The Peace of Death for Believers

What are you praying and waiting for when the pandemic ends? Protection from the virus as business reopens, for professional sporting events to resume, attending a movie, or going out to eat with your friends? Are you praying to be able to worship with your church family in the sanctuary? Or maybe you just want an end of daily death counts. If you have not been thinking about death these days, you’re probably in the minority. Since January, as of this writing, we have had over 65,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and over 238,000 worldwide. As more people die daily, we wonder if God hears our prayers for the pandemic to end. But don’t you think God’s intention, at the very least, is to have us number the days of our lives for wisdom, according to Psalm 90:12? We pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because we want more heavenly peace, joy, love, goodness and holiness here. But, the peace that we seek cannot be found in this world, as everything here is a shadow of God’s heavenly perfection. We Christians know, though, that we won’t have real peace until God takes us out of this world through the portal we fear called “death.” We all like to say that we’re not afraid of death, just dying. However, the longer I live, witness friends dying, and consider death from a biblical perspective, the less frightening it becomes, even if it means pain, confusion, or loss of control. One way to view  death is as God’s gift to the righteous, an entrance into God’s perfect peace, and the end of all that binds us to worldly trials. If you, however, have lost a believing loved one at any time, you know the pain of losing that person’s holy love and joy. Children who have lost their Christian parents, and are missing them right now grieve over their absence. This is another view of the death of believers; the world is less heavenly when a holy person dies. (1) Isaiah had an insight into both aspects of the passing of the “righteous man,” which we will consider today. “The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness.” (Isaiah 57:1-2) God transports us into his peacefulness through death, but the world misunderstands. So, we witness for Christ through the gospel, as long as we are here until we receive our reward of perfect rest in death, contributing to the righteousness of God on earth.

I’ve been studying one chapter of Ezekiel during the pandemic, and yesterday landed in chapter 36. In his prophecy against Israel’s mountains God first rebukes Israel for their unfaithful idolatry and harm to his holy name and reputation. But then God proclaims that his discipline of Israel through the exile further damages his reputation, so he brings his people back to the land. The ESV Study Bible notes have this helpful commentary: “The fundamental reason given for God’s acting on Israel’s behalf is not grace and mercy (though it is gracious and merciful) but to uphold the sanctity and greatness of God’s reputation: “for the sake of my holy name.” (2) Michael Horton’s covenantal theology teaching helps us to understand why God still requires Israel’s compliance with the Law. “Israel being saved from Egyptian captivity and brought into the Promised Land is a matter of grace, pure covenant grant. So also is the status of every Israelite as a justified person in God’s sight: all by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Abrahamic covenant. However, once in the land, it is up to Israel as a nation to determine whether it will remain in God’s land or be evicted from it. The unilateral and utterly promissory character of the Abrahamic covenant yields to the conditional arrangement at Sinai even while the former is never—can never be—revoked by the oath-taking God.” (3) We are saved by the grace of God, through Christ. From that time, the Spirit gives us the desire and power to uphold the Law of God, for the sake of God’s holy name and reputation.

The death of Christians means that there is a little less of Christ’s righteousness in the world. That’s why Paul prayed, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” (Philippians 1:21-24) The fact that the world here doesn’t acknowledge this truth doesn’t make it untrue. Our motivation to share the gospel may simply be to replace ourselves for more peace about leaving our unbelieving loved ones behind. Matthew Henry says about Isaiah 57, “The careless world slights these providences, and disregarding them: ‘No man lays it to heart, none considers it.’ There are very few that lament [the death of a good man] as a public loss, very few that take notice of it as a public warning. The death of good men is a thing to be laid to heart and considered more than common deaths. Serious inquiries ought to be made, wherefore God contends with us, what good lessons are to be learned by such providences, what we may do to help to make up the breach, and to fill up the room of those that are removed.” (4)

Henry continues, reflecting on Isaiah 57:2, “For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness. They go to be easy out of the reach of that evil. The righteous man, who while he lived walked in his uprightness, when he dies enters into peace and rests in his bed…Death is gain, and rest, and bliss, to those only who walked in their uprightness, and who, when they die, can appeal to God concerning it…Their souls then enter into peace, into the world of peace, where peace is in perfection and where there is no trouble…Their bodies rest in their beds. Note, the grave is a bed of rest to all the Lord’s people there they rest from all their labors.” (5) Revelation 14:13 “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”

I have been remembering believers I loved who have died and do not have to suffer emotionally or spiritually during the pandemic. Instead, that they are resting and not here anxiously worrying about the unbelievers who are perishing without redemption gives me a little peace while I pray for those unbelievers. I am anxious that they will indeed come to faith in Christ, by God’s grace. John Gill writes, “…there are evil times coming, great calamities, and sore judgments upon men; and therefore these righteous ones are gathered out of the world and are gathered home, and safely housed in heaven that they may escape the evil coming upon a wicked generation…this may be applied to the martyrs of Jesus in times of Popish persecution; or to the removal of good men by an ordinary death before those times came.” (6) God is transporting believers into his peace through their death, and the world is misunderstanding this. But we witness for Christ’s sake about God’s sovereignty and salvation by grace because of the peace we have waiting for our reward of peace and rest in death. Do you remember that you have this supernatural peace at a time when the world is shaking? Instead of waiting for public gatherings, will we wait on Christ and embrace his desire to purify us as his holy people? Let’s not waste our waiting time, our suffering. “What is Heaven, but the rest and quiet of a man’s spirit; that is the special thing that makes the life of heaven, there is rest and joy, and satisfaction in God. In heaven there is singing praises to God; a contented [peaceful] heart is always praising and blessing God.” (7)

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:25-32) I’ll let you make your own application. For me, I have asked the Lord not to let me die until I witness a revival in Christ.

(1) “God can view us as righteous in Christ because of imputation. Imputation means “to credit or count something toward an account,” and it is alluded to in today’s passage. As Romans 4:5 tells us, when we put our faith in Christ, we are counted as righteous. That is, the perfect righteousness earned by Jesus is imputed to us. In turn, our sins are imputed to Jesus who made satisfaction for them by bearing the wrath of God against His people on the cross.” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/great-exchange/

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Ezekiel 36, Crossway, 2008.

(3) Horton, Michael, “Introducing Covenant Theology,” Chapter 3, Baker Academic, eBook edition, 2020

(4) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Isaiah 57, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/isaiah-57.html

(5) Henry, Ibid.

(6) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 57:1-2, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-57.html

(7) Burroughs, Jeremiah, “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” Kindle Version, com Services LLC, 2010. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B003UV8OD6/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

April 30, 2020

The Fruit of Peace and Christian Liberty

Every day we make a thousand decisions about what we’re going to eat and drink, read, do, dress, work on, watch on TV, which people we will talk to, and when we will go to bed. However, these days we are making one big decision in common—when will I join others in public gatherings, following social distancing rules? Perhaps those of us who are suddenly “old” will take this question more seriously. I’ve have been wanting to rescue a dog, is this the time to start looking for one? My church is opening for worship with many restrictions on May 3. Should I go or follow the service online? We make our decisions based on medical facts, experts’ opinions, our consciousness, doing what is right, and conforming to Scripture and God’s wisdom. By God’s providence, I am moving on from joy to peace this week as I continue in the theme of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. I spent all of last year writing about godly peace, but there is still much to consider. As usual, the Holy  leads us to apply God’s Word in all our circumstances. Here is a passage that will help in our decision making: “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:16-19) Our Trinitarian God is served by peaceful, joyful, edifying gospel-centered relationships. We will be stronger together by doing what encourages rather than discourages each other’s faith, at all times and in all circumstances.

