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Led in Triumph

Sunday, January 20, 2019

"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere."

(2 Corinthians 2:14)

In this section (2 Cor. 2:14-17) Paul uses the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession to describe his work as an apostle. He expresses his gratitude (“thanks be to God”) that God is able to display His magnificent power through his weaknesses (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-10). This emotionally charged illustration provides us with a beautiful picture of the victory we all share in Christ.

Paul says, “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” In ancient Rome, when a battle was won, the victorious general and the conquering army would lead the defeated captives through the city in a celebratory victory-march. Although, from the captives perspective, it was a death-march!

History records more than 300 of these “triumphal processions” between Rome’s founding (7th century BC) and the reign of Vespasian (1st century AD). The Emperor would ride a two-wheeled chariot pulled by a team of four horses through an ornamented triumphal arch with the defeated captives in tow. The arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome today, celebrates his conquest over Jerusalem in AD 70.

Though there is some debate as to how Paul meant his metaphor to be understood, I believe the picture he paints goes something like this: Christ, in defeating sin and death in His resurrection, is the victorious King of kings returning home from battle. He has conquered sinners by His love (Rom. 5:10) and parades His captives before the world as His trophies of divine grace.

Those of us who have willingly submitted ourselves to Christ’s reign were once His enemies but, through the power of His divine love and resurrection, have been reconciled to Him in the cross (2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph. 2:3; Col. 1:21-22). Now, as we follow our King Jesus, we share in His glorious victory and we march, not to our death, but toward eternal life.

But Christ was not only victorious over the repentant. In Colossians, Paul uses the same word to describe God’s victory over enemies who persist in their rebellion against Christ. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col. 2:15)

And just as the captives in the ancient world scattered sweet-smelling incense as they marched along in the parade, Christ’s willing captives disperse the beautiful fragrance of the “knowledge” of Christ in every place. 

Jesus is the victorious general. He conquered our sinful hearts with His divine love and life. Today, He leads us in triumphal procession before the world as His trophies of grace. And as we follow Him by faith in this triumphal procession we leave in our wake the fragrance of the gospel leading others to Him.

Never Look Back

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

Brother JR used to say about nostalgia, “I don’t want to live in the past, but it is nice to visit for a while!” There is something very important about recalling the past. God gave us minds to store our memories for a reason. In fact, memory was a vital part of Israel’s life and worship. In their worship, Israel was to be reminded of their history as slaves in Egypt and of God’s mighty acts of deliverance and grace. They were to remember lest they forgot. (Deut. 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7, etc.) Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Memory is a powerful tool and can be of great use to us. But memory can also function as a prison or a poison.

In a moment of panic, when Israel was hard pressed between the Red Sea and their captors, their present danger perverted their memory. By contrast, their past as slaves seemed preferable to whatever catastrophe they would face that day. (Ex. 14:11-12)

We also can be guilty of allowing the pain of the present to distort our memory of the past. This distortion may tempt us to fall back into a lifestyle of sin. (Heb. 10; 2 Pet. 2:22)

Sometimes, we see the wickedness of the present and compare it with a past that never existed. The Preacher exhorts us, “Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Ecc. 7:10) The past was not better than the present. Though there may have been some bright moments, we should not be so naïve to think that the arc of human history has been anything but a total rejection of God’s truth. (Rom. 3:9-20) While we can see standards of morality shifting, sin has always plagued this earth since Genesis 3.

Other times, we can grow so fond of the past that we begin to mentally “live” in the past at the expense of our future. Faith looks to things “hoped for” in the future. (Heb. 11:1) It is, by nature, forward thinking and so must be forward acting. For a Christian to live by faith, he must “hope” for a brighter future, (Rom. 5:3-5) namely, the resurrection. “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we await for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:24-25)

Remember Lot’s wife who, when escaping from the destruction of Sodom toward God’s salvation, “looked back” and was destroyed for it. (Gen. 19:26) We cannot afford to be like Lot’s wife – frozen in the act of looking backwards. An unhealthy fixation on the past will immobilize us in the present and cost us our eternal future.

