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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Matthew 5:17–48: The Law Test

We opened this week with a lesson from the Cosby Show. Theo is planning his life after high school and he thinks, "No Problem." So his dad goes through a little budget to help Theo see that, financially speaking, life after high school is more difficult than he realized.

In Matthew 5:17–48, Jesus is doing something really similar, only instead of budgeting for life after high school, he is budgeting for life after death. Jesus is speaking to a primarily Jewish audience who expected that they would be able to get into the kingdom of heaven by keeping the Old Testament law. So Jesus walks through just six of the laws to show that the law is harder to keep than we think and the penalty for breaking the law is more severe than we think.

The Law is Hard to Keep
In each of Jesus' six examples He quotes an Old Testament law and then shows that keeping that law requires us not only to do what the law says, but to keep the heart behind the law. As an example, Jesus starts with the sixth of the Ten Commandments, "do not murder." He explains that the law requires not only that we don't murder in the traditional sense of the term, but also that we don't have murderous or hateful thoughts towards someone. Murderous thoughts include anything that belittles or dehumanizes someone. It includes things like calling people idiots.

Of course, Jesus is calling us to be the kind of people who only think loving thoughts and never act hatefully or spitefully toward anyone. But, in this context, it seems clear that Jesus is also quite aware that none of us will ever live up to that standard. This is why he says that our righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. These were the best law keepers of the day and Jesus was saying, think of the best person you know, if you want to get into heaven, you have to be even better than them.

How good do we have to be to get into heaven? Jesus concludes in verse 48, we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. If we want to get into heaven we have to keep the law perfectly. That is a standard that none of can keep. It is a budget that we are doomed fail.

The Penalty of the Law is Severe
As a young monk, Martin Luther famously spent vast amount of time, sometimes up to six hours at a time, in confession. At one point, his abbot, Johann Staupitz, grew weary of Luther's extreme efforts of confession and said to Luther, "Next time you come to me with something to confess, let it be patricide, adultery, or blasphemy, but not the little peccadilloes"(minor sins).

But Jesus message in this passage is that even our peccadilloes, our "little sins," will keep us out of the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who says "You Moron!" will be subject to hellfire. That is intense. When we are cut off in traffic, a little name calling is enough to keep us out of the kingdom. It is enough to earn our death penalty and to consign us to hellfire.

The point of Jesus' budget is getting clear. If we hope to get to heaven by keeping the law, we must recognize the impossible nature of this endeavor and we must recognize the enormous consequence of our failure.

The One Who Does Fulfill the Law
Is there any hope? If we can't keep the law, do we have any chance of getting into the kingdom of heaven. We do have hope, but it isn't in our ability to keep the law, it must be in the only one who has ever been able to say, I have come to fulfill the law. Only one man in history can actually say, "I have been perfect, just as my heavenly father is perfect." That man is Jesus Christ.

Bill Cosby worked through Theo's budget to convince him to go to college and find a better source of income. I believe that Jesus worked through his budget on the law in order to convince us to find a better source of righteousness. He is convincing us that we can't keep the law well enough to get into heaven, but we can hitch our wagons to someone who can.

Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He came for people who have broken the law so bad they realize they have no hope. Part of His rescue mission included Jesus perfect life. He came to earth and perfectly kept God's righteous standards, proving Himself to be perfectly righteous. The second part of His mission was to die in our place, so that he could pay our death penalty and transfer his righteousness to our accounts. Jesus message in this passage is to convince us that we need to trust him, and rely on Him and His rescue mission.

Main Idea of the Text: Because we cannot sufficiently keep the law to earn the kingdom of heaven, we must rely on another person who can fulfill the law of God on our behalf.

You can listen to the message below or download the podcast from iTunes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Matthew 5:11–16: The Prophet Test

The Sermon on the Mount answers a very important question: Who can be a part of Jesus' kingdom? Or to use the language of the sermon itself, the sermon helps us identify the kind of people who will be a part of the kingdom of heaven.

The beatitudes were a poem that gave us eight answers to that question, and we summarized them in the last post by highlighting two main ideas. First, we saw that the people who get into the kingdom are people who realize that they don't deserve to be a part of the kingdom. Second, we saw that even though they don't deserve the kingdom, and precisely because they realize they don't deserve the kingdom, the people who get into the kingdom are people who have been transformed by the righteousness of Jesus.

We find the final part of the introduction to Jesus' sermon in Matthew 5:11–16 and it gives us one more test to identify the people who get into the kingdom. It tells us that the people who get into the kingdom are the people who fulfill God's mission for them on this earth. In other words, the people who will get into Jesus kingdom are prophets.

