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July 2016

Knowing Jesus: The severity of sin

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Last week, we talked about Jesus’ focus on seeking the lost. He never missed an opportunity to teach or influence, and displayed a single-mindedness that sometimes seemed like obsession to his disciples.

There’s an important implication to that: if it’s so important to seek the lost, then being lost must be a truly horrible thing. And for all the discussion of Jesus’ willingness to eat with sinners—to seek out the marginalized—sometimes what is missed is that Jesus lived a life that rejected sin. He did not sin, and he did not tolerate sin.

After healing the lame man in John 5, Jesus found him in the temple and admonished him, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”

Even in the situation of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her because he was not a witness and had no standing under the law of Moses to render a judgment. But, he added, “go and sin no more.”

How seriously did Jesus take the idea of sin?

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. — Matthew 5:29-30

Many will argue that Jesus is being figurative, but I believe he meant exactly what he said. Obviously, no one’s hand or eye is the cause of sin; sins come from our heart. If my heart wants to lust, I will have lustful thoughts whether I can see or not. But Jesus is saying that sin is so deadly that it will separate us from God, and that there is absolutely nothing in our life that we shouldn’t be ready to give up in order to avoid it.

He understood the consequences of sin, and he understood that it is important not only to avoid sin, but to help protect your brothers and sisters, and do everything we can not to be a hindrance. Jesus reserved his strongest condemnation for the one that becomes a stumbling block and causes another Christian to sin: “it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

What did Jesus go through because of sin?

The idea that Jesus wasn’t concerned about sin, or that accepted it or tolerated it, flies in the face of everything scripture says about him. It becomes even more unbelievable considering what Jesus would have to go through personally in order to redeem us from the consequences of sin.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:21

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” — Galatians 3:13

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. — 1 Peter 3:18

…But emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. — Philippians 2:7-8

Jesus knew first-hand the consequences of sin. He loved us enough to take the payment of sin on himself, but he fully understood the destructive nature of sin. He understood God like no one else because he was one with the Father, and he understood what the Law of Moses was intended to teach us through the ceremonial sacrifices, with the image of a priest, whose beautiful white linen robe became drenched in the blood of a dying animal: sin is ugly. It is death. It corrupts and stains what God has intended to be pure and undefiled.

And Jesus came to deliver us from it. So let’s not allow ourselves to call back into that from which we’ve been freed!

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. — 2 Peter 2:20-21

 

What tithing teaches us (It’s not what you think!)

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I was asked recently to talk about the concept of tithing – a subject near and dear to the heart of every churchgoer who sees a collection plate pass down the aisle, hears a preacher talk about how putting a tenth in the plate is their obligation to God, and how it’s a free-will offering, “but you’d better put a tenth of what you made this week in there!”

I think the message of giving may have become a little muddled somewhere along the way.

The truth is that the contribution that churches collected in the first century was very different from that of the idea of tithing, which we read about in the Old Testament. In fact, I would argue that the two are not even related. The Christian “tithe” is never actually commanded in scripture!

Tithing is introduced in Genesis 18, when Abraham had just won a great battle and collected spoils, a tenth of which he gave to Melchizedek, a priest of God. Jacob made a promise to do the same thing for God in Genesis 28. This was a common practice in that region; apparently the concept of giving a tenth  of your possessions as gratitude to a deity was present in Egypt, Syria and other neighboring countries as well at that time.

The law of Moses is the first place where we read God’s people ever being commanded to tithe. But it bears little or no resemblance to what we see in many churches today, where the “pastor” commands you to record your income (and sometimes report it to him) and meticulously give one-tenth of it to him every week for whatever he chooses to do with it.

Here’s how tithing worked in the law:

  • There were two different tithes authorized in the law (some argue that they are the same tithe and that the procedure simply changed over time.) Neither of them happened on a weekly basis; the first happened annually (Deuteronomy 14:22), and the second took place every three years (Deuteronomy 26:12).
  • Tithing was given specifically for the purpose of supporting the tribe of Levi, which was designated to serve the Lord in His religious services. The Levites were not given an inheritance in the land of Canaan, and were expected to devote their lives in service to God (Numbers 18:21-24) rather than in activities like farming or shepherding. As a result, they needed a source of sustenance, and the other 11 tribes were expected to provide that (Nehemiah 10:35-39).
  • Tithing was to take place in a specific, designated city (Deuteronomy 14:23), where Levites were available to accept the tithe.
  • The annual tithe was actually a tithe to be shared between the one who tithed and the Levite who resided in your area, “that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” and “rejoice, you and your household” (Deuteronomy 14:23, 26).
  • Tithing was not monetary; it was composed of seed, wine, oil, livestock and other goods. The exception to this was when the designated city was too far for a family to transport all the goods that they had set aside (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). In that case, they were allowed to sell those goods for money, which they could then carry with them to the tithing location (v. 24-26).
  • The third-year tithe was to be given to the Levites as well, but with the specification that it also be given to the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow. We read about the storehouses where these offerings were kept and distributed in Nehemiah 10:38.

Tithing was not the only avenue of giving to God. There were also vow offerings and “freewill” (spontaneous offerings made at the discretion of the one who wishes to give). But as you may have noticed in Deuteronomy 12, they are mentioned along with tithes as offerings to be consumed in a specific place by the one doing the offering, along with family and those in need, for the purpose of rejoicing in God’s blessings before the Lord.

If that doesn’t sound like what we do on Sundays today, it’s because it’s not what we do on Sundays today.

And as I’ve written before, the law of Moses was given only to Israel. It was not bound on the Gentiles of that day unless they happened to be living among the Hebrews, and it was taken out of the way by Christ and is no longer in effect.

But the law is recorded “for our learning” (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:6), and we know that there is a pattern of physical things in the Old Testament that point to spiritual truths today (Hebrews 8:5). And there are some important concepts that come out of the passages about tithing in the Old Testament.

When you give something to God, it’s holy

Even when tithes or other offerings were given back to the people to consume, it was at God’s discretion (Numbers 18:24)—they were still God’s! A priest who was unclean could not partake of a sacrifice (Lev. 22:3-4), and no one who was unauthorized could ever do so without causing the nation “to bear iniquity and guilt by eating their holy things: for I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (v. 16).

The joyful partaking of those gifts was to be combined with a recognition of the holiness of God and His commandments:

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year … then you shall say before the Lord your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. — Deuteronomy 26:12-15

God doesn’t take from us so we will have less

The pattern is repeated over and over: when God required the people to give an offering that was not related to atonement for sin, the people shared in the offering. All three major feast days—the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths—involved sacrifices and freewill offerings (apart from tithes) that were to be eaten by the one offering the sacrifice along with his family and those others who had need, in a specific place, to remember specific blessings from God (Deuteronomy 16:9-17). It was for the purpose of rejoicing and celebrating what God had given them.

When freewill offerings were required that were not for the people’s consumption, they were for specific needs in the work and worship of God. The first freewill offering of the people of Israel was in the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 35:

Moses said to all the congregation, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution. … v.20 Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. … v. 29 All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. — Exodus 35:4-29

The pattern is repeated in the institution of the temple tax for the restoration of the temple by Joash (2 Kings 12:9). It’s that tax which prompted the widow in Mark 12:42 to offer her two coins, which Jesus said were “more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” It’s clear that the Levites of that day had begun abusing those funds (John 2:13-16), which sadly is another pattern that seems to be repeated in scripture (I Samuel 2:12-17, Ezekiel 22:26). But that didn’t negate that the offering was authorized by God and given from a desire to please and serve Him.

Regardless, God did not collect money or goods from His people simply to take things from them. It was done for the purposes of filling a need in the work of God’s service.

Collections should be with purpose, not for the sake of collecting

Why does God love a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)? Because a cheerful giver knows that what he is giving to the Lord is a result of God’s blessings, and that it is being used to continue to bless God’s people whether through benevolent works or through the supporting of the gospel (v. 12-14). Just as the Hebrews were to rejoice in their offerings, we ought to be rejoicing in the knowledge that whatever we give to the Lord’s work is going to fulfilling His will, which is our primary concern as Christians in this life (Philippians 2:13)!

If our church is collecting funds and just sitting on them with no plan or purpose, we’re not doing what God has commanded. That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t have a treasury (what was the temple storehouse if not a treasury?); it is to say that God’s treasury is dedicated to God’s work. We don’t collect funds and decide later what to do with them; the scriptural purpose is to identify a need and collect the assets to address that need.

