Tag Archives: Belief

Bethlehem’s Supernatural Star

From Solid Joys by John Piper

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Over and over the Bible baffles our curiosity about just how certain things happened. How did this “star” get the magi from the east to Jerusalem?

It does not say that it led them or went before them. It only says they saw a star in the east (verse 2), and came to Jerusalem. And how did that star go before them in the little five-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as verse 9 says it did? And how did a star stand “over the place where the Child was”?

The answer is: We do not know. There are numerous efforts to explain it in terms of conjunctions of planets or comets or supernovas or miraculous lights. We just don’t know. And I want to exhort you not to become preoccupied with developing theories that are only tentative in the end and have very little spiritual significance.

I risk a generalization to warn you: People who are exercised and preoccupied with such things as how the star worked and how the Red Sea split and how the manna fell and how Jonah survived the fish and how the moon turns to blood are generally people who have what I call a mentality for the marginal. You do not see in them a deep cherishing of the great central things of the gospel — the holiness of God, the ugliness of sin, the helplessness of man, the death of Christ, justification by faith alone, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the glory of Christ’s return, and the final judgment. They always seem to be taking you down a sidetrack with a new article or book. There is little centered rejoicing.

But what is plain concerning this matter of the star is that it is doing something that it cannot do on its own: It is guiding magi to the Son of God to worship him.

There is only one Person in biblical thinking that can be behind that intentionality in the stars — God himself.

So the lesson is plain: God is guiding foreigners to Christ to worship him. And he is doing it by exerting global — probably even universal — influence and power to get it done.

Luke shows God influencing the entire Roman Empire so that the census comes at the exact time to get a virgin to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy with her delivery. Matthew shows God influencing the stars in the sky to get foreign magi to Bethlehem so that they can worship him.

This is God’s design. He did it then. He is still doing it now. His aim is that the nations — all the nations (Matthew 24:14) — worship his Son.

This is God’s will for everybody in your office at work, and in your neighborhood and in your home. As John 4:23 says, “Such the Father seeks to worship him.”

At the beginning of Matthew we still have a “come-see” pattern. But at the end the pattern is “go-tell.” The magi came and saw. We are to go and tell.

But what is not different is that the purpose of God is the ingathering of the nations to worship his Son. The magnifying of Christ in the white-hot worship of all nations is the reason the world exists.

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The Sovereignty of God in the Genealogy of Jesus

which he [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh
(Romans 1:2–3 ESV)

“But in Jeremiah 22:30, in the chapter just before the one prophesying “a righteous Branch” that would arise in David’s line, a harsh curse is pronounced on a king named Jehoiachin, the last of the actual reigning kings descended from King Solomon: “Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime: for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.” Because of God’s curse, no king descended in that line could reign legitimately.

There was another strong line of descent, however. King Solomon had an older brother, Nathan, who would have been king if God had not given the throne to Solomon. Nathan had also produced descendants, but any descendant of this line who claimed inheritance of the promises made to King David would have been challenged immediately be descendants in the line that had actually reigned. How could such a dilemma be solved? There was a lack of reigning kings in one line and a curse on the other.

The way God solved the issue was so simple that it confounds the wisest skeptics. The line of Solomon ran on through the centuries until it eventually produced Joseph, who was betrothed to the Virgin Mary and eventually became her husband, though not until after she had conceived and given birth to the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was not descended from Joseph; otherwise he would have inherited the curse on that line. But when Joseph took Mary under his protection and thus became the adoptive father of her divine child, he passed the right of royalty to him. And since Jesus was also descended from Mary – who, as it turns out, was a descendant of David through the line of Nathan – Jesus combined the claims of the two lines in his unique personhood and thereby eliminated the possibility of there ever being any other legitimate claimant to the throne. In other words, if Jesus is not the Messiah who has descended from David according to the Old Testament prophecies, there will never be a Messiah. For Jesus had no human children, and each of his brothers (who are the only other possibilities through whom another Messiah might descend) had the curse on him and would have passed it on to his children.”

An Expositional Commentary on Romans by James Montgomery Boice, pages 41-42.

