Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Gospel According To Bethlehem

The English-American poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “Nothing that is possible can save us.  We who must die demand a miracle.”

And that is exactly what we, who must one day die, received at a place called Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

Most of us have seen just enough Christmas plays that we don’t even think about Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, as being anything more than a nondescript Jewish town full of mean prejudiced inn-keepers with over-crowded motels.  We easily fail to recognize how shameful Christ’s birth in Bethlehem really was—in the eyes of anyone living during that time.  But more importantly, we lose the connection between Bethlehem and Calvary that clearly marked the Baby Jesus’ path to Mt. Moriah where most of the thousands of residents born in Bethlehem also ended their earthly lives.

Yet, Bethlehem, correctly understood, yields spiritual nuggets which, if quarried out of their many layers of historical and cultural strata, expose  even deeper tiers of the divine drama the Bible calls the Gospel.

Bethlehem was not much of a town with a population between 300 and 1000 people—most of them shepherds, stone workers, and wheat farmers.  Located about five miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible as the place where Jacob was going when he buried his wife Rachael in Genesis 35:19.  It was the setting for the story of Ruth who became the wife of Boaz and the great grandmother of King David and one of Jesus’ earthly ancestors.  Bethlehem was the town David was born and grew up in and become known as the City of David. 

The small town was known for its wheat fields—hundreds of acres of fields of wheat grew in and around Bethlehem giving her the nickname “House of Bread” which, is what Bethlehem means.  It was also famous for being the town where literally tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of sheep were raised and kept for Passover as well as the daily sacrifices of the Temple in Jerusalem.  

But more than anything else, Bethlehem was known as the city in which the Messiah would be born—that eternal King Who would come from Heaven to save His people from their sins. The prophecy is found in Micah 5:2, written over 700 years before the birth of Christ.

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

So, it was no accident that a census ordered by Caesar Augustus required Joseph, the carpenter engaged to be married to Mary who was pregnant with Jesus, to return to his hometown which just happened to be Bethlehem.  God wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem.  You know the story.  It’s found in Luke 2:1-20.

Once there Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays Him in a manger or feeding trough because there was no room for them in the inn.  But then Luke transitions in his story to shepherds and their sheep that were in the wheat fields of Bethlehem.  In telling us in Luke 2:8 that there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, Luke is giving us clues about Jesus and the significance of the sheep in Bethlehem’s fields.

Being 21st-century Westerners thinking and living in an urbanized, industrialized culture, we easily miss the importance of these contextual clues.  But, if we were first-century Middle Eastern villagers reading this text, we would wonder why sheep were in the fields at night.  Normal practice would be that village sheep were kept in sheepfolds at night for protection. But there were two reasons why this was not the case at Jesus’ birth. The first reason was that the sheep were allowed in the wheat fields around Bethlehem after the wheat harvest and before the next planting so they could fertilize the soil with their manure.  And the second reason for the sheep being in the fields at night instead of in protective sheep enclosures was that there were simply too many sheep and lambs to house anywhere.

You see, these are special lambs being raised to supply the humongous need for Passover lambs that would be sacrificed at Passover as well as the two lambs needed every day for the  perpetual sacrifice, known as the Tamid. The best estimates suggest that over 200,000 newborn lambs were needed every year to care for theses sacrifices. Thus, the flocks of sheep and their lambs were so sizable that no sheepfold was large enough to hold them for night-time protection.  They had to remain in the fields at night—where they were born.

So, on the same night that Jesus – the Lamb of God – was born in the manger which was really nothing more than a vacant sheepfold in a cave, lambs destined for the Passover sacrifice and the daily sacrifices were also being born in Bethlehem’s wheat fields.  Wow! The connection between Christmas and Easter is already being established.

Luke’s narrative continues with the “Good News” of the birth of Jesus being first announced to these shepherds who were employed by the Temple priests.
While Psalm 23 portrays the role of a shepherd in a most honorable way, by the time of Jesus, shepherding was viewed as a despised profession.  It was considered unclean for two reasons—because caring for sheep in the outdoors was a dirty occupation and because the 24/7 care the shepherds needed to provide the sheep kept them from observing the Sabbath.  Many rabbis during this time held that shepherds, because of the wandering nature of their profession could never keep the Sabbath and thus the religious culture of that day considered shepherds reprehensible people practicing a shameful profession.

It was to just this kind of a hopeless person living in chronic state of cultural and religious shame that God directed the angels to announce His incredible Good News!  But even more interesting and often overlooked than the shame of the shepherds was the shameful treatment Joseph received upon arriving in Bethlehem—his hometown!  He went back to Bethlehem because that was where his family originated.  It was where his ancestors had lived—where his grandparents lived as well as his parents.  He had relatives there—friends—and acquaintances.  Bethlehem was his home turf.  Yet, you’d hardly know it by the way he was treated when he arrived with a young pregnant woman on a donkey in tow.

Wouldn’t you find it astounding for a young man with his pregnant wife to arrive in his hometown and not make his way to his parent’s home or a brother’s home or even a friend’s home to stay the night?  But Joseph apparently doesn’t even try.  He tries to find a room in an inn but is refused even there.  And the reason for his not going home and for his being refused at the inn was not so much that there was no room for them in this town—there was no room for an adulterous woman about to have a baby out of wedlock in this town!  You see, Joseph’s wife, Mary had become pregnant before she and Joseph were married.  The angel Gabriel made it clear to Joseph that the child in Mary’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God but who would ever believe that?!  Certainly not his family back in Bethlehem!!!  And they didn’t which, is why Joseph and Mary could not find a place other than a vacant, dirty, dingy sheepfold in an empty cave to use as Jesus birthing room.  Even by 1st Century standards this was appalling.

