Christian Hearts, Good Fruit

I’ve been trying to come up with a smart way to open this devotion, but I’m stuck on the word “bear.” It’s the keyword of our passage, in the verb form, meaning to “produce” or “yield” (fruit). We don’t use the word “bear,” and my mind keeps slipping to a new show on the Animal Planet TV channel called “Man versus Bear.” It’s a pretty silly show with a man or woman competing against a massive bear in different stunts. TV producers can come up with some pretty crazy ideas for new shows. The use of the word “bear” in Scripture implies that something inside us yields something that grows outside of us. A plant produces flowers or food, as inventors create new medical tools from their medical knowledge, and chefs make new recipes based on their experience and knowledge of food. Other than bearing children, we usually don’t even think of producing something on a daily basis. Yet we are created to do just that, and ideally to do so every day. But like a TV producer, inventor, or writer, the thought of delivering anything so frequently is intimidating. The good news is that, like a garden, God has planted the seeds in us and he has given us his Spirit to empower us to do so. If our hearts are transformed by Christ’s righteousness, we will produce good fruit. “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45) It is my goal to stimulate our fruit-bearing because Christ has redeemed us for this purpose.

God’s creation illustrates the reality of a regenerated heart that produces fruit. Our passage from Luke 6 begins with a general statement (v. 43), followed by an illustration from nature (v. 44), and then the specific application of the principle for believers (v. 45). Jesus frequently taught about the two ways of humankind: regenerate or unregenerate. In Luke 6:46-49, following this passage, he compared disciples to those who built on him (the rock) and unbelievers to those who built their lives on the sand. In Matthew 25, our Savior described these as the sheep and the goats—the sheep going to eternal life and the goats to eternal damnation. (1) In Luke 6 he says, “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit.” “This teaching can be taken in either of two ways. In one sense, observing good and bad fruit allows one to judge wisely in dealing with others (the context also of [a related passage in] Matt. 7:15–20). In another sense, it applies to the disciples themselves, for the fruit of a bad tree involves judging and condemning others while the fruit of a good tree involves forgiving and giving to others and loving one’s enemies.” (2) A redeemed heart in Christ yields good fruit, just like a healthy tree; an unredeemed heart is like the fig tree Jesus cursed because it hypocritically produced leaves but no fruit (Matthew 21:18-19). Another passage comes to mind, Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” But rather than fret, we are encouraged, since Christ has redeemed us, believers, making us good “trees.”

In nature, fruit is evidence of the tree’s species, with the natural consequence that bears fruit consistent with its kind. “For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” (6:44) I have some mums in my garden that I planted in November. They were beautiful, with lush yellow, white, and red flowers. But after those blossoms died, I haven’t seen a single new one. If I do, I certainly don’t expect to get daisies, roses, or apples from them. How silly would that be? No one expects to get milk from a gas pump or laundry detergent from a movie beverage vending machine. (I’m being senseless to make a point.) We go through our days, expecting most people to be gracious, kind, other-centered, wise, and good. But why? Jesus clearly teaches that there are at least as many unregenerate, unfruitful people as there are believers. As Gill writes, “…and no more can an unregenerate man perform good works, or bring forth: fruits of righteousness acceptable unto God; for these require a knowledge of his will, obedience to it, a principle of grace, love to God, faith in Christ, and a view to the glory of God; all which are wanting in such a person.” (3) But since my goal is not to cast dispersions on others, let me suggest what is even more senseless: our justification for Christian unfruitfulness based on that of the general population. Gill also says, “…the grace of God revealed to good men, and wrought in them, teaches them to live soberly, righteously, and godly; a holy life is the fruit of grace, and an evidence of it.” (4) You and I aren’t thorn bushes; we are branches produced on the grapevine of Christ designed to bear sweet grapes for our lord.

Good spiritual fruit is the spiritual consequence and evidence of regenerated, abundant heart. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) As Martin Luther proclaimed, “Salvation is by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone.” The ESV Study Bible Notes observes that “The true nature of people’s hearts can often be seen when they speak off-the-cuff, without reflection.” (5) R.C. Sproul links the passage to Psalm 1, where the righteous man “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers,” after meditating on God’s law day and night (vs. 2-3). Studying to write my blog devotions is my most convicting study. Little do we know about the benefit of studying a verse or three over a week, or a biblical topic for a year, because we don’t usually do it. I highly recommend doing in-depth Scripture meditations and journaling about them. I think you will be surprised by their value. As Dr. Sproul comments, our hearts become storehouses of good words and conduct, like thesauruses, leading to fruit for Christ. As Jesus says in verse 45—this fruit comes from an abundance in our hearts. We won’t even know what is there until it comes out through our mouths and shows up in our choices.

