My King

Crucifixion

Luke 23:46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he said this, he breathed his last.

What would you like to be “king” of? At different stages of life, we aspire to be king over different things. When I was four or five, I would have been happy to be king of my own bedtimes, to be the ruler of my night time hours. That power was beyond reach, but one can always dream.

As we grow older, the dreams and goals change. In our teens we would like to have control over our transportation, own a car, be kings of our travel. In adulthood life becomes more complex. We scramble to be kings of our finances, our careers, our family life, and our waist lines. None of these are ever completely under our control. Cars break down and investments fail. Jobs are terminated and family members all have a mind of their own. Metabolisms slow down.  Still, we strive to become the kings of our own little corner of the universe.

Then there are those who thirst for power over others. They set their eyes on ruling a company, or even a nation. A few madmen have entertained notions of ruling the entire world. Then everyone would bow down and call them “king.”

The thirst for power and control stems from the very first sin of our very first parents. No longer willing to live under God, they wanted to be like God and replace him in their lives. They would make the decisions about right and wrong. They would choose their own path. They would rule the world the way that they wanted it to be. Isn’t that what we want, too? Let’s not deceive ourselves. Even our service in the church is often more about making things the way we want them to be than it is about seeing God’s will fulfilled. The words Milton gives Satan in Paradise Lost occupy some dark corner of our own souls, “It’s better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.”

Neither the most powerful dictator or most glorious emperor ever possessed power like Jesus did. “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” His disciples exclaimed when he calmed the storm. Lifeless loaves of bread grew and multiplied in his hands. Sickened, crippled bodies became whole and healthy at his touch. Souls returned and re-inhabited the dead at his command. Even the demons fled in terror when he rebuked them. What other king on earth ever ruled a kingdom like Jesus ruled?

Do you suppose that Jesus left this kingship behind when he went to the cross? He looks so passive and helpless there. But that agonizing suffering and death is rather a marvel of his power and control. At every moment he had the power to stop it. Though he dreaded the price he would pay for our sins, as we know from his prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus controlled even himself. He ruled over his fear and dread of the cross. He suffered willingly. This man suffered pain and agony of body and soul unknown to anyone else who has ever lived, but he did not give in to the impulse to escape and find relief. Even when he cries out to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” does this move him to give up, to admit that it is too much for him, to go away in defeat? Only the most powerful King of heaven and earth could endure what Jesus endured to the very end.

And then there are the final words from his lips: “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” Jesus is the King of this world with all its forces. He is Ruler of his own mind and will. Now he is also the Lord of life and death. “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life– only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). Jesus dies when he chooses. His own soul stays or goes only at his command. And now he says to his soul, “Go! Go to my Father. Everything I came to accomplish has been done.”

Why does Jesus rule like this? Why does the King subject himself to suffering and death? The Kingship Jesus covets is not to be king of the weather, or king of diseases, or king of the demons. He does all this so that he can be the King of our hearts. He suffers and dies to purify them from the sins that otherwise make them unfit for his kingdom. He reveals such love to win those hearts to his side and bring them home.

He gives up his soul to be King of you and me.

From Anxiety to Prayer

Pray Church

Philippians 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Paul comes out against worry and anxiety in the strongest possible terms in this verse. Do not be anxious about anything ever. Through the years I have counseled with people who defended their worry as reasonable, given their circumstances. It seems natural to worry when you don’t have enough, or someone is in danger. I struggle with worry and anxiety as much as anyone. But that doesn’t change what Scripture says of worry. It’s a sin.

What is the silent message we are sending God when we worry? “I don’t think you are as powerful as you say you are.” “I don’t think you love me as much as you say you do.” “I can’t really trust you to take care of me.” Are those attitudes compatible with faith?

And what does our anxiety get us? Unless we consider ulcers, gray hair, and sleepless nights progress, the answer is “nothing.”  “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Jesus asks. Worry only wastes the energy we could be spending serving God or helping others or finding the solution.

Faith that repents of worry and trusts God’s forgiving grace and power looks to replace anxiety with prayers, petitions, and requests to God. It’s not because he is ignorant of our condition and needs to be informed. Don’t picture him in heaven with a giant yellow pad and pen taking notes. “Your grandmother is in ICU? I didn’t know that!”

Nor do we have to talk him into helping us. Look at how many thousands of little details he takes care of for us every day even if we never ask.

