By Linda Rex
September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.
When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.
We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.
What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.
In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.
Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.
In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.
What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.
So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB
By Linda Rex
When it comes to God’s judgment, we saw last time that God has done all that is necessary for our salvation. God frees us in Christ to participate fully in this gift of grace, enabling us by the Spirit to live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children. At the same time, though, we are free to embrace or reject the gift God has given us in his Son Jesus Christ.
In essence, we judge ourselves—we come into the Light of God’s penetrating gaze and allow him to cleanse and restore us, or we turn from him and continue to walk in darkness, thereby experiencing the consequences of turning away from Christ.
Adam, and all humanity since his time, has turned away from God—but God, in Christ, has turned humanity back into face to face relationship with himself. Jesus Christ is the right relationship each of us has with our heavenly Father.
But God does not force us into relationship with himself. He has secured our relationship with himself in Christ, but does not force us to participate in it. Rather, he invites us. He woos us. By his Spirit, he draws us to himself. We are beloved, held, cherished, and yet free to turn and walk away.
I do not know why people choose to resist and walk away from this awesome relationship, but they do. And if a person insists on resisting and turning from this relationship, God will eventually yield to their decision, while at the same time never ceasing to love and forgive them.
What’s interesting is that people who do not know or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love. They do not recognize or concede that this is so, and may even resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself, but they are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world, even if the part they play is a negative one.
The struggle we have with reading the Old Testament is seeing God at work among the nations, allowing the destruction of people groups, wars, and genocide. We find it difficult to accept God ordering certain people to be killed or allowing others to suffer famine and other hardships. If the God of the Old Testament is just like Jesus Christ, then why did he allow or cause these things to happen?
The modern-day Jesus is often portrayed as soft, kind, gentle, and loving. Our pictures of the long-haired, white American Jesus give us the impression he was full of compassion, understanding, and was sensitive to every possible issue and feeling of the human heart. He loved little children and working with his hands. Yes, he might have had a moment of anger in the temple when dealing with the buyers and sellers, but this wasn’t his usual response to such things.
We don’t usually get the impression that the Jesus of scripture is a real, flesh-and-blood man who was strong, decisive, and oozing masculinity. It seems that the Jesus we think of who is powerful and comes to deliver and help is the One who sits in glory ready to condemn and judge the world, who in his second coming is expected to punish and eliminate all the evildoers in the world. This Jesus more closely resembles the God of the Old Testament.
Jesus favored the use of “I am” statements during his time here on earth. He made it quite clear that he was the God of the Old Testament here in human flesh—the “I Am” in person. Over and over he went out of his way to show the truth of this, and that he was the perfect embodiment of God in our humanity. And this is where we begin to struggle. Just who is Jesus, and just how does he jive with the God of the Old Testament? They almost seem like two different people.
There also seems to be a dichotomy between the Jesus of the first coming and the Jesus of the second coming. And this also reflects on how we view the God of the Old Testament. There are inconsistencies between each of these God-views because we do not see Jesus Christ clearly, and we do not see God himself through the correct lens.
And we see events almost always in terms of this life alone. We don’t usually keep a kingdom perspective about things. When someone dies, we think or feel that’s the end, even if we believe in an afterlife. But the apostle Paul tells us we need to keep our minds and hearts on heaven, not on things of the earth which are passing and fleeting. What happens in this life needs to be kept in the context of eternity and the eternal purposes of our Living Lord.
This is the same perspective we need to use when looking at the events in the Old Testament. We need to realize that this is God’s story. It is the story about all he did in preparation for and in bringing about the salvation of the world in and through his Son Jesus Christ. God’s ultimate judgment on sin and death was fully taken up in Jesus Christ and resolved once and for all.
The Old Testament tells the story of God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel from whom the Messiah came. These scriptures tell about God’s love for his people, and indeed for the whole world, and his deep compassion as they wandered away from him, and his longing for them to be faithful and obedient to him. It tells how he defended and protected his people, providing for them in the midst of difficulty and struggle, and in the midst of hostile, pagan nations. It also tells how he allowed them to experience the consequences of turning away from their covenant relationship with him, while he still called them back and sought their change of heart and mind toward himself.
Everything which happened as recorded in the Old Testament must be viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ, and from the perspective of God’s eternal purposes. God judged all humanity worthy of the gift of his very own unique Son—Jesus Christ is God’s judgment on sin and death. God’s redemption of his own chosen people Israel set the stage for his redemption of all humanity.
In Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus, rather than being offered over and over like the temple sacrifices were, was offered just once “at the consummation of the ages.” When the time was exactly right, after specific events and circumstances had taken place, and after certain prophecies had been fulfilled or were prepared to be fulfilled, Jesus came and offered himself in our place. This was to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Jesus took care of sin once and for all—so we do not have that hanging over our heads any longer. Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus Christ we are free from sin and death.
Judgment, for those who are in Christ, is not a thing to be feared. In Hebrews 9:27-28 we read, “…inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Christ’s coming is meant to be a celebration. It’s meant to be the time when we all gather together, rejoicing in his return, and having a merry time at his banquet, clothed in his garments of righteousness. Death is not to be feared, but to be celebrated as the transition between this life and the life in eternity Jesus purchased for us to be spent with our loving God and all those near and dear to us.
Jesus Christ, being God’s judgment on sin and death, is the One we welcome with open arms and happy faces when we see him in glory, because we are trusting in all he did on our behalf. But it is equally possible that in that moment—in death or at Christ’s return—our hearts might condemn us. We may, when face to face with the glorified Jesus, be like those described in the book of Revelation who try to run and hide from him. We may come face to face with the glorified Savior in that particular moment and realize our way of being is a far cry from that ordained for us by God in creation as made in his image, and renewed by Christ in his redemption. And we have nowhere to turn if we refuse Jesus Christ since he is our salvation, and he is God’s judgment on sin and death. And so, our hearts will be filled with fear, fear of God and fear of his punishment.
But fear is not what God meant for us to have in that moment. In fact, God meant for his perfect love for us expressed to us in Christ to cast out all our fear. God has reconciled us to himself in Christ, and merely asks that we be reconciled in return. How often God has said to us as humans, “Don’t be afraid!” God means for our response when we see Christ in glory to be receptive, heart-felt love not fearful dread—this is why Jesus came and did all that he did and this is why God sent his Holy Spirit into human hearts.
This unhealthy response to God was something he battled with from the very beginning. Case in point was when Israel came to Mt. Sinai and God spoke with them. They were terrified and begged to have Moses speak in God’s place. And while Moses was receiving the terms of the covenant, Israel decided to play with idols. These people who were very special to God never really grasped the real nature of God. God wanted them to get to know him, but they constantly set up barriers between themselves and him.
God called the patriarchs and then the nation of Israel into covenant relationship with himself. He would speak to them through prophets. He would speak of bringing them to the place where they would “know” him—come to be intimately aware of and obedient to his loving will. He defended and protected them. He chastened them, and allowed them to stubbornly go their own way even when it was to their detriment. God’s heart from the beginning has been eternal life—this knowing and being known intimately as Abba and his Son in the Spirit.
We need to understand that God’s judgment ultimately is meant to restore, renew, and heal broken relationships—between us and God, and between us and each other. The purpose in judgment is not to destroy or punish so much as it is to bring us into truth so we can experience the true freedom which is ours in Christ. We were meant for life, real life, in fellowship with God and one another—and God’s purpose is for us to experience that both now and forever. We are free to refuse to participate in this kingdom life—but we will experience the consequences of having done so—and that is another conversation altogether.
Abba, thank you for your loving heart and the gift of eternal life in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to embrace all you have done for us in Jesus. Let us turn away from ourselves and the things of this life and place our dependency fully upon Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:26-28 NASB
By Linda Rex
Last week I asked the question: If Jesus is indeed the exact representation of the Father, does that mean that our heavenly Father is a really nice guy who never did or does anything in anger or that might be hurtful to us as human beings? I wrote about how Christ is our reconciliation and perfect relationship with our Abba, but often we seek to hide our sin and brokenness rather than humbly bringing it into the light of God’s love so we can live fully in the reconciliation which is ours in Christ Jesus.
God loves all people everywhere and has reconciled them to himself in his Son Jesus. We read in John 3:16-17 that God gave his Son for each human being, not so they would be condemned, but that they would be saved. And yet we also read in the Old Testament conversations and situations in which it seems as though God loves some people more than others.
I was sitting on a sofa in someone’s living room one day talking with a gentleman who loved God and wanted to live rightly, but more often than not was unkind and uncaring to his family and others. This person had such a low opinion of himself, it was reflected in how he treated others. He told me that God loves some people and hates others, and wondered whether or not some people were born already unloved and unblessed by God.
