Archive for the ‘Discipleship’ Category

Threat of excommunication to thieves of books in the library of the university of Salamanca

Threat of excommunication to thieves of books in the library of the university of Salamanca.

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

The freedom to forgive

Offering forgiveness through the Gospel

John 20:19-23 is what some Bible Scholars have called, ‘John’s Pentecost’:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:21-23)

It is, in a sense, a ‘preemptive strike by Jesus, in anticipation of the day of Pentecost. John’s Gospel opened with language to takes the reader right back to Genesis 1: ‘In the beginning …God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) / …was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ (John 1:1)

Here, Jesus’ actions in breathing on his disciples mirror the ending of Genesis 1:1, ‘…the Spirit of God (Hebrew: great wind, breath) was hovering over the waters.’ Jesus’ death and resurrection has brought about the New Creation, in which the Spirit comes in power as He did in the beginning, this time to never be taken away from those who are pert of the new humanity in Christ. And, just as the Spirit was at work in the dark, formless void to bring forth a creation with order and goodness as the Father spoke the word of command, and the Son – the Word – joyfully obeyed so that ‘all things were created through Him and for Him’ (Colossians 1:16), so now the Spirit is at work to bring order out of the chaos of darkness and death that sin and sinners have brought about in this world. This action of bringing order from chaos is the action of forgiveness.

This passage is also John’s ‘Great Commission.’ Jesus sends his disciples into the world, just as the Father sent Him, and in the same way that Jesus could declare to people, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ (Luke 5:20, 7:48) our commission is to likewise declare the forgiveness of sins through the proclamation of the Gospel. Yet it is more than just declaration; it is the practice of forgiveness. Jesus makes it clear that their action will actually produce the result of forgiveness in people’s lives: ‘…if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ (v. 23).

It is important to see here that this is not the giving of spiritual power of one person over another, implying that someone could effectively determine another individual’s salvation. This commission is given corporately to the disciples, and through their apostolic authority, to the whole church. The mission of the church is to herald the Gospel among the nations, to those who have not yet heard, so that they too may call on the Lord and be saved. This is a solemn duty. Without the proclamation of the Gospel, people will not know the forgiveness that come by Christ; and so to withhold our proclamation is effectively to cut them off from God’s grace. The two verbs in this verse are effectively, ‘send forth’ and ‘hold back’, which convey the contrasting images of generosity and mean spiritedness.

So, God’s forgiveness comes to people in the context of Gospel proclamation and application. As we saw in the last study, true Christian forgiveness must always be in the basis of Jesus’ atoning death. Our sins may be forgiven not because God no longer considers them to be serious enough for Him to judge, but because the God-Man Jesus has taken upon Himself the terrible judgement our sins deserve, and so they have been cancelled out. And so just as the Gospel is the basis for forgiveness, so also a Gospel that is proclaimed without the declaration and assurance of forgiveness through faith in Jesus is not a real Gospel.

Forgiveness is both a personal and corporate act

Jesus rarely gave methodological instruction (ie. a step-by-step process) in his moral teaching, as opposed to general principles, however in the area of forgiveness he seems very precise, as we saw last time with his instructions on seeking forgiveness from another (Matthew 5:21-26), and later in his instructions about offering forgiveness:

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

The matter of unforgiveness may start on a personal level, but it has implications for the community of the church. Two people who are in Christ are united to one another and to all the member of the church, and so a division between individuals really constitutes a division in the body. Sadly, personal disputes, especially among leaders, have been the catalyst for church splits and even dissolution; but this is a situation not of differences in theology, methodology or opinion, but of action that can be clearly identified as sin.

Verse 15

The aim of speaking privately between the two is not about justice, but reconciliation. The NIV, maybe to avoid gender specific language, misses this personal dimension; the text literally says, ‘…you have gained your brother.’ It is not about winning the argument, or proving who was in the wrong, but winning the relationship. By seeking to deal with the matter privately, I avoid bearing false witness against my neighbour (The 9th commandment, Exodus 20:16) Forgiveness here is not merely settling or neutralising a matter and agreeing to not let it bother us again. It must result in a transformation of the relationship from hostility to love.

Verse 16

Jesus invokes the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15), as he frequently does, which doesn’t just give a justification for getting others involved in an unresolved issue, but an assurance that God is present in all His authority when His Word is honoured in this way, which is why he assures us in verse 20, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.’ (A promise that really has very little to do with poorly attended church prayer meetings!)

This step does not necessarily mean that my case will be ‘proven in my favour’. The witnesses may show my brother or sister their sin more clearly, or their perspective may help me see things differently, and in that sense the ‘witnesses’ may also be ‘mediators’.

