Christ’s Fullness and Peace is Ours

Two days ago, I taught a Bible lesson on Naomi, in the book of Ruth. She was left empty in the land of Moab when her husband and sons died. There was nothing to keep her there after hearing about the end of the famine in her homeland. However, merely stepping foot in another geographical location didn’t satisfy her longing to be complete, full, or satisfied. Naomi was still empty when she arrived in Bethlehem and asked others to call her Mara (bitter). Many people move to a new country with dreams of a completely different life. Long-held dreams of Immigrants often end abruptly in nightmares of financial poverty and isolation from mainstream society, crushing their dreams of a perfect life. Refugees may receive aid for a time and then are left entirely on their own unless someone steps in to help them. Their lack of inclusion and acceptance, of purposeful work and friends, reflects the emptiness we all have in the world. Sometimes missionaries are shocked at the greed of some when they pour out their money and time for those who have little resources. Or, expat owners who think they will make it rich, find that the competition is overwhelming.  Like Naomi, our emptiness follows us wherever we go, in whatever we do, if we expect the world’s priorities, values, and rewards to fill us. But through his fullness, Jesus Christ gives Christians grace whereby he reconciles them to himself for peace with him. Believers in Jesus Christ lack nothing for peace here or in eternity. We find our fullness in him.

When we think of something full, we envision completeness, to its maximum capacity, not lacking in anything. God is infinite in all of his attributes, which is way beyond full. (See 2 Chronicles 6:18; Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:25-26.) Paul writes in Colossians 1:19-20, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Jesus has all the attributes and authority of God and used his life, through his incarnation, him to make atonement for us. Christ’s fullness comes from him, through his blood, to make peace. The grace he gives us is abundant.  “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16) We have access to his infinite grace. The fullness of Christ leads to our peace in a world that unsuccessfully tries to fill the empty voids with material and romantic throw-aways. 

In “The Scorch Trials,” the main character, Thomas, is subjected to trial after trial. At one point, he hears the voice of his friend saying that he will have to experience something tough and painful, but he will be okay in the end. He isn’t sure who to trust at this point, and is utterly conflicted about this girl, since she has been extremely unpredictable. Sometimes she acts like she wants to kill him, and does, in fact, injure him. At other times, she is sweet, loyal, and apologetic for acting like his enemy, set out to destroy him. He describes himself as empty. He has no point of reference for absolute truth. I wonder how many young readers identify with Thomas and the other kids who don’t know who to trust, or the purpose of the trials they are forced to endure, leaving them feeling empty. (1) But by Christ’s work, through faith, we are inoculated against condemnation to everlasting torment and emptiness. However, we still suffer from temporary sicknesses and contamination because of worthless ideals around us, or the distortion of what is meant to be good. For example, in the American legal system, meant to offer hope to our citizens, a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty. But is that really how we view the accused, or our legal system? Reality and fictional TV shows, sports, and business are all about competition these days instead of inspiration. There are a few winners and many losers. Empty promises. Empty contests that mean nothing. Unlike Thomas, though, we know who our enemies are, without any doubt: the world, Satan, and our flesh. Unlike Thomas, we also know who to trust—Jesus Christ. Every word of His in Scripture is true. He wants us to experience his peace. He and his band of apostles warn us about embracing the emptiness of worldly promises and ideas. “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

The world keeps trying to fill itself up, as do we all, like a perpetual all-you-can-eat-buffet or like rabid consumers on Amazon Prime Day. More is better. More will fill us up. But with what? That which leaves us empty or full? Christians have the fullness of God to feast upon continually. The more grace we receive, the more can spill over into the lives of others. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that as we receive more peace from Christ, feeding on him, we become vessels of peace for others. As John Gill writes, “…grace upon grace, heaps of grace…’ goodness upon that goodness’…an abundance of it, an addition to it, and an increase of it…joy upon joy, is an abundance of joy, a large measure of it; and ‘holiness upon holiness’, abundance of it.” (2) This we have from Christ, who made his atoning sacrifice for us to have peace with God, in him, through him, and from him, by his blood. “The basis for Christ’s reign of peace is the blood of his cross. The cross truly is the pivotal point in human and cosmic history.” (3) Our story’s point of crisis, whereby the plot revolves, is at the cross of Christ. Here is the point where peace broke into the world. God used a grandchild to cut through Naomi’s bitterness and emptiness. She knew the pre-incarnate Christ, given to her as a deposit against future credit when he died on the cross. We have his credit ahead of our debt, the finished work of Christ before death. (4) Now living Christians lack nothing for our peacefulness. So we must ask ourselves what we are willing to do to extend this gospel peace to others in our families, churches, neighborhoods, workplaces, and groups. We are vessels of God’s peace and fullness. Will we offer hope to the Thomases in our noisy, busy, empty, hungry, and thirsty world? Christ says, “…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) May our peace be like a bubbling fountain, spilling the water of the gospel into the dry, empty people of the world.

