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What do we do when Satan sifts us like wheat?

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“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34 ESV)

 

None of us like to think about our lives as flawed or imperfect, that we fail to achieve our potential. But the reality is that each of us fails in our attempt to serve God as He deserves to be served, and as He demands to be served. Some of us may fail more often than others, and we may fail more often some weeks than others. But one of the great sureties in life is that we will sin.

I believe that Jesus’ statement to Peter before Peter’s “denial-denial” not only shows us how God expects us to respond to those failures, but gives us a great reason to rebound and come back stronger and more determined to serve God than ever.

In this chapter, Jesus has just instituted the Lord’s Supper, and the disciples have descended into bickering about who would be “the greatest” in the kingdom. Jesus rebukes them and at the same time reassures them that they all play crucial roles, sitting “on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.”

It’s at this point that Jesus turns and addresses Peter specifically. Because he was the group’s dominant personality, its leader, its “rock” (John 1:42)? Or was it because Jesus knew that Peter’s failure would in some ways be greater and more discouraging than that of his companions? Regardless of the reason, Jesus tells him that all the apostles are about to face a great trial. (The “you” in v. 31 is plural; Jesus would seem to be saying that Satan has demanded to sift all the disciples, not just Peter. It’s not until v. 32 when the “you” changes to singular, referring specifically to Peter.)

Jesus presupposes that Peter is going to fail his test: “and when you have turned again…” Peter’s faith might fail him in the moment, but it did not desert him, and Jesus tells him to hold onto it, and to not allow an evening of weakness keep him from fulfilling the very crucial role of strengthening his brothers, all of whom would be going through the same guilt, fear and doubt as he would have to overcome.

Jesus essentially tells Peter: “They’re going to need your strength. So don’t let your coming failure consume you.”

Think about the power of that statement and the implications for us today when we face sin and difficulty in our lives. How many of us have been faced with that trial from Satan and failed? Jesus doesn’t excuse those failings, but he doesn’t dwell on them, either. He simply asks: “What are you going to do after that? How are you going to respond?” Will our faith fail us? Or will we get back on track and resume the work of serving God?

People have a tendency sometimes to react to failures like Judas did: with self-pity, guilt and a feeling of such shame that we don’t believe we can ever come back (Mtt. 27:3-5.) Jesus calls Peter – and each one of us – to remember that it’s not just about us. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who still need our help, our strength, our faith.

Elijah sat under a tree alone in the wilderness and wished for death right after God had used him to score a massive victory over Ahab and the prophets of Baal. It seemed that he was still alone in his fight, and in a time when he should have felt triumphant and ready to take on the kingdom itself, he felt dejected and alone. God’s response, in effect, was “Isaiah, there’s work to do. Get back to it! And you won’t be alone.” (I Kings 19)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)

The old saying is “when the horse bucks you off, you get back on.” Jesus calls us to do the same thing. When you fail, turn from it, and get back to the work God has given you to do. Is there a greater joy than knowing that no matter my failing, God hasn’t abandoned me. I don’t have to do “penance”, I don’t have to sit in the spiritual doghouse. I just need to keep striving for the kingdom of God, and ask God for forgiveness. He is “faithful and just” to do so (I John 2:9).

 

Baptism is not a work

By | Christianity, Salvation | One Comment

Think about that statement for a bit. Many of you who believe as I do that baptism is essential for the remission of sins may initially think “that can’t be right! We have to be baptized. It’s a command, and when we obey it, we do something. That makes it a work!”

But consider how works are described in scripture, specifically in the context of following Christ. And ask yourself this question:

What “work” does God call us to do that we only do once?

In fact, when the Bible discusses the idea of works in context of Christianity, it’s almost always (I say almost because I can’t confirm what I haven’t found yet – so I’m going to say I’m 95 percent sure!) about things that we do on an ongoing basis (Romans 2:6, for example). They are continual actions inspired by our faith and love for God (Eph. 2:9 and others.) They serve as an outward identification of God’s people (Matt. 5:16, John 6:28, I Tim. 5:25).

