1st Corinthians 15:3-5
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.”
So much has been said and written about the Lord and the Scriptures over the last 2,000 years. In some instances things have been added to the Gospel, in others things have been taken away. Wars have been fought over how we should worship, and whole sections of Christianity are not on speaking terms simply because they disagree on when Easter should be celebrated, or even on which word should be used. People have always disagreed on what the Word says, and even what should be a part of the Word of God. Theologians have built careers and fame (or infamy) on parsing out what each word and phrase in the Scriptures means. We should study that we may be approved. We are naïve if we think that knowing what Scripture teaches is only for pastors. We are ripe for being deceived and led astray if we are not grounded in the Bible. But we should never lose sight of what the Gospel really is and what the entire Word is built upon: that Jesus died a bloody death for our sins, was entombed, and was raised from the dead as the ultimate proof of our faith. That’s it, plain and simple. If we get drawn into pointless controversies and arguments over minor details we are missing the point and our labor will be in vain. It is hard to keep from falling into those traps; I’ve done it repeatedly (which is why I have learned to stay away from certain online groups that do nothing but argue and insult each other and never get anywhere). But we need to stick to the basics: Jesus died to save us and was raised in the flesh to show that our hope in Him is not in vain. Look at the history of the Christian faith. Did the Way explode across the Roman Empire and beyond because the believers were so skilled at theological debate? No, it happened because people like Paul and John and Peter and many others pointed to a God who came down here and waded through a world of sin and death that we might live eternally; they preached Christ crucified and risen. People have always responded best to that. It is a message that fills that aching spiritual hole inside and gives the hurting a firm hope for the future. All of those that we esteem as great evangelists carried this message to the world: preachers like the Apostles, Ambrose of Milan, Columba, Whitefield, Spurgeon and Graham changed the world around them by preaching the message that Jesus loves you, He died for your sins, and rose again to be your King. That is when people hear the call of the Lord and turn to Him for their salvation. That should be the entire point of what we carry to the world, not what we feel are the right doctrines and practices. Save those debates for Bible studies and personal discussions. Carry Jesus to a dying world, not the tenets of religion, and we shall see people turn to Christ like never before. Jesus loves you that much, and so do I…
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.'”
Most of us should be quite familiar with the story of Simon the sorcerer, the guy that tried to buy the ability to lay on hands and “give” people the Holy Spirit, and there is so much to learn from this account. For one thing, Simon became a believer and was baptized, yet hadn’t yet come into a full understanding of how things now were (verse 13); he was enthralled by the miracles worked by Philip and focused on them rather than the Lord that makes them possible. But what I want to look at today is the reaction of the people of Samaria to Simon’s sorcery and the grave mistake that they made, and that people still make today. The people saw the supernatural works of Simon and decided that he was the “divine power known as the Great Power”, which revealed their profound ignorance of the Scriptures and the belief in false powers that followed in the wake of such ignorance. They didn’t even attribute the power that Simon apparently wielded to God, but rather to some vague, ill-defined “Great Power”; either they assumed it came from within himself or was something very generally defined. This mistake is still made by millions in our own age when people attribute supernatural power either to some inherent quality of the person, or to some sort of generic power, like the Mother Earth power or even the fictional power from Star Wars called the Force. Some groups prefer to just suggest their members believe in some sort of “Higher Power” and say that it is whatever you consider a higher power. But we must be clear about this: any power that does not come from God comes from the enemy, Satan, and his legions of fallen angels…period. And the only way to get access to the power of God is through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only way to the Father and therefore His power; Jesus is the only valid doorway or gate to the divine. Anything that does not come through Him is not of God. No amount of belief in other paths to eternal life will work. No belief in a vague “higher power” or a God without Christ or some innate quality of the human species or even the Force will get you an eternal life of great joy and bliss. (Think I’m joking about a belief in “the Force”? Go to a Star Wars convention or talk to a devoted fan of those films and you’ll see plenty of people who take the Force very seriously!) If our faith is in Jesus Christ, our divine Savior, then we will receive that eternity; without Jesus, we have nothing and remain doomed. How did things turn out for Simon? It doesn’t say specifically, but I think it probably turned out ok for him. We know he became a believer in the Lord, and when Peter rebuked him Simon did not get all huffy and storm off, but rather showed a sincere desire for forgiveness and remorse for his own errors. So we can hope to meet Simon in the Kingdom, only God knows, but I do know this: if we see Simon there it will be because he believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and won’t be because he believed in a “Great Power”. Or even the Force…
Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say. ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'”
In our walk with Christ as His disciples we are called to do many things in His name, and while our callings can be similar at times, no two are exactly alike. Two people may be called as prophets, but they may be sent to different places with different messages depending on what God wants to say to the people in each place. Two may be called to be evangelists, but while one might be called to preach the gospel to thousands in Africa and lead many to Christ, the other might be sent to a small town in Europe or America and carry the good news to just a few dozen. You see my point, so I won’t belabor it, especially when what I have to say is not about the different callings we may receive, but rather about our attitudes toward those callings. Specifically, what I ask is this: do we see fulfilling our callings as a way of earning rewards in the age to come, or do we see it as merely what we should do? I have seen some who were called to preach to vast crowds yet have seen themselves as the most unworthy of servants, while I have seen others preach to small groups and dwell upon the crown they would receive. When we go about our lives in this age, serving our Lord as best as we know how, we need to watch out for the creeping influence of pride, the great killer of faith. When we do what our Lord asks us, we are merely serving His will in imperfect ways. We should never allow ourselves to have higher opinions of us than we should. Paul, the great apostle, founder of so many congregations in the ancient world, the first great Christian theologian and a loving brother, thought of himself as the worst of sinners to the end of his life. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, writer, preacher and pastor of possibly the first “superchurch”, considered himself a miserable sinner worthy only of death. Now I’m not advocating that you have to loathe yourself, please don’t misunderstand me. All I’m saying is that we should never allow ourselves to start thinking how good we are at following Jesus, for when we fall into that trap we risk falling in love with ourselves instead of the Savior who gives our lives meaning. No matter what we do for our Lord, no matter how many we reach or encourage, we are still just flawed men and women who couldn’t be perfectly obedient if our eternity depended on it. When we stand for what is right in Christ’s name, or have the deep conversation with someone that leads them to repentance and faith, we are merely doing our duty. We will remain humble servants even while we are children of the Living God, and so long as we think of ourselves as merely doing our duty, we will avoid the miry pit called pride, and we will have a truly humble attitude in this life, and the one to come.
Peace and grace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened. But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
I have always found the book of the prophet Jonah a very enlightening, even comforting book among the Old Testament prophets. Here was a man who was called by God to a certain mission, but he ran the other way and went through a great ordeal before he turned back around and obeyed God; there have been many times during my walk with Christ when I have identified with Jonah. But usually when we hear of Jonah, we hear of the events recorded in the first two chapters: the famed tale of being swallowed by a large sea creature until he repented. But there is, of course, more to the story, for Jonah ends up going to Nineveh after all and delivering the Lord’s message, leading to the repentance of the people. But then a curious thing happened – when the Ninevites repented and God spared them, Jonah got angry with God! That part of the story always kind of mystified me a bit as to why Jonah got so irate, but since it was not a main teaching point of the book, I didn’t really dwell on it. But then the other day I was reading part of an exposition on Jonah when the Lord revealed something to me that should have been obvious (and maybe it is to most people). Jonah got angry at God because he wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed, since Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and the Assyrians had been making life for Israel very miserable for quite some time, culminating in the destruction of Samaria and the deportation of the entire northern kingdom. In short, Jonah wanted to see Nineveh punished for the sins of the Assyrians, but of course, God had already known of their repentance and so He