God expects for us to support His workers

One of the central points of the law of Moses is that serving God is serious work, and needs to be done with the utmost care, humility and reverence. So much so, that it required an entire tribe of people fully devoted to that work, so that the rest of the nation could worship God “and not die” (Numbers 18:22).

Paul uses this parallel in discussing the authority to financially support ministers of the gospel, so that they don’t have to be “entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Timothy 2:4). It’s worth noting that he doesn’t appeal to the law as the authority, but rather as a confirmation of the principle put forth in a direct command from God to the apostles and the church:

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? … Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. – 1Co 9:8-14

If we’re focused on the amount that we have to give, then we’re missing the point. Tithing is no longer in place; it has been taken out of the way by removal of the law (Colossians 2:14, Ephesians 2:15) and removal of the need for which it was instituted. What remains is a freewill offering (2 Corinthians 8:8, 9:7), given to fulfill specific needs of benevolence (8:4) or the gospel ministry (Philippians 4:18). It’s certainly not so the the preacher can drive to his Bible classes in a Mercedes!

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath,” Paul writes in Colossians 2:16. The same could be said of giving. Our giving is a demonstration of love—as is our lack of giving! But it’s between God and ourselves. So let’s make sure to judge ourselves wisely and honestly (1 Corinthians 11:30), and then give to God what He deserves for His work and His glory.

Knowing Jesus: Seeking the lost

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Jesus came to this world in order to accomplish a number of things, and we read about them throughout scripture—some in Jesus’ own words, some revealed to us by the apostles whom Jesus had entrusted with the Gospel message (John 14:26, Matt. 10:27).

But there was one particular mission that Jesus seemed to embrace with every moment of his life, maybe because he knew that those moments were limited. It was simply this:

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” — Luke 19:10

He continually sought out (as we will discuss throughout this series) and engaged those people who most needed him. When the disciples found him speaking to a woman at the well in Sychar when he (presumably) should have been focused on how hungry he was, he responded:

My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest?’ Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. — John 4:34-36

Jesus sought the sinner when others did not

As with everything, Jesus referenced the work given to him by the Father. But with Jesus, it was never strictly about obedience. It was a genuine love and concern for those whom he had no doubt watched for a long time. People who were struggling in their walk with God. People who had given up altogether and were walking away. People who were so removed from a knowledge of God that they wouldn’t know how to return even if they wanted to!

And let’s not forget the people who were no longer welcome to return, at least not in the eyes of many in the religious community.

As Jesus told the religious leaders of the day, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

All of us needed a savior, even the “righteous”

It’s worth noting that while Jesus often referred to those who were healthy, the reality as we learn in scripture is that none of us are truly healthy outside of Christ. There were many men and women in Judea at the time of Christ who were striving faithfully to serve God, and that had a true love for Him. But they still needed a savior, just as we all do today. Isaiah, in predicting the suffering savior, makes it clear that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Some were already at the doorstep, setting their mind on the kingdom and waiting patiently for their deliverer (Luke 2:25, Mark 15:43). And some had to be found and coaxed back to the fold. Jesus knew where his efforts were best spent.

He didn’t ignore or push aside the people who had already come to him, and in fact continually encouraged them, saying “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father speaks as the voice of God to the indignant brother saying “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).

But, he adds, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.”

Taking up the seeker’s mantle

The message to the disciples and to us would seem to be that if our Lord was so consumed with concern over the souls of the lost, then we ought to feel that way, as well.

Paul wrote about this mission’s passing from Jesus to his apostles:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. — 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

Have we taken up the mission which has been passed on to us?

Knowing Jesus: Jesus loved as he taught others

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As we go through this series, there will no doubt be some overlap in some of the things we’ll talk about. That’s OK — some things are worth re-emphasizing. And there are some elements so integral to Jesus’ character that they influence everything about his life.

Jesus’ love for people is one of those things.

Jesus reflected God’s character of love

One of the primary missions that Jesus had in this world was that he revealed the Father to us. When Thomas asked Jesus to “show us the Father,” Jesus responded “he that has seen me has seen the Father.” Even the holiest of men throughout history had not seen God; Moses, despite talking to God as he would a friend, only saw God in a carefully controlled, indirect way, in which a portion of God’s glory was revealed.

So when Jesus came to this earth, man was able for the first time to truly see God. Not in the sense that people ought to see a woefully imperfect reflection of God in our actions. We saw how God reacted, how God felt about people, how God viewed sin and sinners, how God viewed worship. We saw a perfect reflection of what God expects out of His creation, because Jesus lived up to everything that he taught.