(1) “The Scorch Trials,” (#2 in “The Maze Runner” Series) by James Dashner.

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Colossians 1:20, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/colossians-1.html

(3) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Colossians 1:20, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(4) Toussaint, Dr. Stanley, Hebrews lecture series for Dallas Theological Seminary.

July 17, 2019

Future Peace Based on Perfect Justice

Have you been following the news story about the citizenship question on the U.S. 2020 census? Why is it so hard to determine the answer when the deadline has passed?  Attorneys are even scratching their heads over this. The legal battle in “Sycamore Row” (a fictitious story) by John Grisham sounds more realistic than the news stories circulating now. I appreciate any positive insight I can get into the workings of our legal systems.  My sister-in-law is a retired judge who still sometimes sits. Every once in a while, she gives me a peek into circuit courts and the judicial system. She has shared about how some judges she knows want to show mercy to younger people arrested for lesser violations of the law. She told me that they (the judges) are often motivated by their desire to keep younger folks out of jail, knowing that they will be strongly influenced by hardened criminals there. I am encouraged by some judges’ desire to protect our youth. Judicial systems are complicated, but at least there are democracies in which each case is determined on its own, depending on the person and context, weighed against the written code of law. But the laws and courts are only as good as sinful people, and since all humankind is corrupt, our legal and justice systems, along with everything else, is more than imperfect—they are immoral. This may seem ironic, but consider the Ten Commandments ability to demand and curse, and not to save—the same thing happens with any laws we might create. The inadequacies of laws to deliver from sin drive us to Christ, the perfect Judge. He will bring his pure justice to bear on the world one day, and with it, our longed-for worldly peace, true shalom. In the meantime, our sovereign God is gracious to many democratic countries and courts, supplying his people for our earthly courts, whether for grace or discipline, as we pray for the peace Christ will bring. 

 “In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more!” (Psalms 72:7) In this psalm, the people of God are offering a prayer to the Lord for their king—either Solomon or another of the Davidic kings, who are in the line of the Messiah. “The ideal for the Davidic king is that he promote the well-being of the whole people of God by embodying true piety and by governing in such a way that justice prevails at all times (usually this means protecting the weaker members from the oppressive schemes of the stronger ones). Under such conditions, godliness should thrive among all the people, and thus they would experience the covenant blessings…where the land looks like a renewed Eden and the Gentiles are drawn to worship the true God.” (1) God raised up David and his heirs, just as he provides judges and lawmakers today to govern with justice for the peace of his people. But we know that the only One who can transform our cultures of controversy and debate into those of abundant peace where believers thrive in Jesus Christ. Instead of the discouragement we now have over theological conflicts, political noise, manipulation for power, and military contests, Jesus Christ will one day give us unending worldly peace allowing Christians to thrive. Imagine having Christmas Day peace every day. Can you imagine infinite months and years of that beautiful serenity? The beautiful truth is that we have this peace now, to a limited extent, as Jesus reigns supreme over creation. “Blessings abound where’er he reigns; the prisoner leaps to lose his chains, the weary find eternal rest, and all the sons of want are blessed.” (2)

Under Solomon’s rule, Israel had her only golden years of prosperity and peace. One day the Body of Christ will enjoy infinite fruitfulness, “…being planted in a good soil, in the house and courts of the Lord, where the word is preached, and ordinances administered; being rooted and grounded in the love of God and grace of Christ; being watered continually with the dews of divine favour; enjoying the bright shining of the sun of righteousness, and the refreshing gales of the divine Spirit, like the south wind upon them, causing their spices to flow out.” (3) Even now the Holy Spirit is at work; “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

As we daily brush up against and are sometimes overtaken by the disputes and waywardness not only of the world, but of our very own minds, we forget that  Christ alone is a righteous Judge who can and will resolve all internal and external conflicts. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) We need laws and courts to decide our issues today just as Israel needed judges and kings to settle disputes in biblical times. But what used to be widely known has become strangely obscure in 2019—the definition of what is good and righteous. Are vampires, witches, zombies, sexual confusion, radio-active monsters, comic robbery, and promiscuity really good? Isn’t that what our world is promoting? The top TV series are “Stranger Things,” “Dark,” “Black Mirror,” “Game of Thrones,” “Euphoria,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Witcher,” “Big Little Lies,” and “Lucifer.” (4) What do they all have in common? They are dark and involve lots of crime, sin, and weirdness. I fear that our youth can no longer identify with righteousness  and its peace. I was having a conversation with someone recently whose favorite line of her favorite hymn is “Thou hidden source of calm repose…” However, she remarked that most people under the age of 30 might not even know that “calm repose” means peaceful rest. Christ is going to transform our world so utterly that it will be almost unrecognizable to those who never knew his Spirit of tranquility. The way God will judge the nations and disputes between his people will not be as it is now; perhaps conflicts will be settled before they have even become known to those who hold views contrary to his holiness (although the Bible does not state this). There will be no use for weapons of war, only for plows and pruning tools, for farming and productivity. I like to imagine that God will transform he guns, tanks,  aircraft carriers, Humvees, and bombs into wind turbines, solar panels, and large farm machinery. 

