The Answer to Jesus’ Prayer

John 17:17-18 “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”

“Sanctify” is one of those five-dollar theological words that even Christians often don’t understand. “To make holy” is a basic definition, but “holy” means so much more than “moral” or “pure” or “lacking sin.”

When God makes something holy, he sets it apart for his special possession and use. We Christians are sanctified only because we are justified. By his perfect life and innocent death on the cross Jesus removed the sin that stood between us and God. He wiped our sin off our record so that God wouldn’t have reason to keep us away and condemn us. Jesus opened the way for us to belong to God once again by purchasing our forgiveness with the sacrifice of himself in our place.

God actually took possession of us personally when he called us to faith. Only one tool could make that happen, to turn us from unbelief to belief, to change us from people who were afraid of God, or resented him, or found him distasteful and unappealing, into people who trust him with our whole heart and soul. Logical arguments and the best of human science and research can’t do it. Great big entertainment spectacles and overwhelming emotional appeals can’t do it. Careful application of sociological principles and clever marketing can’t do it.

“Sanctify them by the truth,” Jesus says. “Your word is truth.” God’s words on a page, or preached from a pulpit, or wedded to water, wheat, and wine are the one thing that have the power to make us his own or keep us his own. When God has us, when our hearts belong to him, we are his personal possession because we have faith. Then we are not only justified, guilt-free, forgiven children of God. We are sanctified, holy children of God set apart from the world that does not believe what we believe or love the Savior that we love.

And God has set us apart for his possession and special use. “As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” Jesus prayer for you here, or God’s answer to it, give your life meaning and purpose. You have a mission, Christian. This is why Jesus said earlier, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world.” That would certainly make us safe, if God simply took us out of this world.

But then who would show your neighbors what living as a Christian really looks like–not sinless perfection or super-human niceness, but humble admission of our brokenness and genuine appreciation for God’s forgiving grace? Who would invite them to come and see what Jesus has done for them? Who would raise our children and pass the word on to the next generation? Who would pray for missionaries and bring the offerings that make it possible for us to send them? How could a lost world be found? How would we have ever been found?

Jesus prays for us to be set apart, to be sanctified, so that he can send us just as he was sent. That means that your faith and service is the answer to Jesus’ prayers.

He Prays for Your Safety

John 17:14-15 “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”

Hate is a strong word. Does the world really hate those who follow Jesus? Doesn’t it announce its respect for Jesus as a friend to the poor, and the outcast, and the morally questionable? Doesn’t it love to quote Jesus, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” or “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone?”

Don’t be fooled. When the Washington Post asked a Harvard professor if faith groups were too absent in the war on poverty, he stated that organized religion has been using all their resources on issues regarding sexual morality. “This is the most obvious point in the world.” It’s true, Christians are concerned about sexual morals. But what Christian institutions spend on fighting poverty dwarfs what is spent on morality. If just one Christian charity, World Vision, were a country (not a charity but a country), its spending on poverty would rank it twelfth in the world. What that one charity spends fighting poverty is about 10 times all the donations to all the pro-life or pro-family organizations in the country.

When this was pointed out in a response to the Washington Post, one commenter replied, “Yes, but evangelical Christians often expect the people they help to listen to their message.” The nerve of those Christians–telling the people they help that God loves them and sent Jesus to pay for all their sins! The world hates us for the word Jesus has given us, whether his word defining right and wrong, or the word that asks us to believe we are sinners saved by God’s grace.

So Jesus prays for our safety, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” Sometimes being a Christian can be physically dangerous. You know how Jesus’ 12 disciples ended up. Only one died a natural death. I know a Christian woman who had a husband so jealous of our faith that he mocked her as “Mrs. Jesus” for years. He eventually became violent because she spent an hour or two in church each week.

But Jesus’ prayer is really more for the safety of our souls. “Protect them from the evil one.” If the devil can’t lure us to his side with his bribes; if he can’t entice us with promises of pleasure; then he wants to intimidate us with his threats. He is the prince of this world, after all. He has more people on his side than on Christ’s. Christianity may be the biggest world religion, but it is still embraced by less than a third of the world’s inhabitants. The number of Christians in the land where we live grows steadily smaller every year.