The example he pointed to was the story of Esau and Jacob in a passage in Malachi. In Malachi 1:1-2 we read, “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have You loved us?’ ‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.’” Here, in most translations, it says that God hated Esau but loved Jacob.
Now my understanding of the language (I’m not a Hebrew scholar) is that what is being said is not that God hates or abhors Esau, but that comparatively, he loves him less. But that still doesn’t seem to jive with our understanding that Jesus came because of God’s love for every human being. How could God do that and love some more or less than others?
The thing to avoid here is “either/or” thinking. It is better to turn to “both/and” thinking, understanding that both things are true at the same time. God “so loved the world” and he “loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” Both of these are true statements and neither is contradictory of the other. Indeed, the whole outcome of God choosing Abraham, then choosing Isaac (over Ishmael), and choosing Jacob (over Esau), was so that God could fully express his love for the whole world in his son Jesus Christ, who bore the humanity which had its roots in these patriarchs.
The apostle Paul actually writes about what God did in choosing Jacob over Esau. In Romans 9:10-13 he wrote: “there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Paul’s point here was that what God did in showing his mercy and love was not because of any particular person’s performance, but genuinely from his own heart of love and grace.
We don’t earn God’s love or forgiveness. It is fully a gift. Some have refused it. Others have not. God loves both Jews and Gentiles, and even though the Jews were his chosen people, he offered salvation to them and to the Gentiles. During Paul’s missions to the Gentiles, though, often it was the Jews, God’s very own chosen people, who refused to receive the gift of forgiveness in Jesus. The Gentiles, who had for centuries been excluded from the fellowship of God’s people, warmly received the gift of grace. They were willing to come into the Light and live in the Light, while the Jews continued to deny the truth of who Jesus was as their Savior and Lord, the Messiah of all.
Salvation is a gift from God, and the Holy Spirit, who has been poured out on all from Abba through his Son Jesus, works to bring each and every human being to saving faith in Christ. We do not know why some people come to faith now and others don’t. God has his reasons. The Holy Spirit works in ways we do not understand. But if we look at things from the view of eternity and God’s perfect love expressed to us in Jesus, we can see God has no desire to leave anyone out or reject anyone.
We are forgiven and accepted in the Beloved. But we are also free to reject and turn our backs on that gift of love and grace. We are included in God’s life and love but are free to live our lives as though we are forgotten, unloved, and unwanted. We exclude ourselves—God doesn’t exclude us.
The reason Jesus Christ is the Elect or the Chosen One is not so that only people who are Christian can be saved or go to heaven when they die, but rather so that each and every person might be included in God’s love and grace right now as well as for all eternity. Jesus Christ is our perfected humanity, and whatever may happen in this life that may make us feel as though God loves us less, as though we have been left out in some way, is a lie—a deception which Satan has suckered us into since Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden.
The question which arises now is whether or not someone who has refused God’s grace before death will be offered grace after death. This is a great question full of all types of complications. But I would, at this point, simply point out that death and Hades were defeated in Jesus, and will ultimately be tossed into the lake of fire. Death is a place Jesus has already been to and returned from, and so death is not a barrier to eternal life. God’s heart is that each and every person be saved: “God so loved the world.” And his Son Jesus Christ is his final and ultimate Word in this regard.
Thank you, Abba, for loving each and every one of us so much that you sent your Son and your Spirit for our salvation and our communion with you. Grant us the grace to believe we are included and accepted in Jesus, and to live in the truth that each and every other person is also included and beloved in Jesus. We trust you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His 1conly begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17 NASB
By Linda Rex
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit our God-concepts are at their best flawed and broken. We see God through the lenses of our past experiences, the misguided teachings we have embraced, and the hurt feelings we harbor toward others. These lenses may create within us a sense of anxiety and fear toward God when we suspect our behavior doesn’t measure up with what we believe God wants it to be.
What we believe about who God is and who we are in relationship with him often impacts us more than we realize. It becomes the underlying frame by which we measure ourselves and others, and we anticipate a just God giving us or others what is deserved—punishment, damnation, and hell.
