Monday, 23 May 2016

The Grace-filled church (Galatians 6:1-6)

‘I want a place where I can go anytime, a place of retreat.  But it mustn’t be an empty place, a lonely place … I want a place full of people, but full of friends not strangers—a place where people are pleased to see me.
I need people who understand me—who know what it’s like out there.  Who know what it is like when people reject you, insult you, kick you when you are down.  So, I need people who won’t do that.  I need a place where I can just be me.
But I also need to be with people who want the best for me—which means those who will help me change, and develop and grow.  In short, I want a community—a community to be part of, to be loved in, to belong to.
And you know what?  I’ve found it.  And it has changed my life.  It is the best thing that has ever happened to me!’
So much of what this man is looking for is what the church seeks to offer.  However, he wasn’t writing about a church, but about moving to San Francisco and becoming a part of that city’s large gay culture.
A grace-filled church delights to restore the fallen (1)
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore them gently.  He has just spoken of the fruit of the Spirit, which includes gentleness.
He is not talking about someone who claims to be a Christian, but ignores God’s call to holy living.  He has already warned such people that they will not inherit the kingdom (Galatians 5:21).  He will later write to the church in Corinth about their need to discipline someone who says they are a Christian but will not repent of their sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).  He also teaches that when such a person does repent, ‘you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow … to reaffirm you love for him’ (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
But what Paul is envisaging here is a fellow-Christian who is caught in a sin that they cannot defend or want to defend.
Someone has borrowed your computer and seen you online history.  You lost your temper, and said what you really think.  Your boss has noticed deceit in your expenses claim.  You were gossiping, and were overheard.  A few embarrassing pictures turned up on Facebook.  Your closest friend has noticed your critical spirit.  You know you are in the wrong.  You want to change.  You need the help of a gentle Christian who understands grace!
Supposing you are to be that gentle restoring friend, what should you attitude look like?
Your heart will go out to this person you love.  You wish you could turn back in time and save them the pain that they have brought upon themselves.  You will not look down on them, because you count yourself as among the chief of sinners.  You have the attitude that says ‘there for the grace of God go I.’  ‘If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall’ (1 Cor. 10:12).  You watch yourself that you are not tempted to fall into the same sin.  You also watch yourself that you don’t end up with a harsh, judgemental and loving attitude towards the fallen.
Somewhere in Ireland, a pastor and his assistant went to visit the home of someone in the church who had got into a terrible mess.  On their way the pastor asked the assistant if he thought that he could ever see himself getting into the same sort of trouble.  The assistant declared, ‘no, I don’t think so.  In fact I am sure that I never would.’  ‘In that case, you had better go home, and I’ll go alone,’ the pastor replied.
A grace-filled church bears one another’s burdens (2-5)
Restoring those caught in sin is one means of bearing one another’s burdens.  Grace-filled churched bear each other’s burdens.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ (2).
Jesus is the supreme burden-bearer.  He gave himself up for our sins (1:4).  He redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (3:13).  He commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves (5:14).
Some people won’t let other people bear their burdens.  Perhaps that is because you are too proud to admit your need.  But we all have burdens, and Christ has given us one another. 
In this fallen world there is a sense in which we all come from broken homes, have marriages that are less perfect than we want people to think, wrestle with temptation and sin in more ways than we wish.  We should be looking out for the lonely, the sick and hurting.  We should have ready ears and a kind word.  We should be lifting each other up to God in prayer.
The letters of Paul are full of ‘one another’ commands because he knows that Christ wants us to live in gracious community.  ‘Be devoted to one another.  Honour one another above yourselves’ (Rom. 12:10).  ‘Accept one another … just as Christ accepted you’ (Rom. 15:7).  ‘Greet one another’ (Rom. 16:16).  ‘Encourage one another’ (2 Cor. 13:12).  ‘Serve one another humbly in love’ (Gal. 5:13).  ‘Bear with one another in love’ (Eph. 4:2).  ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another’ (Eph. 4:32). 
