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by on Feb.23, 2017, under Uncategorized

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The Sinner, the Spirit and the Saviour (Gal. 5:16-25)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

As we look around the world today, there is much to be concerned about: fighting, executions, domestic violence and sexual assault, to name a few. People are addicted to gambling, alcohol, pornography and drugs, often bringing great hardship on themselves and their families in the process. Locally, some of you will have been impacted by two young men walking into Eagle Vale High School, setting fire to a stage curtain and causing $50,000 of damage1. Or maybe you own or work in one of several local stores robbed at knife-point.2

Why do these things happen? What can we do to fix these problems?

According to the Apostle Paul, the problem is not that we are not doing the right things or that we are not trying hard enough. Rather, the problem stems from not having the right nature. On the one hand, there is a sinful nature; on the other, a nature that grows out of the work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Paul describes the sinful nature according to its acts:

“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
– Galatians 5:19–21

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it helps us to get the picture. Our sinful nature pervades our sexuality and spirituality. It is the ever-present but never-welcome shadow across our relationships. Its siren-like call draws us onto the rocks of substance abuse and addiction. When you snap at your kids over breakfast or talk about your colleague behind their back or blow your savings on the pokies that is your sinful nature at work.

And yet you are still responsible – for it is you doing those things. You cannot disavow your sinful nature, for it is part of you. More than responsible; you are culpable. Every single one of those acts carries a death sentence – ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23) – and you and I have earned that wage over and over and over again. The ‘problem’ is not ‘out there’ but rather ‘in here’.

When a newspaper posed the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response: “Dear Sirs: I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton3

When I read the Bible I am confronted with an awful reality: I am part of the problem, not part of the solution. What is wrong with the world? I am. You are. We are.

The sinful nature also encompasses the effects of the sins of others against us. According to some Australian statistics 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually abused before the age of 16.4 In other words, in a room of 50 adults, we might estimate 12 people to have been victims of sexual abuse. We could cite similarly disturbing figures in relation to domestic violence,5 robbery6 and so on. Though each survivor will have their own unique response to both the sin and the sinner, there are common themes: anger; sorrow; anxiety; depression; shame. Though they are not the ones to have sinned, nevertheless the sins of someone else have brought brokenness to their life.

The sinful nature has a lot to answer for.

In stark contrast is what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
– Galatians 5:22–23

Fruit grows according to the species of the plant. Apple trees produce apples. Grape vines produce grapes. Do you think my son will have to work hard in order to grow tall like me? Or will my daughters have to strive to grow as beautiful as their mother? Of course not. These things will happen naturally, for they are part of their genetic makeup.

Where the Spirit of God is, this fruit will grow. It may start small at first, but it will keep growing. And it will encompass all of the items in the list to some extent or another. The sinful nature is sometimes able to imitate one or two of these fruit, but rarely in any kind of balance.
For example, some people are temperamentally gentle and diplomatic (gentleness). But the sign that this is not due to the work of the Holy Spirit is that such people are usually not bold or courageous (faithfulness). Because of what Paul says about the city of the fruit, this means that this sort of gentleness is not real spiritual humility, but just temperamental sweetness… Some folks seem happy and bubbly (joy) and are good at meeting new people, but are very unreliable and cannot keep friends (faithfulness). This is not real joy but just being an extrovert by nature. Some people seem very unflappable and unbothered (peaceful) but they are not kind or gentle. That is not real peace, but indifference and perhaps cynicism. It enables you to get through the difficulties of life without always being hurt, but it desensitizes you and makes you much less approachable.7

But it would be a mistake to think that we are entirely passive in this process, for Paul also talks of ‘walking in step’ with the Spirit.8 The image is a military one – marching with the Spirit, following the Spirit’s leading and orders.

I think most of us would agree that this is a much more attractive list than the last one! That is the kind of world we wish we lived in, the kind of life we wish we lived. And we are meant to think so. It is like one of those Jenny Craig posters that show before and after photos with the caption ‘I lost 30kg in 16 weeks’. We are meant to be amazed at the difference and – crucially – to ask the question, ‘How can I do the same?’

So, how do we move ourselves and our world from perpetrating the acts of the sinful nature to exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit? I want to share with you two plans that don’t work, and one that does.

Some visitors to Galatia, the place this letter was written to, had come with a plan for dealing with the sinful nature. They argued that God had given a plan long ago, when he gave the law to Moses. If only the Galatians would follow this law, they could be saved from their sinful nature and live a life pleasing to God.

That might work if the problem was simply our actions that need changing. But Paul says it’s bigger than that; it is a question of desires.

“For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.”
– Galatians 5:17

Desires by themselves are not bad. C. S. Lewis wrote that,

[I]t would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.9

One of the tragic ironies of the sinful nature is that it longs for the fruit of the Spirit, but it settles for counterfeit versions instead. We seek love and accept lust; we pursue peace and find apathy; merriment and drunkenness substitute for joy; and so on.

Why is this? I think part of the problem is that, though we want love, and joy, and peace etc., we want them on our terms. We want to be in control. So we ‘agree to disagree’ instead of seeking reconciliation, otherwise we might have to admit we’re wrong. We invert our hierarchy of needs and wants such that we prioritise smoking and alcohol over food to eat. We choose ‘gods’ we can control – work, family, hobbies – to offer our ‘sacrifices’ of time and money, rather than submitting to a God who might ask more of us than we are ready to give. Today we commemorate Mothers’ Day, and in so doing we celebrate the ideals of motherhood: women who love and nurture their families. Yet we know that even such noble ideals can turn nasty when mum lives vicariously through her child, or becomes overly protective or controlling.

Paul says our desires are in conflict, ‘so that [we] do not do what [we] want’ (Gal. 5:17b).
Law is not very good at dealing with desire. The best it can do is to invoke some deeper desire, usually either a desire for respect or to avoid punishment. It cannot by itself eliminate the sinful nature, but only contain its symptoms. In fact, Paul says that by itself the law is another form of slavery, no better than having an unrestrained sinful nature.10

Another popular plan – now as then – involves the will. You need to resolve to control your temper, speak kindly, go to the gym, give up alcohol, stop looking at pornography and so on. And then discipline yourself to follow through on these resolutions come what may. You must be like Boxer, the cart horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm, whose solution to every adversity was, ‘I will work harder.’ And so we enrol in twelve-step programs, seek counselling, change our diet, read the latest research and generally invest all our efforts towards improving ourselves.

Yet, like the legal plan, this wilful plan suffers from the fatal flaw that it does not address our desires but only our actions. Worse than that, both plans rely on us for fulfilment, and that is bad for two reasons. First, anything that we can do we can also undo. I’m sure that many of us have gone on a diet, only to find ourselves drifting back into old eating habits and gaining weight again. If my deliverance from the sinful nature relies on the continued application of my will then what happens when I inevitably screw up?

The second reason a plan that relies on us is deficient is that anything we do is tainted by our sinful nature. A friend of mine carefully prepared a baking tray ready for baking. Upon completion of this task, his wife decided to take out the trash and, in the process of removing the garbage managed to drip ‘bin juice’ into the baking tray. I can’t imagine there was a vast quantity of ‘bin juice’; yet just a little was enough to spoil the effort!11 Would you drink a glass of water with just one drop of poison in it? Would you wash your dishes in a muddy puddle? So it is when we try to cleanse ourselves of our sinful nature by the exercise of our sinful nature.

Are you doomed, then, to a life where ‘you do not do what you want’ (Gal. 5:17b)? Not at all! For though any plan that depends on us is doomed to failure, there is a plan which is completely dependable. You see God was not surprised by the sinful nature. It is not as though he saw Eve committing the first sin and thought, ‘Whoops, didn’t see that coming.’ Rather, even before the creation of the world, God had a plan ready,12 and that plan was to send his Son, Jesus.
Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God, meaning that there was no sinful nature within him. Yet the world rejected and killed him. They crucified him, killing him in the most painful, shameful way they knew how. And, though he could have set himself free, Jesus endured the mocking, the beating, the agony and, ultimately, ‘became obedient to death – even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). Because he knew what they did not: that cross was the only way that we might be delivered from our sinful nature. Paul puts it like this: ‘Those who belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires’ (Gal. 5:24), and it is on the cross of Christ that it has been crucified.