Do you see yourself as a productive Christian, or do you doubt Christ’s victorious, resurrection power to produce good spiritual fruit? How might you struggle with either bearing or identifying your fruit reflect a less than an “abundant” heart for Christ? “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

(1) This perspective on the passage is strongly influenced by R.C. Sproul’s sermon on Luke 6:43-46, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/sermons/good-bad-fruit/

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Luke 6:44, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ephesians-6.html

(3) Gill, ibid.

(4) ESV Study Bible Notes, Ibid.

(5) Sproul, ibid.

(6) Sproul, ibid.

 

January 24, 2020

Following the Spirit, Crucifying the Flesh

Do you have a dog or two at home? If so, walking your pooch in the beautiful weather is probably delightful but walking in bad weather isn’t much fun. I’ve been praying about getting a pooch next year, maybe an older, little one that doesn’t require too much of my time, since I’m the only one to care for it. But every cold or rainy day I am glad not to have one. Like other interests, pet ownership comes with benefits and responsibilities—unconditional love and fun vs. vet and food bills and exercising in all kinds of weather. I’m not yet convinced that the benefits are worth the costs for me. I will continue to put money and effort into my little patio garden to have flowers. I will keep exercising regularly for flexibility in my joints, but a dog…not so much yet. If I do decide to rescue a pooch, I know that my perspective and attitude will change, but there will still be some days when I will push myself to do what is necessary. When it comes to the work of Christian spiritual warfare, God gives us the desire to put in the effort, while he does most of the heavy lifting. When we are redeemed, our longings and aspirations are transformed to align with Christ’s purpose: to walk in the Spirit. But the battle of our new and old natures isn’t over until we finish our journey on earth. The fruit of the Holy Spirit will grow in us because God has determined that it will—we have his promise to stimulate our growth in sanctification. We participate in the process by recognizing and rejecting sinful desires when they pop up and yielding to the Holy Spirit. Believers are called to embrace the battle within, to fight sin for maturity and fruitful living.

Eventually, we will get to the nine fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Before we do, let’s consider Paul’s context: “But 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:16-18, 24-26) We battle within ourselves to conquer our unholy desires to do what is right, for the sake of our Christian family (vs. 16-17). We do so because “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Galatians 5:14) “The context of Paul’s exposition is not about our isolated, personal growth, but on its impact on others and on our relationship with Jesus Christ. The gospel devours the very motivation you have for sin. It completely saps your very need and reason to live any way you want. Anyone who insists that the gospel encourages us to sin has simply not understood it yet, nor begun to feel its power…if you truly understand through the gospel who Jesus is and what He has done for you, then you will ask: How can I live for Him? And the answer will be—look at the will of God expressed in the law. The gospel frees us from the law, for the law. It does away with our old, selfishly motivated and unloving law-obedience. And it motivates us to obey the law out of love.” (1)

You may be the only one to walk a dog, or do any number of chores, but we have lots of help to grow into maturity for greater spiritual fruit: brothers and sisters in Christ, pastors, elders, theologians, counselors, and especially the Holy Spirit. “If the Christian life looks too hard, we must remember that we are not called to live it by ourselves. We must live it by the Spirit of God. The command of love is not a new legalistic burden laid on our back; it is what happens freely when we walk by the Spirit. We must learn to ‘walk by the Spirit.’…As Romans 8:7 says, ‘The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law.’ The basic mark of the flesh is that it is unsubmissive. It does not want to submit to God’s absolute authority or rely on God’s absolute mercy.[So] conflict in your soul is not all bad. Serenity in sin is death…So take heart if your soul feels like a battlefield at times. The sign of whether you are indwelt by the Spirit is not that you have no bad desires, but that you are at war with them!” (2) We are called to embrace the battle within to fight sin and encourage fruitful living.

Christ has given us the Spirit and crucified our unholy aspirations. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:18, 24) “As a person fastened to a cross may be alive, though he cannot act and move as before, being under restraints, so the old man, though crucified, and under the restraints of mighty grace, and cannot reign and govern as before, yet is alive, and acts, and operates, and oftentimes has great sway and influence; but whereas he is deprived of his reigning power, he is said to be crucified: and though this act is ascribed to them that are Christ’s, yet not as done by them in their own strength, who are not able to grapple with one corruption, but as under the influence of the grace of Christ, and through the power of his Spirit.” (3) Here is the good news of the gospel—sin no longer reigns over us, and the law can no longer oppress us, and we no longer want to rebel. Now we belong to Christ and as “belongers,” we delight in what delights him and desire what God desires. But this is not an unconscious, automatic work of God. We stimulate our spiritual fruit by actively rejecting sinful desires and yielding to the Holy Spirit, following his lead.