We understand that good works do not cancel out sin. That is what Paul argued in Romans, when he discussed the Jews’ attempt to justify themselves before God by their observance of the law of Moses.

When the Jews (generally speaking – Paul does not mean that all Jews had this mindset) sought God through obedience to the law, they saw their righteousness and compliance as something that entitled them to God’s blessings. Worse, they believed that they could live in such a way that they fulfilled the righteousness of the law.

But the same Paul who says we are saved apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:21), says this about obedience:

“…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
– 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 ESVST

A failure to obey the gospel will result in condemnation, according to Paul. And that’s not an isolated verse. Read in Romans 10:14-17, where Paul talks about the spreading and acceptance of the gospel, and adds, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “ Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (v. 16) In other words – the preaching of the gospel brought salvation to many, but not all because not all obeyed it! But in v. 17, he says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God.” Do you notice how Paul here uses the concept of obedience, belief and faith interchangeably? It’s because you cannot have one without the others.

How is that possible if “works” do not save us? It’s simple: baptism isn’t a work – certainly not a work we do with the goal of proving our own righteousness. We’re baptized into Christ because we know that we need the redemption that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice (Col. 2:11-13). It’s a statement of dependence and an acceptance of grace, not an act of righteousness.

Obedience is not work – not in the sense that it is done to earn salvation. It is done because when a servant is called to act, he acts (Luke 6:46). Works are a manifestation of our love for God, which we do throughout our lives, so that people may see them and glorify God. They almost always involve a benefit to those around us (Titus 3:8, 14, James 3:13 and others). They are things that some might even be tempted to brag about – as the Pharisee did in Jesus’ example of unacceptable prayer in Luke 18.

Does anyone truly argue that being baptized into Christ is an act that should exalt us before God and man? And yet, Peter says in Acts 5:32 that the Holy Spirit is given to those “who obey him” – which agrees with what he says in Acts 2:38, where we read that the Holy Spirit will be received by those who respond to the command to “repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins.”

We’re saved by the grace of God through faith, but we are called to “the obedience of faith” (Rom, 16:26), and we will be held accountable if we refuse. Rather than debating between one or the other, let’s just submit to God and do what he asks! Isn’t that what it means to love the Lord?

Is it my fault they can’t take a joke? It doesn’t matter…

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Many of you probably watched the Democratic debates earlier this week with varying levels of approval or disapproval, and if you’re into politics, you probably posted something about it at some point, or read someone else’s post.

Maybe even Mike Huckabee’s.

So, the former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister took to Twitter with what I’m sure he thought was a pretty funny jab about Bernie Sanders.

mike huckabee tweet

It’s the kind of thing that a lot of people probably say at some point – who doesn’t know that a lot of third-world residents sometimes eat dog? Who hasn’t made some off-the-cuff comment about it while eating at a Chinese restaurant with a less-than-stellar health rating? I suspect Gov. Huckabee probably never expected anyone to be offended. He just wanted a funny way to talk about Bernie Sanders’ tax-heavy approach to government.

He should have known better. And as much as many conservative Christians would like to defend it, it was a dumb thing to do.

Let’s put aside the idea that people are too sensitive today – you’ll get no argument from me on that. Put aside the fact that because he unnecessarily made the remark about North Korean chefs, no one is talking about his legitimate criticism of socialist taxation policy. Here you have a man who wants to be president of the United States (at least I think he still does), which means the president of the people who like him, the people who don’t like him and the people who don’t know anything about him, but might just be sensitive about being reminded of how their countrymen have unconventional eating habits.

That brings with it a responsibility to try harder, to be better, to not be Donald Trump. Talking to a wide range of people means trying to connect with as many of them as you can – it’s not about winning points with your inner circle for wit and not caring if the other people “don’t get it”. And Gov. Huckabee should have gotten that point, because he allegedly knows the Bible.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:5-6 ESVST)

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29 ESVST)

In other words, Christians shouldn’t have the attitude that “I’ll say whatever I want, and if they can’t take a joke, it’s too bad for them.” We can’t always control what people think about us, and there’s no question that the world is going to find ways to hate us for trying to live godly lives and standing for godly principles. But that doesn’t mean we throw the door open and go out of our way to provoke it. We’re called to sound speech “that cannot be condemned… having nothing evil to say about us.” (Titus 2:8) And living in a society of people who are really sensitive (sometimes selectively so) doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to try.