Put back into its first-century setting, humanly speaking, Jesus’ birth was not something to be celebrated—at best it could only be tolerated as the shameful consequence of Mary’s supposed sin.  And Joseph who, as the oldest son in his family, was responsible for maintaining and even enforcing the family honor had deeply shamed and offended his family by choosing to marry his pregnant fiancé rather than send her away or even have her stoned.  Thus, while Jesus’ birth was indeed glorious from Heaven’s perspective, the opposite would have most likely been true for Joseph’s Davidic clan in Bethlehem.

How appropriate, then, that Jesus’ birth was first announced to and celebrated by religious outcasts and socially unacceptable shepherds.  Jesus’ shameful birth in Bethlehem really sets the scene for His shameful death in Jerusalem where as far as this city was concerned—He was crucified as a shameful impostor and liar on a cross between two thieves.

But Heaven saw it in a completely different light.  You see, on the Sunday before the crucifixion—the Sunday we call “Palm Sunday” when Jesus was enroute to Jerusalem along the road from Jericho He stopped to stage His approach and entry into Jerusalem just outside the small village of Bethany two miles east of Jerusalem.  He sent two disciples into Bethany to secure the donkey upon which He would ride into Jerusalem.  Then at just the right time He began His final journey to Jerusalem riding east toward the Mount of Olives where He would stop and meet up with a huge crowd which included Temple and religious leaders on the Mount of Olives—the mountain directly east of Jerusalem where the roads from the village of Bethany and the town of Bethlehem intersected.

But why was there a huge crowd which included Temple officials and Pharisees on the Mount of Olives when Jesus arrives?  Most of us have the idea that they were there to meet Jesus as He rode into the city of Jerusalem so as to worship Him but I don’t think so.

You see, on this Sunday—Palm Sunday—tens of thousands of Passover Lambs were being herded from Bethlehem to the City of Jerusalem for the Passover celebration on the following Friday.  The shepherds had to herd them into the city on Sunday—an undertaking that would have taken all day so that on Monday the people could come to the Temple and buy their Passover Lamb.
They would then take this Lamb to their homes or camps to live with them for four days before killing them on the Passover. But before the shepherds bring all the lambs into the city they are met by a massive crowd of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem as well as by a huge crowd of people from Jerusalem wanting to see the lambs entering the city.  

This was a big event—a celebrative event and this was the parade route, if you will, into the city.  And the Temple officials—the Pharisees were there—not to meet Jesus but to meet the lambs and lead the vast processional into the city.  But as this processional of literally thousands of Passover and other sacrificial lambs converges on the Mount of Olives from the south they meet another processional traveling from the east with none other than the Lamb of God riding on a donkey.  And Luke’s Gospel describes this scene for us in Luke 19:37-38.

37) When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:  38) “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Note that the song the crowd sings sounds very much like the song sung by the angels at Christ’s birth.  There is a slight variation but for the most part this song sung about Jesus on the Mount of Olives sounds very much like the song sung by the Angels at His birth.  I cannot help but think that the shepherds herding the lambs up from Bethlehem must have recognized the words and immediately were taken back to that night in the fields 33 years before.

And as the two processionals now become one with Jesus taking center stage and the people beginning to sing about Him—the Pharisees react ordering Jesus to silence the crowd.  But listen to Jesus’ response to them.  It’s found in Luke 19:40-44.

40) “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 41) As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it  42) and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43) The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44) They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Wow!  Jesus Christ—God the Son—was entering into Jerusalem that day to offer Himself as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of all who believe and He was doing it on the same day that hundreds of thousands of sacrificial lambs were being herded into the city.

Jesus then continued on down the Mount of Olives through the Kidron Valley near the Garden of Gethsemane and up Mt. Moriah to the city of Jerusalem where He entered the city gates with all the Passover lambs which would be sacrificed over a two-day period in celebration of the Passover, some the day before, and others, on the same day that He was to be sacrificed as the Lamb of God.

Now in going back to Exodus 12, as well as seeing how the Passover was celebrated in Israel’s history we are able to learn what requirements a Passover Lamb had to meet if he was to be an acceptable sacrifice to God on behalf of the people.  In summarizing the requirements, the head of each family had to select a male lamb without any defects or blemishes of any kind.  The lamb had to be taken into the family home for a period of four days prior to its sacrifice so that it could be observed and examined for any such defects.  And at the end of the four day period it was customary for the head of the household to rise up and declare the lamb clean and without any defects or blemishes of any kind.  At this point the lamb was considered acceptable to God as a Passover offering.

Jesus also met all of the requirements of the Passover lamb.  Jesus was a male, without defect or blemish upon His life and character—He was sinless.
Jesus was in Jerusalem four days prior to His execution and examined scrupulously over and over again by the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the High Priest, Pilate, King Herod, and Pilate again only to be found innocent of any crime or sin.  And in fact, at the end of those four days the head of all the households in Jerusalem, the Roman Governor, Pilate stood up and declared Jesus clean, not just once but three times in John 18:38, 19:4, 19:6.  At this point Jesus having met all the requirements necessary to make Him legally acceptable as the Passover lamb was led away to be placed on the cross.