Blessed are the Prophets
In Matthew 5:11, Jesus nearly repeats the last of the eight beatitudes. He tells us that it is a good thing when we are persecuted for Jesus' sake because it shows that we will have a great reward in heaven. The interesting thing is the logic that follows this promised reward. Jesus doesn't promise a reward because persecution demonstrates that we are his followers (though that is certainly implied), He promises the reward for persecution because it demonstrates that we are his prophets. Jesus tells us to rejoice when we suffer like the prophets because "the prophet test," is our third criteria for identifying the people who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Being a Prophet in a World that Persecutes Prophets?
The next two analogies will help us understand what it looks like to be a prophet in this world, but first it is important to recognize what kind of world it is that we live in. Namely, we live in a world that persecutes prophets. Christians traditionally have described this as "living in a fallen world."

The fall is how we describe what happened in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve choose to disobey God. Their disobedience was sin, and as soon as they sinned, the entire world started feeling the effects of that sin. We say that the world started feeling the effects of sin because the fall actually started a process of falling. Adam and Eve's sin started a pattern of sin, and the more we follow in that pattern, the worse the world becomes.

Consider the way Paul describes the continuing effects of the fall in Romans 1:21–25.
For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. 
Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever.
In other words, the more we sinned, the less able we were to understand right and wrong. The more we sinned, the farther we moved away from God. Our sin is leading our world down a never ending rabbit hole of immorality and foolishness.

This is the world in which God sends His prophets. A prophet is a person who God sends to be a light in a world that is running headlong towards the darkness. And sometimes, maybe even usually, people who are running toward darkness don't want to be told they are heading the wrong way. People who are bent towards spiritual decay will resist, revile, and even persecute, the prophet who calls them back to God.

A Prophet is Salt
It is in the context of that world that Jesus calls his followers to be salt. When the New Testament was written, refrigerators and freezers hadn't been invented yet, and in a world without electric cold, salt was a very valuable preservative. Of course, salt was used for other things too, but it's primary value in that culture was its ability to preserve meat by slowing its rate of decay.

I believe this is the primary image that Jesus is referring to here. Prophets were called into a world of spiritual and moral decay and they were to be a preservative. Through the virtue of their own lives as well as their interaction with others, Jesus' followers were called to help preserve the world they lived in. They were called to fight against the effects of the fall, bringing peace and restoration wherever they went.

But this wasn't merely a call to be salt, Jesus was issuing a test. The audience that Jesus was addressing believed that they would go to heaven because they kept the law (this will be the topic of the next passage we study), but Jesus' test calls them to go deeper. It isn't enough to keep oneself free from the taint of our world, to be salt we must go into the tainted world itself and act as a preservative. Salt that looses it saltiness isn't really salt. In the same way, a prophet who doesn't affect the world he or she lives in isn't really a prophet.

A Prophet is Light
Jesus also uses the analogies of light and of a city on a hill to help us understand the prophet's job. In a world full of darkness, the prophet is a light that helps people see. In a world where everyone is in a valley, the prophet is the city on the hill that everyone can see. In other words, in the same way that the purpose of salt only makes sense in the context of dying and decaying meat, the purpose of light only makes sense in a dark and lost world.

In verse 16, the analogy becomes even more pointed. The light isn't just a general light that people can see, it is a spotlight that points to something even greater. The light of the prophet shines toward God. When people see the good works of the prophet, they see the love and splendor of the prophet's God. Therefore, the prophet's job is to live among people who are lost in darkness so that he or she can guide them to the one who can heal them.

A Prophet is in the World
For many of us, we are more than happy to think of ourselves as salt and light, our problem is being salt and light in the world. I don't mind being salt as long as I don't have to touch a dying piece of meat. I don't mind being a light as long as I don't have to travel through any dark places.

However, I believe that is exactly what Jesus is calling us toward. If you want to be a person who gets into the kingdom, you have to be a person who is in this world. You have to be a person who works diligently to curb the effects of sin. You have to be a person who provides for the poor, takes care of the suffering, and loves the unlovable. And in doing these things, if you want to be a member of Jesus' kingdom, you have to be a person who points others to the love and majesty of our God.

Don't Be Bible City
As I closed the sermon on this passage, I read an article by Arlene Bird titled "The Incredible Bible City." (Credit to Larry Trotter, pastor of North Wake Church. I first heard of this article in a sermon he delivered March 1, 2009 on this passage). The article describes a city designed just for Christians. It was a city designed to allow Christians to get away from the struggles and darkness of this world. It was a place that Christians could isolate themselves from the effects of the fall. But we must remember, if we are seeking the great reward in the kingdom of heaven, we cannot live in Bible City.

Main Idea of the Message: We should test ourselves as Jesus' followers by asking if we are His prophets; people that risk being reviled and persecuted in order to minister in a lost and dying world.

You can listen to the message below or download the podcast from iTunes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Matthew 5:1–12: The Beatitudes: 8 Characteristics of the People Who Get into Jesus' Kingdom

This week we started back in our study of Matthew at Raiford Road Church. We have already finished the first four chapters, so now we turn to the most famous sermon in the history of Christianity, Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount."

