Lift Up and Abide

LiftUpandAbide

Growing up in the Bible Belt religiosity that I did there was always an emphasis on fruit bearing. I can remember countless youth rallies where the evangelist would ask sugar high teenagers, “What are you doing for God? Are you a missionary to your school or in the locker room? Is God calling you to the mission field somewhere? What big things are you doing for God? Is there sin in the camp? (which if you grew up in the stanch Baptist background may be a term you’ve heard more than you care to admit). But if I was honest my thought was always “No. I love God, I am resting in Christ, but I’m a sinner. I know that I continue to sin, though I don’t want to. Nor am I doing these great and mighty things for God. I’m just a seventeen-year-old football player who wants to listen to Hawk Nelson and drink Full Throttle.

One of the passages in Scripture that has always terrified my soul is the Vine and Branches section of the Upper Room discourse in John 15. I know that sounds odd, but when we get to verse two, we come to this teaching, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” We ought to feel the weight of this. The logical question that follows here is often “Am I bearing fruit?”- which is a good question. Good works are the natural fruit of our salvation and a proper evidence of it. But I struggle to accept that this passage is focused on fruit bearing. Rather, the issue rests on our union with Christ. If we look at the passage, we see that the repeated phrase is “in me”, specifically “abide”. In fact, “abide in me” is said more than fruit in this discourse. The word often translated as “takes away” has an alternative meaning, to lift up. What we are dealing with here is vines, not trees. I know that sounds like much ado about nothing, but it does matter. Branches that don’t have proper support won’t get sunlight and thus won’t continue to grow. Very often, gardeners would see these branches that had lost their support and would steak them up, much like what my grandfather does with his tomatoes. So then when we come to this word in John 15:2, we must ask if “take away” is the best translation.

Here’s why I don’t think, at least for this passage, it is.

The point here is to speak about the location of the branch in relation to the vine, because that is where the fruit bearing comes from. If we connect the dots with verse four and five, we see that apart from the vine, no branches are bearing fruit. Christ is specifically saying that only those branches who abide in Christ are those who are producing fruit. The word “abide” in verse four carries with it a command- Abide! But it is also a continuous action. It is Christ calling us to continue to abide in Him. But look at what is said about those branches in verse six.

“If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Those branches that are being cast aside aren’t those who aren’t bearing fruit, rather they are those that do not abide in Christ. The point of the passage is not so much fruit bearing, but rather the location of the branch in relation to the vine. But what does this have to do about anything? I know you’re sitting having your morning coffee or your evening beer and thinking, “What does this obscure Greek translation issue have to do with anything?”

But it has everything to do with everything!

Our continuing and growth in the Christian life is not then based on fruit bearing, though those are good evidences. But you do not stay a Christian throughfruit bearing. You bear fruit and are growing because you are united to Christ. We see through this whole section- abide, abide, abide in Me. The imperative here is not to bear fruit, but to abide in Christ. Fruit bearing, that is good works, are the natural outcome of our abiding in Christ. Yes, God is glorified in our good works (v. 8) Yes, we ought to resist sin and walk in holiness. But the main way we do that is by being united to Christ by faith. It is only when we walk away that we show that we haven’t been united to Christ, and we wither and dry. Do you want to bear fruit, and thus glorify God? Then the way to do that is to abide in Him. Rest in Him. Find your peace in Him.

But so often we find our faith weak. We find the sins that cling so closely to us to be far sweeter than the fruit of obedience. We find that we aren’t bearing fruit, though that is our desire. We are wrestling, we are struggling with sin, and yet we find ourselves deep in the dust. What can we then say? United to Christ, yet not bearing fruit, is there no hope?

Absolutely there is hope! God does not cast away those united to the Son. Rather He cares for them. He reaches down to them. He lifts them up. He takes them away from that which hinders their growth and props them up so that they will bear fruit. He does not abandon His people, but rather lovingly cares for His branches so that they may glorify Him. Yes, God desires us to walk in holiness. But He does not bring us to Himself and not give us everything that we need to do so.

So then, let us not look to God as the dresser who will cast us aside. Rather, let us abide and keep abiding. Let us seek to glorify God and pray as Augustine did: Command what you will and give what you command!

Revelation 2:1-7 // The Church That Lost Its First Love

 

sevenlettersgraphicp1

Text: Revelation 2:1-7

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION:

Almighty, Gracious Father, since our whole understanding of salvation depends upon our true understanding of your holy Word, grant to all of us that our hearts, being free from worldly things, may hear and understand your holy Word with all due diligence and faith, that we may rightly understand your gracious will, cherish it, and live by it with all our hearts, to your praise and honor; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. [1]

INTRODUCTION:

This morning, we are going to start on a journey through the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation.

As some of you may know, this is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The term epiphany means “to show” or “to make known” or even “to reveal.” In Western churches, it remembers the coming of the wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing “reveal” Jesus to the world as Lord and King. In some eastern churches, Epiphany or the Theophany commemorates Jesus’ baptism, with the visit of the Magi linked to Christmas. [2]

So, most of the time, pastors might preach on the baptism of Jesus, the three wise men bringing gifts to Jesus when he was a child, or some might even preach on Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine.

One of the reasons why I feel like this is appropriate for Epiphany is because one of the major practical applications that we take from the book of Revelation as a whole is that Jesus sees His church, and His church sees Him seeing them (as funny as that sounds) because He’s revealed to them. That’s what the word, “Revelation” means, it means ‘revealing.’

