Promise

[8] Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, [9] “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, [10] and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. [11] I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” [12] And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: [13] I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. [14] When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, [15] I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. [16] When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” [17] God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-17 ESV)

Yesterday, on what is commonly known as Ash Wednesday, we explored how when Adam and Eve sinned against the holy character and law of God they experienced curse and death.  Adam was told, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We are dust.  Our lives are temporary and fragile.  And they are so because they are corrupt and rebellious.

A few pages after the story of Adam comes the story of Noah.  By Noah’s day, we read “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  This is what things look like when over time man’s sin continues and multiplies.  As in Genesis 3, a holy God must deal with such corruption.  God destroys this great evil with a great flood, sparing only the righteous Noah, his family, and the animals taken aboard the ark.

After the flood, a new concept appears in the pages of Scripture – that of the “covenant.”  A covenant is simply an agreement that binds two parties together and lays out what is expected of each party if they are to have a relationship.  It also describes what the relationship will look like if the parties live up to their end of the agreement, and lays out the consequences if a party does not live up to the terms of the covenant.

In Genesis 9, God promises that He will not again wipe sinful man off the face of the earth with a flood.  Why?  Did man suddenly become good?  No, man’s heart remained wicked and evil.  If over time man’s sin continues and multiplies, now millennia after the flood, how evil and corrupt has our world become?  (Just think, Nazi Germany.)

God doesn’t make this promise because man can now suddenly live up to the stipulations needed to have a relationship with a holy God.  Man proved repeatedly that He fails in every attempt to have a covenant relationship with God.  (See how successfully the Jews lived up to the Mosaic covenant that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai.)  God knew man would fail, so He sent His only begotten Son to become a Man.  Jesus then, as our substitute, lived the perfectly righteous life required for man to live if he would have a relationship with a holy God, a life we could never live on our own.  And He died to pay the price required for those who do not live up to expectations necessary to have a relationship with a holy God, a price we could never pay on our own.  Because of this, we can now experience the life and blessing that comes for those who have a covenant relationship with God.  Jesus fulfilled our end of the covenant, and God’s end, too.

Dust

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.  Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”  And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Genesis 3:14-19

These sobering words following the disobedience of the first man and woman to God’s law and their obvious rebellion toward His rightful rule over their lives reminds us that the result of rejecting God leads to curse and ultimately death.  This makes sense, since removing ourselves from a relationship with the One who is blessing and life itself can result in nothing less.  Adam, who was created from “dust” will not live forever in a physical state of rebellion but will one day breath his last and have his body return to dust.  The same is true of every one of his descendants who have made the same choice to rebel against the One who is blessing and life.

How often we overlook our sin by reminding ourselves “we are only human.”  Yet, our sin is not a trivial thing that God ignores.  His holiness does not allow for that.  His perfect righteousness deals with our unrighteousness.  He justly deals with all rebellion against His righteousness.  What does that mean for rebellious sinners such as us?  Do we have any hope?  Are we doomed to experience only the result of our sin – separation from the One who is life and blessing?  On this day when many will go to church and have an ash cross applied to their forehead, let us remember that we are but dust.  But let’s also remember this:  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”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14).

What’s This Thing Called Lent?

I must confess that I grew up in an evangelical culture that did not place great emphasis on the liturgical calendar.  Words like “advent” and “lent” belonged to “those churches.”  Over the years, advent wreaths and calendars began to be used by some, but lent, and the idea of ashes and abstinence never really caught on.  As I studied the history of the concept, I found some baggage attached to lent that made me feel uncomfortable embracing the practice as a whole.  Yet, the idea of taking an extended period of time to focus on the holiness of God and my own proper response to Him, of remembering the atoning sacrifice of Christ for sinful mankind, of being awed by His glorious and powerful resurrection, and of using focused prayer and fasting to seek and find Him appeals to me greatly.  The Jews recognized their New Year, Rosh Hashanah, their most high and holy day, Yom Kippur, and the time period of ten days including those holidays as “days of awe” or “days of repentance” – a special season to focus on repentance and getting right with God.  Why not have the same emphasis leading up to a remembrance and celebration of what Jesus did to free us from sin and death?