In prayer, our Lord invites us to talk to him so that we can take the anxieties and concerns off of our shoulders and hand them to him. Our prayers don’t change him–he never changes. There is not some kind of magical power in the words we are saying, either. But inasmuch as our attention turns to God and his promises to hear and help when we pray, we are changing. We are seeking and finding the help he has promised. Isn’t that experience what has made the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” so popular through the years?

Confident that our Lord is invisibly near to hear us even now, we replace our anxieties with urgent prayers. And confident his visible return is also near, we know a permanent solution to the things that make us worry will follow soon.

The King’s Gentle Men and Women

Tiara

Philippians 4:5 “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

“Gentleness” may seem a strange virtue to bring up in this context of remembering Jesus imminent return, “The Lord is near.” Just what does Paul mean? Gentleness is so much more than being quiet and mild. It is a kind way of treating others even if that is not the treatment we have been receiving. It takes a moderate, self-controlled, reasoned approach to dealing with the people around us instead of flying off the handle or meeting insult with insult. We yield to them, perhaps sacrificing what serves us to serve them.

In the gospels Jesus once spoke of us becoming servants and slaves to each other, and that may lead to the same kind of behavior Paul is describing here. But that does not mean our identity is nothing more than a slave. I find it interesting the Greeks considered this gentleness a virtue of good kings. Just because the king knew who he was, and he was secure in his power, he could be calm and gentle in dealing with his people. He could even yield to them at times without fear that he was losing something.

Scripture tells us that God made us royalty when he called us to faith. Because Jesus cleansed us of sin and dressed us in the royal robes of his own loving perfection, that is who we are. No one can ever take that away from us, no matter how they treat us. We serve, then, with a certain, humble nobility. As part of the royalty of heaven, we know we have inexhaustible resources, and when we see others in need we want to help them. We are in a position to be kind and gentle to them. Even when the arrogant and proud people of this world walk all over us, we can see how pitiful they really are. They are trying to cover up how small and insignificant they are by themselves. They cannot change the fact that we are members of heaven’s royal court, and we can afford to be gentle and moderate in how we respond to them.

Isn’t that the way that Jesus has treated each of us? He may have come into our world to serve us, even like a slave. But do you ever get the impression that is what Jesus thought he was? He never lost sight of the fact that he is our King. After he humbled himself to wash the disciples’ feet he reminded them, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13). Even as he was yielding himself to cross and death to save us all from sin, he defended his royalty to Pontius Pilate, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). Just because he is our King he can be so gentle and kind in dealing with us.

And knowing we will soon be enjoying our own royal positions at his return, we can treat others with gentleness as well.

Always Rejoice!

Joy Boy

Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

We don’t need much encouragement to rejoice when things are going well. It just happens spontaneously. When the home team’s last second, game winning field goal splits the uprights, the stands erupt in cheers. Grown men on the sidelines jump up and down like 300 pound 4-year-olds. At that moment the cheerleaders are irrelevant. No one has to give the cue to start rejoicing.

When soldiers separated from family by their service overseas come home safely and are reunited with wives, children and parents, there is a celebration. Hugs and kisses, joyful tears and happy squeals all express the joy of the moment. No one has to tell the family how to feel or what to do.

But this not the rejoicing Paul speaks of here. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Rejoice when the company to which you gave the last several decades of your life hands you a pink slip, and the prospects that someone will hire a 55 or 60 year-old in your field seem slim to none. Rejoice when the doctor tells you that funny bump is malignant and spreading fast. Rejoice when it’s the bill collection agency on the phone again. Rejoice when your teenager calls you from jail. Rejoice when the car in front of you slams on its brakes, and by the time you stop your front bumper is sitting in his back seat. Rejoice when you studied the wrong chapter for the test. Rejoice when you accidentally tripped the meanest kid in school. Rejoice when you set the oven on the wrong temperature and dinner now consists of baked charcoal.

Don’t think that the Apostle Paul had lived some sort of charmed life and didn’t know how hard it is to rejoice all the time. He was writing these words from prison after two years in chains. Still, he speaks of joy and rejoicing seventeen times in the four short chapters of this letter to the Philippians.

Something inside of us rebels at the idea of rejoicing even when something painful or unhappy is going on. We would rather feel sorry for ourselves. We would rather grump around and rain on everyone else’s parade, too. Maybe it seems somehow twisted to think we could rejoice in the face of pain or tragedy or hardship. I mean, if I am rejoicing when something terrible is happening, doesn’t that suggest that I have some sort of abnormal psychological condition?