While some are too proud to reveal their burdens, others are too proud, and unloving, to be a burden bearer.  ‘If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself.’  We are all delighted to be seen to help, but we might consider the person beneath us and not worthy of our time.  We don’t really care about them, and will only do what is seen.  ‘Pay careful attention to your own works, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.  For we are each responsible for our own conduct’ (3-5, NLT)
A grace-filled church values been fed (6)
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.  My primary job is to feed you.  You give me a generous stipend so that I don’t have to spend time at other employment and can have the time to study and prepare.  Indeed, you also are great at encouraging me.  Thank you!
Philip Yancey grew up in the strict fundamentalism found in the southern states of America in the 50s and 60s.  Strict dress-codes were enforced.  Silly laws were in place (such as not being allowed to roller-skate).  Most troublingly the church was blatantly racist—only admitting whites.  ‘They talked about Grace but lived by law; they spoke of love but showed signs of hate.’
But Yancey did not give up on church.  Indeed, he became a part of a wonderful church community in Chicago.  This church made racial reconciliation a primary goal.  It was situated between one of the richest and one of the poorest suburbs in the city, and aimed to bring people from both together.  It had its fair share of unusual people.
‘I have seen glimpses of what can happen when community forms around what we hold in common.  A family of God emerges, one in which unity does not mean uniformity and diversity does not mean division … Now, when I look for a church, I look around me at the people sitting in the pews or chairs.  I have much to learn from the uninhibited worship styles of African-Americans and Pentecostals, from the stalwart faith of senior citizens, from the daily struggles of moms with preschool children.  I deliberately seek a congregation composed of people not like me.’
Maybe you have been the person caught in sin.  Maybe you have failed to gentle with those who have fallen.  Maybe you have gossiped about they did.  Have you been too proud to admit you need for help or not willing to help another?  None of us have loved perfectly.  So, remember grace—God does not treat you as your sins deserve but according to his loving-kindness.  Walk in step with the Holy Spirit, who produces gentleness in us.  Don’t simply look for a church filled with your sort of people, but delight in this community of fellow-strugglers that he has given us.    

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Do you want to change? (Galatians 5:16-26)

Uncle George was not really my uncle, he was a family friend.  He was also one of the nicest men I have ever met.  The author Ajith Fernando mentions Uncle George in two of his books.  He says that Uncle George showed him ‘the beauty of godliness.’  Do you want to display the beauty of godliness?  Do you want to become more like Jesus?  This passage shows us how!
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious (18-20)
If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (18).  We have seen that the Law of Moses was in place from Mount Sinai to Jesus.  The false-teachers wanted to use it to justify themselves.  However, the law actually exposes our rebellion.  Our problem with sin reveals the fact that we have a sinful nature.
The ‘sinful nature’ [literally ‘flesh’] is our twisted inclination to ignore God and live for self.  Paul says that the sort of things the flesh prompts us to do are obvious.  Yet even though they are easy to see in other people we often choose to be blind about them in ourselves.  Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6).  Try to be someone who invites correction without getting in a huff if we disagree with their diagnosis.
Notice that the list ends with the words, ‘and the like’.  This is only a sampling of the desires of our sinful nature.  We could easily add to this list!
You might to be too respectable to be tempted by orgies, drunkenness and witchcraft, but what about impurity, jealousy and envy?  You may never have had an affair, but do your eyes wander?  Are you driven by pride and selfish ambition?  Do you think that another purchase might fill the void in your life?  Don’t we all spend too much time thinking about what people feel about us?  Do you think your life would be easier if you had someone else’s gifts, possessions or marriage?  
When you think about the influence of your sinful nature heed the words of the Paul, who writes, ‘let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Cor. 10:12).
Encountering Jesus brings inevitable transformation (21)
Having given a list of some of the obvious desires of the sinful nature Paul then warns us that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (21). 