So being a Christian is going to cost you. To part of the world you appear stupid and naive, believing the nonsense about morals, and an all-powerful Spirit in the sky whom atheist Richard Dawkins ridicules as “the flying spaghetti monster.” To an ever growing part of the world you are a hater, a bigot, for believing what you do about good behavior, or believing that Jesus is the only way to heaven.

So Jesus prays for you. He prays for your safety, to protect you from the evil one. He is praying for your faith, your salvation, your eternity, your relationship with him.

About 30 years ago a young pastor came to his first wedding rehearsal blissfully ignorant of what awaited him. He had poured himself all week into crafting the best sermon for the couple he could manage. Then the wedding party arrived. In a few minutes it became clear that mothers on both sides had their own agenda. The order of things in the ceremony was all wrong. The positioning of the bridesmaids and groomsmen was all wrong. The bridesmaids should pause after each step. No, the bridesmaids should pick up the pace. On it went. It was exhausting.

Criticisms about the service and the sermon found their way back to the pastor even before the reception was over. Feeling weary and defeated, he dragged back into his office about 9 p.m. Saturday night knowing he still had a long night ahead of him. He still had to write a sermon. On his desk was a card with some Bible passages and a note from the soloist: “Pastor, last night at the rehearsal I realized how hard it must be to be the new kid on the block. I just want you to know that I appreciate all your work and that I’m praying for you.” Someone cared and was praying for him. It was like a long, cool drink of water in a dry and parched desert.

Do people ever tell you they are praying for you? It’s always appreciated, but sometimes their words may not strike us as a deeply moving, desperately needed message. All the same, there may be few greater ways to express genuine love for each other.

The greatest expression of Jesus’ love comes from the cross and the empty tomb. But in Jesus’ prayers for us we find another little gospel gem. We know he loves you and me, because Jesus prays for us. He prays for our protection from the haters set on destroying our souls.

Generous

Acts 4:34-35 “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

These early Christians were certainly unselfish. They shared what they had with each other. These words take that a step further. They took what they had and they gave.

Giving is a prickly topic around church for some people. They think churches talk about it too much. A man who attended my last congregation told me that when he and his wife were shopping for a church over 60 years ago, the message was always the same no matter where they went. “Be good and give money.” Then they heard the pastor at my church preach, and the message was about Jesus. They thought that maybe it was just an accident, so they came back to hear him preach again, and the message was still about Jesus. So he and his wife joined the church.

Still, sometimes we have to say something about giving, and the church in Jerusalem gives us a great example. You often hear Christian people talk about tithing. The Old Testament standard of 10 percent can serve as a good guideline for Christian giving. But it can also limit people in their giving unnecessarily. And if people are merely keeping a rule, it can make their giving stagnant and replace the joy and excitement of participating in God’s mission.

When these people in Jerusalem sold a field, or sold a house, and then they brought the entire proceeds of the sale and gave it to the apostles to distribute, you don’t get the idea that they were worried about “10 percent,” do you? They were blowing “10 percent” away!

In the gospel they had found a cause, a purpose, a mission. That gospel then filled their hearts with love for each other. They had a ministry to support and a message to get out. They had missionaries to send. They had less fortunate members of their family of faith who needed help. These “needs” were an opportunity to love, a way to serve, a chance to be part of God’s own work. What drove their giving wasn’t a rule. It was a generous response to God’s love.

Could you be a generous Christian giver like that, one whose gifts blow far past 10 percent of your income? If we believe Jesus gave it all for us, it will simply excite us to think that he would let us do his work and love his people with our gifts.

Testify

Acts 4:33 “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.”

What message would you like your church to be known for? In their quest to be “relevant” many churches today focus on practical living. Their pulpits regularly dish out good advice for family life, successful careers, or happy relationships. Some churches want to be the guardians of moral behavior and preach a steady stream of warnings about the moral decline of our country. Some churches want to be socially conscious and promote one cause for justice or the environment or humanitarian aid and relief after another.

The Bible has something to say about all those topics. But the apostles’ preaching in the church of Jerusalem could pretty much be summed up as testifying “to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” And the result was that “much grace was upon them all.” Here’s an interesting fact: the word “resurrection” appears more in the book of Acts than any other book of the Bible–ten times in all. It is often a kind of shorthand to summarize the content of the apostles’ preaching as they carried the gospel around the world.