We seem to set limits on what God will and can do in this world, whether now or in the future. We believe God is limited by a person’s sin in that God must punish a person for their evil thoughts and behavior, and their depravity. For God to not punish a person in this life or in the next, seems to us to be unjust or at the least, unfair, and certainly not something God would do.
But at the same time, isn’t this the reason Jesus Christ came? Isn’t this the reason Christ took on our humanity, lived the perfected life which is to be ours, and died our death in our place? Didn’t he take upon himself the punishment we all deserve? Then why must a person bear that punishment now or in the future? Why must they get what they deserve when it is God’s heart and will they get what they don’t deserve?
Yes, we are facing the whole issue of participation—of each and every person participating in the perfected life created for them in Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and given to them in the Person and power of the Holy Spirit. This brings into the picture the critical issue of faith. What does a person believe about who God is, who they are, and who Christ is for them personally? This must be answered by each and every human being.
We believe God is limited by death in that God must save a person now before they die, or they are lost for all eternity. For God to work with someone beyond death is unthinkable, because death is the end—now is the time of salvation. A person must come to Christ now, or all is lost. Death in this case, is the winner.
But even the just, fair, holy God confesses in and through his Son Jesus Christ that these limits no longer exist. Death has been conquered by life in Christ Jesus. Salvation has been worked out in him for each and every human being. What they do with that is the question we must all wrestle with. But must this wrestling be completed before death? Or can it continue beyond death into the place where this person encounters the One who stood in their stead and on their behalf, and sees the true realities for the first time in his or her existence?
Such questions may make us very uncomfortable. These questions may even anger us. But I believe that, in wrestling with them, we are brought face to face with the current state of our own heart. We need to ask ourselves, why does this make us uncomfortable? Why does this anger us? Is there someone in our life or in our past whom we believe needs to experience the just deserts of their unbelief and disobedience? Is there someone in our life we feel does not deserve to be forgiven and to be embraced by God and given eternal life?
Whether we want to admit it or not, we like to determine for God whom he can and cannot welcome into his eternal embrace. We’re the ones who feel it is so important that the damnation, and ever-burning fire be a literal reality for every person who denies Christ. Whereas God’s heart is to make sure no human being is left out of his eternal embrace. God’s will is that every human being experience the blessed and glorious life held in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—the beautiful life in the presence of the true Light which enlightens every person.
And God is free to do this. His unlimited freedom to be as he really is and to do as he really does as our loving, gracious God, is what drives his passion to see that every human being shares in and is held in his loving embrace. God’s freedom to be as he truly is and to do what he purposes in his heart of overflowing love and grace, is not only beyond our comprehension, but also beyond the ability of any of us to resist.
The majesty of God’s love, though, also allows you and me the freedom to resist all of that which God pours out for us on our behalf. The question of whether or not we trust in Christ for salvation is settled on God’s side—but is still in abeyance on our side. Christ stepped up as God in human flesh, and did it on our behalf—he stood in our place. He said “Yes” to Abba in the place of our “No”. But there is still a work God is doing in and through the Holy Spirit to make Christ’s “Yes” a reality for each and every person in their own being and doing.
And this is where the whole issue of faith becomes critical. What is your faith in? Is it in your ability to make sure you say the right words, or do the right things? Is your faith in being a member of the “only” church who believes the correct doctrine? What are you counting on when you come face to face with the living Lord?
Ultimately, it will come down to what Jesus emphasized over and over during his ministry here on earth: It is not about what you have, what you’ve done or not done, or what others believe about what you’ve done or not done. It all boils down to putting your trust outside of yourself, and outside of anything in your life, and solely trusting in the grace of God demonstrated to us and given to us in his Son Jesus Christ.
In embracing Jesus Christ, we find we are embraced by the living God himself, and filled with his very presence by his blessed Spirit. In turning from ourselves to Christ, we discover God has been turned toward us the whole time. He never did leave us or forsake us, but has been drawing us steadily into his love and life, that perfected existence we were created for from before time began.
And in surrendering our life, our future, our will, and our very significance to Jesus Christ, we find our true life, a blessed hope, and a Divine Companionship which we will enjoy for all eternity. And this is what it means when Jesus says repent and believe, be baptized, and receive the gift of God Spirit.
This is what God meant for each and every one of us from the beginning. This is the whole reason Christ came, and the whole purpose for all God has done since he first got the idea to create human creatures who could and would share his life and love. We are held in his embrace, whether we like or not, whether we want to be held or not. All he wants is for us to turn around and embrace him as he is embracing us. So why wait? Why not do it right now?
