Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Like the World -- But Love God - 1 John 2: 15-17

John, the apostle writes about getting real with God. But first we must make a choice. Either we look to God revealed in Christ, or we look to something in this world.  Jesus said in Matthew 6: 24, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  Mammon is all the peace, security, pleasure, and influence that money can buy or assist in receiving. It is the world and all we know in this world. 

Loving God requires that we stop loving everything else. This is spiritual marriage. The more we try to love God and the world, the more miserable we become. 

Before we go any farther, we should make sure what John is saying. First, what does he mean by “love”?  

There are several words in Greek for love.  The Greek word sturge means “enjoy.”  If I sturge chocolate ice cream, then I prefer it over other kinds of ice cream. Another word is eros, meaning to consume to possess. If I eros ice cream, I want to eat it. John uses the word agape. Agape means to make a choice to pursue it, and to build my life in seeking it. Eros is a decision to pursue. I may like ice cream and even desire to eat it, but until I’m willing to break my diet for the sake of ice cream, then I don’t love it. I like ice cream but I love health more. 

God doesn’t say we shouldn’t “like” the world. But worldly enjoyment is best found not by pursuit but by accident. We don’t seek the beauty of a sunset—it is just there. Everything God has made in this world has an element of joy and pleasure about it. To love the world is to make a choice to devote our lives to the pursuit of worldly things. If we do not pursue it, then pleasure will come. If we pursue satisfaction in worldly things, then the pleasure will elude us.  

The second word we must define is “world”—cosmos in Greek. Watchman Nee wrote that “world” has three meanings.

The third definition of cosmos is the fallen world—the world controlled by Satan.

Second, it is all the material things-- not just sex and money, but also bunnies, butterflies, and ice cream.

 Third, the “world” is also the worldwide social network, which is any and all human organizations and associations, including countries, schools, sports teams, and clubs as well as churches, families, and Facebook friends.  Even an organization such as the church or a Christian ministry is still part of the world. Churches and families can become idols, too, if they are loved more than God. Anything we exalt above God and serve above God is the world. 

John doesn’t just say don’t love the evil world. Don’t love the good world, either. Satan doesn’t tempt us only with evil, but with good. He wants us to abandon the greater good for the lesser good. In this way, choice by choice, he tempts us progressively with difficult choices that eventually lead us to evil.

We see this in Luke 9: 57-61. Three men wanted to follow Jesus. One turned back when he found out that Jesus had no home, and another turned back to bury his father. The last man turned back to say goodbye to his parents. Jesus did not wait. There’s nothing wrong with having a home, burying your dad or kissing your mother, but all of them are worldly concerns, and God is greater than all. These three picked good things, but they lost the best.

Satan will if he can lead us away from prayer by suggesting that our prayer time would be better spent packing school lunches or walking the dog. He tempts us off our diets not with candy, but with the birthday cake of a dear friend. Later, it gets easier for us to abandon our resolve for worse reasons, but only after we’ve abandon it for some seemingly “good” thing. 

Family can come between you and God.  Your house, your car, your job, your lawn, and even the good things you do for others can come between you and God, because they are all part of the world. Everything that touches your life may become an idol if you love it too much.

Enjoy the world, but just don’t love it. 

Look at another word in verse 16—“desire” or in Greek epithumia. “Lust” is really more accurate. Thumia means “desire.” With the prefix epi it is a strong or overwhelming desire.  We enjoy the things of this world, but when we start following them, then we come under their spell, and lust after them.  At some point, this becomes an overwhelming desire, and we cannot break away from them without great effort and the help of the Holy Spirit.

 I watched a show where two men were testing how to escape from quicksand. Quicksand is ordinary sand, but underneath the ground there is surging water. When you step on it, the sand pushes into the water, liquefies, and creates a suction that pulls you in.

To test this, they filled a large vat filled with sand and put hoses near the bottom, with a run off system for the liquid sand. One of them stood on top. At first, the sand supported him well. But when they turned on the water he immediately sank to his knees, then his hips and finally to his waist. He was trapped. They brought in a crane and tried to pull him out, but not even a crane could move him. The force required to move him would break his legs.

 John says that the world is passing away. He does not mean that it is the end of the world, but that the world underneath its calm exterior is falling apart. Underneath the surface, the world is passing away. When we put our love in worldly things, then we commit to a dying system. We get sucked into it, and it takes us down with it.  At some point, it becomes almost impossible to free ourselves from the downward pull of worldliness. Only by letting go do we have the strength to break the suction into the world.

  “For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

John classifies worldly love into three categories. First, there is the “lust of the flesh”—things our body physically craves. These include food, drugs, alcohol, comfort, shelter, and sex. We crave a physical feeling and will do anything to get it. Then there is the “lust of the eyes”—those are the things that give pleasure from watching. These include television, pornography, video games, sports, and the endless search for novelty. It even includes books and learning and the desire to discover the secrets of others. Gossips and busybodies are caught up in the lust of the eyes. Finally, there is the boastful pride of life—this is the insatiable desire for reputation. The desire to be someone important drives our consumer culture. It is this pride that drives us to dominate others.

In Philippians 2, Paul says that Jesus, being God did not act as if he were God, but humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant. How few of us would be satisfied being an anonymous servant!  Yet Jesus took on that role. 

By humbling Himself, Jesus never became trapped in pride and worldliness. It is impossible for worldly pride and ambition to ruin the lives of people who really don’t care.  All that mattered to Jesus was that He did the will of His father, not that He looked good in the eyes or the world, or received any reward for it.  The more we love the Father, then the less appeal the world will have for us.

Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. Trusting in Him is the most important thing in the world. But the first step to coming to Jesus is to let go of the world, and not just the bad things in the world, but the good things as well.  We must let go of our pride, self-assurance, egotism, lusts, desires, and false hopes in deliverance through worldly things and methods. 

There’s a story about a man who fell off a building. Halfway down, he grabbed hold of a flagpole sticking out of the side of the building.  He shouted to the heavens, “Help, is there anyone up there?”

God answered from heaven. “Yes son. Do you trust me?”

“Yes, Lord.”

“Then let go of the pole.”
“Help!” he cried. “Is there anyone else there?
That’s us. We must let go of what we know and trust a God we cannot see. Satan doesn’t need bad things to tempt us away from God if good things can work as well. Jesus will save us, but first we must let go.

 “Do not love the world, or the things of the world. If we love the world, the love of the Father is not in us.”


Friday, October 2, 2015

Staying Healthy for a Lifetime - 1 John 2: 12-15

John has been talking about walking in the light. Then he seems to launch into a strange digression, talking about fathers, young men, and children. After that he repeats himself and mentions the same three groups again. What is John trying to say? John is saying that not everyone is at the same level of spiritual maturity. We have to therefore adjust to accommodate different levels. We must meet people where they are in their walk with God.

 These levels cause a lot of problems in the church. Let me illustrate. Imagine you and your extended family all go on a nature hike. This hike includes children, old people, and young people.  After about an hour, the family group gets spread out along the trail.

The little children bring up the rear. They are so excited about being in the woods that they stop and look at every tree and flower. But they’ve never been in the woods before, and they don’t know that they’re supposed to stay on the trail. They can’t tell the difference between a pretty flower and poison ivy, or a brown snake and a rattlesnake. Someone has to watch them closely, and they move very, very slowly. 

Then there are teenagers and young adults. They know more about the woods—in fact, they think they know everything. They like to move fast and cover a lot of ground. They’re frustrated with the others who lag behind. Sometimes they get into trouble by getting too far ahead and often storm down the wrong trails. More often than not, they abandon the rest of the group. 

The old folks—the fathers—are in the middle.  They don’t care how fast they go, they just enjoy the road and the company. Often they hold back to take care of the children. They don’t care when they get there. They just keep moving on.

So we soon get three groups, which are young people in the front, old in the middle, and kids to the back. This isn’t a hiking party, it’s a parade. If these three groups don’t learn to walk together the family falls apart. 

The same thing happens spiritually. Spiritual “kids” are new believers. They trust Jesus, but they know very little about the Christian walk. Spiritual children frequently stray from the path, because there are few spiritual directors to guide them. Someone has to show them how to walk like a believer. If they are left to themselves, then they don’t last long.

“Young men” are believers who have learned enough to avoid the obvious sins, but not enough to overcome the less obvious ones. They grow impatient with childish lessons and want teaching that is broader and deeper. They are also impatient with the old-timers who seem to move much too slowly.

“Old-timers” have lived enough to know their limits, so they proceed with caution. Life to them is about who they are, and not what they do. They are interested in enjoying the process more than achieving the results. They want to share their wisdom with others, but the kids and the young people resent their interference and suggestions.  They have neither the enthusiasm of new believers, nor the drive of the young, but they do have wisdom and experience.

Churches respond to these three groups differently. Sometimes a church will pick one group and base everything on their needs. 

A church can gear everything to the seekers and new believers, focusing on evangelism and rudimentary discipleship.  But in the process they are just covering the same material week after week, until everyone else gets bored and leaves. 

A church can appeal to the Spiritual athletes by giving deep theological teachings, and stirring challenges towards world transformation, calling for utter, selfless commitment. But the spiritually immature can’t meet those challenges without some serious help, so most of them drop out. The old timers get frustrated too, because they are just trying to keep their old bones together day by day.

A church can focus on the old-timers by giving non-challenging messages about comfort, enduring trials, and “what a friend we have in Jesus.”  They can’t understand why the others have to change the things that are so comfortable to them.

 So the Body of Christ splits into three groups, without much communication between them. But these groups all have problems, because they are incomplete alone. We need kids, young people, and old-timers. The kids of one generation become the old timers of the next. We are all maturing into old people, and as we do our spiritual needs change. Churches have to build for a lifetime of ministry to people which involves ministry to all three groups.

John doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about these differences, he just acknowledges that they exist. He doesn’t tell us any shortcuts to maturity or any way to rejuvenate old-timers. Instead, he focuses on spiritual health instead of spiritual growth.

Growth and health are different. You can be healthy at six or sixty, or unhealthy at any age. Health is something that you must maintain. The same ingredients of health are true for any age. You need rest, emotional balance, a good diet, and lots of exercise. The same is true in our spiritual lives just as it is in our physical lives. 

In 1 John, the apostle is talking about staying spiritually healthy. We see that reflected in what he says about these three groups.

1.  Emotional Balance and Rest.

“I write to you little children because your sins have been forgiven.” Developmental psychologists tell us the first lessons we must learn in our lives is unconditional love and acceptance from our parents. If we fail to get that, then it affects our mental and physical health for the rest of our lives. Christians learn God’s acceptance from the Cross of Christ. God loves us unconditionally, which He expressed by giving us full forgiveness through Jesus. Many Christians have never learned, so they live with a constant sense of guilt and responsibility. They can never just rest in the Lord, because they do not believe God loves them. They can never do enough to satisfy the wrath of God. They have never learned that God loves them just as they are.  