In the meantime, what are we to do? Does ignoring the news give us peace? Should we get involved, even though we might consider it futile? Do you feel guilty about not being an activist in some aspect of social or political life? Sometimes the Lord calls us to act, and other times prayer is all we can and should do, for more peace, and Christ’s return. But we never give up, since the gospel of peace is the only real hope and the only future for those who desire true peace. Perhaps you, like me, feel convicted to learn more about and pray for God to provide us with the best lawyers, lawmakers, and judges. I have listed some websites describing the work of international courts below the notes if you would like to learn more about them. Christians be encouraged, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”  (Micah 4:1-2)

(1) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Psalm 72, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(2) Hymn “Jesus Shall Reign,” words by Isaac Watts.

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 72:7, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/psalms-72.html

(4) https://www.imdb.com/search/title/?title_type=tv_series

(5) Hymn “Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose” by Charles Wesley

Websites for international courts:

https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/thematic-areas/international-law-courts tribunals/international-courts-and-tribunals/  

https://www.justice.gov/jmd/international-courts

https://www.americanbar.org/groups/judicial/publications/judges_journal/2016/summer/

https://www.asil.org/community/international-courts-and-tribunals

July 10, 2019

Peace Through a Broken Wall

Wall, borders, customs, gerrymandering, the wall…all these conjure up images of keeping people out, protecting those on this side from those on that side. Political and legal talk might lead us to think in terms of issues rather than people, who are the real subjects here. In Paul’s day, the Jews protected themselves and their temple from the pollution of the Gentiles. A low wall in the temple, called a “soreg” divided them; one inscription says “No outsider shall enter the protective enclosure around the sanctuary. And whoever is caught will only have himself to blame for the ensuing death.” (1) The Jews had no peace. In “The Line Becomes a River,” Francisco Cantu help us to see the immigration battle more clearly, as he relates his experiences as a border patrol agent, through his interactions with real people on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Walls and borders do not bring peace, only the illusion of it, in the same way that finances, politics, and legal decisions do. Yet, we continue to build walls, trying to defend our ideals and draw lines in our lives to protect our hearts and emotions from injury. We associate with certain people and avoid others; we go to certain shopping centers, restaurants, and gyms at specific times to be comfortable and convenient. We are not at peace because our efforts to live in cocoons is not what God intends for us. The good news is that Christians are not spiritually divided, internally or externally; we are not broken or alienated as believers in Christ. So why do we insist on acting as if we are? 

“In a society haunted by fragmentation, hi-tech distractedness, and the loneliness of individualism, where hearts—even Christian hearts—are empty theaters of longing, we crave divine peace. The increasing emptiness people feel amid prosperity eloquently exposes the importance of this missing peace. But where do we find it?… In Christ, God has already made us his beloved children, gracing us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm. Among such blessings is peace that surpasses understanding. We therefore no longer approach God from a place of privation, unsure of whether he wishes to allay our distress. We recognize, rather, that he has already provided limitless resources of peace as integral to our identity in Christ.” (2) 

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:13-14) Jesus Christ is our peace; he has destroyed the hostility we once had with God to unite us to him.  He has broken down the wall. Christians need not accept animosity as the world does and or fear to comingle with others because we have fellowship with Christ, who is infinitely different from us. Our sin divided us from God when we were far off, like refugees, but now he has brought us near. Like those who were thrown out of their homelands, wandering, not knowing where they might end up, we were lost, without a real home and desperate for acceptance. Christ alone was able to bring us through the dividing wall of our hostility to him, by his blood-soaked work of peace on the cross. His is not a temporary peace, like that of pain medication that must be retaken, but permanent, eternal well-being—true shalom. 

Paul goes on in Ephesians to explain what Christ specifically did for and in us, “…by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…” (2:15) We are no longer controlled by God’s ceremonial law, held accountable to it, and having to be law-keepers for our security. Jesus Christ abolished the ceremonial law by his final propitiatory sacrifice and fulfilled God’s moral commandments. They no longer determine our position with him when we have been justified by faith in him. He has made us new, unconflicted creatures who love the gospel and want to obey God, the author of peace. Instead of the law burdening and wearying us, stirring up our sin, it is our reminder of God’s love and blessings. Instead of the “Jewish” law being something that separates the Jews from the rest of God’s creatures, it is that which all believers want to fulfill, loving God and our neighbors. Jesus has “reconcile[d] us [all] to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:16) Paul wrote that Christs reconciled “both” the Jews and Gentiles, but it serves us to see this symbolically as the union of all people from every tribe and nation in Christ. No one in our communities, neighborhoods, workplaces, or organizations are excluded by religion or nationality from the free gift of grace in Christ. No immigrant, politician, lawyer, refugee, rabbi, imam, salesperson, fetish priest, customs agent, child, or patient is outside of the gospel’s reach. So why are we so protective, as if we own the gift, denying it’s distribution by denying prayer and witnessing for everyone? Why have we withdrawn impenitently into protective, convenient cocoons without a thought for those unlike ourselves? Is this God’s peace? If you live in a suburb as I do, we should consider how remarkably similar the people in our church body are to each other. Our church is reaching out to those in our community who are different from us, not satisfied in our homogeneity, which doesn’t reflect kingdom reality today. Those who live in urban centers have an advantage with more diverse congregations, where Christ’s victorious destruction of the dividing wall may be evident physically, linguistically, and culturally. Believers rejoice in our love for God, worshipping together, unrestricted by our diversity—here is a taste of heavenly shalom.