John Owen on Romans

John Owen writes in the Introduction to Calvin’s Commentary on Romans:

“We have set before us in this Epistle especially two things, which it behoves us all rightly to understand — the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God — merit and grace, or salvation by works and salvation by faith. The light in which they are exhibited here is clearer and brighter than what we find in any other portion of Scripture, with the exception, perhaps, of the Epistle to the Galatians. Hence the great value which has in every age been attached to this Epistle by all really enlightened Christians; and hence also the strenuous efforts which have often been made to darken and wrest its meaning by men, though acute and learned, yet destitute of spiritual light. But let not the simple Christian conclude from the contrariety that is often found in the expositions on these two points, that there is no certainty in what is taught respecting them. There are no contrary views given of them by spiritually-minded men. Though on other subjects discussed here, such men have had their differences, yet on these they have ever been found unanimous: that salvation is from first to last by grace, and not by works, has ever been the conviction of really enlightened men in every age, however their opinion may have varied in other respects. It may seem very strange, when we consider the plain and decisive language, especially of this Epistle, and the clear and conclusive reasoning which it exhibits, that any attempt should ever be made by a reasonable being, acknowledging the authority of Scripture, to pervert what it plainly teaches, and to evade what it clearly proves. But a right view of what human nature is, when unrenewed, as exhibited in God’s Word, and as proved by history and made evident by observation, enables us fully to account for what would otherwise remain an enigma. No truth is more fully confirmed by facts (and it ought ever to be remembered) than that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” and that he “cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” This declaration clearly accounts for the fact, that men of great learning have often misunderstood many things in Scripture, and such things as are plain enough even to the unlettered when spiritually enlightened. The learned Scribes and Rabbins were blind leaders of the blind, when even babes understood the mysteries of the kingdom of God: and no better then the Scribes are many learned men, professing Christianity, in our day.

There is indeed a special reason why, on these points, unenlightened men should contrive means to evade the obvious meaning of Scripture; for they are such things as come in constant contact with a principle, the strongest that belongs to human nature in its fallen state. Other doctrines may be held as speculations, and kept, as it were, at a distance; but when we come to merit and grace, to work and faith, man’s pride is touched; and as long as under he is its prevailing influence, he will be certain, in some way or another, direct or evasive, to support merit in opposition to grace, or works in opposition to faith. When the authority of tradition supplanted the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of merit so prevailed, that the preposterous idea, that merits were a salable and a transferable commodity, gained ground in the world. A notion of this kind is too gross and absurd to be entertained by any who acknowledge God’s Word as the only umpire in religion; and yet what is not essentially different has often been maintained; for to say that salvation is partly by faith and partly by works, is really the same thing, inasmuch as the principle of merit is thereby admitted. Man naturally cleaves to his own righteousness; all those who are ignorant are self-righteous, and all the learned who understand not the gospel; and it is wonderful what ingenious evasions and learned subtleties men will have recourse to in order to resist the plain testimony of Scripture. When they cannot maintain their ground as advocates of salvation alone by merits, they will attempt to maintain it as advocates of a system, which allows a part to grace and a part to works — an amalgamation which Paul expressly repudiates, Romans 11:6.

But it is remarkable how the innate disposition of man has displayed itself in this respect. Conscious, as it were, in some measure of moral imperfections, he has been striving for the most part to merit his salvation by ceremonial works. This has been the case in all ages with heathens: their scarifies, austerities, and mechanical devotions were their merits; they were the works by which they expected to obtain happiness. God favored the people of Israel with the rituals of religion, which were designed merely as aids and means to attain and preserve true religion; but they converted them to another purpose, and, like the heathens, regarded them as meritorious performances, and expected God’s acceptance for the very religious acts which they exercised: and in order to make up, as it were, a sufficient quantity of merit, they made additions to those services which God had appointed, as though to multiply acts of this kind was to render their salvation more certain. The very same evil crept early into the Christian Church, and still continues to exist. The accumulation of ceremonies is of itself a sufficient proof, that salvation by faith was in a great measure lost sight of: we want no other evidence; it is what has been ever done whenever the light of truth has become dim and obscure. We see the same evil in the present day. Outward privileges and outward acts of worship are in effect too often substituted for that grace which changes the heart, and for that living faith which unites us to the Savior, which works by love and overcomes the world. The very disposition to over-value external privileges and the mere performances of religious duties, is an unequivocal evidence, that salvation by faith is not understood, or very imperfectly understood, and not really embraced.