The first four chapters helped us ask the question, "who is Jesus?" And the answer we walked away with was that He is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. Specifically, Jesus is the one who will save His people from their sins and He is the one who has come as a forever king to establish His forever kingdom. So the question we have to ask now is, how can we be considered one of "His people" and how can we become part of His kingdom?

That is the central question that Jesus answers in the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the sermon, Jesus warns that the people we think are following Him, often are not. More than that, it is the people who have the least to offer the King who actually become a part of His kingdom.

What are the Beatitudes?
Jesus starts His sermon with a traditional form of Hebrew poetry that we call beatitudes. Beatitudes refers to poetic phrases that describe what a "blessed" person is. And to be blessed simply means that you are in a good situation. Another way to put is, if you are blessed, that is a good thing.

The surprising thing about Jesus' list of good things is that, at least at first glance, they don't appear to be very good things at all. For instance, Jesus says, "it is a good thing to be spiritually poor, it is a good thing to be sad, or in mourning, and it is a good thing to suffer." Those are three things that most of us probably wouldn't consider good. But, according to Jesus, the things that don't seem good to the world's eyes, are great things when you realize that they are evidence that you are part of Jesus' kingdom.

Jesus lists eight of these good things. He gives us eight different examples of a person who is blessed. The eight blessing can be neatly divided into two main groups.The first four beatitudes will tell us that the people who get into the kingdom of heaven are the people who realize they don’t deserve to be there and the second four beatitudes will tell us that the people who get into heaven are the people who deserve to be there. Or to put it another way, the first four beatitudes show us that the people who get into the kingdom are the people who realize they need to be righteous and they long to be righteous. The second group of beatitudes will show that the people who get into the kingdom are the people who are filled with righteousness.

At first glance, these two groups may seem to be contradicting themselves, but with a little closer examination, we will see that the Jesus eight characteristics all build on each other in a very logical way.

The People Who Get Into the Kingdom are People Who Realize They Don't Deserve It.
The first four beatitudes tell us that on the spiritually poor people will get into the kingdom. But just what is spiritual poverty? John Piper describes it like this,
  1. It is a sense of powerlessness in ourselves.
  2. It is a sense of spiritual bankruptcy and helplessness before God.
  3. It is a sense of moral uncleanness before God.
  4. It is a sense of personal unworthiness before God.
  5. It is a sense that if there is to be any life or joy or usefulness, it will have to be all of God and all of grace. 
The reason I say it is a SENSE of powerlessness and a SENSE of bankruptcy and a SENSE of uncleanness and a SENSE of unworthiness, is that, objectively speaking, everybody is poor in spirit. Everybody, whether they sense it or not, is powerless without God and bankrupt and helpless and unclean and unworthy before God. But not everybody is "blessed."
Naturally, the realization that we are spiritually bankrupt leads us to mourn. It is a terrible thing to realize the depth of our sin and the weight of its consequences. But Jesus promises, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

And those who realize the are spiritually impoverished and they mourn over their sin will be meek people. Meek people are people who do not assert their own rights and do not think of themselves as worthy of a place at the table. This sort of meekness flows naturally from our sense of our own sinfulness. But Jesus promises, "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

Another way of putting this sense of moral bankruptcy is to think of ourselves as hungry for righteousness. To be hungry for something is to recognize that you lack it, and that you cannot be satisfied without out. Like a newborn baby who cries out for food when her belly is empty, the person who is hungry for righteousness cries out for righteousness because they realize that they have none of their own. But Jesus promises, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

The Hope of Being Filled
The fourth beatitude works like a hinge, it allows the train of thought to change direction. Up until this point, the person who gets into the kingdom is only recognizable by the fact that they realize they don't deserve the kingdom. But in the fourth beatitude, they are filled with exactly what they need to get into the kingdom: righteousness. The people who were spiritually bankrupt are now tapped into an account with infinite reserves. They move from abject spiritual poverty to indescribable spiritual wealth.

The second group of four beatitudes remind us that this kind of transaction leaves its mark. Being filled with righteousness leads to a life that looks righteous. A person who has been forgiven of their debt, and who has partaken in the wealth of Christ, will be forever changed.

The People Who Get Into the Kingdom are People Who's Lives Are Changed
The first change we see is that these blessed people are merciful. They will forgive the unforgivable and will love the unlovable. They show mercy because they have been shown mercy. And that in turn acts as seal, or a guarantee, that looks forward to the mercy they will be shown on the last day.

Not only are they merciful, but the blessed people are pure of heart. Soren Kirkegarrd said, to be pure in heart is to will one thing. To be pure in heart is to have one great love that is so great, that all other loves look like hate. And this is the exact way we are called to love God. We are to love him, as Paul explained, so much that we consider everything else to be rubbish when compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. And Jesus promises that if we love God, if we are pure in heart, then we will see God.

The blessed person fulfills the first two commandments. Being merciful means they love others and being pure in heart means they love God. Being peacemakers, I believe, means they bring those two loves together. To be a peacemaker is to show those we love how they too can be at peace with the God we love.

