Saturday, August 10, 2013

Do we have "the life"?

Yesterday in my Bible study time at work, I had a good discussion with my brothers about some deeper theology and around the question of whether our salvation is really secure in Christ for eternity. I've been thinking about it since then and then this morning I was reading some Scripture from a couple of Daily Bread devotionals and it lead me to two passages that just really confirmed for me the answer to this question.

The first passage is from John 14:
1  “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Notice in the second part of verse 2 how Jesus is confirming the truth of all that He is saying. He is basically saying, "what I am telling you is true. Why would I tell you otherwise? I can only tell you what is true." This is an important concept that I believe is applicable to all of Jesus' words, including the verses that follow this.

Now, notice verse 3. Jesus says that He will come again and that He will take us to Himself (in heaven). Jesus doesn't say "I might", or "I will if you're good enough", or "if I feel like it at that time". No, He simply says, "I will". This is the promise of our risen Savior- His promise. If Christ is sinless and completely faithful, as we know He is from the Bible, then how can He break His promise of "I will" ? If He did break that promise, He would no longer be who He says He is. Our faith would be useless because we would be serving a liar. Jesus cannot break His promises. His promise is that He will come for us.

Clearly though, the promise is not to the whole world- its to individuals. How can we be a part of His promise? Thankfully, the answer follows. Thomas has the exact same question. Jesus has just made this great promise and now Thomas says in verse 5, "How do we get this? What is the way?" Jesus answers in verse 6 that He is the way- He is the answer. Those who get to the Father (get to heaven) must come through Jesus. From countless other scriptures, we know that this means humbly placing our whole faith in Jesus, His redeeming work for our sins and His resurrection, so that He then becomes "the life" in us, because He says right here that He is "the life". If we become partakers of His life and His truth in us, then we become partakers of His preceding promise, that He will come again and take us with Him; there is no question about this.

The second passage I was reading this morning is from 1 John. It was really a confirmation of the above. If we claim the promise from John 14, how do we know that it is true of us? How can we claim that we are saved and that Jesus will come for us?

In 1 John 5:13, John says that everything he has personally written is so that we will know that we are saved; that we are one of God's children and part of Christ's promise:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

The book of 1 John is full of reasons why we can know that we are saved (or that we are not). Here's just a few highlights that I read today:

4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

4:13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

4:17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.

4:19 We love because he first loved us. 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.

5:6 ...And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.

5:11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

There is so much in these verses to unpack. The main points are that we can be confident before God at the end of our life. If we have been saved, then God through His Spirit will show us that; there will be a change and we will know it and those around us will know it. The Spirit is the truth and does not lie to us. The Spirit confirms the truth of these verses to us and confirms our salvation to us. Our actions will also confirm to us and others the truth of whether we are saved or not. If we have no love for others and no love for being obedient to God, then there is a strong chance that we are liars and deceiving ourselves and that we are not truly saved. But, if we are truly saved then there is no reason for us to fear the day of judgment. God wants us to live in joyful anticipation of that day- not dread. We cannot fully serve Him in perfect love in this earthly life if we are constantly worried that we might lose our salvation or that He will just take it away. That would directly contradict His promise in John 14 and we know that we do not serve a God like that. Its not of His nature. Praise His name!

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Gospel in the Beginning of 1 Corinthians

Last week, our new Bible study group started into our study on 1st Corinthians. We only got through the first nine verses but I really enjoyed some of the things we pulled out of it. It helped me to see some deep things in this passage that seems to just be introduction material, but there's actually a lot of theology present. Here's the passage from the NASB:

1 Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, 6 even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

We found that the essence of the Gospel of Christ is located right here in these nine verses; there's some really good stuff. Let me try to break it down a bit.

Verse 1
Paul says that he was " the will of God" to be an "apostle of Jesus Christ". In verse 2, he mentions that the church in Corinth are "saints by calling". These are of course references to predestination. Without getting into an endless argument over free-will versus predestination, suffice it to say that there is clearly an element of predestination, or "God's calling" in bringing us to salvation (also see Romans 8:29-30). This helps me in evangelism because I realize that there must be a combination of God calling a person in order for that person to respond to the Gospel. I used to treat it as 100% free-will and get burnt out when I couldn't bring a person to repentance and I felt like I failed them if they didn't come around. But, now I'm more accepting that just speaking God's Word will have an impact; if God is calling them right then, then they will come around (in combination with free-will) and it will be glorious. But if not, God may not have prepared them yet or they are letting their free-will override what God is calling them to do. Recognizing all of this helps me better to "move on" from a person, trusting that God is planting a seed through His Word and then going to the next person whom God may be more specifically calling at that moment.