The only remedy, as means for this evil, is that which we find employed by Paul in this Epistle. He begins by showing what every man, Jew and Gentile, is by nature; he proves by the clearest evidence, that all have sinned and become guilty before God. And having done this, he discloses the way of salvation which God himself has planned and revealed; and he teaches us, that it is altogether by grace and through faith that we can be saved, and not by works. In order cordially to embrace this latter truth, it is necessary to know the first, that we are sinners under condemnation. It is impossible, according to the very constitution of man’s mind, that he should really and truly accede to the one, without a real and deep knowledge of the other. The whole need not a physician, but the sick. It is only he who is really convinced of sin and who feels its guilt and its burden intolerable, that ever will, or indeed ever can, really lay hold on that free salvation which God has provided. And when this free salvation is really known, all other things compared with it will be deemed as nothing; and then all outward privileges will be viewed only as means, and all outward acts of religion only as aids and helps; and then also all our works, however great and self-denying, will be regarded in no way meritorious, but imperfect and defective, and acceptable only through the merits of our High Priest at God’s right hand.

-John Owen

Jesus, the New Israel

“Jesus is not merely the new Adam, however; he is also the true son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1) and therefore the true Israel. The genealogy in Matthew 1 flags that fact for you: it plots fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile to Christ. Then, in the opening chapters of his gospel, Matthew shows Jesus personally reenacting Israel’s story. In Matthew 2:13–15, like the young Israel, the young Jesus goes down into Egypt, brought there by a man named Joseph. Like the Israel of Moses’ generation, Jesus survives the attempts of a hostile king to slaughter all the infant boys (2:16). In fact, Matthew explicitly cites Hosea 11 to illustrate the parallel: in Jesus, God is once again bringing his firstborn out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15).

After leaving Egypt, Israel next crossed the Red Sea, a deeply symbolic moment of salvation (for the Israelites) and judgment (for the Egyptians) involving passing through water. For Jesus, Matthew immediately focuses on his baptism, a symbol of salvation through figurative burial and resurrection in water (Rom. 6:4). John the Baptist was puzzled by Jesus’ desire for baptism, since he thought of baptism as an act of repentance and confession of sin (Matt. 3:6). On those terms, John the Baptist needed to be baptized by Jesus instead. Yet Jesus nonetheless submitted to baptism not for his own sins, but for ours. For him, baptism was an act of identification with us, a symbolic foreshadowing of the baptism of fire that was yet to come, when he would bear the judgment curse for all his people at the cross (Luke 12:50). This would be the means whereby Jesus would accomplish the exodus of his people (Luke 9:31).12

After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they spent the next forty years being tested in the wilderness. Likewise Jesus’ baptism was followed by forty days and nights of testing in the wilderness. Even the form of Jesus’ temptations echoed the wilderness temptations of the Israelites. They were starving and grumbled against God because there was no bread (Ex. 16:2–3). So too Satan said to Jesus, who was hungry from his fasting, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). Instead of grumbling, Jesus replied, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). Next the Israelites were thirsty and doubted that the Lord was really with them, putting the Lord to the test at Massah (Ex. 17:1–7). Satan next took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and dared him to throw himself down, tempting Jesus to prove the Lord’s presence with him by forcing God to deliver him. In response, Jesus said, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). In the wilderness, the Israelites made for themselves a golden calf and bowed down to it in worship, just as the Devil wanted Jesus to worship him in the third temptation. Yet Jesus replied, “Worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10, quoting the substance of Deut. 6:13). Israel faced three tests in the wilderness and failed three times. Jesus faced the same three tests in the wilderness and passed all three with flying colors. Jesus was personally reenacting the history of Israel, only in reverse, succeeding where Israel had failed.

The crucial significance of this reenactment of Israel’s history lies in the covenant that God had made with the Israelites at Sinai, which depended on their obedience for blessing. From the beginning, Israel constantly failed to keep God’s law. This was no surprise to God; even in the days of Moses he had told the Israelites that they would fail to keep the law and would end up in exile (Deut. 30:1). The law was never given to the people of Israel to provide them with a means of attaining blessing through their righteousness. The goal (telos) of the law was always Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4). As the new Israel, Jesus personally fulfilled the law for the sake of all who are in him. His perfect righteousness as one born under the law is now given to all who are his people by faith, so that our salvation might be through faith, not works (Rom. 10:9–10). Or, more precisely, our salvation comes not through our works, but rather through the works of another, credited to our account.

This is the significance of what theologians call the active obedience of Christ: as our covenant representative, he has obeyed the full scope of the demands of God’s law given at Sinai, thereby meriting the promised covenant blessing of life forever in God’s presence. Jesus Christ didn’t simply come to earth to take away our sins. If that had been his purpose he could have proceeded immediately to the cross. Instead, he came to share our human experience to the full and to do so perfectly, completely without sin, so that he could replace our defiled garments with his own pure, clean garments of righteousness (as depicted in Zech. 3).