Paul said it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:16–21.
From now on, then, we do not know anyone in a purely human way. Even if we have known Christ in a purely human way, yet now we no longer know Him in this way. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.”  He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
A peacemaker is one who has been made a minister of reconciliation. And the reward of for a peacemaker is that he or she will be called a son of God.

There is a final beatitude that warns us that this kind of righteousness comes at a price. Being merciful, being pure of heart, and being a peacemaker will result in persecution. But Jesus says that persecution is a good thing because we know that if we suffer with Christ, we will also be counted as a member of His kingdom.

Main Idea of the Message: The beatitudes call us to renounce our sense of self-righteousness and our own sense of worthy, asking Christ to fill us with His righteousness, and they call us to respond to that filling by displaying the fruit of righteousness, namely, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance in the face of suffering.

You can listen to the message below or download the podcast from iTunes.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Is God Really Good? - A Study of Psalm 73

We took a break from our study of Matthew this week at Raiford Road. Instead we turned to one of my favorite Psalms. I have written on Psalm 73 before (The Problem of Evil and the Goodness of God: Finding Help in Psalm 73), but this was my first opportunity to preach on it.

The Central Truth of Christianity
The Psalm starts out with what I believe is the most fundamental truth in all Christianity: that God is good. Asaph, the writer of this Psalm, repeats this fundamental claim, and elaborates with another claim that logically follows the first: That God is good to the pure in heart.

In other words, if it is true that God is good, then Asaph is pointing out that it must also be true that it is better to follow Him than to rebel against Him. If God is truly good, then certainly He is good to those who follow Him.

When The Truth Doesn't Seem True
But, in verse 2 Asaph admits that he is having trouble believing that God really is good. When Asaph looks around, it seems that the wicked people have a much more comfortable life than the people who are trying to follow God. Asaph had worked hard to obey God, but when he looked out at the world, it seems that the people who don't care about God have more food than him, more money than him, and more fun than him.

In verse 10 he points out that most people look at the success of the wicked and think they want to join in on the fun. And, starting in verse 13, we see that Asaph is starting to wonder if that's what he should do too. He is getting depressed and it is causing him to wonder, "did I wash my hands in vain," or "is following God really worth it?"

The Moment Everything Changes
Verses 2–16 leave us with a pretty bleak picture. Asaph is depressed and downcast and he is considering walking away from the faith altogether. But in verse 17 something happens that changes everything. In verse 17 Asaph "steps into the sanctuary of God."

Obviously Asaph is using metaphorical language here. Asaph's change has nothing to do with a physical change of location. Instead, his change has everything to do with a spiritual change. In verse 17 Asaph meets God and it changes everything. Once he meets God he realizes that God is indeed good. In fact, God is far better than he ever imagined, and that makes all the difference.

God's Goodness Guarantees that He Will Judge Evil
Once Asaph meets God, he's immediately convinced that God is good. In fact, Asaph is so impacted by God's goodness that we see three distinct changes in him. First, Asaph realizes that because God is good, perfectly good, he can rest assured that God will judge all evil.

In the verses 2–16 Asaph was embittered that God was allowing these wicked people to prosper. Now he realized, that God's goodness means that every wrong will be judged. Wickedness will not get a free pass. All evil will be judged.

God's Goodness Provides Us with an Opportunity to Repent
But, once Asaph realizes that God's goodness means that He will judge all wickedness, Asaph becomes less concerned with the wickedness of others and more concerned with his own. Asaph realized that God's not just pretty good, He's perfectly good. That means that God won't only judge the "big" sins, God will judge all sin. That means, Asaph is one of the wicked.

So Asaph responds with confession. He admits to God that he was wrong to ever question God's goodness. He was wrong to be angry and embittered with God. He was wrong to think everyone else was wicked, but that he was not.

What Asaph didn't yet fully understand is how God would reconcile these two aspects of His goodness. How can God fully judge evil and still show grace? What benefit is there to repentance if God's goodness requires that justice be served?

God answers those questions for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross of Christ, God fully punishes sin, exacting the full weight of the death penalty we deserve. Simultaneously, by offering his own Son, the one who knew no sin, God offers us the opportunity to find our death in Him. Jesus acts as a substitute for all those who repent so that God can be both just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). Jesus death means that God can be perfectly good, and judge all sin, and still be perfectly good and offer salvation to all who will repent.

Not Only is God Good, God is the Good
Of all of Asaph's changes, I believe he saves the most exciting for last. Asaph starts by pointing out that the goodness of God means that there are consequences for sin, so he commits to following God to avoid those consequences. But in this third aspect of God's goodness, Asaph realizes that knowing God is its own great reward. Asaph follows God, not merely to avoid the negatives, but to pursue the one great positive.

