Big News !

I am a little behind these days with my postings, and I’ll probably continue to be behind for awhile. Some great news has come our way that has set off a flurry of activity. Exactly two weeks ago, I received a phone call that I had been hoping and praying would come. Early in June, my wife and I had gone to Los Angeles to interview for a pastoral position in a wonderful and vibrant church. The phone call was from a representative of the congregation’s committee letting me know they wanted us. We are praising God for the opportunity to join with his people in Los Angeles in the service of our Savior! The house is littered with boxes and wrapping paper. Just yesterday we received news that our application for a rental house has gone through. We have a list with a thousand things to do before we can head out of North Carolina for California, but we are trusting in the Lord’s care for all of it. We just need to get packed and go!

Imitators of God!

Be imitators of God as dear children, and walk in love, as Christ also has loved us… Ephesians 5.1-2

When I was just a little boy, my friends and I thought it would be fun to try to fly like Superman. We chose a nearby clay pit – a huge commercial digging site – for our attempt. The pit was about the size of a football field and roughly twenty to thirty feet deep. We took turns jumping off a ridge, yelling, a few feet from the bottom with our arms in front of us, and usually landing on all fours in the bull dozed clay. We did this a few times, climbing a little higher each time, Finally we had jumped off from the last available ridge in the cliff’s side and only the top of the pit was left. It was way up there. There was a discussion about who was going to try it. Somehow through the skillful negotiations that I was frequently involved in as a young boy, but for which I had not yet acquired much skill, my friends convinced me that I was the one who should go, and up to the top I went. Safely at the bottom, they shouted and coaxed me forward. I yelled and jumped and landed hard face down. I rolled over and I couldn’t breath because the breath had been knocked out of me, there was nothing I could do until I was able to breathe again. Finally, when I could breathe again, I was able to get up and laugh about it.

In this verse the Apostle Paul refers to us as “dearly loved children” dependent on the breath of God’s Spirit given to us in our Christian birth – that new and spiritual and second birth – without his Spirit we can do nothing of what he calls us to do. We know from the Genesis account of Adam and Eve that at the beginning of history, in an act of rebellion and coaxed by the devil, all of humanity, figuratively speaking, jumped off a cliff. We can’t laugh it off. The fall left us completely and morally ruined, disfigured in sin and without a hope (Rom.5.12-21). In Ephesians 2 we are told apart from him “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” Apart from him we can only “follow the ways of the world” and are “children of wrath” ( 2:1-3). But our new birth in Christ gives us his Spirit – despite all temptation and manner of discouragement and suffering and our ongoing struggle with the reality of sin – with his Spirit we can both imitate him and creatively and joyfully live with one another in this world.

We imitate God and live this way because we are his children. And here is seen the critical and important difference between Christianity and mere morality: Morality is about being good for its own sake. Christians, however, are not called to be good simply for the sake of goodness. We are God’s children! This is about us belonging to him. Related to him. That is why we are to live this way. Notice the text, we are not just his children, we are his dear children. He loves you, you are dear to his heart. We are called to a child-like and willing assumption of Christ’s behavior and manner in this world. We are called to be imitators of God. We are in the world but without its impurity. We have been called to “walk” in love, because this is Christ’s way. The Christian faith does not call us to do something that is impossible such as flying like a bird. But we are called to walk, a means of advancing in our faith, step by step as we are taught by the Word and Spirit of God how to love and so every act of love towards one another becomes a step in the right direction.

A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 3)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

What does it mean to “perish”? Generally, the term describes destruction instead of preservation. For example, in 1Cor. 1.18-19 “perishing” is the opposite of “being saved.”In the context of John, the term also implies to be forever excluded from any relationship with God. The Jews believed their relationship with God was assured because they were Jewish, but in the verses leading up to John 3.16, Jesus tells Nicodemus no can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again and no can enter the kingdom of of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. As mentioned previously, as an important member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was familiar with the terms or concepts used by Jesus in John 3. For example, the Talmud, a central text for Rabbinic Judaism, describes a convert to Judaism as a “newborn infant (b. Yeb 22a, 62a, 48b; y. Bk 3:3 vii)”The Talmud was produced later than the gospel of John, but depends on oral teaching and tradition reaching back to ancient Judaism with which Nicodemus was probably very familiar.