Jesus sees His church in their sufferings, their trials, their temptations, but He also sees the sin. We like the idea of Jesus seeing us in sufferings, trials, and temptations because we know that He can relate to those things, and He can sympathize with us in those things, but we don’t like the idea of Jesus being able to see our sin because if He sees our sin, then we can’t get away with it anymore.

So, during this Epiphany season, I want us to see Jesus and hear Jesus. I want us hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

All of these letters in Revelation follow the same pattern: there’s a picture of Jesus, a message from Jesus, and an explicit command to hear what the Spirit is saying.

You’ve probably heard people teach on these letters and say that these churches are a timeline of Christian history, and then they’ll pull out their charts and graphs and try explain how each of these seven churches fit the timeline, but the problem with believing that is that when you say that this letter applies to “this part of church history” and “that letter applies to that part of church history” what you’re actually saying is that only one part of it applies to us today, and that’s not the case.

The letters that John wrote to the seven churches are for every church in every age. For we are told in verse 7, ”he who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.”

When CB radios became popular in this country you might tune in to find someone to talk to and you would ask each other ”do you have your ears on?”

That’s similar to what Jesus is saying here. He’s saying, “If you’ve got your ears on, then hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

The picture of Jesus here, according to verse 1, is that he’s holding seven stars in his hand, and he’s walking among the seven golden candlesticks. These are representations of the church. Jesus doesn’t just see what’s going on from afar, but He’s personally active among His people.

This morning, as we look at the letter that Jesus tells John to give to Ephesus, we will see that there three things we need to deal with: There’s An Assessment of the Church, An Accusation Against the Church, and An Answer for the Church.

AN ASSESSMENT OF THE CHURCH (v. 2-3)

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.” – Revelation 2:2-3, NRSV

As we look at these two verses we find that there are three things that characterize the assessment of the church.

They Were Energetic (v. 2a)

Jesus says, “I know your works, your toil…”

They were an active congregation. They are at all the community events. They’re the first ones to welcome new people who move to their area. Their Sunday School programs and Bible Studies were filled with rich discussion, and they gave heartily to all the right causes.

They Were Established (v. 2b)

Not only were they energetic, but they were established.

Look at the second half of verse 2 – “I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.”

They hated moral evil. – They didn’t want to see anyone mistreated. They stood up for their fellow man.

They also hated ministerial evil. – They didn’t tolerate people who taught false doctrine. Jesus even tells them in verse 6, “this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

  • No one knows much about the Nicolaitans, but what scholars can come up with is that they were a sect of apostate Christians who tolerated idolatry and fornication, and the church here at Ephesus wasn’t having any of it, and Jesus commends them for it.

Not only were they energetic and established, but they were also enduring.

They Were Enduring (v. 3)

In verse 2, Jesus says, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…” and then in verse 3, Jesus says, “I also know that you are enduring patiently…”

They’re in this thing for the long haul. They seem to be ready for whatever comes their way. On the outside, this looks like a healthy church.

Who wouldn’t want to be apart of a church where they’re energetic, established, and enduring?

So, what’s the problem? The problem is on the inside and it goes deep. On the surface, everything looks healthy, but there’s something going on on the inside that only Jesus can see, and that’s what warrants the accusation. Maybe it’s the same way with some of us. Maybe we look fine on the outside, but on the inside we’re lacking. On the inside we are weighed in the balances and found wanting, and Jesus sees it even no one else does.

THE ACCUSATION AGAINST THE CHURCH (v. 4)

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” – Revelation 2:4, NRSV

The accusation is that they lost their first love. What does that mean? Obviously they love something. Their church doesn’t look healthy on the outside because they’re just going through the motions. Jesus doesn’t accuse them of “going through the motions.” They actually love what they’re doing, and it shows in the quality of their service.

  • The problem isn’t with what they love, but who they’re not loving.
    • They loved service more than the Savior. They loved form, but not godliness.

“We can get so focused on the work of the Lord that we forget the Lord of the work.” – Denny Duron

We can strive to make a better image for ourselves, and make our brand bigger and better, but if we are not focused on Jesus, then it’s all in vain.

  • Our motivations are ultimately the litmus test. Do we want to help others find and follow Jesus? Or do we just want others join our social club so they follow our vision of what we think the church ought to be?

One theologian describes Ephesus leaving their first love like this:

“They had lost the first flush of excitement in their Christian life and settled into a cold orthodoxy with more surface strength than depth.” [3]

  • (Illustration: This kinda reminds me of a story I heard where there was a woman who felt like her husband was neglecting her. They had been married for several years, but she felt like the fire was going out.

    One day a newly wed couple moved in next door, and everyday when he left for work he would grab her and hug her and plant a long kiss on her lips. The neglected neighbor watch this until she could take it no more. She dragged her husband to the door, made him watch what was going on and asked, “Can you do that?” He thought about it a minute and said, “Sure, I guess I could, but I don’t think her husband would like that too much.”)

As continue to look at the passage, we’ll see that not only is there an assessment of the church, not only is there an accusation against the church, but Jesus also provides An Answer for the Church.

AN ANSWER FOR THE CHURCH (v. 5)

“Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” – Revelation 2:5, NRSV

Remember

First, he calls them to remember. The present imperative form of this verb beckons them to “keep on remembering.” Never forget what you have lost. Go back and note when and where the flame of love grew faint. Take an inventory and evaluate where you are now compared to where you were then. Go back to the time when your love for Jesus was a burning passion and all that mattered. [4]

Memory is a powerful tool. Almost everything sacramental that we do in the life of the church calls us to remember.