Verse 17

As we saw above, unresolved division between individuals affects the church whether we like (or notice) it or not. This is not a name-and-shame exercise; in fact the language implies (‘tell it to,’ not ‘bring him before’) that the offender may not be present. It is an open explanation of a rift that has happened, and which may have caused ripples of unease among the community. It is also a confession of my own weakness; because I have been unable to effect reconciliation with my brother or sister, I now need the help of the community – my family – to work out that reconciliation on my behalf.

The final step is not ostracisation, but assuming that the offender does not really understand the Gospel because of the absence of the fruit of repentance. We need to remember that the one recording the words, ‘…let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,’ was himself a tax collector until he was confronted with and called by Jesus. It would be a bizarre thing if Matthew were to include in his Gospel an instruction that meant that he himself had no right to be a disciple, let alone an Apostle and writer of Scripture! Jesus himself showed by example what the right approach is for a child of God towards ‘these people’ – love, mercy and compassion, mixed with a firmness about sin, and the call to repent and believe. Excommunication is always with the aim of reconciliation; it does not even mean exclusion from meetings.

Verses 18-20

Three parallel promises give us assurance of both the importance of seeking reconciliation through forgiveness. Verse 18 is a parallel verse to John 20:23, emphasising that forgiveness is communicated, and even mediated to us through our brothers and sisters as we living in a Gospel shaped community. (It has nothing to do with demons and ‘spiritual warfare’). Verse 19 is not about a technique for effective prayer, but an assurance that God the Father stands behind His word, and when His word is spoken and applied (here it is the command in Deuteronomy 19:15 about witnesses) we may be confident that He is active through His word. (See Isaiah 55:10-11) The Father will achieve the purpose for which He spoke His word and bring resolution. We need to be ready to accept the resolution His word brings; it may be personal reconciliation with our brother or sister, or it may simply be a clarification about their spiritual state and their willingness to submit to the message of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 24:47)

Paul gives some very confronting guidance to the Corinthians, who faced disputed with one another that seemed to them resolvable only by going to court:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. (1 Corinthians 6:1-8)

Again this emphasises relationships over personal justice. Are we willing – even happy – once the church community is acting in loving discipline towards our brother or sister, to just leave it, even if it involves great personal loss? When we are commanded, ‘…if one has a complaint against another, [forgive] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3:13) are we willing to forgive in the same way that we have been forgiven? God, in forgiving us, bore in himself at the cross, the great cost that our sin incurred. Similarly, if we are to reflect the grace of Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation with our brothers and sister may well be a great personal cost; yet what we gain in return is far greater by comparison.

This is the third of four in this series on forgiveness, shared at the Flinders ES Summer Series over January and February this year. Part one is here and Part two is here

3. The freedom to be forgiven

Where we have come so far:
  1. Forgiveness is of utmost importance; without it there is no reconciliation between us and God, nor between us and our neighbour. (Matthew 5:43-48)
  2. Knowing God’s forgiveness is of primary importance if we are to be forgiving people; without this assurance our forgiveness of others will at best be partial and at worst, absent. (Genesis 4:1-16)
  3. The Law shows us that forgiveness from the Father is conditional on perfect righteousness; the Gospel declares to us that Jesus has met this condition on our behalf in his death and resurrection, and so forgiveness comes to us as a free gift of grace. (Romans 3:22-27)
  4. Knowledge of this lavish grace of God in cancelling our unimaginably unpayable debt should inevitably lead us to show mercy towards others. (Matthew 18:21-35)
 The grace of being forgiven

The matter of forgiveness of our neighbour affects us from two directions as persons:

  1. The need to know forgiveness from those we have offended
  2. The need to offer forgiveness to those who have offended us

Jesus deals with the first scenario in Matthew 5:21-26:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. ’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool! ’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26 ESV)

This passage falls into three sections, and sometimes we may only deal with one in isolation from the others, however Jesus is presenting this as a unified approach to being forgiven by your brother.

21-22

As with his teaching later in this sermon on prayer, we need to initially see this in the sense of the first use of the Law: something that reveals our sin and our inability to attain to this standard of righteousness. We cannot absolve ourselves from the guilt of breaking the 6th commandment (Exodus 20:13) by simply saying, ‘I have not killed anyone, therefore I am not a murderer.’ Jesus raises the bar to the level of thoughts of anger and rashly spoken words. Immediately this makes everyone guilty of murder. And while we may be taken to an earthly court (the council) for the crime of slander (‘rhaka’ literally means ‘You worthless one’ or ‘you empty person.’  – the most extreme form of vilification of the day, implying a complete absence of any moral virtue.), the ‘lesser’ crime of calling someone a fool (‘moros’, from which we get the word ‘moron’, simply saying someone is less intelligent than I) is still seen by God as serious enough to warrant the fire of Hell!

