Wednesday, July 29, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 8)

(This post is the conclusion of parts 1-7). To read these first, scroll down or click on the titles on the right side of the web page)
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To the Praise of His Glory

It is clear that Paul was simply astounded by all that God had done and all that he had promised. But even with all that he saw and understood, it was not the deeds and the promises of God that were really the object of his astonishment. Paul's center of astonishment remained God himself. Three times in this opening sentence of Ephesians, Paul expresses praise to God:
 
“To the praise of His glorious grace.” (Ephesians 1:6)
"To the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:12 and also in 14)

Interestingly, this praise to God also appears to be what God is seeking in all that he is doing. As people, we see the desire to seek praise as being self-serving and conceited. But God is not a man.

The difference is when we are praised as men and women, or when we seek praise for ourselves, we seek something that is not rightfully ours. One of the central points to this introductory sentence to the book of Ephesians is that everything that we are and everything that we possess is because it has been given to us by God. When we accept praise unto ourselves, we accept something that should instead have God as its object.

Praise to God is simply the acknowledgement that He is the origin of everything. God wants people to praise him not because he needs his ego bolstered, as a man might want. His purpose is different. He is the creator and the first cause. People must acknowledge that fact. That is why it is not only acceptable to give praise to God, but it is essential.

The View from the Top 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV) 

Let’s stop and take a breath. That is Paul’s sentence in its entirety. It was a tough go, coming up this mountain. We may have stumbled a few times, but we made it to the top. Now is the time to find a nice comfortable rock on which to sit and lean back in the sunlight. Now is the time to take our breaths slowly, making use of any oxygen that we can. Now is the time to feel the coldness of the altitude upon our faces. Now we take in the scenery.

You may not have a complete understanding of how Paul’s teaching of predestination works together with our own ability to choose, but having made it this far, you hopefully have at least a little better perspective. In an earlier post I gave the illustration of sitting high on the side of a mountain and seeing two rivers that would obviously eventually join and flow together. Although this confluence of the rivers was still hidden from your view by a distant ridge, it was apparent that the two rivers, off in the distance, would become one.

In a similar way, although we cannot yet see how the fact of predestination eventually will flow perfectly with our own free wills, Paul seems to have no difficulty with telling us that both remain true. Remember, this is only the introductory sentence to this letter of Paul’s, there are more insights in the pages that follow.

We may not understand everything completely at this time, however, what I take away from Paul’s words about predestination and everything else is not a negative response to his explanation. After all, these are eternal matters. Can we expect to comprehend anything of an eternal nature in its entirety? We are bound by time, We fall far short of understanding anything outside the province of time.

When we think that we can begin to explain the details of eternity, we make the mistake as did the man Job of ancient days, after which he said, “I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3).

In a sentence, and not one as long as Paul’s, what I take away from his explanation is this: “God is sovereign, and if I place my confidence and trust in him, then the truly important matters of life are secure can never be in question.”

The mountaintop view will be given to us in due time.


Monday, July 27, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 7)

(This post is a continuation of parts 1-6). To read these first, scroll down or click on the titles on the right side of the web page)

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The Future is Now

As Paul continues this long, introductory sentence, he again links predestination with future promises. However, we should avoid thinking that future promises will only be revealed in the future. One of the major teachings of the letter to the Ephesians is that the chosen people of God should live with the promises of God always on their mind.

Paul writes: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-12 ESV).



Earlier we read in the book of Romans, how those who are adopted as children refer to God and call Him in a manner that only his children can, saying, “Abba! Father!” (Abba is the Aramaic word for Father). Paul again uses that phrase in yet another one of his letters in talking about the inheritance given to the chosen of God. This one is found in the book of Galatians. It is much the same message that he wrote to the Ephesians regarding the promise of God. He tells us that while we may not see much of the reality of our inheritance at the present moment, that does not mean that it is not secure. Here is part of what Paul wrote to the Galatians:

The heir, as long as he is a child, is not different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything… And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:1, 4-7 ESV) 

To the Ephesians, Paul’s message concerning the Holy Spirit in regards to our inheritance is much the same. That which we see in this present life is not normally a good indicator of what is promised to us. Like a small child who is heir to a great fortune, our lives at the present may not be much different than the household servants; in fact, we may even be placed under the authority of the servant. However, that does not change the fact that we are indeed heirs to great promises given to us by God.

How are we to know this? We can live with this assurance because God has given us his Holy Spirit, who enables us to know that we have a child/Father relationship with God. We also can cry out, “Abba! Father!”