Christian writers are helping us with our fears of disease and death, anxiety about our liberties, and biblical faith, for which I am grateful. God desires that we exercise our faith together. Do we only think about what will benefit ourselves and ease our tensions? Or, do we build each other up because we know that what we do affects others in a literal and profound way? God gives us a model of unity in the trinity; our passage speaks of the kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit, God, and Christ. All work together for the good of His will and providence. All approve of each other, strengthen, and perfectly agree. While we cannot match the superior excellence of God’s unity in His three persons, we can seek to do that which is peaceful, righteous, joyful, and approved by him, following his example. Because God knows us so well, he offers particular advice in Romans 14:16, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” “This is the way John Calvin expresses them in his commentary: Love is violated if our brother is made to grieve for so slight a reason, for it is contrary to love to cause anyone distress…it is clear that the demands of love should override one’s personal freedom in peripheral matters… ‘Love does no harm to its neighbor,’ Paul said (Rom. 13:10). But if this is so and if we do love…To insist on our own way at this point would be selfish at best and most likely be wicked…How can you refuse to give up a merely questionable practice?” (1) Tomorrow we will be faced with an unusually clear choice, but not one that is unique; to make decisions based either on what will benefit ourselves or what will help others. By God’s grace, we often find that God calls us to do both simultaneously. But today we must decide if we are going to forgo simple, little errands or tasks, such as going to the grocery store. Every government in the world has done what it rarely does—administer societal restrictions for every citizen. Our issues of entitlement are rearing their sinister heads, and many fear that their “rights” are being violated. I found Kyle Borg’s article about Christian civil disobedience very helpful. “Admittedly, there’s also regulations and ordinances that inconvenience my life. But…the unconstitutionality of a law is not the same thing as an unbiblical law. In asking questions about civil disobedience we cannot conflate these two. Civil disobedience is not ‘We must obey the constitution rather than men,’ it is ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ As Christians we can submit to laws that are unconstitutional but we cannot submit to laws that are unbiblical. This requires that we be absolutely biblically persuaded of our duty.” (2)

Brothers and sisters, we are always better together by doing what encourages each other through our peaceful, edifying gospel-centered thinking and conduct. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17) It is not that the spiritual world is opposed to the natural world, but men are more important than the “stuff” of earth—food and drink. Our relationships with each other and God are primary. Perhaps that’s why it’s good to see so many advertisements on TV during the pandemic focusing on people instead of material things to purchase (by the same companies). But, if God’s creation here isn’t his kingdom, how are we to relate to it? Perhaps we should turn to the wisdom books of the Old Testament, using them as God intends (and not superficially, which we tend to do). “The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t that earthly joys are worthless, but that they are not ultimate…’What does it mean to love life and the world if it’s passing away, and if I’m meant to enjoy God and live for Christ first and foremost? Let me say that the two things go hand in hand absolutely beautifully, and for this reason: in the created world, you can only truly enjoy what you do not worship'” (3). So the question for us in the pandemic is, “What or who do we worship?” Getting up late, staying in our casual attire, binging on Netflix or Prime, having food delivered—or spending more time with God, reaching out to others, and thinking about how we can be useful to Him? Of course, we can do some of both, but the proportion will reflect our character.

If the habits of our lives have changed, but we are serving God, does it matter that we are not operating in old routines? If our family life has morphed into something different, but we are spending more quality time together and enjoying each other in a new way, is that not good? If we are bearing the spiritual fruit in Galatians 5:22-23, isn’t that glorious? “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” (v. 18) God is served by our edifying relationships, putting to work the righteousness, peace and joy of the Spirit. God’s kingdom is not served by independence, but by dependence on him and interdependence with each other. Even the sentimental advertisements on TV these days reflect this fact. But God doesn’t want us to merely help and love each other to make the world a more comfortable, better place to live. He desires that we reflect Christ’s glory, grace, and righteousness, to build up his kingdom—to put the gospel to work. “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (v. 19). Earlier, in Romans 14:13-15, Paul writes, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” “The strong are urged to weigh the importance of exercising their freedom against two considerations: (a) the use of their freedom may bring division and disrepute on the church, (b) God’s kingdom (and therefore our freedom) is not a matter of food and drink, but of the blessings of grace (5:1-2). Since freedom does not consist in these things, it cannot be lost by our refraining from them.” (4) So I will use only online dog searches for now, and decide whether attending church in person when it reopens partly based on whether going or not going will cause my retirement-community neighbors or friends to be fearful or discouraged. You and I should be guided by our biblically centered consciousness.

Are you being careful about being swayed by media to blame the pandemic on someone without considering if they may be innocent or poor and without resources? Are you a joyful peacemaker with your Christian brothers and sisters? Do you offer your friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances gospel-centered encouragement to build them up? How do the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ, who died that we might Live, influence your time during the pandemic? Are you willing to grieve with those who are grieving, give up small conveniences for the glory of God? “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I [Paul] try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:31 – 11:1)

(1) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 14:13-16, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(2) Borg, Kyle, “Some Thoughts on Christian Civil Disobedience, “April 18, 2020https://gentlereformation.com/2020/04/18/some-thoughts-on-christian-civil-disobedience/?fbclid=IwAR1Wb6eoee0knwljrU8koHEq3iI7-_td9HMIIQIJou9A6T_6ZblNkxaxVpw)

(3) Jamieson, Bobby, “Life is Not Meaningless in Ecclesiastes,” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/living-life-backward-ecclesiastes/

(4) The Reformation Study Bible, Romans 14:16-19, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.

April 23, 2020

Oh Joy, He is Risen!

Yesterday was Maundy Thursday, celebrated by some as the dark night of Jesus’s arrest. We call today Good Friday because the best thing Jesus did for us in his incarnation was dying a sinner’s death, taking our punishment on himself. On Easter Sunday, we will celebrate his resurrection, albeit differently this year, while distancing ourselves. On earth, Jesus, the only God-Man wept with those who wept, grieved with the mourning, fed multitudes, and healed many. However, his work in heaven is not the same as his work on earth. In his article, “Does Jesus Weep For Us in Heaven?” Kevin DeYoung clarifies this truth:

Most evangelical Christians have a grasp on the humiliation of Christ–especially, and rightly, during Holy Week. But we often have an underdeveloped appreciation for the exaltation of Christ. The two states must go together: exaltation is made possible by prior humiliation, and the purpose of humiliation is to give way to exaltation. In the state of exaltation, we reflect upon Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and session. If Jesus has been resurrected, he has been raised incorruptible, with a glorified body that is no longer subject to pain and suffering and the privations of the flesh…Not everything true of Christ before glory is true of the glorified Christ now. Are we in danger of finding himself asleep? Or hungry? Or exhausted at the end of a long day? Just as an imperishable body, victory over death, and universal dominion did not belong to Christ in the state of humiliation, so the life of suffering, weeping, and death do not belong to Christ in the state of exaltation. (1)

Easter is a time of rejoicing in our Risen Savior. God is owed no less worship, praise, and thanksgiving because of particular circumstances, like pandemics. Isaiah reminds us that God hasn’t and won’t forget or abandon his people. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you…those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.'” (Isaiah 49:13-15, 23c) God’s covenant with believers is comforting, compassionate, intimate, and joyful. We rejoice without shame in our hope in Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, conquering death and sin.