  • In baptism we remember that just as God brought Moses and the people Israel across the Red Sea so He brings into out of the captivity of our sin and into the promised land of the Church.
  • In the Lord’s Supper, we remember what makes our salvation and our baptism possible – the shed blood of Jesus. His body is broken for us, and His blood is poured out for us. Those are things we are called to remember.

And the church at Ephesus is called to remember a time when they loved God, and they remembered what He did for them.

Not only does He call them to Remember, but He calls them to repent.

Repent

Think about the word, “repent.” In the Greek this is metanoeō “to think differently” or “reconsider.”

  • What do they have to reconsider? What do they have to think about differently? When we ask that we also have to understand that this is for us so what is that we have to think about differently?

We have to think differently about our sin—sins of indifference, religious formalism, legalistic routine. Repentance requires that we change our minds from thinking that our good deeds are meritorious and earn God’s favor.

In calling for the Ephesians to repent (and ultimately, calling us to repent), Jesus reminds us that labor is no substitute for love, purity is no substitute for passion, and deeds are no substitute for devotion. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for doing good things for the wrong reason. [5]

Repeat

The NRSV that I use says, “do the works you did at first,” but the New King James is probably more correct when it says, “do the first works.” The reason that’s important is because that word “first” is the same as the word “first” in verse 4.

It speaks of that which is “first in rank and importance”. In other words, Jesus isn’t calling them to go back and do what they did before, instead He calls them to return to the things that are most important.

What is most important when it comes to our relationship with Him? The Lord’s call here is for the Ephesian believers to return to the simple fundamentals of the faith.

It is a call to return to the altar of prayer.
It is a call to come back to the Word of God.
It is a call to return to a place of worship.
It is a call to return to the sacraments.
It is a call to obedience to His will.
It is a call to walk in holiness before the Lord.

  • Now, when we think about holiness we tend to think of moral purity. Although some aspects of our holiness might involve that, there are lost people who don’t know Jesus who are more moral than some of us are.
    • So, what is holiness? What does it mean to be holy as God is holy? (1 Peter 1:16) Holiness is ‘other’ness. When the Bible speaks about God being mean it means that He is complete set apart from everything. There’s literally nothing else in this universe like Him.
  • So, when the church is called to be holy as He is holy, when the church is called to walk in holiness. It means that we are to walk in otherness. We are a called out people. It doesn’t mean we’re better than anyone else, but it does mean that something has been done for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves.
  • We are ‘set apart’ precisely because Jesus attained a victory for us that we couldn’t get on our own. So, in giving an overview of the seven letters in Revelation, M. Eugene Boring says, “The Christian life called for in chapters 2–3 is not adherence to moralistic norms but a life lived in view of the reality of the Christ event in the past and the victory of God in the eschatological future.” [6]

Being holy means understanding that we look forward to a time when our faith will be sight. In the end, Jesus wins, and because He wins, we win.

Jesus is still calling the church to return to these basic, foundational truths.

CONCLUSION (v. 5, 7)

“Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” – Revelation 2:5, NRSV

There’s a lot of debate over the symbolism involved here about what this lampstand could mean, but I think there’s a practical truth to taken from this statement that Jesus makes – a church cannot expect to keep its light, if it doesn’t keep its love.

(Illustration: Henry Grady was the editor of the Atlanta Constitution. After a great speech entitled, “The New South” he was hailed as a national hero, but Grady knew something was desperately wrong in his life.

One day he left his downtown office and started back to his boyhood home in the mountains. When he arrived he found his mother sitting on the porch reading her Bible. He quickly confessed to her that he had lost something and desperately needed to find it. That night after supper they sat on the porch together. As he placed his head in her lap as he had done as a young boy, she started talking about her Lord Jesus Christ. She talked about how good He’d been to her throughout the years, and how wonderful it was to serve Him.

Henry Grady began to feel something in his heart grow warm once again. When it was time to go to bed he and his mother walked up to his room where they knelt together. That night he didn’t sleep much. He spent the night remembering and repenting.

The next morning, his mother said, “Henry, you look so different.” He said, “Mom, I am different. I have found what I lost.”)

Do you need to find what you lost this morning? You can. Let’s pray.

CLOSING PRAYER

Heavenly Father, You love us. You loved us so much that You sent us Your Son to deal with the problems of our sin, our guilt, and our shame. You also not only call us to repent, but You grant repentance as gift. Grant us repentance this morning. Send the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sins, and bring us closer to You. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

____________

  1. Prayer based on the Strasbourg Liturgy of 1539
  2. http://www.crivoice.org/cyepiph.html
  3. Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Baker Academic, 2008.
  4. Exalting Jesus in Revelation (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (Kindle Locations 967-969). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  5. ” “
  6. Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (pp. 89-90). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Ministry Matters: Receiving Ministry From Jesus // John 3:1-15

Ministry Matters 1

Text: John 3:1-15

Introduction:

Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, opened blind eyes, multiplied food for hungry people, and the list could go on, but all of these miracles pointed to the greatest of miracles – showing people the kingdom. Because once someone saw the kingdom of God at work on earth then they were born again. Their blinded eyes were opened. Why do think Paul went blind for three days and had scales on his eyes after he saw Jesus?

Was it simply because the light from Jesus’ glory was so bright that it blinded and that’s just what happens when you see Jesus? Maybe, but I think it was more than that. I think it was so people could relate to Paul’s story more.