The verb for live is in the present tense, indicating a lifestyle rather than a lapse.  If someone, who claims to be a Christian, comes to you distraught about a sin they have committed, reassure them of God’s gracious promises of forgiveness.  If they come and confess that they are struggling with a particular sin, encourage them and offer to help keep them accountable.  But if they aren’t looking for help, and are happy to live a life that ignores God’s commands towards love and holiness, then you need to tearfully warn them that they might not be born again.
All through this series on Galatians I have sought to underline the fact that you do not contribute anything to God’s acceptance of you.  God has taken the perfect life of Jesus and given it to you in order that he may see you as if you had always perfectly obeyed him.  God has taken all you past, present and future sin and nailed it to the cross of Jesus so that you need never fear being condemned.  All you have done is put out your hand in repentance and faith to accept this gift.  Indeed, that very action of seeing your need and placing your trust in Christ was itself a gift of God.  When you have genuinely encountered Jesus then it will transform your life.  You are not what you ought to be or one day will be.  But you are changing and you know that sin that you cannot rest in sin.
The character of Christ is being produced from within you (22-23)
Indeed before you became a Christian your sinful nature always got its way.  Of course you did things that you thought were good, because your pride motivated you towards many self-righteous works.  Even when you were motivated by genuine compassion, you soon began to self-congratulate and look for praise.  It wasn’t that you never resisted temptation—you did not want to live with the shame or consequences of moral failure.  It wasn’t that you were as bad as you could have been—God graciously restrained you from much evil.  However, every action and thought was dominated by self-centredness and self-absorption.  But now the person of the Holy Spirit dwells within you, and he is opposed to your sinful nature.  You have a conflict within!
The fruit of the Spirit is in stark contrast with the acts of the sinful nature.  John Stott writes, ‘The mere recital of these Christian graces should be enough to make our mouths water and the heart beat faster.  For this is a portrait of Jesus ... this is the kind of person that every Christian longs to be.’
The word translated ‘fruit’ is singular—stressing that these qualities are a unity ‘like a bunch of grapes instead of separate pieces of fruit, and also that they are all to be found in all Christians’ (Boice).  By nature you may seem strong in some of these verses, but when these virtues are the result of the Holy Spirit they all exist together.
So you may appear like you are self-controlled—because you have always lived a disciplined life—but that discipline could be rooted in pride and lacks joy.  You may appear loving—because you are an extravert who enjoys meeting new people—but you lack patience and faithfulness and so don’t stick at friendships.  You may appear to be at peace—because you are unflappable—but the truth is that you are just indifferent.  You may have a happy disposition—when things are going well.  There is a difference between being gentle and being timid.  May the Holy Spirit bring each of these virtues to our lives in an authentic way!
Christians experience a conflict within (24-25)
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature (24).  He is talking about something every Christian has done.  As God brought us into his family he caused us to desire to make a break from our old way of living.  We were declaring ‘I no longer want to live a life that simply aims to satisfy the desires if the sinful nature, I want to live for Jesus.’  As a friend recently said to me, 'this whole thing of living for self just doesn't work.'  God was enabling us to nail the sinful nature to an instrument of death.  You are no longer its slave! 
But the flesh still troubles us.  There is conflict within!  Think of the sinful nature as a criminal pinned to a cross, defeated and dying, but not yet dead.  The flesh is dying, but sis still dangerous.  The flesh taunts you, and tempts you to satisfy its desires.  The flesh has been weakened, but still has influence.  We need to depend on the Holy Spirit to overcome its malevolent influence.  So let us keep on walking by the Spirit! That’s how we change!
Conclusion—How to change
I began by asking if, like Uncle George, you want to display the beauty of godliness and if you want to become more like Jesus.  The key to change is to live by the Spirit (16 and 25), and keep in step with the Spirit (25).  These verbs speak of progress, development and growth.  ‘To opt for the status quo … is to miss the adventure of life in the Spirit’ (Jackman).  But how do we walk in the Spirit?