Paul tells the Ephesians that the Holy Spirit is given to us as a guarantee of our inheritance. It is as if we have received written confirmation of what has been promised to us, and this promise is sealed by the Holy Spirit until the time when we will take possession of it.

A major problem and confusion of very many Christians in these present days is that we try to be just like the world. We want to be accepted by the world, so we try to be like them. The sooner that we understand that we are actually different, the better it will be for us.

The Purpose of Blessing – The Administration of Christ 

Verses nine and ten of this first chapter contains a phrase that is central to understanding what God’s intentions are as he blesses us. It reads like this: 

He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. (Ephesians 1:9-10 NAS). 

Crucial to understanding what God is doing is to grasp the importance of what Paul is telling us here: God means to bring all of creation under the administration of Christ.

This phrase, “the administration of Christ,” deserves some comment. The word administration is the translation of the Greek word oikonomia. It literally means “household management,” or “the rules of the house.” It is, by the way, where we get our English word economy, as in the study of economics.

In other places of the Paul’s writings, this same word is translated as stewardship (1 Corinthians 9:17; Colossians 1:25), which also captures the idea of the word. God’s eternal purpose is that all of creation will be under the household management or the stewardship of Christ. In everything that we see God doing, we must realize that it is with this central purpose in mind.

I earlier quoted some verses from Galatians, chapter four. These are the verses that speak of a child being under “guardians and managers” until the date set by the father (Galatians 4:2). The word managers, in this sentence, is also a form of the same Greek word oikonomia. Paul uses this word to show that also mankind, before the coming of Christ, was under the administration of those things of the world that are more elementary, or rudimentary.

Primarily, Paul is talking here in Galatians about being under the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses was, at that time in the Old Testament, the best demonstration of the “rules of the house of God” that mankind had.

This changed, however, with the coming of Christ. Paul writes, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 NAS). This all happened with the first advent of Christ.

However, here in Ephesians, we learn that even though Christ has already come, the complete administration of Christ is yet to be realized in time. In Ephesians we read of “the administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth” (Ephesians 1:9 NAS). Paul is now speaking about a time that we have not yet seen. This completion of events we will see in the future.

Do you see that for both stages of the building of the completed administration of Christ, Paul uses the phrase, “the fullness of times?” For reasons that are unknown to us, God did not send Christ to be born of a woman immediately after sin entered into our existence in the Garden of Eden. Christ only came in this way after some thousands of years.

Likewise, for reasons unknown to us, this second stage on the perfection of the establishment of the administration of Christ did not happen immediately following Christ’s death and resurrection. We are yet to see it completed. But Paul tells us that we will see it. We will see the summing up of all things in Christ. We will see all things unified in him. When will this be? It will be in the fullness of times. That is, when all has been made ready by God.

So central is this to God’s purpose that even the blessing of our own inheritance is based upon it. God even had this in mind when he predestined us to be his people. We are the beneficiaries of this purpose of God. It was with God’s “kind intention” (Ephesians 1:5, 9 NAS) that He also included us in this purpose. Christ is and will be exalted, and because of this, we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
 
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Next  time we will conclude our look at this most astounding sentence of Paul's. We likened our climb through this sentence to climbing a mountain. Finally, at the end, we hear a little about the view from the top



Saturday, July 25, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 6)

(This post is a continuation of parts 1-5). To read these first, scroll down or click on the titles on the right side of the web page)
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Predestined to Receive Grace


It is with this same message of assurance and confidence that Paul writes to the Ephesian church about the fact that God chose his people before the foundation of the world. Of course, this does not put to rest the question in our minds of our own free will in choosing our own destiny. It is not bad to ask this question concerning our own free wills, since we do seek to understand how this relates to predestination. What part does our own faith play in our relationship to God?

Some give the explanation that in God’s infinite foreknowledge, he could see ahead not only to our eventual birth and life, but also knew what our choices would be concerning Jesus Christ. If he saw that we would choose to accept the sacrifice of Jesus as our own, then God, acting upon that foreknowledge, in turn chose us as well.

This seems like a tidy explanation, and we have read something that may seem to speak to that effect in the book of Romans: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29 ESV).

There may be some validity in this to a certain degree. However, as a complete explanation, this view does not seem to harmonize with the level of intimacy that God knows us. It is not only that he knows some future choices that we will eventually make, but he knows us in a very
personal way!