Everyone may not know what it’s like to have Jesus personally come down and knock you off your horse, but anyone who has been saved can say with a surety that they know what’s like for scales to fall from their eyes as a result of seeing the kingdom.

  • That’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that if the Gospel is hidden, it’s hidden to those that are perishing whose minds have been blinded by the god of this world. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

This morning, I want us to start a new series called, “Ministry Matters,” and I want us to start it off by looking at this passage because you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t really minister to people unless you’ve been ministered to. People can’t encounter Jesus through you if you’ve never encountered Jesus.

So, we have Jesus ministering to Nicodemus, and what is it that Nicodemus needs more than anything? He needs a complete transformation. He needs renewal. He needs regeneration.

  • If you don’t know what the word regeneration means, it’s a word that us stodgy Reformed use to describe what happens when Jesus comes in cleans house which is exactly what happens when someone is born again.

So, this morning, I want us to see that Nicodemus’ needs are our needs. His questions are our questions, and when we talk to other people, they’re like Nicodemus. They’ve got questions and Jesus has answers. They’ve got problems and Jesus has solutions.

It is no mere coincidence that this passage follows John 2:25 where John tells us that Jesus knew what is in the heart of man, then that is followed by this encounter with Nicodemus and this is followed by an encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

We have in John 3, Jesus talking with one who represents the intelligentsia, the upper echelon of society. He’s a religious leader. He has money, power, prestige, but he does not know what it is to truly see the Kingdom of God.

We have in John 4, a woman who represents those in the lower class of society. She has had 5 husbands and now she’s shacking up with a man who isn’t even her husband. She’s broke, busted, and disgusted, all because she’s been looking for love in all the wrong places.

I think what John is doing here is illustrating his point in John 2:25. He’s essentially saying, “Jesus knows the very heart of man and if you don’t believe me, I recall a conversation He had with a man named Nicodemus, and then there was this other time with a Samaritan woman.” John is making it crystal clear that Jesus is looking beyond what we pretend to be, beyond what society says we are, beyond how everyone else sees us and He sees into our very soul and looks directly at our NEED FOR HIM.

So in this passage, we need to recognize the ways that we are like Nicodemus, and we need to see what it is exactly that Jesus is saying to us through this passage in John 3.

Ways We Are Like Nicodemus:
1. We Are Good At Being Religious
2. We Come to Jesus with What We [Think We] Know
3. We Must Listen to What Jesus Is Saying

We’re Good at Being Religious

We’ve got a lot in common with Nicodemus. First of all, we’re good at being religious. Let’s not get confused. There is a good religion and a bad religion. Good religion motivates us to serve God by caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27). There is a bad religion that even the best of us seem to fall into sometimes. It’s this kind of religion that Nicodemus is good at and a lot of us are good at. And it’s sneaky because it hides behind moralism so it looks good on the outside, but on the inside it leaves you full of dead men’s bones. (Matthew 23:27)

The good religion, the true religion that James mentions in James 1:27 is fleshed out more in the next chapter in James 2, and it doesn’t have to do with making sure your shirt is tucked in, or making sure you’ve not cussed, or making sure the Jesus fish on your bumper is on straight, it has to do with how you treat other people.

When we end up falling into Nicodemus’ religion instead of James’ ‘pure and undefiled’ religion, there’s some things that happen.

Church becomes somewhere we go, instead of who we are to be.
In the deep south, Bible belt culture of Arkansas, we’re good at being religious. Church is all most of us have ever known so we’re good at attending church, but we’re bad at being the Church. I know because I’m bad at being the Church. I’m going to be brutally honest. It’s much easier to ask someone where they go to church than whether or not they know Jesus as their savior.


Worship becomes the songs we sing instead of the life we live.
We always say, “Worship starts at 11 AM.” Now, we all know what that means. It means that the corporate worship service starts at 11 AM, but in reality, Worship starts when you become born-again and it continues all through eternity.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Romans 12:1, NRSV

The King James says, ‘reasonable service.’ Paul is saying that it only makes sense live as a sacrifice. Paul says earlier in Romans 8 that we are being killed all the day long (Romans 8:36). So, if you’re facing death, (and we all are because that’s what it means to be human) then you might as well live as a holy and acceptable sacrifice to God. You’re gonna die anyway you might as well lay yourself on the altar. 

  • That’s what it means to live a life of worship, but unfortunately we get in this habit of believing worship is simply what we do on Sunday morning.


Jesus becomes a good teacher rather than the God who saves.
So, when church becomes somewhere we go, instead of who we are, and worship becomes the songs we sing instead of the life we live, Jesus becomes a good teacher rather than the God who saves.

Nicodemus had no idea who he was talking to. “We know that you are a teacher sent from God.” He was right. Jesus was a teacher sent from God, but he was only half right. And that’s the only truth the devil likes, those truths that are half true, but they’re still whole lies.

Nicodemus was speaking to the very God who placed each star in the sky and called it by name. The same God that, by the Word of His mouth, called the universe in being, knew Nicodemus intimately, and knows us intimately inside and out, and He still loves us.

 

We Come to Jesus with What We Think We Know

Next, not only are we good at being religious, but we have a tendency to come to Jesus with what we think we know.

One of the most striking things about this passage is that the first things Nicodemus says is, “We know that you are a teacher sent from God.” And then Jesus proceeds to unravel everything.