Do you belong to Christ? You can, you know. He invites you to come to him, to give up the pretence of being able to deal with your own sinful nature and instead trust him to deal with it. Remember, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23), and so your sinful nature must die; if it is not crucified on the cross of Christ then you will die with it. The apostle wrote in another of his letters,

For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
– Rom. 8:13-14

Or, to put it another way, if you are not crucifying sin, sin is crucifying you!13

This means that we have a responsibility to act when we recognise the acts of the sinful nature in our lives. We must confess and repent of our sin, both before God and before those we have sinned against. The trouble is that crucifixion, whilst a certain death, is also a lingering death.14 Too often, we hang around at the foot of the cross, to pity it, to long for its release. We need to learn to leave those sins there. We have crucified the flesh; we are never going to draw the nails.15

If that were the entire story, it would be more than enough to qualify as great news indeed. But God loves to give us ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Eph. 3:20). And so he offers us new life, life in the Spirit after the death of the sinful nature. Picture a man with a broken spine. He needs a surgeon to deal with the brokenness within him; but he also needs someone to teach him to walk again, to walk with him as he mends, to push him when he needs encouragement and stop him when he needs to rest. Jesus Christ has granted us the freedom to walk the way we were always intended to walk. He has provided the means by which the sinful nature may be crucified. But he has also sent the Holy Spirit to teach us how to live in the light of that freedom and actually walk!

And as we walk, the fruit of the Spirit will manifest in our lives. That is to say, we will grow more and more like Jesus, the one who displayed the same fruit in his own perfect obedience to his Father.

Living by the Spirit is the root; walking by the Spirit is the fruit, and that fruit is nothing less than the practical reproduction of the character (and therefore the conduct) of Christ in the lives of his people.16

Though showered with hate, he demonstrated his love. His joy was such that he could ‘endure the cross, scorning its shame’ (Heb. 12:2). He brought peace to the storm, was patient with wayward disciples, and kind and gentle to outcasts. His goodness, faithfulness and self-control saw him walk all the way to the cross for our sake. Praise be to God for his willing obedience!

So, what is the problem with the world today? Men and women continue to ‘live’ in their sinful nature. The only solution is to belong to Christ and thereby crucify their sinful nature and live instead by the Spirit.

Will you choose a ‘life’ that leads to death? Or a death that leads to life?

Bibliography

  • Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Galatians : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
  • Keller, Timothy J. The Prodigal God : Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Dutton, 2008.
  • Keller, Timothy J. Galatians for You. Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013.
  • Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  • Owen, John, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor. Overcoming Sin&Temptation. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006.
  • Stott, John R. W. The Message of Galatians. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.

Endnotes

  1. http://www.macarthuradvertiser.com.au/story/3039318/campbelltown-police-news/
  2. http://www.macarthuradvertiser.com.au/story/3054051/campbelltown-police-news/
  3. Timothy J. Keller, The Prodigal God : Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 46.
  4. http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics
  5. e.g. http://www.domesticviolence.com.au/pages/domestic-violence-statistics.php
  6. e.g. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/facts/1-20/2013/2_profiles.html
  7. Timothy J. Keller, Galatians for You (Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013), 141.
  8. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).
  9. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.
  10. To a group of people with a pagan background now considering submitting to the law, he writes, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ (Gal. 5:1)
  11. cf. ‘“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9).
  12. 1 Pet. 1:20.
  13. cf. John Owen: ‘[B]e killing sin or it will be killing you.’ John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor, Overcoming Sin&Temptation (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006).
  14. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 151.
  15. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 152.
  16. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).
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Return to me, not just Jerusalem (Zech. 1-2)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

Why are you here? What made you decide to get up and come to West Pennant Hills Community Church this morning? Was it because that is what you do and have always done on Sundays? Perhaps you are trying to reconnect with your Christian roots? Or are you looking to find God? Are you hoping to become a better person? Perhaps you made a New Year’s resolution to get to church more. Or do you just like hanging out with a bunch of fun, attractive, perfect people? (I have some bad news for you…)

As we open the book of Zechariah, we find a bunch of people in Jerusalem who were probably wondering why they were there. Some 70 years before, Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed. But now the pagan king of Persia, Cyrus, had given permission for any Israelites living in his empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-5). In response, some 5000 people (Ezra 2:64-65) returned to Jerusalem and began work on the temple (c. 537 B.C.). Yet when they arrived I suspect that many of them began to have second thoughts. Here was a ‘city’ with no walls, surrounded by hostile nations of whom they were afraid (Ezra 3:3). As they laid the foundation for the temple, they sang of the LORD,

He is good; his love to Israel endures forever. (Ezra 3:11)

But they must have wondered whether that was actually true? After all, the prophet Ezekiel had spoken of the LORD leaving the temple (Ezek. 8-11); though he also spoke of a future return (Ezek. 43) they saw no evidence around them to suggest that this had, in fact, taken place. Was God still angry with them?

This doubt, combined with the opposition they faced from the surrounding peoples (Ezra 4:4-24) resulted in work on the temple stopping. For nearly 20 years, the foundations of the temple that they had laid stood as a witness to a broken dream. They had returned to Jerusalem, but it had not really turned out to be what they expected. So, instead, they focused on providing for themselves, trying to make ends meet, planting and harvesting, raising children, and generally trying to keep their heads down and out of trouble.

Then, in about 518 B.C., two prophets started preaching in Jerusalem. The first, Haggai, chastised the people for abandoning the work on the temple:

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.” (Hag. 1:7–11)

The second prophet was Zechariah, and it is his message that we will spend the next 6 weeks considering. Where Haggai’s focus is on the rebuilding of the temple, Zechariah seems intent on a more wholesale reform. And he starts by calling the people to repentance.

A call to repentance (Zech. 1:1-6)

The LORD was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers? (Zech. 1:2–6)

Zechariah’s message is very simple: God was angry because your ancestors failed to turn from their ‘evil ways and practices’ (1:2, 4-6) and they ended up in exile in Babylon. Now you have the same choice they had, don’t make the same mistake (1:3-4)!

Zechariah records their response:

“Then they repented and said, ‘The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’” (Zech. 1:6)
Repentance is a theme that looms large in Zechariah’s message, where it can essentially be seen as a two step process, a turning from and a turning to.1 The Israelites were called to ‘turn from [their] evil ways and [their] evil practices’ (Zech. 1:4). But what were they called to turn to? Surprisingly, it is not to ‘good ways and good practices’ like we might expect. They were not called to turn to something, but rather someone.
‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zech. 1:3)

Zechariah sounds this note often. Repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event, and Zechariah knows that we will need food for the journey. This he furnishes in the form of 8 visions that keep our focus firmly on the LORD and his love for his people. We will look at the first three visions today.

First vision: a world at peace (Zech. 1:7-17)

The first vision starts in verse 7, and shows a world at peace:

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision — and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?” The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the LORD, who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.” (Zech. 1:7–11)

On first reading, this seems to be a comforting vision. Who doesn’t want a world ‘at rest and in peace’? But this is probably not how the inhabitants of Jerusalem saw it.

For the first two years of his reign, the emperor Darius had been busy suppressing rebellion in various parts of his kingdom. Perhaps this was the opportunity for the people to set up their governor, Zerubbabel – who was of the line of David – as a king on David’s throne? But about the time Zechariah first began to prophesy, Darius had finally crushed all those opposed to him, and peace reigned throughout his empire. Any hope of successfully breaking away from the Persian empire seemed crushed. Israel had been promised a king of their own, a Messiah, who would rule over them. Was that promise still valid after their failure and exile?

Can’t you hear the doubters: ‘Why am I here? If we are going to continue as subjects of the empire, why not do it somewhere else, some place where there is calm instead of conflict, and prosperity instead of poverty? Why not live in a city that actually has walls and schools and hospitals and employment and broadband and pubs and good roads and comfortable houses… ‘

The angel of the LORD voices the complaint that underpins these doubts, and receives an astonishing answer:

Then the angel of the LORD said, “LORD Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the LORD spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.’

“Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (Zech. 1:12–17)

The LORD says that he is ‘jealous for Jerusalem and Zion’ (1:14), and that he will ‘return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there [his] house [that is, the temple] will be rebuilt’ (1:16). This is nothing less than the reversal of Ezekiel’s dreadful vision of the glory of the LORD departing the temple (Ezek. 8-11). Though that first temple had been destroyed, it would be rebuilt and the LORD would return to it with mercy. And it will be the presence of the LORD that will make all the difference, for he is the LORD Almighty! Things will go well for the ones whom the LORD Almighty loves.

Conversely, things will go very badly for those with whom the LORD Almighty is angry… which brings us to the second vision.

Second vision: powerful enemies (Zech. 1:18-21)

Then I looked up — and there before me were four horns!

I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these?” He answered me, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.” (Zech. 1:18–19)

Horns in the Bible are often a symbol of strength, especially arrogant strength. Picture a bull with its head up, daring you to chance its horns. That there are four horns may be symbolic of opponents on all sides – the four points of the compass. The people in Jerusalem had some significant enemies, who were directly opposed to the rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem in general.