This incarnation of the people Israel in a faithful individual is anticipated in the Old Testament in Isaiah’s servant of the Lord. Isaiah proclaimed that this servant would accomplish the things that were earlier attributed to the Messiah, bringing justice and light to the Gentiles (compare Isa. 42:1 with 11:2–4 and 49:6 with 9:2–6). But is this servant the nation of Israel, as seems to be the case in Isaiah 41:8–9 and 43:10? Or is he an individual distinct from the nation, as in Isaiah 49:5–6? The answer is that there is a crucial shift in the identity of the servant in Isaiah 49. Between chapters 40–48, the figure of the servant represents the nation of Israel. The people once rejected by the Lord because of their sins and sent into captivity in Babylon will be redeemed by the Lord and brought back to their land. Their hard service is over, and their sins have been paid for. Now they are called to bring justice to the nations (42:1–4). Yet the historical Israel that returned from exile was far from the ideal presented in this verse. The people were discouraged and disorganized, unequipped to answer the call.

In Isaiah 49, however, we meet a servant who both is himself Israel (v. 3) and yet at the same time has a mission to Israel (v. 5). Israel’s failed ministry to bring light and justice to the nations is now taken up by the servant in her place. Unlike Israel, which was disobedient and suffered for her own sins, complaining that the Lord had abandoned her, this servant would be obedient, suffering in silence for Israel’s sins, and looking forward in hope to his final vindication (Isa. 53). Who is this mysterious servant? Is the prophet speaking of himself or of someone else? The Ethiopian eunuch asked this very question of Philip in Acts 8, and Philip responded by telling him the good news about Jesus. Jesus is the personification of Israel, who takes on himself the suffering that Israel’s sins deserve and fulfills Israel’s neglected calling to be a light to the Gentiles, uniting in himself the two halves of the servant’s mission described by Isaiah.”

Duguid, Iain M. (2013-02-04). Is Jesus in the Old Testament? (Basics of the Faith) (Kindle Locations 393-447). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The Thirst of the Soul

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.””
(John 4:10, 13-14 ESV)

The providence of God compelled Jesus to travel through Samaria in order to meet with this woman to offer her Living Water that she could never buy on her own.  Jesus had asked her for a drink from the well (4:7)  and the woman was quite confused as to why a Jew would ask her for a drink.  Jesus came to interrupt the shame in which she was walking.  She walked in racial shame for being a half breed that didn’t fit in anywhere, gender shame for being a woman because women were looked down upon in the ancient world and moral shame for the life that she had led.  Jesus enters into her world by saying, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  She was speaking to the gift of God and though He didn’t look all that impressive (Isaiah 53:2), He was the gift of God to all peoples.  This shame laden outcast was speaking to the Word who spoke her and all things into existence.  The Word, Creator, Almighty condescends Himself to a defiled, unclean, unholy place and people in order to redeem them – to make them acceptable, clean and holy.

Jesus does not offer this woman some second rate version of redemption because she had lived such a morally corrupt life.  No, Jesus offers her the best – He offers her God!  We know from John 7:38-39 that this living water was the Holy Spirit reigning in the hearts of the redeemed.  He offers her God and nothing less.  Not just eternal life, but the presence of the Almighty reigning in her heart.  A heart that was weary, dirty and wounded was offered restoration, redemption and rest.  The same offer is made to you and me.

Jesus says that she will never thirst again.  Seeking to satisfy your thirst on your own with created things is a fools errand because created things are powerless to quench the thirst of our hearts. You can spend your life arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic or you can come to Him who will quench your soul’s thirst.  Drinking water from the well (or faucet) will not quench your soul’s thirst for love, approval, affection, belonging, meaning, purpose or power.  However, the soul will be irrigated forevermore by the living water that God provides. We regularly want to turn from this living water to our own cisterns that we have hewn ourselves in order to satiate our thirst.  However, the Living Water that God provides will become a spring that wells up within the heart of the believer providing eternal satisfaction. The human soul is thirsting for something greater than created things can offer it, only God Himself can satisfy the soul’s thirst.

This woman had hewn cisterns herself, but they could not hold water – and if they could it would have been dirty runoff water.  We, like this woman, forsake the Living Water and run to our own hand hewn, leaky cisterns due to our own unbelief.  We must battle unbelief – the source of all sin – and we see from this passage that all we must do is ask. We must plead with the God of the universe to “help us with our unbelief” (Mark 9:24).  Lord, give us ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to believe.  Lord, satisfy our thirst with You.