It does only if we consider faith an abnormal psychological condition. Note that Paul does not tell us we should never cry, or feel sad, or grieve. Nor does he suggest that we should rejoice because of the bad things that happen. No, we rejoice “in the Lord.” We have a Savior who loves us so much he left heaven to save us. He stood in our place and died the death we deserved for our sins. He is stronger than death, and he promises that someday he will raise us from the dead just as he rose. He personally handpicked each one of us to belong to his family of faith. Out of all the people in the world, he set his heart on you and me. Now we know his return is near, and no matter how bad things seem today, he is going to come and get us out of this mess soon.

That is always true. It is true every moment you are breathing, but it was also true before you took your first breath, and it will continue to be true after you draw your last. Jesus’ everlasting love for you, his inexhaustible forgiveness, and his unchanging desire to bring you safely home runs on in an unbroken, unceasing stream through your life. It goes on whether we experience good things or bad things. It is true at the hospital, the police station, the unemployment line, the accident site, and even at the funeral home. Keeping his never-ending love in mind, we can rejoice in him, and we can rejoice in him all the time.

A Sacrifice of Praise

Apple Branch

Hebrews 13:15 “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name.”

These words are taken from the letter to the Hebrews, and these Jewish believers would have been familiar with the bloody sacrifice of animals in the regular worship life at the temple. Those sacrifices did not benefit the Lord in any way. He didn’t need these animals for himself. They didn’t serve the neighbors of the worshipers, except for the meat that was given to the priests to support their families. The sacrifices themselves didn’t even pay for sin, though they did preach the message that sin deserved death, and that God would accept a substitute and grant his forgiveness.

Those sacrifices all came to an end with Jesus. He gave himself as the ultimate sacrifice, the one that really did dispose of our sins. Through him, then, we offer God a different kind of sacrifice–one that isn’t a payment, but a free and thankful response. Hebrews describes it as a “sacrifice of praise.” It is a sacrifice that magnifies God’s name, that proclaims his unparalleled love for us and honors him for his saving work.

What does that mean? What will we do? Offering God a sacrifice of praise is more than what we say with our lips. We bring God praise when we live in a way that shows our hearts have been transformed by his love. That’s not the generic “niceness” and politically correct tolerance our world celebrates. This is the life of love that responds to insults and hatred with gentleness, kindness, even generosity. Solomon said it this way: “If your enemy hungers, feed him. If he thirsts, give him something to drink.”

Hearts transformed by God do not speak the rhetoric of a society that gives lip service to equality, but in reality thinks, “I’m just a little better than everyone else.”  It treats everyone with dignity. It adopts Paul’s exhortation, “In humility consider others better than yourself.”

Hearts transformed by God aren’t stuck on the world’s concept of freedom, the freedom to gratify all my urges. They embrace the Spirit’s idea of freedom: “The fruit of the Spirit is…self control.”

So offering God a sacrifice of praise is more than what we say with our lips. But it is not less. Here it’s called, “the fruit of lips that confess his name.” There is nothing more foundational for offering God a sacrifice of praise than meeting with his people each week to worship him. There is nothing that so distinguishes the disciple of Jesus from the rest of the world. I have personally known atheists who were kind, humble, and self-controlled. There are unbelievers who pray–probably billions of them. But only Jesus’ disciples gather together each week to sing his praises and talk about his love for them.

And what we say about him when we are gathered for worship will spill over into what we say about him in the world. For many, talking about Jesus’ grace seems forced and unnatural if it is part of a church program aimed at visiting people we have never met before. But if we are aware of how far we have fallen in our sin, and we see how temporary and disappointing all our earthly things are, and we know how dearly our Savior loves us, and we are sure of the perfect life that awaits us, how “natural” to praise him to the people we know, but who don’t know him.

It’s as natural as fruit growing on a fruit tree, “the fruit of lips that confess his name.”

An Enduring City

Distant Skyline

Hebrews 13:14 “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”

A number of times through this book of the Bible, the place where we live and all that it contains is referred to as a “city.” This is no comment on the importance of farms, but cities tend to be the center of culture, trade, industry and invention. They represent our achievements and possessions as well as the home in which we live.

Note that he does not say, “Here we do not have anything at all.” The longer I’m here, the more I accumulate. When I graduated from college, everything I owned fit in a Chevy Citation hatchback. A decade later, with four children at home, we held two rummage sales each year just to keep from being buried under an avalanche of clothing, furniture, and small appliances. Is there an adult reading this who wouldn’t need some sort of truck to move all he or she owns?