One must be careful not to think that observing such days is necessary to have a relationship with God.  Following certain practices or holidays does not make one righteous.  Paul said, “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.  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17 ESV).  Things like “days of awe” or even our Christian holidays are not given to us to make us holy, but to remind us of the One who does – Jesus Christ (read the rest of Colossians 2).  What I would like to do over these next 40 days (leading up to Good Friday and Easter) is write about some things that remind you about Him.  Reading my thoughts, giving up certain things, or following certain practices won’t clean up your heart or change your life.  But meeting Jesus Christ will.  “Lent” comes from the Old English “lengten,” or spring.  These “lengthened” days remind us that new life is coming.  May I take some time to remind you that new life is only found in Christ?  I will use daily Scriptures from Redeemer Presbyterian’s reading plan, “A Journey Through Lent” as the starting point for my meditation, but will add my personal thoughts.  Please read along if you need the reminder, as I do.

The Real Owner

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:15-18 ESV)

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22-23)

There is no doubt that according to the Scriptures, Christ is the Supreme Head of the Church, His Body.  The Church is here defined not as a building, not as a social club, not as a weekly appointment, but as the people of God redeemed by the blood of Christ.  These people have been born again.  They have passed from eternal death to eternal life.  They are now adopted by their Heavenly Father to be part of His family forever.  Everything about them is different.  They are completely transformed, now that Christ has changed them.  They are indeed “new creations” in Christ.

When we fail to define the church in this way, we get into all kinds of trouble when we “do church.”  If we think of the church as a building, those who put up the brick and mortar and those who paid for the brick and mortar see the church as “their church.”  (What then happens when someone else wants to paint the brick and mortar?)  If we think of the church as a social club, those who pay their “dues” expect certain perks to be given to them from the “paid staff,” whom they can fire if they don’t like what they are receiving, because “We pay their salary.”  If they see the church as another weekly appointment, they can cancel the appointment if another more fun and “profitable” use of their time can be found.  After all, their time is their own, and they can choose to do with their time what they choose.

All of these misconceptions about the church flow from a popular concept communicated in our churches today – “ownership”.  We want our people to feel “ownership” in the church so that they become more involved.  There is nothing more destructive than this.  When someone feels like they are the “owner,” they think they can control what they paid for.  They expect a certain return on their investment.  If what they own does not give them what they want and the cost outweighs the benefit, what do they do?  They sell.  Ownership is all about what you pay and what you get in return for your investment.

Is there anything more unbiblical?  I don’t want people to think that the church is theirs – it belongs to Christ!  And if they are part of the true church (the called-out redeemed ones), it is because they belong to Christ!  He is our Head – our owner.  He calls the shots.  It is all about what He gets in return for His investment.  He paid for the church by His shed blood!

Instead of feeling like owners, I want people to feel like they belong to the church because they belong to Christ.  If people feel like they are the owners, for them the church becomes all about power and control and getting a return for their investment.  This is one of the greatest reasons the western church is so unhealthy and unfruitful.  In the west, we base our church structure on a corporate model where we try to make all the people co-owners, with the staff being some kind of controlling partner.  But in this model, I guarantee that there will be a power struggle between investors and staff.  Each wants the church to be what they want it to be.  After all, aren’t they “the owners”?

I repeat – Christ is the Head of His Church!

Repent!

The book of Nehemiah chapter 8 holds a beloved passage of Scripture: “…the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  We sing these words in a chorus, but what do they mean?

Nehemiah is a story of restoration.  God’s people had been exiled because of their sin and unbelief, but now a portion of them have returned to the promised land and were rebuilding.  In chapter 8, the wall around Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but now there needs to be a rebuilding of the people.  The building project brought safety, but it couldn’t change their sinful hearts.  To begin this internal rebuilding, Nehemiah asks Ezra the priest to publicly read the law of God.  Nehemiah makes it clear that before there can rebuilding, there needs to be an acknowledgement that things are broken and the law does just that.

They held the gathering at the “water gate.”  In the Scriptures, water is a picture for the Word of God, which cleanses (John 15:3, Eph. 5:26).  It is also a picture of the Spirit of God, Who gives joyous life which satisfies our parched soul (John 7:37-39).