The distinction between the two may sometimes be unclear, but it is much like the difference in receiving a bit of information about a future vote that a senator will be making in Congress. Based upon this “inside information,” we know what the senator’s vote will be. In this manner, a news reporter, for instance, could say that he knows certain facts about the senator.

However, the spouse of the senator, although he or she may not have actually heard how the senator would vote, also knows. He or she knows not because they had received some information, but they know because they know their spouse. Their knowledge of the vote is based not upon some foreknowledge of information, but instead on a more intimate knowledge of the personality of the senator. This is also how God knows us.

Also, nowhere in Scripture do we actually read of God choosing us because of our faith. God makes his choice based upon his grace. We, for instance, have just read in the book of Ephesians 1:5-6, “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (ESV).

It is true that faith is involved, as we will later read in the letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Also, as Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus (an act of faith), and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31 NAS).

However, when Scripture speaks of God choosing us, it is linked only to his grace, not to our faith.

Of necessity, we travel down the roadway to salvation fueled by faith, but the vehicle that gets us there is grace.

Content Despite Our Limitations

In an earlier post I alluded to some of the mountain peaks that I have climbed in some of the places in the world that I have lived. As I got higher on the mountain, my perspective of the surrounding countryside became clearer. Sometimes however, as I sat down to rest and to take in the perspective, it became apparent to me that I would have to wait until I was on the top of the summit until I would have a complete view of the land that was surrounding me.

First of all, as I sat down to rest, I could only see the countryside on one side of the mountain. The other side was hidden from my view. Secondly, even that which I could see was incomplete. For instance, I could not see how the river that flowed in the valley below joined the larger river beyond some hills in the distance.

It is much like this for us at this point in Paul’s writings. In the next post we shall climb a little higher. Hopefully, some of the things that seem contradictory now will become a bit clearer. Nevertheless, in fairness I must say, our perspective of God’s total plan will always be limited in our present life. We may be able to see a lot from a mountain peak, but we can see more if we are in an airplane flying over the entire mountain range.

In a similar way, our perspective here on earth will always be limited. But hopefully next time, as we continue through these first verses of Paul's, some matters will become clearer. For the rest, we can wait. God will one day make all clear.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 5)

(This post is a continuation of parts 1-4). To read these first, scroll down or click on the titles on the right side of the web page)

Who Chooses?

One of the difficulties that some have in the fact of predestination is that our freedom of choice seems to not be part of this situation. Actually, this is one of Paul’s points exactly. According to Paul, we may like to think that we have complete freedom of choice in all matters of life, but in reality, there is much about our existence that, as far as we know, we had no part in determining.

We were not consulted when and where we would be born, for instance, and into which family. Certainly, as any teen-ager will tell you, if we would have chosen our appearance or how our bodies would look, we would have made them much differently.

It is the same with our personal freedom. The truth be told, Paul tells us that we are always indebted to something or to someone. When one is indebted, one’s freedom is always limited in one respect or another. We are either indebted to our own sinful nature (which Paul calls “the flesh”) or we are indebted to God because he has chosen to redeem us. Here is how Paul puts it: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:12-13 ESV).

Normally, being indebted to someone restricts one’s freedom, since in some ways, the man that is in debt is at least partially owned by the creditor. However, whatever we may think about being indebted to God, Paul says that if God is our creditor, this indebtedness actually is our path to freedom. To understand Paul’s line of thought, we regress a little in this portion of the letter to the Romans:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:15-17 ESV)

Here we again see (as we did in the previous post) the past, present and the future aspects of predestination. As Paul continues in his letter to the Romans, we also again see how he means this to be a message of comfort. It should be a comfort especially to those who are enduring present-day difficulties:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God…

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:18-21; 26-27 ESV)

It is only after all of this that Paul begins to talk about
how the suffering that we may presently be experiencing is not even worth comparing to the glory that will one day be revealed to us. This is assurance. This is the confidence with which Paul is telling us that we may live our lives:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?... For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31, 35, 38-39 ESV)

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(If what Paul says is true about God choosing us, upon what does he base that choice? We will look into that a little in the next post in a couple of days)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 4)

(This post is a continuation of parts 1-3). To read these first, scroll down or click on the titles on the right side of the web page)

The Blessing of Predestination

Perhaps the first thing that we should notice on this subject is that when Paul writes these words, he writes them as though he does not expect there to be any controversy or question about the concept of God choosing us, and that he predestined us to adoption. We can see in the verses in the previous post that Paul merely mentions this information in his listing of all the wonders of God. The apostle does not expect that people will react negatively to this fact of the sovereignty of God and how it relates to the free will of man.