In the Isaiah passage, “Human despair is more than offset by divine grace. The joy of v. 13 contrasts with the gloom of the Jewish exiles… All nature is called to sing for joy because God has comforted and had compassion on the afflicted.” (2) “Creation, which has witnessed the Lord’s acts of judgment, will now burst into praise, so great is the Lord’s salvation of His people.” (3) “Let there be universal joy, for God will have mercy upon the afflicted, because of his compassion; upon his afflicted, because of his covenant. We have no more reason to question his promise and grace, than we have to question his providence and justice. Be assured that God has a tender affection for his church and people; he would not have them to be discouraged.” (3) Because God’s covenant with believers is reliable, we are comforted by his compassionate and joyful in our hope. Israel had reason to rejoice during the exile, unable to worship in the temple, under God’s discipline for sin. How much more do we have reason to rejoice in Christ? He has accomplished all the work of salvation through his perfect obedience in life, his substitutionary atonement in his sacrificial death, and resurrection in glory, proving his victory over sin before ascending to heaven where He now reigns. Since this is a fact that can never change or be undone, we who have been given to Jesus rejoice, unashamed of our hope and gladness in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately though, some of God’s people are afraid that he has abandoned them, like some Israelites in Isaiah’s time. “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.'” (49: 14) In his commentary, John Gill remarks that the Israelites in Babylonian captivity may have felt abandoned because of the length of their captivity. Do Israel’s comments find their source in self-pity and ignorance of God’s covenant of steadfast love? But aren’t they the ones who had forsaken him over decades, while the Lord waited for them to put away their idolatry and worldly values? What sense does it make, what right do unbelievers have to say that God has abandoned them when they have turned away from their childhood mercies and truth? Prodigals have not been abandoned, but use many excuses to justify their apostate behavior. (5) But those who rest in Christ know that God’s covenant with believers is eternal. So we can view this pandemic of the coronavirus to be short in the context of eternity. “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 4:17-18)

We do not deny that death is real and that life here is not always a blessing. We do not deny that by the time this is posted, almost 100,000 people will have died from the coronavirus. So how do we reconcile the troubles of this world with biblical admonitions to be blessed and rejoice? Sometimes we become like prodigals in our thinking. In his book, “Our Good Crisis—Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes,” Jonathan Dodson writes, “Before we can leap into the Beatitudes’ promise[s], we have to evaluate our functional beatitudes—how we really think and live…For instance, in the secular context, mourning is an unwelcome but unavoidable part of life. How do we handle that sadness? When faced with disappointment, heartache, or suffering, we often opt for escape—take a trip, go to a movie, train for a marathon, or binge Netflix. But when we choose to escape, we don’t cease to believe. We simply believe as though God has nothing to offer us, and in his place, our chosen escape does. We mourn in an age of distraction.” (6) We miss what God might do in us by neglecting fellowship with him. What we might receive from God spiritually is far better than anything the world has to offer. If by God’s providence, I become infected with the coronavirus, and because of my genetic condition, quickly succumb to grave illness, I will rejoice in my Savior’s love for me and my love for him, knowing that I will live forever in His light. This is a unique kind of joy, different than surviving the illness (as I survived severe pneumonia at the age of nine) or being a better person moralistically as a result of enduring a trial. True Christian joy is rooted in our souls, shines through our pain, and overflows into the lives of others. This is Easter resurrection joy.

Isaiah continues, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (49:15) Do infants experience joy? I would think that they do, especially when nursing or being held close to their parent’s breast. Christ cannot forget us; it is contrary to his nature to do anything resembling neglect for those whom he has adopted as his own. Therefore we need never be ashamed of our faith or dependence upon him, as an infant is unashamed of her needs for constant care and love. Instead of shame, God’s people will rejoice with creation “…those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 49:23c) “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.'” (Romans 10:11) I James Boice’s sermon on this passage he teaches about four elements of biblical shame: disappointment, confusion, exposure, and disgrace. Unfortunately, we have seen all of these characteristics at work in the global population during the coronavirus pandemic. But those who believe in Christ this Easter have no cause for shame in our joy. “How can anyone be disappointed with Jesus? How can anyone be confounded or disgraced by his or her hope in the Lord? But aren’t Christians sinners, too? Yes, they are. But they are sinners whose sin has been forgiven and whose nakedness has been covered by the righteousness of Christ. Shame? Yes. But shame recognized, confessed, and dealt with permanently in God’s own way…the atonement is also real. Restitution has been made by Jesus. ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).'” (7)

On Easter Sunday, even alone in our homes, we will rejoice in God’s compassion, unashamed of our hope in Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, conquering death and sin. “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave Him glory so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:20-21)

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

(1) Is Jesus Weeping for Us in Heaven?By Kevin DeYoung, The Gospel Coalition, April 7, 2020 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/is-jesus-weeping-for-us-in-heaven/

(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 49:14, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(3) The Reformation Study Bible, Isaiah 49:14, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.

(4) Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, Isaiah 49:1317, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-concise/isaiah/49.html

(5) I recommend “Prodigals and Those Who Love Them,” by Ruth Bell Graham for parents of a prodigal or prodigals themselves, who were taught of Christ and are now searching for the truth that is buried deep within them.

(6) Dodson, Jonathan K.. Our Good Crisis, InterVarsity Press, 2020, Kindle Edition.

(7) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 10:11, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

April 10, 2020

God’s Joy is Ours

What have you been focused on during your Coronavirus experience? God has designed our minds to be active, alert, and interested in significant issues. Christians are called to think about our lives in the light of God’s truth. Our conduct reflects our thinking, which, in turn, reflects our theology. If we simply conform our thoughts to worldly thinking, we are not renewing our minds by the wisdom and Word of God, which we so desperately need right now. There are countless ways to think about the state of our world, but many are not biblical. Being entirely focused on our circumstances and provisions as if they determine our peacefulness goes against the biblical admonition to be content in all situations. (See Job 20:20; Philippians 4:11; Hebrews 13:5.) Refusing to obey our government leaders also violates our biblical commands. (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-15.) Thinking that God is not involved in this disease event denies His sovereignty or attentiveness to our issues or problems. (Psalm 97:1-7; Romans 3:9-19) Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at historic views about our current events online and found a number of articles referring to the history of pandemics. I learned that many people are looking to the past for wisdom, which is good; we gain wisdom from history by avoiding past mistakes. One article states, “Pandemics have afflicted civilizations throughout human history, with the earliest known outbreak occurring in 430 BC during the Peloponnesian War. Many of these pandemics have had significant impacts on human society, from killing large percentages of the global population to causing humans to ponder larger questions about life.” (1) Inquisitiveness led me to follow the link for “larger questions about life.” In Isaac Chotiner’s article in the New York Times he writes, “I had done some preliminary reading and thought this was an issue that raises really deep philosophical, religious, and moral issues. And I think epidemics have shaped history in part because they’ve led human beings inevitably to think about those big questions. The outbreak of the plague, for example, raised the whole question of man’s relationship to God. How could it be that an event of this kind could occur with a wise, all-knowing and omniscient divinity? Who would allow children to be tortured, in anguish, in vast numbers?” (2) Now maybe you think these are good questions, but I do not. They are the questions of those who sit in judgment on God. Wise, all-knowing, and omniscient are not synonymous with soft, easy, and comfortable, which is what the questioner wants from God—not justice, righteousness, or rulership.