The first step to God is the step to the Cross. Once we have learned God’s acceptance, then everything else makes sense. “Just as I am without one plea/ but that Thy blood was shed for me/ And that Thou bidste me come to Thee/ O Lamb of God, I come.”

Jesus loves you just the way you are. If you haven’t come to understand that, then you will never be healthy spiritually. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but He does expect us to understand that He loves us. We don’t have to do anything—He just loves us. All we do is love him back. 

                                                      2.  A Good Diet         
“I write to you fathers, because you have known Him from the beginning.” We know him by daily partaking of a three-course meals, which is studying God’s Word, prayer, and the theology and practices of the church.

Sometimes I run into people who say they don’t need to study God’s Word. The Bible is 1300 pages long. It’s amazing that anyone who studied it for a few years in a Bible school could claim exhaustive knowledge of it. Furthermore, the meaning of the Bible changes with age. Every time you read it, you discover different levels of meaning. A classic book is defined as one which can be read a hundred times, and we will still get something new. Read the Bible a hundred times, and you have spent 1,300,000 minutes or 61,666 hours. Until you have done that, you still don’t know the Bible. 

Prayer is direct communication with God. It is much more than saying grace at a meal or a short devotional in the morning. It is lifelong learning.  Martin Luther once said that his time was so filled with business, and his mind so filled with worries and concerns, that he could not survive without spending at least four hours a day in prayer. Yet the average pastor today spends about three minutes in prayer. What did Luther know about prayer that we do not?  He understood that prayer is a study, not a hobby. It takes a lifetime to master.

John says, “You have known Him from the beginning.” He has been a continual witness to Christ over centuries. How we interpret the word and what we learn from prayer are both filtered through the glasses of our own experiences. In order to get beyond our own biases, we must look to the witness of the historical church. Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 1:20 that no Scripture is of private interpretation.

There is no question that we may ask about the Bible or prayer that hasn’t been asked and answered over a hundred times. There is a huge body of knowledge and wisdom that has been passed down to us through the ages. Theology is learning how others have interpreted great truths. God reveals Himself to the whole church together. His great truths have been around since the beginning.

                                                      3.  Exercise.                                                                 
“I write to you young men, because you are strong, and have overcome the Evil one.”  How do young men get strong?  They work at it! In Philippians 2: 12 Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

There are three kinds of spiritual work. The first is self-control. The early church did a lot of fasting, not in order to get some prayer answered, but to curb their appetites. It’s not easy to separate ourselves from the world, but it is necessary. We must learn how to resist the Devil, and resist him with vigor, if we want him to flee from us.

Don’t resent self-control, but embrace it. If we resent the pains of correction, then we are condemned to a hellish existence. But if we thank God for correction, then it propels us to a higher state of joy. 

The second is evangelism. Evangelism is an attitude as much as an action. It is the desire to tell everyone everywhere--all of our friends and families about the Lord. All of us together strive to fulfill the challenge of the Great Commission.

The third work is the transformation of the world.  In Genesis 1 we are told that humans were created to have dominion over the world. The word in Hebrew is more of stewardship than dominance. We were created to make the world a better place. In the Lord’s Prayer we always pray. “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done.” Whenever we pray this we are asking for God’s will to be done on earth. That means we are working to make the world a better place, without poverty, pollution, wars, sickness, disease and suffering.

We will never achieve any of this, but than that is the point! Does a body-builder ever stop adding on weights?  Does a runner ever say that his last time was fast enough?  Exercise is supposed to be a continual lifetime challenge.

 As we get on in years, we have to work harder to stay healthy physically. As we get on in our spiritual lives, we must also work harder to stay healthy. We need more prayer, more Bible study, and more spiritual action, not less. We never arrive at perfect peace. We must always be going forward.

Whether you are a new believer or a very, very, old one. We all need spiritual rest, spiritual food, and spiritual action. If we practice these disciplines of life, we can stay spiritually healthy all our lives.     

A Test for Purity - John 2: 7-12

Most books have one key sentence. The book of 1 John has chapter 1, verse 5.
 “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. “
“God is light” is the key metaphor to understand everything John says.
John didn’t invent this picture of God as light.  The rabbis and philosophers of Jesus’ day used it all the time. The Greek philosopher Plato based a whole view of the universe upon it. To Plato, god was photos—light--and He shone through all things. Anything that kept God’s divinity from shining was darkness. Lies and deception cast shadows which keep us from seeing and God.

For the Christians, God doesn’t just shine on us. He shines through us. Many Christians see their relationship to God like a sunbather on a beach, basking in the sun. But we are more like windows in a wall. We don’t just absorb God’s light. We become transparent, so that other people will see God’s light through us.

That’s the problem with the church today. We have lots of sunbathers and few windows. We are happy to catch some rays from God for ourselves, but we are not shining those rays of God’s light on others.   

The quality of our Christian life depends on our transparency.  If we fake a relationship to God or lie to ourselves we are not walking in the light. Phoniness and pretense diminishes our shine. A glass window that gets dirty can be washed, but if we let the dirt stay, it will be a poor window.

Let’s shift metaphors for a while. Recently, one of the local municipalities put out a notice of a water emergency.  The drinking water was tainted by pollution that had seeped into the water line. The water didn’t smell differently or taste differently, but testing showed that the water was unfit to drink. It came out of the water treatment plant pure, but somewhere down the line sewage had seeped into the system. They notified citizens not to drink it until it was fixed.  How did they know there was a problem?  Because they regularly tested the water. Periodically, cities do purity tests on water to make sure they are pure enough to drink. 