Rather than think that the readers of his letter would
be threatened or offended by these words, Paul tells of God’s actions on our behalf in eternity past so that the people of the church would know that the blessings that they have are secure. Just the opposite of how we sometimes react to these words, Paul meant them to be a source of comfort for his readers instead of controversy.

As we can see, this phrase about God choosing us in Christ is a continuation of the subject of the blessings of God. It would not be a blessing if we were treated in a mechanistic or fatalistic way; a way in which our own personality and choices do not matter. On the contrary, it is a blessing to see that God has been involved with us as individuals from the very beginning, even before we knew that we had a beginning.

We get a better sense of this line of thought of blessings in this long and complicated sentence of Paul’s if, for the moment, we skip over some of the phrases and draw attention to the ones having to do with this specific subject. Allow me to do this:

“God…has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing, …even as he has chose us in him before the foundation of the world… In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ… with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness or our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…[and] according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of [God]” (selected from Ephesians 1:3-7 ESV).

Although I have left out many important phrases and thoughts in this rather severe editing of this part of Paul’s sentence, I did it so that we could more easily see how Paul meant to show that this fact of predestination is something that should be a source of assurance for us. In this portion, we see that God has been working for the benefit of his people throughout all time and eternity. He did so in the past, even before the world was formed, he does so now, by giving us redemption and forgiveness through the blood of Christ, and he does so in the future, when we will receive our full inheritance as adopted children. It is at that time when we will see all things summed up or united in Christ.

An Affirmation for the Church at Rome


This is much the same message of assurance concerning predestination that Paul writes to another church, the church at Rome. Midway through this portion of the letter to the Romans, here is what Paul writes:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28-29 ESV)

In this passage, we again notice the past, present and future aspects of predestination. It is especially well summed up in the following verse: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30 ESV). God’s people have been called in the past, justified in the present, and will be glorified in the future.
 
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Who then does the choosing in regards to many of these  issues in our lives?
We will see what Paul says about that in a couple of days in the next post

Monday, July 20, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 3)

(Please first read parts 1 and 2. To see them, scroll down or click on the titles on the right side of the web page)

A Spiritual Mountaintop Experience

In yet another letter that Paul wrote, this one to the church in Corinth, the apostle tells about a glimpse he had of spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. As a way of speaking modestly, he speaks in the third person, as if this were an experience of someone else. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that this was Paul’s own vision: 

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4 NAS) 

Whatever all was entailed in this experience, it was,
for Paul, a glimpse of something other than this present physical life that we experience every day. It was something beyond this present existence. Thus, when he wrote to the Ephesians about spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ, he was speaking from more than the theoretical. For Paul, it was also experiential. He himself confessed that he did not know how it all had happened, or even if it was in his physical body or not, but he had been transported to a spiritual summit and is telling us a little bit of how the view was from up there.

Another Christian, in a similar situation and given this experience and special revelation from God, might claim that he possessed a privileged spiritual position for themselves because of it. Indeed, Paul recognized that this was an experience that few men would have. It is not that he discounted the importance of this revelation, but one of the reasons that he spoke about this experience in the third person was so that he would not become proud because of it.

If we wish to learn something from the perspective that Paul gives us, then we must be prepared for some exhausting climbs. As we continue in the letter to the Ephesians, we find that we are about to begin one.
 
A Choice that was Made in Eternity Past 

            Here is how Paul continues as he writes to the church in Ephesus:

… Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will. (Ephesians 1:4-5a NAS)  

We have been likening our study of these first verses of Ephesians as climbing a mountain in order to obtain the perspective from the summit. It is only from the summit that we are able to see clearly the lay of the land. Things that seem confusing and even contradictory when we see them at ground level become more evident when viewed from above.

Here, in the verses I just quoted, the apostle introduces us to some concepts that, as we view them from ground level, we cannot understand. So impossible for us to comprehend these things now, that many people reject them completely. Predestination is one of those concepts. In whatever way that you, yourself, may look at the teaching of predestination, we at least owe it to ourselves and to Paul to try to see and to understand what he meant when he said that believers have been predestined to adoption.

First of all, Paul says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. I am afraid that this is something that is completely beyond our comprehension. The first thing that we may think about is our own existence as individuals. As far as our understanding is concerned, we did not come into existence as persons until we were conceived in the womb of our mother.
 