So then how should we think about God at this time? God is obviously doing something remarkable today; He is the transcendent God who creates and rejoices in new life from death, for his people’s sake. (3) Our Savior is more attentive to our spiritual, eternal life with him than to our physical wellbeing. At the very least, during this time of great upheaval, we can rejoice in God’s desire to continue making many new creations in Christ. Our grief and laments should not negate our joy in him. And so, I will not deviate from my plans to expound on God’s joy, which is the source of ours. I am drawn to the prophets, who boldly served God at a time when his people were in exile, and unable to join together at the temple for worship, sacrifices, and service. At the end of Isaiah, the prophet encouraged Israel with these words: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:17-19)

The Lord stated that he would create a new world with unconditional regard for the activity of men. These verses compel me to worship God as Creator of the physical universe, and the One who creates new life in sinners, without regard to our inclination to repent. He who draws us to Christ by his irresistible love and gives us faith in the only Redeemer will also create a new earth, without our help or approval. “This prophecy began to have its accomplishment in the first times of the Gospel, when through the preaching of it there was a new face of things appeared in Judea, and in the Gentile world, so that the whole looked like a new world; and this was all the effect of creating power, of the mighty, powerful, and efficacious grace of God attending the word, to the conversion of many souls; a new church state was formed, consisting of persons gathered out of the world, the old national church of the Jews being dissolved, and Gospel churches everywhere set up…a new way of worship observed, at least in a more spiritual and evangelic manner; a new covenant exhibited, or the covenant of grace held forth in a new form of administration, the former waxen old and vanished away; and the new and living way to the Father, through Christ, made manifest.” (4)

I am encouraged by Gill’s perspective on our new Life in Christ to embrace Isaiah 65:18 during a pandemic. “But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.” Gill comments, “This may refer either to persons converted, both at the beginning of the Gospel, and in the latter day, whether Jews or Gentiles; who are the Lord’s creation, or new creatures, being made new men; having new hearts and spirits given them, or created within them; new principles of life, light, grace, and holiness, wrought in them, which are the produce of almighty and creating power; and all such instances are matter of joy, as to the angels in heaven, so to the saints on earth, and especially to the ministers of the Gospel; because of the grace bestowed on men, the glory brought to God, and their own ministry blessed and succeeded, and so their hands and hearts [were] strengthened.” (5) Since we know that God is rejoicing in his kingdom’s increase, we may also rejoice even during times of great worldly distress. We celebrate Christ’s body at work, sharing the gospel, remembering each other in prayer, and helping with many practical needs of our neighbors. We rejoice over what the Lord has already done, what he is doing today, and what he will do at the return of Christ. Our hope is not limited by time or circumstances because God’s attributes and work is limitless. He has not stopped loving his people, nor does he want anyone to suffer unnecessarily. “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:3-6) How much more can God do to prove his love for us? He will come again!

“I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19) This does not describe an end of a pandemic, but at Christ’s return in glory, when he will give us the new heavens and a new earth. When the pandemic ends we will return to our “normal” stresses. But when Christ comes, visible to all, there will be no more distress of any kind. Instead of checking news reports or websites for the latest statistics of cases and deaths (or recoveries), we will all look to the skies and see Jesus descending in all his glory with his angels (1 Thessalonians 4:16). “…the description goes far beyond anything that the world has ever seen, inviting the believing reader to yearn for more and to play his or her role as the story unfolds to its glorious end.” (6) What is your role in the current crisis? How will you express and demonstrate your joy in Christ to your family members, neighbors, church family, friends, and strangers? How do your prayers reflect your hope in a depressed, sick world that longs for joy? Will we be without regrets when “…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)

(1) https://www.businessinsider.com/pandemics-that-changed-the-course-of-human-history-coronavirus-flu-aids-plague

(2) https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-pandemics-change-history

(3) On God’s transcendence now, I highly recommend the article found at https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2020/03/the-mod-attending-to-the-present-means-attention-to-the-transcendent/

(4) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Isaiah 65:17, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-65.html

(5) Gill, Ibid 65:18.

(6) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 65:19, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

April 2, 2020

Celebrating Love in These Days

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Writing about love and joy at a time when tens of thousands of people have died from Covid-19 is a challenge. We grieve with the sick, families of victims, and future victims of this silent killer. We worry that we’ll be next, or falsely think that we won’t, we can’t—but we could catch it. We’re encouraged by the clinical trial taking place in Seattle, WA, through the kindness and love of selfless individuals who have volunteered to find a vaccination. (1) But we wonder, what happens if I get sick? Christians should have a different answer to this question than non-Christians, since we have an eternal home of glory awaiting us, in the new heavens and new earth, untainted with sin, disease, pain, and suffering of any kind. And even before that, we have a perfect stop-over place in heaven where our spirits will rest with the Lord. Last Sunday, Pastor Taha preached to us from Luke 17 about the cleansing of the ten lepers. (2) He reminded us of God’s grace to his people and their appropriate response to him in a situation that was dire. For many people, either personal or global healing from the virus will mean returning to “normal life” (whatever that is) like the nine lepers who went off to the temple to give thanks to the priest. But for believers in Jesus Christ, we will hopefully return to Christ, our heavenly High Priest, to give thanks and worship him as the Samaritan did in Luke 17:15-18. God’s grace should change us even during these strange times.

In the history of Christ’s church, there have been great times of opposition and persecution. This is not one of them. There have been oppressive events when thousands of believers died at the stake, but this is not then. All people on earth are affected by the disease, and our faith will not save us from it; only God will decide that we are among the survivors or leave this world. Our prayers are essential, but they will not save us. Only Christ saves. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Knowing that our God has a good plan for us, even when we are physically, emotionally, and mentally weak, we have cause to celebrate his love.  When we would otherwise be consumed with fear, we rejoice in his truths. See in Scripture how Joseph, David, Job, Paul, and most notably, our Lord Jesus Christ viewed crises of great magnitude. The Holy Spirit gives me the ability to be content, hopeful, loving, and even joyful. We have been studying the Fruit of the Spirit, starting with love; now, we will begin to consider how God’s love leads to joy in the Spirit. Godly love is patient, kind, humble, gentle, content, peaceful, selfless, hopeful, enduring, joyful, and eternal. We are called to celebrate and demonstrate God’s love from joyful hearts, even in this challenging season.

One of the great blessings of Christianity is the desire to serve Christ in all circumstances. Rather than be content to shelter and be safe, we want to be useful to God. This is God’s love working in us, not something to boast about as if the desire originates with us. So we admire and pray for medical staff in hospitals first responders, assisted living staff, and even grocery employees, who are serving at the risk of their own and their family’s health, rather than envy them their devotion or boast about our own safety at home. And the people I have encountered during this time have demonstrated the characteristics of love in 1 Cor. 13:4: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” I should not boast that I am well and protected from Covid-19 but be kind, patient, and polite about my lost package of toilet tissue or one-week wait time for a curbside pickup of my groceries. I will not be envious of people who seem to know how to conduct zoom meetings so effortlessly and professionally. This godly love also “…does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” (v. 5-6) Yesterday I posted something with an incorrect link and was so grateful when someone else deleted it. I can see now why John Gill reminds us that the wrongdoing that we should be primarily concerned about is our own. Confession and repentance is needed now more than ever, as we spend more time alone, with family, children, those with special needs, or roommates. And, I am now convinced that the pressure to conform is somehow stronger than ever, perhaps because we’re spending so much time on social media. Whose post is better, which article is the best, who has found the most appropriate Scripture? Christians don’t live for the approval of others. This love “…seeketh not his own things: even those which are “lawful”, as the Arabic version renders it; but seeks the things of God, and what will make most for his honour and glory; and the things of Christ, and what relate to the spread of his Gospel, and the enlargement of his kingdom; and also the things of other men, the temporal and spiritual welfare of the saints…” (3) Might I suggest more quiet times of prayer over and above looking for the best post on social media?