Verse 2
Paul mentions that the people in the Corinthian church "have been sanctified in Christ Jesus". The dictionary definition of "sanctify" is "to set apart to a sacred purpose or to religious use" or "to free from sin". Normally, I've though of "sanctification" as a lifelong process after we receive salvation, by which we learn to become closer to Christ, becoming ever more "set apart" and free from the bondage of sin. Clearly, these people were still alive, but Paul says they have already been sanctified! They are already free from sin and set apart for God. How can this be? Obviously, after salvation, we still struggle with sin, so we're not free in that sense. So, how are we free? Paul says: "in Christ Jesus". Because of what Christ did for us through his sacrifice, we are already "positionally sanctified" through Him! If we accept Christ's gift, when God looks at us, he sees someone who is "free from sin" and "set apart for His use". I think the only reason God can use us is because of the righteousness of Christ that is positionally given to us when we accept Him. Certainly, being positionally "free from sin" doesn't mean we should sin freely without care; much to the contrary (see Romans 6:1-2). And it doesn't mean that we are actually free from sin in this life- we still struggle (see Romans 7). But, thanks be to God that "there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ" (Romans 8:1). We are already sanctified!

Verse 3
All true grace and peace only comes from God through Christ. James 1:17 says, "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father...". Philippians 4:7 says, "...the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus".

Verse 4
The "grace of God" has been given to us who believe. How? Again, "in Christ Jesus". Christ's sacrifice for us, taking on all of our sin, is the ultimate gift and the most amazing display of God's grace to humans. As Romans 5:8 says, "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." We were still in sin, yet God loved us enough to have Christ die for us. What grace, what mercy! What should our response be? Just to be thankful and move on? No! 2 Corinthians 5:15 says "He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf." Recognizing God's incredible grace for us "in Christ Jesus", we are now to live for Him. That can mean a great variety of things, but suffice it to say that if that is your heart, God will show you how and where he wants you to live for Him.

Verse 5
Paul says that the believers were enriched "in everything" and in "all speech and all knowledge". How? Again- "in Him (Christ)". When we trust Christ and receive salvation, the Holy Spirit comes to live within us. The Spirit will actually affect the way we think and talk and everything as long as we let Him (again free-will!). Not only has God given us the wonderful gift of freedom from our sin, but God has provided the Spirit to us to help us in this life. As we humble our self to the work of the Spirit, He will actually help to change our lives for the better- which is to be more like Christ. He will "enrich us in everything". Our thoughts and our speech will change- signs to us and to others of the true change that the Spirit is bringing about in us as we walk with Him. What amazing grace that God would provide us with a Helper (John 14:26) to enrich our lives and change us into new creatures!

Verse 6-7 (a)
When we believe in Christ, we "are not lacking in any gift". This is talking about spiritual gifts- the talents and abilities that God has given us to be used as we live for Him. Those things are not of us- they are all of Him. Connecting verse 6 with the start of 7, Paul is essentially saying, "because the testimony of Christ is true in your lives, you are not lacking in any gift"; implying that God has blessed us with these spiritual gifts because we have trusted Christ. Because this is true, how else could we possibly use these gifts than in service to Him? Our gratitude ought to overflow into service him with our gifts.

Verse 7 (b)
The Corinthian believers were "eagerly awaiting" for Jesus to return. I wonder how eager we are by comparison? I think over 2,000 years an element of doubt has crept in. Not that we doubt that He will return, but I think we doubt that it could happen in our lifetime. I think the Corinthians had that hope and that expectation. I think that can be a strong motivator of our behavior and our actions in this life; we ought to live more like His return is an expectation for us rather than a "future hope".