And so the doubters find their voice again: ‘Why am I here,’ they might have said, ‘where I and my family are in danger?’

But the LORD has a plan for these enemies. Zechariah’s vision continues:

Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen.

I asked, “What are these coming to do?” He answered, “These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no one could raise his head, but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.” (Zech. 1:20–21)

There is a clear contrast here: though Judah is surrounded by bulls intent on destruction, the LORD has prepared craftsmen intent on construction. It is also significant that craftsmen had significant roles in the construction of both the Tabernacle2 and Solomon’s Temple,3 so their appearance again at the building of this new temple would have been tremendously encouraging.

Third vision: slow progress and meagre results (Zech. 2:1-5)

Zechariah’s first two visions focused on the peace in distant nations and the hostility in Jerusalem’s immediate surrounds. But his third vision, the last one we will consider this morning, looks to what is happening within Jerusalem:

Then I looked up — and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand!

I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.” (Zech. 2:1-2)

Again the doubters are out in force: ‘Why am I here? Nothing seems to be happening, everything is going so slowly. You just promised that the LORD’s house would be rebuilt and the measuring line stretched out over Jerusalem (Zech. 1:16); but I see only a foundation instead of a house, and the measuring line over Jerusalem is not returning impressive results. We don’t even have a wall to keep us safe from our enemies!’

We feel the force of these doubts today, don’t we? We want to be part of God’s work here on earth, we want to see the kingdom advancing, we want to see people coming to the Lord, we want to see revival in our time… but it all seems so slow. There are still so many who do not yet know about Jesus. Like the people of Zechariah’s day, we need to look at the situation again, through the LORD’s eyes:

Then the angel who was speaking to me left, and another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will be its glory within.’ (Zech. 2:3–5)

You see, God measures based on his presence, not outward appearance. In one blow Zechariah undermines the two things that had traditionally made Jerusalem so distinctive, its wall and its temple. Remember that when David first captured Jerusalem, the Jebusites boasted, ‘You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off’ (2 Sam. 5:6). Yet David did capture that city in spite of its formidable walls; and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls entirely. Yet now the LORD promises that he himself would be a wall of fire – able to expand out to accommodate more men and livestock, yet impossible to break down or pass through. Similarly, though Solomon’s temple had been the glory of Jerusalem, with people coming from all over the ancient world to see it, it too had been destroyed. Yet the LORD promises that he himself will be the glory within.

And this brings us back to the heart of the matter. For the doubt that underlies all the other doubts is this: Is God still angry with us? For the Israelites, God had demonstrated his anger through the exile; was returning to Jerusalem enough to secure again his favour? What about rebuilding the temple and reinstating the temple sacrifices? Would that be enough to placate God? They had tried all of these things, yet it did not seem to be ‘working’. They were still subject to foreign powers, surrounded by hostile neighbours, and stalled in their own efforts to rebuild the temple. Those were not the ‘signs’ of the LORD’s favour, surely!

Why are you here? Perhaps you are here to try and secure God’s blessing? Or perhaps this is where you refuel, gain new energy to go out and evangelise your colleagues, or be a better parent, or fight off temptation.

These are good things… but they are not primary things. They are not first things. Because repentance is not about turning from doing that to doing this instead. Repentance is about turning to relationship. Judah returned to Jerusalem; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… ‘ We come to church to gain wisdom and encouragement in how to serve the LORD; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… and I will walk that path with you.’ We meet with pastors and elders seeking help in overcoming sin and brokenness; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… and I will provide the help that you need.’ The LORD desires repentance that leads to relationship, not just proximity or service.

The trouble is that we really suck at this kind of repentance. We’re not comfortable entering into relationship with God because we sense our inadequacy. Deep down we know that we don’t really deserve this kind of blessing … and we are right. We don’t deserve it. So, like the prodigal son, we come up with a plan to earn back our Father’s favour: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ (Luke 15:18–19). We secretly think, ‘Restored relationship is too good to be true,’ … but there we are only half right. It surely is good, but it is also true!

It is true because Jesus Christ repented on our behalf.

Did you ever wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised by John the Baptist? The Apostle Paul said that ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance’ (Acts 19:4). Jesus had no personal need of repentance, for he never sinned and never broke relationship with his Father. But he repented as our representative – like Moses representing the people to God on Mount Sinai and repenting of their sin with the golden calf, though he himself had not sinned (Ex. 32:30-32) – and thus we receive the benefit of that perfect and lasting repentance.

Jesus is the perfect penitent. He returned to Jerusalem, but he did it in company with and obedience to his Father. Jesus returned to cleanse and pronounce judgment on the temple (Matt. 21:12-13, 18-21), but to him it was not a symbol of national pride or divine favour but ‘my Father’s house’ (Luke 2:49) as it had been since his youth. His goal was not the temple of God but the God of the temple. Jesus returned to Jerusalem knowing he could have had peace as a respected rabbi elsewhere, knowing that returning he would face hostility, torture and death. But remember his words, ‘not as I will, but as you will’ (Matt. 26:39). His repentance was always oriented upon his relationship with his Father.

As a result our imperfect repentance is gathered up into Jesus’ perfect repentance. The Father commands, ‘Return to me,’ and it is only by the representative repentance of the Son that we are able to do so. He repents on our behalf because we are not able to do it ourselves. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ as the representative of mankind before God, whose perfect penitence covers over our imperfection. With Jesus, it is no longer simply ‘Return to me,’ but ‘Return with me.’

What does this mean for us – for you and for me?

For those who believe in Jesus it means we must live lives that reflect this kind of repentance, repentance oriented on relationship. Repentance is not something we do once and tick off our ‘To Do’ list, because any relationship involving one or more sinful people will require a continual attitude of repentance to continue. Husbands and wives, is this the repentance you practise in your marriage? Parents, do you teach your children just to say ‘sorry,’ or to go further and seek restored relationship? When conflict arises at work do you seek reconciliation or simply to ‘live and let live’? In the church, do we practise repentance toward one another, so that we may ‘keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4:3)? This is the kind of repentance that will constantly remind us of our need to repent before the LORD, and to prize relationship with him. It is also the best advertisement to those who do not yet know Jesus of the kind of relationship that he wants to have with them.

For those who have not yet believed in Jesus, today is the day when you need to repent and return to your Father by trusting in Jesus. Zechariah’s urgency in the remainder of chapter 2 is directed at you:

“Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the LORD, “for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the LORD.

“Come, O Zion! Escape, you who live in the Daughter of Babylon!” For this is what the LORD Almighty says: “After he has honored me and has sent me against the nations that have plundered you — for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye — I will surely raise my hand against them so that their slaves will plunder them. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me. (Zech. 2:6–9)

Those who remain unrepentant face disaster, for a day is coming when the Lord will return regardless of whether we do or not. But the results will be vastly different depending on whether or not we have repented and entered into relationship with him. Jesus spoke of that day and warned that there will be many who seek blessing on that day because of the many good things they had done – after all, hadn’t they returned to Jerusalem and built the temple, the church? But on that day Jesus himself will say, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:23). On that day, the opportunity for repentance will be gone; no longer will it be ‘Return to me,’ but, ‘Away from me.’

Is this you? Perhaps, even now, you are thinking of some reason why you cannot or should not repent today. ‘I just need to succeed in my job, or raise my family, or care for my parents.’ Jesus says, ‘Return to me, and we will do those things together.’ ‘But you don’t know what a mess I’ve made of my life – my addictions, my violence, my debts, my broken relationships.’ Jesus says, ‘Return to me, and we will face those things together.’ There are no excuses.

Friends, Jesus left his throne in heaven to enter into a broken and sinful world. And by his presence he transforms them to be something new and beautiful, a new creation, a new kingdom that encompasses all nations.

“Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD. “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. The LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” (Zech. 2:10–13)

The promises to Israel – that they would be God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule – are fulfilled with the return of the king. Jesus Christ, the God-Man, left heaven and came to earth; will you return to him?

Prayer

Will you pray with me?

Father, we acknowledge that we are guilty of looking at what the world has and wanting it for ourselves. We see those around us who are successful, attractive, and influential, and we think, ‘I wish I was more like that.’ Yet in so doing we overlook the fact that they are far from you. Jesus said, ‘What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:36) Lord, we repent of our materialism and covetousness. Fix our eyes firmly on Jesus, our greatest treasure, who comes to us in mercy, and who will one day return once more to bring overflowing prosperity and comfort (Zech. 1:17).