In the first 16 verses, Asaph looked at the fun that the wicked people were having and he was jealous. But when he meets God, all that fun looses its appeal. The wicked found their own little rewards, but Asaph has found a much better reward. There is no more room for envy. Asaph has finally found the only thing that can ever make him happy. All the other little joys seem insignificant in comparison.

When Asaph considers the joys of knowing God, he reflects,
Who do I have in heaven but You?
And I desire nothing on earth but You.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever.
But as for me, God’s presence is my good.
How to Respond to the Goodness of God
Asaph is a model for us that teaches us how to respond to the goodness of God. First, he teaches us to repent of our wickedness and to trust His goodness to cover our sins. Second, Asaph teaches us to find our all in Christ. To look to Jesus as our highest treasure.

Main Idea of the Message: When confronted with the evils and sufferings of this world, the Christian should respond by believing that God will bring justice, by repenting of our unbelief, and by looking to God as our greatest good.
You can listen to the message below or download the podcast from iTunes.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Unlikely Dawn of the Kingdom: Matthew 4:12–25

There is an old hymn we used to sing at church called, "We've a Story to Tell to the Nations." The chorus of the hymn reads,

And the darkness shall turn to dawning,
and the dawning to noonday bright.
And Christ's great kingdom shall come to Earth,
the kingdom of love and light.

Christians believe that Christ's kingdom did come to Earth, and we also believe it's coming back. We believe that the kingdom has dawned, and we are looking forward to the noonday bright. While we don't know exactly when Christ will return and the dawning will turn to noonday bright, we do know exactly when the darkness turned to dawning and Christ's great kingdom first came to earth. Matthew 4:12–25 tells us exactly how the kingdom dawned, and it's not at all what we would have expected.

The Kingdom Started in an Unlikely Place
The arrest of the John the Baptist tells us that his ministry has come to a close. The path has been prepared and the roads have been made straight. It is time for Jesus to begin his ministry. And because Jesus is the King of the Jews (chapter 2) and the new and better Israel (chapters 3–4), we would expect Him to head south to Jerusalem. but he doesn't. Jesus heads north, further into Galilee, to a town called Capernaum.

Capernaum seems a strange choice by all accounts. It's in the wrong direction, the wrong people live there, and they are known for doing the wrong things. Commentator Dale Bruner explains,
Galilee is a strange place for the Messiah to work. The distance from Zion was not only geographic; Judeans thought Galileans sat rather loose to the law and were less biblically pure than those in or near Jerusalem. Therefore, when Jesus “retreated to Galilee,” he did more than head north, he seemed to veer off.
The move further into Galilee is so astonishing, it seems that it was strategically chosen to make us ask, "Why Galilee?"

The answer is probably multifaceted. Matthew explains that it is to fulfill the prophet Isaiah, who he quotes from the 9th chapter.
Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
along the sea road, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles!
The people who live in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those living in the shadowland of death,
light has dawned.
Of course, Jesus' move to Galilee can be explained as fulfilling prophecy. But we must also ask, why did God prophesy this in the first place? I think D.A. Carson is right when he suggests that it is to teach us a lesson. Carson says,“if the messianic light dawns on the darkest of places, the Messiah’s salvation can only be a bestowal of grace — namely, that Jesus came to call, not the righteous, but sinners.” In other words, Jesus starts His ministry in Galilee to teach us that His ministry is all about grace. If you and I want to be part of Jesus' kingdom, we get there by grace, not by religious pedigree.

Jesus Calls Unlikely Followers
Again, we must keep in mind that Jesus is establishing a religious and political kingdom. We would expect that his inner circle, his "presidential cabinet," would be made up of people with religious and political clout. We would expect to see Jesus calling priests, rabbis, and scribes. Or perhaps even governors and political visionaries.

Instead, we see Jesus call four lowly fishermen. These four men, Simon, Andrew, James and John, seem to have nothing to offer Jesus. But again, that seems to be the point. This is Jesus' kingdom. He isn't calling the worthy, but the unworthy. And His offer to these four unworthy men is that if they follow him, He will make them fishers of men.

These four fishermen give us a great example of what it looks like to follow Jesus. David Platt described it as "radical abandonment." They radically abandon everything they knew and depended on. They leave their jobs behind and they leave their families behind and they follow Jesus.

These four lowly fishermen from Galilee left everything to follow Jesus. Nearly 2,000 years later, people all over the world are named after these men. Without a doubt, no other group of fishermen have impacted the world like these men. They stand in history as another marker of God's amazing grace. Not only will God start his kingdom in the lowly town of Capernaum, He will launch his ministry through lowly Galilean fishermen. Truly, His strength is displayed in our weakness.

Jesus Serves Unlikely People
When a business wants to prove that their product is superior, they offer it to a superior clientele. For instance, Nike tries to sell us shoes by telling us that this is the shoe that Michael Jordan wears. Jesus strategy for reaching the world was the exact opposite. Jesus ministry is launched in service to the lowly, the sick, and the suffering.