Of course, to preach Jesus’ resurrection, you had to preach Jesus’ death. He had to die before he could rise again. To preach Jesus’ death and resurrection, you had to explain the meaning of it all. It’s more than a curiosity of history or an entertaining myth. It is the payment for every sin and the promise of life that never ends. It is God’s way of freeing us from hell and filling us with new life and heavenly hope. It is the great rescue of all time.

The Apostles preached this message “with great power,” because it is this event, the telling of this rescue story, that has the power to turn people from doubt and skepticism to faith, from enemies of God to his friends and children, from spiritual death to life. It is the reason that this church grew by the thousands, the heart and soul and bedrock of all their evangelistic efforts.

There will be times you hear practical advice, moral exhortations, and social concerns coming from the pulpit and classrooms where you worship. But is that what we want to be known for? Could we share the evangelistic zeal and evangelistic method of the believers in Jerusalem, and trust the power of preaching Jesus’ death and resurrection? It has already worked on each of us! It’s why we are Christians, and it will mean as much to others as it has to us.

Selfless

Acts 4:32b “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.”

Some have said these Christians were practicing an early form of communism. But they had not abolished the concept of personal property. This is not John Lennon singing, “Imagine no possessions.” They didn’t collectively abandon their property. They shared it.

It all hinges on “no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own.” These people were living out the implications of Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Everything we have is a trust we have received from God. It is a gift. He has not given us things to use any way we please. He has purposes for what he gives us, and it is a higher purpose than “making ourselves happy.”

Generally, God has given us possessions so that we can love each other. We love our families by feeding and housing, clothing and educating them. We love the souls of our neighbors near and far by supporting mission work around the world and our own church’s worship and Bible classes locally. Even paying our taxes is an act of love Biblically understood, because it provides security and protection to our neighbors through the government it supports.

Of course, central to the arrangement–that we regard and use our possessions so unselfishly– would have to be the conviction that God would continue to take care of our own needs. What could convince these members of the Jerusalem church of such a thing? Certainly they lived at time when they had less than we do.

Doesn’t this take us back to the cross and the gift that God has given there? Paul would ask the Romans years later, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” If God loves us so much that he would deliver his own Son to torture and death to save us from our own sin–and he does, and he did–we have every reason to believe he will take care of every other true need as well. The cross gave these people the confidence to be unselfish.

Wouldn’t it be a pleasure and a privilege to live among a people so unselfish in our own church, and doesn’t this make the Jerusalem church a church worth imitating?

One

Acts 4:32 ““All the believers were one in heart and mind.”

People at First Christian Church of Jerusalem could get along and work together because they were truly united in their faith. We, by contrast, are divided into many different denominations–over 30,000 of them! Among Lutherans alone there are more than 25 different flavors.  Each attempt to get them together only seem to create more divisions.

If you pay any attention to the news, you also know that inside each church body heated debates about teachings and morals often take place. They go to their national conventions and fight about what the Bible really says about human sexuality or how the church should be governed.

Some individual congregations claim to be non-denominational and try to stay above the fray. But isn’t that a way of saying, “We can’t get close to anyone but ourselves?”

If you have been part of a local congregation, you know that they have issues, too. Some will divide over disagreements ranging from key Bible teachings to what color to paint the Sunday school classrooms.

Not the church in Jerusalem. “All the believers were one in heart and in mind.” Notice the key to their unity: one in heart, one in mind. This wasn’t an oversized club where everyone shared a common hobby. They were one in heart. They had the same heart, because they had the same faith. Each of them trusted in Jesus as Savior from sin. When trust in Jesus as your Savior from sin fills your heart, you don’t live with delusions of greatness and superiority. You are a sinner who has been rescued from the death and hell you deserved by Jesus’ forgiving grace and supreme sacrifice at the cross. What do we have to be proud of in this?

Being so humbled, believing that you have been so loved by God that you owe him everything, has a very desirable effect on those who believe it is true. Love begins to grow. Love has been called “the great commandment,” but love isn’t just a rule we keep. Taking a picture Jesus uses in the gospels (John 15), it is like a fruit that grows out of us because we are attached to him by faith. It is spontaneous. It just happens. Together, faith and love made this congregation in Jerusalem “one in heart.”