The Holy Spirit leads us to yield to God holy fruitfulness. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:25-26) The keyword of Galatians 5:16-25 is “Spirit” and the verbs in the passage reveal our relationship with him. We are to walk, gratify, keep from, want to do, are led, belong, keep in step, not becoming conceited, provoking, or envying. We are to “keep in step” with the Spirit to “keep from” the desires of the flesh. Instead of “gratifying” them, we “crucify” them. Gill writes that we are to be wary of “Provoking one another; not to good works, which would be right, but to anger and wrath, which is contrary to Christian charity, or true love…Envying one another; their gifts and abilities, natural and spiritual; their rank and station in the world, or in the church. These were sins the Galatians very probably were subject to; and where they prevail, there is confusion, and every evil work, and are therefore to be watched and guarded against.” (4)

“Believers are engaged in a conflict, in which they earnestly desire that grace may obtain full and speedy victory…The fruits of the Spirit plainly show, that such are led by the Spirit. By describing the works of the flesh and fruits of the Spirit, we are told what to avoid and oppose, and what we are to cherish and cultivate; and this is the sincere care and endeavor of all real Christians.” (5) The question is, are we willing to engage in spiritual warfare internally to conquer our unholy desires? What personal ungodly aspirations did we crucify last year? Which ones do you want to vanquish now? Will you pray for the Spirit’s guidance, trusting God to be victorious in your battle for holy fruitfulness? Be encouraged.  “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)

(1) Keller, Tim, Galatians For You, “Gospel Freedom”, (Galatians 5:14), The Good Book Company, United Kingdom, 2013.

(2) Piper, John, Desiring God Ministries, “Sermons,” http://www.desiringgod.com

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Galatians 5:24, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/galatians-5.html

(4) Gill, Galatians 5:25, ibid.

(5) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Galatians 5:25, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/galatians-5.html

January 17, 2020

The Fruit of Our Salvation

Cedar fever in here, at least in South Texas. It’s ironic that on these beautiful sunny winter days, when you want to be outside enjoying the weather, you may be afraid to aggravate your symptoms, which may already be intense. As a sufferer, it didn’t occur to me until today that I should change my clothing, take a shower, and wash my hair after being outside to get the pollen off. Sometimes the most logical, reasonable approach or viewpoint is the one we have the most difficulty grasping. I can see the tree pollen on my car, but because I can’t see it on my skin, hair, or clothing, I am oblivious to its existence. Many things of importance are invisible, only known by their effects on us or through us: love, integrity, intelligence, giftedness, and faith, to name a few. Being a Christian means that faith in our invisible God is more real to us than visible, earthly interests. In his teachings, Jesus instructs us to look at life differently, from the inside-out and upside-down. Applying Christ’s transformational perspective is especially challenging as fruit-bearers for God. Our Savior knew that we would need the analogy of a grapevine to understand that we produce godly fruit only by being connected to him, the vine. We need God, the master gardener, to  manage our sanctification, to increase our productivity for Christ, our root, and life-giver. Living life in Christ is a challenge even for the most mature fruit-bearers.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17) Spiritual fruit originates in our salvation. After his exhortation to the Romans, in Chapter 6 Paul makes it clear that we only produce sinful fruit in our natural state. “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.” (Romans 6:20-21) Then he admits that he struggles with his own obedience, in spite of his deep knowledge of the fruitlessness of sin. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) So we’re clear, because the Bible is clear, that no good fruit comes from us naturally. And yet, we live our lives as if we can produce godly fruit either automatically or as a result of our natural skills and limited human wisdom. Perhaps with enough exercise, the right foods, the best smartphone, the latest management or entrepreneurial techniques, and designer clothing, I can be something. It’s all rubbish (Philippians 3:8). The only fruit from our natural life is sin and the shame that accompanies it. Only in Christ is our fruit bearing be pleasing to God.

I can’t remove cedar pollen from inside my body. But oh, how I wish I could turn my body inside out like a sweater and wash off the contaminants. I also wish I didn’t get cedar fever every January, but it seems inevitable, since that is when the pollen is released. We might wish we didn’t have to deal with the fruit of our sinfulness (or the lack of our spiritual fruitfulness), but it’s a real issue. So, we must consider how we view our fruit-bearing, which Christ has purposed for us. Jesus gives us this fruit as our possession the moment we come to faith in him. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Rom 6:22) What is this “fruit you get” when “you are set free?” John Gill writes, “…holiness is a fruit of freedom from the bondage of sin, and of serving God; holiness began in regeneration, calling, and conversion, is a fruit of the Spirit; a course of living righteously is a fruit of holiness, as a principle implanted; a gradual increase in holiness is carried on by the Spirit of God in a course of righteousness.” (1) D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, ‘You have already received ‘all things that pertain unto a life of godliness.’ You do not need another experience. You do not need some new gift. You have been given everything in Christ; you are ‘in him’ from the beginning of your Christian life…The command to yield the parts of our bodies as instruments of righteousness is based on something that has already happened to us. That is, something that has already happened, not something that may happen or will yet happen to us.” (2) Might we live differently if we were to see fruit-bearing as a promise rather than a command, as a blessing instead of a burden? “The New Testament approach to sanctification is therefore to get us to realize our position and act accordingly. The New Testament does not tell us to be what we will become. Rather, it tells us to be what we are.” (3)