When they heard the Word, the people mourned over their sins, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”  They had just observed the Day of Atonement, and had spent 10 days examining their hearts.  Now the Word confirmed their guilt.

But revival doesn’t end with people feeling guilty.  When they repent (lit. a change of mind that brings a change of heart that brings a change of will that brings a change of life), they are cleansed, and they should rejoice in their forgiveness.  True repentance brings joy and restoration with their God!  The Feast of Tabernacles (a fun, celebratory festival) follows the Day of Atonement.  During the Feast, they lived in “booths” to remind them of their 40 years in the wilderness that resulted in their entering of the Promised Land.  What joy!  Warren Wiersbe said, “Conviction is followed by cleansing, then celebration.”

The Word brings conviction which leads to repentance.  It also brings joy.  “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by your Name (Jer. 15:16).”  “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart (Ps. 19:8).”  “Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart (Ps. 119:111).”  “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in His commands (Ps. 112:1).”  “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night.”

When we truly repent, we are forgiven!  The past is gone.  The Feast of Tabernacles in the book of Zechariah (14:4, 9, 16-20) is a feast that looks forward to a glorious future when Jesus will return.  That is why the “joy of the Lord is your strength (8:10).”  When your hope is gone, when your joy is weak, think about where you have come from.  Think about where you are going because of Christ.  That gives you the strength for today.  We can live lives of obedience today (8:13-18) because of the joy of the Lord.  The joy of the Lord is your strength!

A New Relationship

As we begin this new year, many are thinking of new jobs, new financial streams of income, and a “new you.”  Many are also thinking of new relationships.  But how many are thinking of a new relationship to God’s law?

I was reading from chapter 5 of Matthew this morning, the first chapter recording the famous “Sermon on the Mount.”  I don’t know how many times I have heard even those who don’t follow Christ say, “I like the teachings of Jesus.  The things He said about love – the things He said on the Sermon in the Mount – those things are beautiful!”  Let me agree.  It is a beautiful sermon.  But if you actually read what Jesus said, it is also terrifying!  After the beatitudes (“blessed are the…”), Jesus tells us that if we aren’t salty enough, we are good for nothing except to be path pavement.  He tells us that unless we are more righteous than even the most religious, we won’t see His Kingdom.  He clarifies that we are guilty of breaking the laws of His Kingdom not only if we murder, but even if we get angry.  The same is true of adultery – we are guilty of breaking this law not only when we commit the physical act, but when we lust in our heart!  He proclaims that most who get divorced and remarried are committing adultery.  He says that if we don’t keep our word, if we hold something against our brother, if we try to retaliate against our enemies, in fact if we don’t LOVE our enemies, we are not living up to the standard of His Kingdom, which is, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  If we honestly read this beautiful sermon, we have to admit, we’re in big trouble!

This sermon is a “kingdom sermon.”  It describes what God’s Kingdom is like, and how His kingdom people are to live.  Right before this chapter, we read, “Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”  Jesus talked about His Kingdom, and He demonstrated the power of the Kingdom.  In this context He gave us a sermon about the Kingdom.  It is much like the giving of the law in the Old Testament.  The law describes the character of God and what the character of His covenant people should look like.  Paul accurately teaches that on our own, none of us can live as God’s people.  On our own, with our sinful hearts, none of us can live as Kingdom people.  That is the purpose of the law – to tell us we can’t be good enough on our own (read Galatians or Romans).  What we realize when we see God’s standard is this – we need new hearts, indeed new lives, to truly be Kingdom people who live like the King!  And only Jesus can make us new and give us the circumcised hearts that His people must have.

In other words, you won’t be able to live up to the requirements of the Kingdom unless you have been made a citizen of the Kingdom – unless you have been made into a new creation.  Unless you have been born again.  Only then, after this miraculous transformation, will you have a heart and a life capable of living like the King.  It is then that you have a new relationship with the law and with this message of the Kingdom.  It no longer condemns you as guilty and incapable of living right.  When you are made new, it now describes who God is and who He has made you.