Be Transformed

Romans 12:2 “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

Author C.S. Lewis once described Christians as people who are living in “enemy occupied territory.” We are living “behind the enemy lines.” What he was trying to say is that, though our Lord Jesus may be the ruler of the universe, this world in which we live is in rebellion. We are surrounded by a world which has set up its own standards for what is important, what is acceptable, and what is desirable. It is, as Paul says here, the “pattern of this world.”

For example, our world never believes that it is time to say “enough.” It never wants us to say, “This house is big enough, this car is new enough, these possessions are plenty enough.” With very few exceptions, our world never believes that any personal behavior should be evaluated as “wrong,” or “sinful.” It condemns any such standards as “legalism,” or “loveless judging.” Our world doesn’t want anyone to be sure of what they believe. They equate certainty with self-righteousness, and they make doubt into a virtue. Our world thinks that greatness is measured in terms of wealth, or title, or power. It doesn’t think that humble service to family or friends is bad. It just doesn’t think of them much at all.

Sometimes we speak of peer pressure as though it were the special problem of children, especially teenagers. Paul is warning us all, regardless of age, of a peer pressure of sorts when he tells us not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world. Like the drug addict who wants to keep the same old friends, who keep dragging him back into the same old addiction, we would like to stay close to this world with its values and priorities. We don’t want people to think we are different.

But we can’t serve God properly while we are conformed to the pattern of this world. We are focused on the wrong things when we are obsessed with how much we have or how important we are. We are actively opposing our Lord if we are excusing our sins as the way everyone else is living. We need to keep on changing.

So Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Do you notice here that Paul doesn’t start with what you do but with how you think? The Lord knows that the real battle for our lives has less to do with behavior than it has to do with beliefs. And that always leads us back to God’s word.

I have heard of people who accuse our church of brain washing our members because of how tightly they hold to the beliefs which they have learned. But the careful, systematic teaching of God’s word we have received is not brainwashing. As long as the Bible is the source of that teaching, it is simply God’s way of transforming us and renewing our minds.

That transformation and renewal takes place as God’s word confronts our wrong ideas and brings them in line with his. In part that means changing our thinking about right and wrong and values and priorities. But more than this, that means changing our ideas about God himself. The Lord has led us to see that he is not some mean old kill-joy who spoils all our fun. He is the good and loving Father we can trust, who gave up his only Son for us and forgives all our sins. He takes care of our every need and supports us in every trouble. He protects us from every attack and ultimately will take us home to eternal glory in heaven.

The gospel doesn’t only make us feel good. It makes us different people. So transformed, we can understand God’s will and begin to put it into practice in our lives.

Living Sacrifices

Romans 12:1 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices to God–which is your spiritual worship.”

The kind of sacrifice that Paul has in mind no longer requires that anyone or anything actually physically die. Jesus’ death put an end to that kind of sacrifice. The kind of sacrifice Paul has in mind is a living sacrifice, not a killing one.

Actually, Paul is mixing his metaphors. When he encourages us to offer our bodies, the word he uses for “offer” is not the ordinary word used for bringing God a sacrifice. Rather, he uses a word from the world of royalty and king’s courts. In ancient times kings surrounded themselves with servants, officers and nobles who stood at the king’s disposal. Their business was doing whatever the king asked of them. In this way they “offered” themselves to the king.

There are several things to keep in mind here as we offer our service to the “King of kings.” First of all, think of the privilege. God has invited us into his own royal court to carry out his holy work. We aren’t mere peasants in God’s kingdom. We are nobility, people the Lord of heaven and earth trusts to be near him. He believes he can confide in us and even share his plans with you and me.

Then think of the importance this gives to our service. Each of us has been given work to serve the King of kings. Our place in God’s kingdom ennobles and sanctifies everything we do, no matter how humble our service might seem. We are serving the Ruler of the universe! You have a purpose, Christian friend. You and I are all on a mission from God.

But we aren’t the King himself. As obvious as this is, in practice we tend to forget it. Even Christians begin to think, “Hey, it’s MY life. I’ll decide what I want to do. I’ll decide how I want to live it. I’ll decide what I do with my stuff.” But that’s not right. Either our lives and our stuff are offered to God, at his disposal, or we aren’t the privileged servants of the King.

The totality with which our lives belong to God is emphasized in the other picture here, “…offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” When a calf, or lamb, or dove was sacrificed in the Old Testament, that animal lost its whole life. It didn’t just give up a leg, or some hide, or a few feathers. The whole animal was part of the sacrifice. It gave up everything as it gave up its life.