But Paul is telling us something different here. He is saying that our conception in our mother’s womb, at least in some ways, was not our beginning. Our own conception, of course, happened long after the foundation of the world. Yet Paul tells us that we were chosen before the earth was established.

As we think of the mind of God, we are not at all sure what all of this means to us. Certainly, it should not surprise us that in eternity past, God already knew of our eventual existence. We may not be able to explain how he could have this vast knowledge, but if we accept that he is God, then we also recognize that he in infinite in existence and knowledge. Thus, even if we do not understand how God could know us before we existed, at least it should not be difficult for us to accept this truth.

But that which troubles some people is not the fact that God knew of our existence from eternity past. Rather, it is the fact that Paul says that from that time, God chose us and predestined us for adoption. To some this seems unacceptable, since it is thought that if God did the choosing and if it was predetermined who would be adopted into the family of God, then all human choice is taken out of the matter.

We can see now, why this first ridge in our climb up the
mountain is a difficult one. It will require of us much discipline and an inward assurance that it will be worth the effort.
 
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I will put up the next part in two or three days. In it, we will begin to try and gain some of Paul's perspective on the subject of predestination

Friday, July 17, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 2)

(Scroll down for Part 1, or click on the title to the right)

Climbing Mountains 

In studying these verses of Ephesians, we have been using the analogy of climbing a mountain in order to gain a perspective from the height of its lofty peak. I do not want to give the impression that I am an experienced mountain climber of the world’s tallest mountains, but I have enjoyed hiking up many smaller peaks in some of the areas of the world where I have lived.

Many years ago, I lived for a couple of years in India, where I traveled with frequency to spend time in the Himalayan Mountains. Later, after I was married and had children, my family and I lived in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, and much of my work was in the Andean
countries on the west coast of South America. We also lived in Guatemala, where from the roof of our home, we could see the peaks of four volcanos, two dormant ones and two active ones.

One of the activities that I
enjoyed while living and working in these places was hiking to the top of some of these mountain peaks. The climb, at times, was strenuous. Often as I climbed, I wanted to give up. It seemed as if I had no more strength left in my legs. However, I knew that if I would give in to my desire to quit, I would always wonder what the view from the top would have been like.

It is true that I could have listened to someone’s description of what it was like on the summit. I could have asked a successful climber to describe the details of the view, and I could have even looked at his photographs. However, nothing could have compared with what I saw when I myself reached the top of the mountain. Any description, any photograph, falls far inferior to actually standing on the pinnacle and looking at the 360° panoramic view.

Besides this, there is more to the experience than what you can see with your eyes. It also includes breathing the thin, cool air and feeling the cold breeze on your face; it is the feeling of accomplishment of having attained your goal; it is the final assurance that all of the effort was worth it.

As I said, oftentimes when I have climbed a mountain, in the exhaustion of the ascent I did not want to continue. The muscles in my legs had reached their limit of strength (or so I thought) and my body was sapped of energy. Reason told me that I could not continue.

Yet I did continue. I knew that if I would give up, I would probably regret it for the rest of my life. I would have to bear the disappointment of hearing the description of the summit by someone else who had not given up and who had reached the top. I knew that try as I might, I would not be able to understand all that he said. However detailed his description, it could never attain to what one actually sees when he is standing at the top. Besides this, as I have mentioned, there is also the very feeling that is involved with the experienced that simple words cannot describe. 

Spiritual Climbs 

In some ways, it is the same when Paul talks about the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. Paul was an experience climber of spiritual mountains, and when he tells us about what he has seen, it is sometimes difficult for us to understand. But we should know that Paul speaks from experience when he talks about the view from some of the spiritual summits that he had climbed.

It is true that Paul himself did not yet consider that he had reached the goal of his life with God, for in a letter to another church, this one in the city of Philippi, he said, “I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 NAS).

Paul was still climbing. 

Preparation for the Climb

Actually, it might be helpful for us to look at this letter to the Philippians for just a moment, because it helps us in our analogy of climbing a mountain. Paul, in this letter, is talking about the discipline needed to continue in our walk with Christ. Remaining faithful in our walk with Christ is not something that comes naturally to us, and we often want to give up.

Many do. Many simply give up. But speaking of the discipline needed, Paul says this: 

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:7-12 ESV) 

You will notice that in setting out to discover spiritual blessings, similar to preparing to climb a literal mountain, one must make several sometimes difficult choices. First of all, the climber must go into training. We can well understand this in the physical challenge of climbing a mountain, but it is no less true in the spiritual. Indeed, there is sometimes a relationship between the two.

