God’s Testimony

Oath

1 John 5:9 “We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God which he has given about his Son.”

A number of years ago a friend of mine wanted me to buy into an investment that promised to multiply your money by seven to ten times in just five years. He couldn’t tell me exactly how the investment worked. Part of it involved bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. I even went with him to a presentation by one of the creators of this investment. The place was packed. Many of the people accepted the testimony of the man selling the investment and gave him their money. I kept mine. They lost theirs. Greed is a powerful influence to get people to believe something.

It has become common to hear about some person falsely convicted being released from prison. At their trials experts testified about the evidence from the crime scene, and juries believed them. Witnesses testified about things they had heard or seen, and juries believed them. Lawyers led the jury along carefully guided logical paths. We accept man’s testimony. Now, however, DNA evidence often shows that all the experts and all the witnesses were mistaken.

Even science doesn’t offer the certainty people often believe it does. I have nothing against science. Often it is the best information we have to go on. But it doesn’t always get things right. Scientists were once convinced that heat passed from warmer things to cooler things in some mysterious vapor called caloric fluid. That theory has been discredited. Good medical science once believed that you could cure a fever by letting blood out of a person. Our nation’s first president died that way. In the 1800’s the American Medical Association forbad doctors to wash their hands before surgery. They said there was no evidence that anything so small it was invisible could make a person sick. “But science is better today,” we may believe. I wouldn’t be too sure. It’s still done by fallible humans.

For all their faults, we tend to accept man’s testimony, John says. It doesn’t take a great deal of thought or faith to reach John’s next conclusion, then. “But God’s testimony is greater, because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.” Ironically, some people want to discount God’s testimony altogether in favor of human ideas about some subject or another. This makes no sense. Many years ago my friend dad disassembled an old mechanical adding machine just to satisfy his curiosity about how it worked. I looked into his workshop. Spread all across the workbench and the floor were the parts of this machine. Who do you suppose would be in a better position to tell you how that machine worked: the inventor, who imagined it and built the prototype, or my friend’s dad, who tried to figure it out by taking it apart? Wouldn’t you go to the inventor?

God is the Inventor of everything. As the Inventor he knows more on every subject than fallible humans who try to figure his creations out by studying them and taking them apart. His testimony is always to be preferred. On no topic is that more true than the testimony he has given us about his Son. This is the subject nearest and dearest to his heart. He may have created the world, but he did not give us a science book to explain it all. God invented social institutions like family and government. He provided no detailed instruction manual for their operation. These things receive passing references in the testimony he gives us. It would be foolish to ignore that. But the theme, the focus, the point of the testimony he has given us is his Son, the one he sent to save us.

This is the topic God spoke about for thousands of years to patriarchs, deliverers, kings, and prophets. It wasn’t all dumped on one man at once, so you need not wonder if it was all just one man’s personal fantasy. As generations rolled along he revealed a little bit more, then a little bit more, expanding the knowledge base, building on what had already been revealed, always supporting, never contradicting, what had come before.

Finally, God’s Son arrived to save us, and God sent angels to announce his birth. He sent his Spirit to empower his ministry. On at least two occasions his own voice announced from heaven that Jesus was his Son. He confirmed Jesus’ ministry with an outbreak of miracles unlike anything the world has seen before or since. In the end he let his Son be captured, convicted, and crucified, so that by his blood he could fulfill all of the old promises, satisfy the demands of justice for the whole world’s crimes, free us all from debt we owed for our sins, and redeem us as God’s own sons and daughters, reconciled and restored to a dear place in God’s own family. By raising Jesus from the dead God has given us proof of this and placed his approval on all that Jesus said and did.

So important is the testimony God has given about his Son, he had it written down in four separate accounts for you and me–four separate accounts! He had those further explained in twenty-three books and letters. We call them the New Testament, the last quarter of our Bible. “Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” our children sing. “We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater, because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son,” is the way that John says it here.

We have God’s testimony, his word. It has been spoken from heaven, sent by his Spirit, embodied in Jesus’ life and death, and recorded on the pages of Scripture. It convinces me of his grace and love.

Nothing but Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

Christ Hand

1 Corinthians 2:1-2 “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Not every good missionary is an outstanding public speaker. Paul realized it wasn’t his mastery of rhetoric and grammar and vocabulary, it wasn’t his ability to move a crowd to tears or laughter, that changed hearts. In Paul’s day expert public speakers were highly thought of, especially in Greece and Rome. For many, they were one of the chief sources of entertainment. There was no television, of course, and even a book could cost as much as a house. A gifted speaker could draw an impressive audience and wield a powerful influence over his listeners, more so than today. Paul may have worked hard at it, but he wasn’t counting on superior speaking gifts to win the Corinthians to faith.