There was still more to the secret of their unity. They were also “one in mind.” They had more than a nice feeling about each other. They believed the same things. Go back two chapters in Acts and we see that they put a high priority on learning the truths of the Christian faith. “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching.” “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” When people share the same set of beliefs, what is there to disagree about? Everyone was on the same page.

Hearts and minds made one by faith, love, and good teaching gave this congregation a genuine peace and unity. It made them a pleasant community attractive to outsiders and able to work together to get God’s work done.

Can we be a church like that? Can we repent of our bad priorities? Can we let hearing and learning God’s word rise to the top of the list, so that it can grow our faith, and form our hearts into one heart? Can we set aside phrases like, “Well, I think…,” or “Everybody knows…,” and let the truths of the Bible form our opinions for us? Can we share the mind of Christ, so that our way of thinking is united in him?

People on the outside will probably think we are crazy if we do. This church in Jerusalem received its share of grief from the main religious leaders and general culture around them. Like Jesus, they were rowing upstream, swimming against the tide.

But the greater blessings of their unity make this a church worth imitating.

Almost Famous

Matthew 10:2-4 “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”

If it weren’t for Jesus, none of these men would have been anything more than a footnote on the pages of history. As it is, some of them are little more than a footnote on the pages of the Bible. How many Bible stories do you know about Thaddaeus? Zero. How many Bible stories do you know about the other James, James the Son of Alphaeus? Zero. How many Bible stories do you know about Simon the Zealot? None at all. They simply show up in lists of the twelve apostles.

But Jesus sought them all and called them to be his very own. He came to redeem them by his blood, as he has come to redeem us all. Their sins went to the cross together with all the rest. They were saved not because they were good, not because they were men of outstanding character or unusual leadership, not because they stood out in love or good works. They were saved by God’s grace, saved because the blood of Jesus Christ his Son purifies us from every sin.

And then they were called to faith. Though there was nothing to distinguish this bunch of fishermen and social outcasts, Jesus sought them and made them his own. He guided the course of history to bring them to that moment where he met them face to face, and he could look them in their eye and tell them, “Follow me.” 

Not many of us will ever be anything more than a footnote on the pages of history. A few of you may have had your 5 minutes of fame on television after you accidentally became part of some local news story. That is not the kind of thing that makes us somehow more attractive to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t have a special thing for people who are in the right (or the wrong) place at the right time.

Yet you find yourselves among Jesus’ apostles as people the world hardly knows or cares about. You are the people Jesus gave up his throne to rescue, and gave up his life to forgive. More than that he came and sought us out of the billions of this world. In the voice of a pastor, parent, or friend, maybe even a complete stranger, he whispered in your ear, “Follow me.” And in that voice you heard the voice of your Savior sharing all his gifts and claiming you as his own.

Maybe you will never even be as famous as Thaddaeus, or James the son of Alphaeus, or Simon the anti-government terrorist. But you are no less saved than they are, no less dear to Jesus, who knows and loves every one of us by name.

Tell Me Again!

Romans 15:15-16 “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God…”

Not everything Paul taught in this letter to the Romans was new to them. The way he writes here, it seems that most of it was not. He reminds them again. He reviews the saving truth for them. He rehearses them in the gospel they already knew.

Such methodology was not unique to Paul. Do you remember Peter’s similar concern from his second letter? “So I will always remind you of these things even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.” What was Peter going to do for these people? He was going to remind them of God’s gifts.

From a pastor’s perspective, such reminders make perfect sense. Every other endeavor in training and teaching people involves repetition in one form or another. For eleven years I reported to football practice in the fall, from late grade school through the end of college. The first day was always the same: how to get into a proper three-point stance, how to break down for a tackle, how to keep your feet driving on your blocks. For five years I took piano lessons, and for five years I reviewed scales, chords, and key signatures. Those things worth remembering are worth repeating.

What did Paul remind the Romans about? Some painfully dull drills? No! He had “the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God.” Paul reminded them of God’s gifts in the gospel! Gospel means “good news,” but just what is that good news? Don’t take the answer to that question for granted. Even many Christians find it hard to define. At its core the gospel is the good news of Jesus’ love, all he did to forgive our sins and spare us from death. He lived for God the life of love we owe. He died the death our sins deserved. He rose to reveal the new life we’ll receive. Through his Spirit he even gives us the faith that makes these gifts our own.