You will also notice that Paul speaks of giving up that which he had before gained – that for which he had previously strived and worked hard to achieve. In Paul’s case, I think that he was perhaps talking about a level of self-righteousness that he had achieved in thinking that he could reach the spiritual summit purely by his own efforts through learning to live by the Law of Moses.

However, for you and me, that which we must give up for the sake of our training may just as well be something physical. Perhaps we have worked hard to gain wealth or property. Perhaps, up to this point, these goals of this world have been the focus of our lives.

But Paul is telling us that if we really wish to experience the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places, we must re-prioritize our lives. These things such as wealth or status must become to us what they had become to Paul – rubbish. That does not necessarily mean that we suddenly have to deny that these things (whatever they may be), are a part of our lives. However, it does mean that we must recognize that there is nothing in them that will help us achieve spiritual blessings.

Indeed, there is much in them that have the possibility of inhibiting us. In our quest for spiritual summits, we will never make it to the top if we burden ourselves with our backpacks full of worldly concerns.
 
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In a couple of days I will tell about a view from a spiritual mountain that Paul had climbed

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

PAUL'S MOST ASTOUNDING SENTENCE (PART 1)

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This is how the apostle Paul begins his letter to the church at Ephesus. The letter that the apostle wrote to the church is one of the best representations of the grace and the peace of God to be found anywhere. For any Christian who is going through turmoil in their lives, where they are not experiencing peace, the book of Ephesians can remind us what is truly important.

When everything in life is put into perspective and we see what is ultimately crucial, we also see that the truly essential issues can never be in question for the believer, because these are the very matters where we see most clearly the grace of God.

When we see his grace, we have peace. Alternatively, it is useless trying to know peace without knowing the grace of God, for true peace can only flow from his grace.

After acknowledging the grace and the peace of God, Paul then continues in his letter with what is one of the most beautiful sentences in the Bible. It is a long sentence. The sentence begins with verse three and continues until the end of verse fourteen. If Paul would have had an editor for his writings, he probably would have been asked to break this sentence up into several smaller ones. Indeed, that is what we are going to do in this message and in the couple to follow. We do this because in the sentence, Paul talks about so many riches that are given to the Christian that we cannot take it all in with one breath of air.

Making our way through this sentence, in some ways, is  like climbing a mountain. We know that it is on the summit of the mountain where we have the richest perspective of the countryside around us, but we do not have the stamina to make it up to the top of the mountain in one mad dash. The mountain climber must take it in stages.

The goal, of course, is to reach the summit, but the climber must also make smaller goals; he must occasionally sit down and take a rest. However, at each resting place and even though he has not yet reached the summit, the climber can enjoy a new vista. He can look out over the surrounding countryside and see the beauty that is around him.

So it will be for us as we climb our way through this long sentence. Before we reach the end, there are several beautiful things to see along the way. However, also like climbing a mountain, some of the stages are a little difficult and sometimes we will even question if we can make it through to the next stage. But we do. In order to reach the summit to gain a perspective of the grace and peace of God, we push ourselves to make it through some of the more difficult spots.

So it is, with this little pep talk, that we begin our way through this introductory sentence of Paul’s.

Spiritual Blessings in the Heavenly Places
 
Happily enough, our first steps are not difficult at all. Paul begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV).

This portion of the sentence is like the walk through the meadow at the foot of the mountain. As we stroll through the grasses and the flowers, we see the blessings of God. They are all around us. We see them, of course, in the material blessings that we have. They are in the food that we eat and the roof that is over our heads. We see them in friends and family. If we take the time to look, we see the blessings of God at every step.

It is true that many people do not see this. Many are in such a state of preoccupation in their lives that they miss seeing what is around them, just as many can walk through a mountain meadow and not notice the many flowers blooming around them. Perhaps one of the reasons that these people do not notice the beauty around them is that they are so anxious to reach the top of the mountain, that they feel that they do not have time to enjoy the walk up to the base. 

But important as these everyday blessings are, we should notice that Paul is not really talking about material blessings here. He is talking about “spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.”

What do these words mean? We know what material blessings are, because we can see them and touch them. Indeed, we do every day. But it is a little more difficult for us to understand what Paul means when he talks about spiritual blessings. I do not think that it should worry us that this is difficult for us to comprehend, and I will tell you why...
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(I am going to stop here for a couple of days. This will be quite a long post and I will be breaking it up into several parts to help you make it through a little at a time. These verses of Ephesians deal with such things as predestination and other difficult subjects, so it is perhaps best to take it slowly through the verses.