We want our message to be interesting and our worship to engage the people. But that is as much as entertainment and winning souls have to do each other. There are those who say we live in an entertainment age, and we need to put on a good show for those who walk through our doors. We certainly want to hold the attention of those who attend our churches, but the message can also disappear under the dazzle of clowns, balloons, and juggling acts. What works for people is a message that offers the straight stuff, not our ability to spiff it up for them.

Paul mentions another thing that appealed to the Greek residents of Corinth: wisdom.  The Greeks were thinkers. They thought about the meaning of life and the best way to live. They thought about the world in which they lived. They loved thinking so much that they actually looked down on those who worked hard for a living. They favored people who did nothing but sit around and think and talk.

Paul knew that in Jesus Christ he had much more to offer than all the solutions the thinkers of his day invented. The Corinthians had the Epicurean philosophers, whose motto was “eat, drink, and be merry.” So do we. This wisdom tells people that if you have problems, you can escape them in leisure, or perhaps a bottle of booze, a pipe, or syringe. These solve nothing, make problems worse, and drive practitioners further away from God and salvation.

Then there were the Stoics. Stoics were realists who believed people should accept the way things are and take responsibility for themselves. They resemble those who think science, education, or self-help books and counseling will solve all our problems. Those may be helpful. They aren’t bad. But they are not the ultimate solution.

You see, we know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. The problem is that we still make the wrong choices anyway. The problem is sin. It doesn’t just make our lives miserable, it destroys them eternally. Paul’s solution was superior to “superior” worldly wisdom.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Jesus was the answer. Knowing him is everything people need to experience God’s power in their lives. Paul’s own appearance and life were in many ways rather ordinary. He admits, “I came to you in weakness and fear, with much trembling.” When he came to Corinth he was at a low point in his ministry. He had been chased out of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. They laughed him out of Athens. He suffered health problems that made him weak. Knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified didn’t REMOVE all the problems in Paul’s life.

Nor will it for us. It doesn’t mean our problems suddenly vanish. In some ways our problems may multiply. Remember Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount?  “Blessed are you when men insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

But knowing Jesus equips us to deal with the one great problem: our sin. You and I haven’t stopped sinning. But when we do, we have someone to whom we can go with them. When we confess them to Jesus, he carries them to the cross and disposes them there. We experience God’s power as he replaces sin and guilt with peace and joy. Knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified means knowing he has taken my place, paid for my sin with his blood, reconciled me to God, and carried me to the very doors of heaven.

Jesus Christ and him crucified is power—not the kind that gives me control over other people or all the circumstances in my life; the kind that changes my heart and my eternity. It’s all we really need to know.

He Gives Sleep

Sleeping

Psalm 127:1-2 “Unless the Lord builds the house, it’s builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves.”

The world in which we live can give its favorites many things: power, wealth, distinction. The Lord gives sleep to those he loves. Does that sound like a chincy gift? Isn’t sleep free? Or have you lived long enough and experienced enough of life to know that the Lord’s gift of sleep is the real treasure here? If this were a Master Card commercial, “(The Lord) grants sleep to those he loves” would be the “priceless” part at the end. Why?

All of us experience some sleeplessness. A colicky baby, nerves before the big day, or an occasional case of indigestion can rob us of a night’s sleep.

Then there is the chronic sleeplessness that comes because we can find no peace. When we aren’t sure how we are going to make ends meet, sleep can be hard to find. The bills are piling up, job prospects are drying up, collection agencies are showing up, and our stress and anxiety is building up. The future’s uncertainties haunt our thoughts and plague our dreams. Sleep is elusive while we live in a constant state of tension.

But nothing makes it harder to sleep than a guilty conscience. King David once described the misery this way: “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” When we can find no peace with God, we can find no peace at all.

What if we could be sure he loves us? What if we could be sure that he forgives our sins? Then our consciences could be quiet. Then our worries about the future would be answered. Then we could lay our heads down on our pillows at night and sleep like a baby, because we could be sure that we were resting in his loving hands.

We don’t have to wonder whether or not we are those the Lord loves, to whom he gives the gift of peace and sleep. He came here to tell us himself– actually became human flesh so that we could see his love in action and hear it from his own lips. Jesus then took the sins that disturb our consciences and let them disturb him instead. He made our guilt his very own and took it all the way to the cross, where he gave his life to rid us of the curse once and for all. Now he lives again to run the universe for our benefit and assure us that when our eyes close in the sleep of death, they will open to a new day of life that never ends.