Verse 8
This verse really gets me- it is so powerful. At the end of time ("the day of our Lord Jesus Christ"), Christ Himself will confirm us before the Father- blameless! How amazing; He has taken all of our blame for our sin! The Bible is clear that Christ will be the judge of all at the end of time. For example, 2 Timothy 4:1: "Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead". How will we "pass" His judgement? By what we've done? No! By our acceptance of "the grace of God give to us in Christ Jesus" (verse 4). Jesus is the one who made the way for this gift and He is the one who will be overseeing whether we accepted it or not. Who better than to judge this than the One by which the gift was made in the first place? I would hate to have to come before Him who has done this for us and say to His face, "nope, sorry, I didn't believe; I didn't accept You". Thanks to God for opening my eyes to His truth.

Verse 9 (a)
Paul simply says, "God is faithful". This says so much. There are countless passages in Scripture of God being faithful to people in spite of their sin and poor choices, and countless testimonies in history of the same. To me, this simple statement which follows the teaching of Christ judging us as blameless, speaks volumes to me of our eternal security in Christ. If we have truly accepted God's grace to us through the gift of Christ's sacrifice, we see clearly in these nine verses that God is the one who "invented" the gift, He is the one who called us, He is the one who enriches us, and He is the one who confirms us in the end, all because of His faithfulness. If we claim that there is something that we can do of our own strength to "lose our salvation", we are directly calling into question God's faithfulness. That's not a position I want to take. When God makes a promise to us, He is always faithful to fulfill it in the end. We may zig-zag along the way, but because of His faithfulness and His great mercy to us, He absolutely will be faithful to "confirm us blameless" at the final judgement, if we have trusted in Him and accepted His gift in Christ.

Verse 9 (b)
For the believer, we have been "called into fellowship with Jesus Christ". The dictionary speaks of "fellowship" as "companionship", "company", "friendship", "comrades". Its amazing to me that not only can we have those things with Christ, but that God has called us to have those things with Christ! Its not just an "oh, by the way, you can have this", but God is actively desiring that we have fellowship with Christ. He wants us to be friends, companions, comrades of Christ- to be united in mind and purpose. Again, what grace that God would give us such an incredible privilege and gift! He didn't just leave us after the cross, but He has done so much more! He wants to be close and intimate with us, to know us and for us to know Him. As Jesus said in John 15:15, "I have called you friends". How amazing that the Creator of the universe (Colossians 1:16) would desire close friendship with us; what a great God!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Peter's Denial of Christ

At my Thursday study at work, we had an interesting discussion about Matthew 26 and Peter's denial of Christ. There is much to write about, but I just want to focus on a couple things here. All four gospels have this account in them, but they all differ a little bit; they are not totally in conflict, but sort of supplement each other. I find it interesting because by using all four accounts, you can build a bigger context around this incident and start to place yourself in Peter's shoes. I'll try to bring out some of the interesting things I've noticed.

The Garden of Gethsemane

In the garden, all four gospels talk of Jesus' betrayal and then Peter cutting off the high priest's servant's ear. I find it interesting that only John calls out Peter by name in doing this. I think it is important to know that it was Peter who did this, because it perhaps helps to explain his vehement denial that is about to come.
After this incident, Matthew and Mark record something to the effect of "then all the disciples left Him and fled". I would think that "all" would include Peter & John. How far and for how long did they flee? Obviously, there were scared in the garden; but how long did that fear continue? Apparently for Peter & John, that fear did not last long because they were about to find Jesus again and follow Him to the high priest's house. Where were the other 9 disciples (we know where Judas was...)? Had they gone totally "underground" at this point, or were they also pursuing Jesus' trail, but are just not mentioned? I would guess that they were in hiding at this point and that Peter & John were venturing out on their own. Judging by how often Peter & John are mentioned in the gospels, it seems that perhaps their faith and dedication to Christ was perhaps stronger than the others at this point. So, they might have immediately fled with the others from the garden, but were quick to turn back around and follow after Him.

Where was Jesus' questioning?

When Jesus was led away and Peter & John later found Him, He was at the house of the high priest; all four gospels record this. According to John 18:15, it sounds like there was a "court" that Jesus was being questioned in- perhaps some special room in the house? It must have been decently large to hold "all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes" (Mark 14:53). Mark also records that "as Peter was below in the courtyard" (v66) which would mean that the room Jesus was in must have been on an upper floor.

Where was John?