But, there was one more requirement for a Passover Lamb to meet which could not be met until he had died and his body was consumed—not a single bone in his body could be broken according to Exodus 12:46.  Jesus met this requirement as well for as John reports in His Gospel in chapter 19 and verses 33-36.

33) But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34) But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35) He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36) For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”

Jesus is indeed our Passover Lamb.  But for what reason?  Why did Jesus identify Himself with the Passover Lamb and why did God have Him die at the Passover?  Why not Yom Kippur--The Day of Atonement?  Why is Jesus identified as our Passover Lamb but not the one sacrificed on Yom Kippur?

As I mentioned before, Jesus was crucified on the day after the Passover Meal was eaten. We know this because He ate the Passover Meal with His disciples the night before He was crucified.  On that following day Jesus was nailed to the cross at 9 AM and died at 3 PM the same times that the Tamid or burnt offering for sin was offered in the Temple.  The Tamid offering was the twice daily offering of an unblemished lamb for the sins of the people that was offered everyday.  It is significant that Jesus was placed upon the cross at the first offering of the day and dies upon the final offering of the day.  He was our Tamid Lamb--the sin offering for our sin which puts an end to the priests daily offering of sacrifices which can never take away our sins.

But, on that same day in which Jesus was crucified the priest also sacrificed their Passover Lambs for themselves and their families.  This is significant as well.  You see, Jesus is the Passover Lamb for another priesthood--a royal priesthood is what Peter calls it made up of those of us who have been redeemed by the Lamb.  Thus, Jesus is our Passover Lamb and our Tamid Lamb.

As our Tamid Lamb, He saves us from our sins in the sense of delivering us from the penalty of our sins.  As our Passover Lamb, He saves us from our sins in the sense of delivering us from our slavery to sin, Satan, and self. Remember, the Passover is the commemoration of the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus as our Passover Lamb delivered us from Egypt too.  That is He delivered us from our slavery to our old status as slaves to our sin.  Furthermore, He is delivering us from our sins each day as He sanctifies us.  This is the significance of Jesus as our Passover Lamb.

True "salvation" is being saved from our sins so that we are no longer under sin's penalty nor living any longer under sin's control.  Oh, we still struggle with sin but the mark of a true believer is that Jesus is destroying the works of the devil in our lives.  Thus, their should be within each believer the desire to pursue righteousness even though beleaguered by unrighteousness.

Jesus died at the same time as the Passover Lambs from Bethlehem—on the afternoon of the second day of Preparation for the Passover, in the same city—Jerusalem, and at the hands of the same people—the Religious Leaders.
The only difference is that they would be sacrificed in the Temple—but He would be sacrificed outside the city at the place of shame—the place of the skull—Golgotha—or as we know it—Mount Calvary.

They, the Passover lambs, died in the place of honor while He, the ultimate sacrificial Lamb of God to whom they all pointed and pictured, died in the place of shame among shameful people and for shameful people who have done shameful things.

And this rescuing of shameful people who realize they are shameful sinners from their shameful ways was God’s desire then and is God’s desire now. Some things never change.  God still forgives, saves, and lifts up those who ashamed of their sin and ready to be done with it turn to Jesus their Passover Lamb.

And so W.H. Auden was right, “Nothing that is possible can save us.  We who must die demand a miracle.”

And Jesus is that Miracle!

Praise God for the Gospel According To Bethlehem!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Devil's First Christmas

Recently I read about a man who was teaching a children’s Sunday School class. On this particular Sunday he was teaching the story from Luke 4 about Jesus being rejected by the people in his hometown of Nazareth.  He told his students that when Jesus attributed Isaiah 61 to Himself—He was in effect making His announcement that He was the Messiah. The teacher wasn’t sure if the kids were getting him until one of the little too “worldly wise” boys in the class asked, “Do you think the devil said the “SH” word when he heard Jesus say this?”

His question is one to ponder and muse on because, quite frankly, I wonder what that old serpent made of that first Christmas. Did he have a clue? Had he figured out the incarnation?  Was he behind the “no room in the inn” agenda running through Bethlehem?  Without a doubt he had it figured out by Matthew 2 when he incited Herod to slaughter all the baby boys of Bethlehem under two. But could it be that Lucifer, the angel of light, had been completely in the dark about the Messiah being safely protected as a baby innMary’s womb?

If so, it wasn’t long before he was enlightened by his righteous angelic counterparts who visited the shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem the night the Messiah was born. There, where shepherds grazed their flocks of lambs probably born and raised to be sacrificed at Passover the angels sang their song announcing the birth of the One to Whom all these little white lambs were pointing.

I’m pretty sure that by the time the angels finished their song, Satan must have known what was up. The Prince of Peace had invaded his turf and Satan’s days as the Prince of this World were numbered. God had made His entrance into His own creation quietly and stealthily as a baby Who was “pleased as man with men to dwell.” And He would without a doubt and at great cost save his people from their sin. As the glow on the hillside faded and the shepherds headed down to the manger to welcome this One Who was self-destined for the Cross where He, as The Sacrificial Lamb” would crush the devil’s head and free believer’s from their sins, I imagine the devil knew his end was in sight. And I have a feeling that he said the “SH” word.                              (Based upon and adapted from a story told by Betsy Childs)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Divine Mystery of Christmas

On Christmas, we celebrate something quite wonderful: God entering our time and space. The eternal becomes temporal; the eternally infinite becomes temporarily finite; the Word that created all flesh becomes flesh.