When we become the royal servants of God, we lose our whole lives, too. We may not literally die. Paul calls us living sacrifices. As such, every waking or sleeping moment, every mundane activity, serves our God.

This is different than most people are accustomed to think. Unbelievers don’t want any part of their lives to belong to God. They want it all for themselves. But even we Christians are tempted to think they can hold some part back for ourselves. As long as I give God 10 percent of my income (or 5? or 2?), I can keep the other 90 percent (after taxes) for myself. As long as God gets me for an hour on Sunday and a couple of hours of volunteer work during the week, I can have the other165 hours to myself.

This is wrong. God wants it all. He wants all 604,800 seconds in your week to belong to him. He wants every penny in your pocketbook. He wants every ability in your body. We are worshiping God’s way only when we are offering our whole selves as human, living sacrifices to him in everything we do.

We find the strength to worship God’s way the same place we find forgiveness for the offering of our bodies that we have denied him: in the mercy of God himself. Paul began by saying, “I urge your brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies…” Who could really object if the Lord just said, “You are getting what you deserve. You made your bed, now you have to lie in it”? But he so loves us that our situation moved him to have compassion on us. And can anything compare to the outpouring of God’s love that we have received?

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). Our King came into our world, and he didn’t obsess about taking care of his own needs first. He didn’t occupy himself with gathering up all the glory that was his due. He totally emptied himself out as our servant. He withheld nothing of himself so that he could serve and save you. For him, sacrifice wasn’t just a metaphor describing his dedication. He literally gave up his life to redeem us from our sins and save us from this world.

It is this mercy of God that also converts us from slaves to self to servants of the Most High. In view of this mercy God makes us willing to offer ourselves as living, human sacrifices in our daily worship to God.

What We Will Be

1 John 3:2 “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

John has just asserted that we are the children of God in the previous verse. He repeats himself as if to say, “Dear friends, I know how easy it is to doubt that God still considers you his own. I know that when you are suffering some unbearable pain, and you beg and beg God to take it away, and still it goes on, you wonder if he still considers you his children. I know that when you have committed some awful sin, and you are overwhelmed by the shame of what you have done, you wonder if he still can consider you his children.”

“But don’t judge by appearances. Close your ears to Satan’s lies, and never let go of God’s clear promises. Now we are the children of God. That is not made true by how you live or what you have. This is established solely by God’s own gift and promise. You are God’s children, with all the love and forgiveness that goes along with it.”

John’s assurance is important, because if we are children of God, we can be certain that life in this world is not all there is. He wouldn’t leave his own children with such a miserable inheritance. We are destined for greater glory, although, “what we will be has not yet been made known.”

It is not that the Lord means to hold out on us. He wants us to know that there is a better life in heaven. He shares as much about it with us as he can in his word. It’s just that it’s hard to explain something so wonderful. We have no frame of reference to try to understand it, no experience with which to compare it. Just as our ideas about what we want to be when we grow up change through life, our ideas about what would make heaven wonderful change as we go through life. Mostly we base our pictures of heaven on the earthly pleasures we experience now. How do you explain the joy and excitement of romantic love to a little boy who still believes in girl germs? How does God explain the joy and excitement of perfect love and divine glory to his children who still have to live in this body of sin with all its weaknesses?

John begins with the one thing about that other world which we know best, and that is Jesus. “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” What will it be like for God’s children? What kind of changes will there be for us? Paul tells us in Philippians 3 that the Lord Jesus “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” None of us will take Jesus’ place in heaven, but he still has his human body, and our bodies will become much like his. Will we be able to walk through walls like he did on Easter evening? Will we shine like the sun as he did on the mount of Transfiguration? We can only wonder what those changes will be like now.

Most important is the change which will take place in our hearts. Our hearts will reflect Jesus’ loving heart. He loved us with an indescribable love before time began. At long last we will be able to return that love to him. We will love everyone else as he intended from the beginning. That is the true perfection of heaven–not some cold, heartless perfection that merely keeps the rules, but to love, and to be loved, just as God has always loved us. We are God’s children, and this is what it means to be like him.

In a sense, then, although we will always be his children, we do grow up. Living in perfect love, it will be clear for all to see that we are the children of God.