In our earthly relationships, Lord, we are guilty of avoiding conflict to maintain a pseudo-‘peace’. We have the opportunity to speak your name but draw back because it might cause us trouble. We avoid being known as Christians, for fear of either ‘rocking the boat.’ Or perhaps we worry about the standard of conduct we will be held to as ambassadors of Christ, a standard we feel unwilling or unable to uphold. Forgive us, Lord, and drive us back to the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus returned to Jerusalem knowing that it would bring him suffering and death, yet he also knew that it was the way to eternal peace in the presence of God. Teach us to trust in him and to follow his path – the way of suffering and death that leads to life.

Forgive us also, Lord, of our habit of measuring the work of the kingdom by the standards of the world. We find it all too easy to measure our church according to numbers – how many attend, how much is raised, how many are sent – and lose sight of your presence (or lack thereof) in our midst. Let us not be like the elder brother so caught up in the numbers – an inheritance squandered – that he missed the joy of his father in welcoming his lost brother home. Give us hearts that rejoice in every person who turns to Christ.

Finally, Lord, for those who have decided to embark upon this life of repentance, we pray that you would draw them deep into relationship with yourself. May they be filled with an insatiable desire for more of you in every aspect of their life. Let them always look to Jesus as both the exemplar and the enabler of the life they are to live.

Amen.

Bibliography

Boda, Mark J. Return to Me : A Biblical Theology of Repentance. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Endnotes

  1. For an excellent exposition of the theme of repentance throughout the Bible, see Mark J. Boda, Return to Me : A Biblical Theology of Repentance (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
  2. Exod. 35:35; 38:23.
  3. 1 Kgs. 7:14; 2 Chron. 24:12.
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Freedom to fulfil the law by the Spirit (Gal. 5)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

Last week, Tim challenged that if we want to see the lost saved we must first commit to being a church where Jesus rules. Together we stood with him and affirmed, ‘Jesus reigns’.

But what does that look like? Should our church look more like the early church or the church down the road? How do we balance the elements of the Great Commission – going, making disciples, baptising, teaching – in the life of our church? Where should we invest our resources? And what about your life and my life? Should I be a mechanic or a missionary, a teacher or a typist, a barista or a barrister? If we want to be a church who can truthfully say that ‘Jesus reigns’, we have so many areas of our individual and corporate lives that we must give over to him. Each of us must be able to say ‘Jesus reigns’ over my finances, my relationships, my work, my pets, my ministry, my commute, my body, my family, my house, my car, my hobbies.

This is a daunting challenge. But it is not a new one. Rather, it is a challenge the church has been facing since its very earliest days. Take the church in Galatia, for example. During his two visits to their area (Acts 16:6; 18:23), the Apostle Paul had taught them about Christ crucified (Gal. 3:1) and called them to acknowledge that Jesus reigns; but now, in Paul’s absence, they were trying to apply his teaching to their individual and corporate life… with mixed results.

As so often happens, some well-meaning people had showed up offering a plan to solve all their problems. The best thing to do, they said, was to adopt the the Jewish law, the Torah, known to us today as the Old Testament. The first step would be for the males to be circumcised, the sign of the covenant given to Abraham. Then they ought to obey the 613 commandments prescribed in the law. In so doing, they would secure the blessings promised in that covenant to Abraham and would be able to live righteous lives in the favour of God.

I can understand the attraction. Though difficult, here was a concrete plan that could be followed, with an ironclad promise of blessing and righteousness to follow, a plan with more than a thousand years’ track record! For those of us trained to set SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bounded – this seems like just the ticket. Is this what West Penno needs in order to follow through on our commitment to be a church where Jesus rules, made up of people in whom Jesus reigns?

Well, the Apostle Paul would shout an unequivocal, ‘No!’ In fact, when he heard that the Galatians were seriously considering this, he was all but apoplectic. Though chapter 5 is the first time the specific issue of circumcision comes into focus, it is clear that he has been building a case against reliance upon law observance (including circumcision) since the beginning of the epistle, calling it a ‘different gospel':

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:6–7)
In chapters 1 and 2 he defends his credentials as a teacher of the definitive gospel, tracing its origins to the risen Christ himself and commending it as consistent with the teaching of the other apostles. In chapters 3 and 4 he argues that the blessings promised to Abraham are not contingent upon observance of the law, but rather upon faith in the one who made the promises. In fact, by the end of chapter 4 he is comparing law observance (represented by Mount Sinai, where the law was given to Moses) to slavery (Gal. 4:21-5:1).

As Christians, he says, we are not meant for slavery but for freedom (Gal. 5:1).

What was the problem? Wasn’t the law God’s word? Isn’t the law a good thing?

The key problem in Paul’s eyes is not with the law itself but with way the Galatians were intending to use it. They were trying to be ‘justified by law’, to make themselves righteous before God by their own actions and thereby achieve some sort of leverage over God. They were like my son, Aedan, when I ask him to help with tidying the house. He wants an itemised list of things he needs to clean up and a definite description of the reward to be gained when he does before he will sign on to do the work. That way, he can point to the list with neat ticks next to each item and demand his reward… and he can exclude any tasks that he really doesn’t want to do, or at least negotiate for better rates up front!

Listen to Paul’s description of the consequences of this kind of attitude:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2–4)

Christ died in a free act of grace in order to secure their adoption – and ours! – as sons and daughters of God. Trying to ‘earn’ their way into the family of Abraham by observing the law was redundant. Why work to become a child of the servant, when you are already a child of the master?

Worse than just being pointless, though, this behaviour nullified Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf. It was like they were saying, ‘Thanks, but we don’t really need you after all; we can do it ourselves’. They became ‘alienated from Christ’ and ‘fallen away from grace’ (v. 4). You want to be pretty sure of yourself before you do that. If you are swept out to sea when swimming at the beach, you don’t tell the lifesaver, ‘It’s OK, I can swim back.’ You get in that boat and stay in it until you are back at shore. Similarly, if you’re going to count on your obedience to the law for salvation, you’d better be sure you can obey the entire law else it will not go well for you. And I have to tell you that the odds are not good: in all of history, only one man has achieved this feat, and that is Jesus himself.

Circumcision is not a popular sales pitch these days. But there are plenty of people who hold up their adherence to some portion of scripture as evidence of their right to be respected as ‘good, moral people’. For some, it is the Ten Commandments, commands towards social justice, the so-called Golden Rule, or even Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). This last one is particularly ironic, because it misses the key point of Jesus’ teaching, which is that what is required transcends what is written down in the law.

“You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.” (Matt 5:38–39)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:43–45)

Bare law observance would have us avoiding adultery, limiting ourselves to proportionate retribution when we are wronged and loving our neighbours; but Jesus demands much more than that. The law’s requirements fall short of Jesus’ expectations. Keeping the law may make you righteous in your own eyes, but not in God’s eyes. The law by itself is not enough.

So what alternative does Paul propose then? What does ‘freedom’ look like to him?

But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Gal. 5:5–6, emphasis added)

There is a righteousness for us, for which we hope; a true righteousness in God’s eyes, not just our own. But it does not come to us by our efforts; rather, it is the free gift of God. And that righteousness is intimately bound up with the work of the Holy Spirit, for it is through his agency that this hope is realised.

So what is the relationship between the Christian, the Spirit and the Law?

The first thing to understand is how Christians come to be in possession of the Holy Spirit, and to do this we must turn to Galatians 3:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:10–14, emphasis added)

The logic is clear. Jesus died on the Cross (i.e. was hung on a tree) to redeem us from the cursed necessity of continual perfect obedience to the law. And he did so for a purpose: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit. Paul puts the same thought in different words in chapter 4:

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Gal 4:4–7, emphasis added)

Once again, it is the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming us that is decisive. It is by this redemption that we become sons of God. Paul uses ‘sons’ here not to exclude women but to emphasise inheritance, for it was sons and not daughters who inherited in his culture. Male and female, if we belong to Christ we are sons of God in the sense that we are heirs. And because we are heirs we receive the Spirit. This means we are no longer slaves but free.

We who are in Christ are heirs of God, we have the Holy Spirit and we are free. And it is all because of the completed work of Christ. His sacrifice on our behalf is what makes it all possible.

So we receive the Holy Spirit because of Christ, but how does that help us?

Think of an athlete who has broken his back. He needs a surgeon to address the brokenness within him, or else any attempt to exercise will make things worse rather than better. This is the work of Christ in redeeming us from our sinfulness. If you are not a Christian, this is where you must start: call upon Jesus, put your trust in him, and he will redeem you from your brokenness and receive you into the family of God.

But once the surgery is done, the athlete will also need someone to coach him on how to walk again, let alone run, and this is the role of the Holy Spirit.

Some of you have noticed that I have been trying to lose some weight. Part of that effort has involved me taking up running. Never having been a runner, I decided to follow the so-called ‘couch to 5k’ plan to get me started, and that has been really helpful. I will never be an olympic athlete – unless they finally get around to making procrastination an olympic sport! – but the plan has helped me to improve. However it can’t tell me everything. It can’t tell me how to adapt to wet weather, or illness, or family travel commitments, or injury. Nor can it help me identify or address my specific weaknesses in gait or posture etc. It is a basic plan, general enough to be useful to a majority of people. Much like the law.