Our Lord said of our devotion to Him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62) When it comes to our commitment to the Lord, we can never look back or second guess our decision to follow Him.

Humble Striving

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Our congregational theme for 2019 is “Growing in Grace” (2 Pet. 3:18), particularly in the seven areas Peter points out in 2 Peter 1:5-7. He puts a great deal of emphasis on our part in the development of these Christ-like qualities using phrases like “make every effort” (v.8) and “be all the more diligent” (v.10). Knowledge of the gospel should evoke a maturing and practical moral response from us. But Peter makes sure we understand this doesn’t all depend on us. Far from it!  He points out that God is the one who has “richly provided” us with everything necessary to transform us into the people we were meant to be (v.3) and bring us to glory (v.11).

This combined effort of humanity and divinity, human exertion and divine grace, is the key to unlocking our salvation and entrance into the eternal kingdom (2 Pet. 1:11; Eph. 2:8-9). Paul sums it up best: “… as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12-13) 

Does this much emphasis on “our part” of salvation contradict the doctrine of grace? Does our effort somehow negate God’s grace? Does our diligent striving turn God’s gift into a wage? (Rom. 4:4-5)

We understand no one is justified in God’s sight by earning their salvation (Rom. 1-4). But obedience to the gospel is clearly required (Rom. 6). In fact, on this side of the cross, everything we do for God and others is a direct response for what God has done for us. Our faith and humble obedience is always initiated by God’s gracious work. “We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). Humble effort in no way contradicts God’s grace. The contradiction to grace is pride. Jesus lived in humble obedience as an example for us! (Heb. 5:8-9) 

James 4:6 says, "But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Peter teaches us in 1 Peter 5:6, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you." Check out the handy chart by Doy Moyer below.

GRACEPRIDE
HumbleSelf-righteous
Trust in GodTrust in self
ServeBeing served
Obey to pleaseDo to get
SubmissiveSelf-willed
Salvation givenSalvation earned
ContentDiscontent
God-exaltedSelf-exalted

 

Thank God

Sunday, December 30, 2018

In Luke 17:11-19 Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he stopped at a village where he met ten men suffering from leprosy. Standing afar off from Jesus they cried out to him saying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Lepers were shunned by society, put out of the city and away from direct contact with others. In fact, they were to yell out to passersby, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn them of the possibility of physical and ritual contagion (Lev. 13-14). So not only were lepers ostracized from their community and family but they were also often forced into poverty. The sores that covered their bodies were seeping boils that were incredibly painful and would be in constant threat of becoming infected over time if not properly cared for.

We can only begin to imagine the pain, both physical and emotional, and the ridicule these men endured on behalf of their skin disease. So when they saw Jesus of Nazareth, having known the great miracles he was capable of performing, they cried out to him in desperation. Jesus sent them to the priests and they were cleansed.

The miracle itself was astounding and teaches us many things about Jesus, but there is another lesson in the reaction of the cleansed lepers. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Lk. 17:15-18)

Only one man took the time to come back to thank Jesus! Are we like the nine or the one Samaritan who remembered his Savior?

In the midst of our agony we cry out to Him to makes things right. Sometimes He waits a little while to answer our prayers. But when the time comes that He, in His mysterious and perfect way, has answered our prayers, we often fail to return to Him in gratitude. We go on our merry way continuing to ask for this or that treating Him like our very own cosmic vending machine.

Paul teaches us how we ought to pray if we desire to be at peace spiritually. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil. 4:5-6)

Praying with thanksgiving takes a lot more effort than a simple prayer of supplication. Our problems are always on our mind, ever present and easily recalled. And God is eager to hear about our problems and answer those requests (1 Pet. 5:7). But digging through the past and recognizing God’s gracious providence and abundant provision in His answers to previous prayers takes more mental muscle.

Let us resolve to live like the one Samaritan leper who, when he discovered Christ had made him well, turned back to Him praising God and giving thanks.