They Don’t Know Us

1 John 3:1b “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”

How can John say that the world doesn’t know us? We all know some unbelievers, and those unbelievers know who we are. Some we count as our friends. At times it may seem like the unbelieving world knows us too well, and they don’t like what they see. They study us to ridicule us. They form organizations to compete for the minds and hearts and souls of others. By the way they act, it appears they even find us scary.

That’s because they don’t really know us. They may know who we are. They know what we say. But they don’t understand. They don’t know why we do what we do. They can’t figure out why we believe what we believe. It makes no sense to them that we can view a sexually pure life as a most precious freedom from sin–something which they can only see as useless sacrifice and self-denial. They can’t see why we would willingly devote thousands of our hard earned dollars, and hours, days, even weeks of our precious time each year to a cause which seems to offer so little in return in worldly terms. It mystifies them that we don’t abort unplanned babies, or bail out of unhappy marriages. They don’t understand why we choose the truth over compromise, suffering over worldly acceptance.

Why? We are children of God, and “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Should it surprise us that the world so easily values what pleases self more than what is good and right? Should it surprise us that they place instant gratification at the top of their list of priorities rather than things spiritual, eternal, and heavenly? If you didn’t know or believe in the indescribable and undying love of your Savior, would you?

This is why God’s children will always be battling in this world. This is why persecution, to some degree, will always be part of life for those who know Jesus’ love and have become his very own. This is why the mere preaching of moral values and Biblical principles will never change our world. They do not know God. They do not know his love. They have not become his children. They do not understand.

Only the Good News of Christ crucified, Jesus dying for sin and Jesus rising to life, has the power to turn them from enemies to allies. Only this lavish love of God can woo them into the family of faith. In the meantime, we are the children of God, and the world doesn’t really know us.  

Loves Even Me

1 John 3:1 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

The apostle John wants to draw all attention to the uniqueness, the size, and the quality of God’s love, but his words simply leave us marveling at something we cannot begin to grasp in these words. In his Greek, these words read something more like, “Just look at what kind of a love God has given us.” Then he leaves us to look and soak in as much of God’s goodness as we can. It is love beyond description.

John hints at what makes God’s love so unfathomable: “that we should be called children of God.” In order to share in John’s amazement, to get a taste of the love he is describing, we must look at God’s love in comparison to its objects. We must understand our unworthiness. We have not earned his love in any way. Perhaps no one says it more eloquently than Paul in Romans 5, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Powerless. Ungodly. Sinners. Jesus died for a world of people who were not his friends. He owed them nothing. Even now that we have come to know his love in our faith, isn’t it true that we find so much less of that love for him in our hearts than we ought? Don’t our lives still betray our rebellion? So many sacrifices he made for us, so many things he gave up (even when we were his enemies!), and still we do so little in return. We begrudge the time or the expense or the effort. So much forgiveness we experience–daily, hourly, even every moment– and still it is so difficult to forgive the few ways in which our neighbor has sinned against us.

And still, he loves! He loves us. He loves even me. To what shall we compare such love? He calls himself our Good Shepherd, but our Lord’s love is infinitely greater than that which any man has ever had for any animal. In his word he compares his love to that of friend for friend, a husband for his wife, a woman for her baby, a father for his son. Yet none of these loves approaches the greatness of that love which the Father has lavished on us. We are called his children! That is, in fact, actually what we are.

Here is a more contemporary comparison. Henri Nouen was a prestigious professor at Harvard University, a world famous lecturer. Long before his powers began to fail, he retired from that life. He spent his last years working in a home for children with profound mental disabilities. These children were able to do nothing for themselves. They could not do tasks as simple as combing their hair or feeding themselves. Someone had to hold their hands and guide them. Their only communication came through grunts and non-verbal noises. Those who cared for them learned great patience. They needed great love, for there was nothing these children could do for them in return.

Can we see ourselves as such profoundly disabled children spiritually? What need do we have, for this life or for the next, that our heavenly Father must not provide? What simple and yet imperfect service do we offer in which he himself is not holding and guiding our hands? How stunted and undeveloped is our communication–our prayer, worship, and praise?

But how patiently our Savior works with us, how faithfully he loves us. He is not ashamed to call us brothers, stunted, helpless beings who can do so little. Our Father is now proud to claim us as his children. In spite of our sin, in spite of our every earthly weakness, you and I are children of the heavenly Father, and his love for us defies words to describe it.