23-24

However, Jesus’s command does not immediately seem to flow logically. ‘So’ means that what he says is a direct application of verse 22, but while we might expect him to say, ‘…if you remember that you have something against your brother…’ he instead says, ‘…your brother has something against you…’. Who, in this scenario, is guilty of the sin of murder through their anger/slander?

Jesus also gives this example in a very specific setting – as you are offering your gift at the altar. For the Jew, the altar was the place of forgiveness. Their offerings, unlike the pagan sacrifices, were not bribes to manipulate God to do what they want. Rather, the sacrificial system was a gift to them from God to be an illustration, a ‘multi-sensory’ experience, that spoke to them of two things:

  • The seriousness of sin – in that a life must be taken to pay for it, and
  • The grace of God in granting forgiveness on the basis of a substitutionary death (which all pointed to the cross of Jesus).

The worshipper was to both approach and leave the Temple with a profound sense of gratitude for God’s mercy to them in forgiving them.

Jesus is anticipating His own fulfilment of the Law in this command. The righteous demand of the law has been met by him; and so it is his action in the cross that becomes that basis for the Father forgiving and accepting us. This then become the basis for forgiveness between us and our neighbour. If God is the ultimate judge of my sin, then He is also the ultimate judge of my neighbour’s sin; if all my sin may be forgiven by the Father on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, then all of my neighbour’s sin – including those against me – may also be forgiven on the same basis. So, in light of the cross, I have no grounds for holding any sin against my neighbour; who am I to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was not enough to deal with that one sin?

The Gospel gives a glorious freedom not just from the judgement we deserve, but from the sinful tendency to be judgemental of others.

It is this setting of grace that Jesus calls us to desire the same experience of grace for our brother or sister – our neighbour. How can we know the joy of the Father’s forgiveness and not desire that others may share in that joy? Even more so, how can we even consider that our actions may, in some way, have caused our brother to stumble into sin and lose their joy by having a reason to be angry with us?

Jesus is highlighting here the radical other-person-centred ethic of the Law. Someone who has been set free by grace to love the Law will be acting in concern for the spiritual well-being of others even before their own! What is more important: That you fulfill a ‘religious duty’ at the temple (or church), or that you facilitate the reconciliation of your neighbour to their brother or sister (you), and to God?

25-26

Jesus then stress that true reconciliation is personal, not merely functional. The goal of the Law is not justice for justice’s sake, but love for God and neighbour. The whole process of going to court may result in justice being done (ie. you end up in prison until you pay the fine), but it will not result in love. Your accuser will be repaid for the harm you caused, but they may still remain your enemy. Rather, seeking personal reconciliation before you even go to court opens the way for love, and for your neighbour to know the joy of being able to forgive, and thus have a clear conscience before God.

The high call of being forgiven

It is probably true that accepting forgiveness is sometimes harder than offering it.

Firstly, it requires an open, humble acknowledgement before our neighbour of our own sin, with a genuine desire that they will agree with us about the sinfulness of our actions. This is necessary if their forgiveness is to be genuine, yet it carries a risk that they will not take that second step instead of holding on to their resentment. Are we prepared to take that risk?

Secondly, it requires accepting their offered forgiveness even when we cannot know the full motives of their own heart; it means moving forward to relate to them as a friend instead of an enemy. Are we prepared to invest in an ongoing relationship with them, rather than seeing this as merely a way to ease our own conscience and to avoid having to think about them again?

Thirdly, being forgiven places on us the responsibility to give freely to others what has been freely given to us. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.’ (Matthew 7:12). The indication that our seeking forgiveness is not just a quick-fix for our conscience is that we practice the same level of grace that we require of others.

All three of these ‘hurdles’ can only be overcome through the Gospel, and a renewed and transformed heart that has been born again by the working of the Holy Spirit as He applies to us the benefits of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

This is the second of four in this series on forgiveness, shared at the Flinders ES Summer Series over January and February this year. Part one is here

2. The Debt

As we have seen, being forgiven by God and being a forgiving person go hand in hand. Very often we see the proclamation of God’s forgiveness coupled with a call to reflect this forgiveness in our love for our neighbour. Some passages appear to present God’s forgiveness of us as conditional upon our forgiveness of our neighbour:

‘…if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15)

‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’ (Mark 11:25)

While others present our action of forgiveness as a response to knowing God’s forgiveness as well as a reflection of the nature of His forgiveness:

‘…if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3:13)

‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:32)

So, is forgiveness conditional (dependant on something we do) or unconditional (given regardless of what we do)? Does God forgive us only if we are willing to forgive? If so, how does that shape the way we forgive others? And does this ‘conditionality’ undermine grace?