Since spiritual fruit originates in our salvation, the fruit of our salvation is the fruit of our faith. We are called to believe, trust, and live as people who have this fruit. Paul’s grammar in Romans reminds us that this transaction of salvation is accomplished,  finished with Jesus on the cross, to be raised with him. “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4) Now we are united with Christ. We were baptized into him, crucified with him, died with him, were buried with him, and raised with him (Romans 6:3-8).  “In effect, God says to us, ‘Because you believe in Christ, by the Holy Spirit I have joined you to Christ. When he died, you died. When he rose, you rose. He’s in heaven, so you’re in heaven. He’s holy, so you’re holy. Your position right now, objectively and factually, is as a holy, beloved child of God, dead to sin, alive to righteousness, and seated in my holy heaven—now live like it.’ That’s the way indicatives and imperatives work together in union with Christ. It’s also the long way of saying ‘be who you are.’” (4)

Christians, we are fruit-bearers; it’s who God designed us to be. Maybe the world distracts us from bearing more spiritual fruit with its fake, temporal food. Perhaps we are conditioned to think of ourselves more as consumers than providers or more as victims than as mercy-givers. I may not always know what interferes with my fruit-bearing, but I do know that I’m not living up to God’s full purpose for my life. Will you take the challenge with me this year to increase your fruit production by “being who you are” in Christ? “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:8-10)

(1) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Romans 6:22, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/romans-6.html

(2) Boice, James, Boice, “Expositional Commentary Series,” Romans 6:22, Baker Books, Software version, 1998. (Cited: D. M. Lloyd-Jones, “Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6,” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973)

(3) Boice, James, Ibid, Romans 6:22.

(4) DeYoung, Kevin, “The Hole in Our Holiness,” page 105, Crossway, 2012. 

January 10, 2020

 

Starting and Staying in Christ

How many times puns you heard about better vision in 2020? “Eye can’t wait to see them all.” “I can’t wait till New Year’s Day 2021, then I can say that hindsight really is 2020.” Haha. On a serious note, by God’s grace, we will see him and his truths more clearly, and others will see his fruit in us. I am devoting the year to a study of the Fruit of the Spirit based on Galatians 5:22-24: “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Perhaps you, like me, need to remember that Christ has already transformed our inner beings, desires, and characters to conform to his. We need gospel reminders to keep our true identity in Christ in mind as we navigate the year. So we’ll explore the power of the fruit growing in us, ripening to maturity for the strength and power we need to remain in Christ, to live for him and his kingdom—our mission on earth. Warning: gardening metaphors and parables will abound.

Before we delve into the particular fruit that the Spirit cultivates in us, let’s prepare the soil of our hearts and minds. No gardener worth her salt will plant seeds or shoots in unfriendly, hard ground. Nor will any fruit grow in us just because we decide it should. Israel tried and failed. “The Old Testament frequently uses the vineyard or vine as a symbol for Israel, God’s covenant people, especially in two’ vineyard songs’ in Isaiah (Isa. 5:1–7; 27:2–6)…Israel’s failure to produce fruit resulted in divine judgment…[But] the OT prophets envisioned a time when God’s people would ‘blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.’” (1) Then, in the New Testament Gospel of John, we find Jesus applying the image to himself. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:1-8) Now the body of believers has fulfilled the prophecy of God’s productive, living vineyard.

What does this mean for us Christians? For one thing, the blessings of our Christian faith result from a continuous life lived in Christ. Secondly, our faith in Jesus is strengthened by remaining in his love and power; he is our life-giver. Third, God maintains our spiritual health to be productive because we are consecrated to him. And finally, we encourage others by our kingdom living, by abiding in Christ. Jesus Christ is the true vine, just as he is the true bread (John 6:32), and the true tabernacle (Hebrews 8:2). Here are facts of our faith: Jesus is the true vine; God is the gardener who maintains the branches to bear more fruit. And we are good (clean) because God has elected us in Christ. Calvin writes: “Can anyone who is engrafted into Christ be without fruit? ‘And every branch that beareth, fruit he pruneth.’ By these words, he shows that believers need incessant culture that they may be prevented from degenerating; and that they produce nothing good, unless God continually apply his hand; for it will not be enough to have been once made partakers of adoption, if God do not continue the work of his grace in us…When he says that vines are pruned, that they may yield more abundant fruit, he shows what ought to be the progress of believers in the course of true religion.” (2)

The blessings of our Christian faith result from a continuous life lived in Christ. Abide is a keyword of John 15:1-8, but is not a word we use in everyday language. Abide means “…to remain, abide…in reference to place: to sojourn, tarry…not to depart…to continue to be present…to be held, kept, continually…to continue to be, not to perish, to last, endure…of persons, to survive, live…to remain as one, not to become another or different…to wait for, await one…” (3) While most commentators consider “remain” to be the primary meaning of abide in our par passage, I think we might view our life in Christ as doing all of the above. Our faith in Jesus is strengthened by remaining in his love and power. He is our life-giver.