You Were Bought

1 Corinthians 6:19b-20 “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

We live in a so-called “free” country. There are many things that our government gives people the freedom to do, whether or not God approves of such behavior. Even Christians can begin to think that if the USA gives me the freedom, then I have the right to live my life and behave myself any way that I want.

It is true that God doesn’t force everyone to do his will at all times with an act of his raw power. Thus it seems that people get away with many sins and there is no divine intervention. They can even develop a prideful sense of self-importance, defying God and everyone like the author of the poem Invictus, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

Really? God does not give us an absolute right to do whatever we want. Thinking that way is still rebellion against him. We don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to him. We didn’t make ourselves. He made us. Even after we rebelled and ran away from our creator to join the enemy side, he didn’t leave us there. He bought us back. He executed his own Son to lay his claim on us again, and to set us free.

“You are not your own. You were bought at a price.” This is a warning for us. It’s a warning not to challenge God’s right to determine how we live our lives, nor to despise the price he paid to make us his own again.

But these are especially words of promise and comfort. You were bought at a price. Paul makes this claim of God’s ownership in the context of a warning about sexual sins. As we consider Paul’s words, and we examine our own lives, we may feel worthless, undesirable. Spiritually and morally speaking, because of our sinful natures, that is what we are.

But by his grace our God has given us another value. The price he places on us is the life of his own Son Jesus Christ. God the Father decided that you are worth as much as Jesus to him. That value defies any comparison or illustration. It means there is nothing dearer to the Lord in all this world than just you yourself. You became infinitely valuable, infinitely desirable, when Jesus gave his life to make you holy and forgive your sins.

Therefore, live that way–like the priceless, holy child that God now says you are.

Temples of the Holy Spirit

1 Corinthians 6:18-19 “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”

When we sin sexually, we ourselves are the victims! Here we could mention all the sad statistics about how much more likely your marriage is to fail if you are sexually active before marriage. Here we could list all the scary statistics about how many people are catching deadly, sexually transmitted diseases. Here we could mention that even if there were no earthly consequences, Paul warns just a few verses above that neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders will inherit the kingdom of God.

We need look no farther than this: When our Lord created man, he lovingly gave us these bodies with all their talents and abilities. He gave us our sexuality as a good gift, a pure and beautiful thing. But when we step outside of God’s instructions for their use, then we are taking these good gifts and twisting them beyond recognition. What should be pure, even holy, becomes overshadowed with shame, guilt, and fear. And who suffers all these things? We do!

In order to help us understand the importance of honoring God with our bodies, Paul asks us to remember “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”

You are the Holy Spirit’s temple. Do you see the warning involved? Do you see how it helps us understand what a perverse thing sexual immorality is? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then Jesus lives in you by his Holy Spirit. Your body is the Spirit’s temple. That means that you are never alone. Whatever you do, Jesus is your constant companion–not just beside you, but actually living within you. There is not a single thing we do of which Jesus is not an intimate part. If we sin sexually, Christ himself must suffer through the disgrace, because his Spirit lives in us. What a sacrilegious thing to do to our only God and Savior!

But you are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that is also a wonderful encouragement. Our God will not live just anywhere. He wants his house to be holy and clean. When he came to us, that is not how he found us. So he set out to make us look that way himself. He swept together all our sins, packaged them up, and carried them to the cross. He got rid of them by dying for them in our place. We may continue to track through his temple with our sins, but he continues to scrub us clean in his blood. His forgiveness continues to cleanse us. Now that he has done his housecleaning, he makes our own hearts his home. We have become the temples of the Holy Spirit by faith.

If we are the Holy Spirit’s temples, the place where God dwells, that also means he comes to every temptation we face. We don’t face it alone. His power and purity give us arms and weapons to fight those sins we must fight. They provide legs and feet to flee sexual immorality, so that we can honor God with our bodies.

The Water of Cleansing

Numbers 19:11-13 “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days. He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh, he will not be clean. Whoever touches the dead body of anyone and fails to purify himself defiles the Lord’s tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel.”

I once read a report that suggests applying maggots to a wound may be an effective way to clean it out. Apparently the maggots will devour only the dead tissue and will leave the healthy tissue alone. Anyone want to volunteer for the procedure?

I am not painting this picture to give you a creepy feeling. But maybe it can help us to appreciate how repulsive our sin and death make us look to God. In our sin and death, we are like the stinking, rotting, worm-eaten corpse. A holy God can’t stand to be anywhere near these things. That doesn’t mean he looks for ways to avoid all contact with us whatsoever. It leads him to find a way to make us clean.