According to John's own account, he was in the main room with Jesus. This is very interesting to me. I've always pictured the disciples as fleeing until after the resurrection. But, here is John in the middle of all of this, but apparently unafraid and more interestingly, not threatened by the people here. Was he the only one of Jesus' followers there? Seems like it. John 18:15 records, "Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest". So, the high priest knew John and John was allowed to enter with Jesus. What was John's past history with the high priest? Did they have a mutual respect and partial friendship? Or, did the high priest just "know of" John and allowed him in because he wasn't a threat and as some sort of show of political courtesy? Just interesting to me that John could come right in after the high priest had already experienced Peter trying to physically defend Jesus with the sword. Why would he think John would be any different, unless he had a past history with John? Perhaps this is further evidence of why John is the "disciple whom Jesus loved" as seen various places in John's gospel. It seems that John & Jesus were pretty close and this is certainly scene in John being present as Jesus went through this tough time of questioning. I wonder if Peter wasn't a little jealous even of John's relationship with Christ and maybe that jealously resulted in some of the brash statements we see Peter make in the gospels as he tried to show Christ his faith?

Where was Peter?

According to all four accounts, Peter had kept his distance and then had come into the courtyard of the high priest's house, where some servants and some soldiers where sitting and standing around a fire to keep warm, while everything went on in the other room. John adds an interesting twist in that John had to go out and ask the servant-girl to let Peter into the courtyard through a door. How did John know Peter was out there? I'm guessing that Peter and John pursued Jesus together and then as they got close to the house, John went and entered with Jesus while Peter hung back. Then, later John came out to let Peter in, knowing that he'd be out there.

Why wasn't Peter with Jesus & John?

Since John was allowed to enter with Jesus, why not Peter? I would highly suspect that because of Peter's cutting off of the high priest's servant's ear just a little bit earlier, he was not welcome and perhaps was even on a "wanted" list. All the people in the room with Jesus would have known Peter by sight, since they had just been with him, so he would have easily been arrested for what he had done. So, probably Peter was desiring in his heart to stick with Jesus; remember his bold proclamation in Matthew 26:33: "Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away". So, Peter was probably burning with passion, but knew that he needed to "lay low" after what he did. So, he got as close as he thought he could get to Jesus without being recognized by others; perhaps the people in the courtyard had not been in the garden earlier that night. I wonder too if Peter and the others in the courtyard could hear the proceedings going on above them? I expect they could. Houses were probably not as tightly made back then and I'm sure that there was much heated loud voices involved. So, Peter was able to follow what was happening to Jesus to some degree while he stood out there around the fire. There must have been other people from the community in the courtyard also, besides servants and soldiers. If Peter was the only one, it would've been very suspect and he would be found out easily. But maybe there were other neighbors or concerned folks who saw the ruckus and stopped by. The gospels do mention some "bystanders".

Peter's Denial

The first denial comes at the hands of a servant girl. Luke records in 22:56 that some period of time passed where there servant girl had been intently watching Peter at the fire. She finally decided that Peter was a disciple; perhaps she was trying to recall a memory from years before- maybe she was at one of Jesus' sermons or something? Regardless, she finally felt that she had Peter pinned and she called him out on it. Peter, of course denied this. Then, some other period of time passes. The gospels record that Peter left the fire and went out to the "porch", or the "gateway". Maybe he was afraid of others back at the fire who had heard the exchange and were getting ideas. He was removing himself from potential conflict, and it sounds like getting himself closer to the exit! The second denial was also at the hands of another servant girl, who it sounds like was over near the porch where Peter had relocated. One gospel says that she confronts him and two of them say that she accuses him, not to his face, but to the by-standing crowd. Peter of course denies he knows Jesus. After this, Luke has an interesting tidbit that says "about an hour had passed" (v59) before the final denial. I always picture the denials as happening really quickly in succession. But, it seems like this was a drawn-out process. The accusers were not entirely sure and apparently did not pursue any further and were Peter's false stories as he denied Christ. Peter probably really though he was okay after a whole hour had passed without anyone else accusing him.
The third accuser knew Peter best and there's some interesting things to draw from this. Matthew and Mark just record that the "bystanders" accused Peter again. But, Luke records that it was just one man. John has the gold nugget: "One of the slaves of the high priest, being a relative of the one whose ear Peter cut off, said, "Did I not see you in the garden with Him?" (18:26) The last accuser had just seen Peter in the garden and really knew who he was. Now if this man was in the garden with the high priest earlier, why was he down in the courtyard now with Peter? Wouldn't he likely be in the upper room for the proceedings? Luke records another gold nugget: "The Lord turned and looked at Peter" (22:61). How could Jesus and Peter see each other from different rooms on different floors? I suppose it was possible, if Jesus was near the window or just at the right angle or something. But, I suspect something further that would answer all of this- I think the questioning had ended and Jesus was being lead outside along with the whole procession. This would mean that Jesus was out in the courtyard where he could see Peter and would also mean that the accuser would be back out of the upper room and down there as well. Perhaps Peter thought he was home-free as the questioning was ending and they were coming outside. But then, this man just happened to see Peter and he knew right away it was Peter and called him out. Jesus saw the whole thing and caught Peter's eye as the rooster crowed which then jogged Peter's memory as all four gospels record. This also might explain why Matthew and Mark record the "bystanders" accusing Peter at this point- perhaps this man with the most credible testimony has loudly accused Peter. By now, word of the other two accusations had probably spread in the crowd, though nobody had enough evidence to do anything about it. When this man accused Peter, perhaps it tipped the crowd and they all starting saying what they suspected. This would also likely explain Peter's violent reaction, how he "began to curse and swear" as he denied Christ. (Matt 26:74) Why would Peter react that way unless he was now suddenly under a lot more pressure than he had been an hour previously?
Apparently, Peter is able to elude arrest and flee to where he has time to think about his denial of Christ and weep bitterly about it.