Verse 23 gives us a picture of what Jesus ministry was like.
Jesus was going all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
This verse tells us that Jesus ministry is characterized by two primary things: preaching the gospel and healing the sick. Preaching and healing, or words and deeds; for Jesus ministry included both his message and his actions.

As people who seek to follow Jesus today, it is important that we follow His lead in both words and deeds. Just today, while reading "When Helping Hurts," I read an account of how we often fail to follow Jesus' lead in these two areas.

The author, Steve Corbett, recounted the story of Reverend Marsh, who pastored in Mississippi during the civil rights era. Reverend Marsh, was from all accounts, a godly man, but refused to involve himself in the civil rights movement because of the lack of piety and obedience in the lives of many of the civil rights leaders in his area. Corbett reflects,
In one sense, Reverend Marsh was right. Many of the civil rights protestors longed for the peace, justice, and righteousness of the kingdom but did not want to bend their knee to the King Himself, which is a prerequisite for enjoying the full benefits of the kingdom. In contrast, Reverend Marsh embraced King Jesus, but he did not understand the fullness of Christ's kingdom and its implications for the injustices in his community. Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways. Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King. The church needs a fully orbed, kingdom perspective to correctly answer the question: "What would Jesus do?"
Jesus served the lowly, the sick, and the suffering. He did that by proclaiming the gospel with his mouth. He spoke of the kingdom and called people to leave everything and follow the King. But Jesus also met needs. Jesus healed the sick and comforted the suffering. Jesus searched out the lowest in society and made a difference right there. If we are going to follow the King, we too must do so in word and deed.

Main Idea of the Message: We should recognize our unworthiness and respond by following Christ in our words and deeds..
You can listen to the message below or download the podcast from iTunes.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Trustworthy, Tested Messiah: Matthew 4:1–11

Every single week I have had to leave out some important and challenging parts of the text. But this week I felt that I had to leave out more than I could fit in. I blame that feeling, in part, on Russell Moore and his book Tempted and Tried. In just under 200 pages, Dr. Moore gives us excellent analysis and application of the temptation of Christ by the Devil in the wilderness. If my message spurred a desire in you to study the temptations more fully, then I heartily recommend this book as your next step. But don't take my word for it, look at Rick Warren's endorsement,
I've read many good works dealing with temptation, but this one stands out in a class by itself. I can guarantee that your spiritual health will benefit greatly from giving serious attention to this book. It will help you not only understand how temptation works, but also how to defeat it.
With that endorsement behind us, let me summarize last night's message.

A Purposeful Temptation
In the very first verse, Matthew brings up one of the most difficult concepts of the entire passage. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. "To be," that indicates purpose. The question is, what was the Holy Spirit's purpose for allowing this temptation?

The answer, I believe, is two-fold. First, the Holy Spirit wants Jesus to face the same temptations that Israel faced in the wilderness. Matt Woodley explained, "As Matthew's Gospel tells us so often, Jesus our Immanuel must be with us, standing in solidarity with a fallen and broken creation in order to raise and reconcile us to the Father's heart." Jesus walks through the same temptation that Israel did, and ultimately the same temptation that we face, so that he can fully identify himself with us.

There is a second purpose for Jesus' temptation, and that is to prove himself as the ultimate Son of God. Israel faced tests in the wilderness, but they failed. But when Jesus steps into their story, he is tempted in every way just like them, yet he is without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Again, Matt Woodley explains,
Jesus stepped into Israel's story. As the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years and failed, Jesus faced forty days and forty nights of testing and prevailed. In the story of Israel... humans wanted autonomy because of their failure to trust the Father's goodness and love. In contrast, Jesus trusted his Father and thus recapitulated – or took up and transformed in his own life – the broken stories of Israel, of humanity and of us personally. He lived the life we were called to live and thus achieved the mission of God's Son.
In other words, the second purpose of Jesus' test is to prove that he is the new and better Israel. He is worthy of our trust. He is the one who will finally achieve the mission of God's Son.

The Three Temptations
To prove himself as the new and better Israel, and the trustworthy Son of God, Jesus faces off with the devil in a series of three temptations. We see in each temptation that the devil has a motivation that is much deeper than the specific action he is presenting to Jesus. Ultimately, the devil's goal is to sabotage Jesus' relationship with His Father.

In the first temptation, the devil tries to convince Jesus to put an end to his suffering through self-reliance. In the second temptation, the devil tries to convince Jesus to put an end to His suffering by testing God, manipulating God, or forcing God’s hand. In the third and final temptation, the devil tempts Jesus to simply find a God who will not ask him to suffer. In each instance, the devil seems to be suggesting that Jesus would be better off if He would stop relying on God. God's plan included suffering, the devil insisted that there was a shortcut that could avoid it.

