and God, or the world and God. It means not being split in our hearts, which causes us a lot of grief.
If you are a believer, then I’m sure you’ve felt this. You are faced with a choice, and the pulling in your heart begins. You love God, but you also feel emotionally attached to something else… or you know that obeying God means you will feel bad for a little while, or lose a friend, or look bad in front of people. And so your heart is divided.
Or you feel a division in your soul. Part of you wants to pray, but the other part wants to pretend God doesn’t exist – to watch TV, sleep, read a favourite book. Every time you are tempted to sin, you feel that division in your soul – part wanting to obey God, part wanting to reclaim your soul to yourself, to give it back over to the devil so you can experience some worldly pleasure. And it causes you pain because you have a divided soul.
Or you have a divided mind. Your thought-life sometimes feels like a game of racquetball, your thoughts bouncing around from worship songs to sexual sin, from bible verses to jealousy and bitterness, from love to fear and worry. You want to devote yourself fully to God, but moments later you are fanaticizing about what you could do if you won the lottery. Right in the middle of a time of prayer you start to make a grocery list. A divided mind, and it causes you to feel guilty and frustrated.
Or divided strength. The same hands you used to help someone, that you raised in worship, that turn the pages of your bible, that hug your children, within hours are used in private sin. The natural talent you have allows you to worship God in a special way, but it is also a way to elevate yourself above others so you can feel superior to them.
Everyone feels this. Not one person in this world has perfect integrity. Not even the most dedicated monk, living in the most distant monastery thinks about God all the time. Not even the Apostle Paul could! Listen to him wrestling in Romans 7, the same way each of us does:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15-24, ESV)
Jesus as Our Model and Strength
Paul is caught up in the same spiritual warfare as we are, daily battling our fleshly/worldly desires and our spiritual ones. Who will save us from this body that wants to eat spiritual death, walk the path of death, enjoy spiritually dead things, revel in demonic, hell-spawned sin, hang around spiritually dead people? Who can save us from this divided heart?
We can’t save ourselves. Paul answers the question this way in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” What is required to save us from this divided heart, this “body of death”, is that someone live a perfect life, be a perfect model, and then go through death, be killed, and then destroy death by rising from the dead! Who can kill death? Who can save us from this body of death? The one who destroyed death once and for all, Jesus Christ!
In other words, when God saved us, we became His people. As Psalm 15 says, we “dwell in his sanctuary”, we “live on his holy hill.” He saved us. He adopted us into his family and since we are his, we have access to the same privileges as Jesus Christ. We are not alone in the struggle for integrity. We have the Holy Spirit inside of us, convicting us of sin, reminding us of our hope, showing us our Father, giving us new wants and desires. And when we listen to Him, we will have what is needed to combat our divided hearts.
Stay Close to Jesus!
This is why every mature believer since the beginning of time has said the same thing over and over – it has not changed!
Stay Close to the Word of God: Read, study and meditate on the Word of God. If you want to live a wise life, go to the source of all wisdom. If you want to be like Jesus, read about Jesus.
Stay close to Jesus: Talk to Him all the time – be in prayer in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, about all things. If you want to be protected, strengthened and encouraged, stay close to Jesus.
Stay around Jesus’ People: Love and be loved by other believers. Serve and be served by other believers. Don’t try to draw strength from hypocrites, unbelievers, and people who play for Satan’s team. Lean on your Christian friends and Elders in the church.
It hasn’t changed for millennia!
This is what God said to Adam and Eve – Listen to my word, stay close to me, take care of each other.
This is what God said to Israel – Listen to my word, stay close to me, take care of each other.
This is what God said to every prophet – Tell them my word, tell them to draw close to me, tell them to start taking care of each other.
This is what Jesus told Paul and Peter and James and John to write to His churches – Tell them to stay in my word, tell them to stay close to me, tell them to take care of each other.
And that’s what Jesus came to do for us and to model for us – Jesus perfectly obeyed God’s word, Jesus was in perfect union with God, Jesus cared so deeply for people that He gave His life for them.