But our “city” and its contents are not enduring. Nothing lasts. My wife and I have owned three sets of washers and dryers. We are on our fourth refrigerator. Week by week there is always something to replace or repair–cars, homes, even body parts. None of it endures.

The same applies to the institutions that guide and govern the earthly “city” in which we live. If our world lasts so long, someday the United States will end up on the ash heap of history, just as every world power before it has. Even our church is not immune. American Christianity is shrinking at an alarming rate. Between one hundred and two hundred churches close every week. Jesus promises the faith he established will endure, but the shell in which it is handed on may not.

“Here we do not have an enduring city.” The slow death and decay of our possessions, our institutions, even our bodies, is a result and a reminder of the sin that infects us. God has cursed it all so that it does not become an obstacle to our return to him. Our hearts have surely wandered far from his when, even so, we prefer the possessions that rot and crumble in our hands, the corrupt and failing institutions under which we now live, to the imperishable world he has prepared for us.

God has given us something more. “We are looking for the city that is to come.” Many years ago my wife’s grandfather asked her if there was anything in his house she would like to have. There were two things she had always admired, both of them made by his own hands: a small drop leaf table and a knickknack shelf. They were promised to her that day. It was only after her grandparents died that they passed to us. Now they are proudly displayed in our home.

In a similar way we possess a far superior “city” to the one in which we now live. We don’t hold it in our hands yet. We are “looking for it.”  But God’s promise makes it just as certainly ours as if we were already there. Receiving this city also involves a death: the death of Jesus in payment for the sins that would have denied us this gift. God’s promise of forgiveness, and all he sacrificed to make forgiveness possible, make us sure this second city will also pass to us. If we are taking stock of our lives, our inventory would be incomplete without it.

This city that is to come has everything our current home lacks. “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp…On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 21:23, 25; 22:1-3).

Instead of death and decay, the river of life, unpolluted, and the tree of life, bearing its fruit, healing the nations, and ending the curse. Instead of failed and failing institutions, God and the Lamb on the throne, giving light to a city so secure its gates never need to be closed or locked. Regardless of how much you have lost, whom you have buried, what you haven’t completed, how hard it is to get by–this is the greater part of what we have. As you take stock of your life, don’t forget your real estate in the city that is to come.

Teaching for God’s Honor

Balloon Glory

John 7:18 “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.”

There is nothing wrong with having a large church, a successful ministry, and a good reputation in the community. We don’t want large numbers of people just for the sake of numbers. But behind each number there is a soul, a child of God who has been saved for eternity, when the gospel is preached and believed. The more believers the better.

But Jesus warns us here about the one who speaks on his own to gain honor for himself. There are ways of gathering large numbers that have nothing to do with bringing souls, or glory, to God. A man can develop a “cult of the personality” that attaches people more to himself than to Christ. Maybe he accommodates himself to the culture instead of confronting it where it needs to be confronted. Maybe his message is delivered with a winsome smile and appealing stories, but it doesn’t really say anything. Maybe he brings glory, not just to himself, but to all his listeners, by giving them some of the credit for their faith and salvation. If this is what his teaching accomplishes, he has failed the test.

“But he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth.” Jesus did more than teach good morals or gather a large number of disciples for himself. He brought his Father glory by teaching people what God is really like. He did not preach the hard-hearted bean-counter god of the Pharisees, only interested in whether we have paid him all we owe. He preached the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. He preached the God who has done everything we needed to be saved. He preached the God who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we might be saved.

That is still what brings God glory today. Yes, we have to preach everything in his law to bring people to repentance. But what brings God more glory than anything else is the truth that he kept the commandments for us perfectly in Jesus’ perfect life. He paid all the penalty for every sin in Jesus’ innocent death. Heaven is a gift that already belongs to us in Jesus’ glorious resurrection. Even the faith to believe it and receive it is his gift to us.

That is more than good advice or reliable information. That accomplishes God’s glory and our salvation. That’s the kind of teaching we can trust, confident we have found the truth.

What a Heart Wants

Burger-Apple

John 7:17 “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”

A better translation than, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will,” would be, “If anyone desires to do God’s will” in this verse. Jesus is talking about the condition of our own hearts. Do we want what God wants?