And do you notice that he does not say, “He grants sleep to those who are really good.” “He grants sleep to those who try really hard.” “He grants sleep to those who are better than others.” No, he grants sleep, he makes it his gift, to those he loves. It is available to all. It is yours right now by virtue of the fact that you are his children by faith. You know your sins are forgiven. You know that God is going to provide. You know the peace that can give you sweet dreams tonight and every night.

So go ahead, and work hard. But know that God gives you peace, and sleep, as a gift of his love.

Slaves or Sons?

Broken chain

Romans 8:15b “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.”

Living a Christian life is more than doing the right things. The Lord is just as concerned with our motives as he is with our actual behavior. Sometimes my children sat at the table with us only because they feared the discipline they would get if they didn’t. Students do certain homework assignments only because they fear the trouble they would be in with parents or teachers if they didn’t. Fear of pregnancy, disease, or ruining a marriage is enough to convince some people to live sexually chaste lives (though fewer and fewer find even these consequences compelling reasons to control themselves). Driving the speed limit, being honest on your tax return–all of us do certain things only because we fear the consequences.

In each case, the behavior may be correct. But this is nothing like living a Christian life.  Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear.” People who act out of fear haven’t changed. They are merely controlled. That’s a form of slavery.

Christian life is a life of freedom. It is the product of a new relationship. “But you received the Spirit of sonship.” The word sonship can also be translated adoption. Paul is leading us back to God’s grace. None of us were natural born members of God’s family.  Because he loved us he adopted us. He bought us with Jesus blood. He claimed us and made us his own by faith. He brought us into his family as his children.

Now, we don’t serve him because we are afraid of him. We love the one who so loved us. When we believe the grace, forgiveness, and love he has shown us, when we comprehend how good he has been to us, we can’t help ourselves. We relate to God as his children and serve him in love.

On the outside, living life led by the Spirit may not look much different than a life driven by fear. But these two things are not at all the same. God sees the difference. Our hearts know it, too. Set the slave aside. Be the sons and daughters you are.

A Father and His Children

Father-Child

Romans 8:14-15 “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'”

Sometimes people see God only as Sovereign, a King. It’s certainly not wrong to think of him as our King. But what if that were the only relationship we had with him? Where would that leave us?  The King is the giver and enforcer of laws. We know God’s laws. He won’t stand to have even a single one broken. We also have to admit that all of us have broken them. If God were only our Sovereign, only our King, perhaps he would seem like the police to us. We would know that it’s good to have him around, but we would spend our entire lives looking over our shoulders, checking our rear view mirrors, hoping he wouldn’t catch us breaking the law. God as policeman is not a comfortable relationship.

Others envision God as some sort of unexplainable, impersonal, unapproachable power we can’t really know anything about. You can’t have a relationship at all with the cold, distant, unfeeling force they describe.

Paul assures us that God is our Father, and we are his sons or children. The word “Father” expresses much more than biological relationship. A REAL father, one who deserves the title, does all he can to provide for his children’s needs. There is nothing he would not sacrifice for the children he loves. Even when those children are ungrateful, or troublemakers who bring shame to the family reputation, a father does all he can for them.

Isn’t that what our heavenly Father has done for us?  Our sins put our souls in mortal danger. They dishonor our Creator’s name. But God our Father has taken those sins away, forgiven them completely. He sacrificed his dearest treasure to do it. He gave the life of his own Son Jesus Christ to pay for our sins. He continues to forgive us daily, freely. He gave us our very lives back again. He guarantees a better life to come. All of this is a heavenly Father’s love for you and me. It’s the most important relationship we have in our lives. It’s the only reason we have a life at all.

Paul makes clear what a useful thing this relationship is when he says, “And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.” The word Abba comes from the Aramaic language. It is not exactly the same thing as the word Father. It is a term of endearment, more like “dad” or “daddy.” The point is, our special relationship with God makes him someone we can approach. We can go to him with our problems and expect help. We can go to him with our sins and be sure of forgiveness.

The words of the catechism say it best: “God tenderly invites us to believe that he is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that we may pray to him as boldly and confidently as dear children ask their dear fathers.”

Rescued

Lion hunt

2 Timothy 4:17b-18 “I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.”

“The lion’s mouth” is probably less a reference to the later Roman practice of feeding Christians to the lions, and more an allusion to the words of Psalm 22, “Rescue me from the mouths of the lions.” It was a colorful way of saying, “I am not dead yet. My execution has been delayed.”