It truly is a mystery!  The One who knows all things (John 16:30, 21:17) must “grow in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). The all-sufficient One (Acts 17:25) must hunger and thirst (Matt. 4:2,John 19:28). The creator of all must be homeless (Matt. 8:20). The Lord of life must suffer and die. God in the flesh must endure estrangement from God the Father (Matt. 27:46).

As Jesus, God the Son, Who knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), must watch His eternal plan unfold bit by bit, moment by moment. He grows from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood, responding to events as they happen. One time He rejoices; another time He weeps. From day to day, from hour to hour, the changeless God endures change. But God the Son incarnate is still God, still transcendent. As He responds to events in time, He also looks down on the world from above time and space, ruling and governing all the events of nature and history in complete sovereignty—truly a mystery!

Why did God enter time in Christ?  First and foremost, for His Father’s glory so that God the Father could remain just in forgiving and justifying sinners who deserved His wrath (Rom. 3:25-26).  The Son of God took on the limitations of time, space even death, so that He would pay the penalty for the sins of anyone and everyone who would believe in Him.  In this way and only through this way is God the Father able to forgive believing sinners and remain true to His own righteousness.  Jesus entered time to glorify God in providing the means by which believers would be forgiven and find their joy in God. 

Whereas, at the incarnation, when God the Son became the God-Man, He entered time to live and die for those of us who believe—He also entered time to “be with us”.  That is what His Christmas Name “Emmanuel” means:  God with us.

He is still with us, now. Jesus said that He would be with us always (Matt. 28:20) in the Spirit (John 14:15-18). That means that God is an actor in history (His-story), as well as transcends history. He is with me as I write, watching one moment pass into the next, responding appropriately to each event, bringing his sovereign Lordship to bear on every situation as it comes, hearing and responding to my prayers. But He is also looking down on the world from his transcendent, timelessly eternal viewpoint. He is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, He brings all things to pass according to His eternal plan. As immanent, He works in and with all things, moment by moment, to accomplish His sovereign will. 

Thus, in the incarnation, God the Son invades the time and space of history to become the “leading man” in His own drama of redemption which He planned in eternity past.  But as He plays His part in His own divine drama from below—He also and at the same time acts above History as its divine sovereign director holding every atomic particle of every being, thing, and action in place (Col. 1:17).

There are those who believe that if we are to do justice to this apparent “give-and-take” relationship that we see unfolding in the pages of the Bible between God and his creatures in history, we must reject God’s sovereign control over history, even his exhaustive knowledge of the future. Those conclusions do not follow logically, and they are not biblical.  Rather, these biblical pictures of God’s seemingly “give and take” relationship with His creatures actions in time should lead us to a heightened view of God’s sovereignty. Our God is one who can and does accomplish his sovereign will, not only “from above,” by his eternal decrees, but also “from below,” by making all things work together for his good purpose (Rom. 8:28). Even those events which the biblically non-informed would see as an apparent defeat for God (ie. The cross, our sin defeats, etc.) are the out workings of his eternal plan. In the very death of Jesus for our sins, God was acting in time to bring his sovereign purpose to pass (Acts 2:23).  Likewise, in our moments when sin has gotten the best of us, God is at work doing a work in us that is greater than the immediate overcoming of sin (Luke 22:31-32).

So Christmas reveals in a wonderful way that God acts in time as well as above it. Christmas shows us how wonderfully God relates to us, not only as a mysterious being from another realm, but as a person in our own realm: interacting with us, hearing our prayers, guiding us step by step, chastising us with fatherly discipline, comforting us with the wonderful promises of the blessings of Christ. Truly He is Emmanuel, the God who is really with us and Who is nonetheless eternally the Sovereign Lord above and beyond us.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"The Secret To Becoming Bold & Beautiful" 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 Message #19

The invitation to dine with a Pharisee was not something Jesus and his disciples received everyday.

The disciples were a bit surprised. He was not. 

Once inside the small but adequate compound, Jesus sat down on the floor and reclined around the mat set out with food and drink.

News that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house got around the town fast and uninvited locals entered the compound and as was customary sat down along the wall to just watch and listen.

This didn’t bother Simon the Pharisee one bit as it just meant more people to watch him derail this itinerant preacher and turn his false teaching into mishmash.

Having people crash this Pharisee’s dinner party didn’t bother Jesus either.  They were all there by divine appointment to see something that would change their lives.

The party was in full-swing when all of a sudden the attention of the people along the wall as well as the men around the table was drawn to the small and narrow doorway of the room.

For there she was.  The men all knew her.  Not that they had all been with her but most had desired her.

But that was before she met Jesus.  Once she met Jesus she changed.  She used to be an immoral woman, a harlot, but not anymore.

But, regardless, of the change that took place in her life after she met Jesus—the fact is she was still a woman with a reputation and for her to enter this house—the house of a religious leader was a really bold move.

