The Bible’s Blow

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“Is not my word like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:29)

It would be to our great disadvantage to see the Bible only as a book designed to bring cosmic comfort to the soul. To be sure, this is one of the things the Word of God does in the lives of all those who read Scripture with the eyes of faith. But the prophet Jeremiah declared that the Bible also strikes a blow like a holy hammer, breaking a rock in pieces. What is that “rock”? It is your rock-hard heart and mine, with all its self-righteousness and sinful pride.

The problem in far too many pulpits today is that the preacher is more concerned with pleasing man than he is with pleasing God. Messages designed to tickle the ears and minister to felt needs dominate the theological landscape. But when the whole counsel of God is preached, it wields a holy hammer that begins breaking away pieces of our pride and self-righteousness, exposing more and more of the image of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There are many false prophets who preach “Peace, peace,” but God would have us know there is no peace for those whose eyes are fixed on self, rather than the Savior. The natural man craves this false peace, for his greatest goal in this life is to be happy. But God desires so much more for His people! In God’s perfect plan for our imperfect lives, holiness, not happiness, is the path God intends for us to travel. And the pathway leading to holiness is not lined with peace, but rather, persecution.

Here is a phrase I learned many years ago that I have repeated from the pulpit on many occasions: as a minister of the Good News of Jesus Christ, God has called me to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. The Christian life is not designed to be lived within a “safe space” of comfort, for a comfort zone is not conducive to conformity to Christ.

The Bible’s blow is the believer’s blessing. Comfort must be mixed with challenge; peace must be mixed with pain. On more than one occasion, the apostle Paul used the metaphor of a race to describe the life of a disciple of Christ. One of those metaphors is that of a runner, who will never reach the goal of winning a race without developing the discipline required to push past the pain and discomfort of training.

We are not called to comfort; we are called to Christlikeness, and Jesus Christ “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). The Word of God is designed to train us up in the way we should go, and that way is marked by weeping as much as, if not more than, by rejoicing.

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (Hebrews 4:12-13)

So . . . when was the last time the Scriptures caused you to weep? When was the last time you felt the Bible’s blow, hammering away at your old sin nature within, penetrating to the essence of your soul and laying bare that which is displeasing in God’s sight? Remember, Jesus promised that the truth would set you free, and the truth of God’s Word is designed to turn your life inside-out and upside-down as God reshapes and redesigns His image in you.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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MEMORIALS TO THE MASTER

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I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (Colossians 4:18)

There are a variety of ways to define the word memorial, but for our purposes today, this one is best: a memorial serves to help people remember some person . . . namely, Jesus Christ! For the Christian, there are really three ways to memorialize our Master:

  • With our speech
  • In our service
  • And through our suffering

After years as a pastor, walking through the details of life with countless Christians whom God has given me the privilege to serve, I am convinced that the greatest depth of our devotion to our Master is revealed in the third of these actions—our suffering.

Think of the great apostle Paul and the magnificent memorials he left behind for all the world to read and remember regarding his Master. Paul left us many speeches, sermons, and epistles; he left some magnificent miracles; but he also left us the memory of his many chains. Paul’s suffering is the most powerful memorial of all.

Consider these words he penned for the Christians at Corinth:

Are they [false teachers] servants of Christ? . . . I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, from my fellow Jews, and Gentiles. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

To be sure, there are many ways to measure the depths of Paul’s devotion to Jesus, but none plumbs the depths of his suffering. And the same is true for every disciple of Christ, including you and me. In our cultural context today, you and I may never experience the physical dangers and suffering that the apostle Paul endured, although many of our brothers and sisters around the world certainly are. You and I may not be shipwrecked or beaten with rods like Paul, but as we memorialize our Master, we certainly may be shunned. We may not be lashed or stoned, but we can expect rejection.

I will never forget these words from one of my spiritual fathers, the late Dr. R. C. Sproul, which he uttered during a class I was attending at Knox Theological Seminary: “When you are out in the world preaching the Gospel of Christ, if some people are not angry with you, one of two things has happened: either they don’t understand what you are preaching or you are not preaching it!” The Gospel either attracts or repels, and it is our responsibility to share it with others, leaving the results up to God.