But it was only a matter of time. Still, Paul understood that even in his death the Lord would rescue him from every evil attack and bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom.

Isn’t that the ultimate deliverance? On the one hand, Luther warns us not to lose our proper respect for death: “I am not pleased with examples which show how men die gladly. But I am pleased with those who tremble and quake and grow pale before death and yet suffer it. Great saints do not die gladly. Fear is natural because death is punishment. Therefore, it is sad.”

But the Savior who never leaves us alone went through death for us to absorb all of its punishment. Death’s stinger has been plucked. Jesus’ return to life means that when we go through death, he will be there with us, too. And now life is waiting for us on the other side. The death that looked like danger ends in heaven’s safety.

You see, Paul felt deserted at his first hearing, but the Lord stood by him. Soon, however, his case would not go so well, humanly speaking. The judge would condemn him. The officers of the court would lead him away. The executioner’s sword would swing. Then the Lord would open an escape hatch between his world and ours. And as Paul stepped through that door, he would see that he was not alone. The great cloud of witnesses that surround us would welcome him (Hebrews 12:1). He would see the face of the Lamb who sits on the throne, who would spread his tent over him (Revelation 22:4 and 7:15). And Paul would be truly safe.

Jesus never stops being the Savior who rescues us. In life he rescues us from sin and fear and guilt and dangers to our bodies we may not even realize. In death he rescues us from this world altogether. We will be truly safe when he brings us home.

Never Alone

Jail Cell

2 Timothy 4:16-17 “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”

Paul was no stranger to jail cells: Philippi, Jerusalem, Caesarea, Rome. This time was different. The Christian faith was no longer hiding under the protection of its Jewish roots. It was recognizably different, and it was illegal to spread it. This jail cell was the end of the line for Paul.

His Roman citizenship still afforded him a public hearing in a court of law. He tells Timothy they had already held his first defense. Paul used it as an opportunity to preach the gospel. That was his calling. But humanly speaking, it had left him all alone.

Paul wasn’t saying he had lost every friend in the world. Earlier he notes that Luke was still with him. He fully expects Timothy to come and bring Mark along. But not just anyone could speak in your support at a Roman defense hearing. Your defender needed to be a citizen, and he needed to be a certain kind of prominent citizen to do you any good. Apparently everyone who could have helped had deserted him.

I think we understand the temptations that being left all alone presented to Paul. They still confront us today. There is the temptation to cave in, to change our line, to sing a different tune.

Even the dread of being relatively alone, of becoming an unpopular little minority rejected by most, is a powerful motivator to rob us of the courage of our convictions. If it doesn’t get us to change our message, maybe we try to hide it. We play it safe by keeping our mouths shut. We don’t feel so much like telling others what we believe.

In the face of such temptations, Paul still counted on God’s presence. “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.” His experience of the Lord’s support was no different than ours. Paul’s eyes were not opened to see something no one else in the courtroom could see, as Elisha’s servant once saw the angel armies in the form of horses and chariots of fire surrounding Elisha’s house.

Paul found the Lord standing by his side and giving him strength where every Christian does: in the words and promises of God. Do you remember the little autobiographical testimony Paul had given toward the beginning of his first letter to Timothy? “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy, so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” The Grand Canyon sized contrast between Paul’s sin and Christ’s forgiving grace left no doubt in Paul’s mind that the Lord was on his side, and by his side.

Isn’t this a theme, a connection, that runs all through Paul’s life and work? His thoughts are never far from God’s grace at the cross when it comes to the way he lived his life. To the Corinthians: “Christ’s love compels us, for we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (5:14). To the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Again and again it is Christ’s love, his cross, his death, his sacrifice, his grace that occupies Paul’s thoughts and captivates Paul’s heart, so that he lives and serves and endures as though God himself were working through him–which, of course, he was.

It works no differently for us. If we want to know that the Lord is standing by our side, if we want to find his strength, if we want to be sure we are never alone, run to the gospel. Run to God’s grace. Run to the promises. Don’t stand and wait to be hit by a bolt of spiritual lightning out of nowhere. Don’t shrink and shrivel in the face of a world majority that thinks the Gospel is stupid at best and evil at worst. Christ Jesus loves you so much that he died to save you. Christ Jesus loves you so much that he has driven world history to make sure that, out of all the citizens of this planet, you would have parents or friends or pastors or teachers who brought you the gospel and led you to faith. You don’t think he stands by you, then? No, you are never alone as you carry out Christ’s calling.