Living Water

“for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”  (Jeremiah 2:13 ESV)

We are modern people who just walk up to the faucet, turn it on and a seemingly endless flow of water comes out.  But, in the ancient near east water was not as easy to come by.  It signified life and prosperity – life was not possible without access to it.  Three types of water sources were common in ancient bible times.  The bible regularly uses these sources as images of our relationship with God.  The first source was the best and most desirable, it was called living water.  Living water came from streams or springs that flowed and were teaming with life; they required no effort of your own to get it if you were close to a source.  Close proximity to the source is all that was required.  The second source was a well that was dug.  This water was good also, but was not viewed to be as favorable as living water and it required significant effort to get.  The last was the least desirable; it came from cisterns that were hewn out of stone that was coated with plaster in order to keep them from leaking.  Cisterns collected runoff water as well as silt that washed into them.  They were deep with a small opening at the top and were spread out at the bottom.  Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:6) was thrown into one as punishment because they were virtually impossible to escape from.  They often had mud in the bottom from the silt that had collected over time and some prisoners that were thrown into them would sink into the mud and die.  You can only imagine the amount of work that was involved in digging cisterns out of hard limestone.

Jeremiah is telling the people of Israel that they had made the most absurd exchange possible.  No one in their right mind would exchange a cool stream or spring for the stagnant, dirty water that a cistern collected.  And yet, that is exactly what they had done.  They exchanged a life giving relationship with God Himself for their own hand hewn cisterns that wouldn’t even hold water.  God offered them living water at no cost to themselves.  This theme of free grace is the centerpiece of the bible’s redemptive story:  ““Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1 ESV).  All you need is need and the ability to accept the free gift of grace that the Creator of the cosmos offers you.  We all are in need, but being willing to accept this and throw oneself entirely on the mercy of God requires a special work of grace.  The natural proclivity of the human heart is to reject free grace and to get to work digging our own cisterns in the hard limestone – cisterns that leak and will not satisfy the thirst of the soul (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  Leaky cisterns are no substitute for living water.

Our hearts, fueled by our unbelief, naturally curve toward our own hand hewn cisterns.  This is true of the non-believer for sure as they seek to establish their identity, value and worth in created things or accomplishments.  But, this is also true for the Christian who forgets who he is and the seemingly impossible (and here) promises God has made to us.  It is real work to identify the cisterns that our hearts naturally gravitate towards.  What substitutes do you run to instead of God?  What cisterns do you frequent to satisfy your soul’s thirst?  Some are easier to identify; things like alcohol, drugs, pornography or excessive overeating.  Others are seemingly benign; these are the silent killers.  Things like achievement, self-improvement, relationships, self righteous judgmentalism, hobbies or religious activities & good works.  Anything that we have parked our ultimate hope upon other than God will wreak havoc on our soul.  These things can never satisfy our thirst, but we still tend to run to them anyway.  What cisterns have you hewn for yourself?  Identify these, repent of these and ask God to enlighten the eyes of your heart to see Him as the refreshing living water that He truly is.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, sinners.

Law versus Gospel

Notes:

  • You are not what you do, rather you are what has been done for you by Jesus Christ!
  • The Christian life on the ground is that you are simultaneously sinner and justified.
  • Not both sinner and justified before God – before God we are clothed completely in the RIGHTEOUSNESS of Christ!
  • There are only 2 messages in the Bible.  Law which is everything that says what we should “do,” and Gospel which is everything that God has “done” for us.
  • The failure to distinguish Law and Gospel accurately always leads to the abandonment of the Gospel.
    • The Law gets softened and produces moralism.
    • The Gospel gets hardened into a list of demands that must be lived out.
  • The Law is God’s unwavering demand for Perfection… BE PERFECT!  The Law demands everything, but gives nothing.  The Law illuminates sin, but is powerless to eliminate sin.  The Law points to righteousness but is powerless to produce righteousness.  The Law shows us what love is, but cannot produce love in us.  The Law informs us of our sin but cannot transform the sinner.
  • The Gospel tells us that since we can’t meet God’s demand, Jesus met it for us.  It’s anthem is, “it is finished!”  There is nothing else that we must do.  Christians live their lives under a banner that reads “IT IS FINISHED!”
  • The law forces us to face our sin, but the Gospel alone forgives us from our sin.
  • The Law accuses us, the Gospel acquits us!
  • The Law exposes us, the Gospel exonerates us!
  • The Law diagnoses sinners, the Gospel delivers sinners!
  • The Law shows how quick we are to run from God, the Gospel shows how quick He is to run after us!
  • The Law shows  us our desperation is greater than we ever realized, the Gospel shows our deliverance is greater than we could have imagined!
  • The Law demands perfection, the Gospel declares perfect all who trust in Jesus!
  • The Law demands that we do it all, the Gospel declares that Jesus paid it all!
  • God’s Law is for those who think they are good, God’s Gospel is for those who know they are bad!
  • We should speak God’s demand in such a way that we are reacquainted with our desperation for a Savior!
  • Sins we cannot forget, God cannot remember.
  • Though the accuser roar of sins that I have done, I know them all and thousands more, Jehovah knoweth none!
  • God’s Demand:  BE PERFECT
  • God’s Diagnosis:  YOU ARE NOT PERFECT
  • God’s Deliverance:  JESUS WAS PERFECT FOR YOU
  • The Gospel demands nothing, but gives everything.