delayed that punishment. Anyway, that realization got me thinking about how I would react if God were to forgive and spare the enemy of my people, which then led me to think about how Jesus told us to forgive our enemies and love even them. Do I truly love my “enemies”? Do I pray for them? He opened my eyes to the fact that I don’t, at least not very often. And that led to some repentance of my own. How many times do I watch the insanity going on in this world and pray for those who would be potential opponents? (Now I have no personal enemies that I know of, but in the bigger view of things there are those who would and do oppose me violently for a number of reasons.) When was the last time I prayed for the salvation and healing of spiritual opponents, of political opponents, of cultists? Such prayer needs to be consistent and fervent; anything less would just be “lip service” and unloving. When we see someone shooting up a church or a synagogue, or rioting in the streets, or even beheading people for being “infidels”, our response should not be an equal loathing but instead a prayer for the salvation of their souls through Jesus Christ. And if that person or persons comes to Christ we are to rejoice with all of heaven, not get angry that they “got away with it”. So who are the Ninevites in your life? Join me in praying for their repentance and receipt of God’s mercy, for “but for the grace of God, there goes I”…or you.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God?’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'”
There have been many “death bed confessions” of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior recorded through the last 2,000 years. You know how it goes: someone lives their life doing what they please no matter how wicked, then when they are at death’s door they express remorse over their sins and profess faith in Christ. Then they die. It sounds simple enough, but many of these end of life expressions of repentance and faith have been questioned, criticized, and dismissed as invalid. But should they have been? One famous case that comes to mind is that of Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI, who set a standard of licentious behavior in the Vatican rarely equaled, who while dying of a fever made a full and detailed confession of his sins to his confessor and sought forgiveness from the Lord. Now many have stated over the years that his confession was “invalid” and of no use, but who are we to say? I wasn’t there, you weren’t there, and none of the naysayers were there, just the priest who heard his confession and, of course, the Lord Jesus. My point to all of this history lesson is that when someone expresses repentance and faith we are behooved to respect that and accept it, for only God can know what is truly in someone’s heart. But I have heard and read many who say that one of the problems of death bed confessions is that they aren’t sincere, that the only reason they were made is because the dying person knew their time was up and they were scared; they should be. But again we come to the fact that only the Lord knows what is in a person’s heart, and all we should do is rejoice that someone came to faith before it was too late. The other issue, perhaps the larger issue, that is often raised is that the dying person can’t really be saved because they did not have any opportunity to perform good works as a sign of the validity of their faith. Really? The obvious flaw in that notion is that it makes salvation faith plus works, when Scripture is clear that we receive God’s saving grace on the basis of faith alone. But the real refutation of that argument is found in the passage of Luke quoted above. The criminal on the cross next to Jesus had no opportunity to perform good works to validate his faith; he died on his cross within hours, which makes his profession of faith in essence a death bed confession. He confessed his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior publicly, which was all he needed to do as far as acting on his faith went. As Paul said in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”, with confession and belief being the important bits. There shouldn’t be a problem, but there seems to be in spite of Scripture. “But how is that fair to those who live righteous lives and work hard for the Lord?” people will cry out. Jesus seems to have foreseen just such an argument in the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 when the vineyard owner in the parable paid the ones who worked one hour the same wage as those who worked all day. The generous gift from the Lord is eternal life with Him, and through faith we receive that whether we have been dedicated Christians for decades or come to accept Christ as we are ascending the hangman’s scaffold. So the next time you hear or read of someone making a death bed confession of faith in the Lord Jesus, don’t reject it out of hand. Just accept it and praise God that one more lost sheep is coming home at last.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Many nations will come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us His ways,
so that we may walk in His paths.’
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong
nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.”