John’s book is essentially a purity test for the Christians. Is the divine nature that is flowing out of us pure or is it polluted? If we are not reflecting the love of Christ in all our thoughts, actions, and speech, then something is wrong.   

John’s purity test is very simple. It’s love. God is love, that’s His nature. If what comes out of us is not love, then we are very poor reflections of God, who is love. 

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Greek word agape, which is one of three words generally translated as love in the New Testament. It’s divine love—the kind God has for us. Agape love is our purity test. Paul describes what agape is like in I Corinthian 13:  4-8

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Let’s reduce this definition further by using four words—empathy, charity, humility, and honor.

Empathy is the ability to feel what another feels.  Psychologists tell us that the chief characteristic of a loving person is the ability to feel empathy. Robert Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence lists empathy as the most important characteristic a person has to be successful in the world. 

If you can see a person hurt and feel nothing, then you don’t love. If you see a person hurt and feel something, then you may love them. 

Some people do not have empathy for others. They are called sociopaths. They cause a lot of damage in the world, and in the church. They do not care what other’s feel. They are only interested in themselves. They cannot love, because they do not care about others.

Charity is love in action. The choice we make to put others above our own. It is not an emotion but an act of faith and will.

Imagine you are on a sinking ship with your wife and children. There are a limited number of life jackets. Do you put yourself in a life jacket first, or do you make sure your child has one?  If you are a father, then it’s probably a no-brainer. Your child comes first, because you would rather have the child survive than you. It’s an instinctive love reaction.

This is what Christ did. “God loves the world so much, that he gave his only begotten Son” John 3:16.  In love, the highest good of another comes before our own. That doesn’t mean we don’t love ourselves.  It just means that we have made a conscious choice to set another’s good before our own.

That is what we do when we help the poor, speak out against injustice, give our time to charity, or volunteer to do the dishes. We are choosing to set aside our time, money, and reputation for the sake of other people.  Love is a decision to put another’s welfare above our own.

Humility is recognizing that we are not always right, and being able to display it. Paul said that love was rejoicing in the truth, even if the truth was not our own idea. We have no compulsion to always be right or proven to be right. We can allow others the credit and a right to their opinion.

We all have a pretty big narcissistic streak in us. We think we are right, and we like to prove that we are right. A humble person knows that he or she is not always right, and even if the humble person is right, then he or she does not need to prove it. We are able to humble before others, even those who do not agree with us. 

Many people feel an obligation to constantly impose their opinions on others, without any interest in what others think (Facebook is full of such people). We should not insist upon our own opinions, even if we think that we are on God’s side. Being right is no excuse for being rude, boorish, and opinionated. People have a right to their own opinions, and should be given credit for courage and intelligence, even when they are wrong.  They treat every disagreement like a football game, with bragging rights for winning, instead of as a mutual search for the truth. They insist on being treated as teachers and experts, instead of learners and seekers.  

It is better to lead a person to discover the truth than to browbeat them into accepting a truth they don’t understand. We should by our humility show people a better way, a loving way, instead of letting our tempers rule.

Honor is treating others with dignity regardless of who they are or what they have done. Every person, no matter who they are was created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity. We should treat everyone with honor, from the homeless man on the street to the president in the oval office.  It’s not that they always deserve it, but because we chose to be honorable ourselves. It is a choice we make to give honor, and an expression of divine love, who honors all people. 

Last year I attended a seminar on work. The speaker made the point that all work, no matter what our job, is a calling from God, and valuable. One of the great tragedies of modern man is that we do not recognize that our work, even if it seems pointless is valuable. A garbage man is of equal value to society as a bank president. A maid is as valuable to the world as a teacher.

Jesus went a little further than that. In Matthew 25: 40, he said,
   'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
 He declared that the honor given to Jesus Himself, which is higher than the honor given to parents, preachers, or kings, should be given to the sick, homeless, and imprisoned.  Honor is simple respect—respect for one’s needs, opinions, thoughts feelings, and dreams.   

Do you want to know if you are walking in the light? Check what is coming out of you. Is it empathy, charity, humility, and honor? If it is, then your heart is pure, and your reflection of God’s divine nature is pure. If it’s not, then you aren’t walking in light. 

John puts it this way in verses 2: 7-11:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

Some people who think they are being spiritual like to piously proclaim, “I don’t hate everyone.”  That’s never true, and I am suspicious of anyone who says it! We should press them on this and say, “What about your no-good brother or sister?  Do you love him or her?”

Again we reply with a lie. “O sure—well, I don’t actually hate them--not really!”

What is hate?  We would rather leave “hate” undefined.  Hate is not really an emotion. That’s not what the Bible means by hate. It’s not a feeling but rather the absence of feeling. Hate, like love is mainly a choice. Murderers do not usually kill people because they “feel” hatred towards their victims. They kill because they feel nothing. If we can look at a person and feel no empathy, give no charity, have no humility, and give no honor, then we hate them.

How do we stop hating and start loving? By opening our eyes to Jesus--God revealed in Christ. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. Once we see how Jesus loves us, then we just do the same to others.  Love for Jesus’ sake is walking in the light.  We just copy what He did, and we are walking in the light.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Walking in the Light (Liar, Liar) - 1 John 1:5-2:6

1 John 1:5-2:6

Of all the insults that can ever be hurled at a person, there is in my experience one that makes people madder, and that term is “liar.”  A lie is a deliberate untruth. If I say something I believe to be true and it turns out to be untrue, then I have not lied. I make a mistake. A lie is told intentionally, to conceal the truth. 