God stimulates our spiritual health to be productive after consecrating us. “There are two things that the Father is said to do in his care of the vine. First, he is said to ‘cut off’ every branch that does not bear fruit. The word ‘airo’ has four basic meanings…1. to lift up or pick up; 2. to lift up figuratively, as in lifting up one’s eyes or voice; 3. to lift up with the added thought of lifting up in order to carry away; and 4. to remove. In translating this word by the verb ‘cut off’ the majority of translators have obviously chosen the fourth of these meanings. But the verse makes better sense and the sequence of verbs is better if the first and primary meaning of the word is taken. In that case the sentence would read, ‘Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he lifts up,’ that is, to keep it from trailing on the ground…it is not at all strange to emphasize that the gardener first lifts the branches up so that they may be better exposed to the sun and so the fruit will develop properly…to translate the word ‘airo’ by ‘lifts up’ gives a proper sequence to the Father’s care of the vineyard, indicated by the verb that follows. Thus, he first of all lifts the vines up. Then he cuts off the unproductive elements, carefully cleansing the vine of insects, moss, or parasites that otherwise would hinder the growth of the plant.” (4) This is spiritual food for thought, is it not?

Finally, we encourage others by our kingdom living, by abiding in Christ. God has prepared our hearts, planted us in his vineyard and continually stimulates our growth. As our faith is strengthened it spills over into the lives of others, if we remain in Christ. “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:15) As we employ God’s grace in our lives, others will see its fruit and give thanks to God. As a matter of fact, we will bear “much fruit” (vs. 5, 8)!

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5) Boice writes, “The key sentence in…[vs. 4-5] can mean one of three things. It can be a simple declarative…a promise…Or it can be a command meaning, ‘Remain in me and, thus, see to it that I for my part also remain in you’…we have the following: great work to be done, the possibility of attempting to do it, but without Christ, and the inevitable failure that must result from such effort.” (5) We have a truth, a promise, and a command to bear fruit by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only his healthy branches can produce the sweet food of eternal life. Will we embrace God’s maintenance plan for our spiritual health to be productive? Will our kingdom living in 2020 encourage others in their kingdom living? “…whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:5-6)

  • (1) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, John 15:1, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  • (2) Calvin, John, Calvin’s Commentary on John 15, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/john-15.html
  • (3) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, John 15:1-5, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  • (4) Boice, ibid.
  • (5) ESV Study Bible Notes, ibid

 

January 3, 2020

Ending 2019 with Christ’s Shalom

How is your year ending? Do you review your 2019 events with a Christmas letter, or take stock of your spiritual progress? Do you have goals or prayers for 2020? Every December, between Christmas and New Year’s I, ask the Lord to give me Scripture to guide my sanctification for the new year, rather than “resolutions.” This year God has shown me the tremendous value of time spent with my brothers and sisters in Christ. However, I seemed to have jumped right into my prayer for next year, which is humbling, challenging, and somewhat embarrassing. It appears that I need to work on my problem with pride that is rooted in an old attachment to rebelliousness. Thank God for his help in exposing our sins and their roots. I was a rebel from the time I was young, rejecting not only my Jewish heritage, but my parent’s rules, societal restraints, and the expectations of most of my authorities and elders. By the time I was 17, I was a rebel hippie, self-righteous, and completely lost. My only offense for my confusion and insecurity was rebelliousness. I give thanks for the Holy Spirit, who works in me, through his redemption in Christ, to see myself his soldier instead of a rebel. I also thank him for revealing lingering threads of attraction for movie and TV characters, politicians, and musicians as lost as I was in those days—rebels to the core.. The world is full of rebelliousness, even Star War’s heroes are rebels—and they offer no peace whatsoever. No wonder the Lord led me to end the year with this passage from Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.’” (Isaiah 48:17-19)

God, our holy Redeemer, calls us to pay attention to Him for true peace and security. The passage begins with an acknowledgment of the Lord’s character as the One who emancipates his people—Israel in the Old Covenant and believers in the New Covenant. Isaiah knows him as his Lord and master, as Israel’s rescuer, and Israel’s promised Messiah, the Holy One. “The preface to this message is both awful and encouraging: Thus saith Jehovah, the eternal God, thy Redeemer…[who] will be faithful to the engagement, for he is the Holy One, that cannot deceive, the Holy One of Israel, that will not deceive them. The same words that introduce the law, and give authority to that, introduce the promise, and give validity to that: ‘I am the Lord thy God, whom thou mayest depend upon as in relation to thee and in covenant with thee.” (1) “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:10-11) Movie and book heroes, philanthropists, scientists, and physicians cannot save us from our entrapment in rebellion and self-centeredness. Only God is omnipotent, steadfastly gracious and merciful, using his ordained providence for our good, and the One to liberate us from Satan’s grasp permanently. Whenever we put our trust in anything or anyone else, for our spiritual security, we are rebelling against Christ, our Redeemer. Perhaps our meditation on these words will help us to pay more attention to and apply the doctrines of Christ and the gospel for our peace. God calls us to listen carefully to him: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments!”