So . . . what memorials have you left regarding your devotion to Jesus? May God give us the strength to refuse to shrink back, even when our devotion is revealed in the form of suffering.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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PURSUE YOUR DIVINE DEGREE!

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You must be born again.  (John 3:7)

I have been working with student-athletes for decades, a labor of love which God has allowed me to continue as a pastor. We started Cross University at our church, a vehicle for ministering to our college students throughout the school year. I write a word of encouragement each week and we send out a “care package” for the fall and spring semesters.

Each student is in search of a degree that will help them in the field they have chosen to pursue. But did you know that there is a degree that is available to everyone, one that transcends the degrees conferred by a college or university? And you don’t need to enter into massive debt to pay the tuition to obtain it; that debt has already been paid in full by Another. The degree I am speaking of is a divine degree: a BA from the College of Christ—Born Again!

Today’s text comes from the familiar New Testament passage in which Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, asking some deep questions. During their conversation, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).

Nicodemus’ response made it clear he had no idea what Jesus was talking about: “‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’” (John 3:4) Obviously, Nicodemus did not understand what it means to be “born again.” And if he did not understand the meaning of the phrase, he certainly did not realize why that rebirth is necessary. Let’s look at both of these issues.

“Born again” means to be born from above by the Almighty. In the College of Christ, everyone who has—by grace through faith—placed their trust in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is born again by the Spirit of God.

Here are a few passages of Scripture that define this Divine Degree.

“My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Now that we have a basic understanding of the meaning of “born again,” we must know why it is necessary.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. (Ephesians 2:1-2)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. (Colossians 1:21)

Every one of us was born in sin, and that indwelling sin separates us from God and makes us blind and indifferent to the things of God. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Our condition was utterly hopeless and helpless; we were dead in our sins.

And now you will read the two most glorious words in all the English language: “But God.”

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:4-5)

We could do nothing to save ourselves . . . but God in Christ offers eternal salvation to all who will transfer their trust from their own self-salvation projects to Christ’s atoning work on their behalf.

Of all the degrees we could pursue through higher education, the only one that truly matters—the highest, most exalted one of all—is the divine degree from the College of Christ. And here is the greatest news of all: Unlike every other degree that must be earned through your disciplined effort and financial commitment, your BA from the College of Christ is simply received by grace through faith. There is nothing you must do, indeed, nothing you can do to earn this divine degree. Simply by trusting in Christ alone—by faith alone, through grace alone, to the glory of God alone—you will receive the most important degree in the world: your BA from the College of Christ . . . Born Again!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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THE LESSONS OF LYSTRA

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The next day Paul and Barnabas left for Derbe. They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra. (Acts14:20-21)

God sent the apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas to Lystra to preach the Gospel there. In Lystra they healed a man who had been crippled from birth. The crowds thought the gods had come down from heaven in the likeness of Paul and Barnabas, and they called Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes.” Paul and Barnabas would not receive their praise and worship and quickly corrected their misunderstanding.

But while they were there, some of the Jews who rejected the Gospel of Christ arrived from Antioch and stirred up the crowds to stone Paul; they dragged him out of the city and left him for dead. We don’t know whether Paul truly was dead and raised again to life, as some believe, or whether he only appeared to be dead; but, miraculously, Paul was alive and well the next day. He and Barnabas left for Derbe to preach and teach.

Then something very strange happened. They went back to Lystra. Why? Because God had called them back to learn the lessons of Lystra. I want to look at two of the lessons that God ordained for Paul and Barnabas to learn.

Lesson #1. Learn from every defeat

Rarely do we learn much when the sky is blue, the clouds are fleecy, and the sun is brightly shining. More often than not, God’s deep teachings will only be learned on the other side of a devastating defeat in life. So we must seek to find the lesson in every defeat, letting it shape and mold us into the person God is calling us to be.