The Rooster

Curiously, Matthew, Luke and John record one rooster call, but Mark records two. Actually, Mark only records one rooster call, but says it is the second of two and that Jesus had predicted two. I'm sure we'll never know the answer to this difference. Apparently after the first denial in Mark, later manuscripts add the first rooster call, but that's not in the originals. Probably later revisionists noticed the discrepancy and tried to account for it. Just curious.

Personal Lessons

We tend to draw a simple lesson from Peter in this along the lines of "don't deny Christ". That's good, but there's other stuff going on here too. I think Peter's heart was good and he had a strong faith. He was passionate about staying with Christ, even if he was putting himself in a dangerous place. I think the same passion he had for Christ may have lead to such a passionate final denial of Him. I think that Peter cared so much to be there and perhaps felt so responsible for "watching out" for Christ, that he would do anything to stay there and stick close to Jesus; even denying Him. The first two denials don't seem very passionate: perhaps the first two denials he justified to himself in order to be able to stick close to Jesus (I'm not condoning lying or denying Him; I'm just picking Peter's brain). I think that after the hour had passed, Peter was feeling pretty safe again. And as the questioning ended and he saw His Lord coming out, Peter was probably just thrilled and excited to be back near Him. Peter's mind was no longer worried about himself, but then suddenly Peter was confronted again, this time with somebody from the garden who maybe even Peter recognized. Peter's mind took a total 180 and he gave a passionate, instinctual reaction as he was now really caught, very publicly. His mind was now off of Christ and now totally in self-preservation mode. He responded as such, cursing and swearing, likely yelling and making a big scene of his denial of Christ.
I think the lesson from the 3rd denial is the most powerful to me. The first two are perhaps explainable (but not condonable), but the third one is life. What happens to us when we're going along, mostly focused on Christ, or even very passionately focused on Him, like I think Peter was, and then we're confronted with a total curve-ball from life? Somebody dies, we get sick, we lose a job, something breaks, something happens in our church, etc. These things happen all the time. What is our first reaction? Do we immediately turn away from Christ and go into self-preservation, effectively denying Him, like Peter? Or, do we immediately turn to the only One who can really help us through or really change the situation? I'm afraid that my natural instinct is much like Peter's. Its very hard to naturally turn to Christ when you've been blindsided, when you're whole perspective is now 180 of what is was.
I think a deeper lesson here is not only to not deny Christ when confronted by a person, but don't deny Him in your own heart when confronted with life's happenings. When our expectations of what life should be and what life will hold for our coming days are completely changed in an instant, how do we react? Perhaps this is why James says not to set our future expectations so high without seeking God's will first:
"Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." (James 4:13-15)

Is this thing still on?

I've been thinking about resurrecting my blog. It has been a long time since I've used this, but I've been thinking of having a place to write down some thoughts that are focused primarily on God and Christianity; spiritual stuff. So, it might have a different tenor than that of past years, but I think it will be good and hopefully will be an encouragement or help at times to anybody who might read it.