Our relationship with God drives our relationships with others. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (V. 7) “The terms believes and hopes are sandwiched between bears and endures and, like them, probably refer to relationships between people rather than to faith and hope in God. Love believes the best of others and hopes the best for them.” (4) “[Love] hopes the best of all men, of all professors of religion, even of wicked men, that they may be better and brought to repentance, and of fallen professors, who declare their repentance, and make their acknowledgments; he hopes well of them, that they are sincere, and all is right and will appear so: endures all things; that are disagreeable to the flesh; all afflictions, tribulations, temptations, persecutions, and death itself, for the elect’s sake, for the sake of the Gospel, and especially for the sake of Christ Jesus.” (5) We celebrate God’s sustaining love, especially in times of great distress.

Godly love is also enduring and eternal. “Love never ends.” (v. 8a) “It is a grace, lasting as eternity. The present state is a state of childhood, the future that of manhood. Such is the difference between earth and heaven. What narrow views, what confused notions of things, have children when compared with grown men!” (6) Do you view your ability to love now as that of a child, dependent upon your elders? Are we ready to follow their model and learn how to grow in grace? Will we use this precious, singular time in history to love others relationally the way God loves us or withdraw in safety as if we are not already secure and protected? Have we retreated into social media instead of having meaningful, one-to-one conversations with those who are either living alone, serving as caregivers full time, sick, or afraid? “Love never ends.” “The head of a child may have thoughts and plans of growth, but they will all be in vain unless the members all do their part in securing that growth. Christ Jesus has committed to His church the growth and increase of His body. As He is the Head and lives for the growth and welfare of the body, Christ asks and expects every member of His body, even the weakest, to do the same – to build up the body in love.” (7) “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

(1) NIH News Release: “A Phase 1 clinical trial evaluating an investigational vaccine designed to protect against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has begun at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) in Seattle…The open-label trial will enroll 45 healthy adult volunteers ages 18 to 55 years over approximately 6 weeks. The first participant received the investigational vaccine [on March 16, 2020]…” https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-clinical-trial-investigational-vaccine-covid-19-begins

(2) Taha, Allen, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Boerne, Texas, https://vimeo.com/399253308

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 1 Corinthians 13:5, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/1corinthians-13.html

(4) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, 1 Corinthians 13:7, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(5) Gill, Ibid (1 Corinthians 13:7)

(6) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 1 Corinthians 13:8,https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/1corinthians-13.html

(7) Murray, Andrew, “Working for God,” pp. 72-73, Aneko Press, Kindle Edition.

Loving Through Doing No Harm

God has gotten the attention of every single person on the planet simultaneously with a pandemic. He has dramatically interrupted our lives, or at the very least, allowed the effects of sin (disease) to do so. Every day, there are more rules, guidelines, and restrictions, which we probably don’t like, however necessary. Our passage today is relevant, as is Scripture always is, to our times and circumstances. I hope that Romans 13:8-10 will be as helpful to you as it is to me today, with particular attention to verse 10 (with my highlighting). “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Verse 10’s “do no harm,” is not just about social distancing, but certainly includes that as a minimum requirement these days. However, in the context of the passage, Paul’s speaks of that which is more than withholding evil or danger and extends Christ’s love to others, all others. This is the debt that we owe after Christ has paid all other debts for us by his perfect fulfillment of the Law in our redemption.

Many Christians separate the gospel and the Ten Commandments because they came from God at different seasons in his progressive revelation throughout history. One reason we don’t like the Law is our inability to keep it, even after our redemption. But God’s Law is as much a part of his blessing as the gospel, though it serves a different purpose. All the rules and restrictions placed on us (or that we place on ourselves willingly today) will not cure coronavirus but will help keep it restrained. God’s commandments help to keep evil restrained, but only the gospel saves, and yet they are not to be separated. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17) Not to ‘replace’ but fulfill—that is, complete, accomplish, and satisfy all the commandments with his perfect obedience and sacrificial death. Having fulfilled the Law through our faith in Christ, Christians now only have one debt that we can never stop owing: love for God and for all people. “Verses 8–10 focus on the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law…The debt one never ceases paying is the call to love one another. Indeed, love fulfills what the Mosaic law demands.” (1)

Paul’s exhortation to love everyone without harming anyone can transform our attitudes during the pandemic as we face its reality with a biblical worldview. There have been many great quotations from Spurgeon, Luther and others on social media, which are very helpful. One article especially impressed me today, regarding NIH Director Francis Collins’ views about coronavirus scenarios. But later in the article, the interviewer and author, Peter Wehner, recalls Collins’ testimony of faith from earlier in his life. “‘Collins was the founder and creative force behind BioLogos, an organization that invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith…I asked Collins what he hopes more Christians would understand about science and what he hopes more scientists would understand about faith. “To Christians I would say, think of science as a gift from the Creator. The curiosity that we have been instilled with to understand how the universe works can inspire even greater awe of the Creator. This gift could hardly be a threat to God, the author of it all. Celebrate what science can teach us…And I think the message to scientists has to be there are really important questions that fall outside of what science is able to address meaningfully, such as ‘Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the meaning of love? Is there a God? What happens after you die?’ Those are not questions for which science or scientific methods can be applied.” He believes scientists would be better served by getting outside of a mindset that says the only questions worth asking are those about the material world.”’” (2)

My overriding prayer for the pandemic is Christian revival, for unbelievers to repent of their atheism, agnosticism, or false beliefs and turn to Jesus Christ for their eternal well-being. But revival starts with repentance and a good confession in Christ, so Lord, may it start today! Christians, however, are not exempt from repentance of our sins that hinder our ability to love God and his people. I pray that I will repent of any prejudices I may have toward scientists and government leaders, that pride or vanity won’t separate me emotionally and intellectually from others, and that I won’t give in to fretting and worry. “The word ‘fret’ comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon and carries with it such a variety of meanings as bring a rather pained smile to our faces…The primary meaning of the word is to eat, and from there it has been extended with rare honesty to cover most of the manifestations of an irritable disposition. ‘To eat away; to gnaw; to chafe; to gall; to vex; to worry; to agitate; to wear away’; so says Webster…Now, the grace of God in the human heart works to calm the agitation that normally accompanies life in such a world as ours. The Holy Spirit acts as a lubricant to reduce the friction to a minimum and to stop the fretting and chafing in their grosser phases. But for most of us the problem is not as simple as that. Fretfulness may be trimmed down to the ground and its roots remain alive deep within the soul… It was not to the unregenerate that the words’ Fret not’ were spoken, but to God-fearing persons capable of understanding spiritual things. We Christians need to watch and pray lest we fall into this temptation and spoil our Christian testimony by an irritable spirit under the stress and strain of life.” (2) You see, every time we give into fretting and fear we limit our ability to reach out to others in love, and even spread discouragement instead of God’s peace. When we fret, we harm, not just ourselves, but others, by our sins of omission, even if we binge watch TV for a distraction or spouting platitudes that supposedly make people feel better during a time of real danger.