“Nicodemus said, “We know.” Then he began to rehearse the things he knew (or thought he knew) and with which he wanted to begin the discussion: (1) that Jesus was continuing to do many miracles; (2) that these miracles were intended to authenticate him as a teacher sent from God; and that therefore, (3) Jesus was the one to whom he should listen. Unfortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus replied that such an approach to knowledge was wrong and that Nicodemus could therefore know nothing until he had first experienced an inward, spiritual transformation. “You must be born anew,” Jesus told him (John 3:7).
– James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith


Do you know what this means? It means that it’s not that tell you who Jesus is, it’s the Spirit. All throughout the Gospels, there were people who saw the miracles, and yet they still wanted to kill Jesus. Even though they saw the miracles, they were still blind. They’re the kind of people that Jesus talked about when he said, “Seeing, they do not see… hearing, they do not hear.”

There have been atheists who have said, “I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and I just don’t see any evidence for God. I just see a bunch contradictory fairy tales.” Why? Because they approach God with what they think they know because their eyes haven’t been opened to see the kingdom.

“Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
– John 3:3, NKJV

When you’re born again your eyes are opened and the whole world looks different, and you begin to see God at work. You wonder why people don’t believe in God, it’s because God hasn’t opened their eyes yet.

So far, what we have in common with Nicodemus is that we’re good at being religious, we come to Jesus with what we think we know, and finally, like Nicodemus, we need to hear what Jesus is saying.


We Must Hear What Jesus is Saying

As we go from verse 5 on down to the rest of the passage, Jesus starts alluding to some Old Testament passages that Nicodemus should know, but he’s not picking it up.

Jesus even tells him in verse 10, “How is it that you’re a teacher of Israel and yet you don’t even know these things?”

So, we’re going to see the first allusion to the Old Testament in verse 5.

Born of Water and Spirit
“Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” – John 3:5, NKJV

Jesus knows that Nicodemus had memorized the law and the prophets so He wanted to use imagery that Nicodemus would understand.

The only possible meaning is that Jesus has to be referring to the imagery of water found in Ezekiel 36 where God promises to vindicate his name and sanctify His people by sprinkling them with clean water.

“I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. 24For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

25“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. 26And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. 27And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.”
– Ezekiel 36:23-27, NLT

Jesus is taking Nicodemus back to this portion of Scripture because although the Old Testament never uses the words, “born again,” Ezekiel 36 shows us what it means.

  • When I was 15 years old I remember my grandfather, a Pentecostal evangelist, preaching a sermon from Ezekiel 36 entitled, “Open Heart Surgery.” As a prop, he had a Build-A-Bear teddy bear, and a rock that he had painted red to represent the heart of stone, and then he had a little plush heart to show the ‘heart of flesh.’ He spent an hour preaching faith and repentance to a packed house at a campmeeting in Reeds Spring, Missouri. 

The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15, NKJV

Jesus alludes a second time to a passage of Scripture that Nicodemus should be familiar with, Numbers 21. As a matter of fact, “familiar” is an understatement. Nicodemus should be intimate with this passage because as someone who is a teacher in Israel he is required to memorize the Old Testaments scriptures front and back. Not only that, but these people being bitten by snakes were his people. His was immediately recalling this.

“Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

7Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” – Numbers 21:4-9, NKJV

I imagine that when Jesus is saying this, that, at least for a split-second, Nicodemus is picturing this incident from the scroll containing the Book of Numbers. He’s had to memorize it, he’s had to hear it taught, it’s been passed down from generation to generation.

God’s people becoming rebellious and complaining and then they are bitten and killed by these snakes.

It’s passages like this that skeptics of the Bible look to and say, “If God is so loving, then why did he send serpents to bite and kill His own people?” When we approach something like this and say that God is not loving because he does something like this, then we start with the assumption that we, as mortal, finite beings, are the ultimate standard of what love and justice is.

That’s where we go wrong. We start trying to interpret the Bible with our own feelings and preferences. So, we must always start with God.

Sin offends God. It’s not about the offense or the sin, it’s about who’s been offended by this sin.

And ultimately, in spite us offending Him with our sin and rebellion, He gives us Jesus. Jesus takes our wrath on Himself, and if we look at our sin as it’s laid on Jesus’ shoulders, then we will live.

Think about the philosophical implications of that for a minute: The Israelites had to confront the confront the very thing that was afflicting them, but they couldn’t do it on their own terms. If they did it on their own terms, they would die, but if they just obeyed Moses, and ultimately God, and did things God’s way, then they would live. And what was required of them wasn’t hard, all they had to do was look, and that’s all you have to do. All you have to do is look at Jesus.

“Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon His shoulders.
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice, call out among the scoffers
His dying breath has brought me life, I know that it is finished.”
– How Deep the Father’s Love For Us

“Just as the bitten Israelites were healed by a look of faith, so the sinner may be saved by looking to Christ by faith… The moment a sinner does that he is saved, just as God said to Moses, “It shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” – Arthur W. Pink

Conclusion

How Do We Become Born Again?
Look to Christ in faith! In Isaiah 45, we have the most loving command that God has ever given humanity.

“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” – Isaiah 45:22, KJV

All you have to do is look to Him and be saved!! Then God follows this command with, “for I am God, and there is none else.” He’s saying that there’s no one else who can save you! There’s nobody who can provide an atoning sacrifice!!

John never tells us the conclusion of Nicodemus’ story, but it does tell us the conclusion of the story those who have been born again and those who have not been born again.