Those who genuinely know and love Christ want to hear from him, to sense his presence and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He calls believers to come near, just as he did Israel, through the prophet Isaiah’s ministry. “Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.’ And now the Lord God has sent me, and his Spirit.” (Isaiah 48:16) It sounds simple, since we know the way we should go is in Christ, our profit is from the doctrines and promises fulfilled in him. But the world offers many things that are unprofitable and tempting, not to mention the desires we all have that compete with our spiritual calling. The benefit we obtain in Christ is not only more reliable, but the means by which we will persevere in this life, through these obstacles. However, as we take stock at the end of the year, it may be helpful to hear God saying to us, in the past tense, “Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments!” How many have we ignored by the sin of omission? Or sidestepped when they seemed burdensome, made so by our legalism? I know I should help my neighbors, but I don’t like to cook or fix things. So what? Do something else, or just visit with them and get to know them; go out for coffee together. I know I should read the Bible more but my mornings are so hectic. So we find another time, make another time to set aside for contemplation, to withdraw from the world for our profit. John Gill reminds us that those “Whom God redeems, he teaches; he teaches to profit by affliction, and then makes them partakers of his holiness. Also, by his grace he leads them in the way of duty; and by his providence he leads in the way of deliverance.” (2) We squander the blessings of Christ’s atonement, through which “…the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:14)

All of God’s instructions and commands have consequences. If Israel had not engaged in idol worship, but turned toward God, and submitted to his commands, they would not have been expelled from the Promised Land. “Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea…’” (Isaiah 48:18) The picture Isaiah paints is that of a sea of righteousness with a river flowing to it. “Large, abundant, numerous as the waves of the sea; which may regard acts of justice and righteousness, which are the support of a people and state, and blessings the fruit thereof; and which God of his goodness bestows on such a people, as all kind of prosperity, protection, safety, and continuance.” That is “what could have been,” for Israel and perhaps for us in 2019. (3) But the cost of neglecting and disobeying God’s commands was catastrophic for Israel. Maybe we need to look back and see if it valid for us this year because “Even if God’s prophecies of the future were difficult to believe, his practical commandments lay within range of human understanding.” (4)  Jesus Christ, our holy Redeemer, calls us to pay attention to him for our peace and security. He calls us to pay attention to and apply the biblical doctrines and gospel for our faith to enjoy the blessings of shalom.

Will you ask the Lord to strengthen your obedience and faithfulness in the new year? I happened upon an excellent tool to use, from Tim Challis’s twitter feed: “Ten Questions for a New Year,” by Don Whitney. (5) Maybe we should use these instead of worrying about New Year’s resolutions we probably won’t keep. How did God and Isaiah encourage Israel as he released them from their captivity? “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!’” (Isaiah 48:20) Let us leave 2019 and enter the New Year proclaiming the good news of our salvation, in whatever way we are able, as soldiers of Christ.

(1) Henry, Matthew, Complete Commentary on the Bible, Isaiah 48:17, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/isaiah-48.html

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 48:18, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-48.html

(3) Gill, ibid.

(4) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 48:17-19, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(5) Whitney, Don, “Ten Questions for the New Year, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/ten-questions-for-a-new-year

 

December 27, 2019

A Joyful, Peaceful Christmas in Christ

When I scan the news headlines on my phone, Buzz Feed’s daily post often captures my attention. Usually, there is a list of products that we can’t live without (or so they say). The one recently I couldn’t seem to resist reading was about small, inexpensive products that will “change your life.” But even though I am fascinated, I never order any of the products. So why does the feed  continue to capture my attention? I wish it were just my curiosity, but I confess that some part of me thinks my life would improve if I had one of the things advertised. I thank God for restraining me as my better nature clicks in, and I come to my senses. This week’s passage seems to have curbed my desire for the trivial things of the world, preferring the little things of God instead, that he uses for his grand mission of redemption. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. 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 5:2-5) Christ, a humble babe from an insignificant city, is our Great Shepherd of peace through his divinity and his human birth, life, death, and resurrection. It is my prayer that we will experience spiritual revival this Christmas as we meditate deeply on Christ’s humility and victory through his human incarnation.