Dear Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Today, this day, I turn away from my dependence upon anything or anyone but you, God, and I turn towards you. I embrace you, and your ways, and your blessed Spirit, and what your Son has done in my stead and on my behalf in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. I believe—Lord, please free me from my unbelief. Enable me to trust fully in you, and you alone, in every situation of life, no matter how hard things may get. Fill me afresh with your Spirit—make me new. My life is in you, through Jesus my Lord, and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” Revelation 22:12-14 NASB
“‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)” Revelation 19:6b-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
On Wednesday evenings at our discussion group we have been addressing the topic of hell. One of the concerns which was raised this week was how we determine whether or not we are getting off track in our reading and studying. This is a really good question.
Sometimes we can be so afraid of being deceived or getting off track we become afraid of reading anything other than the Bible. We can take this fear even to the place where we restrict our reading of the Bible to only one translation, or we only use a Bible put out by our particular denomination, rejecting all others as heretical.
At other times we may believe only one particular Bible teacher has the truth about God’s Word. We read everything this person writes, listen only to this person speaking, and we believe they are the only ones who really know the truth about God’s Word. We refuse to listen to what anyone else may have to say about the Bible or what to believe because we do not trust them to be telling the truth.
Unfortunately, our approach to learning about God and about the Bible may end up being governed by fear and mistrust rather than by the faith, hope, and love God gives to us in Christ by the Spirit. Instead of resting in Jesus Christ and trusting he will keep us in the center of his will, we anxiously work to make sure we don’t accidentally wander off the path of holiness.
The Scriptures say God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and sound mind. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth as we trust in Christ and allow him to lead us. Yes, it is important to ground ourselves in the Word of God, but only as we allow the living Word of God to take precedence in all things, and allow the Holy Spirit to convict us of where we may be getting off track.
This whole process of studying the written Word of God and seeking to know the truth which will set us free is a relational effort—a participation with Christ by the Spirit in listening to, hearing, and acting upon what the Father is saying to us in the Scriptures. The question is, do we trust God to keep us on the right track, and if we wander off somewhere, to bring us back to the Truth who is Jesus Christ?
How do we gauge if a teaching or a translation is off track? How do we know if what someone is teaching doesn’t agree with the truth presented to us in Christ? And this is the key: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our living relationship with our Abba, and he gives his Spirit to us to lead us into all truth. He is the center.
When we begin to look at difficult topics such as hell, we begin with the appropriate lens. That lens is the Lord Jesus Christ and who he is as God in human flesh, and what he teaches us about the Father, himself, and the Spirit, and what he teaches us about ourselves. This grounds us and enables us to see more clearly the difference between truth and error. Looking through this lens also involves comprehending, believing, and receiving the reality of God’s love expressed to us in the giving of his Son and his Spirit for salvation and redemption.
We need to stay centered in the incomprehensible reality God willed not to be God without us: he chose before time began to include us in his life and love, and so he ordained before time began to send his Son in human flesh to draw us up into life in himself. Understanding and believing in the truth of this reality enables us to begin to read the Scriptures with greater clarity and less confusion. We are less likely to be swept aside by false concepts of God and eschatology (any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.).
What God did for us in Jesus wasn’t an afterthought or a reaction to what humanity did, but rather what he intended all along. It was not an outflow of his anger against humanity or the rejection of his Son, but rather an embracing of all of us as lost, broken, rebellious children in need of redemption. That God, in his freedom to be the God he is, would do something new—not only creating creatures to share life with, but also joining them to himself forever—is an amazing and wonderful thing.
It is equally amazing that he who lived ever and always in love, joy, and peace, was willing to reconcile suffering, sorrow, and evil with himself in such a way it would be forever nullified and transformed into the very thing which binds us to himself in love.
Jesus is God’s judgment on sin, evil, and death. This judgment (or krisis) each of us encounters is not something or Someone which we should fear, but the Person which we should embrace in faith, trusting Christ is for us all we need in the face of our sin, brokenness, and depravity. Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, is the perfect answer or response to God for each one of us, no matter our situation or history or failure.
For this reason, we have nothing to fear when it comes to seeking to know God more fully and completely. Christ has gone ahead of us and has sent his Spirit so we might know which direction to go.