So it’s not surprising, given what scripture says about God, that one of if not the most defining characteristic of Jesus was love.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

Jesus loved just as he taught

Jesus loved people. He had a passion for teaching and revealing spiritual truths to anyone who would listen, and he felt compassion for the weaknesses and pains that men and women go through every day. And yes, he loved his enemies, too. Just like he taught us!

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Matthew 5:44-48

As always, all of Jesus’ efforts were focused on directing men toward God: love your enemies because God loves them too, and God blesses indiscriminately. And above all, Jesus wanted us to be like the Father that he loved.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. — Ephesians 5:1-2

Jesus loved in deed more than in word

Jesus didn’t seem to spend a lot of time telling those around him how much he loved people. And it’s actually surprising to go back and count the number of times that Jesus teaches about love in the gospels. Hint: it’s not nearly as often as you’d think. While Jesus does have plenty to say about the importance of love, he taught love primarily in the way that he acted toward people. We see Christ’s life, and we see what love looks like.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. — 1 John 3:16-18

We’ll talk about specific aspects of this topic in future weeks: what did Jesus’ love look like? How did Jesus express love toward different types and classes of people? Jesus had special relationships just like we do. He saw things in people that moved him to an even greater love and appreciation, just like we do. But the central figure in all of this is what that love motivated Jesus to do.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. — John 15:12-14

Jesus gave us an example of what Godly love is. And our own love ought to reflect that of Christ. We love God because of who He is. “We love Him because He first loved us.” And we love others whether they love us or not – even those who are not lovable.

Can people see the love of Christ in us? Not the love of Christ as the world may choose to define it, but the love of Christ that Jesus demonstrated every day in all facets of his life.

Knowing Jesus: About his Father’s business

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I’d love to say that there was one characteristic of Jesus that was the clear choice to with which to start this series. The reality is that it’s hard to pick one aspect which really defined Jesus’ time on earth. But there is one overarching theme that permeated Jesus’ life, even from his earliest years. And I picked it because I suspect it’s the one Jesus would start with.

Because at every opportunity, Jesus made sure that people understood one thing about him:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. — John 6:38

Jesus sought God’s will from the beginning

Luke writes that when Jesus was 12 years old, Joseph and Mary journeyed with relatives and fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. But on the way back to Nazareth, they learned that their caravan had left Jesus behind. So they went back to the city and found him in the temple, talking to the teachers there about the scriptures. When his parents found him, Jesus seems surprised that they were worried: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”

As much as anything else, that sentence defines Jesus’ life. Over and over, we read Jesus expressing a fundamental concern: that everything he did in this life was a means of glorifying God (John 17:4).

He came to the world not of his own accord, but God’s. (John 8:42) And he taught people so that they could be true children of God (Matt. 5:45), and have the same unity with the Father that he enjoyed (John 17:6-10). He taught only what the Father gave him to speak (John 12:49). His continued focus was to reveal the Father to his disciples, so that they could in turn reveal Him to the world. He alone was adequate to that task (Matt. 11:27), and he fulfilled it until his death.

We don’t know a lot about Jesus’ personal life, and outside of three years, we know almost nothing. But in those three years, we see the picture of a person with a singular focus on God. He lived the “disentangled” life that Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 2:4—a life that contrasts sharply to the prediction of the seeds that would grow up among the thorns and weeds and bear no fruit. We see in Jesus a drive that no doubt came from a knowledge that he only had a short time on earth to establish what God had given him to accomplish.:

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, ” Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest ‘? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” − John 4:31-35

He preached that to his disciples, and he lived that in his life. He glorified God in the way that God wishes to be glorified: put Him first.

What does Jesus’ example mean to me?

I’ll never be Jesus. But I can look at Jesus and see God’s plan for mankind modeled before my eyes. We are created in the image of God for one purpose and one purpose only: to glorify God. Every good deed, every work of righteousness or kindness, every act of love—all of it is done “so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

If I am not showing God in my life, if my faith isn’t a defining part of who I am, then I have not accomplished the purpose for which I was put on this earth. If I am not speaking “as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11), but instead teaching my own ideas and opinions, or seeking to elevate my own importance as a teacher, I am denying the example of Christ.

Jesus understood that better than anyone who has ever lived. And he calls us to follow him.

 

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