Why was she there?  What did she want?  Was she just another curious onlooker or did she have a reason for crashing the party?

It didn’t take long to find out, as once her eyes adjusted to the dark room and she saw Jesus—she made her way to Him without a word.

She was carrying a very expensive looking alabaster jar that smelled of very fine perfume—obviously the reward of many years of saving her ill-reputed earnings or perhaps a gift from her parents long ago before she became “The Immoral Woman”.

Simon, the Pharisee, who had an eye for such treasures knew that an alabaster container like the one she was carrying filled with perfume was worth a great deal of money—so why was she carrying it into his house, why was she approaching Jesus, and why was she crying?

And then she did the most amazing thing.  She knelt down at Jesus’ feet and began to clean them with her tears and then unbelievably dried His feet with her long hair.

And then she began kissing His feet as though He were someone precious , cherished, and adored whom she treasured.

The audacity of this woman—the nerve to interrupt his dinner party with such revolting, outrageous, daring, and unflinchingly bold behavior!

But then, she did the absolutely unthinkable.  She took the alabaster vial of perfume and wastefully poured it all out upon Jesus’ feet.

It was a careless, unthinking, reckless act in Simon’s eyes.  To waste so much money on the feet of this teacher—what was she thinking?

And to be so bold as to cause such an extremely emotional, over the top, uncalled for, and extravagant scene in front of so many people—What possessed this woman to do something like this?

That was Simon the Pharisee’s question and quite frankly it’s a good question. 
But before she could answer it—Jesus did.

And what was Jesus’ answer? 

Quite simply, her boldness, her extravagant demonstration of love, her over the top demonstration of affection for Jesus, and her willingness to recklessly pour out onto Jesus’ feet what had to be her most treasured earthly possession was all the result of hearing Jesus say—and neither do I condemn you—you are forgiven—go and live out your life in peace.

That is essentially the story of Luke 7:36-50.

And it leads us right into our study today which comes out of 2 Corinthians 3:12-18.

Let’s read the passage.

This week we took Nancy’s dad to Rutland to do some shopping and we stopped in at the Ponderosa Steak House for lunch.

As we were sitting there eating, I was facing the TV and saw a soap opera come on called The Bold & The Beautiful.

And of course, the scenes that accompanied the theme song were all of beautiful women, handsome men, lots of money, vissages of power, and the epitome of a life of worldly influence, luxury, and self-satisfying pleasure.

And this idea of what it means to be “bold and beautiful” must be appealing to people because since its premiere on March 23, 1987, the show has become the most-watched soap opera in the world, with an audience of an estimated 26.2 million viewers.

Now it may interest you to know that God also talks about what it means to be bold and beautiful.

And I know it won’t surprise you to know that what He sees as “bold and beautiful” has nothing to do with what Holywood tells us it is all about.

But what may surprise you is what it takes for a person to really become “bold & beautiful”.

Well, that is what Paul is explaining to us in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 beginning with becoming bold.

He begins in verse 12 by telling us what produces boldness in life and it has nothing to do with money, power, good looks, nice clothes, prestige, or worldly treasures.

He writes:  “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold.”  (ESV)

And what Paul is talking about is that knowing Christ has fully absorbed the totality of God’s wrath toward us who have believed in Christ for the forgiveness of our sin—gives us a great confidence to live our lives boldly, confidently, powerfully, unselfishly, and even extravagantly so as to make much of Christ among those who don’t.

That’s what Paul is saying in verse 12.

And what does he mean when he uses the word “bold”?

The Greek word he uses is parrhsia (parresia) which is talking about living an openly bold and confident life for the cause of Christ.

And the “boldness” Paul is talking about is our willingness to venture out, take risks, and do the right thing or say the right thing at the right time, regardless of the barriers, challenges, fears, or even rejection we may encounter.

It is speaking the truth, and living the truth without letting fear of the consequences or results paralyze or compromise you.

It is not living a perfect life but it is living life looking forward at future opportunities to make much of Christ as you keep focused on God’s promises instead of living life in the past looking back in the rear view mirror at your past as you keep fixating on your sin.

It is living life as one who has been forgiven and who knows it and believes it.

You see that is why the formerly immoral woman was so bold—she knew she had been forgiven.

She wasn’t dragging her past behind her anymore.

She had been freed from her sin, the eternal consequences of her sin, and the fear of God’s judgment for her sin and this caused her to live boldly—to respond to Jesus boldly—and extravagantly.

If we understand what Paul is saying here—we will understand that the reason why Christians do not live openly bold, confident, generous, and extravagantly responsive lives for Jesus is because we really haven’t come to terms with the fact that Jesus has said—“And Neither do I Condemn You.”

And in the story in Luke 7, the immoral woman whom Jesus forgives does not feel this need to leave town, get a new identity, hide her face, or not go into public places.

She has been forgiven by God Himself and thus is not afraid to live her life out in the open.

And that’s what forgiven people do!

They don’t have to find another job, leave their marriage, move across town, find a new grocery store, or exile themselves from church.

They who believe Jesus’ words and embrace the forgiveness He offers are able to live life and live it boldly for Him.

They don’t have to hide behind a false veneer of self-righteousness, pretending to God, themselves, and everyone around them that they have it altogether and are not struggling with sin in their lives.