Well, today, I am calling you a liar!

We all by virtue of our sinful human nature are liars.  

 Maybe you don’t usually lie to others. But the definition I just gave of lying does not specify others.  We all are much bigger liars to ourselves. One part of our minds tells lies to the other parts.  We deliberately conceal from ourselves things that we do not want to face. 

1 John 1: 5- 2:6 deals with the lies that keep us from a closer relationship with God, ourselves, and others. In these verses, John advocates, “walking in the light”—what we call transparency.  Transparency is a heart free of the lies and deception.  Transparency is not exhibitionism. We don’t have to go around exposing ourselves. But we live in this world without deception. We are honest first of all to ourselves, then to God, then to others. 

Not walking in the light is being deceptive to God, ourselves or others. Think about a light bulb in a glass globe next to a glass window.  If the bulb is painted black, the light can’t shine. If the glass globe is black, then there’s no light either. If the window is black, then there’s still not light. There must be three levels of transparency for light to shine.  If we lie to ourselves, then there is no light. If we lie to God, then there is no light.  If we lie to others there, then there is no light. Before we can shine in the world, we cannot lie to ourselves.

John deals with four lies which keep us from transparency. The first he discusses in 1: 6-7

First lie — We may have fellowship with Jesus without being honest.

“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”

We convince ourselves that we are better than we really are. We insist that God is speaking, when we are just lying to ourselves.

Make no mistake that God really does speak to us. The Bible is abundantly clear about that. But do not underestimate your capacity for self-deception. We can easily tell ourselves that we’ve had word from God when we’ve actually been listening to our own deceptive hearts. 

We can’t help it if someone else deceives us. Being wrong or being deceived may easily be forgiven. But if we deceive ourselves, then we are in much worse trouble. Self-deception leads to the first sin. Gen 3: 4-6

“The serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

The Devil lied to Eve, but that did not matter, until Eve repeated that lie to herself. Then it was no longer the Devil’s lie but her own. “The tree was desired to make one wise.” She knew this was wrong, but she convinced herself it was right. This self-deception lead to all other sins.

We have an almost endless ability to justify our sins. Adulterers rarely admit their own sins. When they are caught and forced to admit them, then they try to argue it was their jilted spouses’ fault. Lawbreakers blame unjust laws. Liars self-justify their lies. That is what it means to live in the darkness. It means lying to ourselves.

With every lie, John tells us a truth to overcome it. Here’s what he says in verse 7:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

If we tell the truth to ourselves, then we don’t have to conceal anything from anyone else. Our generous, wonderful God has provided in Jesus Christ a cleansing in His eyes from all sin. 

Sin has consequences, but eternal condemnation is not one of them. God grants a general amnesty in Christ. Those who confess their sins and call upon Christ are walking again in the light.

Second lie — We are not sinning

I John 1: 8:  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we are not sinning.  We are always sinning somehow! It’s our responsibility to find out where we are sinning and to stop it.   

One of the biggest lies of Satan is that some sins are small, while others are big. Murder is awful; gluttony and gossip are okay. But which sin kills more people in America—murder or obesity?  Alcoholism and cigarettes, which are also manifestations of gluttony.  What tears up more families, breaks up marriages and friendships, and destroys more churches—murder or gossip?  ISIS fighters believe that they have no sin when they behead Christians, yet would wail in remorse to Allah if they accidently ate pork!  It’s what we think of as “little” sins that the Devil uses most. 

God offers us a hopeful alternative to this lie in verse 9,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Just confess that what we are doing is wrong. Then the blood of Christ covers it and the Holy Spirit works to change us, so we will not repeat the sin.  

Third lieWe have never sinned 

 1: 10-2:3:  “If we say we have not sinned, then we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

Not only do we fail to admit our sins, but we also convince ourselves that we are not sinners and have never been real sinners.  Most of us have lists in our minds of what “real” sinners are—murderers, rapists, drug addicts, homosexuals,  bigots, religious hypocrites, or criminals. What these “real” sinners are varies according to our personal tastes and political views. Most of us will admit we’re sinners as long as we don’t have to actually name our sins. But in the back of our minds we think we are not “real” sinners. We have never done anything “that” bad to be called a sinner.

Christians are not really by nature judgmental.  The world gets the impression that Christianity is judgmental because our definition of sin is so broad.  We become judgmental when we condemn one kind of sin over all others. Is it right for a Christian to condemn homosexuality while looking at pornography, or to condemn abortion while excusing greed?  Recognizing sin in others isn’t wrong—only our failure to recognize it in ourselves. Our condemnation of other’s sins become a distraction to recognizing our own—a diversion that keeps us from walking in the light. 

Again, John has a message of truth to counteract the lie.

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”

When we have sinned, Jesus covers us. He paid the price not only for ours, but for everyone.

Fourth lie—we know Him but don’t need to obey Him.

2:4:  Whoever says "I know him" but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,

How can you “know Jesus” and not walk in the light?  How do you condemn homosexuals and abortionists, yet tolerate sin in your own life? Who’s to say that their sins are worse than yours? There is no excuse for their sins, but if you are going to condemn sin—start with your own.  You cannot insist on righteousness in the world when you do not believe or practice righteousness in yourself.

Again, offers a truthful word in place of the lie.

2:5-6 “Whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him:  whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

I hope by now you realize that we are all self-deceivers.  How do we change?  How do we face the truth? 