Forsaking God and managing behavior

“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” (Galatians 4:1–11 ESV)

The Jews were like children – heirs to the promises – but too young to have inherited them immediately.  There was a period of waiting.  This Jews had to wait for the true promise of the kingdom.  However, they were enslaved to the elementary teachings of the world.  They were enslaved because rules and laws are powerless to liberate.  If you are only trying to manage behavior then you will never be truly free, and it is for freedom that Christ has set you free (Galatians 5:1)!  

In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus in the flesh, born of a woman, under the law.  God’s timing is always perfect, even in the midst of difficulties and hardships when it doesn’t seem like He is present.  We must learn to believe and rest in the fact that God providentially rules and reigns over all things, and nothing is outside of His authority.  At the right time, God sent Jesus to redeem fallen man and to adopt them into His family.  We are adopted sons.  God redeems AND God adopts.  Our sonship is sealed with the Spirit of Big Brother Jesus – we have been given the Holy Spirit.

We are no longer enslaved to the elementary principles of this world because of our relationship with God – not so much that we know God, but that we are known by God!  Powerful!  We are known by the God of the universe, we have been declared clean and free by the sovereign ruler of the cosmos!  Amazing!  After this amazing grace laden adoption, why in the world would we return to the “elementary principles” of this world?   Why would we want to exchange our sonship for slavery?  We tend to return because it is natural for us, but it irritates the apostle because there is no power there – quite the opposite, there is nothing but bondage and oppression there.  These elementary principles are “weak and worthless.”  They say, “observe this,” “do that,” “act like this.”  When we return to our performance as the means by which we grow, we exchange our sonship for slavery.  The real power for transformation is believing at a deep level that the God of the universe, due to nothing good in you, called you to Himself and He not only saved you, but adopted you as a son.   You are not just forgiven, you are adopted as a son.  The judge took off the robe after declaring you “not guilty,” and then went outside and threw the football with you.

These elementary principles (see also Colossians 2:8, 20) are the elements, principles or requirements of a religious system that dictate what must be done in order to be acceptable to God; they are rooted in our performance.  There is something in us that longs to return to these rules and systems because they put the power to change under our control.  When we return to our performance, we are forsaking the streams of living water offered in our relationship with God and digging our own broken cisterns that hold nothing but muddy sediment (Jeremiah 2:13).

We want a list, a system or some tip to change the uncomfortable consequences of sin in our lives.  The problem is that lists, systems and tips are powerless to produce true and lasting transformation in us.  You know what you should do, but find yourself powerless to do it and yet you insanely keep returning to the same things thinking that they will change you (Proverbs 26:11).  Insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (Albert Einstein).

The real problem is that there is not an utter distaste for sin, but rather the consequences that sin is wreaking on our lives.  We don’t see sin as an offense against God and utterly repulsive, instead we see sin as uncomfortable and we don’t like the dysfunction and consequences that it is causing in our lives.  When we, like David did in Psalm 51, develop an utter repulsion of sin itself then, and only then, are we in a position to be freed from its grasp.  The consequences of sin are gracious because they point us to the sin itself, but just wanting to be free of sins consequences without wanting to be free from the root of sin is a fools errand.  

Freedom is NEVER FOUND IN A LIST, SYSTEM OR SET OF TODO’S to be performed.  Freedom is only found in a Person.  And more than just a Person, but our association with and relationship to that Person.  Freedom is found in marveling in the unbelievable fact that the eternally holy Creator would forgive you and adopt you – that He would make you His child and write you into His eternal will with all of the rights of a natural born son.  Stare at that truth until it resonates deep in your soul.