Here is a time when we can ask people, “Can you imagine a world without disease, pain, or injury? Let me tell you about how and when that will happen.” “Do you think that disease randomly affects good people, or is it a judgment for something people have done? Would you like to know what Christ says in a parable about a man born blind?” I’m sure you can think of better questions than these, and not everyone is going to want to talk about religion just because they can’t go out or get the groceries they like. I think that’s where, “love does no wrong to a neighbor” comes in. Father, let me not judge or reject those who will not consider Christ, but find ways to love them as they are. I discovered a lovely prayer of Lady Julian in one of A. W. Tozer’s works that expresses her sincere love for God: “O God, please give me three wounds; the wound of contrition and the wound of compassion and the wound of longing after God.” Then she added this little postscript which I think is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read: “This I ask without condition.” She wasn’t dickering with God. She wanted three things and they were all for God’s glory: “I ask this without condition, Father; do what I ask and then send me the bill. Anything that it costs will be all right with me.” (4) 

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:9-12)

(1) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Romans 13:8-10, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

(2) Tozer, A. W., (Compiled by Anita M. Bailey ),“Man: The Dwelling Place of God,” Chapter 17, , The Moody Bible Institute, 1997, Kindle Edition.

(3) Peter Wehner, “NIH Director: ‘We’re on an Exponential Curve’ Francis Collins speaks about the coronavirus, his faith, and an unusual friendship.” MARCH 17, 2020, The Atlantic

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/interview-francis-collins-nih/608221/

(4) Tozer, Ibid, Chapter 25.

March 20, 2020

The Binding Power of Love

On the way to my physical therapy session Thursday morning, I listened to the news, just in case something important happened in the world, besides the covid-19 pandemic, suspension of NBA’s season, and the stock market crash. Later, walking on the treadmill in traction, I chose to concentrate on our passage and was rewarded with God’s soothing peace and insights. Who knows what the Lord’s purpose is through covid-19 and all its ramifications? Only God. But we get to choose how we live, what we focus on, and how we’ll react to something that threatens our material wellbeing, comfort, convenience, health, and control. Crises and imagined crises do not excuse us from meditating on and applying any of the Bible’s doctrines and statutes; during these times, we need them to counteract cultural trends toward negativity, fear, and pessimism. So let’s give our attention to a passage about how love binds all Christian fruit and virtues for harmony in a disorderly, dark world. As usual, God is counter-cultural, offering balance instead of chaos, love instead of blame, and patience instead of panic. Paul reminds us of our ability to choose: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14) Christ’s love is the perfect, harmonizing binder for Christian virtues and forgiveness. As his disciples, we are called to love others intentionally and sincerely.

In Colossians 3, Paul reminded us of who we are in Christ, that our lives are hidden in him, and that we will appear with him in glory. He then instructed us to kill off that which is sinful and provokes God’s wrath, our old selves, with its ungodly nature. In Colossians 3:12-14, our passage under consideration, the apostle tells us what to put on, having taken off that which is abysmal to Christ. We redress ourselves because we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” (v. 12a) “We must become what we already are, and we need guidance in this because sin’s presence continues to color our idea of what it means to be human. Jesus Himself reveals what a true person looks like, and Paul shows us real humanity as well in his list of the qualities that we must put on as God’s chosen people…Jesus never said that following Him would be easy, and being His disciples—the new humanity—means that we are compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient even when it is costly.” (1) Today pastors are taking heat for keeping their churches open, and missionaries are staying put in places where covid-19 is excessive because they know that they belong to Christ. Our security is not in this world, but in God, we are the beloved objects of his abundant grace. As those given to Christ by the Father (John 17), we have already received Christ’s robe of righteousness in our justification and are receiving his attributes increasingly through our sanctification. =

The only reason we can be sincerely compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient is because we have Christ, and he has us. (v. 12) But don’t we tend to reduce verses such as this to a list that we then try to perform? Most of the commentators I consulted reduce verse 12 as a list of separate Christian virtues. But, I propose that we see we treat these characteristics as one picture of the “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:10) After all, is it even possible to have a compassionate heart without mercy, or kindness? And what happens when we show kindness or mercy without compassion? Doesn’t it merely become a way to soothe a guilty conscience or fulfill self-righteousness? Being gentle (meek) is the way some people avoid conflict and may nothing to do with mercy, compassion, or kindness. Humility for the sake of preserving a self-image is the sin of pride but combined with compassion, kindness, and gentleness, ministers to a hurting soul. Finally, we come to patience, the fifth virtue listed in verse 12. Oh, well, if you’re patient at the Apple store, or in line at the grocery store, of what value is that? However, if you are patiently faithful during the pandemic or falling stock market values, trusting God to provide, you will probably also be compassionate, kind, merciful, and gentle during these turbulent times.

But wait, there’s another Christian virtue mentioned in Colossians 3:13—that of forgiveness. We are described as “…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Here is a bridge between Christ’s love and our virtuous new selves—the forgiveness that we have received supplies the loving fruit we offer to others. Because we are God’s holy, chosen ones who have compassionate, kind, merciful, gentle, and patient hearts and attitudes, we forgive. We don’t blame, criticize, or shame. Through Christ, we put ourselves in the shoes and lives of others, appreciating their challenges, seeing things as they might, with empathy and respect. Can we hope to be forgiving people otherwise? And still, the picture is not yet complete. We must put on Christ’s love intentionally and sincerely to successfully live the Christian life. “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (v. 14)

[Love] “is the upper garment that covers all the rest…whereby a disciple of Christ is visible, and distinguished, and is known to be what he is; this is like a strait and upper garment, keeps close all that is under it, and within it…” (2) Sounds like a girdle or corset, which is precisely Gill’s intent. I was walking on the treadmill tightly strapped into a harness, to keep some of gravity’s effects from harming my healing back. It’s the kind of contraption that resembles the gear skydivers wear, and the therapist uses tremendous pressure to get it as tight as possible around my midsection. Yesterday, I realized that when the harness is working correctly, I feel secure, protected, and light on my feet. Without the harness, I cannot walk o without back pain these days, so I don’t walk for exercise. I feel pain, not peace, as I do with the harness binding me to the weights. Without love as the binding power for our Christian character, we are unprotected and vulnerable, as are others with whom we interact. Gill continues, “… this is like a strait and upper garment, keeps close all that is under it, and within it: and it is called the bond of perfectness…for this is the bond of union between them, which knits and cements them together, so that they are perfectly joined together, and are of one mind and one heart: it is the bond of peace among them, of perfect unity and brotherly love.” (3)