The law, used for its intended purposes, is good. But there are some things it is just not designed to do. Though it may set out relevant principles, the law cannot tell us how to serve our community here in West Pennant Hills; or whether we ought to pursue IVF; or when to seek specialised care for our ageing parents. It cannot produce in us the kind of life that Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount. Much as we would like a black and white response plan, that is not the way God works. Instead, he wants us to rely on our coach; for it is the coach who sees most clearly and can come up with the right plan at the right time.

That coach is the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, the Spirit uses the law as one of his key training methods. As Christians, we need to be familiar with scripture, both Old and New Testaments, for the Spirit will show us there many things such as the nature and character of God; the sinfulness of men and women; and the awesome grace found in Jesus Christ alone. But the Spirit will also help us to grow by sending us challenges in the form of contentious coworkers, the loss of a loved one, financial crisis or illness. These things are to the Spirit what hill running and interval training are to a running coach. They help to build speed and stamina for the marathon that is the Christian life (Rom. 5:3-5). They serve to grow in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… among other things.

In other words, by his work the Holy Spirit remakes us in the image of Christ. Christ himself was all of these things, and we need look no further than the cross for evidence. His love, kindness and goodness were proved on the cross where he died for his enemies (Rom. 5:8). Hebrews tells us it was ‘for the joy set before him,’ that he, ‘endured the cross’ (Heb. 12:2). In the garden of Gethsemane he disciplined himself to obedience to God’s will rather than his own (Luke 22:42), demonstration of his faithfulness and self-control. In gentleness and peace he made arrangements for the care of his mother even as he died (John 19:26-27), and sought forgiveness for those who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34).

And he did all this by the power of the Holy Spirit, who came down and remained on him (John 1:32-33).

John the Baptist makes a special point of the fact that the Holy Spirit remained on Jesus, for this was unheard of. In the Old Testament accounts of the Holy Spirit coming upon someone – Moses, Saul, David, and many of the prophets and judges – it was usually for a specific time or purpose. But with Jesus, the Holy Spirit came down and remained. He was different from everyone who went before… but not after. For as we already saw, by his obedience and sacrifice Christ ensured that the same Spirit would come upon us when we put our trust in him (Gal. 3:14; 4:6).

The Spirit who remained on and empowered Christ is the same Spirit who now lives in our hearts; our coach has serious credibility!

This is not to say that there is nothing required on your part. An athlete can have the best coach in the world, but if he doesn’t run when the coach says, ‘run,’ and rest when he says, ‘rest,’ the coach will do him no good. The point of the fruit metaphor is not that we sit back and relax whilst the fruit magically grows; rather it highlights our dependence on the Spirit. The type and quantity of fruit is determined by the nature of the tree and the quality of its roots, rather than by any special effort on the part of the tree. If we want to live a life that is pleasing to God we must depend on the Spirit to teach us how (Rom. 14:17-18). Paul describes this as ‘walk[ing] in step with the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:25), and the image is of walking in a line, following the Spirit. He leads, and we follow.

So, brothers and sisters, let me ask you: Is the fruit of the Spirit growing in your life? Do you see growing evidence of love, joy and peace? Is your day-to-day characterised by peace, patience and kindness? Is the Holy Spirit prompting you in the areas of goodness, gentleness and self-control? If not, the answer is not some new regime of law-observance but to once again cast yourself on the Holy Spirit, depending on him to lead you. When he leads you in the direction of reconciliation with that co-worker you can’t stand or prompts you to spend more time with your family; when he convicts you of your lustful or envious thoughts or calls you to step out in faith as a missionary; when he brings you into a time of suffering or grief; when he does those things you have a choice. You can choose to go your own way and follow your own plan; or you can choose to follow him and in so doing grow more like Christ. You can walk away from the Spirit, or you can walk in step with him.

And as we choose to walk in step with the Spirit, we will find that we naturally do the things that the law commands. We will do more! We will leave lust not just avoid adultery. We will seek reconciliation rather than revenge. As the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control of Christ grows in your life, you will find that you naturally, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Gal 5:14)… and your enemy as well! In chapter 6, Paul calls this ‘fulfill[ing] the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2).

It is only in the power of the Holy Spirit that we can do this.

Throughout the month of June, then, we will look more specifically at the ways in which the Holy Spirit leads us to fulfil the law. We will explore his role in overcoming the sinful nature (week 2); in growing in our knowledge of and love for God (week 3); and in serving one another in love (week 4).

And as we do, may he teach us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ so we can truly say, ‘Jesus reigns in my life and our church by his Spirit’.

Let’s pray:

Father God, of the many wonderful gifts brought to us through the death and resurrection of your son, none are as precious to us as your Holy Spirit. We rejoice that we have a counsellor to coach us in living a life that is full of righteousness, peace and joy, and pleasing to God and approved by men. Thank you that he guides us into all truth, speaking to us what he hears from you. May he continue to bring glory to you by his work in and through us (John 16:7-15; Rom 14:17-18).

For our church here in West Pennant Hills, I pray that you would grant us a spirit of unity among ourselves as we follow Jesus Christ, so that with one heart and mouth we may glorify you, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And may you, the God of hope, fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in you, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:5, 13).

Finally, for any here this morning who are depending on their own righteousness, I pray that you would convict them of their folly. Show them that, no matter how good or moral they may consider themselves, such righteousness is as filthy rags when compared to that which is freely available in Christ Jesus (Is. 64:6). Convict them of their guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). And draw them to yourself, so that they too may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit promised to Abraham but now available to all because of the finished work of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:14; 4:4-7).

Amen.

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Freedom to crucify the sinful nature by the Spirit (Gal. 5)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

Last week we started a new sermon series looking at the ways the Holy Spirit enables us to live a life that not only observes but fulfils the law. He describes this kind of life in terms of ‘freedom':

‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ (Gal 5:1)

Christians are set free from the need for continual perfect obedience to the law of God because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, which in turn brings about the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who put their trust in him. Christians are free in the truest sense.

But ‘free’ is probably not the word that springs to mind when the world thinks about Christianity, probably because they have different expectations about what ‘freedom’ means. Consider these common definitions:

  • President Roosevelt spoke in 1941 of ‘freedom of speech everywhere, freedom of worship everywhere, freedom from want everywhere and freedom from fear everywhere’;1
  • Rolling Stones sang: “I’m free to do what I want any old time / I’m free to do what I want any old time / So love me hold me love me hold me / I’m free any old time to get what I want”;
  • Every year, thousands of teenagers complete their HSC and go off on ‘Schoolies’ vacations to celebrate their newfound ‘freedom’.

Although this was probably one of his earliest letters, Paul was already a seasoned pastor by the time he wrote Galatians. He knew that when you tell people they are ‘free from law’ some just want to go out and break all the laws that previously bound them… just because they can! But what if there is no law to start with? For gentiles such as the Galatians, the limitations on morality prescribed by the laws of the Roman Empire were minimal. Blood and brutality in the circus, paedophilia, homosexuality, slavery, orgies… pretty much anything went. Were the Galatians ‘free’, then, to continue life as they had before?

According to the Apostle Paul, we must understand that freedom is either good or bad depending on the nature of the one set free. He describes two very different natures, the sinful nature and the spiritual nature. And each nature has its own set of desires that are completely opposite to one another and therefore in conflict (Gal. 5:17).

On the one hand, we have what Paul calls the ‘sinful nature’. He does not spell out the desires that emanate from the sinful nature, but let’s see if we can infer them from the acts and behaviours that Paul lists as characteristic of the sinful nature:

‘The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’ (Gal 5:19–21)

These acts fall into a couple of broad categories. ‘Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery’ are all acts of sexual self-gratification. Pornography, adultery, masturbation, sexual fantasies, prostitution, molestation – all of these things are about how it feels for me, my needs and desires, what I can get out of it.

Idolatry and witchcraft, on the other hand, are about spiritual self-determination. Idolatry is the worship as ‘god’ of anyone or anything other than the triune God revealed in Scripture. I may call it ‘god': such as Allah, Mother Nature or Buddha. Or it may simply take the place of a god in my life, as I offer it my time, energy and money in worship: work, family, wealth, sport, health, beauty or whatever. I choose a ‘god’ that serves my needs and desires. Similarly, witchcraft is an attempt to coerce the spirit world into doing my bidding, so that I get what I want.

Next comes ‘hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy’. Here the goal is self-exaltation. In any group, what I want to be first and most important. It’s my opinion that matters and you’d better listen to me and join my side or else.