Yes, we have the responsibility to choose our teachers wisely. They need to coincide in their teaching and life with what we know about who Jesus Christ is as the God/man, and who he reveals God to be in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the sending of the Spirit. Our teachers need to be willing to submit to being taught and to sit humbly under the mentorship of those with greater spiritual depth, maturity, and knowledge. The Spirit in them will resonate with the Spirit in us, and we will begin to see with greater clarity the magnitude and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ in their teaching.
One of the healthiest things we can do to keep ourselves on the right track is to find other believers who are well-grounded in Christ and to study the Word of God with them. As we pray together, listen to the written Word of God together, and wrestle with our questions and thoughts about what we are learning, the Holy Spirit brings us into a deeper knowledge and understanding of the truth. As we are open to it, we have brothers and sisters who can point out when we are drifting away from our center in Christ. And at the same time, we by the Spirit are growing into a deeper fellowship with God and one another.
Are there times when we may wander off the path? No doubt. But this is why it is essential to walk by faith, not by sight. We trust in the perfect work of Christ and in the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We hold all we read, hear, and see up against the mirror of the living Word of God as revealed in the written Word of God, and we ask ourselves, does this agree with the truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ? Does this diminish Christ or magnify him? And we go from there—it’s a walk of faith.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son the living Word, and for the gift of your precious Spirit. Keep us on the narrow path of faith, and free us from fear and anxiety about missing the mark. When we wander here and there, please bring us back to our center in Christ. We thank you that you are faithful and dependable, and that you will not leave us as orphans, lost or without direction. Open your written Word to our understanding, and transform our hearts by faith, we pray, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” 1 John 4:1-6 NASB
by Linda Rex
Last week I did my best to come up with a blog to post, but due to my involvement with vacation bible school (VBS), and other family and work responsibilities, I found myself drawing on empty when it came time to write. But I would like to share what stood out in my mind from our work with the young people in the Old Hickory community.
The topic of our VBS last week was the armor of God. At first, when we were reviewing the curriculum at one of our planning meetings, I and others were struck by the emphasis it had on our human efforts to put away sin and defend ourselves against Satan’s attacks. Our challenge was to revise the curriculum in such a way as to put Jesus Christ as the foundation and center of it rather than our own human efforts.
It is my personal belief what is lost in most discussions and devotions about the armor of God is the reality that each part of the armor is in essence Jesus Christ himself. Even the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, points us to the living Word, Jesus Christ. To separate each part out individually as if it stands on its own is to miss the point of this whole passage.
Paul starts out this section of scripture by saying, “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” God’s might is our might, his strength our strength. In Jesus by the Spirit we have the capacity to resist evil and the evil one. It’s not something we have to figure out or do on our own.
We need to beware of any way of looking at scripture which casts us back upon ourselves, as if we are capable of resisting or overcoming evil on our own, or are responsible to do so. Trying to overcome or resist evil on our own by keeping the law or doing lots of good deeds is basically human religion. And such a religion does not save us—rather it can enslave us and bind us to unhealthy and unfruitful ways of living and being.
What Paul seems to be saying here in Ephesians 6 is we have an adversary who is always scheming against us, and there are forces of evil at work which impact our lives on a daily basis. But we have a simply divine outfit laid out on the bed for us—we just need to put it on and stand firm in Christ, while resisting the devil’s efforts to deceive or distract us.
Salvation isn’t something we have to make sure we run to the boutique and buy, but rather something Christ has already done in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have been delivered from sin and death by the Son of God, who was victorious over them. But there is an action we do—we pick up the helmet of salvation, and we put it on. We experience a change in our mind and heart—we repent and turn away from our self-centered ways of thinking and being, and we turn to Christ. We stop trusting in our human efforts to save ourselves and start trusting in Christ instead. We put on Christ.
The thing is, the helmet of salvation isn’t something you take off and put back on. Salvation just is, because Christ has done it and won’t go back on his action of taking our humanity on and redeeming it. So we just receive this gift and live in the truth of it from now on. Our decision to live in the reality of our salvation in Christ does not alter whether or not Jesus saved us. It merely enables us to enjoy all the benefits of what he has done for us and in our place, and what he is doing today by his Holy Spirit. It is life-transforming.