Paul continues, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:17-18). Instead of preaching the law with its impossible demands, Jesus proclaimed gospel peace, which is extended now through his Spirit to the elect. The triune  God works together for our peace, through forgiveness, for his glory. “He takes them as it were by the hand, and leads them into the presence of his Father, and presents their petitions for them, on whose account they have both audience and acceptance with God…” by one Spirit”…a spirit of adoption, to enable and encourage souls to go to God as a father; and as a spirit of supplication, to teach both how to pray, and for what, as they should; and as a free spirit to give them liberty to speak their minds freely, and pour out their souls to God; and as a spirit of faith to engage them to pray in faith, and with holy boldness, confidence, and importunity…and is a peculiar privilege that belongs to the children of God; and who have great honour bestowed upon them, to have access to God at any time, as their Father, through Christ the Mediator, and under the influence, and by the direction and assistance of the Holy Spirit…” (3)

Do you get caught up in arguments or debates about who did what to whom, in the realm of politics, entertainment, or even religion? Would it not be better to seek a biblical world view? How much does legalism drive you to be task-oriented, checking off items on your list rather than let the gospel guide you, through the people God has put in your life? Do you have peace, knowing that the Holy Spirit helps you to pray, providing the peace the world cannot offer? Do you enjoy worshipping with your church family, studying and fellowshipping with them, or do you withdraw, not valuing them as you could and should? I want to encourage you, as I have been encouraged now to embrace the peace of Christ by turning away from the world’s hostilities. We who study God’s Word will never exhaust its power to change us, which gives us hope. Long ago God’s people were exiled because of their hostility toward him, demonstrated through idolatry. But He spoke to them through the prophets, who faithfully recorded his words. “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” (Micah 5:4-5) Our Shepherd has broken down the wall of hostility for eternal peace and security.

(1) “The middle wall of partition” at: https://biblethingsinbibleways.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/the-middle-wall-of-partition-misunderstandings-regarding-eph-214-16/

(2) “3 Overlooked Gifts of the Reformation,” by Chris Castaldo (3/7/17) at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-overlooked-gifts-of-the-reformation/

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Ephesians 2:18, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ephesians-2.html

July 3, 2019

The Peace of Blamelessness

Over the past week, I have watched and listened to the news and have noticed that our American news reports are more about social networks, than about what is happening in the world. Determined to know what is going on globally, I brought up websites like bbc.com/news, Aljazeera.com, and allafrica.com to balance what I saw from US sources. I learned that there is a sex scandal in Seoul, continuing struggles with Brexit in the UK, a seaweed infestation at Mexico’s beaches, a dispute about Rwanda’s human rights report, and very different views on whether the Arab peace initiative for Palestine and Israel will see any success. What did all these issues have in common with all the scuttle on social media and the US news media? They were all about conflicts, which is how the news media makes money, (in addition to reporting on gossip and unsavory items). No disputes, no news. Since life today seems to revolve around conflict, it’s no wonder that we’re stressed out and always trying to escape from it with entertainment, food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, online games, sex, and, well, you name it. But these are temporary distractions; where do we find true refuge?  

Peter offers hope for believers in the second coming of Christ. He reminds us that politics, the stock market, homes, beauty, health, success, children, and ideas about popularity will be burned up at any time. But, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:10-13) Christ’s return and the ensuing events are not good news for those whose faith is in people and politics to make a better world since this world is corrupt and broken beyond the ability to be fixed. It must be destroyed. A better one is coming, a perfect one in which we will live with perfect righteousness and peace. To that, we say Hallelujah! In the meantime, though, we live in this broken, corrupt world; although it is not our spiritual reality, it is our context and physical reality now. Paul Tripp writes: “Discouragement focuses more on the broken glories of creation than it does on the restoring glories of God’s character, presence and promises…God knows what you too are facing. He sees well the brokenness that is all around you. He is not in a panic, wondering how he’ll ever pull  off his plan with all these obstacles in the way. Don’t be discouraged. God has you exactly where he wants you. He knows just how he will use what makes you afraid in order to build your faith.” (1) 