And He gives us access to His Spirit when we obey Him!
God Makes Promises and Keeps Them
Using this as our stepping off point, let’s talk for a little bit about this idea of being trustworthy and how our ability and desire to be trustworthy comes from God. God has made a lot of promises and it would be counter to His very nature, since He is God and can do anything, to break a promise. He can always keep His promises because of who He is.
Listen to some of these:
- 1 Corinthians 10:13, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
- 2 Thessalonians 3:3, “But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.”
- John 10:28-29, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
- John 14:3, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
- (And my favourite verses) Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”
- (And perhaps the most comforting promise) 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
We live and die by the promises of God. We believe that He will follow through on them. He is not a liar. He does not go back on His word. Whether we realize it or not, when Christians are in trouble, we echo the words of Psalm 119:154, “Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise!” When we worship God, foremost on our minds are his promises, like in verse 162, “I rejoice at your word [“promise” NIV] like one who finds great spoil.” When we read and remember all of the promises He has given us, and his ability to follow through, it’s like looking over a vast treasure. They are our sure inheritance.
Keep Your Vows
And so what God is concerned about here in Psalm 15 is our reputation for being like Him, like one of his people – to be trustworthy. What we say is always what we do. A person of integrity doesn’t break their promises. We are not liars. My ESV Study bible says this, “Vows must be kept because God keeps his promises and desires that his people imitate his moral character.” Therefore God takes what we say very seriously.
And if you made a vow to God, it was very serious business. Listen to part of the Law from Deuteronomy 23:21-23,
“If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.”
Remember the vow of Jephthah from the book of Judges. He was facing down an enemy army, and even though God had already promised Him the victory, He panicked and made a rash vow to God that if God let him win, when he returned from battle, anyone or anything that came through the door of his house would be offered as a sacrificed. Of course God kept His word and Jephtheh won the battle, but the one who came through the door was his daughter. And He dedicated her the service of God and that she would never marry, ending his own bloodline. His life is a lesson in rash vows.
A person must be careful with what they say, especially to God. And when they do make a promise, they need to fulfill it quickly, and no delay. Why? Because God will hold everyone accountable to their actions, and to their promises. Even the rash and foolish ones. He wants to teach us that words matter.
Turn to Ecclesiastes 5:2-7 and read another warning,
“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.”
Scripture teaches us that we need to be careful with our worship, our prayers our words, and our promises when coming before God. God will hold us accountable to these things. He says that it is the fool who comes before God with many words, and many promises, but doesn’t keep them.
In verse 6 we see the messenger coming to collect on the vow and the person who made the vow saying, “Oh no… I didn’t mean it. It was a mistake. I was just in the moment. I didn’t mean to. That was just part of the song I sang. I was desperate. I was afraid. I was caught up in emotion.” And God still holds them accountable.
Proverbs is right when it says in 20:25 says, “It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows.”
Now, just so we don’t think this is an academic exercise that only applies to ancient Israel, let’s ask the question: Can this happen today? We don’t make blood sacrifices any more, and I can’t remember the last time I took an ephah of grain to a temple because I needed a new set of oxen, so can we make a vow before God today?
I believe we can, but it’s different for us, because I believe that God takes what Christians say today even more seriously.
You’ve probably heard people say, “I swear to God!” “I swear on my mother!” “I swear on the Bible!” People did that back then too. They used to swear by all sorts of things: By earth, heaven, the temple, the alter sacrifices, the gold in the temple… but like good Pharisees, they had all these little rules about it.
In Matthew 23:16-21 Jesus looks at the Pharisees and teachers and talks about this very thing. He says,
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
His point is that everything is God’s so no matter what you are swearing by, it is all holy! You are accountable for all your words and vows, no matter what you swear on, because everything God has done is sacred. Even the hairs on your head belong to God. You can’t even swear by your own head, because you are not your own! Therefore, all vows are holy and need to be kept.