Paul talked about being “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel. He wasn’t saying that he lived like sinners or engaged in immoral activity so people in the world wouldn’t think he was “too good”; he was saying that he didn’t want anything to distract someone who might be interested in understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul hated the idea that he might offend a fellow Jew with his conduct to the point that the person would no longer be willing to listen to the word of God – and so he continued to honor Jewish tradition, to the point that he even directed his protege Timothy to be circumcised, so that the issue of a mixed-race uncircumcised Jew wouldn’t distract a Jew who might find it objectionable.

It would be hard to argue that Paul thought they were “right” to be sensitive. But he wasn’t going to jeopardize his work for something so unimportant. So, if the issue of eating meat was going to offend someone to the point that their faith might be damaged, Paul wasn’t going to let it be an issue:

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. (Romans 14:17-20 ESVST)

I don’t know if the governor is racist or not. I sincerely doubt that he hates North Koreans. But I do know that he sent out a text that he should have known would have offended people. Is the priority to build a consensus across political and social boundaries? Or is it to inject a negative image about a group you’re allegedly trying to win over to your side – even when there were any number of other ways to make the same point?

As Christians, our priority isn’t about exercising our right to say whatever we want. It’s glorifying God and showing His grace in our lives. Let’s not ruin it for a good punchline.

What do you mean, the 10 Commandments don’t apply to me???

By | Christianity | 4 Comments

Any time I want people to look at me like I’ve grown a third eye, I bring this topic up. I’m kidding… sort of. I bring it up because I believe it’s very important to understand and has a significant impact in how we study the Bible.

According to scripture, the 10 Commandments do not apply to you. And if you aren’t Jewish, they never did.

Typically, the first response to this statement is: “How can you say that? So you think it’s OK to murder people?” But in reality, this shouldn’t be an odd concept to us. If I told you that I wasn’t bound by Mexican law, would you gasp in shock and claim that I think I can do anything I want? Of course you wouldn’t – because you’d understand the concept that laws apply only to the people to whom they are given. Each nation has its own set of laws, and as it happens, a lot of them are similar, and in many cases they overlap. I don’t have to obey Mexico’s laws concerning theft – because U.S. law forbids it, and that’s the law that I’m required to obey.

But some say, “This is different. This is the 10 Commandments! Delivered from on high, written by the finger of God.” The problem is, it’s not different. And the scriptures never state that it’s different. There are two things we need to consider:

First, the 10 Commandments are not a separate law from the Law of Moses. That doesn’t mean that the 10 weren’t ever singled out or referenced specifically. (See Deuteronomy 5, for example.) But does that mean that the Israelites received two distinct laws? No – these 10 served as almost an “executive summary” of the rest of the law. If an Israelite truly honored and kept those 10 commandments, he would necessarily keep everything else that God would later reveal. It’s not unlike Jesus picking the “greatest commandment” – he was simply arguing that “on these hang all the laws and the prophets.”

The 10 commandments and the rest of the law were delivered at the same time, from the same God, through the same messenger to the same people. Notice what God says to Moses in Deuteronomy 5 after the 10 commandments are read:

“Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess (Deut. 5:30-33 ESVST)”

In other words, the 10 Commandments were not the “whole commandment.” But Exodus says something else that’s revealing:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 34:27-28 27 ESVST)

What are “these words”? They are the 10 Commandments, which are part of the covenant with Israel. Specifically, it was an agreement whereby God would give Israel possession of the land of Canaan, and Israel would in turn honor God and forsake idols. (v. 11-26) Based on the rest of the book, that covenant also included the instructions for the tabernacle and other ritual observances. We also know that the “Book of the Covenant” was in reference to all that God had told Moses – not just the 10 Commandments. (Ex. 24:3-4) In fact, the phrase “covenant” seems to be used interchangeably with the tablets (the 10 Commandments) and other elements of the Law of Moses.