Lesson #2. Return to some defeats

Sometimes God calls us to return to a place where we experienced defeat because He intends to turn that defeat into a divine victory. This is not an easy thing for the natural man to do! When we are defeated, we would rather learn the lesson—or just forget about it as quickly as possible—and get on with life. But there are times when God has determined to take us above and beyond a lesson learned and to turn that devastating defeat into a divine deliverance. When that happens, we are reminded of our Lord’s words: “With man, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). That is the lesson that God gave Paul and Barnabas; but in order to understand it, they had to learn to think supernaturally rather than naturally.

Think back to the last time God determined that you should return to some particular defeat, rather than simply learn from it. A heated argument with a loved one? A broken relationship that needed to be made whole? A stronghold that became a stranglehold on you? When you encounter these trials, it may very well be that God has ordained that the lesson learned will not lift you high enough. Rather, you must return to rise above that defeat in order to receive the victory that is only possible with God. Return with a humble heart. Return with a contrite character. Return, despite the threat of a “second stoning,” knowing that God is with you every step of the way . . . just as He was with Paul and Barnabas.

 Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.
(Psalm 37:3 NKJV)

My prayer is that you will feed on the faithfulness of God this day as you consider the lessons of Lystra.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

 

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AGONY IN GETHSEMANE

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Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  (Luke 22:44)

The medical term is hematidrosis, also called “blood sweat.” Medical journals explain it this way: Near the sweat glands, there are multiple blood vessels in a net-like form, which constrict under the pressure of great stress. Then, as the anxiety passes, the blood vessels dilate to the point of rupture and blood goes into the sweat glands.

Now let us return to today’s passage and prayerfully consider the deep truth revealed to us. You see, as Jesus knelt in Gethsemane, He fully understood what He was about to do. He was going to a cross to drink the full cup of God’s wrath and judgment, and He was doing it on our behalf. The anguish Jesus experienced was both raw and real, an intensity that was surpassed only by His earnest prayer to His Father in heaven. Our Lord’s agony in Gethsemane teaches us a profound biblical truth: there is no pain and trauma we experience in life that Jesus did not experience Himself—and then even beyond what we can begin to comprehend, such as experiencing the full measure of God’s holy hatred for sin at Calvary.

Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Many Bible translators note that the Hebrew word makob, which the NIV Bible translates as “sorrows” in Isaiah 53:3, can also be rendered as “pain.” Indeed, the NET Bible translates that passage, “He was . . . one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness” (emphasis added). Christian, you are not alone in your anguish or agony. Elsewhere in Isaiah we read, “In all their affliction [the Lord] was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9 ESV).

During pastoral counselling sessions, it is not uncommon for someone to say, “You just don’t understand what I’m going through!” That is often true; I haven’t experienced what that individual has, and thus I can only sympathize, not truly empathize. But there is One who does understand, and His name is Jesus. He knows our frustrations and fears. He knows our doubts and our defeats. He knows our misfortune and our misery. He knows everything about our story – because He is the One who wrote it!

Regardless of where this message finds you today, always remember that Jesus is in it with you. He lived your loneliness. He suffered your storms. He conquered your challenges. He participated in your pain. He was “tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin: (Hebrews 4:15). He walked where you walk and is walking it all over again with you. When He said He would never leave nor forsake you, He meant what He said! Jesus is in you, with you, and for you, and He will sustain you during whatever storms you are currently facing.

His drops of blood sweat are like battle scars that shout from heaven, “I have overcome the world; don’t give in and don’t give up!”

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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HANDS AND FEET OF JESUS

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Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

We have all heard the phrase, “You are the hands and feet of Jesus,” which is a reminder to Christians that we are ambassadors of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is no longer in the world today, but rather seated in the heavenly realms at the right hand of God the Father, we are to be His hands and His feet. But what does this metaphor truly mean?

When we hear the phrase, “You are the hands and feet of Jesus,” it is used almost exclusively in the context of serving. Serve the poor and the marginalized. Serve a cup of cold water to those who thirst. Serve within some ministry within the church. Serve on a committee or during an event. Serve as our Lord and Savior served, because He did not come to be served, but to serve others (Mark 10:45).