Is it hard to see why this is so important for how we receive Jesus’ teachings? When we want something to be a certain way, we can work very hard to justify our position. If a person wants to get drunk, he can redefine what it means to be drunk, and line up all those Bible passages that tell us it is okay to have a drink, and remind anyone who tries to confront him that the Bible says “Do not judge.” I have listened to people defend their sexual sin with some of the most far-fetched and outlandish interpretations of the Bible passages that condemn the same practices. One man even tried to twist God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah into a defense of homosexuality, if you can imagine that. Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” We’ve got enemies. Do we reinterpret what it means to love them to excuse ourselves?

It’s not just the moral issues. What God says about there being only one way to heaven can be hard to accept when we know someone who died trying another way, or no way at all. Do we want what God wants then? Scripture warns us that life in this world will be hard, and painful, and full of trouble, and that God disciplines us this way for our good, because he loves us. But when life actually turns out that way, and we are miserable, do we acknowledge that God is simply being gracious to us then? Do we want what God wants?  I could multiply examples.

The point is this: When we don’t want what God wants, then we don’t listen to his word with an open and receptive heart. We try to read our own ideas into his word. We may go looking for ways to defend our positions, instead of looking in the word to learn God’s positions. We may go looking for people who tell us what we want to hear instead of looking for a true teacher of God’s word. That is a heart problem. What is the status of my own heart?

If we are going to desire to do the will of God, God must first call us to repentance. That is why John the Baptist came as the forerunner of Jesus. His preaching of repentance prepared people to desire God’s will and recognize Christ. This is why the law must still be preached to us today. It breaks down our self-will, which stands in the way of acknowledging God’s will.

If we are going to desire to do the will of God, we need the gospel to give us faith. Desiring to do God’s will does not begin until after we trust in him. And trust in God does not begin until after we have been convinced that he loves us unconditionally and forgives every sin and gives us heaven. Only when we trust God and want what he wants are our hearts in any condition to test the teachers and know whether the word they speak is God’s own.

Testing the Teachings

Teacher

John 7:14-16 “Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied?’ Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me.’”

The question of the Jewish leaders does not mean that Jesus was illiterate. Like most Jewish boys of his time, he had likely attended the synagogue school and learned how to read.

But Jesus never studied in one of the rabbinical schools of his time. These were something like our seminaries. You may remember that the Apostle Paul had studied in the school of the well-known rabbi Gamaliel. But Jesus had no college level degree in theology. He was a tradesman, a carpenter by training, who had a brilliant grasp of the Scriptures. His teaching did not come from what he had learned in some theological school.

Likewise, the test of true teachers of God’s word is not about the school they attended or the number of degrees they have earned. These may not be bad things. We don’t want ignorant or lazy preachers and teachers, men who have not worked at learning Scripture and prepared themselves for serving God’s people. Continuing study is a healthy thing for one’s ministry. But theology degrees from prestigious institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and others do not necessarily make a better teacher of God’s word. Many things that could be learned from these schools would be serious problems today. In spiritual things, academia often produces a skepticism that gets in the way of knowing God’s word.

Jesus himself once prayed, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25). Paul made this observation to the Corinthians, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:20-21). In testing a teacher’s teachings, the right answer to the question, “Where does it come from?” is not, “From some respected school.”

Where, then? “Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me.’” With these words Jesus does not deny that he agreed with his own teaching, believed it, and claimed it for himself. He is talking about the source. His teachings were not new teachings. He did not make them up independently during his earthly ministry. Truth is never something new, though it may be forgotten and rediscovered. Truth has a long history behind it. In fact, truth is eternal.

We live in an age that idolizes the new and the trendy. Christians also suffer from this disease. When people make some preacher or teacher popular, because, “Here’s something we haven’t heard before,” we can be too quick to jump on the bandwagon. Has he dusted off some Biblical teaching that has been neglected for too long? Then feel free to follow. But is his teaching some creative new idea spun out of his own imagination? What did God say to Jeremiah about the prophets who “dream their own dreams”? “The product of his own creative genius” is the wrong answer to “Where does his teaching come from?”

Instead, it needs to come “from him who sent me.” Jesus was a true teacher because his teachings agreed with those of his heavenly Father, the one who created the world, the God of the Patriarchs, and Moses, and the Prophets. Jesus’ claim that his teachings come from the one who sent him was not a claim that defied contradiction because there was no way to investigate it. Everyone present knew the way to check it out: compare Jesus’ teaching with the Scriptures. When testing to see if someone is a true teacher, “From God through his Holy Scriptures” is the best answer to the question, “Where does his teaching come from?”