Was this covenant between God and any other nation that chose to adopt it? No – it was specifically for a single nation. (Ex. 6:6-7, 19:5-6, 31:17, Deut. 5:2-3, Deut. 7:6-8) And it was a covenant that was violated when an Israelite disobeyed one of the 10 Commandments or any of the more specific laws written in the Book of the Covenant, which we know as the first five books in the Bible. This is why Christians do not observe the Sabbath – because the Sabbath was a day designated as a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel. (Ex. 31:13-17) We can’t select nine commandments and apply them to all people, but have one which does not. It’s one law – and if you violate one commandment, you violate the entire law. (James 2:10, Gal. 5:3)  There are no examples in scripture (that I know of, anyway!) of anyone being bound by the 10 Commandments and not the remainder of the Law of Moses as well. ( See II Kings 17:36-37)

I am very happy to say that as a Christian, I know that I am freed from the law. (Col. 2:14-17, Eph. 2:15, Rom. 7:4) As Paul warned the Christians in Galatia and Rome, we shouldn’t be looking for ways to go back! If I want to understand the requirements of my covenant with God, I can go to the teachings of the inspired apostles, and also to the words of the “author and finisher of our faith,” Jesus Christ.

Why we can’t be “red-letter Christians”

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I’ve personally used the term “red-letter Christian” for a while. I actually didn’t know there was an official “movement” by that name – one that was formed by people who were concerned about the politicization of Christianity and its seeming alliance with right-wing political groups. Their claim is they want to transcend politics and unite people in what they perceive to be Jesus’ true calling – one involved with social justice and environmental stewardship (among other things).

That’s really not how I’ve used that phrase in the past. It’s probably worth talking about the concept of Jesus as a revolutionary political figure (which he wasn’t). I find it interesting that a group determined to transcend politics seems to embrace politics and government as the solution and tool by which we do God’s will – the irony being that if I do in fact focus on the “red letters” in my Bible (the ones spoken by Jesus), I don’t actually see Jesus talking about anything concerning what a government should do about social issues. I see a lot of things about what an individual ought to be doing – and none of them involve appointing a government to go do my work for me.

“If Jesus didn’t say it…”

But that’s for another article. What I’m talking about is a more general application – the idea that the “red letters” are somehow more significant, more important than the rest of the scripture. I think this is a crucial concept to understand if we’re going to study the Bible and come to a full understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

The theory is simple: If Jesus didn’t say anything about it (or in some cases, if he didn’t say much about it), it must not be that important. Therefore, it should at least be de-emphasized, and in some cases even ignored.

The problems with this concept are numerous, but the main one is that Jesus himself seems to have had no intention that people should take that approach. Quite the opposite!

Many writers, but one Spirit

Where did Jesus’ words originate? Not with Jesus – believe it or not. Jesus himself was the first to assert that! As he said in John 7:16, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” In the next chapter, he adds, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”

If that sounds similar to something an apostle or a prophet would say, that’s because it is! Peter discussed this in talking about his own role as a witness to Jesus’ teachings and miracles:

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place … For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pe 1:19-21)

Peter was guided and instructed by the same source as was Jesus. The same is true for Paul, and the rest of the other apostles. And there’s a reason for that: because it was the role Jesus chose for them. When Jesus sent out the 12, he told them to “teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20)

The Gospels and the epistles serve the same purpose

Jesus told Peter that “upon this rock, I will build my church” – but Jesus didn’t talk about the church or even make an attempt to establish it while he was on the earth. Instead, he equipped the apostles to go out and preach the Gospel after he had ascended. They did that, bringing Jew and Gentile into one body in Christ, which was “built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” (Eph. 2:20) So wouldn’t that mean that Jesus built the church through the teaching of the apostles? They were Christ’s instruments, and should be regarded as such.

That’s what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were when they wrote the Gospel accounts, and it’s what Peter, James and Paul were when they wrote and spoke to Christians around the known world. The epistles came from that same spirit that created the “red letters”, and should never be seen in opposition to them or as a secondary element next to them. They are part of the exact same story, through the same Spirit, with the same goal: be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

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