From that good news flows one gracious blessing after another. Because God loves me so much he died to save me, I know that he will keep his promises. I know that he will give me my daily bread, listen to my prayers, guide me through temptations, give me the words to share my faith, strengthen me to handle life’s heartaches and disappointments, guard me with his angels, and walk me by the hand through the gates of death into heaven. My confidence in every good thing God gives me is somehow related to Christ’s love at the cross.

Is that a tiresome message to hear? Are we weary of being reminded of God’s gifts? I once heard a person complain about her pastor, “Law and Gospel! Law and Gospel! That’s all we ever hear!” When that pastor goes on to glory, I think they should inscribe that on his tombstone! Isn’t the message of law and gospel the greatest love story ever–God’s love for you and me?

When my wife does something particularly kind for me, I often ask her, “Have I told you lately how much I love you?” Believe me, she gives me plenty of opportunities to ask. Her stock answer is always, “No. Tell me again!” She has never said, “Yep. That’s enough.” Not even once.

Here is our Lord with his message of sacrificial love asking us, “Have I told you lately how much I love you?” We haven’t even done anything to prompt such a question. Are we going to tell him, “Yep. That’s enough”? No! Tell me again! That’s why Paul wrote what he did. That is what every Christian who understands God’s love wants to hear.

The True Meaning of Hard Work

Ecclesiastes 2:20-21, 24-26 “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune…A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.”

The writer of these words (likely King Solomon) understood the truth that there is no U-Haul behind the hearse. Ancient Pharaohs may have been buried with their royal treasures, even food for the next life. Vikings were buried in their ships with their weapons. You may be buried in your best dress or favorite suit. But all these things must still be left behind, together with the other things that don’t make it into the tomb. No matter how expensive, how useful, or how enjoyable they are, we don’t get to keep the fruits of our hard work forever.

Despairing over our work signals that we are ready to give up on these things to do so much for us. We might even say that it is the logical conclusion. In some cases despair is a sin. Martin Luther says that when we pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” we are asking God to “guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh do not deceive us or lead us into despair…”

But when God is using it to rearrange our priorities, it is a wholesome thing. When it is teaching us not to put so much trust in our human efforts or perishable earthly possessions, he is blessing us. Despair hurts, but so does pulling an infected tooth. There is a reason that the Bible describes repentance–and confessing our false hope in hard work and possessions is certainly repentance–as a kind of death. It hurts. But the rotted tooth needs to go, the sinful nature needs to die with its evil desires, and we need to despair of the idea that there is any lasting comfort to be found in our earthly labor and its results.

Solomon did not intend to discourage work altogether. He simply wants to help us keep it in its place. Has it kept us clothed and fed? Do we have enough for today? Do we have a way to serve God and serve our neighbor? Then our labor has done all God expects it to do.

But how can we be satisfied with that? “To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness.” Such a satisfied and happy life is a gift from God. He gives it “to the man who pleases him.” But doesn’t that exclude us, since instead of pleasing God, we have been trying to replace him with our work and with our things?

No, pleasing God is another place where our hard work does not apply. If we think working to build a lasting legacy, or have our daily bread, is hard, that would be just a drop in the ocean compared to the effort required to secure God’s smile. We could work from now until eternity and never do enough to secure forgiveness for even a single sin.

The one who pleases God is the one who has put his faith in someone else’s work–the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ faultless work led the Father to say at his baptism, and again at his transfiguration, “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well-pleased.” Jesus’ death on the cross was the pleasing sacrifice that pays for all our sins. Jesus did the hard work of fulfilling God’s demands. Jesus did the hard work of dying the death that sin demands. So it is that pleasing God is not our hard work for him. It is Jesus’ hard work gifted to us by faith.

More than anything else, that truth transforms our work. God has already given us all we need. We can trust him to bless our work the way he determines will serve us best. We can work hard, not to get, but to give–give him our best. That’s a joy. That’s a satisfying life. When we are satisfied by results like this, then God has shown us the true meaning of hard work.