The importance and role of water would also be familiar to a Pharisee like Nicodemus. Earlier in John 1, the Pharisees had asked John the Baptist about his practice of baptism. The baptism of someone entering Judaism from non-Jewish society was commonplace, but the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus’ words implied that Nicodemus and the Pharisees needed real repentance and baptism for themselves. Jesus’ words make it clear that outward conformity to Jewish rituals and beliefs had no weight on the eternal scales. Eternal life could never depend on conformity to any of these things. Instead, it depended on one’s recognition of Jesus as the Son of God.

It is always good for me to be reminded that my status with God is not dependent on my outward conformity. Like Augustus Toplady says in his great hymn, “Rock of Ages”, Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling! If we are going to hold on to the cross, we must first let go of any claim we have. Only when our hands and our hearts are emptied of our own merit, only then are we able to fully grasp the salvation found in the God’s One and Only. Even though elements of John 3 might indicate that Nicodemus did not really understand, perhaps he was beginning to get it. The unpredictable and powerful Holy Spirit may have begun blowing new life into him. Later on, in the aftermath of Jesus’ death, he emerges again from the shadows to assist in helping with the Lord’s burial (John 19.39).

What does it mean to perish? It does not mean merely to die. Nor does it mean annihilation or to cease to exist. It means to experience futility and the complete loss of all that makes existence worthwhile. It is the state of existence in which humanity presently exists. We are alive in a state of existence described in the Bible as dead in our sins (Ephesians 2.1).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son give us an insight into the meaning of “perish.” Notice how the father describes his son in Luke 15.24- …this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. The term used for “lost” in the Luke passage is the same term we translate as “perish” in John 3.16. Here it is rendered “perish” because apart from believing in God’s only son, we are truly “lost” – even a son of Israel, like Nicodemus, regardless of what he thought, was lost. Like Nicodemus, apart from the grace shown to us in Christ we are lost and perishing people, a world of prodigal sons and daughters ready to satisfy the deepest hunger of our souls with the pig slop of a world far away from our Father and the feast awaiting our return.

A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 2)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish…

This passage is found near the conclusion of a larger conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that is recorded in John 3. Nicodemus comes at night and begins by complimenting Jesus – we know you are teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him (John 3.2).  Jesus ignores the praise because he understands the real intention of Nicodemus’ comment.   Nicodemus came to him speaking generally about the miracles, but hidden beneath was a personal interest in the Messianic kingdom and his own place in it.  Here was a man who was thinking deeply about himself, wondering how he, himself, might enter into God’s kingdom.  This is why Jesus replies, “ I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again … I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” As a Pharisee, Nicodemus probably understood that Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) needed to be “born again,” but it staggered his mind to think that something similar had to happen to himself, a Jew. The Jewish ceremony for a Gentile entering Judaism  proclaimed the individual “like a child born new.”  Jesus is saying in effect, Jews like yourself must realize that your pedigree and lineage are irrelevant in the sight of God. You must treat yourselves the same way you treat Gentiles who want to become Jews. You insist that they renounce their past, be circumcised and be ceremonially washed in water. But you are farther from the Kingdom of God than you think a Gentile is from Judaism. You, yourself, must be ‘born again’.”  Nicodemus wonders, Wasn’t he a child of Abraham by virtue of his Jewish mother? How could he become any more Jewish than he was through his mother? He was bewildered by Jesus’ instruction but he was beginning to understand now.

Nicodemus was a man who had a lot going for himself. He was a man of the Pharisees, a highly venerated and noble strain of Judaism who had refused to compromise their religion. It seems, though, that he was dissatisfied by what he was he was hearing about Jesus and so he resolved to look into things for himself. Perhaps his example is a useful lesson for us. When we are dissatisfied with what the world tells us about Jesus and we want to listen to him for ourselves, that is a very helpful and hopeful state of mind to be in!