We know that God does great things with the humble and little. Out of David’s birthplace came his heir, the Lion of Judah, to be the ultimate King, as foretold by the prophets. Other Old Testament passages remind us that David, Israel’s greatest human king, was also a humble shepherd born in Bethlehem (2 Samuel 7:13, 16). It was all according to God’s plan, for His glory and to accomplish his purpose, “you shall come forth for me” (v. 2). But, “This is not the way with human kings and kingdoms. On the contrary, history shows the kingdoms of this world rising and falling across the centuries. The normal course of the kingdoms of this world is described in a striking way in Daniel. (Dan. 5:18, 20–22). All human kings and kingdoms follow this course. God lets a man rise above his fellows in power, he is overcome with pride, and eventually God brings him down.” (1) The gospel of Jesus Christ, seen through the lens of his incarnation, turns everything upside down. Instead of wanting things to improve our lives, we can turn away from them to seek Christ. Instead of putting our hope in more, better, and bigger, we learn to be small, humble, and insignificant, to exalt Christ. Bethlehem suffered from famine in Ruth’s time, in spite of it being the “house of bread.” Bethlehem was too little for Judah’s reputation as the tribe of kings, yet it was here that our Savior was born. My life, and perhaps yours, is obscure and known only to a few people compared to the presidents and prime ministers of the world. Yet God can do mighty, magnificent, grand works through our short existences on this earth when we yield to his plan, known from ancient days. The peace we have with the Lord by his Spirit in Christ did not originate with Jesus’s incarnation but from eons before that. Our redemption and reconciliation with the Lord is part of God’s grandest, most significant, most compelling work; let’s not diminish or weaken its grandeur by our Christmas “celebrations” with trivia; there’s nothing trivial about God’s redemption.

Our desire to improve our lives and distract us from our pain and troubles drives us to find new products, conveniences, and pursuits. We don’t want to suffer as Israel did in their exile, driven away from their homes into foreign lands and alien cultures. But Micah predicted that “…he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.” (5:3) God will bring glory out of Israel’s pain according to His timing, not his peoples’ impatience. God’s people had no king, no home, and no temple for seventy years. They had no control over their return to Jerusalem and had to wait for the Lord’s intercession. In the same way, Israel remained for four hundred years, until Mary’s labor, waiting for their Savior-King. And then God’s people waited another thirty-three years for the “rest of his brothers” to come to faith in the Messiah at Pentecost. (2) When the angel pronounced God’s plan to a little, insignificant woman named Mary, could she or anyone grasp the greatness of his birth? “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33) It’s one thing to hear or read the promise; it’s another to absorb and live in the reality of King Jesus born as a weak, underprivileged, dependent infant to a common, poor, but chosen woman. Christ, our Savior, rose out of Israel’s painful past.

Christ brings us peace and security while we are living our sinful, rebellious, ignorant lives, rebellious toward the living God. We have done less than little—nothing—to achieve this spectacular resolution, a Christmas miracle. “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) This Christmas, we might consider the humanity and divinity of our Savior, without which there would be no redemption or peace. He is the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God. The broken body of our propitiation. Life everlasting and in the grave for three days. Eternally preincarnate and a carpenter’s son. The Lamb and the Shepherd. Predicted and yet surprising. Finished and interceding. “He endured death as a lamb; he devoured it as a lion.” (Saint Augustine) This is our Jesus, born for our everlasting joyful peace with God. “…In him, in whom they are chosen and preserved; in his love, from which they can never be separated; in his hands, out of which none can pluck them; in his church, where they shall ever remain; and so may be considered as a promise of the perseverance of the saints in faith and holiness to the end…” (3)

“In John 10, where Jesus calls himself ‘the good shepherd,’ there are two explanations of why he is so designated. First, Jesus is the good shepherd because he [voluntarily] laid down his life for the sheep…The second explanation of why Jesus is the good shepherd is that he knows his sheep and is known by them (John 10:14)…To be known by Jesus is to be a member of his flock and therefore to be one for whom he died. It is to be one who will never be snatched from his hand, as he says later. Nothing about us will ever suddenly rise up to startle our divine Shepherd-King and diminish his love .” (3) “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isaiah 40:11) Thinking deeply about these truths reminds us of Christ’s humility and victory through his human incarnation, and prayerfully results in spiritual revival.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 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, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 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. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:14-22) Merry Christmas!

(1) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Micah 5, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(2) Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Micah 5:3, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition

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

(4) Boice, ibid.