A Higher Standard
But Jesus went even farther. In the Sermon on the Mount we read Jesus talking to His followers about being trustworthy and careful with our words. And, as Jesus always does, He pushes beyond the Old Testament Law. Turn to Matthew 5:33-37.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
He said to His followers that they need to be so well known for their trustworthiness that they don’t even need to make an oath or a vow. It should simply be… “Oh, that person’s a Christian? They follow Jesus? Well, then I can trust them because everything they say is true.”
People used to use these oaths, and vows, and pledges, to get around things. They tried to find loopholes and ways to get off the hook. “Oh, I vowed by the temple, and not the gold… so it doesn’t count.” “I vowed by the alter and not the sacrifice, so it doesn’t count and I don’t have to do it.”
Jesus always took the Old Testament Law and then raised it up to a higher standard. As one of my commentaries said, “Instead of letting people off the hook, he set the hook deeper. Jesus spoke about oaths in order to point out that they were not the main problem – integrity was. A liar’s vow expresses a worthless promise. But when a person of integrity says yes or no, that person’s simple word can be trusted.”
I think what affects me the most is this verse in Matthew 5:37,
“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
The first thing that grabs me is that this is supposed to be simple. And it really is. Just do what you say. When you say something, mean it. When you say you’ll do something, do it. When you say you won’t do something, don’t do it. Keep your promises.
But the other part is, “Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” I think what this means is that we shouldn’t be adding a bunch more words to our words. People should just be able to trust what we say, without a bunch of extra explanation, excuses, justifications, pretexts and rationalizations.
For example, if someone comes up and says, “Will you do this?” We should be able to say, “Yes, I will.” And leave it at that. It’s when someone is a known liar and can’t be trusted, that more and more words start coming. People only need oaths when there is a possibility that the other party is lying! That’s why we have such a proliferation of contracts in our world. We can’t trust anyone! Believers know that every word they speak will be held accountable by God, and so they simply do what they said they would do, or don’t do what they said they wouldn’t do.
So, in keeping with what Jesus has said, and what the Psalm has said, let me pull two simple applications out of this.
First, and this is obvious, Christians need to be careful with what we say. And this means both “yes”, and “no”. If you don’t plan on doing it, then don’t say YES. If you don’t want to do it, then say NO. If you don’t have the time to do it, then say NO. If you are already way over committed, then just say NO. If a telemarketer calls you on the phone and asks for a pledge, and you aren’t going to, don’t lead them along, or pretend… just say NO.
If someone asks you to do something that you cannot accept, you shouldn’t need to launch into the 20 minute explanation of your schedule, your health, your family problems… and all the reasons why you can’t say yes. Simply say “I’m sorry, NO, I can’t.” If you have a good reputation then they know you’re not being rude, or blowing you off, they know you can’t because you said so.
And when you learn to say NO, when you say YES to something, it will mean so much more to you and the people around you! You’ll be known as a person who is able to follow through. You will have integrity.
So the first thing is that we need to be careful what we say, and what agreements we make. Just let our YES be YES, and our NO be NO, and let that be that… anything else is evil.
Modern Vows You May be Breaking
The second application I’d like to make, is that we need to keep the vows we make — the YES’s and NO’s we’ve already got. I’ve been thinking about this, and this may hit home for some of you. We, as Christians who will stand before God, and who know that all of His things are holy, even us… must fulfil our vows, pledges and promises. He takes them very seriously because our integrity reflects His character, His Kingdom and His Son.
So let me ask you this. Are you fulfilling the agreements you’ve made? Are you looking for a way out? Or, are you breaking any? Remember the Psalm. “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” One “who keeps his oath even when it hurts”. Here’s some examples of some promises that we make today. How are you doing on these?
Rental / Lease agreements. You promised to pay your rent on time, take care of the place, not sub-let, to report things that go wrong, and to clean up after yourself. How are you doing?
Copyright Agreements. Every movie and CD you’ve ever bought has had a copyright in it. In Canada you are not allowed to copy music or movies you didn’t pay for. Not even for “private use”. You can’t borrow from the library and put the music onto your computer. It’s illegal. Have you broken that agreement? Are you clean in this area?