This post is actually a collection of three, 20 minute sermons that I gave at our church)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

CELEBRATING OUR DAY OF DEPENDENCE

One of the most obvious differences between the way that we think politically in the world, as contrasted with how we think politically in the Kingdom of God, is between the concept of dependence and independence (which we just celebrated last Saturday in the United States).

In the world, independence is everything. At any given moment, I would say that there are at least a half a dozen countries or peoples somewhere in the world in a struggle for their independence. These people feel as if they are under the oppression of another nation or people who do not have their best interests in mind. They feel as if they and their resources are being used for the benefit of those that rule over them. They seek to be free from this control so that they can make their own decisions.

Even here in the United States, we at least see this sentiment. I think that there is an underlying and perpetual movement in the state of Texas to secede from the Union and make themselves an independent nation. We even see this on the local level here in the Northwoods, but in a slightly different way. Some years ago, there was a rather significant movement by many people here in the northern part of Wisconsin and those of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to break away from our respective states and form a 51st state in the United States. It was to be called the state of Superior. I think that the capital of this new state was going to be Hurley (just kidding about that one).

The End of the Pursuit for Independence

Although relatively few may be actually serious in these examples with our states, there is at least a measure of legitimacy to most movements for independence in our world. Had I been alive during the time of our own struggle for Independence from King George of England some 250 years ago, I would have been an ardent supporter of it. And it is true that we in the Northwoods quite often we are obliged to live under certain laws that are of no benefit to us, but only benefit the larger population areas of the southern part of the state.

But you see, this thirst for independence can never be completely quenched. Had the movement to form a state of Superior been successful several years ago, by now it may have been that the people of the U.P. would be feeling somewhat oppressed by us in the “new southern part of the state.” We know that the “yoopers” do have a distinct culture from here in Wisconsin, and sooner or later those distinctions would start to cause difficulties.

However, it would not even stop there, since the final drive of the thirst for independence becomes personal. The truth is, we do not want anyone telling us what to do. Not our parents, not our teachers, not our bosses, not the government – no one. Actually, we do not even want God to tell us what to do.

Independence in the Garden of Eden and at Babel

You can see that all this talk of independence is more confusing than we often think. While it is important in our present world and in many present political circumstances, the drive for independence, if carried to the extreme, can also have detrimental consequences. In fact, this quest for independence was first awakened within us by the very first enticement by Satan in the Garden of Eden.

Satan said to Eve, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The essence of Satan’s temptation was that Adam and Eve would not need God to tell them what to do, since they could act according to their own wisdom. They would be independent from God.

This was also the failure at Babel. The purpose of their tower was not for an observatory. It was not an overt altar to a false god, as is sometimes taught. The statement of the people concerning it was to “make a name for [them]selves, so that [they] would not be scattered abroad, over the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4).

This was their decision – not God’s. Quite to the contrary, God had given men the commission to “fill the earth.” He wanted men and women to spread out over the face of the globe to the places that he had created for them. The people at Babel instead wanted to make their own name great. They wanted independence from God.

Independence for Ancient Israel

Similar stories continue through the pages of the Bible – stories of people and nations who did not like the idea of living under the direction of God. The early Israelites did not like the arrangement that God had made for them by sending them prophets to speak his word to them. They instead wanted to have a king – one of their own so that they could govern themselves. This was not what God had wanted for them at that time. He told Samuel the prophet, “They have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).

This was when Saul was made king over Israel. Even though this story is based in history and is political in nature, it is also a personal one – at least, that is how I want you to think of it as you read this post. Think of it in an allegorical sense, for what happened to the nation Israel about three thousand years ago has many analogies of what happens to us when we decide that we want to rule our own lives instead of letting God rule them.

Israel wanted a king. They saw that the other nations around them had kings, and they wished to be like them. If the nations could rule themselves, why could not they? Up until this time, the Israelites had received their directions through the prophets of God. A prophet of God in those days was more than someone who sometimes told the people about future events. That was actually one of their minor roles.

The main occupation of a prophet was simply to tell the people what God was saying to them. Samuel was the prophet of the Lord at that time, giving to them the word of God. And now the nation of Israel was saying that they did not want the word of God. They wanted to rule themselves. Saul became their king.