Finally, ‘drunkenness’ and ‘orgies’ are about self-indulgence. In this category we might put addictions of all kinds: drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, entertainment, sport, fitness or whatever. It’s all about the rush as your horse crosses the line first or the guilty pleasure of that block of chocolate after a bad day or the euphoria as you get high. It’s about the way it makes you feel.

Self-gratification, self-determination, self-exaltation, self-indulgence; do you see the pattern? Where the sinful nature is dominant, everything flows towards the self. It is about what I can get, what is due to me, my needs, my desires. And the worst of it is that we are all born with a sinful nature. It pervades our sexuality and spirituality. It is the ever-present but never-welcome shadow across our relationships. Its siren-like call draws us onto the rocks of substance abuse and addiction. When you snap at your kids over breakfast or talk about your colleague behind their back or blow your savings on the pokies that is your sinful nature at work.

And yet you are still responsible – for it is you doing those things. You cannot disavow your sinful nature, for it is part of you. More than responsible; you are culpable. Every single one of those acts carries a death sentence – as Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23) – and you and I have earned that wage over and over and over again.

The sinful nature also encompasses the effects of the sins of others against us. According to some Australian statistics 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually abused before the age of 16.2 In other words, in a room of 50 adults, we might estimate 12 people to have been victims of sexual abuse. We could cite similarly disturbing figures in relation to domestic violence,3 robbery4 and so on. Though each survivor will have their own unique response to both the sin and the sinner, there are common themes: anger; sorrow; anxiety; depression; shame. Though they are not the ones to have sinned, nevertheless the sins of someone else have brought brokenness to their life.

The sinful nature has a lot to answer for.

In stark contrast is what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22–23)

The desires of the sinful nature focus exclusively on the self, but the fruit of the Spirit embraces God and others. The love grown by the Holy Spirit is love for God and love for others. The joy grown by the Spirit is joy in God that overflows toward others. We serve a patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, merciful, and self-controlled God, and so we manifest those qualities to everyone around us as witnesses of his work in us.

We will look at the fruit in more detail over the next two weeks. But for now, it is enough to note that this is a much more attractive list than the last one! That is the kind of world we wish we lived in, the kind of life we wish we lived. And we are meant to think so. It is like one of those Jenny Craig posters that show before and after photos with the caption ‘I lost 30kg in 16 weeks’. We are meant to be amazed at the difference and – crucially – to ask the question, ‘How can I do the same?’

So, how do we move ourselves and our world from perpetrating the acts of the sinful nature to exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit? I want to share with you two plans that don’t work, and one that does.

The first plan is the one put forward by the advocates for the Jewish law. ‘Even if Paul is right and the law can’t help you become a Christian,’ they would say, ‘you still need the law to avoid immoral behaviour and live a life pleasing to God once you are a Christian.’

This is a pretty common response in modern-day Australia as well. We look at issues like global poverty, sex trafficking, domestic violence, drunkenness, welfare cheating and drugs and we say, ‘We need better laws; our government should do something.’

Another popular plan – now as then – involves the will. You need to resolve to control your temper, speak kindly, go to the gym, give up alcohol, stop looking at pornography and so on. And then discipline yourself to follow through on these resolutions come what may. You must be like Boxer, the cart horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm, whose solution to every adversity was, ‘I will work harder.’ And so we enrol in twelve-step programs, seek counselling, change our diet, read the latest research and generally invest all our efforts towards improving ourselves.

These plans might work if the problem was simply our actions that need changing. But Paul says it’s bigger than that; it is a question of desires.

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Gal. 5:17)

Desires by themselves are not bad. C. S. Lewis wrote that,

[I]t would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.5

One of the tragic ironies of the sinful nature is that it longs for the fruit of the Spirit, but it settles for counterfeit versions instead. We seek love and find lust; we desire peace and settle for apathy; merriment and drunkenness substitute for joy; and so on. We want the fruit but we want it on our terms. We want to be in control. So we ‘agree to disagree’ instead of seeking reconciliation, otherwise we might have to admit we’re wrong. We choose ‘gods’ we can control – work, family, hobbies – to offer our ‘sacrifices’ of time and money, rather than submitting to a God who might ask more of us than we are ready to give.

Law and will are not very good at dealing with desire. The best they can do is to invoke some deeper desire, usually either a desire for respect or to avoid punishment. They cannot by themselves eliminate the sinful nature, only contain its symptoms. A study done some years ago found that nearly 60% of smokers undergoing surgery for heart disease continue to smoke after their procedure.6 Their symptoms were dealt with, but not their nature or desires. And its the same when we try to treat the sinful nature by applying law.

Further, both plans rely on us for fulfilment, and that is bad for two reasons. First, anything that we can do we can also undo. I’m sure that many of us have gone on a diet, only to find ourselves drifting back into old eating habits and gaining weight again. If my deliverance from the sinful nature relies on the continued application of my will then what happens when I inevitably screw up?
Second, anything we do is tainted by our sinful nature. A friend of mine carefully prepared a baking tray ready for baking. However, in the process of taking out the garbage his wife managed to drip ‘bin juice’ into the baking tray. I can’t imagine there was a vast quantity of ‘bin juice’; yet just a little was enough to spoil the effort!7 Would you drink a glass of water with just one drop of poison in it? Would you wash your dishes in a muddy puddle? So it is when we try to cleanse ourselves of our sinful nature by the exercise of our sinful nature.

Are you doomed, then, to a life where ‘you do not do what you want’ (Gal. 5:17b)? Not at all! For though any plan that depends on us is doomed to failure, there is a plan which is completely dependable. You see God was not surprised by the sinful nature. It is not as though he saw Eve committing the first sin and thought, ‘Whoops, didn’t see that coming.’ Rather, even before the creation of the world,8 God had a plan ready, and that plan was to send his Son, Jesus.

Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God; there was no sinful nature within him. Yet the world rejected and killed him. They crucified him, killing him in the most painful, shameful way they knew how. And, though he could have set himself free,9 Jesus endured the mocking, the beating, the agony and, ultimately, ‘became obedient to death – even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). Because he knew what they did not: that cross was the only way that we might be delivered from our sinful nature.

Paul puts it like this: ‘Those who belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires’ (Gal. 5:24), and it is on the cross of Christ that it has been crucified.

Do you ‘belong to Christ’? You can, you know. He invites you to come to him, to give up the pretence of being able to deal with your own sinful nature and instead trust him to deal with it. Remember, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23), and so your sinful nature must die; if it is not crucified on the cross of Christ then you will die with it.

Unfortunately crucifixion, whilst a certain death, is also a lingering death.10 Sadly, we do not immediately achieve sinless perfection when we turn to Christ; in fact, we will not be perfect until Jesus makes us so at his return. Too often, we hang around at the foot of the cross, to pity our sin, to long for its release. We need to learn to leave those sins there. We have crucified the flesh; we are never going to draw the nails.11 The apostle wrote in another of his letters,

For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom. 8:13-14)

Or, to put it another way, if you are not crucifying sin, sin is crucifying you!12 As Christians, we must not tolerate the acts of the sinful nature in our lives – whether or not they are included in the list Paul gives here. The desires of the sinful nature are in fierce, pitched battle with the desires of the Spirit. Just as we are reliant upon Christ for our salvation, we depend upon the Spirit in the fight against the sinful nature.

Paul says we must ‘walk in step with the Spirit’. The image is a military one – marching with the Spirit, following the Spirit’s leading and orders. So how do we ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ in this battle against the sinful nature?

Firstly, the Spirit helps us by convicting us of our sin. Sometimes we are too close to our sinfulness to see it for what it is. But the Spirit lives within us and is intimately aware of our sin. He shows us in the Bible how our thoughts and actions, our sins of commission and omission, fall short of what God requires. When he does, our response must be to take it back to the cross of Christ, confess it and repent of it. It is progress, rather than perfection, that characterises the life of the Christian.

What is the Holy Spirit showing you today? Is your mind flooded with the thoughts and attitudes of the sinful nature? Anger? Resentment? Envy? Cynicism? Apathy? Is he convicting of things that you ought not to have done, words you ought not to have spoken? What about things that you should have done but have not? Are there relationships where you ought to be seeking forgiveness and reconciliation?

We are granted freedom in the Spirit to continually crucify the sinful nature upon the cross of Christ. We ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ by confessing and repenting of those things which he shows us spring from the sinful nature.