We become honest not by looking at the lies but by concentrating on truth. Light casts out darkness. So instead of looking at John’s four lies, look at his four truths:

·         “If we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from sins.

·         “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

·         “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the father—Jesus Christ the righteous.

·         “Whoever keeps his Word, in him truly the Love of God is perfected.  Whoever abides in Him ought to walk in His ways.

We cannot truthfully say that the Love of God is perfected in us. But we can say that where it is not and when we have acted according to our own self-deception, Christ has forgiven us. We can also say that as we walk in his ways we become more like Him. His love is perfected in us. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Do You Know Jesus - 1 John 1: 1-4

Do you know Jesus?

Some people say they know Jesus because they think to know Jesus. They say, “He’s the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.”  But actually knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing Him. I know what an elephant is, but I don’t know any elephants. I may know who the president is, but I don’t know Him. Just having a category for someone intellectually is not knowing Jesus. Even if we are correct in our assumptions about presidents and elephants, still we lack the firsthand acquaintance.

Other people feel like they know Jesus. What they really know is how He makes them feel. But having an emotional attachment to a person is not knowing the person. We can see a picture of a beautiful girl, and we may feel attracted to her, but we do not know the girl. We can read about Jesus and have all kinds of admiration for Him. We can even sing in church and shout His praises, but that isn’t the same as knowing Him. We only know His image.  If we watch an actor portraying a famous person, we don’t see the person, we only see the actor’s interpretation. If we hear a sermon about Jesus and like the portrayal the preacher makes of Jesus, it’s not the same as knowing Him. We only know what preachers say about Him.

Other people act like they know Jesus. They may obey Him. They try in every way to do what He wants them to do. But that’s not the same as knowing Jesus either. If I follow the Law of Moses, that doesn’t mean I know Moses. If I believe in the Bill of Rights, I don’t know the people who wrote the Bill of Rights.  Just because we build great charities and churches doesn’t mean we’ve actually met Jesus.

John actually knew Jesus—both physically and spiritually.  He lived with Him for three years.  He was present at His Resurrection. He was there at Pentecost. For the rest of his life, he claimed to keep an intimate relationship with Him.  He was an expert in knowing Jesus. 

Could it be that the real reason we don’t behave like him is that we don’t really know Him? This summer we talked about the discrepancies between the lives we should be living as followers of Jesus and the lives we actually live.  Maybe the reason we haven’t been changed into His image is because we do not know Him. We can’t imitate Jesus if our relationship with Him is only in our minds and not in reality. If all I ever knew of music was musical notation, then I would know nothing about music. If all I knew of marriage was what I read in books, then I would not know marriage. If all I knew of Jesus was what the church told me, then I would not know Jesus. 

I grew up in the church, listening to stories about Jesus.  But I didn’t know Jesus.  I thought I did, but I only knew about him. Knowing Jesus implies a deeper relationship than mere head knowledge, or emotional reaction.  It involved a life encounter.

John writes of this life encounter in the first part of his letter.  I John 1: 1-4

First, let’s look at John’s introduction.

“That which was from the beginning.”  These words are meant to remind us of two other passages.

The first is the first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning, God--.”  God was here before anything else. The second is the first verse of John’s gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the word was God.”  Jesus was God’s eternal expression from the beginning--God’s Word. 

John tells us this because he wants us to know that Jesus was here before us. We did not make Him up, so we can’t define who He is according to who we want Him to be. If we describe a fictional character, we make them the way we want them to be. If we describe someone real, who existed before we met them we don’t dictate who they are. Jesus is who God made Him.

For two thousand years, people have been making up their own versions of Jesus.  He’s been made over to be a warrior, a ruler, an ideal lover, a businessman, a Democrat, or a Republican. But Jesus isn’t any of these things. He’s been the same since the beginning.  He is Jesus.  If we think we know Him, then we may only know the version of Him we want to know. We must accept that we cannot create Him in our own image. He created us in His own image.

Don’t come looking for Jesus with a preset agenda. Don’t even come to Him looking to find peace, happiness, or success. You may well be disappointed. Come to Him is to find reality.  If that brings peace—fine. If who He is makes us uncomfortable—fine, too.  Come looking for Him. He exists and that’s all we need to know.

 Which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. “  John describes the process through which He came to know Jesus.

First, he heard about Him. In John’s case he heard about Jesus through John the Baptist. John was following the Baptist, when Jesus came to visit.  Then he saw him with his own eyes.  Then he walked with Him, studied Him, and analyzed Him. Finally, he actually touched Him. He got involved in Jesus’ life and ministry. Then, he came to love and respect Him.

There’s a parallel to this process in Genesis 3, when Eve ate the forbidden fruit. She heard the testimony of the power of the fruit from the serpent who was Satan. She saw it, she kept looking at it, and she touched it. Then she experienced it by tasting it.  The process of temptation and the process of knowing Jesus are actually very similar. It is the way we learn to commit.

The same process goes on when we meet our life mate. We hear about them, then we see them, then we get to know them, touch them, kiss them, and fall in love. The word “knowledge” in Hebrew is used for a sexual or a romantic relationship. To John, knowing Jesus was falling in love with Him. Jesus is calling us to know him intimately, not in the false knowledge of sexuality, but in the full knowledge of spiritual bonding.  Knowing Jesus is intimacy with Him.

John then goes on to describe what that relationship is like. 

The life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” John uses a new word to describe what knowing Jesus is. He calls it a life. Knowing Jesus is not just a relationship. It is actually a higher order of what it means to be alive.  