This theme of putting on Christ can be found throughout this whole discussion about the armor of God. When we put on Jesus Christ, we are wrapping around ourselves the truth of who God is and who we are in him. Jesus is our belt of truth. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—we draw our being and life from him as the One through whom and by whom all things were created. As made in the image of God, through the Spirit we reflect Jesus Christ, the One who is both God and man—he is our perfected humanity. The truth about our existence is found in him. Whatever lies may be said to us or we may believe need to be held up against this plumbline, recognized for what they are, and discarded. The truth of our being, which is found in Jesus Christ, orients us toward our true north, our heavenly Father, in every area of our lives as we live and work in community with others.
The gospel of peace—how the Word of God took on our humanity to bring us peace with God and peace with one another—is the story of our lives. This good news, who is our Savior Jesus Christ, has transformed our lives, and we spend our existence sharing this good news with others. We don’t hold grudges or refuse to forgive people’s slights against us because we are living in the reality of and sharing with others the immense gift of grace given to us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. All the human barriers we place between ourselves are removed in Christ, because he has made us one in himself, taking on our humanity and redeeming it. Because Christ is our life, we walk in him in the Spirit, in this path of grace and peace he has walked before us, in our place and on our behalf.
As we put on Christ as our footwear, we also put him on as our righteousness. Jesus is our right relationship with God and one another. God has reconciled to himself all things in Jesus Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are brought up into the very life and being of God himself, at one with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and in Christ, made at one with every other human being. We put on Christ by living in the truth of our reconciliation and our right relationship, by being truly reconciled with God and one another, because of Jesus’ finished work.
Even when it comes to faith, we are reminded to turn to Christ for the faith we need when we are being assaulted by the lies of the evil one. The one weapon the devil uses against us over and over again is the lie which says God is not good and is not trustworthy, and he does not really love and care about us. When these lies begin to overwhelm us, we need to draw upon Christ’s perfect faith. Jesus trusted his Father implicitly, even when he hung dying on the cross and it seemed to his human mind his Father had forsaken him. Jesus’ perfect faith caused him to trust his Father even at the very end of his suffering—this faith is ours. All we need to do is ask—to pick up the shield—to put on Christ.
So we have put on Christ, and it seems it is not enough for us just to have our armor on. God also gives us an offensive weapon—the sword of the Spirit. The capacity of the word of God to penetrate down to the core of our being is made possible through the living Word, Jesus Christ, by his gift of the Spirit from the Father. It is Christ at work in us by his Spirit which transforms us and enables us to effectively live out and share the gospel of peace. It is the Spirit of truth at work within which enlightens us and enables us to see and walk in the truth who is Jesus. Any faith or righteousness which may well up within us is the work of the Spirit, who writes God’s ways on our minds and hearts, gives us the heart to obey, and enables us to live in accordance with the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.
The centrality of Christ to this entire discussion on the armor of God can be clearly seen when we start and begin with Jesus as the One who is the Word of God come into our human flesh. This can be a comforting and encouraging study when we do it this way. It’s not up to us to do this battle with the enemy all by ourselves. Rather, it is a battle Jesus already fought and won, and he shares his decisive victory with us as we respond to the Spirit’s work, and put on and use the divine outfit he created for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus Christ is our mighty warrior, and we get to participate by the Spirit in his perfect deliverance against sin, evil, and death. What a blessing!
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us, in Jesus and by your Spirit, total victory over evil, sin, and death. Thank you for giving us this perfect armor to wear, and the sword of the Spirit to wield. Grant us the grace to daily put on Christ and to respond fully to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, and in the world around us. May we trust in you fully, resting in Christ, and drawing upon the Spirit each day. Amen.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10–17 NASB
by Linda Rex
Is it possible for a human to do what only God can do?
What a question! But what if a person does not believe there is a God and believes it’s all up to us as humans to save ourselves? What if we do have to rescue ourselves from this mess we’ve created and there is no help to be expected from any other place?
I suppose too, if a person did perhaps believe there was a God, but believed this God was indifferent or condemning, we would still be in a very difficult position. After all, it has been our choices as humans which have brought us to the place we are facing ecological disaster and economic, immigration, racial, cultural issues—you name it, we are facing it, and it’s due to our decision to do things the way we see fit.
But it is interesting how people have responded during this election season to the question of who should lead our country. It seems on the one hand many people were happy to give the candidates the benefit of the doubt, but at the same time their supporters are expecting them to solve all the issues which face the American people. But can any human being actually do that?