Think of the word ‘fruit’.  Fruit grows slowly but inevitably when there is life.  You may not be what you ought to be, you are not what you will be, but you should be growing.  Jesus associated fruit with abiding/remaining in him (John 15).  He spoke of remaining in him in connection with prayer, his word and obedience.  Walking in the Spirit involves willingness to being led.
The willingness to being led involves a new set of desires.  The Spirit desires what is contrary to the sinful nature (17).  Elsewhere, Paul speaks about God causing us to will and act according to his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).  He also speaks of the renewing of your mind (Rom. 12:2).  You cannot cultivate two opposing desires at the same time.  Feed your mind with truth and error will flee.  Pursue a passion for purity and the ugliness of lust will be exposed.  Delight yourself in the Lord!  Seek his face!  ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of the world will go strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.’
Finally, remember what we have learned about the Holy Spirit as we have studied Galatians.  He causes us to cry out ‘Abba, Father’ (4:6).  Pray in the Spirit as you depend humbly on your heavenly Father.  Walk in the Spirit of adoption as you remind yourself that God has accepted you as a dearly loved child, and that nothing can separate you from his love.  Walk in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit when you allow God’s people challenge you, comfort you and encourage you.  Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (18). 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Galatians 5:1-15 'Grace changes everything'

Jerry Bridges is an author who died recently.  He wrote a number of wonderful books on grace.  Including one called ‘Transforming Grace’, which influenced me as a young Christian.  In it he writes, ‘we cannot exercise love unless we are experiencing grace.  You cannot truly love others unless you are convinced that God’s love for you is unconditional, based solely on the merit of Christ, not your performance … Our love, either to God or for others, can only be a response to His love for us.’
It is true that even the wicked love those who love them (Matthew 5:46-47).  But we are called to a greater love.  We are called to love our enemies.  We are to let love cover a multitude of sins.  We are to forgive, as we have been forgiven.  We are to lay down our lives for each other.  Such love finds its source in God’s lavish love for us. 
This morning we are going to see that we must not try to contribute towards God’s acceptance and that understanding God’s acceptance is free is the key to change.
1. What is so wrong with trying to contribute towards God’s acceptance? (2)
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all (2).
The false-teacher told the Galatians that you must be circumcised if you are to be accepted by God.  Paul doesn’t have a problem with circumcision.  He has a problem with using circumcision (or any work or ritual) as a means of earning God’s acceptance.  You have not understood the gospel if you are trying to purchase God’s love!
What is so wrong with trying to earn God’s acceptance?
It is wrong because trying to contribute towards your salvation shows that you don’t understand the nature of God's holiness.  Do you really think that a perfectly pure and holy God would be appeased by our empty rituals and self-righteous good deeds?
It is wrong because trying to contribute towards your salvation reveals that you don't understand human sinfulness.  Our attempts to earn God's acceptance are rooted in our own selfishness and pride.  Our hearts are incapable of true good and need God's cure.
Most significantly, it is wrong because trying to contribute towards your salvation demonstrates that you do not see the true beauty of the life and death of Jesus.  Jesus lived the perfect so that God could treat you as if you always perfectly obeyed God.  Jesus died a sacrificial death so that we could have the punishment for our sin taken from us.  Is that not enough to earn God's acceptance for you?  Do you think that you need to add rituals and works to the finished work of Jesus?  What rituals did the thief on the cross perform in order to be accepted into paradise?  You are far worse than you ever dreamed you are, but the life and death of Jesus is sufficient to deal with the worst of sinners.    
2.  Why can’t I earn God’s acceptance? (3-4)
Paul says that if we try to earn God’s acceptance we nullify the gift of grace.  The only attitude which receives grace is the one that can sing, ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’
Why is it that we can’t earn God’s acceptance?
Again I declare to every person who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from God; you have fallen away from grace (3-4).