Again, Matt Woodley nicely explains the implications of these temptations (at this point it is obvious that I really benefitted from Matt Woodley's commentary on Matthew and recommend it highly).
Throughout [Matthew's] Gospel, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus down before he goes up: down into the incarnation, down into Mary's womb, down into the stable, down into the bloody mess at the slaughter of the innocents, down into the waters of baptism, down into the presence of human disease and demonic attack. For Jesus, the way up is always down. He arrives at the resurrection life only by walking into and through the crucifixion. So Jesus, like a strong man lifting a boulder, must stoop low, getting his body underneath the dangerous load of sin and suffering, even allowing the load to crush him, as he finally rises again to lift the boulder out of the mud.
The devil ties to offer Jesus a way up without going down first. But our salvation is at stake. If Jesus won't first identify with us, stoop to our level, and put our sins upon his back, then we have no hope of salvation. Fortunately for us, Jesus resists the devil in all three tests.

Where Do We Come Into the Story
At the end of this story we must ask ourselves where we fit in. Most often, when we turn to this passage we look at Jesus' example in hopes that we can resist temptation just like he did. While I think there is wisdom here, I think Matthew is pointing us to a different truth first. In this story, we aren't like Jesus, we are like Israel.

Matt Woodley poetically describes our own experience with temptation. He says,
At many points in our journey through life we will face the soupy fog of temptation. It will swirl around us and penentrate into us. We will question and then reject the Father’s good heart, repulsing his hand of mercy and grace. As we attempt to meet our own needs our own way, we’ll get lost in the fog, gashing our leg against the rock or plunging off a cliff. It happens so frequently we assume it’s normal.
Jesus faced the tempter and he prevailed. You and I face tempter, and time and time again, we fail. If we place our hopes in our ability to stand up against temptation, we will quickly realize that we are without hope. But that is Matthew's point. Where we failed, Jesus prevailed. Where we were proven untrustworthy, Jesus has proven himself trustworthy. Our great hope is not that we can resist the devil, but that we can follow the one who already has.

It is this great reality that Matt Woodley captures in this final paragraph.
In His love and mercy, Jesus Immanuel walked into our fog. It swirled around him and threatened to destroy him, as it does every other human being. But unlike Israel, and unlike you and me, Jesus never lost his footing. The fog didn’t engulf him. By trusting in his Father’s love and goodness in the midst of howling temptation, Jesus showed us how to walk through Satan’s soupy fog. As the fog-bearer and the fog-defeater, the triune God invites us with reassuring words: “Take my hand. Trust me. I’ve been through the fog and I know how to lead you out of if.”

Main Idea of the Message: Because Jesus has proven himself to be the trustworthy Son of God, we should place all our hopes of beating sin and sin's curse in him alone.
You can listen to the message below or download the podcast from iTunes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Messiah's Baptism: Matthew 3:1–17

This week we covered the third chapter of Matthew, and though the third chapter is chock full of stuff, the passage can be easily broken down into three main sections. In the first section we find out who John the Baptist is (vs. 1–6). In the second section we get a glimpse of his message and his battle with the religious leaders of his day (7–12). And in the final section, we watch as he baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River.

Who is John the Baptist?
In the first six verses we focused on two main things about John the Baptist. The first thing we notice in verses 3 & 4, he is the promised prophet. Twice Matthew suggests that John the Baptist is the prophet promised in the Old Testament. First, Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 which tells us about a prophet in the wilderness who prepares the people for the coming of God. Matthew is telling us that John the Baptist is the prophet promised in Isaiah.

Then Matthew describes John as a man who wears a coat of camel's hair and lives on a diet of locusts and honey. This description may make us think of John as fairly strange man. But Matthew wants us to think of him as a very specific strange man. Matthew is describing John in almost the exact same way Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8.

To compare John with Elijah is a very deliberate choice. Matthew is taking our minds back to the very last paragraph of the Old Testament. In Malachi 4:4–6, we are told to wait for the day of the Lord, but before that day comes, God will send the prophet Elijah. Matthew is telling us that John the Baptist is the prophet like Elijah we have been waiting for.

While it is amazing to see that the promised prophet has come, he is really just a sign of the one who is to come. John the Baptist is the Braxton Hicks contraction that reminds us that labor is on the way. John the Baptist is the herald, that tells us to look for the king.

In addition to seeing that John the Baptist has come to prepare the way for the king, the first six verses also give us a picture of how he does that. John calls people to prepare for the coming Messiah with what we called the "baptism of repentance." John the Baptist was offering a baptism that foreshadowed the baptism we practice in the church today. In many ways it is very similar, but as we will see, the coming of the king will build on John's baptism and expand it so that it gains an even greater significance in our lives. As Dale Bruner says, "Jesus' baptism will be much more than [John's] water baptism, but nothing less."

John's baptism looks back on the washing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a Syrian, not a Jew. He had become sick with leprosy and his Jewish servant girl suggested that the God of Israel could cure him. Naaman eventually comes to Elisha the prophet who tells him to dip himself in the Jordan River seven times and then he would be healed. After the seventh washing, Naaman was indeed made clean, and he responded by denouncing his Syrian gods and claiming "I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel." And, looking back on this event, Gentile converts were permitted acceptance into the nation of Israel through baptism in the Jordan River.