“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” – John 3:36, NKJV

If you want life, eternal and abundant, then it’s yours in Christ.

I’m going to pray for us, and we’re going to sing one more hymn together, and as we sing, these altars are our open. Let Jesus minister to you this morning, and let us pray for you.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we are Yours. As the old hymn says, “You have opened the life gate that we may go in” and we are grateful. This morning, I pray that You would grant us faith and repentance. Give us life and power by Your Spirit, and we’ll give You all the praise, glory, and honor. In the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Fighting the Same Battles (Yes, We’re Still Talking about Sanctification…)

SameBattles

[Just as a disclaimer, not everyone here at LNT will agree with every jot and tittle of what I’m about to say, but that’s the beauty of LNT, we are proud to be a theologically eclectic bunch.]

I know I said I was taking some time off from LNT, but I felt the need to crawl out of my hidey hole for one more article.

I left the world of Pentecostalism because I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that no matter how much “do more, try harder” religion I crammed down my throat it wasn’t helping me do more and try harder. (Go figure!) I started reading the Bible for myself and sure enough, I realized that my grandparents’ worst nightmares were coming true – I started to understand eternal security or as they called it “Once saved, always saved.”

Now, I feel like I need to stop here and explain something. A lot of the Reformed community (particularly Piper’s side) will say, “We don’t believe ‘once saved, always saved,’ we believe in ‘Perseverance of the Saints.'” They say that they want to make that distinction because they don’t want to be accused of “easy believism,” and after the recent Desiring God/R. Scott Clark Sanctification debate, I can see why. I mean, if I didn’t believe what the Bible is actually saying about salvation and sanctification, I wouldn’t want someone saying that I did.

So, as I said, I left Pentecostalism and found a home within the Reformed ranks because I thought I was safe. I thought I was free to explore the Gospel and see that it really was everything that I was reading about in Paul’s writings, and that I really was interpreting Jesus’ words in John 10 correctly when He says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” For once in my life, I could actually take what Jesus said to the bank, I didn’t have to rely on the weird ‘if’s or ‘but’s that Wesleyan Pentecostals tend to add in there just so they don’t feel uncomfortable. (Fun Fact: In this camp, I was told, “Yes, no one can snatch you out of His hand, but you can jump out of His hand if you want to.” So, basically, I was taught that God was powerful enough to make someone speak in tongues, but not powerful enough to keep someone’s soul.)

As I settled into the Reformed community, I knew nothing about Federal Vision or Norman Shepherd. I would occasionally read Douglas Wilson’s books and articles (and still do), but I never really saw anything troubling, other than his hyper-conservative ideas of complementarianism, but finding someone whose Reformed and not complementarian  is finding a needle in a haystack so I just did what I was do when I eat fried chicken, I took the meat and threw away the bones.

In spite of all of this, I never thought in my wildest dreams there would be such controversy over something that is so clear, and so freeing. I’ve read the arguments, I’ve read the quotes, and I’ll provide an abridged list of articles on both sides, but the fact of that matter is that there are those who claim the Reformed banner who want their works to count for something so badly that they need to hold to a Romanist view of the book of James in order to feel like they’re ‘doing enough.’ They are more deceived than our Roman Catholic friends because they’ll at least admit that works contribute to their salvation, and they’ll say that Sola Fide is false. Our Reformed friends who side with Piper on the other hand, will say ‘faith alone’ out of one side of their mouth and ‘works are necessary for salvation’ on the side. They are the true double-tongued serpents.

I don’t believe the False Prophet of Revelation is one specific person or group, but if I did, then it wouldn’t surprise me to see that person rise from ranks of Christendom claiming the Reformed banner and paying lip service to Sola Fide while saying that our salvation hinges on what we do for Christ rather than what He has done for us.

So, in conclusion, I didn’t jump ship to fight the same battle. I’m here because this is where my reading of Scripture and my study of theology has taken me. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that God doesn’t see my works as something that allows me to be one of His, and I’m not turning back. Call me a heretic. Call me a backslider. Call me an antinomian. Go ahead and tell me that I’m not really Reformed. I’ll gladly wear those labels as long it means that I’m sticking with what the Bible has said. I’m in the same company as Paul whenever he felt that he had to qualify the Gospel when he wrote the beginning of Romans 6, and if you don’t like it you can straight to… my Father in Heaven, and take it up with Him.

Piper’s Side:
Does Faith Alone Really Save? – John Piper
John Piper Compromising Sola Fide? – Mark Jones
The “Means and Way” to Salvation – Mark Jones
How to Train Your Dragons – Greg Morse

R. Scott Clark’s Side:
Salvation Sola Gratia, Sola Fide: On Distinguishing Is, With, And Through – R. Scott Clark
Resources On The Controversy Over “Final Salvation Through Works” – R. Scott Clark
The Marrow of the Matter: The Sanctification Debate Returns – Jay Sawrie
Keep Looking: A Response to Greg Morse and Desiring God – Jay Sawrie
Dressed in His Righteousness Alone: The Sanctification Debate, Round 3 – Jay Sawrie

The Marrow of the Matter: The Sanctification Debate Returns

Marrow Matter

It has taken me almost 27 years, and sanctification is still a tough subject to get around. It is, in my opinion, the doctrine where the rubber meets the road. The nature of good works and their relationship to sanctification is not a new debate. The Reformed tradition has come to this dispatch box for centuries, the Marrow Controversy has not died yet. Last week, John Piper lit the powder keg again saying,  These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven”. Of course, the Reformed community came back with either push back for affirmation.