This dilemma is fleshed out in Matthew 18:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. ’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe. ’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. ’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? ’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

Notice that Peter’s question is in response to Jesus’ teaching in 15-20. Jesus anticipates the time when His disciples will be living in community, and outlines the appropriate way to deal with conflict between Christians. The process is aimed a personal and communal reconciliation, with the final step not being ostracisation, but assuming that the offender does not really understand the Gospel because of the absence of the fruit of repentance.

Peter’ query is about how many times we should allow this cycle to happen before we say, ‘Enough is enough. You have done this too many times, and I can no longer forgive.’ Possibly he was thinking himself gracious and patient in suggesting 7 times. I suspect that even seven times would be enough to stretch the patience of most people.

Jesus’ response calls us back again to God’s sky-high standard for forgiveness. Seventy seven (or seventy times seven) essentially means ‘an unlimited number of times’ – never say that they have sinned once too often, or even that their repentance cannot be genuine because they have done this so many times before. If love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5) then each offence should be treated as if it were the first offense. Jesus then sets this high call into perspective by telling the parable.

The debt owed by the servant is of a ridiculously unimaginable size – equivalent to 200 000 years of wages, or around $14 billion (based on the average Australian wage), yet he inability of the servant to even make a small dent in this figure does not absolve him of his accountability. The King’s cancelling of the debt is remarkable on two counts: firstly that he had compassion upon a servant who must have been incredibly unscrupulous or irresponsible in order to incur such a debt; and secondly that this king would have suffered great loss himself – this is an amount that was even significant for a king (possibly equivalent to around 10 years of income for King Herod).

By contrast, the debt owed to the servant was equivalent to 100 days wages, or $20 000. Not minuscule, yet still payable. Contrasted with the king’s compassion, is this servant’s unwillingness to even consider a repayment plan. Obviously the enormity of the cancellation of his own debt had not struck home, otherwise he would have reflected the king’s mercy in his own dealings.

Jesus’ conclusion to this story shows us that in this parable the king represents God. Full of compassion, the Father has forgiven us of our huge, unpayable debt of sin. While we may wonder how our petty sins could rack up such a massive debt, and require a punishment of the magnitude of Hell itself, we must remember that sin is not essentially a list of ‘naughty’ things, but divine treason against God Himself. The seriousness of the offence is measured by the value of the one  whom we have offended, and this makes our debt against God one that is unpayable by us except by eternal exclusion from God’s favour.

By cancelling our debt, God has necessarily taken onto himself the loss that the debt demands; this He did in the sending and sacrifice of His beloved Son who, as the Son, paid out of his infinite resources (‘emptied himself’) to make payment for our sin.

Full knowledge of the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, and the fact that our debt was so immense that it required such an immense payment, should transform our heart and mind and set us free to reflect the extreme generosity of our Father to all others that we encounter. This was clearly the expectation of the king as he sent the servant out still a servant in his employ, and therefore still to be entrusted with the king’s resources. God’s forgiveness not only cancels our debt, but reinstates us to our privileged position as stewards in the Kingdom.

An unwillingness to forgive demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the Father’s generosity. More than this, it is tantamount to saying, ‘The debt you owe me is more significant than the debt I owed to God; I could be forgiven, but you cannot be forgiven.’ Essentially, it is setting ourselves up above God, and implying a moral superiority in ourselves that makes debts against us too big to be forgiven. In short, it indicates an unrepentant attitude; evidence that we are actually rejecting the  grace of God, or at the very least, flippantly seeing it as ‘cheap grace’.

So Jesus’ warning to his disciples is a solemn one. Do not ‘receive the grace of God in vain.’ (2 Corinthians 6:1), ie. in a way that sees it as empty (the literal meaning of kenos, translated here as ‘vain’). True receiving of God’s forgiveness will be evidenced in a transformed life; and on the day of judgement our works will be called upon as witnesses to the genuineness of our confession of faith (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Unconditional forgiveness?

There still remains though the sense of conditionality in God’s forgiveness, which this reasoning does not entirely remove:

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:12-15)

There are a number of ways this petition could be phrased differently if it were simply communicating the idea that we desire to forgive because we know He first forgave us. It seems that Jesus deliberately phrases it this way, and then gives a very clear application that the Father will withhold forgiveness from those who do not forgive – ie. our forgiveness must come first! What are we to make of this?