Some of the Galatians were trying to earn God’s acceptance by obeying the Law of Moses.  But the only way you could obey God’s acceptance through law keeping was to obey all of the law, all of the time.  If you broke one bit of the law then the law showed you that you are a law breaker.  It was like a sheet of old glass, whereby when you break one piece the whole thing smashes into smithereens.
The Law of Moses, which was in place from the time of Mount Sinai until Jesus, was designed to expose people’s sin and point them to their need of free grace.  Law exposes our short-comings.  Have you always loved the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength all of the time?  We need grace!  When you look back on your past don’t you see an uncountable number of ways in which you have done what is wrong?  We need grace!  Haven’t you failed him already today?  We need grace!
The wonderful news of grace is that Jesus never turns away anyone who comes with an awareness of their moral brokenness, repentance and simple faith.  Isn’t it obvious that our only hope is grace?
3.  What about the fact that I still sin? (4)  
I think that many people can accept the fact that when they come to Christ their past is forgiven, but they worry about the sin that they have committed as a Christian.  They worry about today’s sins and tomorrow’s sins.  They need to realise that the grace that saves us also keeps us.  This is implied in our fourth verse.  'But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope' (4).
Paul is acknowledging what we all know.  We know that we are not yet what we ought to be.  We are not yet what we will be when we go to be with Jesus.  Tim Keller calls Christians, ‘saints who sin.’  The great reformer Martin Luther talked about being simultaneously justified yet sinful. 
We are now legally righteous, but we often act unrighteously.  We look forward to that time when we will be both legally and actively righteous.  We look forward to when we see Christ face to face and are no longer troubled by the sinful nature.  We look forward to that time when we are at home with Jesus and are no longer able to sin.  In the meantime we go on depending on the grace of the God who keeps us even when we sin. 
4.  Does grace mean that it doesn’t matter how I live? (5-12)
‘But what about obedience—are you saying that it doesn’t matter what I do?  After all, I can’t earn God’s acceptance, and God will no longer condemn we even when I sin.’  When you ask that question you show that you simultaneously understand and fail to understand grace.  You get the fact that grace is free, but you don’t understand what it means to be free!
Paul has some strong words for the false-teachers.  They say that you can be justified by obedience.  They say, ‘God will accept you if you are good and obey the law.’  Their message leaves people dead in their sin.  They talk about circumcision.  I which they would go the whole way and castrate themselves (12).
But far from giving us an excuse to sin, grace gives us the true motivation to obey.  We no longer obey God to earn his acceptance.  Our obedience is no longer selfishly seeking to buy our way into heaven.  Our obedience is not the reluctant and insecure cowering of the condemned before a severe judge.  Our obedience is the Spirit-empowered delight of a beloved child.  Our faith expresses itself through love (6b).  Obedience is no longer what we resent doing.  It becomes what we want to do.
5. How can I love as God calls me to love?
I want to finish where I began, by showing that we cannot exercise love unless we are experiencing grace.    
The false-teachers were obsessed with the Law of Moses, but they failed to see that the law centred on love.  You, my brothers, are called to be free.  Do not use you freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love.  The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other (13-15).
Next week we will see that such love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.  What I want to point out now is that such love is fanned into flame when we see how secure we are in grace.  As the Holy Spirit opens up your eyes to see how much the Father loves you, how much the Son has achieved for you, and how you are cherished and secure then change will come.  The most obvious change will be love. 
Grasping the grace that saves us will inevitably transform us.  As one writer says, ‘God not only accepts you.  He wants you to know that he accepts you.  Because you will never see liberating breakthroughs to new levels of personal holiness except in the reassuring atmosphere of grace …’ (Ortland).  Far from providing an excuse for sin, grace is God’s means of changing us!  

Thursday, 5 May 2016

God opens our eyes to his truth (1 John 4:1-6)

A man was giving his testimony as part of an interview for a ministry opportunity.  He explained that he had been in a liberal theological seminary training to be a pastor when he became a Christian.  