What is a compassionate heart without love, but material generosity? Loveless humility is religious legalism, and meekness without love may just be low self-esteem or shame. Patience without love is what we do when we have no control and no choice in the matter. We won’t boldly share the gospel if we are afraid of being insulted or offended, but if we’re truly meek and patient, not fearing offense, taking it as Christ did, we will be more courageous  about witnessing for him, with compassionate hearts. When we quietly submit to the will of God in all adverse dispensations of providence, patiently bearing what he is pleased to lay on us, including crises, we can also practice patience and forgiveness. Love binds our character, protecting us with Christ’s security—his steadfast love. “Love is primary because it is the impetus for the kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness to which we are called…It was love that moved the triune God to provide a way for human beings to be forgiven and reconciled to Him, and if love drove Him to absolve us, nothing less can make us extend true forgiveness to others…Kindness, meekness, patience, and so forth are praiseworthy only if they are not merely outward qualities but are the very disposition of the heart. Anyone can show kindness or patience externally while inwardly hating the object of one’s good will, but it takes love to ensure that the virtues we display outwardly match the thoughts and desires that no one but God can see.” (4)

Instead of becoming weary of hearing news reports, will you “put on” love, forgiveness, kindness, patience, gentleness, mercy, and a compassionate heart for your neighbors in prayer, on the phone, in emails, text messages or actual hand-written notes? How might you envision putting on this Christian fruit as you get dressed in the morning? Aren’t we less effective as imitators of God because we doubt his love for us or ours for him at times? Will you pray for more patience, compassion, and forgiveness if you are inclined to worry about yours or others’ health, finances, and activities? Will you be a calming, loving presence in your community for Christ? “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)

(1) “Faith and the Means of Grace,” a Ligonier devotion on Colossians 3:12-13, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/faith-and-means-grace-2/)

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

(3) Gill, Ibid.

(4) “Love and the Peace of Christ,” a devotion on Colossians 3:14-15 at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/love-and-peace-christ/)

 

March 13, 2020

Love Everyone; Hate No One

Are you “emboldened?” A current new item involves a U.S. Senator who protested during a U.S. Supreme Court hearing. I am not following the online threads of reactions to the event, and it is not my intention to distract you with politics. But I was surprised that one news report coined such intense emotional reactions as being “emboldened,” and a characteristic of our current culture. Being “emboldened” has always had a good connotation in my mind, so I thought I had better check myself. Seeing that my definition seems to be a non-biblical one, I thought I should check its use in Scripture. (1) Will I be emboldened by culture or Scripture? That is the real question. Do we take our direction from culture, and adopt the attitudes of those most prominently reported, or from our friends and family? Of course, we should look to Scripture for our guidance in relating to others.

The Bible never fails to address the problems in our societies and cultures. Over two thousand years ago, the Jew leaders were emboldened to see non-Jews as the “uncircumcised,” and therefore enemies, at least to some extent. The unbelieving Jews viewed Jesus as their enemy, as well as Rome. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus taught them a different way to see people and life. Today we will study Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:43-48, as we continue to examine and revise our understanding of love as the fruit of the Spirit and our salvation. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Unlike the Pharisees, with their many Talmudic traditions, Jesus calls on his disciples to follow and adhere to biblical truth, not human interpretations of it. No matter how our culture interprets the idea of debate or argument, we are called to speak and act in love.

If we follow Jesus rather than our culture, we will love all people through Christ’s love in us, not just those who agree with us or think like us. But, let’s face it, most of us do not love people who are different, especially those who disagree with our beliefs, viewpoints, and opinions. The Pharisees latched onto some Old Testament ideas about evil, distorting them to serve their purposes. But, “…in his ‘you have heard’ statements ([Matthew 5] vv. 21, 27, 33, 38, 43), Jesus is correcting not the OT itself but only misinterpretations of the OT. God’s hatred of evil was a central theme in the OT (e.g., Ps. 5:4–5). Consequently, those who embodied evil were understood to be God’s enemies, and it was natural to hate them (cf. Ps. 26:4–5; 139:21–22), but such hatred is never commanded by God. The OT never says that anyone should hate his or her enemy…[In Psalm 139] David only means that he did not want to be with those who were openly marked by evil or were hatching evil actions.” (2) The words “and hate your enemies” are found nowhere in the Bible. In Boice’s commentary on Leviticus 19:18, he writes, “Jesus teaches that the citizens of the kingdom are to love their enemies as well as their friends because that is the way the heavenly King treats them. It is only as they display kindness to those who are evil as well as to those who are good that they will be able to demonstrate that they are the true sons and daughters of God.” (3)

Christians follow Jesus, not human traditions that resemble Scripture. “God helps those who help themselves” appears nowhere in the Bible. Nor does “actions speak louder than words.” So we, following Jesus’s example, must discern what is biblical and what is cultural  or traditional. Let no one think this is easy, comfortable, or friendly. After all, most of our relationships are based on traditions and memories. I have found myself on the outside at work and in my communities when I chose not to honor certain traditions that I felt were unbiblical (though not sinful). I won’t attend a Jewish Passover celebration, even with my family, because I don’t want to encourage Jewish faith, exclusive of Jesus Christ and all the imagery of our Savior in that beautiful Messianic event and remembrance. Christ spoke to the Jewish misinterpretation of God’s commands saying, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus continues to speak to the leaders and his disciples if only we will listen. I am grateful to read in “By Faith” that my church denominational leaders have recognized a problem. “‘There is a native distrust that is given greater energy by our cultural moment. Because we are so scared of being taken in, we are always looking through people’…The antidote is relationship. If church leaders pursue those with whom they disagree and forge relationships with them, the rhetoric cools down.” (4)

God loves all people and creatures with his common grace. Christians who enjoy both God’s common grace and Christ’s love can love everyone, as God does, “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (v. 45) Jesus bridges the special grace of God in Christ, that lives in us, to God’s common grace for everyone. We who are his children should extend both to others, as God does. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (vs. 46-47) Again we must be honest with ourselves if we are to grow spiritually. Of course, we love those who love us, and we acknowledge those who care for us; this is the natural state of human behavior for all of God’s creatures. It doesn’t take any special grace to do it. However, Christ is ready to reward us with the spiritual blessing of sharing the gospel if we will engage with those who are “outside” the Christian body. 

We have been transformed by gospel love by intimate fellowship with our Redeemer, who purifies our hearts and souls. We are being made perfect. We acknowledge that we are nowhere near perfect now, but we know a perfect God, through Christ and the Spirit, who supplies his holiness for and within us. So when we read, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” in Matthew 5:48, we understand that we are “pursuing the very perfection of God. This verse provides the conclusion and summary to the antithesis section (vv. 21–48), showing that all of the Law and the Prophets find their perfect…fulfillment in the perfection of the Father, which is what all Jesus’ disciples are called to pursue.” (5) John Gill comments, “…not that men may, or can, or ought to be as perfect in love, as to the degree of it, as God is; that is impossible: the ‘as’ here, is not a note of equality, but of likeness: such who profess God to be their Father, ought to imitate him, particularly in their love to men, which ought to be extended to the same objects, as the divine goodness is; that, as he shows regard in a providential way to all men, good and bad, just and unjust, and his tender mercies are over all his works; so ought they to love all men with a natural affection, and hate no man, no, not their enemies: for he that loves only his friends, and not his enemies, loves imperfectly.” (6)

I think our culture has perfected imperfect love, being emboldened to express opinions as if they are precious truths that are actually the foolishness of the sinful human mind. We must be vigilant to discourage this practice and pray for everyone, since we have been transformed by Christ’s love. Which individuals or group of people are you tempted to call your enemies? Will you pray for them and ask God to change your attitude? How much do you enjoy God’s common grace in nature, ethics, and even the morals of those who don’t have Christ? Will you help people appreciate and see God as the first cause? How can your standard greetings with people and acquaintances be more meaningful? And, finally, here’s the question I continually ask myself: Will I stop attempting perfection by legalism and instead be emboldened with the love of Christ, displaying his character and attributes, with the gospel ready on my lips? “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” (Philippians 2:14-16)

(1) Online definitions of embolden: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/embolden and https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/embolden?q=emboldened  

Scripture’s use of “embolden:” The NIV has two references, one in Psalms 138:3, “When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me”. The other reference is 1 Corinthians 8:10, “For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?” The RSV uses “strength of soul” in Psalm 138 and “encouraged” in 1 Cor. 8.