Secondly, the Spirit helps us in the battle by replacing our sinful nature with a new, spiritual nature. He gives us new life, life in the Spirit after the death of the sinful nature. As I said last week, we are like a man with a broken spine. He needs a surgeon to deal with the brokenness within him; but he also needs someone to teach him to walk again, to walk with him as he mends, to push him when he needs encouragement and stop him when he needs to rest. Jesus Christ has granted us the freedom to walk the way we were always intended to walk. He has provided the means by which the sinful nature may be crucified. But he has also sent the Holy Spirit to teach us how to live in the light of that freedom and actually walk!

And as we walk, the fruit of the Spirit will manifest in our lives. Where the Spirit of God is, the fruit of the Spirit will grow. It may start small at first, but it will keep growing. And it will encompass all of the items in the list to some extent or another. The sinful nature is sometimes able to imitate one or two of these fruit, but never in any kind of balance. For example, some people seem happy and bubbly and are good at meeting new people, but are very unreliable and cannot keep friends. This is not real joy but just being an extrovert by nature. Some people seem very unflappable and unbothered but they are not kind or gentle. That is not real peace, but indifference and perhaps cynicism. It enables you to get through the difficulties of life without always being hurt, but it desensitises you and makes you much less approachable.13

But while the fruit grows naturally where the Spirit is, it would be a mistake to think that we are entirely passive in this process, for Paul also talks of walking in step with the Spirit.14 We rely upon him to provide the direction and depend upon him to sustain us as we walk, providing all that we need to do so, but in the end we must walk. We are dependent, yes, but not passive.

So, when the Spirit shows us the good work that we ought to be doing – caring for refugees, sharing the gospel with coworkers, feeding the homeless, teaching our children about Jesus, serving the church – we must act. We will have much more to say over the next two weeks about how that walk looks, particularly the ways in which it shapes our relationships with God and with other people.

In God’s grace, and by the completed work of Christ, we are granted freedom in the Spirit to turn from the sinful nature and instead walk in step with the Spirit. You have a choice: will you walk with him today?

Let’s pray:

Father God, I want to pray for all those among us struggling with the sinful nature… that is, I want to pray for all of us! Some here are captives of sin. Though they desire to do good, they find they cannot for they are held captive by their pride, anger, lust, apathy, ambition and addiction. Father, show us your mercy by delivering us from this captivity. Lead us to the foot of the cross where your Son died so that our sinful nature might be crucified with him. Proclaim to us the freedom to walk in step with your Holy Spirit, and so become more and more like Christ.

Others here are victims of sins not their own: violence, abuse, hate, neglect, bullying, conflict. Father of compassion and God of all comfort, comfort us in all our distress and brokenness. Lead us to the foot of the cross where your Son suffered all the anger, disgrace and shame that a sinful world could throw at him, so that just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so too our comfort might overflow.15 Grant us a new life, life by your Holy Spirit, life free from resentment, guilt or shame, for those things have been crucified with Christ.

Please God fill my brothers and sisters in Christ with the knowledge of your will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. May they live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of you, being strengthened with all power according to your glorious might so that they may have great endurance and patience. Let them joyfully give thanks to you, the one who has qualified them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. Praise you Lord God that you have rescued them from the dominion of darkness and brought them into the kingdom of the Son you love, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.16

Amen.

Bibliography

Keller, Timothy J. Galatians for You. Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013.

Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Owen, John, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor. Overcoming Sin & Temptation. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of Galatians. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.

Endnotes

  1. Cited in John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 139.
  2. http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics
  3. http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics
  4. e.g. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/facts/1-20/2013/2_profiles.html
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.
  6. “Most Smokers Continue to Light up after Heart Surgery,” American Heart Association, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/11/981112075613.htm.
  7. cf. ‘“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9).
  8. 1 Pet. 1:20.
  9. Matt. 26:53.
  10. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 151.
  11. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 152.
  12. cf. John Owen: ‘[B]e killing sin or it will be killing you.’ John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor, Overcoming Sin & Temptation (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006), 50.
  13. Timothy J. Keller, Galatians for You (Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013), 141.
  14. Stott, The Message of Galatians.
  15. 2 Cor 1:3-5.
  16. Col. 1:9–14.
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Celebrating Christ the Covenant Redeemer (Psalm 103)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

On his journey to faith, and even for some time after he became a believer, C. S. Lewis struggled with the Biblical commands to praise God. Was God like the man seeking reassurance of his own virtue or wit; or the woman who requires constant affirmation of her beauty or intelligence? Does God need reminding of his power and might? Or does he just want to make sure his generosity and philanthropy are known by all?

Worst of all was the suggestion of the very silliest Pagan bargaining … More than once the Psalmists seemed to be saying ‘You like praise. Do this for me, and you shall have some.’ … It made one think what one least wanted to think. Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy.1

Lewis only overcame this difficulty when he realised that it is when we enjoy something that we spontaneously overflow with praise. Lovers praise their beloved and parents their children. We praise athletes, restaurants, musicians, cars, art, food, weather, actors, authors, holiday destinations, coffee, tradesmen… we live in a cacophony of praise! In Lewis’ own words,

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment… It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.2

More than that, we avidly invite others to join in that same praise: ‘Wasn’t that awesome? Isn’t she lovely? Does it get any better than this?’

In Psalm 103, we find David delighting in his God, and inviting others to join in doing the same. These invitations echo out in ever-widening circles, starting with his own soul and eventually encompassing the whole of heaven and earth.

1. Praise the LORD for his blessings to you

The first invitation David gives is to his own soul:

Praise the LORD, O my soul;
   all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
   and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
   and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

     – Psalm 103:1–5

Why does David feel the need to summon his soul to praise? In spite of being one of the most prolific praisers in the entire Old Testament, David had his ‘up’ days and his ‘down’ days much like we do. No doubt, some days he sprang from his bed with a song on his lips;((e.g. Ps. 56:16; 92:2.)) other mornings, however, saw him hard pressed, on the run and fearing for his life.3

Perhaps that is your experience as well? Perhaps you woke up this morning eager to meet with God’s people and proclaim together his greatness, goodness, glory and grace. But maybe your enthusiasm was muted, crowded out by sickness, sorrow or sin. Even at Christmas time, traditionally a time of great joy and praise to God, there will be some who find it difficult to rejoice, as they contemplate the empty place at the dinner table or the uncertainty of the year ahead.

Whatever your starting point, David models for us a right response: praise the LORD! In inviting us to praise, he is neither naive, nor unsympathetic. After all, David himself endured great trials throughout his life: he lived on the run from Saul and, later, his own son, Absalom; several of his children died before he did; and the psalms are full of his desperate prayers for deliverance from his enemies. Yet in this psalm, he invites his soul to consider his blessings rather than his trials. He does not ask for anything but focuses on benefits already received.

Chief among these benefits is the one he mentions first: God has revealed himself (v. 1). Wherever you see LORD in all uppercase, this represents God’s covenant name, the name by which he chose to reveal himself to Moses and hence to Israel. This is the ‘holy name’ which David’s ‘inmost being’ must praise. David uses this name nine times in this psalm.4 There can be no mistake about which God David praises: ‘Praise Yahweh, O my soul… Praise Yahweh, O my soul… Praise Yahweh, you his angels… Praise Yahweh, all his heavenly hosts…. Praise Yahweh, all his works… Praise Yahweh, O my soul’.

By revealing his name to Israel, God placed himself in a special relationship with them, what we call a ‘covenant’ relationship. And this relationship carried with it many benefits. David wrote elsewhere, ‘For the sake of your name, O LORD [Yahweh], forgive my iniquity, though it is great.’ (Psa 25:11). Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel would write, ‘You will know that I am the LORD [Yahweh], when I deal with you for my name’s sake and not according to your evil ways’ (Ezek 20:44). Note the close connection between the name of the LORD, Yahweh, and forgiveness.

The name of the LORD is also closely associated with healing. Yahweh spoke to David’s son, Solomon, and promised that ‘if my people, who are called by my name [Yahweh], will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ (2 Chr 7:14). Similarly, the prophet Malachi promised, ‘But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’ (Mal 4:2). Is it any wonder that David praises Yahweh for healing and forgiveness received in his name?

In verse 3, David mentions Yahweh ‘redeeming [his] life from the pit’. Perhaps he has in mind a literal pit, such as that in which Joseph’s brothers tossed him, and from which he was ‘redeemed’ for the price of twenty shekels, or like when the Israelites under Saul hid in caves and pits and cisterns to escape the Philistine army (1 Sam. 13:6). Elsewhere in the psalms, however, this same language is used to describe death itself.5 Either way, what is certain is that the pit is not a good place to be… and that Yahweh redeems his people from it. Praise the LORD!

In place of whatever destruction is to be found in the pit, David says he has been ‘crowned’ with ‘love and compassion’. Rather than death, he received not only life but life lived in the love and favour of God: he overcame his enemies, he was raised king (literally crowned!) over all Israel, he married and had children, and he lived to see his son crowned king after him.