Profaning God's Name

Sunday, December 23, 2018

“But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.”
(Ezekiel 36:20-21)

What does it mean to profane God’s “holy name”? This does not mean to curse, swear or blaspheme God’s name as our modern word “profanity” might suggest. To the Israelite, all of life was divided into two broad categories – the “holy” and the “common”.

Most of life was common. There was nothing wrong with this. Ordinary people, places and things were simply common. If they were set apart for sacred use (‘sanctified’) then that made them holy. The entire nation of Israel was holy, set apart from the rest of the nations of the world for God’s special purpose (Ex. 19:4-6). But for the most part, ordinary things in life were either clean (normally) or unclean (because of some ritual or moral defilement).

So, the word “profane” is not necessarily derogatory or negative, it just means common or ordinary, no different from anything else in that category. Now we are getting closer to answering our question. All holiness flows from the LORD, the one who is uniquely other, separate and exalted above everyone and everything. He is utterly distinct from all other things and His name cannot be classed among other things or other gods. He can never be common because He could never be one in a class of many. He is in a class all by Himself, which is the very definition of holiness.

Levitical priests were given the important duty to instruct the rest of the people on the distinctions between the holy and common (Lev. 10:10-11). In Ezekiel’s day, far from teaching the distinctions, the priests taught that there was no distinction, thus doing violence to God’s law and profaning His name (Ezek. 22:26).

Babylonian exile was another huge step in the wrong direction for the nations to take notice of Yahweh’s holiness. You could imagine the discussions when God’s people were taken to Babylon. The locals would be asking, “Who are these vagabonds?”

“These are Israelites taken from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar.”

“What is the name of their God?”

“I heard they call him ‘Yahweh.’”

“So, they are Yahweh’s people but they’ve been kicked out of Yahweh’s land? This Yahweh doesn’t sound very powerful. He’s probably not that much different that all the other nations’ gods our king has conquered. Praise Marduk!” (cf. 2 Kgs. 18:33-35)

This is how the ancient world thought about gods. The defeat of a nation meant the defeat of its god. And gods were only effective within the boundaries of their land. The Judean exiles were proof, according to the nations’ wisdom, that either Yahweh had abandoned His people because He was powerless (what Moses feared in Num. 14:16) or He was malicious (what Moses feared in Ex. 32:12). Either way, to the Babylonians, Yahweh was defeated, no better than the rest of the national gods that had succumbed to the might of Babylon. Yahweh’s name would be mocked as a loser.

In exile, “wherever they came, they profaned my holy name.” (Ezek. 36:20) Instead of being Yahweh’s royal priesthood, shining His holiness to the rest of the nations (Ex. 19:4-6), Israel had become the exact opposite, a landless, roving band who profaned God’s name and gave His reputation a black eye wherever they went.

The New Testament authors show how God “had concern for [His] holy name” (Ezek. 36:21) and acted to save us in Christ (1 Pet. 1:18-20; 2:24-25) by calling us with a “holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9). In this act of salvation God turns the tables in His (and our) favor. In Christ, we are saved from forever profaning God’s holy name and liberated us to proclaim His holy name to the world abroad.

As Peter says, Christians “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10)

This holy calling in Christ makes living a holy life reflective of our holy God possible (1 Pet. 1:15-16). In Christ, we are taught afresh to distinguish between the holy and the profane, proclaiming his excellencies in our thinking and behavior as is befitting a royal priesthood and a holy nation. And others should be able to tell the difference.

In fact, Peter expects others to see the difference in the life of a Christian and ask about it (1 Pet. 3:15). No one should ever say of a Christian, “These are the people of the Lord, and yet… they don’t look any different than anyone else.” To wear God’s holy name and be viewed as common by others is to profane God’s holy name. And yet ironically, this religious hypocrisy is one of the most commonly lodged complaints against Christians today and one the most vehemently denounced sins by Christ Himself (Mt. 7:1ff).

The more unique our neighbors view us the clearer we are reflecting God’s holy image. After all, wasn’t it the Lord Himself who said people have a right to judge a tree by its fruit (Mt. 7:20)?

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