Others are adamant we are just getting what we deserve as Americans because of our decadence, hedonism and greed. So they are assuming God is executing his judgment on our nation because of our sinfulness. But is that really the way God works? What kind God would act like that?
I was reading an article this morning which explained all the changes the president-elect promised to make once he was elected. In the article, it explained how difficult it would be to do any of these things due to the checks and balances in our government, the entrenched bureaucracy and not to mention the immense baggage created by all the leaders before him. No matter which person would have been elected, he or she would have faced this same problem, and would have struggled to bring about lasting change.
The thing is, all any human leader can hope to do is to temporarily alter the physical circumstances of the people in the nation he or she is leading. Bringing about real change requires so much more than just electing a human being to an office in a human government. Giving someone the position, and I suppose even the power, to lead and govern others does not guarantee all of the problems people are facing will be solved.
What is missing from this whole discussion, I believe, is some true introspection about the human heart and mind. Caught in our own humanity, we are blind to the spiritual realities. The best way to bring about change in a nation like ours is to begin with an internal change within ourselves. We need to come to the place in which we realize we are powerless to change and heal what needs to be changed and healed. We need to acknowledge the reality we are broken humans who cannot properly and effectively govern ourselves, much less others.
As long as we seek to be self-sustaining and self-governing, we end up in the same place. Our best efforts to govern ourselves and to discipline our human flesh keep bringing us to the place we are dependent or co-dependent when we seek to be independent. This is because we are missing the point of the whole process which is to live interdependently with God and each other in a relationship of love and grace. We need to understand we are only who we are because there is One Who is above and beyond us and Who has included us in his life and love.
It’s not about creating more rules or getting a bigger police group to enforce those rules. It’s not about punishing people whose race, religion, culture, life choices and life styles differ from our assumptions of what is good and what is evil. It’s about an internal transformation which happened over 2000 years ago in spite of us—a heart transplant given to every human being. Will we live in the truth of that new heart which was given us—the true spiritual reality of our identity as children who are persons in the divine Persons?
The real question is how can we? And that is a really good question—because we cannot. We need to realize we are the humans here, not the God. We need our Messiah to come even now. We need rescued. We need saved. But how? If Jesus isn’t going to return tomorrow, how are we able to go forward into an uncertain and maybe even dangerous future?
See, the thing is, we live as though we and God are separate. We think and act as though Jesus is off somewhere and we need him to come here to fix things. But that is not the case. It is my personal testimony, and the testimony of many others, that God is present here and now in you and in me, in us and among us by his Holy Spirit. He is at work in every situation, and acutely aware of every fear, every bit of guilt and shame which plagues us. Jesus is present, real and near to us—speaking to us his words of hope, encouragement and guidance to our hearts and minds.
We see people interceding for the oppressed and the needy, providing for the hungry, and healing the sick—God is at work in this world. He doesn’t always work the way we think he should work—after all, his perspective is eternal not temporal. But he is busy tending the garden, pulling weeds, tying up vines and trimming off branches, and is working in and through human beings in the process.
Yes, there is a lot more work to be done—so let’s get in the dance and start dancing! As we respond in faith to God’s Word to us in Christ and the inner promptings of the Spirit, we will find our world and ourselves being healed and transformed. We will begin to have a vision of life beyond this life, being able to accept the reality this world is passing away and our true life is waiting for us beyond the grave.
It is our response to the leadership of the Spirit which is the issue here rather than our need to find the perfect president for our country. Are we willing to trust God to do what we as humans cannot and have not done to heal our land and to heal us as human beings? Perhaps we cannot—but that’s okay. Because it is not our faith which saves us, it is the faith of the Faithful One Who did save us, Who is working to save us right now, and Who will save us in the future. He will finish what he has begun in us—growing us up into the fullness of our Christlikeness, the image of God we were created to reflect, as we respond to him with humility and love in gratitude.
Lord, we acknowledge we cannot save ourselves, we cannot keep ourselves safe, we cannot govern ourselves as we ought. We hurt and disrespect, abuse and misuse, ourselves, our earth and each other. Forgive us, Lord, and grant we may live according to the truth of our being and begin to reflect your image as we ought, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord while I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; Who keeps faith forever; Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry. the Lord sets the prisoners free. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord raises up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, but He thwarts the way of the wicked. The Lord will reign forever, Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” Ps 146:1–10 NASB