The apostle Peter’s solution to the conflicts we face until the new earth comes with Jesus’s second incarnation is this, “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” (2 Peter 3:14) Wait, how are we to be without any imperfection and at peace in this world? When we combine Peter’s exhortation with Tripp’s statement we realize that the best fear is that which focuses on our tendencies toward sin and ungodly attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions. These we can control, or at least confess, asking God to help us begin to work on them. It’s crucial that we hold onto this idea because “blamelessness” is challenging, and we might misinterpret this idea if we don’t read carefully. For example, Matthew Henry writes: “Never expect to be found at that day of God in peace, if you are lazy and idle in this your day, in which we must finish the work given us to do. Only the diligent Christian will be the happy Christian in the day of the Lord.” (2) If we know the man and his theology, we know that he is not suggesting our ability to be perfect in this life. We can quickly go off-track here and must be careful to remember our role in Jesus return, which is precisely the same role in his first incarnation—that of a passive recipient. Lately, some people have asked me if I subscribe to the idea that everyone on earth must hear the gospel before Christ will return. My answer is that although we are called to reach out to all the world with the gospel, we have no control over Jesus’s second incarnation, it is a work of God. (See Mark 13:32-33) 

There is only one way for Christians to grow in holiness and to be “without spot and blemish,” and that is through confession and repentance of our sins. The grace of personal confession is a gift that results in our peace with God and leads us to be peacemakers with others. Sanctification is a work of God that requires our cooperation. John Gill offers this helpful commentary: “[It] should be the concern of all that look for the glorious things here spoken of…enjoying that peace of conscience which he himself gives, and which flows from his blood, righteousness, and atonement…they will look for these things with great delight and satisfaction: in peace one with another; for peace makers and keepers are called the children of God, and so heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ…sanctification is imperfect, and many are the slips and falls of the saints, though their desire is to be harmless and inoffensive, and to give no just occasion for blame or scandal.” (3) We proactively work to crush our sin by the Spirit’s power and live the new life Christ has given us. The Holy Spirit helps us to confront our hearts, recognize our idols, and our own difficulties in our relationships at home, work, church, and in the community. He gives us the desire to humble ourselves and empowers us to be holier today than we were yesterday. “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:20-22) 

In 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, Paul offers this encouragement: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Our perfectly faithful God will sanctify us completely, in our whole being to be perfect. If we truly embrace this truth, we will not shrink back from confronting our sin. Instead, we will employ the Spirit’s power in us to fight it with all our strength by acknowledging our sin in confession, asking the Lord to give us the ability to change (repent)–no matter how many times it takes over many days, weeks, months, or even years. Only then will we be blameless in the Lord’s eyes, by not accepting or “giving permission” for sin to in our thoughts, emotions, bodies, words, actions, or choices. Peace through confession leads to soul cleansing that supplies our joy in the Lord, releasing us from the guilt that will otherwise enslave us, the way news headlines color our world with broken images and stressful information. What might you need to confess today, for greater peace?

(1) Tripp, Paul David, “New Morning Mercies,” June 25, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2014.

(2) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 2 Peter 3:24, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/2peter-3.html

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 2 Peter 3:14, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/2peter-3.html

Walking Peacefully in the Spirit

“I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do…The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self- control…If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:16-17, 22-23a, 25)

It’s summer in South Texas, which means temperatures in the upper 90s and above in the afternoons most days. Morning and evening walks are the way better than those in the middle of the day. As simple as that statement is, it assumes that I’m speaking of a healthy person who has no trouble walking—no balance, leg or foot issues, no medical condition that would prohibit enjoying God’s beautiful creation instead of having to worry about whether or not a fall is a possibility. Recently our gravel path, along the creek where I live, was paved so folks with walkers and in wheelchairs would be able to navigate it, making it possible to enjoy the sound of the water, the squirrels and birds, and the shade of the trees with minimal hindrance. When God’s Word uses the picture of walking with Him, which it does innumerable times, it never assumes that this is a natural, effortless thing to do—to obey God and live in him, for him, and through him—which is why we need the Spirit’s help. As we continue to explore what it means to walk, step by step, with the Holy Spirit, we grow in our ability to resist seeking peace from the desires of the world. 

Paul wrote Galatians for God’s people, who were having a hard time resisting the teaching of Judaizers who instructed them to be circumcised, rather than come to Christ as Gentiles, with circumcised hearts, not flesh. Here he sets up the accurate picture of the conflict between our earthly desires and the Spirit’s desires in us. It is so easy for us to fall into legalism, reducing the grace of the gospel to a list of rules—do this, don’t do that. Circumcise your flesh, don’t drink, don’t dance or go to bars, pray only on your knees, go to church three times a week, give more money to ministries, etc. Nowhere in the Bible are we encouraged to shaming and pressuring ourselves into loving God, since that is impossible. Instead, we are to turn away from and control our earthly, temporal desires in favor of the desires of the Spirit. Only then can we enjoy God’s peace to its fullest extent. We will never accomplish this perfectly in this life, but the longer we live as Christian, transformed in our hearts, minds, and souls, the more we will walk with Christ, step by step. Every time I walk on our new path by the creek, I notice more things to appreciate among the rocks in the water and the trees surrounding it. 