 How would you describe a higher order of life to a lower one? Would we describe what life means in a way a rock would understand? Could we describe intelligence to a dog?  Can we explain to someone who has never been in love what it means to be in love? Neither (John believes) can we describe a life in Jesus to someone who does not know Him. They would have to experience it. It is an intimacy with the Spirit which people cannot know without having met Jesus. 

Other religions have reasoned that there is a higher order of life, but to them it is an impossible goal. But when we know Jesus, then we know that experience of a higher order of life becomes ours. To experience Him, is to experience perfection.

This higher order of life, though is not lived in isolation. It requires us being part of a group which knows Him together.

“That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

This higher order of life is like falling in love.  When we meet someone with whom we become romantically involved, our whole world changes. In order for love to be real, it must be shared.

Let’s suppose you are an enthusiastic sports fan.  Can you be a sports fan and not want to go to a game?  Who can love a sports team and not want to be on the stands cheering them on.

Let’s suppose you have an interest in stamp collecting. Wouldn’t you want to be with other people who collect stamps? 

Let’s suppose you are in love with a girl. Don’t you think you would want to meet her family as well as herself? Of course you would. It is part of the nature of love to share. Our knowledge grows in a community of people who share our interests. 

Knowing Jesus means sharing that knowledge with others. I can usually tell a person’s love of Jesus by the enthusiasm with which they discuss the subject. If a person tries to change the subject every time Jesus enters into a conversation, or if all they can do in a conversation is talk about all the hypocrites in the church, and if they hold themselves aloof from other believers in the sure knowledge that everyone else who knows Jesus must be a fool, and they are the only ones who really understands Him, then I look at them like I would anybody who says they know another person, yet believes no one else does or could know them. I look at them as not really knowing Him at all. If all we want is to have our views confirmed, then we don’t know Him. We may know some piece of Jesus’ shadow, but we have no desire to truly know him accurately.  If we don’t talk about Him with others, we probably don’t really know Him, or want to. We only want to know a part of Him.

God invites us into His family, but not us alone. He invites us all. The more we are together with others who love Him, the more we come to really know Him. God wants each of us to be attached to Him, but he also wants us to be attached to each other. But as we grow towards others, we know Him more through their eyes.

Knowing Jesus in the presence of others produces joy, according to verse 4--“We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

There’s a textual variation in this verse. Ancient manuscripts disagree about whether John wrote “our” joy may be complete or “your” joy may be made complete. It’s found both ways. Some modern translations go one way, some another.  But both are true. Our joy increase when your joy commences.  When we know Jesus, then we are happy when others know Him, too. There is no division between our individual walks in the Lord and our community walks with Him. We can’t have one without the other.

John is clear here that knowing Jesus—hearing about Him, seeing Him, studying Him, finding Him, touching Him, and sharing Him produces life and Joy.

Do you want to know Jesus?  Jeremiah 29: 13 tells us how. “’You will seek me and you will find me, when you search for me with all your heart. And I will be found by you.’ Says the Lord.’”  You have to ask Jesus into your heart, to pray the sinners’ prayer, walk the aisle, and accept Him as your Lord and Savior. But first, you must want to know Him. We can’t take Jesus as we want Him to be, but as He is.  We must be willing with all our hearts to worship at His feet. 

You will know Jesus when you look for Him.  That is when you will find Him.

The Place of Angels - Genesis 28: 10-22

There are lot of bad journeys we make in life. I think of a trip we once made when we were first married back from visiting her folks in Michigan to our home in Georgia in our little white 1971 Toyota Corona—our first car. We spent the night in Indianapolis and had a good time, but were running low on money.  Then the next day we made it to Nashville about four in the afternoon on a Friday. Suddenly on the busiest road in Tennessee, on the inside lane in rush hour, our Toyota died. We backed up traffic for miles until a wrecker came and towed us to the nearest garage. 

The garage had four mechanics looking at the car and decided it needed a new distributer cap assembly. But they could not get one until Monday. We’d have to spend the weekend in Nashville before they could get the parts. But we did not have the money. This vacation had turned into a nightmare.
Have you ever had a trip like that?  Some of us have had lives like that. Just when everything is going well, everything falls apart. At times like this, you wonder if God has forsaken you. 

I didn’t come to tell you about my old car problems, but about Genesis 28: 10-22. Before I discuss it, let me introduce you to one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible—Jacob. He was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. God gave Abraham a promise that his descendants would one day rule Israel. God took Abraham from one end of the Promised Land to the other. Everywhere they went, God promised them that land. When Abraham had a son—Isaac--God also promised the land to him. This promise was to continue on through the generations until the promise was fulfilled. 
Things got complicated in the next generation. Isaac didn’t have one son, but two—twins. The oldest one by about a minute was Esau, who was big and burly, but dumb as an ox. The younger was Jacob who was the opposite. He wasn’t strong, but he was smart and ambitious.

Jacob realized that Esau was going to get the birthright to the Promised Land, but thought he didn’t deserve it. Why should the land go to someone too dumb to care about it? So Jacob connived to steal it from his brother. He even got their mother on his side. He started on a series of deceptions and maneuvers aimed at stealing the birthright from Esau. 

One day, Esau came in from hunting—hot, tired, and hungry. Esau said to his brother, “Hey, how about making me some of that red stew you’re so famous for making.” So Jacob cooked his brother some stew, served it up to him, and said, “Wait, before you eat, you’ve got to swear over your birthright.” Esau probably thought he wasn’t serious. “Sure, anything—just give me that stew!”  So he did.  Esau had signed over his birthright for a bowl of stew. 
I’m sure he regretted it. But then he probably thought it didn’t matter. It was their dad who decided who got the blessing. Now Jacob had to convince Dad to give him the blessing. 