The solution is to understand both the context of this teaching and other teachings like it. When teaching this prayer, at a later date, to his disciples (Luke 11:2-4ff) his application is that they should have confidence in their Father answering their prayer. Here in Matthew, the context is not a private discipleship session with his disciples, but a public exposition of the Law to the crowds. As we have seen, Jesus is restoring the bar of the law back to its proper place – where the standard is complete perfection comparable to that of the Father Himself. To anyone who was thinking that they could attain righteousness by observing the law, it is as if he is saying, ‘Sure, go ahead if you think you can, but make sure you realise what the law actually requires, and the implications for those who fail to keep every single word.”:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus’ demands in this sermon are that we must not only be faultless in our keeping of the law, but completely free of hypocrisy in doing so, such that our prayers must be open and transparent and our pledge to God from a clear conscience that we have not sinned. In this sense Jesus’ teaching is what theologians call the ‘first use of the Law’:

First use: Judicial. The Law reveals the holiness of God, and by so doing exposes our sin, condemns us to judgement, and drives us to cry out for mercy.

Second use: Civil. The Law provides a restraint on evil – as the legal framework for OT Israel, and as a standard that all other governments are to be held to if they are to rule justly.

Third use: Instructive. For those reconciled to God, the Law reveals the will of God, and is something that they find joy and pleasure in seeking to obey as an expression of their love for God.

The Law’s condition for being forgiven by God is to have a righteousness exceeding the Pharisees, comparable to the Father, as demonstrated in freely forgiving those who sin against us. This is bad news for one who presumes to have a level of righteousness that is acceptable to God, as it is a standard we are unable to rach. To compound it, we are trapped, because under this legal framework we cannot even ask for forgiveness for our failure to forgive! And so the Law has backed us into a corner by exposing the hypocrisy of our own hearts and confirming us as children of wrath. Our only response to this can ever be,

‘What a wretched man/woman I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24).

This use of the Law paves the way for the Gospel – the good news that Jesus Christ, in himself, has met and fulfilled all of the conditions of the law which we have failed to meet – including coming under the righteous sentence of death that the Law demands for anyone who breaks it. The Gospels shows us Jesus ministry being launched by his exposition of the Law which includes the  demands of faultlessness in the area of forgiveness, and reaching the climax of the crucifixion, during which Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34) and then following the resurrection – which shows that the Father accepted the life and death of Jesus as perfectly fulfilling the righteous demands of the Law – the commission to go and proclaim the forgiveness of sins:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:21-23)

The King – our Father – has cancelled our debt, not by sweeping our sin under the carpet, or making it out to be less serious than it actually is, but by ensuring that the condition of our right standing before Him – spotless righteousness – has been met in Jesus, and He now gives this righteousness freely as a gift. Knowing this should lead us to seek to follow the Law in the third sense – as forgiven, freed children who love the Father and delight to do his will.

 

A great post from Glen Scrivener, identifying a key problem with our culture.You Last | Christ the Truth.You Last

BTAL Cover

I wrote this booklet in response to the work God is doing at Flinders Uni through the ES group. This year (2013) we have, by His grace, seen a number of people come to faith in Jesus. It suddenly occurred to me that we (staffworkers and students leaders) are not readily prepared to disciple new believers in the context of ES.

Maybe we have not had enough confidence in the Gospel as God’s power to save?

I know the cover is not much to look at, but the booklet packs a punch – not because of my mediocre writing skills, because it is primarily pointing people to the Scriptures, so that the Word of God will speak for Himself.

The booklet can be downloaded for free via iTunes (iBook format – you will need to have iBooks installed on your iPad or Mac): Beginning the Authentic Life iBook

Or the PDF: Beginning the Authentic Life Ebook

I am still working on the Kindle version.

This resource may be downloaded and used freely, provided you do not change, remove or add to any of the content, you do not charge for it (except if you need to cover the cost of printing/photocopying), and you use it solely for the glory of God and the enrichment of His people. If you come across any typos or errors, please let me know.

If you would like to make a donation toward further development and publishing of this booklet, feel free to email me.

‘…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…’ (Matthew 28:19 NIV) ‘On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus…’ (Acts 19:5 NIV) The issue of what specific words you should use when baptising is close to what Paul warns Timothy about: ‘quarrelling over words’. (2 Timothy 2:14) The formula ‘In the name of Jesus’ or ‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is not about what specific words to use in a baptism ceremony (although the trinitarian formula is a good one to use and had been used by the church over 2000 years). The ‘in’ means ‘into’ – ie. water baptism symbolises your entry into the life of God, into the new creation, into the hope God gives in Jesus, into the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that began at Pentecost. Likewise, being baptised “in(to) the name of Jesus” means entering into all that Jesus has done and is for the believer. The words we use when baptising someone help communicate that, but obviously there is no magic or spiritual power in the actually words we use. To demand a specific term, or the full name of Jesus (‘The Lord Jesus’ instead of simply ‘Jesus’) to distinguish him from anyone else called Jesus is not only silly, but is bordering on witchcraft – thinking that our words or incantations will release some kind of spiritual power or make God act. If you were to follow that logic fully, you would need to use the Aramaic version of Jesus rather than the English translation of the Greek, and even then if you mispronounce it you may end up baptising people into the name of some other guy called Yohoshua or Yaheshua…

Going out of business for Jesus | The Resurgence.