But my effort in this is not to respond to either Dr. Piper or the responses to him. This of course may seem like I am dodging the war; but I want to respond to two things I myself have seen. I want to clarify the position of the “Free Grace” boys and give some push back to my New Law brothers. I think we have a serious discussion creeping up on us, and it has the potential to teach something that is contrary to the Scriptures.

What is sanctification? According to our Confession,

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,[97] whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,[98] and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.[99] (WSC #35)

Right from the onset we must dispel some things about Sanctification. First, sanctification is a work of God’s grace. Man cannot please God apart from the Spirit’s work within him. He cannot merit for Himself any righteousness before God. The Confession leaves us no room to say that sanctification is our work. It is something that is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel tells us this when he says:

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)

Second, sanctification is not passive. We are truly active in sanctification. We are equipped, by God’s free grace, to truly resist sin and to live according to God’s commands. Sin has no power over the Christian insofar that he cannot resist it. The believer is certainly given a new spirit that wills and wants that which is pleasing to God. We cannot deny this from the Confession either. By God’s grace we actively obey Him, and we break off the chains of sin.

I want to be very clear in these statements. Doubtless some will throw around the dread term antinomian for what I will say. However, I am not saying that the Christian should live in a state of unrepentance and passivity. Yes of course we should put to death the deeds of the flesh and chase after righteousness. We would not disagree on this.

However, my concern arises when we begin to treat good works as either the basis for our sanctification or the instrument by which the Spirit sanctifies us. Or that the Christian has a somewhat two fold justification: one that is given to us sola gratia, sola fide and one that is taken hold of per opera bona. This is utterly foreign to the Reformed tradition. Paul is clear that those who are justified and surely glorified.  (Romans 8:31) If these good works are Spirit wrought, how then can one obtain the promise of eternal life but never take it in actuality? However our Confession teaches that through good works believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God. But none of this speaks of good works being the instrument nor is it the means by which we take possession of eternal life.

Berkhof writes that good works, “do not have the inherit value which naturally carries with it a just claim to a reward.” This is because they are Spirit-wrought, not Christian-wrought. Whatever claim we have to them, we must be very quick to remind ourselves that they God working through us.

Good works then cannot be the instrument of sanctification. It is not that we are equipped to work and are thus sanctified. To argue this is to put the cart before the horse. It makes our sanctification (and thus our final salvation) dependent on our good works meriting God’s sanctifying work.

My fear is that there is a conflation in these discussions between justification and sanctification. Our New Law brothers at best are trying to ward off against anti-nomianism. I can appreciate that. However, they do a great disservice when they argue that our salvation is through good works and not unto good works. It is a dangerous place that this leads us to.

It leads us to a place that I saw one Southern Baptist seminarian go this weekend. Let’s call him Tim. Tim, in one of his many attempts to ignite the passions of his social media echo chamber, began to put a former Presbyterian minister on blast for an antinomian view. This pastor has not been on the stage for some time. But Tim likes to be heard and so attacked a formally ordained minister. However in doing so he makes the statement that it is “not enough” that we rest in our justification. My question is then: In whom then should I rest for my salvation? Jay? Jay is a terrible person to rest in. Jay is a sinner who daily has to repent. Do I have all that I need in Christ to be fully redeemed? Is it really finished? Or must I add to Christ’s work with my own sanctifying efforts as Rome tells me?

This is how serious the discussion is, it is the crux of the Reformation. Scripture clearly teaches that we are saved not by our works but by Christ. Our works are evidences of the faith and grace that has been freely given to us. But they are not the instrument of some final salvation. So to Tim, or anyone else who asks, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” I look to Christ who says, “Believe” and “come to me and take my yoke, for it is easy and my burden is light.”

Sermon Notes: “Believing The Shepherd”

sheep

(These are the notes from a sermon that I preached a while back. Feel free to use them for your own study. Note, this is not a manuscript so some of the thoughts may seem scattered.)

Text: John 10:22-30

Introduction
I like using the Lectionary when I’m trying to decide what passage I need to preach because it will force you deal with things in the passage you may not feel comfortable dealing with. In a way, I think we should all (preacher or layman) get on some kind of a reading plan that will force us to read the Bible as a whole because you will find yourself in parts of the Bible that you ordinarily wouldn’t read and you’ll end up learning some things you didn’t know before, and you end up in a situation where the Bible confronts you and begins to tear at the fabric of what you were always taught to believe, and when this happens we need to let the Bible drive any of our pre-conceived notions that do not line up with what we’re reading in Scripture.

“We must allow the Word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behavior.” ― John R.W. Stott

So tonight, I’ll be using John 10:22-30 as my main passage, but I will be jumping around to different parts of Scripture so that I can show you what the Bible forces us to deal with as we read this passage and seek to understand it’s meaning.

At the beginning of this passage, there’s three things we need to notice about the setting. There’s an important place, an important person, and an important party.

Important Person – Jesus the Messiah, the Jewish leaders have been hounding Him to tell them plainly if He is, in fact, the Messiah. And if you are paying attention to the chronology of John, then you’ll notice that this actually one of the more humorous passages in the Gospels and you’ll see why in a little bit.

Important Place – The Temple, more specifically, Solomon’s porch. “This place is important; it was the porch or portico on the east side of the Temple and was called the “Porch of Judgment.” From this location, the King would make his judgments and exercise justice for those who were brought before him. And here is Jesus strolling through this historic location, physically embodying justice in this place of justice — something his life and teachings were all about.”