'I can't believe that no one had explained the gospel to me.  In fact, I can't believe that the reformer Martin Luther didn't get the gospel.  I did an assignment looking at Luther's Commentary on Galatians and there was nothing about the gospel in it.'
Now Luther's commentary on Galatians is actually full of the gospel.  Luther was a man who understood very well that we are saved by grace through the life and death of Jesus.  So one of the leaders involved in the interview suggested that the young man go home and read over his copy of Luther's commentary on Galatians.
He did, and he discovered that he had read and underlined statement after statement where Luther clearly explained the gospel of grace.  
How had the young student missed this?  He missed it because the scriptures teach that the god of this age has blinded the mind of the unbeliever (2 Corinthians 4:4).  Remember what was said about Lydia in the book of Acts?  'The Lord opened her heart to respond to the Apostle Paul's message (Acts 16:14).  
John is writing to those who believe in the name of the Son of God so that we know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13).  One of the evidences that we have been born again is that we accept what the Bible says about Jesus and his gospel.  John writes as one of the apostles uniquely commissioned by Jesus.  He says, 'we are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us' (4:6).  You are not a Christian if you stubbornly refuse to accept what is written down in the Scriptures.

1.      You must see who Jesus really is (1-3)

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
There were false-prophets who were trying to disturb the church in the first-century, and there are false-prophets who try to disturb the church in the twenty-first century.  So be on your guard and don't be gullible.  I would be very careful about watching religious television.  There is an odious thing called the prosperity-gospel, which encourages the lust for wealth and makes the false-promise of live without pain.  
The central test for biblical truth centres on a person's understanding of the person and work of Jesus.  'This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.  This is the spirit of the anti-christ, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.'
The particular false-teachers that were troubling John's readers were saying that Jesus only appeared to be human, but he was not really human.  We need to be clear that Jesus is fully human and fully God.  He is the only mediator between God and humankind.  He is the only one who has lived a morally pure life and died a sacrificial death for sin.  He is unique and eternal.  Without him as your Saviour and Lord you are alienated from God and on course to pay for you sin in hell.

2.      You must let the Holy Spirit keep you in the truth (3-6)
One thing that really encourages me is to sit down with a young Christian and see how the core truths of the gospel resonate with them.  There is a gospel instinct that is given to those who believe.  I am not saying that all genuine Christians will agree on everything, but there are certain truths that all genuine Christians know by the Holy Spirit.  Indeed the Holy Spirit makes us agreeable to the central truths of the gospel of grace. 

John has confidence that his readers will resist the errors of the false-teachers.  'You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.'

One commentator writes, we ‘children of God have conquered the false prophets ...  We still believe in the virgin birth, the atonement and the resurrection.  We have conquered them.  They could not conquer us.’
The Holy Spirit who opened our eyes to the beauty of the gospel will keep us from falling into error.  However, never be complacent, for if you want to be sure that the Holy Spirit is in you then you flee from any who distort the gospel.  Our understanding of the gospel is not like a test where if you show an adequate knowledge you pass and are accepted.  Instead it is evidence that the Holy Spirit has opened your eyes to see the beauty of Christ and his gospel.  
The absolute claims of the gospel are so counter-cultural to our society.  It seems shocking to tell people that when you turn to Christ you give up you right to form your own opinions.  There are many truths of the Bible that run our society opposes.  There are teachings in the Scriptures that our friends find offensive.  So pray that the Holy Spirit would open their eyes and change their minds.  Pray for each other too, for the culture we live in is always trying to reshape our thinking and only the Holy Spirit can keep us from error.
'Truth is a glorious but hard mistress.  She never consults, bargains, or compromises' (Tozer).  Luther wrote to one of his opponents and explained that 'the difference between you and me is that you sit above the Bible and judge it, whereas I sit below the Bible and let it judge me.'
What is your attitude to God's revealed truth?  That attitude provides evidence of where or not you have been born again.