‘Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?  If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:24-30 ESV)

‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…’ (Matthew 6:25, also in 6:31&34)

There are three ways we need to hear this statement:

1. We need to hear it as a Command.

The context of Jesus’ words is the Sermon on the Mount. Contrary to popular view, the purpose of the sermon is not to give a list of instructions for Christians to follow, as if Christianity is summed up by living in line with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus here (and this is most likely only one of many times that he delivered a sermon like this) is expounding the Law. As a Rabbi, this was one of his roles. He says in 5:17 onwards, that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, and goes on to affirm every ‘iota’ and ‘dot’ of the law, stating that the law’s standard of righteousness is required for entry into the kingdom of heaven – and that it is actually higher than the scribes and Pharisees make it out to be! (5:20). He tells us what that standard is in 5:48: ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ and in 7:14, ‘The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’

At the conclusion of this sermon in Matthew 7:28-29 we are told, ‘…the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.’ Often this is explained by pointing out that the other teachers would only quote from other teachers and scholars, whereas Jesus would declare, ‘But I say to you.’ However, while this may have been the case, I don’t think this is what the people meant. Jesus’ teaching had hit them with the full force of God’s authority; they saw in this sermon the holiness and righteousness of God and His law in a way that their leaders had failed to convey – it was truly a righteousness that exceeded that of the Pharisees.

We think of the Pharisees as legalistic, and they were. They thought that they could achieve righteousness by the Law, and so they set out to meticulously follow it, treating it like an exam in which they could tick the boxes and say ‘I’ve done that one.’ However by doing this, they actually demeaned and diminished the law by making it seem achievable by human effort. They placed heavy burdens on those who, unlike them, did not have the means and opportunities to do all that they said was required to fulfill the law, but in their eyes they themselves were doing fine, an example to all of one who truly loves God and with whom God must be pleased. Thus Jesus charged them with ‘…making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.’ (Mark 7:13)

Jesus pulls the rug out from under their feet in this sermon. If the standard of legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees was above most people’s heads, Jesus comes and shows that the standards of the law are much higher even than that – they are beyond the ceiling! When he mentions the command not to commit adultery (5:27-28) many would have said to themselves, ‘I have kept that one.’ But then he says that even lustful thoughts are adultery, essentially incriminating anyone there who was not a eunuch! He uses the same standard when he calls anger murder, remarriage after divorce adultery, swearing oaths evil; when he calls us love our enemies, to hide our spiritual disciplines, like giving fasting and praying, from others; and when he calls love of money hatred of God, judging other hypocrisy, and fathers who know how to give gifts to their children as evil in comparison to God the Father.

Romans 3:20 tells us, ‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ Jesus is not teaching us the full extent of the law so that we, by following it, might become good Christians. He is doing it so that we will see how far short of the perfection of our heavenly Father we fall. Later in Romans Paul says,

‘…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13 ESV)

Paul realised, when hearing the command, ‘Do not covet,’ that he was a covetous person, full of greed, envy and hypocrisy. The Law showed him up for the sham that he was. He goes on in Romans 7 to talk about the battle in his conscience, as he does what he knows he should not do, and doesn’t do what he knows he should do, and wrestles with the fact that he knows the law is good, yet he lives as a slave to sin. His conclusion to all this – ie. the work of the law in him – is to say, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (7:24)

In the same way, Jesus’ teaching on the Law shows me up. He tells me that lustful thoughts are adultery, so that I will see that I am an adulterer, filled with lust and ungodly desires; he tells me that anger is murder, so that I will see that I am a murderous, selfish person who lives for myself instead of others; He tells me my ‘spiritual life’ must be simple and private, so that I will see that I am craving the attention and approval of others in order to affirm my own sense of self righteousness.

And he tells me not to be anxious; not to worry about what I eat or wear, or about what will happen tomorrow. Why? So that I may see that I am a person full of anxieties and fears and doubts and uncertainties; a person who does not love the Lord my God with all my heart, and who rarely trusts in Him, but depend rather on my arrogant self sufficiency.

Back in Romans 7, Paul’s statement in 7:25, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ is not the answer or solution to his battle. The answer does come a couple of verses later in 8:1, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ – but in 7:25 he is not giving thanks for Jesus Christ. He is giving thanks for the realisation of who he – Paul – is! ‘Thanks be to God that I am a wretched man who needs to be delivered from this deadly battle that is waging within me because of the action of this holy, righteous and good law!’ Until we see our desperate need for deliverance, we will not see Jesus as the good deliverer. It is a good and right place to be, when we come to the end of ourselves – all our self righteousness and all our self-help schemes – and say that the only hope I have is that someone will step into my mess and rescue me because I am helpless and hopeless, a slave to sin and dead to God.