The Old Testament prophet Micah gave us this vivid portrayal of the coming earthly Kingdom of Christ over 700 years before our Savior walked among us. Many others spoke through the Spirit about this Kingdom, including Jesus Himself, Isaiah, Ezekiel and other Old Testament prophets; the apostle John wrote clearly of it in the Revelation. But in this passage from Micah, the prophet gives us a clear picture of God’s righteous government being established over the messed up governance of humanity. I hear it often: “If we just change this or stop doing that we can finally end the madness of war, or hunger, or injustice”; I’ve heard it from Presidents and politicians, professors and plumbers, even from religious leaders who should know better. No human effort can solve all the world’s problems because every human is afflicted by our sinful nature, whether we want to believe in one or not. It is this sinful nature that leads people to thirst for power, or wealth, or fame, or anything detrimental. Every murder from Abel to the present is the result of someone giving in to that sinful nature. Every war ever fought had its root in somebody’s sinful nature in one way or another; every crime, every injustice, every abuse has the same cause. So long as humans carry that around we are doomed to failure at governing our own affairs no matter what we try. No governmental system will usher in an age of peace and prosperity for everyone. Only the rule of our sovereign Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can bring in a truly new world order, and once He returns in power and glory He will establish that rule over all humanity and bring to an end our flawed attempts to govern ourselves. So should we stop trying to make things better? Of course not; that is the mentality that assures the rise of tyranny. We should live and act as citizens of that Kingdom if we are believers. But don’t make the mistake of thinking we can bring about the Kingdom by our own efforts, because the Scriptures teach quite the opposite. Only Jesus Christ can establish that Kingdom, which shall stand forever.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Tell it to your children,
and let your children tell it to their children,
and their children to the next generation.”
History is such an important area of knowledge, and yet the teaching or understanding of history is falling by the wayside. For centuries, going back to the Classical period prior to Christ’s Incarnation, a critical part of a person’s education was at least their national history. How can a nation understand itself in the present if it is ignorant of what it has been through in its past? It would be as if a person had no memory of anything that happened in their life prior to the last week; understanding why you are how you are would be nearly impossible. I watch this trend here in American education with deep concern, for our history is either being ignored or twisted into a false parody of itself. But of even greater importance as disciples of Jesus Christ is an understanding of the history of our faith. Of course, the Bible was not intended to be a history text, it is instead the written Word of God meant to teach us everything we need to know about God and His plans for our salvation through the Lord Jesus. But the Bible also contains a lot of history, both of the nation of Israel and the early church, and through the Word we are exhorted frequently to teach the next generations about the things that God has done. That is why the Jews preserved the Bible’s Old Testament historical books, and why Luke wrote his gospel and the book of Acts. I’m not foolish enough to try and say that everyone should be well studied in the history of the Christian faith – most believers have neither the time nor the inclination to learn the equivalent of a university degree in church history. But at least learn enough to understand how we got to where we are today. There are a lot of great general information books available on church history; if nothing else, read the Wikipedia article on “history of Christianity” to get you started. But also, when you do read about it, don’t rely on just one partisan view; if you are Catholic, don’t rely on just histories written and approved by the Vatican, and likewise, if you are Protestant or Evangelical or simply independent, don’t completely rule out the histories written by Catholics. Eusebius wrote a wonderful and very readable history of the Christian church from Jesus’ time to Constantine in the 4th Century. Edward Gibbon wrote extensively on the history of Christianity, both in the Western and the Eastern Empires, in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”; his critics said he was a Christ hater, but having read him several times I found that what he really hated was some of the corruption and un-Christian behaviors of the church in those centuries. Will Durant wrote well about the rise of the Christian faith in his volumes “Caesar and Christ” and “The Age of Faith” and “The Reformation”, even though his liberal bias in interpretation shows at times. My point is, we should be able to understand things like why there was a Reformation in Christianity, or how the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church fell out and over what, or how your own denomination or church began and developed. Have some kind of a grasp on how the faith grew from a handful of people after the Resurrection of our Lord into what we know today. Know what the Body of Christ has survived and overcome in our past so that you know who we are today and why, and hopefully, how to avoid the same sorry mistakes. It’s an amazing story filled with the great works of God (and the misdeeds of fallible humans) that is sure to inspire and enlighten you as you are reminded of what God has done for His children.
Grace and peace to you all from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.