They demonstrate what John Piper refers to as “gutsy guilt” in that they believing the promises of the Gospel are fully confident that even on their worst days—when it would appear to anyone watching that they looked more like an unbeliever than a believer—that God still loves them, still forgives them, still accepts them, and will finally and ultimately deliver them.

That is what the prophet Micah is talking about in Micah 7:7-9 when after sinning in some fairly significant way against the Lord he states:

7) But as for me, I will watch expectantly for the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation.  My God will hear me.
8) Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy.  Though I fall I will rise; Though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is a light for me.

9) I will bear the indignation of the Lord.  Because I have sinned against Him, Until He pleads my case and executes justice for me.  He will bring me out to the light.  And I will see His righteousness.

Listen, those believers who are living weak, anemic, spiritually powerless, and really veiled lives are believers who do not truly know and understand the ramifications of the Gospel.

They really struggle with believing God has or will forgive them and thus they are spiritually powerless.

Furthermore, they don’t know who they are in Christ nor what Christ has done for them and it shows in their spiritually toothless lives.

If you understand who you are in Christ you will be bold for Christ!  That is what Paul is saying here!

And then in verses 13-17, in what is really a sort of a side note, Paul makes the point that people who do not know Christ and His forgiveness cannot understand this. 

The truth of the New Covenant of Grace is veiled to them so that they simply cannot see what God is offering them in and through Christ—which is freedom from sin, sin’s guilt, sin’s power, sin’s penalty, and ultimately, sin’s presence so as to live a life free from fear.

But according to verse 15, this veil lies overs people’s hearts.

“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.”

Thus, the problem is not an intellectual problem—it is a heart problem.

People don’t understand the Gospel and their need for Christ because because of their hard hearts.

Left to themselves, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, no one will desire Christ because of their hardened spiritual disposition.
Has the veil been lifted from your heart?  Are you attracted to Him?  Do you love Him and desire Him more than life itself?  Do the Scriptures speak to your heart?  Does the Gospel we are talking about and have been talking about since I came here make sense to you?  Then praise God.

Or maybe you answered “no” to those questions but you wish you could honestly say “yes……I wish I loved Christ the way you talk about—I wish I was attracted to Christ—I wish the Scriptures spoke to my heart—I wish the Gospel made sense to me—I wish I could feel and think the way you do about Jesus.”

Then pray and ask God to remove the veil covering your heart.

And if you, in complete sincerity, ask Him to do this—He will.

The promise of Scripture is that when anyone turns to the Lord—they become a new creation in Christ.  That is what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself . . . ”

In other words, when we come to Christ we become a brand new creation in Christ because the veil of our hard heartedness toward God is removed and now instead of running from Him we run toward Him.

And all of this is from God—it is His doing—he is the One working in our hearts to accomplish this.

And when people finally turn to the Lord they begin to grow in Christ and in their understanding of the ramifications of the Gospel and see that they are indeed free from their pasts and their sins and the eternal condemnation for their sins.

That is what Paul means in verses 16 and 17 when he writes:

“But whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil [of spiritual hard-heartedness] is taken away.  Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.”

What is liberty?  It is freedom!  It’s the Greek word, λευθερα (eleutheria) and it means—are you ready for this?  It basically has the idea of “freedom to do what is right and pure”.

In other words, whereas before salvation we were enslaved to our sin and its consequences—once we turn to Christ for salvation, God frees us from our sin, from its eternal damnation, and from our inability to please Him.

Now as believers we are freed from our spiritual blindness and deadness that made it impossible to want to please God and to in fact please Him.
But not only that—we are not only given the freedom to now please God—we are given the freedom to pursue God, know God, experience God, and enjoy God.

And as we experience, see, and enjoy more and more of God so as to see His glory in and throughout our lives we end up becoming like Him. 

Paul makes this point in verse 18.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”  (ESV)

You see when we grow in our understanding of the Gospel and the ramifications of the Gospel so as to truly embrace it, believe it, and live boldly in it—so as to experience and enjoy God through it we will find ourselves being transformed by it into the image of Christ Himself—which is beautiful!

Can you imagine standing before the throne of God one day and hearing the angels commenting to themselves on how much you look like Christ?

Well, believe it or not, that is going to happen!

In fact, it is happening right now—You, if you are a believer in Jesus, are becoming like Him—from one degree of glory to another—as you grow in your understanding of what God really did for you when He sent Jesus to die for you—so as to believe it to be true of you. 

Thus, the key to becoming bold & beautiful as believers is believing what God says is true about you in Christ not what you think or others think is true of you!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"God's Greater Pleasure Is Forgiving Us" 2 Corinthians 3:5-11 Message #18

She was married, but not to the man in whose arms she had been found.
Suddenly the door had burst open. Instantly she was in the grasp of angry men who dragged her — and her forbidden secret — out into the street—into the open for all to see.

“Adulteress, Whore, Slut!” The names pierced her like an arrow. Scandalized, loathing looks bored into her.  Her life was undone in a moment, mostly by her own doing. And it was about to be crushed. They were talking about stoning her!  She wanted to beg God for mercy—But God’s verdict on her case was clear: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.” (Deuteronomy 22:22).  She was going to die!

There was no time to think. She was being half pushed, half pulled and dragged through Jerusalem toward the Temple. She felt despised and rejected and noticed people would not even look at her. Suddenly she was thrust in front of Him.