John Newton is reported to have said at the end of his life, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” The two go hand in hand. So we first of all need to hear, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as a command, so that then we will be able to appreciate it in the second way:

2. We need to hear it as a statement of one who has Compassion.

By compassion, I do not mean that Jesus ‘feels for us’. Rather, the world literally means, ‘suffer together with’. Remember that Jesus said, ‘I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it’? That means that he has not simply stood at a distance and shouted the demand of the Law at us, and then stood by and watched us wallow in our failure and shame. He came not just to state the full force of the Law, but to live a life in which He himself fulfilled the law. We see him do this in two ways:

  1. He perfectly loved, trusted and obeyed his Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, in short, he kept every command ever given that fits under the banner of, ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind.’ – the greatest commandment (Luke 10:27). And he perfectly loved his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself, even to the point of going to the cross to die for the sins of those who denied, betrayed and mocked him – fulfilling the second greatest command and all other commands that come under that. All that he demanded in the Sermon on the Mount he did, and so the Father could say with confidence, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ (Matthew 17:5).
  2. He submitted himself to the actions of sinful men who disregarded God’s Law, allowing himself to be beaten and crucified and abandoned by God, and in doing so came under the condemnation that the demands of the Law bring on us who are disobedient. The Law is ‘fulfilled’ either in perfect obedience or in the just penalty that the Law requires being carried out in full on the lawbreaker. Jesus did both on our behalf. 

Yet this second sense of fulfilling the Law did not just happen at one moment on the cross when he cried out the cry of abandonment. His physical suffering and death was the culmination of a series of events which all contributed to the portrait of one who was ‘stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4). These events began as he arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover:

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven:“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.’ (John 12:27-33, emphasis mine)

Verse 27 is for John the parallel to Jesus’ time of prayer in the garden (which is not recored in John’s Gospel) when Jesus prays, ‘“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will,’ just after telling his disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ (Mark 14:34,36).

Again in John 13:21 we’re told, ‘After saying these things Jesus was troubled in his spirit.’ This gives us a different perspective on Jesus’ final hours; all of his teaching with his disciples in John 13-16 and his high priestly prayer of John 17 was given while he was troubled in his spirit; even when he said the words, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)!

So Jesus says, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as one who was to go forward in His Father’s plan: the suffering of the cross and the troubling of his spirit which was part of that. Our anxiety may be based on hypothetical ‘worst case scenarios’ which may or may not happen; it may even be inexplicable, with no seeming reason or rationale. Jesus looked forward with a certainty that the cross and all its grief and shame and pain and loneliness was before Him, because his heart was set on the Father’s will, not His own. His soul was troubled for a good and valid reason. He is our High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses because ‘he too suffered when tempted’ (Hebrews 3:15).

3. We need to hear it as a Conclusion based on reality

God’s commands are never arbitrary – in the sense that they are random, or given for no reason, or because He is selfish and wants to get His own way and we need to just shut up and mindlessly obey. He graciously shows us that behind His commands is His own gracious, faithful, wise character, and His desire to do good to His children. We see this reflected in Jesus’ teaching on the Law, including the ‘do not be anxious’ passage. Jesus tells us several realities about life and about his Father:

  1. Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing(25).
  2. Your Father feeds the birds, which are less valuable than you (26).
  3. No time can be added to our lives by worrying (27).
  4. Your Father clothes the flowers on the field which last only a day (30).
  5. The godless are obsessed with meeting their needs (32).
  6. Your Father knows everything you need (32).
  7. Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness should be central to your life (33).
  8. You cannot know the future (34).

So Jesus does not toss us as trite platitude: ‘Just get over it’. Rather, he gives us at least eight good reasons why there is no reason to be anxious, based on the character and goodness of our heavenly Father; eight reasons to trust in God and in him.

Similarly, Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:6 ‘…do not be anxious about anything…’ does not stand on it’s own; it is sandwiched between ‘The Lord is at hand’ and ‘the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ Again, the character and faithfulness of God gives us reason to obey His call to trust and not be anxious.

We need to practice healthy self-talk, reminding ourselves of the Father’s goodness, and calling ourselves to trust Him. In Psalm 42 David says to himself,

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (Psalms 42:5-6 ESV)

And in Psalm 62:

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken (Psalms 62:5-6 ESV)

And Psalm 116:

Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you (Psalms 116:7 ESV)

(Not to mention also Psalms 43:5, 103:1-5, 104:1,35, 146:1)

The problem is not that we don’t talk to ourselves, but that we tell ourselves the wrong things – untruths, condemnation, self righteousness; and we tell ourselves to believe the voices around us that constantly whisper, ‘Has God said…?’