For a time, Saul seemed if he would be a good king and things went well. He was a very humble man when we was first chosen king. When Samuel told him that he was to become king, his response was, “Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak to me in this way? (1 Samuel 9:21 NAS)

Slowly however, Saul began to change. He began to let his position fill him with pride so he felt independent of needing to consult God about his actions. At one particular point, Samuel told him, “You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God…the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not endure.” (1 Samuel 13:13-14a NAS)

What happened to Saul is similar to all who decide that their own way can take precedence over God’s way. It begins all fine and we accept things gratefully and humbly. But soon we find ourselves using our judgment in ways that demonstrates that we have been removed from God’s input in our lives. We become proud in our independence from God.

After the words of Samuel quoted above, the prophet continues speaking to Saul: “The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after his own heart, and the Lord will appoint him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” (1 Samuel 13:14 NAS)

The Eternal Kingdom

That man who is described as being one with a heart like God was David. Neither was this man perfect, as we well know, but he was one who stayed sensitive to who he was under the authority of God. When he did something that was outside of God’s way, he repented.

In this way, the line of earthly kings who would rule in Israel passed from Saul to David. This is perhaps significant in itself, but the most important part about this is that the eternal king, Jesus Christ, arose from the lineage of David, instead of that of Saul.

Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, puts it this way: “David…a man after my heart who will do all my will. Of this man's offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised” (Acts 13:22-23 ESV).

From this event, the human aspect of the Kingdom of God became possible. When Jesus, the creator of all that there is, came to live with us as a human, he introduced to us the Kingdom of God. He also made it possible for us, as humans, to become part of that kingdom. The Kingdom of God is unlike any kingdom or government that we see on earth; unlike any government that is ruled by men and women. The Kingdom of God is ruled by God.

In the mystery of the incarnation, God was made to be man in order to redeem us. I will not go into all of the details at this point of why this was necessary, and there is much about it that no one understands, but this is the reality as given to us by God.

It is because of Jesus, coming from the line of David and at the same time being the eternal Lord and King,that we are able to say that the kingdom of David will endure forever. It is not that David himself will reign as king forever, but the One who came from his line.

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “David, after he served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers, and underwent decay (to put it graphically). But He, whom God raised from the dead (speaking of Jesus) did not undergo decay. Therefore, let it be known to you brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” (Acts 13:36-38 NAS)

Our Personal Independence

This is where this history becomes relevant to us. This is where it becomes personal. This is where our natural drive for independence, if we allow it to remain unchecked, reaches a level that can become detrimental to our souls.

For each one of us, there is a natural appeal to Satan’s words in the Garden of Eden. “You shall become like God.” We all want to be our own authority. None of us like someone else telling us what we should do. We want to run our own lives. We want to become like God in this respect.

But God is telling us that should we choose that path, it will lead us to eventual ruin. Like King Saul, for a time we may not notice a great deal of difference in our lives. Gradually however, we will find that our own quest for personal independence will lead us further and further into destruction.
If we allow it to, we will want independence even from God.

Happy Dependence Day

Last week, in the United States, we celebrated our independence as a nation and our freedom.

Today I would like to celebrate our dependence, and our true freedom.

At one time, when Jesus was speaking to some people of Israel, he told them that once they came to know the truth of who he was, they would be free. “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Jesus told them.

The Jews took offense at these words. “We are Abraham’s offspring and have never been enslaved to anyone,” they answered him. “How is it that you say, ‘You shall become free’?”

These people were depending upon their heritage for their understanding of what it meant to live in freedom. Conveniently forgetting the four hundred years that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, plus numerous other times when their people had been slaves, they pridefully looked upon themselves as if they had never known bondage. Never mind the fact that they were at that moment under Roman occupation in their own land. How was it that Jesus could be so brash to say to them, “You shall become free?”

But slavery to other nations was not even the point of what Jesus was saying. Even if they indeed had never been enslaved as a people, they would not know true freedom without Jesus Christ. They would be enslaved to sin.

We may not appeal to our ethnic heritage for our claim of knowing what it is to live in freedom. We instead celebrate our national heritage. “We are Americans,” we say. “We have never been enslaved by anyone.” At least we can say that if we are white Americans.

But even that is not the heart of the matter. The message of Jesus to all of us is the same as it was to these Jews. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin…If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:34,36 NAS).

That freedom can only come by acknowledging our dependence upon Jesus Christ. That is why today, instead of celebrating our independence, I would like to celebrate our dependence. Without Christ, we are all held in bondage. It is only with Christ in us can those bonds be broken and can we walk in freedom.