2. Praise the LORD for his patience with his people

Then, from verse 6, David starts to consider the blessings of God to his people. Yahweh revealed himself not just to Moses but to the people of Israel (v. 7). Yet Israel consistently disappointed him. Repeatedly through their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they demonstrated the disobedience, idolatry, and lack of faith in Yahweh’s provision. Moses warned them of the consequences that would follow if they kept on like this in his final sermon before they entered the Promised Land, saying,

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known.
   – Deut. 11:26–28

You see covenants are not all about blessings; they also come with obligations, and failure to meet those obligations results in curse rather than blessing. Yet, in spite of this warning, Israel continued in their disobedience, earning the curse6 of the LORD many times over. David himself had committed adultery and murder. They all stood accused and under God’s wrath. Yet, astonishingly, David can write,

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
   – Psalm 103:8–10

David himself was witness to this in a very graphic way. He once ordered that a census be taken of his fighting men (2 Sam 24), though was later conscience-stricken saying, ‘”I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.”‘ (v. 10). God gave him a choice of punishments: three years of famine; three months of fleeing his enemies; or three days of plague. David chose the plague, saying, ‘”Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.”‘ (v. 14). Indeed, Yahweh demonstrated his mercy by relenting before the destruction of Jerusalem was complete (v. 16).

Are we not in the same boat? If God were to repay us according to what we have done, who of us would escape judgment? Yet God is patient with us. How can this be so? Why does God refrain from pouring out the curses promised by Moses for those who are disobedient?

David attributes this mercy to Yahweh’s love for his people.

3. Praise the LORD for he loves those who fear him

David describes this love using a series of analogies:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
   so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
   so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;

     – Psalm 103:11–13

In Hebrew thought, heaven is unimaginably far above the earth; so it is with Yahweh’s love. Can anything be further from the east than the west? Yahweh removes transgressions that far from us. Is there a greater compassion than a parent’s for a child? That is the compassion Yahweh has for those who fear him.

What is even more astounding, Yahweh offers an eternal love to those who are only temporary. Usually our love is in proportion to the amount of time we spend with someone: casual acquaintances get only a little love, whereas our family gets a lot. From Yahweh’s vantage point as eternal God, the years that I spend on earth are like bumping into a stranger on a train. Yet in that relative instant, he pours out his love upon me, upon you, upon us, upon our children and upon our children’s children!

On the other hand, Yahweh’s love is not indiscriminate. It is offered to those ‘who fear him’ (vv. 11, 13, 17), ‘who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts’ (v. 18). And this presents a problem because, as we have already seen, Israel was notoriously bad at doing any of these things. How can Yahweh’s love be said to be ‘everlasting’ if it is only for those who ‘fear’, ‘keep’ and ‘remember’ – as Israel often did not? What if we can’t meet the covenant obligations and so incur – again! – the covenant curses?

This problem is answered by Jesus Christ. Jesus was the only one who ever feared Yahweh perfectly throughout all of his life, who remembered Yahweh’s covenant and obeyed his commands. You see, Yahweh was so determined to demonstrate his faithfulness in delivering the rewards of the covenant that he took upon himself the requirements of the covenant also. According to Paul,

[N]o matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Cor 1:20)

The promises of Yahweh to his people are ultimately and fully given to Christ as the fulfiller of the covenant. All that remains for us is to speak the ‘Amen’ – ‘I agree’, or ‘let it be so’ – to the glory of God.

When we realise that, the language of this psalm becomes even more significant. ‘As far as the heavens are above the earth’, that’s how far Jesus came to demonstrate the love of Yahweh. The Father withheld compassion from his one and only Son – in Gethsemane and on the cross – in order to show compassion to us. Jesus took away our sins, not just from east to west, but all the way down into death. Yahweh treated Jesus as our sins deserved, repaid him according to our iniquities. No longer does Yahweh accuse, because the curse has fallen on Jesus instead of on us. It is not our faithfulness to the covenant but Jesus’ that guarantees the covenant blessings. Paul would later write that,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal 3:13)

The curse fell on Jesus and we are redeemed from the pit.

4. Praise the LORD for his kingdom is over all

But there is another fundamental problem: how can we who are not descended from Abraham and so not part of this covenant in the first place lay claim to these promises?

Once again, the tension is resolved in Jesus. The very next verse from Galatians 3 reads,

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:14)

Christ met the requirements of the covenant, endured the covenant curse on behalf of we who could not… and offers us the covenant blessings that are his by right. In fact, he proclaims a new covenant, one in which the only covenant obligation is to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus himself to work in and through us by his Holy Spirit.

And this new covenant is guaranteed. In ancient times, a covenant lasted only as long as the king who made it, and only within the borders of his realm. But this king, King Jesus, rules a kingdom that is ‘established… in heaven’, and that ‘rules over all’ (v. 19) and so his covenant is not bound by race or place. Nor is it a covenant limited by time, for this king has risen from the grave, and lives for eternity past, present and future! Jesus is able to guarantee the covenant blessings for us because he is sovereign over all time and space.

As a personal aside, the fact that Jesus both fulfils the covenant obligations and guarantees the covenant blessings is tremendously encouraging to me. Earlier this year my Gran passed away, and this psalm was one of the readings she selected for her funeral. My Gran was one of the godliest women that I have ever known. Yet if my hope of seeing her again in eternity rested upon her ability to fulfil the obligations of the covenant – let alone my own poor ability to do the same – it would be a slender hope indeed. But the glory of the gospel is that it does not depend on her, or me. It depends on Christ, and is therefore a sure and certain hope.

There is only one covenant requirement: repent of your sin and put your trust in Jesus. As you do, you gain access to blessings seen only in shadow in the earlier covenant. Everyone who believes in Jesus receives eternal life (John 3:16), and his love remains on them literally ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ (v. 17). Friend, I beg you to receive it as the good news that it is and respond: turn away from your sins and turn to Jesus. He will bestow his many blessings upon you according to his goodness, mercy and wisdom. He will be patient with you, for he himself knows what it is like to live in a wicked world, to be tempted, and to feel weakness (Heb 4:15).

Conclusion: Praise Jesus because he is the LORD

Let’s close by considering the movement of the psalm: David starts with the individual, then Israel as a chosen people, and finally climaxing in the proclamation that, ‘The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.’ (Psa 103:19) As Christians we recognise that climax in the distinctive work of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. It is an accomplished fact, a completed work. Yet we must also remember Jesus’ parting words to his disciples that echo so closely what David is doing in this psalm: ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). As followers of Christ we have the responsibility to declare Jesus Christ throughout the whole world, starting with our own heart. As Lewis wrote, that praise not only expresses but completes the enjoyment; and that joy naturally overflows into an invitation to others to share it with us.

David knew the LORD -Yahweh, which means ‘I-am-who-I-am’, or ‘I-will-be-who-I-will-be’ – and he couldn’t help but praise him and call his nation and, indeed, all creation to praise him. As we approach this Christmas season, let us remember that we know our Lord by another name – Jesus, Yeshua, ‘Yahweh saves’, Immanuel, ‘God with us’ – and let’s proclaim him in our praise!

Please pray with me:

We praise you Lord Jesus, for you are the Lord over all creation. As high as the heavens are above the earth, that’s how far you came to demonstrate your love, not just to those who fear you but on your enemies (Rom. 5:8)! Though eternally crowned with the love and compassion of your Father, you set aside that crown and were born as a human child to a humble family.

Lord, we delight in your name. Before your birth Isaiah prophesied your coming, saying that ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’ (Isa 7:14), which means ‘God with us’. He also named you, ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isa 9:6). The angel who appeared to Joseph instructed him to name you Jesus – ‘Yahweh saves’ – because you would ‘save [your] people from their sins’ (Matt 1:21).

And having lived a perfect life you did exactly that – saved us, your people, from our sins. You redeemed our life from the pit by going there in our place, and so you ensure that we no longer stand accused because our sins are blotted out forever. By rising to new life you proclaim that your sacrifice on our behalf has been found acceptable and is ‘from everlasting to everlasting’. And we know that God has exalted you to the highest place, and given you the name that is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11).

Therefore we delight to bear the name of ‘Christian’ – those who belong to Christ. As the Apostle Peter declared, ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

Praise the Lord Jesus, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name!

Amen.

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. Selected Books. London: HarperCollins, 2002.

Endnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 358-59.
  2. ibid, 360.
  3. e.g. Ps. 73:14; 88:13.
  4. Ps 103:1, 2, 6, 8, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22.
  5. Pss. 28:1; 30:3; 88:4, 6; 143:7.
  6. Consider the strong ‘curse’ language of Deut. 27-30, especially Deut. 27:26; 28:15.
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