December 20, 2019

Building Real Christmas Peace

It’s party time. It’s the time of the year when neighbors, companies, churches, and friends gather to “celebrate the season.” Yesterday a friend remarked that her company has Christmas parties at the same time they are closing out the last quarter’s work for the year. I remember that feeling—when I was trying to finish grading papers for student-teachers before the end of the year. One theme I hear, from both working and retired adults, is the desire for peace. But the peace that comes as a result of finishing a task, for work or parties, is not the peace of Christ. We are designed by God to be relational creatures, so our greatest peace is in our relationships with family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, church members, fellow volunteers, and community residents. Who we are with others is either the most satisfying or the most disappointing aspect of life. Having people who support, encourage, and strengthen our devotion to Christ is more important than we may realize. All of God’s work in Scripture involves groups of people. All the leaders in the Old Testament—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, were significant because of their work on behalf of God for Israel. The apostles, disciples, women, and followers of Jesus Christ grew the kingdom of God through their work together. So why do we think that substantial Christian spiritual growth happens as individuals? Thomas Brooks writes, “…self is a great hindrance to divine things; therefore the prophets and apostles were usually carried out of themselves, when they had the clearest, choicest, highest, and most glorious visions. Self-seeking so blinds the soul, that it cannot see a beauty in Christ, nor an excellency in holiness; it distempers the palate, that a man cannot taste sweetness in the word of God, nor in the ways of God, nor in the society of the people of God…There is nothing that speaks a man to be more empty and void of God, Christ, and grace, than self-seeking…There is not a greater hindrance to all the duties of piety than self-seeking. Oh! This is that which keeps many a soul from looking after God and the precious things of eternity…Self-seeking is that which puts many a man upon neglecting and slighting the things of his peace.” (1) I can personally testify that it is both easy and dangerous to be self-seeking in our spiritual growth.

What Scripture led me to the idea or corporate peace? It is not a gospel passage that focuses on Christ rather than me, which we would expect. Like Philippians 2:1-4, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” What a great passage to counteract the Christmas madness! But it is an Old Testament passage that brought me to consider our corporate dedication to Christ—2 Chronicles 14:2-7. “And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him. He built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest. He had no war in those years, for the Lord gave him peace. And he said to Judah, ‘Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers, gates and bars. The land is still ours, because we have sought the Lord our God. We have sought him, and he has given us peace on every side.’ So they built and prospered.” King Asa’s knowledge of the Lord, his obedience, and conformity to God’s will was a good restart for Israel. Perhaps this Christmas, we might apply Asa’s conduct to ourselves by renewing our devotion to the Lord and using our peace to strengthen our corporate commitment to Christ.

Asa took down the idols and altars and pillars honoring them; commanded Israel to seek and obey God; and removed all the high places out of Judah’s cities. As a result of the peace God provided, Asa built up fortified cities for future wars and commanded Israel to prepare by building cities, saying twice that they should do so because they sought God and he gave them peace. Judah prospered. In summary, Asa broke, cut down, and removed idols before building up Judah’s defenses. “Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord.” It is God’s desire that we tear down idols, not just in our own minds and hearts, but corporately, to have peace with God as a body. How did Asa and Israel, and the writer of 2 Chronicles know that God was the reason for their peace? Is he not the first cause of all events and circumstances? Whatever instruments the Lord used, he brought Israel peace. The Ten Commandments, forbidding idolatry was a good gift from Yahweh to his people. The King started with great devotion to God by leading Israel to worship him alone through his example and rule. “Interpreters agree that the Mosaic laws, rightly understood, still give Christians wisdom about the kind of conduct that pleases or displeases God.” (2) “Asa aimed at pleasing God and studied to approve himself to him. Happy are those that walk by this rule, not to do that which is right in their own eyes, or in the eye of the world, but which is so in God’s sight. We find by experience that it is good to seek the Lord; it gives us rest; while we pursue the world, we meet with nothing but vexation.” (3)

Asa started his work of spiritual renovation, led Israel to participate, and then continued the practice. It was not enough for him to begin; the work needed to continue. Unfortunately, his efforts later waned, and Ethiopia invaded Judah. Taking the liberty of making another spiritual application, we have here an encouragement to keep up our communal spiritual invigoration and a warning that if we stop, we will be overtaken by the world and its influences, as Israel was. The work of Christ is that which is accomplished together by having hearts united to build the kingdom. It’s mystery is accomplished by the work of God’s Spirit, built on our faithful conformity to the Lord’s Word and will. Paul refers to and describes this mystery in his epistles as “…hearts…encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” He desires this heart-unity for the Colossians as a body, including himself. “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” (Colossians 2:2-5) (See also Ephesians 3:1-9; Colossians 1:26-27; 4:3.) We do not honor God with our independence but with our humble, biblical interdependence. And when we obtain shared peace, we, like Asa, can build up our defenses again the enemies of the world, Satan, and even our ungodly desires and temptations.

Today, at a secular meeting, a friend told me that she knows how much I love Jesus, as she does. I was delighted by her initiation of a spiritual conversation in our happy, chatty group when most conversations were about family and travel plans over the holidays. She encouraged me so much, and I hope to pass on the encouragement to you. God has given many of us peace, so we have no excuse to neglect building up our defenses against Christ’s enemies. Let’s agree to tear down the idols that challenge Jesus—materialism, sentimentality, Santa, food—whatever threatens our gospel peace—together. “Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).” (Exodus 34:12-14) Lord, help us who belong to Christ to boldly honor you together this Christmas.

(1) Brooks, Thomas. Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (p. 106). Kindle Edition.

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Exodus 20, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 2 Chronicles 14, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/2chronicles-14.html

December 13, 2019