Seeing God

Manoah

Judges 13:21-23 “When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord. ‘We are doomed to die!’ he said to his wife. ‘We have seen God.’ But his wife answered, ‘If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this.’”

Manoah and his wife experienced special evidence of God’s presence and blessing in their lives, even though they weren’t aware of it at first. When the Old Testament speaks of the angel of the Lord, many times it is not referring to a created angel. It is referring to the Lord himself, more specifically the Son of God before he became a man. That is who was talking to this couple here. The Son of God was present in their lives, bringing them God’s promises, providing special blessings in the gift of a child, and one who would be a leader and deliverer for God’s people. They received all this before they even understood the identity of their mystery guest.

Then they experienced a rare and powerful demonstration of God’s presence in their lives. They both witnessed the Lord ascend into heaven in the flames of the sacrifice they were offering. It was an experience that literally brought Manoah and wife to their knees in awe and worship.

As the couple considered what they had just experienced, each of them had special insights into what had happened. Manoah thinks that they are doomed to die. Maybe we are tempted to say that Manoah is over-reacting. He is being melodramatic. But Manoah understood something far too many people fail to get. This was not merely an overreaction.

Remember what God said to Moses after the golden calf incident, when Moses wanted to see God face to face? God told Moses that he would make all of his glory pass by, and Moses could see his backside. But Moses could not see God’s face, “For no man may see me and live.” Remember how Isaiah reacted when God appeared to him in a vision to call him to his service? The Lord was seated high on his throne, and the train of his robe filled the temple, and smoke filled the temple, and angels were crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” What was Isaiah’s response? “Woe to me–I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!”

These men all understood that it is a dreadful, terrifying thing for sinners to stand in the presence of the Holy God. Our world is all too free and easy about where we stand with God. We could stand to take God more seriously. We can use a healthy dose of awe, reverence, and dread, especially when we consider the damning nature of our sins.

But that’s only half the story. Manoah’s wife had a special insight, too. She not only looked at the great power and considered that they had been standing in the presence of the Holy God. She had listened. She heard God’s promises and the blessing they were being given. God said he was sending his people a deliverer, a savior, and he was using this family to do so. Far from meaning to kill them, God had promised to save them.

God still wants you to listen to what he says, especially when he tells you that he has sent you a Deliverer, a Savior, who has come to spare your life. God wants you to hear the promise that he has taken your sins away and filled the void with Jesus’ love and his Spirit’s power. God wants you to be sure that his plans for you don’t end soon, because they don’t end here. Because of his grace and promise, his plans for you will mean life that never ends in heaven.

Then our evidence of God’s blessing will encompass far more than brief encounters. Our vision of God will be constant, and so will our life in his presence.

Special

Dash

Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;”

The Lord specially formed Jeremiah…and each one of us. This word “formed” is the same word God used of “forming” Adam out of the dust of the ground at creation. It is also the word the Bible uses for a potter working at the pottery wheel, forming his bowls and pitchers, cups and plates, and other kitchen ware. Today the raw material comes from our parents instead of the dirt, but our Lord is still intimately involved in the process, carefully, purposefully, artistically forming and shaping us to fit his plans for us.

Even more impressive, he knew us before he made us. Once a child is conceived today, a sonogram may be able to tell you the gender before its birth. It can let you know whether the child is developing normally. But even with this ability to see into the womb, the child we get is still a stranger to us, and there may be some surprises when it is born.

God knew us before our birth. God knew us before our conception. He knew us personally, as his own. He knew that we would need Jesus to save us from sin, just like everyone else. But he also knew our gifts. He knew our strengths and weaknesses. He knew how we were going to fit into his plans, and he knew that we would be just right for the purpose for which he made us.

He more than knew us: “Before you were born I set you apart.” Before we existed he determined that he would save us from our sins. He gave us parents who brought us to church and baptism. Or he sent a friend to tell us about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He sent his Spirit into our hearts to make us his own by faith. He set us apart to serve him with our lives.

Even more than this–before we even existed, he so loved us that he had decided to do so. He gave us our special purpose already then. Have you seen the movie The Incredibles? The superhero parents won’t let their superhero children make use of their incredible superhero powers. They are trying to remain anonymous and blend in. Superhero son Dash wonders why he has to hide the fact that he is special. “Everyone is special,” his mother chides him. “Which is just another way of saying no one is special,” Dash complains.

But for those who belong to God by faith, every one of them truly is special. He set us apart for his unique purposes even before he formed our bodies to meet those purposes. From these promises we can be certain that God has made each of us a special–and will display it in ways consistent with our purpose.