Instead of listing the nature of our circumstances and concluding that all will be disastrous, we need to list the nature of our Father and His faithful and righteous acts so that we will conclude that He is good and can be trusted to world for good in whatever may be around the corner, be it gladness or grief.

This is not a guaranteed method to remove forever the possibility of ever feeling anxious again. I trust rather that it will give encouragement in the battles when they do come; the ability to ‘rejoice in our sufferings’ – which is not a promise that sufferings, be they physical or psychological, will cease, but that in the midst of suffering we may have the bedrock knowledge that He is faithful.

A member of God’s family, the church

God has a magnificent goal for His children:

‘The One who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’ (Ephesians 4:9-16)

The Father wants you to move on into maturity as a Christian. Just as a child starts with a basic knowledge of life, and grows into adulthood through their learning and experiences, so too Christians are to seek to grow up in their faith and become the kind of person the Father wants them to be – ‘the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’, or in other words, just like Jesus.

This is not a challenge for you to accomplish yourself. Notice in the passage above that this is something God is doing, and it is something that He will be successful in. The Father’s aim is that His Son will ultimately be honoured and glorified as we clearly and joyfully display his image; and so all of creation will be filled with those who know and love the glory of God. This is as certain as His own love for his beloved Son. So we can have a wonderful assurance for both ourselves and for our Christian brothers and sisters:

I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

The passage also tells us the means by which the Father makes us more like Jesus: through the ministry of other Christians in the context of the church, and particularly through our Christian leaders. These people are God’s gifts to us. Their ministry is to bring God’s word to us, because the more we hear God’s word the more we will grow.

  • Apostles and Prophets are the ones through whom God has laid the foundation for what we know about Him and his work. The Prophets (someone who speaks God’s word) who wrote the Old Testament and the Apostles (someone sent by Jesus) who wrote the New Testament were enabled by the Holy Spirit to communicate the truth that is centred in Jesus. We benefit from their ministry as we read the Bible today. There are also men and women today who continue this work, not in the sense of receiving new revelations from God, but as they lead and teach God’s people and enable us to better understand the Bible and the church’s mission.
  • Evangelists (from the greek word for Gospel, ‘evangel’) are those who share the good news of Jesus with others. You must have met at least one evangelist, otherwise you would not be a Christian! The person who first told you about Jesus was being an evangelist, as was the person who may have been instrumental in you coming to faith in Jesus. It is because of God’s gift of evangelists that the Gospel is still being spoken around the world. You too will be this gift to someone else whenever you share what you know of Jesus with them.
  • Pastors (literally ‘shepherds’) and teachers (someone who helps us understand and live the truth) are those who particularly lead and care for God’s people in the context of a church community. They help us better understand the Bible, and give wisdom in putting it into practice in out everyday lives. They are available to answer questions, give guidance in life decisions, and are used by the Holy Spirit to equip us to be on about the Father’s business in this world.

The key to growing into a mature Christian is to be a part of a community – a ‘church’ – where all of these people may have input into your life, and where, in time, you may also be used by God to contribute to the lives of others – ‘so that the body builds itself up in love.’

The next studies explore what being a member of a church community looks like.

(Part 4 here)

Living in Hope, Faith and Love.

Being a Christian is not, like many religions in the world, assenting to a set of beliefs and following a set of rules. It is a dynamic, living relationship with God. It is knowing the powerful working of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the Father’s purpose for you in making you like His Son.

Jesus said:

‘Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’ (John 5:24-25)

A little while later he gave a vivid picture of this when he attended the grave of his friend, Lazarus:

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go”. (John 11:38-44)

What happened here is a picture of what happens to every person who hears the Gospel and trusts Jesus as their only saviour. Lazarus was stone dead. A dead person cannot bring themselves back to life. Likewise, we were spiritually dead; slaves to sin, and completely helpless and unable to revive ourselves spiritually. When the word of Jesus (the Gospel) came to us, the Holy Spirit supernaturally brought us back from the dead, and enabled us to hear, believe and respond to Jesus.

When Lazarus was brought back to life he did not stay lying on the stone slab. A tomb is no place for a living, breathing person, and so, understandably, he came out of the tomb in obedience to Jesus’ call. He as restored to his family and friends, and he would have got on with the active process of living life. In a similar way, spiritual life is active and dynamic. It involves engaging with God and with those around us. It means being participants in the work that the Father is doing in His world.

““Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.” (John 5:19-20)

Because Jesus is on about his Father’s business, when we are united with him we share not only his status and relationship with the Father, but we gat involved in what he is doing.

The next three studies unpack what that looks like.

(Part 6 here)