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, he urges them to “not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) Walking with Christ is not automatic or straightforward, as if we experience and demonstrate all the fruits of the Spirit easily and quickly. Paul wrote his epistles from a context of affliction, seeing it as an advantage to himself and all Christians. Problems and human limitations have several benefits: they remind us of Christ’s suffering for us, keep us from pride, cause us to look beyond this brief life, prove our faith to others, and give God the opportunity to demonstrate his power. (1) When life is tough, overwhelming, challenging, and discouraging, we don’t lose heart because we have God’s Spirit working in us. He speaks to our hearts, reminding us of all Jesus taught and did for us through his historical gospel-centered life, atoning death, victorious resurrection and ascension, and his continual heavenly intercession on our behalf. 

The Spirit produces fruit in us, and more as we participate with him in his work of sanctifying us for God’s glory and our enjoyment of walking with the Lord. In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul expounds nine fruits or blessings of the Holy Spirit in us, produced through our God-given faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps, you, like me, have studied the fruits of the Spirit many times, and usually because we realize how little of them we experience and demonstrate. With peace as our focus, I couldn’t help but notice that in Paul’s list, love and joy appear before peace, while all the others come after it. Having no scholarly commentary on this, but only my own observation, based on my Christian experience, I wonder, are love and joy are prerequisites for peace and do the other fruits (patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) have peace as their prerequisite? Just a question. We know from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that the greatest graces are faith, hope, and love, “but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Godly love, like all the fruits of the Spirit, is not something we manufacture, but given to us by Christ, increased in us as we learn to live through God rather than through our own strength or determination, loving Christ, his Word, his people, and others whom he puts in our lives. Second in the list is joy for the salvation Jesus has provided, for fellowship with him, his forgiveness, and the hope of our life to come eternally. The more I love, the more joy I have in Christ, the more peace I have in my life with him. Of course, God being perfectly complete, the more peace I have with him, the more joy and love I also have. The point is that all these work together and not independently. When I don’t love walking with the Spirit, desiring joy in him, my flesh takes control, and my peace with God and with others is elusive at best. 

Where do you like to walk, or wish you could walk if you could—along a river in the countryside, on the beach, or through the trees on a mountain? Imagine walking in your ideal place and the peace you may have, surrounded by the sounds of nature and sight of the foliage or sky, water or sand. As you walk, you love the way the Lord has glorified creation and have joy in the simplicity of observation. You are at peace. From your peacefulness, as you approach others, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness flow easily from you. As you return home to reenter your usual routines, it’s a little easier to practice self-control when tempted by ungodly desires. Is this a daydream or a reality? God’s Word testifies that it is the way we walk in the Spirit, by his power and grace as believers in Christ. We are patient when we accept God’s providence and timing and endure, without fear, challenges of relationships; kind, good, and gentle when we have sympathy toward others without worrying about losing out on personal time or interests. Our humility reflects that of Jesus Christ because peacefulness permeates our lives. 

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) L. Berkhof writes, “The mystical union with Christ also secures for the believer the continuously transforming power of the life of Christ, not only in the soul but also in the body. The soul is gradually renewed in the image of Christ, as Paul expresses it, “from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.’ II Cor. 3:18…Being in Christ, believers share in all the blessings which He merited for his people. He is for them a perennial fountain springs into everlasting life.” (2)  I don’t know about you, but this is an almost unimaginable gift and blessing that I have only started to appreciate—that I am continually being transformed into the image of Christ. Most days, I view myself and my life as pathetic examples of a changed person, instead of having abundant joy in my transformation. Where is the peace in that? But “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17) I am trusting God to help me appropriate his love and joy for greater peace and fruit. Will you join me? 

(1)    Life Application Bible, New International Version, 2 Corinthians 4:17, Tyndale House Publishers, 1991.

(2)    Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “The Mystical Union,” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993June 19, 2019

The Holy Spirit’s Peace

“I have a low tolerance for people who complain about things but never do anything to change them. This led me to conclude that the single largest pool of untapped natural resources in this world is human good intentions that are never translated into actions.” (Cindy Gallop, an English advertising consultant and founder of “IfWeRanTheWorld”) (1) 

I think we would all agree that our good intentions will never fix anything or solve our problems unless we act upon them. As far as peace and gospel living go, most of us have intentions to be faithful to our calling as Christians. But acting on our intentions is a different matter entirely. Implied in Gallop’s statement above and her work with her foundation is her belief that we can do what is necessary to fix things if we would only translate our good intentions into observable behavior. You and I have probably spent enormous amounts of time trying to do what is right or good, especially in our relationships, and have failed on many of those occasions for various reasons. One reason for our failures is trying to independently to achieve something only God can do, especially when it comes to living in harmony with others. Our relationships with family members of differing ages, friends with alternative beliefs or opinions, tired and overworked co-workers vying for success, neighbors whom we don’t really know, or church members who bring all different experiences with them from different churches and backgrounds are often complex and challenging when we would like them to be pleasant, agreeable, and enriching.