Notice that John centres this truth on the person and work of Jesus.  The gospel is cross-shaped.  The apostle Paul told the Corinthians that he preached Christ-crucified and the Galatians that his message clearly portrayed Christ as crucified.  How do you know that God is a righteous judge?  We see it in the fact that nothing less that the death of his infinitely valuable Son will satisfy his demand that sin should be paid for. How do you know that God is a loving Saviour?  We see it in the fact that he gives his only begotten Son to die for wicked people like us.  How do we know that racism is a disgusting sin?  We know it because God sent his Son to die for people from all nations, that in Christ there is neither black nor white and that one day a great multitude will sing the praises of the lamb who was slain.  How do pride is repulsive and humility is glorious?  We see it in the humility of the Son of God, who descended from heaven, took the nature of a servant and died a humiliating death for us.  How do we know that we must forgive?  We know that we must forgive because Christ died that we might be forgiven.
The person and work of Jesus is not one theme among many in the Bible, it is the lens through which we see everything.  Our delight in this provides evidence that we have been born again!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Faith expresses itself through love (1 John 3:11-24)

John saw the extent of Jesus' love.  The author of this letter is also the author of the fourth gospel.  There he tells us of that time when Jesus said, 'a new commandment I give to you: love one another.'  Of course there was a sense in which that commandment was not new.  In the Old Testament we are told to love our neighbour.  But Jesus infused that command with new depths and meaning.
That night, when Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another, he washed the disciples’ feet.  Jews did not wash the feet of their equals.  That was a job for a lowly servant.  Yet Jesus stooped down before his followers.  John had experienced what it was like to have Jesus wash his feet.
The foot washing took place the night before the crucifixion, and it was a picture of the crucifixion, for as Jesus served us by dying for us the grim of all our sin would be washed away.  No greater love has been shown to humankind.  Now John teaches that the love that has been poured into our lives must flow out of our lives.
It is important to remember the order of things.  We do not purchase God's acceptance by obeying his command to love.  We obey his command to love because we have been accepted.  It is the fruit of what God has done in our lives.  It is our grateful response to the kindness he has shown us.  We love because he first loved us.  Love is like the beeping of the heart monitor that tells us that the person is alive.  If God has rescued us from our guilt and sin, lavished his love upon us, adopted us as his beloved children, and given us the Holy Spirit we will become people of love.  As we see this love grow within us we will grow in our confidence that we do know God. 
But what does this love look like?  John focuses on the particular and special love that Christians are to have for their fellow believers.
1. Our older brother commands us to love one another
'This is the message that you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.'
Love is a foundational truth of the gospel.  It is to be among the first thing that we learn about following Jesus.  We love because he first loved us.  As one commentator writes, 'a person cannot come into a real relationship with a loving God without being transformed into a loving person’ (Marshall).
John is going to use the word ‘brother’ a lot.  The Greek word translated ‘brother’ can refer to both brother and sisters.  It is a word that literally means from the same womb.  Christians are profoundly related to each other.  We have been born again through the Holy Spirit (we come from the same womb), we have the same Heavenly Father, we share the same older brother, and we should live by the same family values.  Like all parents, our loving Father longs for his children to enjoy one another.  It grieves him when we aren't getting on with each other.
I find it immensely challenging to realise that the bonds that we have with our fellow believers are even more significant and real than the bonds that we share with our natural blood relatives.
2.  Those who are not our spiritual brothers will give us a hard time
John gives us the example of Cain as someone who did not love his brother. That was because while Cain and Abel were brothers by natural birth they were not brothers by spiritual birth. 
Both Cain and Abel made a sacrifice to the Lord. Cain's sacrifice did not demonstrate a heart filled with loving submissive penitence and faith whereas Abel’s sacrifice did.  Cain was jealous that God looked on Abel’s sacrifice with favour but was not pleased with his.  In his jealousy Cain murdered Abel.  This hatred showed that he did not belong to God but belonged to the devil.