John's baptism looked back on this event too. He was asking his baptism candidates to admit that they were dirty, sinful, and unclean, just like Naaman the leper. But there was an extra layer of meaning in John's baptism service. John was baptizing Jews, not Gentiles. He was, therefore, asking his followers to recognize that their sins had separated them from Israel and from the God of Israel. He was asking them to recognize that from God's perspective, these Jews were more closely associated with the Syrians than they were with their own God.

John's Battle with the Pharisees and Sadducees
As we might imagine, John's message didn't set well with the Jewish leaders of his day. So when the Pharisees and Sadducees show up, the tensions quickly mount.

John quickly lets these Jewish leaders know that they aren't welcome at his baptism service because they aren't proper candidates for baptism. He gives them two reasons. The first, in verse 8, is that these leaders haven't shown any signs of repentance. John believed that baptism was only for those people who viewed themselves as dirty outsiders who needed to be washed by God. These Jewish leaders were too proud to admit their need and therefore had no right to be baptized. John also denies them baptism because of their misplaced faith in their lineage. He explains, being children of Abraham is of no value before God. God demands individual, personal repentance.

John then turns up the heat even further. He warns these arrogant spiritual leaders that they should be afraid. While it is true that the Messiah was coming to bring life, it is also true that he comes to bring judgment. The Messiah was coming to cut down the tree of Israel and to seperate all the true followers of God from those who are merely deluding themselves. Those who are found unworthy, the false disciples, will be thrown into the unquenchable fire.

John's message was one of fear and judgment. Our tendency is to suppress the wrath of God. We sing praises of God's love, but often ignore the reality of his judgment. John the Baptist warns us against this imbalance. Dale Bruner explains,
The Kingdom of God is much more than the wrath of God, of course, but it is nothing less. The coming of God in Scripture is always at least also the coming of burning justice. A coming of the kingdom with judgment for evil doers does not exist except in the imagination of the sentimental.

[But] the wrath of God is not the irritability of God; it is the love of God in friction with injustice. It is the warm steady, patient, but absolutely fair grace of God in collision with manifest selfishness. God’s wrath does not contradict God’s love, it proves it. A love that pampers injustice is not lovable.
John teaches us that Jesus comes to bring life, but he also comes to bring death. He will destroy all injustice. If we are wise, we will be prepared.

The Baptism of Jesus
John's message is bleak, and leaves us with a sense of fear and trembling. But when Jesus arrives in verse 13, the mood quickly changes. In Jesus we see life, the Spirit, and hope.

Jesus' baptism confirms to us that Jesus is not only the new Israel (a theme we saw in Matthew 2:13–23), He is the better Israel. John the Baptist brought a message of condemnation for the people of Israel. John makes it clear that God is not pleased with them. But when Jesus is baptized, the skies split open, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and a God declares, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Jesus is not only the new son of God, he is the pleasing son of God. He is not only the new Israel, he is the better Israel.

We also see a message of great hope and purpose in Jesus' baptism. We see two great purposes for Jesus' baptism; (1) it allows him to associate with us, and (2) it teaches us to associate with him.

Certainly Jesus did not need to be baptized. He didn't have any sins that needed to be washed away. John the Baptist even tries to forbid it. But Jesus said that he must be baptized to fulfill all righteousness. This is because Jesus understood that baptism is about association. The gentiles were baptized so that they could be associated, or counted as one of the Jews. Jesus was baptized so that he could be associated, or counted as one of us.

Adolf Schlatter commented, "Jesus is baptized not because he shares our need but in order to share our need." That is, when Jesus is baptized, he is taking us to himself. He is taking our sins he makes them his sins. As the hymn "I Stand Amazed" says, "He took my sins and my sorrows and He made them His very own."

In addition to associating Himself with us, Jesus' baptism provides us a model for how we can associate with him. Dale Bruner says, "the practical purpose of Jesus' Baptism... is to teach the church what happens to her in [this event]: a great deal!"

But what exactly does happen? I think it is best summarized by Paul in Romans 6:3–5
Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection.
In other words, in the same way that Jesus associates with us in His baptism, we associate with Him in ours. When we are baptized, we are saying that His death is our death and His life is our life. By going under the water, we are signifying that His death on the cross counts in the place of the death we have earned by our sins. And when we are raised out of the water we are signifying that the new life that Christ lives is also being lived in us.

Baptism is all about association. It admits that we are already associated with the lepers, the unclean, the sinners, and the outsiders. But because of Jesus, we can be baptized into Him and find a new association. The old associations are washed away. Now we find our death in His death and our life in His life.

What a wonderful hope!

Main Idea of the Message: Repent of your sins, especially your spiritual arrogance, and be baptized into the new and better Israel
You can listen to the message below or download the podcast from iTunes.