Peace is something we all value; those parties who must debate and negotiate are thrilled when amenable terms are reached. We bring out the champagne (or ice cream) and sign contracts, or remind each other of what we just agreed upon, getting onto the business of life. We want peace. We seek peace. We pray for God’s peace. Unfortunately, we desire peace mainly because we want to avoid trouble and conflicts. But James reminds us that this peace must start inside us. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1) God wants us to be at peace with him, and at peace within ourselves, but we know that as long as we are alive here on earth, our flesh’s’ desires will war against our spirits’ renewed longings. We are like the people described by Paul in Ephesians 4:14, “…children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” In “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” Rolf Dobelli writes about how “Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to No Map At All” in Chapter 11. (2) I was led astray by someone who gave me wrong directions, rather than just say, “I don’t know” when traveling on dirt roads in Africa, looking for a school in the bush. Dobelli makes a good point, but his worldview is godless and based only on man’s limited wisdom. I could cite hundreds of other people, books, and articles that point to man’s ineffective ways to fix our thinking, our problems, and our relationships. But we have another resource for resolving our differences, and not only to avoid turmoil. We have the Holy Spirit’s help, so we don’t have to seek just any solution that seems better; he gives us the courage to dive into the mysterious waters of our bewilderment and conflicted desires, with his presence for our peace.

Why does God desire our peacefulness? We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit, to attain the unity of faith and knowledge, no longer being easily influenced by wayward ideas, doctrines, or schemes, to grow in Christ as a body that works properly and is built up in love. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all…to attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:1-6, 13-16) “Peace is what the saints are called unto in the effectual calling: and what is suitable to God, who is the God of peace; and to Christ, who is the Prince of peace; and to the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is peace; and to the Gospel, which is the Gospel of peace; and to the character which the saints bear, which is that of sons of peace.” (3)

The Holy Spirit is the source of our “soul” peace; he can permeate our lives and our desires for unity in the body after he establishes God’s peace in us when we are regenerated. At that time, the Spirit enters our hearts and lives to help us “feel [our] dependence on Christ in the very depths of [our] being, —in the sub-conscious life. Hence [we are] incorporated in Christ, and as a result experiences that all the grace which [we receive] flows from Christ. The constant feeling of dependence thus engendered, is an antidote against all self-righteousness.” (4) When our friend expresses her strong political leanings that are in direct opposition to ours, rather than try to prove that we are right in our opinions, desires, viewpoints, or actions, the Spirit gives us the desire and ability to be at peace and find our unity in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When a family member disagrees with our parenting style, God’s Spirit walks with us, bearing with others, eager to maintain our unity in Christ, and possibly using our differences as an opportunity to share the gospel. When our brother or sister at church questions our response to a biblical statement, the Spirit may convict us of their accuracy and we grow together. One of the most effective graces for peace is our corporate worship, Bible study, and prayer through our local churches. These are avenues for the Spirit to work in us, teaching us to love each other more than ourselves. “The consideration of this should engage [us] to unity, because a contrary conduct must be grieving to the Spirit of God, unsuitable to his genuine fruits, and very unlike the true spirit of a Christian.” (5) 

“Immaturity in the truths of Christian doctrine makes the church like gullible children tossed helplessly by the waves and wind of cunning and deceitful schemes of false teachers…Some people think that the learning of doctrine is inherently divisive, but it is people who divide the church, whereas the knowledge of the Son of God (both knowing Christ personally and understanding all that he did and taught) is edifying and brings about “mature manhood” when set forth in love.” (6) We know that the Holy Spirit continually teaches us Jesus’s teaching and works; he is the One who gives us Christ’s peace of reconciliation and sanctification. (John 14:26-27) Our calling is to maintain the peace already given and continually supplied to us by him; this is not a one-time event, but an aspect of our eternal life with Christ. 

Do we separate our lives into compartments, so that shopping, having meals with friends, working, parenting, and enjoying entertainment are all “other” things we do when we are not worshipping, praying, or studying Scripture? Or do you depend on the Spirit to supply your peace and help you maintain it in your relationships? Are you trying to fix the world and make your own (wrong) map to avoid the tricky aspects of life? Do we try to fit into the upside-down culture of our times, and the expectations of others to debate and disagree about almost everything? Or do we seek to follow God’s path of true peace? “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions. It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” (Jude 1:18-21)

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cindy_Gallop.I am not endorsing her or her foundations.

(2) Dobelli, Rolf, “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” Sceptre, U.K., 2013. I do not recommend this book. 