A Closer Look at John 3.16 (part 1)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

What must we believe? …whoever believes in him. It is not “whoever believes in whatever.” We are called to believe in the One and Only, Jesus Christ.  The One begotten by God, not some idea  “begotten” by us or made up in our minds.  The term “begotten” or “one and only” distinguishes him from anything else, any other idea, or any other creature in all of creation. He was not created by God. He was “begotten” and therefore the same in substance and being, eternally of and from the Father – “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1.3).” As a Christian, I do not simply believe that Jesus is one possibility among many, but the One and Only. God has completely and only shown us himself in Jesus Christ. To know Jesus is to actually know God.

What world did God love? God so loved the world.  He has loved this world, our world, completely,  just as it is. The term used is “kosmos.” This term is not used  in the Bible to describe the world that is to come, but this world just as it is. This is the world, as we know it and experience it, all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly – spinning around helpless and hopeless.  It is the term that describes the world estranged from its Creator in all the darkness and dreariness of sin. The use of this term to describe the world hints at the unconditional nature of God’s love. Neither the world nor we need to be changed or made presentable to solicit his love. Not only we, but the world can sing- just as I am …

Why the past tense? God so loved the world. Why does the Bible describe the love of God this way? Why not the present tense – “God loves the world”? Because not only has God completely shown us himself, but he has completely shown us his love. In 1John 4.7-11 we read, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. In Romans 8.37 Paul says of all that life and death can throw at us …in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. We should dwell on this for a moment. The point of the past tense seems to be that God has fully proven his love, and nothing remains for him to do in this regard.  There is absolutely nothing more for him to show or do with regards to the reality of his love, and so there should be no doubt about it!

The Gospel According to the Life of Joseph (3)

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me …I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here. Genesis 45.4-5

Joseph’s story culminates in a way that demonstrates the importance of repentance on the part of his brothers and his revelation of himself to them and the great love that motivates him to finally do this. In 43.33-34, he tests his brothers, to find out how they feel about Benjamin. Is his younger brother treated by them the same way he was? Everything he does- the test his brothers must undergo regarding Benjamin (42.15), the seating arrangements (43.33), the huge portion of food (43.34), the personal cup hidden and discovered in Benjamin’s sack (44.12) – it is all done to uncover what the attitude of these brothers is towards the young boy. Joseph seems to be asking in all of this, Are my brothers the same or are they changed? Are they jealous of Benjamin? Will they sentence him to slavery as they did me? So they undergo these tests devised by Joseph to find out what they are like and to finally bring them before him.

When the cup is discovered, Judah speaks for all of them, What can we say to my lord? … What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servant’s guilt. (44.16) The “guilt” includes what they had done to their brother Joseph. Judah understands what they did to Joseph is being brought out in these events as indicated earlier in 42.21 –  They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that is why this distress has come upon us. Judah now casts himself upon the mercy of one he does not even really know yet- …please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in the place of the boy (44.33). Joseph’s identity is not revealed to his brothers, he is not known by them until he is certain about the state of their hearts toward Benjamin. Finally, he invites them, Come close to me!

What a marvelous invitation. Our own experience of God’s revelation of himself to us not only begins but deepens with the realization that we are guilty beyond any remedy we have in ourselves. What is God showing me about myself that is unpleasant and ugly and displeasing to him? How can I deal with it without becoming depressed and despairing? Like Joseph’s brothers I need to cast myself on the mercy of the One I am only beginning to know. Repentance is a turning, a turning away from sin and a turning towards God and his grace. Perhaps, a deepening experience of Christ awaits me.   Acts 2.21 promises that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We are to call upon on Christ to save us from the penalty of sin.  I need to keep on doing this! Faith and repentance are both gifts from God. But faith describes a gift to rest upon God, whereas repentance describes being turned more fully toward God. Whenever we uncover the truth about ourselves we can discover more and more how much we can trust in Christ! 1 John 1.8-9 tells us that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Grace, John Newton says in his great hymn, taught my heart to fear, and grace, my fears, relieved. Grace teaches us that we are guilty but that our “Joseph” desires to forgive us!  And such a revelation should chase away the self-loathing I feel in the face of my sin, and bring a new experience of peace and joy. All is well! A greater-than-Joseph has invited me to come closer, and put away the distress and anger in my heart that has smothered the flames of his unfailing love.