(2) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Matthew 5:43-48, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(3) Boice, Ibid.

(4) Fowler, Megan, “Relationships Are the Antidote to Animosity,” page 26, “By Faith,” no. 64, (a quarterly magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America).

(5) Boice, Ibid.

(6) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Matthew 5:44, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/matthew-5.html.

March 6, 2020

Loving Each Other as We Love God

Do you listen to popular Christian music on the radio or YouTube? I like Tauren Will’s new song, “Citizen of Heaven,” but I should warn YouTube users that the video is a bit dark, as is our world. Wills sings, “Getting caught up in the here and now, has a tendency to wear me down. Am I really free if I’m thinking ’bout, only temporary things? The world’s screaming so loud, when I’m locked to the middle of my doubt. When I’m lost in the rhythm of the crowd, I hear heaven calling me. Don’t want to be another victim, falling prey to the system, when You’ve called me the kingdom. I know I am a citizen of heaven. My identity forever is Yours.” I feel loved by these words that remind us of who we are in a world seeks to pull us into its vortex. I am impressed by popular Christian music that is especially well-written (think, “I Can Only Imagine”) and sung. I sense that the artists are giving us their best. When I stop studying and start writing, I ask myself if I am giving you my best insights from God? Since God gives me his best, in love, shouldn’t I do the same for you?

How we express our love for others matters. I am appreciative of popular Christian songwriters who express their love for God with their biblical truths or worshipful lyrics. In contrast, today, the world mostly expresses love through sex, technology, and materialism. By God’s providence, I am in a church where our pastors strongly encourage us to consider how we interact with our culture. In our pastor’s exegetical sermon on Acts 19, he spoke to us of the effect of the disciples’ restrained behavior when the Ephesians threatened to riot. The disciples quiet Christian love resembled that of Christ, who endured silently when called to his suffering. In Ephesus, the disciples’ conduct motivated the town clerk to defend them, remarking that they “are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess.” (Acts 19:37) (1) Sometimes we demonstrate our love by what we say or do; other times we love on others with our silence and restraint. Christians love is the result of God’s love, that comes first, before we know him.

Expressing truth artistically, verbally, and behaviorally from a gracious heart is fruit of our salvation. John says, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21) God loves us first, and we love our Christian family because of God’s love for us. Our love for other Christians (whom we see) is evidence of our love for God (who is invisible). Finally, God has commanded us to love other Christians, and because we love God, we want to please him. I pray our meditation on this passage will result in our mutual conviction to love others as much as we say we love God.

Our relationships are a barometer of our love for Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most excellent, most profound, most extensive love, superior to all other kinds of love. Merciful forgiveness and undeserved grace reconciles us to our holy, perfect King. Our reaction to gospel love is made possible by the Spirit, and is the only possible good response to him. So says 1 John 4:20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  “John immediately goes on to show that anyone who is attempting to separate [love for God and love for others] is a liar, for love cannot be so differentiated. John’s reasoning at this point is interesting. He argues that it is easier to love men than God; therefore, if there is no love for men, love for God is absent also, regardless of what the person professing to love God may say verbally. How many Christians really believe that it is easier to love men than God? Possibly it is a very small number, for our natural inclination is to think that it is easier to love God simply because he is worthy of our love and that it is difficult to love men because they are not lovable or lovely. Yet this passage says exactly the opposite, implying, no doubt, that unless we are really loving our Christian brothers and sisters on the horizontal level, we are deluding ourselves in regard to what we consider to be our love for God on the vertical. Unless we can love men and women, we cannot love God. Unless we actually do love them, we do not love the one who created them and in whose image they were and are created.” (2) Does my love for others prove my love for God, or does it contradict my belief that I love him wholly and sincerely? Do my relationships prove my love for God or make me question it? And not just for my close Christian friends but those who are different but kingdom dwellers—all Christian music writers, politicians (all parties), doctors, neighbors, church members, teenagers, and Christians in other church denominations? Twenty-three years ago, I had an epiphany that prepared me for working with missionaries on different missions teams over the next two decades. I realized that I have the hardest time working with Christians with varying personalities from mine—not different accents, politics, viewpoints, or other common variances—but different ways of working, different priorities, methods, and approaches. Since then, I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice loving people, and yet, I have so far to go!

We love our Christian brothers and sisters as we love God. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” “On the one hand, there are undoubtedly those who loudly profess to love God but who do not love their Christian brothers and sisters. John rightly calls such liars. But on the other hand, it is also possible that there are many who recognize that they do not really love God (at least not as much as they would like to) and who wonder how they might learn to love him better. “’I cannot see him,’ they might argue. ‘At times he seems so far away and so unreal. How can I learn to love him? How can I make progress in this that I know to be my privilege and Christian duty?’ On the basis of these verses we are justified in arguing that John might well reply to such that a Christian learns to love God by loving those he can actually see. This does not replace the revelation of God’s love at the cross of Jesus Christ, of course. It is there that we learn what love is. Nevertheless, it does supplement it practically, for it is by practicing a real and self-sacrificing love for one another that we learn to love the one who sacrificed himself for us.” (3) What is God’s lesson for you today? Are you convicted to love others as much as you love God? Or, do you need to love God as much as you love others? John says our love for other Christians (whom we see) is evidence of our love for God (who is invisible). “And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (v. 21) The “must” here stings a bit, when we know we do not love our brothers and sisters as we should. What happens when if we change it to “can”— ‘whoever loves God can also love his brother?’ Same meaning, but a bit more encouraging, isn’t it? We can love others with the same love we have for God, to the same extent, for the same reason—because we have his love in us. “It is easy to say we love God when that love doesn’t cost us anything more than weekly attendance at religious services. But the real test of our love for God is how we treat the people right in front of us—our family members and fellow believers.” (4)

If God loves us first, shouldn’t we love others before they love us? How do you love your Christian family at your local church? Do you sometimes withhold your love because you are afraid of entering into yet another complicated relationship with demands on your emotions, time, and choices? Don’t we deceive ourselves, thinking that we love God more or better than we do, based on the evidence in our relationships? Are we willing to examine them to see where our love is bountiful and where it is deficient? “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18) Sometimes the old hymns say it best. “O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee. I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine oceans depths its flow. May richer fuller be.” (5)

(1) Taha, Allen, “A Christian Uproar,” Acts 19:21-41, February 23, 2020, https://www.trinityboerne.org/sermons/sermon/2020-02-23/a-christian-uproar.

(2) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, “An Exhortation to Love One Another,” 1 John 4:17-21, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(3) Boice, Ibid.

(4) Life Application Bible, New International Version, 1 John 4:20-21, Tyndale House Publishers, 1991.

(5) “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” words by George Matheson.

 

 

February 28, 2020