All these activities are right and true, but I have a question for you: When was the last time you heard this metaphor used in relation to suffering? Let us make no mistake: the hands and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ both served and suffered.

In the apostle Paul’s second letter to his protégé Timothy, he made it crystal clear what the Christian can expect to experience in this life: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Suffering for the saints of God comes in a variety of ways: from storms of sickness to relationship rejections to public persecution. If space permitted, you and I could create a long list of the suffering we should expect to experience in this life. Waves of challenge have been promised, and we should not be surprised when they crash over our lives. This is the deepest meaning of being the hands and feet of Jesus.

Perhaps the best way to prepare ourselves for this reality is to keep in view how the hands and feet of our Lord were pierced for our transgressions. Jesus was nailed to our cross, with our nails, and died our death, that we might be made the children of God and live forevermore. Remember, we were the joy set before our Lord as He suffered and died in our place (Hebrews 12:2). When He uttered that heart-wrenching cry, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” He endured that awful separation from His Father because of His love for you and me.

As the hands and feet of Jesus, let us advance in this life through seasons of both serving and suffering, knowing that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Cross Community Church recently concluded our second annual Christmas program. There were a number of high points for me as I watched each performance, but certainly one of those was hearing Meg Carter of Stetson University singing Twila Paris’s song “How Beautiful” in her lovely, rich, clear voice. I’d like to close today’s message with some of those lyrics:

And as He laid down His life
we offer this sacrifice
that we will live just as he died:
willing to pay the price
willing to pay the price.
How beautiful the radiant Bride
who waits for her Groom
with His light in her eyes.
How beautiful when humble hearts give
the fruit of pure lives
so that others may live.
How beautiful,
how beautiful,
how beautiful is the body of Christ.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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BEGINNING AGAIN . . . NOT STARTING OVER

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We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)

At the beginning of a new year, there is a lot of talk about “starting over” and “getting a clean start in life.” I know what people are trying to say, but experience has taught me that it would be far better to say “beginning again” rather than “starting over.” Starting over suggests a clean slate with the past wiped away. The problem with this approach is that it attempts to eliminate your story up to this point.

Now, I understand that all of us would like to eliminate parts of our past story for a variety of reasons: broken promises . . . unfulfilled dreams . . . unaccomplished goals . . . hurtful or harmful experiences. But eliminating those ugly episodes would dishonor and minimize the person we have become today. Why? Because everything in our past has brought us to our present, and these things will be used by God to propel us into our promised future. And I do mean everything!

  • Past wounds witness
  • Past scars speak  
  • Past pains produce
  • Past failures fortify
  • Past difficulties deliver

Notice what our verse for today does not say; it does not say, “All things are good.” There are some pretty dreadful things that happen in this life, because we are sinful people living with other sinful people in a broken world. But what Romans 8:28 does say is that God works all those dreadful things for your good. God is working your wounds for your good. God is working your scars for your good. God is working your pains for your good. God is working your failures for your good. God is working your difficulties for your good. God is working everything for your good, and that is why we ought not try to erase our past or escape from it. God was in it then, and He is working it for our good even now.

So instead of thinking about “starting over” in 2018, I encourage you to consider “beginning again.” You begin from right where you are. You acknowledge, receive, and own your past, trusting that every portion of your past story will be used by God to produce the absolute best version of who you are and what God has placed you here to do.

I love the way the Amplified Bible renders Paul’s description of Abraham in Romans 4:20-21 —

No unbelief or distrust made him waver (doubtingly question) concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong and was empowered by faith as he gave praise and glory to God, fully satisfied and assured that God was able and mighty to keep His word and to do what He had promised.

Christian, there are those times when you and I are assailed by doubts and questions. We wonder what possible purpose there can be in our pain. But when those thoughts come, banish them to the pit where they belong! Do not waver in your trust in the promises of God, because He who began His good work in you is “able and mighty to keep His word,” and He has promised to use every bit of your story to conform you to the image of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

 

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