Cain is an example of someone who did not love the Lord and so did not love the Lord's people.  Don't be surprised when people oppose what you believe.  Don't be surprised if your family aren't keen about what you believe.  Don't be shocked when people slag you for being a Christian.  Don't be upset when the media always portrays Christianity negatively.  The fact of the matter is that our message does offend.  We are telling people that they are not okay as they are, that they are separated from God if they are not in Christ, that if they don't have God as their Father then he will be their judge, and that they are helpless to reform themselves.
3. Showing love to Christ's people is evidence that we have received love from Christ
But we know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.
This might sound strange, but if you come to me and confess that you are struggling to love someone there will be a party of me that will be deeply encouraged for you.  For it will be evidence of the Holy Spirit doing a work in your life.
John has said that the Christian continues to struggle with sin. But he has also said that the Christian cannot continue in sin - meaning that they can't treat sin as if it does not matter.  Before you became a Christian you may have had no problem holding a grudge against someone.  Now you can't rest until you have done everything to be at peace with people. 
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life.  Not that there is no forgiveness for murder (Moses killed a man and was forgiven, and David was complicit in murder and was forgiven) but murder is incompatible with the Christian faith.  If you refuse to love other Christians, if you don't care about the bitterness you sometimes feel towards them, if you are happy to hold a grudge against them, then you claim to be a Christian makes as little sense as that of someone who murders and says it doesn't matter!
4. We love our brothers and sisters in Christ in practical ways John compares the love of Jesus with the hatred of Cain.
One of my favourite preachers explains, ‘Cain sees Abel in his righteousness and is filled with hate; Christ sees us in our unrighteousness and is filled with pity.'
Cain's hatred took the life of another.  Christ's love gave his life for another.  If we have truly encountered the love of Christ then that love that has been poured into us will flow out of us towards his people. 
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
The cross is our ultimate model for Christian love.  Christ loved us even when our backs were turned on him.  He loved us even though we had done nothing to deserve his love.  He loves us even though we have given him many excuses not to love us.  He demonstrated his love for us when he laid down his life!  Now he calls us to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
What will that look like for you?  How will that show itself in our words?  Can you see that this is incompatible with gossip?  How will that affect your use of time and money?  How does this shape your pursuit of pleasure and ambitions?  How does it affect the way you chose friends?  Whatever God calls you to lay down for others, remember that Christ laid down infinitely more for you!
5. The fruit of love for other Christians is growing sense of assurance
This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.
As we experience God making us love his people more then we grow in our confidence that we have really been born again.  John writes that we might have this assurance.  A growing sense of certainty that we belong to God is essential to having joy in him.  At times our hearts condemn us, for we know things about ourselves that others cannot see.  When our conscience is troubled we should be able to say, ‘I know what I did was inconsistent with being a Christian nevertheless I know I am a Christian—for God is drawing me into deeper relationship with his people.’
6. Don't expect God to listen to your cry for help if you ignore you brother/sister's cry for help.
Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us we have confidence before God, and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.
Don't imagine that we can earn answers to our prayers.  Don't think that we can force God's hand to say yes to all our requests.  Sometimes God says ‘no’ to the most heartfelt of prayers.  But don't imagine that God will listen to you if you are unwilling to listen to the cries of your brother and sister in Christ.  As we draw near to him he graciously draws near to us.  As his fruit displays its evidence in our lives he delights to bless us.
I was a border in school.  For six years I lived in close proximity with a group of other guys my age.  While I enjoyed school it left me with a poor view of what people are like.  I saw the bullying and the backstabbing.  I witnessed how the crowd fell in behind those who were dominant.  Sadly, I was self-righteously blind to my own failings in that situation.
Then, after repeating my leaving, I went to college and decided to get involved with the Christian Union.  I have to say that there was an infinite distance between what I experienced in the Christian Union compared to what I experienced in school.  There was a friendship, love, gentleness and patience in that college group.  The difference has to be the influence of Christ.
My prayer is that Christ will show his influence in our meeting in a way that leaves you in no doubt that he is working in you and in the lives of everyone else here.