If you have Netflix then you are only allowed to watch programming available in your region. Changing your computer to get the “American Netflix” breaks your terms of service agreement. It’s the same with American Satellite systems. They are illegal in Canada.
Business agreements. Are you fulfilling all of your business agreements? Are you doing good work, done on time, without gouging the customer for extra profit, cutting corners, using inferior products, and all the rest? Are you a trustworthy business person?
Employment contracts. When you started your job, you probably agreed to certain things when you signed an employment contract. You promised not to steal anything from work… not even a pen or a paperclip. You agreed to use your sick days when you are sick… not other times. You may have signed a confidentiality agreement. Employees, are you keeping it? And if you are an employer, then are you following your agreements? Paying on time and in proportion to their work, granting them their time off without guilt or frustration, making sure they get their break times, that they are trained and understand their job.
Visitor Agreements. When you bought that that day-pass to the zoo, the park, the campus, the hotel, or whatever, you probably accepted a visitor agreement. You agreed not to take pictures of certain things, not to take anything home, not to pick any flowers, to clean up after yourself, to stay away if you feel sick, and many have the agreement to “not make unreasonable demands”. Are you abiding by your agreements?
Loan or Credit Card contract. When you agreed to take their money, you promised you would pay it back. Are you? Or are you trying to find all sorts of ways around having to pay back what you owe them? People think that they are just big, evil corporations… but you made a contract with them. God takes that very seriously! Are you keeping your end of it?
Store agreements. When you bought that thing from the store, you agreed to pay for it. Did you pay the right price for it? If they made a mistake and gave you too much, did you go back and tell them and pay more? When that poor, underpaid, overworked cashier told you “I’m sorry, that’s not our policy”, did you freak out on them? You agreed to purchase it there. You paid for it. The return policy is written on your receipt, on the wall, on the website. Do you expect special treatment? Are you asking them to break their own rules, to make their YES into a NO, for your sake?
Church Membership. When you became a church member you agreed to certain things. You agreed to support the church financially, and with your time and abilities. You agreed to be actively involved in votes and meetings, even when they are boring.
When you voted for last year’s budget, they whole church raised their hands to say they would allow the deacons to spend the money, and that they would give in proportion. Have you been living up to that agreement? We have a large financial deficit this year, so either we agreed to spend too much, or people aren’t supporting in the way they agreed to.
There are people who used to attend this church, who agreed to support it during good and bad times, but left others here to pay the bills and fulfill their ministry responsibilities in their place. They broke their promise to the church.
When you voted for the elders and deacons you agreed to submit to the eldership, support new ministries with your work, attendance and finances. As a Church Member you agreed to be active in your spiritual development, and practice church discipline. If you are a member, are you doing these things, even when it’s inconvenient, or difficult… “even when it hurts”?
Marriage agreements. A vow taken before God for life. Even when it’s hard… when it’s next to impossible to see how it’s going to work out… are you willing to stay together and seek reconciliation? Are you putting effort in? Serving for, suffering for, loving, caring, and pursuing your mate like you are supposed to? Husbands, are you being Jesus to your wife? Wives are you respecting and caring for your husbands? Or is there a point at which you believe it is ok to break your covenant because it is too hard. Maybe not divorce, but merely avoid each other – live separate lives. Do you have that thing in the back of your mind that says, “If they do that again… I’m out of here… I’ll never forgive them!” Or, have you said to yourself, “I’m going to love them and serve them and keep my vows, no matter what!”
I could go on, but you get my point. Is your YES YES and your NO NO? Are you sticking to your contracts, agreements, and covenants… even when it hurts? Or are you like the world that seeks to blame others, wants special treatment, makes excuses, breaks promises, and walks away when it’s too hard?
You are a child of God who has the Holy Spirit within them, a new creation that does not love the things of the world anymore. Are you leaning on God and drawing from His strength so you can obey Him in this way?