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Ephesians 4:3, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ephesians-4.html

(4) Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “The Mystical Union” (page 452-3), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993 

(5) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Ephesians 4:4, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ephesians-4.html

(6) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Ephesians 4:13-14, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

June 12, 2019

God’s Sovereign Control Supplies Our Peace

Here’s one thing I learned in Africa: don’t become too attached to your plans, since they may change at any moment. When getting to school or work depends upon finding water for your family, leaving without breakfast, using unreliable, malfunctioning public transportation and walking in the rain, it’s not unusual to be late. It takes diligence, enormous energy, and the right motivation to get to your destination on time. Here in America, we are held to a standard by our doctors or lawyers who charge late fees if we don’t show up for our appointments on time or have to reschedule after struggling with traffic for up to two hours if there is a jam. So there are times when our plans don’t work out as we expect, but in America, many people believe they have a right to get their way even when circumstances are beyond anyone’s control. This week I was in a physician’s waiting room when a couple exploded in anger because the husband couldn’t be treated as expected. No one was in control of the man’s sugar level, and the doctor wanted to protect him from a possible complication of going forward with a procedure. Rather than accept the situation, and appreciate the doctor’s concern, they thought the physician was unreasonable. I don’t know what it took for them to get to the office, but I do know that their intense reaction to their circumstance caused the staff and the patients do lose our peace for a few minutes. It just so happens that I had been working on my outline for this post when the disruption occurred. So by the grace of God and his Spirit in me, rather than worry, I was grateful to be the next to be seen by the doctor, whom I know to be a gentle, loving Christian. We had a lovely conversation about how God might use the man’s experience to help him watch his blood sugar more closely and how doctors are not magicians. Jesus was the One whom he needed to help him with his fears and anger. We were calmed and grateful for God’s plans, rather than man’s. On the way home, I prayed that the couple would later be convicted and thank God for his protection. 

In the Book of Numbers, we find a similar episode, when the leaders of Israel questioned Moses’s and Aaron’s leadership, grumbling after the Lord put to death Korah and his family. So God provided a supernatural proof of his choice of Aaron as their High Priest, to convince the people to stop complaining and opposing His leaders. He instructed Moses to have all the family heads supply a staff to be put into the holiest place, saying that one would bud, proving that he was God’s chosen priest. “On the next day, Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.” (Numbers 17:8) Did the people of Israel quiet down and accept God’s will for their leadership? Oh no, they focused only on the restriction that God placed on them after Aaron’s staff was stored in the tabernacle. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.’ Thus did Moses; as the Lord commanded him, so he did. And the people of Israel said to Moses, ‘Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?’” (Numbers 17:10-13)

The idea that we will stop complaining if we get our way is a product of our corrupted thinking and the sin in our hearts. And yet, we grumble and complain when our plans are disrupted, or someone won’t give us something we have “a right” to receive.* But if we genuinely believe that God is sovereign, good, and trustworthy, which he is, then we would be grateful for every time that he restrains us, prevents us from dangers, or redirects our plans. Twice this week, my plans changed on the day they were scheduled. Both times I saw how the Lord redirected me to do something different, that proved to be hard at first, but a real benefit and blessing afterward. Why didn’t the Israelites get it? Well, for one thing, they didn’t have the Holy Spirit living in them as we Christians do, to help us yield to God’s ways and timing. They also didn’t have the sacrificial atonement of Christ to look back on, to see how His greatest suffering provided the incredible gift of salvation. Having our plans not work out is microscopically inconvenient compared to the immense suffering of our Savior, who prayed “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) Oh, would we pray this when such small disruptions come our way! 

God used a miracle when he caused Aaron’s dead staff to produce blossoms, leaves, and buds all at the same time, overnight, from dead wood, at a time when almond trees don’t bloom. The fullness of God’s miracles reminds us of the abundance of his grace. We don’t need a miracle to find peace amid change since we already have Christ, who is the object of the miracle—bringing what is dead to new life through his incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The Israelites could have had great peace, having the matter resolved, by looking to the Lord’s sovereign protection, but they focused instead on their fears. Instead of delighting in the magnificence of Aaron’s beautiful blossoming staff, they were stuck in their obduracy. They might have celebrated God’s grace to provide proof of his presence with them, which would be the opposite of their grumbling and opposition. They were like the Pharisees, described in Luke 15:2, “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Wouldn’t it have been better to be like Zacchaeus, who was thrilled to receive Jesus at his home? (See Luke 19:4-7) God’s restraint of the Israelites from approaching his tabernacle reminds us that no one can approach God unless Jesus draws them to himself, and that will always be through death to ourselves, to live for, with, and through him. (See Numbers 1:51 and John 6:44.)

When do you grumble and complain? Keep in mind that grieving, sadness, and regret are not at issue here, but opposing the will of God as he works in our circumstances is the focus. When we doubt God to work for our good and the good of others, we lose our peace and therefore, our joy. But “The hope of the righteous brings joy…” (Proverbs 10:28a) Do you trust God to know what is best? Will you look to Christ and the Holy Spirit to help you accept things beyond your control, supplying the peace you want?

*If you are plagued by your inability to flex when you can’t get your way, you may want to read, “Have We No Rights?” by Mabel Williamson. Although the book is described as one for missionaries, it is appropriate for all Christians. A free download is available at https://manybooks.net/titles/williamsonm2452824528-8.htmlJune 6, 2019