Important Party – The Feast of Dedication, sometimes called the Festival of Lights, and today this event is known as Hanukkah. The Jews celebrated (and still celebrate) Hanukkah to remember a time when God kept the lamps in the temple burning for eight days even though there was only enough oil to last one day due to an oil shortage because of war in the land at that time.

As we keep these things in mind, let’s also notice that Jesus has been in Jerusalem since the Feast of Tabernacles which you read about in John 7 and He has been periodically teaching in the temple and revealing Himself as the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament.

Our 3 points will be the following:
The Reason for Unbelief (verses 24-26)
The Reason for Belief (verse 27)
The End Result (verses 28-29)

The Reason for Unbelief (verses 24-26)
Notice what verse 26 says, “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” It doesn’t say “you are not of my sheep because you do not believe.” See, we can’t simply look at the passage and say, “Well then, their problem is that they simply do not believe. They’re just blatantly ignoring the facts.” While there’s truth to that, the problem isn’t simply unbelief, unbelief is only a symptom of a greater disease. The greater disease is deadness in sin. Remember what Paul says in Ephesians 2, “You were dead in your sins.”

We often like to imagine Jesus as a lifeguard that throws us a life saver as we’re drowning in the sea of sin, but that analogy wrong, because Paul says the wages of sin is death. So, if you’re not saved, then you’re not sick in your sins, you’re not the brink of death in your sins, you’re dead in your sins.

So then, Jesus isn’t some lifeguard that throws you a life saver, He actually swims to the bottom of the ocean and carries your corpse up out of the sea, and breathes into you, the breath of life. So, then the problem people do not believe what Jesus is plainly telling them isn’t simply unbelief, it’s unbelief as a result of dead men walking in their sin.

In another place, Jesus makes a clear distinction between sheep and goats, so if Jesus is telling these Jews, “you do not believe because you are not my sheep” then it must follow that they are goats. And Jesus says, there will come a day when He separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on His right hand, and the goats on His left hand.
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matthew 25:41 NRSV]

Jesus is making the clear distinction, unless you believe what He says about Himself in the Scriptures and follow Him, then you are nothing more than unbelieving goat.
“How do I know if I’m a sheep or a goat?” It’s simple. Do you desire to follow Christ and believe what He says? Then you’re a sheep. If you’re confronted with Scripture, and it doesn’t phase you or change you, then you’re a goat. Sheep love and follow Jesus.

The Reason for Belief (verse 27)

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” – [John 10:27 NRSV]

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” – [John 10:1-5 NRSV]

What is He saying here? When the shepherd calls, the sheep follow.

Do you remember that old song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”? In the old school, when someone would make a decision for Christ, we would strike up the band and sing “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” That’s all well and good as long as we understand we don’t make the decision on our own apart from the inward drawing of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.”
– [John 6:44-45 KJV]

Let’s look at verse 45 in the NRSV just to good grasp of the meaning…
“It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” – [John 6:45 NRSV]

Notice, Jesus says, “It is written in the prophets…” Anytime you see that phrase mentioned, you need to look in the Old Testament to the passage that is being quoted and read it in context.

“And they all shall be taught by God.” – Although this is not a direct, word for word quote, Jesus pulls this from two passages in the Old Testament that speak of the same event – the promise of the New Covenant.

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
– [Jeremiah 31:33-34 NRSV]

“All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the prosperity of your children.” – [Isaiah 54:13 NRSV]

Here’s the big question: What does all this mean for us? It means that God, in love, has brought us into His covenant and placed us in fellowship with a covenant community of believers.

It means that our belief does not come from within us, it comes from God who loves us, draws us, saves us, sanctifies us, and will one day, glorify us. God is the cheif operator in our salvation, not us. John makes that clear at the beginning of His gospel account in John 1.

“He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
– [John 1:11-13 KJV]

Prior to being born again, we were enemies of God without hope in the world, but the will of God intervened for us, and drew us to a point in our lives where we knew we had to come to Jesus or be lost forever.

The End Result (verses 28-29)

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” – [John 10:27-29 KJV]

Let’s think about John 3:16 for a second. We know John 3:16, we love John 3:16, we can all quote John 3:16. We don’t dispute it. Yet, when it comes to verses like John 10:28-29, we want to say, “God gives them eternal life, but…” or “I know it says no one can pluck us out of God’s hand, but…” There are no ‘buts.’ There is nothing in the text that indicates that Jesus DOES NOT mean what He says.

There’s only one condition here. The sheep must follow, and He gives them eternal life.

Here’s how it works.

The Shepherd calls, the sheep follow, He gives them eternal life.

The Shepherd ALWAYS calls. The sheep ALWAYS follow. The Shepherd ALWAYS grants eternal life to the sheep. This is the beauty of Unconditional Election. Our election in Christ is sure. Our salvation is secure. There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING that can be done for our salvation to be lost.

I can hear someone asking now, “But what if the sheep ever stop following?” Then that’s not a sheep, that’s a goat. The sheep may stray, but shepherd always brings the sheep back.

“How do we know who is a sheep and who is a goat?” It’s none of our business, Jesus will separate them Himself.

Now, here’s the big question for you tonight? Are you a lost sheep? Do you need Jesus to find you? Do you need hope that only salvation can give? You may be here, and you may be saved, but you need the joy of your salvation restored. Jesus can grant you joy unspeakable and full of glory.