There is not a 3rd Option

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”  (Galatians 5:16–18 ESV)

How do we overcome the sinful desires of our flesh?  There is  only one answer:  walk in the Spirit.   Sinful desires of the flesh are not only the external, easily measurable  sins, but are also everything in our natural man that is sinful – our behaviors, motivations, feelings and thoughts.  In verses 13 & 14, Paul encouraged the Galatians not to view their freedom in Christ as an opportunity for the flesh, but rather as an opportunity to love.  He now juxtaposes walking by the Spirit with gratifying the flesh.  Walking by the Spirit is firmly rooted in our adoption as sons and the freedom that is associated with being His children.  The word that Paul uses for “gratify” here is interesting – He could have used the word for satisfy.  Gratify is different than satisfy, it literally means “to carry out a command” or “to do as commanded.”  It communicates the inevitability that we will follow our sinful desires because we are not walking in the Spirit.  If we are not walking in step with the Spirit, we will gratify our sinful desires.  There is no third option.  This sounds like Romans 6:12-14 where Paul tells us not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies and Romans 8:6:  “for to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

We are commanded to walk by the Spirit.  Walking by the Spirit means that we are directed by the Spirit’s leading (and certainly the revealed word of God is part of that) and that we depend fully upon His power to walk in obedience.  This does not mean that we goto the bible to find things to do and then try to obey them on our own with an occasional prayer for help.  This looks like seeking to be filled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) – which means that we are actively influenced and directed by the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.  We not only seek His influence and direction, we are completely dependent upon Him to walk in obedience to His direction.  We tend to think of filling in terms of filling a glass to the brim with something.  A better, and more accurate, picture of being filled by the Spirit is when the sails of a ship are filled by the wind which carries it along the water.  The Spirit becomes the controlling influence in your life, like alcohol is when you are drunk.  He fills you and carries you along.

Far too often, we survey our lives and see that they are free from the sins that we deem to be really bad or destructive so we think that we are ok and we begin to coast spiritually.  There is no middle ground, we are either actively killing sin or sin is actively killing us (John Owen).  For the Christian, life is a spiritual war – the Spirit and the flesh are diametrically opposed.  You have to choose one or the other – there is no middle ground or “balance” to be found.    To be personally & actively led by the Spirit is to not be under the onerousness of obeying the Law; we now obey from our acceptance, not for our acceptance.  The Spirit doesn’t lead by sending us out, He goes with us – He accompanies us along the way.  Being led by the Spirit is personal and relational.  The Creator of the universe accompanies you.  Let that sink in.

Lord, teach us to surrender and walk by your Holy Spirit so that we will not gratify the desires of our flesh; help us to understand what this looks like, create in us a desire for it and empower us to surrender to you.

The Power to Change

“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV)

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV)

Often times, in our Christian experience, we believe that morality is the goal of our faith.  It is relatively easy to define, there are many scriptures that reinforce that we should live moral lives and we are able to accomplish morality by being disciplined; in short, morality is measurable.  We can produce morality on our own which should scare us!  There are plenty of non Christians who are very moral (far more so than I am):  they don’t cheat, steal or lie, they are benevolent, faithful to their spouses, and kind to others.  These are good things, right?  YES, they are!  Morality can be easily defined, and sometimes produced, by a list of things “to do” and things not “to do.”  We like lists because they put us in control.

Morality is not, however, the goal of the Christian life – holiness is the goal of the Christian life.  Morality doesn’t require Jesus, but holiness is built entirely upon Jesus.  Far too many have settled in to a Christless Christianity.  If morality is the target then we look to ourselves and our own power to produce it, and when we do we become very self-righteous.  Those who have a hard time producing morality are looked down on because they aren’t strong enough, disciplined enough or don’t measure up.  So should we not be moral people?  No, we should be!  But morality is not the aim.  When our target is holiness then we are driven to Christ in despair because we know that we are not holy as He is – and as we are commanded to be.  When we aim for holiness, morality is produced as a byproduct.  One is built upon us and our own efforts and one is built upon Jesus and the work He did for us.