God gave instructions to Moses for ceremonial purification after contact with death. Why did the Lord make such a big deal about people coming into contact with a dead body? His concern was not for any health-related reasons. The message he was sending his people was spiritual.

Death is the horrible and ultimate result of sin. None of us is fit for friendship or fellowship with a perfect and holy God, any more than the maggot-eaten, decaying body makes an appealing companion for one of us.

To impress this deeply on the hearts and minds of his Old Testament people, the Lord declared that contact with a dead body would bring a special kind of uncleanness. His message was clear: God finds sin and those it kills disgusting. His people need to be cleansed from the stench of death.

We are all in the process of dying. The worn out knee or hip that needs to be replaced, eyes that need a stronger prescription with every trip to the optometrist, hair that is losing its color, or losing its grip on our heads altogether—these all say so. And death is the wages of sin. If we are going to be acceptable to God, we need someone to cleanse us.

That requires more than the little washing ceremony Moses describes. But in the water of cleansing we can see Jesus cleansing us by applying his death to us.

The water used for Moses’s ceremony was no ordinary water. To prepare it, a completely red heifer, a young cow that had never given birth, without any spots or any blemishes, was sacrificed. Only seven to nine of these animals have been identified and sacrificed since the time of Moses.

I won’t bother with all the details of the sacrifice and what they mean here. But there were obvious allusions to Jesus’ person and work. He was a unique and rare person in his time and in every age. Like the red heifer, he did not die because of anything that he had done. He gave his life because of the sin, impurity, and the death of others. This is God’s everlasting source of purification for us.

Unlike the red heifer, this is not a merely ceremonial, symbolic, or prophetic sacrifice. It really and permanently removes our sin in God’s site. It removes the ability of death to separate us from God any longer. Jesus makes us clean by applying his death to us.

Generations of people lived and died between the sacrifice of a red heifer. Therefore, God had a special way of connecting the sacrifice to people even centuries later. The ashes were saved, and they were added to the water used for purification. When the people were sprinkled with this water, he was applying the results of the sacrifice to each person personally.

Sound familiar? Isn’t that what happens at our baptisms? Though Jesus lived and died centuries before us, he died for our sins, too. God assures us of this, he applies the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice to us today, in the waters of our baptism. “Be baptized and wash your sins away,” Paul was told. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” the Apostle Peter promised. This Old Testament water used for purification provides a picture and prophesy of Baptism, where Jesus makes us clean by applying his death to us.

            A bath can make us feel better. Even more, it’s good for our physical health. In our baptisms Jesus refreshes our guilty consciences and brings us the cure for death itself.  

You Can Say Something

Jeremiah 1:9-10 “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah didn’t want to be God’s prophet because he didn’t think he knew how to speak (1:6). He was afraid he would not know what to say. Christians who don’t want to talk about their faith with others are still using that excuse over 2500 years later.

God’s answer to Jeremiah, or to us, or to anyone else who claims that they don’t know what to say is to remind us whose words God wants us to say. He didn’t expect the prophet to invent a message all on his own. That’s the last thing God wants us to do. In some visible way, most likely in some kind of vision, the Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth. God gave him the message. All Jeremiah had to do was deliver it. What could be more simple than that?

Isn’t it just so simple for us, too? We don’t receive the word of God by direct inspiration as the prophets did. But we still have the inspired word of God available to us. When we read it, hear it, learn it, and practice it, then God puts his word in our mouths, too. There is no good reason for us to say, “I don’t know what to say.” But if that is our excuse, here’s God’s answer: “Get to know my word. Put it in your heart and mind, and I will put it in your mouth as well.”

You see, God’s word goes through our ears into our hearts and minds. But if we are really listening, it doesn’t just sit there. It goes to work. As the Lord told Jeremiah, it uproots and tears down and destroys and overthrows. Do you get the picture? It uproots our sin and tears down our pride and destroys our selfishness and overthrows our rebellion.

Then it goes to work on the positive side. It builds our faith and plants our new life. With all that construction and growing going on inside, it’s not long before the word fills us up and comes spilling back out our mouths. As Jeremiah himself later complained, it will actually hurt to try to keep it in.

Why not get started today? The Lord takes away all our excuses. Sometimes it seems like we are always on the verge of sharing our faith. Someone has said that we are always getting ready to do mission work. Why not get started now?