His chance came when Isaac was old, blind, and about to die. He called for Esau to give him the blessing. Esau was a hunter, so he was out in the field killing animals. Jacob put a fleece over his arms to make him feel hairy, and went in to his father. Dad felt Jacob’s arm, and heard him say he was Esau, so he gave his blessing.  Jacob’s trick worked, now he was going to be heir to everything. He had beaten his brother out of the birthright. 

There’s a point in life where things are looking good.  You’ve accomplished what you set out to do. You’ve bought a house, you’ve gotten married, got a dream job, have kids, and are now on your way to a healthy and prosperous retirement. Everyone’s happy—everything’s fine. In the back of your mind, you’re saying, “This is how life is supposed to be. This is the Promised Land. Things are finally going well.”
But alas, for Jacob that time was short-lived. It lasted until Esau got home. Esau went into his father’s tent, expecting to hear his Dad’s blessing. What he heard instead was “Oops! I gave it to Jacob.” Esau swore that when his father was dead, and the days of mourning were over, he would kill Jacob. Esau was a hunter—his job was to kill. He knew how to do it!

When the news of this got back to Jacob and his mother, she sent him away with Uncle Laban in Syria, as far away as he possibly could get. Before Esau could get his hands on Jacob, Jacob was gone.  Not only was he not to be the ruler of the Promised Land, he was not allowed to live in it.
Jacob had just won everything he wanted in life and lost it all—all in about a day’s time. First he gets the blessing and the birthright; then he gets run out of the Promised Land, seemingly forever.

The Promised Land is very symbolic in the Bible. It symbolizes the favor of God.  We use it as a metaphor today. When someone succeeds we say they made it to the Promised Land. Jacob had made it and lost it—all in about a day.

This is what happens to us, too. We get married and we spend the rest of our days happy, but then our spouse kicks us out. We have kids but they turn out to be a mess, and we spend the rest of our days taking care of them. We get that dream job but we get fired. Life is a series of victories and disasters. What we think was the Promised Land turns out to be a spot between the mountains and the swamp.  Before we know it, we’re back in the swamp again.
What must have gone through Jacob’s mind while he was trudging up the road out of the Promised Land, into an uncertain fate?  If you were Jacob, what do you think you would have thought? Would it occur to you to doubt God’s love, maybe even His very existence?  I know, that I would have.

Then Jacob had a dream while he was traveling through “a certain place.” He was in the wilderness near a place the Canaanites called Luz—not really a town, but a wide spot in the road.  It was so small it didn’t have an inn, so Jacob had to sleep outside with a rock for a pillow. 
Jacob dreamed he saw a ladder to heaven, and that the place was filled with angels. Did you know that this is the only place where a person in the Old Testament records seeing a multitude of angels? The angels are going up and coming down, spreading out over the four corners of the earth. Jacob names the place Bethel, the house of God, because he thinks that this place must be the center of all communication with God. In some insignificant place no one ever heard of, in his time of utter discouragement, he stumbled on Angel Central Station. Think of it!  Jacob thought he had left God’s county, exiled forever. Yet this place was not really the center of all blessings.

Remember, this is just a dream, and dreams are symbolic. They are God’s way of revealing to us something our conscious minds cannot accept. This dream is a revelation to him of God’s way of dealing with us, when we feel lonely and exiled from Him.  God had not abandoned us.  Bethel was not a place of exile but of new blessing.  It is not the end but the beginning. It’s in these kinds of desert places in our lives that we stumble on God’s greatest revelations.
When we look at our church, it’s easy to become discouraged. Over the past few months we’ve had two members go to assisted living. That’s a hard place to be, even when you have to go there.  We have one family moving out of town to be with their children. Over the past three years, we’ve had people leave the church, and about a dozen of us die. We’ve had at least three marriages end in divorce. We’ve had some in our church who have fallen into sinful behavior, who now feel that God has abandoned them. 

But God has not abandoned us. Even on those days when we are stuck in a place that seems so far from the Promised Land that we can never find it again, God is still there.
The Jacob’s ladder story does not tell us that angels are to be found only in Bethel. It is symbolic, letting   us know that angels are abundant in a land where we never expected to be. Jacob’s ladder is not found in one place, but in all places. Wherever we look up to God, and have our eyes opened, God’s help is already descending upon us.

Let me finish the story about that terrible journey from Michigan. While the mechanics were pouring over our car, Joy and I went next door to a little diner to eat. We bowed our heads and prayed over our meal. The manager saw it and came over to us. “Not many people say grace over a meal these days,” he said.  He was a Christian, and he prayed with us and encouraged us. After dinner we went back and looked at the mechanics. The owner of the shop came over and looked at the distributer cap of the car, the very cap the other mechanics said we needed to replace. He moved one clip on the distributor, and the car suddenly started working perfectly. The bill was about ten dollars. Joy and I were able to drive home without incident.  
There’s one more part to the story. A couple of months after we arrived him, Joy announced she was expecting our first baby. That was one of the happiest moments of my life. When we went back and counted the weeks, we decided that it seemed to have happened on that very trip. It may have been a terrible trip, but one of the most wonderful things we ever received began on that trip. 

Don’t be so sure when bad things happen, that you are completely out of the Promised Land. The boundaries of the Promised Land may extend much farther than you think. Wherever you are in life, God’s angels are still visiting you, and you can see them, if only you have eyes to look.