Morality focuses on behavior and the consequences associated with our behaviors; holiness focuses on the heart’s motivations and the power of God to transform our hearts of stone.  Should we not be concerned with our external behaviors, should we just live however we want?  NO!  But we all know that managing behavior, suppressing our feelings or just trying to take our thoughts captive never results in true and lasting transformation.  Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are indicators of what we really believe down deep in our hearts – in our gut!  It is so hard to change because the root of our sin runs very deep and we seldom do the work that is required to unearth what we are really believing so we become content with just replacing our sinful thoughts, feelings and behaviors with less offensive ones. This is why Jesus said that our work is to believe (john 6:29).  So let us learn to do the painful and difficult work of excavating the false beliefs that are driving our sinful thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Beliefs -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Behaviors.
Our beliefs lead to our thoughts which lead to our feelings which lead to our behaviors.  Most people who attend church are pretty good at managing external behaviors because we know what is acceptable and what is not and we really want people to think highly of us.  So we become content with not swearing, sleeping around, drinking too much and trying our best to stay out of the ditch of the really “bad sins.”  We aren’t overly concerned that our hearts are filled with anger, impatience, angst, lust, jealousy or discontent.  All we are really doing is replacing “unacceptable” external behaviors with more “acceptable” ones like self-righteousness, self-reliance and self-control.  Managing behaviors is rooted in self.  If we are really honest, we’d far rather deal with the self-righteous elder brother’s life than we would deal with the egregiously sinful life of the younger brother (Luke 15:11-32).  This is because the consequences of the elder brother’s self righteous behavior is not as disruptive to our lives as the consequences to the younger brother’s sinful life.  Despite the fact that the younger brother is the one in the parable – and normally the one in real life – that understands his need for grace.  We prefer good behavior over contrite hearts.

Our feelings are underneath our behaviors and they are far more difficult for us to manage.  They come on like a wave and can be overwhelming.  Feelings of angst, impatience, lust, covetousness, jealousy, inadequacy, guilt, shame and discontent – just to name a few.  Who hasn’t resolved to be more patient only to find themselves stuck behind a intolerably slow driver or picking the slowest check out line at the grocery store?  Most won’t scream out the window at the driver ahead of them to “hurry up,” or yell at the clerk at the store to “put a move on it!”  This is because we have learned to manage our external behaviors, but the feeling of impatience (and probably growing angst) is overwhelming and nearly impossible to manage.  We don’t know what to do with these feelings so we try our best to ignore them or shove them down.  This is not the biblical way to handle our feelings.  Instead of suppressing them, we should follow them – all the way to the root belief that is producing them.  This takes time, energy and dependent surrender upon a good and gracious God to do this.

Instead, we resolve to change how we think; we resolve that we should take every thought captive to obedience to Christ (and we should 2 Corinthians 10:5) and we resolve to think on excellent things instead of those things which stir up our anger, lust, jealousy and impatience (Philippians 4:8).  So how’s that working for you?  We all know the answer to that question!  Resolving to think differently does not work because your thoughts are a byproduct of your beliefs – you are closer to your beliefs, but attempting to just change the way that you think is a frustrating and unfruitful endeavor.  We must follow our sinful thoughts to their roots of unbelief in the heart.

Just because you didn’t kill someone, didn’t steal something or didn’t honk at the driver in front of you doesn’t mean that you are free.  And make no mistake, Jesus came to set you free (John 6:36; Romans 6:7, 18, 20, Galatians 5:1).  Angry hearts aren’t free hearts, lust filled hearts aren’t free hearts, impatient hearts aren’t free hearts.  Therefore, we must learn to follow our thoughts, feelings and behaviors to their roots – we must use them to diagnose the roots of sinful false belief in our hearts.  The unbelief in our heart is the root of all sinful behavior (Matthew 12:34, 15:18-19).  We must learn to repent of the sin underneath the sin.  We must learn to ask and mine out why we are angry, greedy, lustful, selfish, rude, prideful?  We must ask ourselves, “what have I really set my hope upon, where is my treasure really?”  When you begin to ask these questions you will ALWAYS FIND that your real problem is a worship problem.  You will always find that you have attached ultimate value and worth to a created thing (relationships, marriage, success, pleasure, children, morality, service, acceptance) and this thing is not able to hold the weight of your worship.  And whatever we worship converts us in to its image.  You BELIEVE that this thing at the center of your heart will produce security, significance and happiness – it will not, it cannot.  This is why the gospel always invades the heart – not primarily the thoughts, feelings or behaviors.  As Christ begins to reign in those areas of our hearts as its greatest treasure then our thoughts, feelings and behaviors slowly begin to change.

It really is simple, it’s just not easy!  Running is not mechanically complex – anyone can run.  Running is simple, but driving your mile time to 7 minutes, 6 minutes or even less is not easy!  Just because following our behaviors, feelings & thoughts to their root of false belief & false worship in our hearts is simple does not mean that it is easy.  It requires grace driven effort.  But let us not shy away from pursuing godliness – for it is what we are called to.  If you will pursue Christ like this then you will find liberating joy, regardless of the circumstances that you face.  God is most glorified when you are most satisfied in Him.