The Gospel According to the Life of Joseph (2)

The Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor…   Genesis 39.21

The term, “favor,” from which we also get our New Testament word, “grace,” describes the stronger coming to the help of the weaker or aiding the weaker. It is the result of the special intervention of God who supplies grace to the weak.  It was  “while Joseph was there in prison” that he received God’s favor. Just as Paul tells the Ephesians you were dead in your transgressions and sins ..but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ,  … God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace/favor, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ. For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast. Eph.2.6-9

Joseph’s life is summarized by his father in Gen.49.22 – With bitterness archers attacked him; they shot at him with hostility. His own dysfunctional family betrayed him and sold him into slavery, and then he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and wrongly imprisoned. The devil, the flesh, and the world let its arrows go on Joseph. But such trials and temptations, woes and worries, life in all of its worldliness and wackiness, did not stop him. In the end, he was the rescuer of his people just as his dreams foretold.

Joseph, in this regard, foreshadows Christ. Jesus was the innocent One betrayed, broken by us and for us on the cross of suffering and yet he used his new resurrection position of exalted Lord to save us all from the penalty of our sins just as Joseph would save his family from starvation and extinction. The threefold pattern of Joseph’s life mirrors Christ’s own story of obedience, humiliation, and exaltation, and it is a pattern for us, too. In Joseph’s life, perhaps more than anywhere else in the Bible,  we see what life influenced by the grace of God can be like.

Obedience Where God’s favor rests/ where his grace is poured out, there will be obedience. In the preceding narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, like the narratives of our own lives, we see people repeatedly fall short of God’s expectations and promises, though, of course they continued to have faith in God, but here in the story of Joseph, at last, we meet someone who is filled to the brim with a sense of God’s love and grace, and shows me, shows you, what we are capable of – there is no room in his heart for Potiphar’s wife – How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? His story encourages us in our own failures that resistance to sin and obedience to God is not beyond our grasp, and our young people should especially take heart that in the highly sexualized culture of today, with the favor of God they can stand for the truth as Joseph did, as Paul says in Titus 2 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. Joseph shows us the possibilities for such a life guided by grace.

Humiliation When we are favored by God there will also be humiliation. Joseph’s life shows us that doing the right thing will often cause you trouble. First Peter 4 says do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 

This is important to remember when you are going through trials and troubles that are really not your fault. Sometimes (most of the time?) I bring my troubles on myself, but sometimes there are circumstances or people, over which I have no control. Your troubles may be the fault of your boss or your husband or your wife or your children, or some stupid law or regulation, and you have to suffer. But if we have decided to suffer in a Christ-like way, it may mean we have to bear it as did Joseph, as did Jesus.  Not all suffering as a Christian will be like this, but if God’s favor is upon us, we know there will be suffering and humiliation. It is an essential part of the pattern of a Christ, the pattern of Joseph, the pattern of all who commit themselves to their God.

Exaltation We know that the humiliation of Joseph does not last indefinitely, nor did Jesus’ nor will ours. Because with God’s favor is upon us there will be “exaltation” – a “lifting up” or “raising up.” Joseph accepted his humiliation and bore it well. He is the pattern.   Peter says, humble yourselves, therefore under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you. The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To him be power for ever and ever.

Obedience, humiliation, and, finally, exaltation.  That is the pattern of Joseph’s life and the pattern of Jesus’ life and our life with him. The world  may be thick with arrows, but Christ’s blood is thicker still. It is not about our own strength but about Him. We can sing with the Psalmist, The Lord will perfect that which concerns me (Ps.138.8). God’s favor was on Joseph, and even more so on the greater-than-Joseph, Jesus, our Savior, who bore the arrows for us that so that we could be raised up to walk in new life with him.