A man behind her yelled, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. . . Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. What do you say?”

The Teacher said nothing.  He looked at her, then at her accusers. Then he bent down and began to write in the dirt while she—completely exposed, guilty, condemned, and without any hope—stood silent, whimpering, and quietly begging God for mercy under her breath.  

Why was he writing in the dirt?  Men on either side of her were clenching brutal stones.  Impatient prosecutors were waiting for His ruling. The Teacher stood back up. She held her breath, all eyes were on Him now.  “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he said.

The crowd’s jeers and cries for death hushed to whispers. Confused, she risked a quick glance at Him. He was writing in the dirt again. She heard murmurs and disgusted grunts around her. Then shuffling.  She heard the stones drop harmlessly onto the ground and then they all left—leaving her alone with Him.

He looked at her with compassion and respectfully addressed her as “Woman” instead of the shameful titles the others had called her. Then He asked her, “Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and from now on sin no more.”

But why would the very God Who ordained this Law and its penalty of death overturn it like this?

This woman’s crime was real, her guilt was real.  She was caught in the very act of having sex with a man who was not her husband. And God, through Moses, commanded that anyone who did this was to be executed. But God the Son simply said, “Neither do I condemn you.” 

Now, if God violates his own commandment and lets the guilty go unpunished—it makes Him an unjust judge. But God cannot be unjust.  So how could he possibly let this woman caught in adultery go unpunished without condemning her?  

Well, the fact is, God fully intended for this sin of adultery to be punished to the full extent of his law.  God was not letting her sin slip by.  He was going to exact punishment.  There would be an execution and it would be brutal. But she would not be the one executed.  She would not bear the punishment for her sin. She would go free.  Jesus would be punished in her place. 

So, could it possibly be that the words he wrote in the sand were from Isaiah 53:5-6?

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”.

You know, every one of us is this woman.  Oh, it may not be adultery but it is something. Our horrible sins, our shameful lusts, our destructive tongues, our murderous hatred, our corrupting greed, our covetous pride — all stand exposed before God as starkly as this woman's sin did in that Temple courtyard.  Our condemnation is just as deserved as hers.  And yet, if you are trusting Christ to save you from God’s just wrath for your sins, Jesus speaks these same stunning words to you: “Neither do I condemn you.” 

But, why and how?

Because He was condemned in your place.  All your guilt has been removed. No stone of God’s righteous wrath will crush you because Jesus was crushed for your sins on the cross by God the Father.

Jesus was the only one in the crowd that day who could, in perfect righteousness, require the woman’s death. And he was the only One who could, in perfect righteousness, pardon her. Mercy triumphed over judgment for her at great price to Jesus. And the same is true for us who are trusting in Jesus.

And this story taken from John 8:1-11 illustrates the powerful truth of 2 Corinthians 3:5-18 that there is something that honors, exalts, magnifies, pleases, and glorifies God more than punishing sinners who rebel against His pure, impeccable, perfect, and righteous Holy Law.  And that which brings God greater pleasure, honor, joy, happiness, praise, and glory than condemning sinners for their sins is forgiving sinners who will embrace Christ as their only means of salvation. That is what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 3:5-11 when he contrasts the lesser glory of the Law of the Old Covenant with the greater glory of the Grace of the New Covenant.
Turn there with me.

Verses 5-11 focuses our attention on the fact that the Old Covenant which essentially was contained in the Law of God as recorded in the Old Testament was a covenant of condemnation. It was a covenant of condemnation because no one was able to perfectly keep God’s Law and therefore no one was acceptable to God. But even though no one was able to keep God’s Law and thus no one was acceptable to God or pleasing to God—this covenant still reflected the glory of God. It was glorious in that it presented the perfect holiness and righteous character of God. But, it was a fading glory because it was unable to adequately reveal the fullness of God’s glory and the fullness of God’s Person and character.

Back when I was in Boot Camp I remember the day when I saw my Drill Instructor walking with his wife and small children. He was smiling, laughing, and holding his children’s hands as they walked through a parking lot past our barracks. I was simply amazed. Actually, I was dumbfounded and really a bit flabbergasted.  I simply could not imagine that this man who had become the epitome of anger, rage, and brutality to me over several weeks of Boot Camp had another side to him that I had never seen nor experienced. I really never imagined that this man was capable of love. You see, I thought I knew him but I really didn’t know all that there was to know about him. There was a side to him that stunned me even more than the side I had come to know.

Well, that is what verses 5-11 are saying about God and His two covenants.
The first covenant—the covenant of Law is stunning because it reveals the perfect righteousness and holiness of God. And it demonstrates God’s ferocious hatred and anger toward anything or anyone who would dare to transgress His Law.

In this sense, the Old Covenant is glorious.  It is like gazing at an enormous erupting volcano that is spewing forth fire, boiling lava, and black smoke that will destroy anything in its path. It is glorious in that it serves the purpose of revealing the absolute power and majestic dignity and divine splendor of the Sovereign King of the Universe Whose very word is Law and cannot be broken.

But, as great and as glorious as this Old Covenant is and as powerful and as awesome as it makes God appear—it is a fading glory that is immensely exceeded and colossally surpassed by the glory of the New Covenant—Which reveals the fullness of God’s glory in that it demonstrates His great and super-abounding compassion, grace, and mercy in His promise to forgive anyone who has broken any of His Laws any number of times to any degree—if they will only run to Christ for forgiveness and salvation.

Thus, in the Old Covenant, the Law of God, we see a perfectly correct but partial picture of God while in the New Covenant, the Gospel of God—we see a perfectly correct and complete picture of God in terms of how He has chosen to relate to sinners for His glory and their eternal joy. That is what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 3:5-12.

And the reason Paul makes mention of Moses using a veil to hide the residue of God’s glory that his face reflected after being in God’s presence when he received God’s Law back in the Book of Exodus is because he is using it as an illustration of what man-made religion does—

Man-made religion tries to hide the fact that trying to please God and appease God through our own merits and efforts in trying to keep His Law is an effort in futility.

Man-made religions that appear beautiful, spiritual, and even godly but which teach that people must earn or merit God’s good pleasure through their own good works and attempts to keep God’s Law are veiling the truth.

Christianity is not religion.  Christianity, correctly understood is not a person trying to appease or please God so as to earn acceptance with God.

And Paul uses Moses as an illustration of religion here saying that just as he tried to cover up the truth that the glory his face was reflecting was fading and had in fact disappeared—so does man-made religion!

Religion has no glory because it has no power to do anything about our sin problem.

But the New Covenant does!

Now, if the Old Covenant which is comprised of the Law of God which includes the Ten Commandments is inferior to the New Covenant of God’s grace toward sinners through Christ—why did God create it? Why did God establish His Law and the Old Covenant in the first place? Why did He go to so much trouble and time to inaugurate a covenant which He never intended to last?

This is the same question Paul asks and answers in Galatians 3:19 where he writes:

“Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins . . .” (NLT)

In other words, the purpose of the Law of God or the Old Covenant is to reveal to people that they have violated God’s Laws and thus are sinners and are indeed accountable to God for their violations of His Law.

Just a few verses later in Galatians 3:22, Paul writes that the Law was given to not only show that everyone has sinned but that everyone is being held as a prisoner waiting to be judged for the Laws of God they have broken:
“the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin”.

In Romans 3, Paul goes into even greater detail about why God gave His Law in the Old Covenant. He begins in Romans 3:19 and continues through verse 20 where he writes:

19) “Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God.”

20) “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.”

So, that’s why God gave the Old Covenant through the giving of His Law—It was intended to reveal just how bad and how bad off mankind is when it comes to how God sees us. The Law of God was established for one purpose and that purpose was to show us how sinful we are.  It was never established to save us! It was meant to drive us to the cross where we find Christ Who died and paid the penalty for our sins so that we can be forgiven.

Listen to Romans 3:21-28.

21) But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago.

22) We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

23) For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.

24) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.

 25) For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past,

26) for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

27) Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith.

28) So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.

Do you see the difference between the Old and the New Covenants?

The Old Covenant demonstrates God’s righteousness in condemning sinners whereas the New Covenant demonstrates God’s righteousness in forgiving sinners who will trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins.

And thus, the New Covenant is more glorious than the Old because it reveals the heart of God in a way the Law cannot. Whereas the Old Covenant reveals God’s love of holiness, righteousness, purity, and perfection—the New Covenant reveals God’s love for sinners.

But, lest we think that God pits the Old Covenant against the New Covenant as enemies—we need to think again. For there cannot be a New Covenant without an Old one. There cannot be good news without bad news. And the fact of the matter is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the Gospel we must believe to come to God includes both bad and good news. It includes the bad news of the Old Covenant which shows us that we are condemned sinners so as to drive us to the only answer there is for our lost and condemned state. It drives us to the good news of the New Covenant which is: God will forgive anyone who will come to Him through Jesus.

And this good news reveals God’s heart and intentions to anyone, even the worst of sinners who have committed the most heinous of crimes against Him.
It is God’s pleasure to forgive anyone who will come to Him through His Son the Lord Jesus!

Listen, the Bible is super abundantly clear--No one, absolutely no one will go to heaven because they have been good enough.

Like the fictitious story told about the religious man who died and was standing outside the gates of heaven as the angels were looking over his paperwork. The angel in charge told the man that to enter heaven he had to have accumulated 1000 merits of good behavior while on earth. The man thought to himself—oh—that’s all.  I should get in easily with merits to spare in his own estimation he had lived a good and religious life.

The head angel then began his evaluation. He said, I see that you were a good and faithful husband—that earns you 1 point.  The man gulped hard. Secondly, I see that you were a faithful church member for over 40 years—that earns you another point. The man began to sweat. Third, it looks like you gave regularly and generously of your finances to charities and to the poor—that is worth another point.  And the man became weak in the knees. He had never realized that the standards were so high and that his good works would be taken so lightly. Finally, he blurted out, “At this rate, I’ll only make it into heaven by the grace of God.” To which, the angel put down his paperwork, and said:  “Congratulations, come on in.”

We are not brought into a right relationship with God through our good works nor are we kept in a right relationship with God through or good works. We are saved and we are kept saved by trusting in Christ whose good works, perfect life, death on the cross, and resurrection have been applied to our account.

As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Pursuing the Glory of Christ as though He were the most important pursuit in all the world--Because He Is!

" Looking for the Blessed Hope and the appearing of The Glory of our Great God and Savior, Christ Jesus." Titus 2:13