Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Upside Down Houses

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Luke 2:34-35

In recent years people have begun building upside down houses as tourist attractions. Of course it requires quite a bit of architectural ingenuity and construction know-how to make the house structurally sound while looking as if it is sitting on its roof. Tables and chairs bolted to a ceiling that looks like a floor. A bed, neatly made, with sheets, covers, and pillows glued in place, all defying gravity and hanging overhead. Imagine what it would be like to really live in a house like this, though. None of the furniture would be usable. Only a few of the appliances would be reachable. Can you even imagine how dangerous ceiling fans would be?!

This is the kind of topsy-turvy image I get in my head when I read Simeon's words in Luke 2. He prophesies that Jesus will cause the rise and fall of many in Israel. He will be opposed and will reveal the condition of people's hearts. Simeon says in essence that Jesus is destined to turn the world upside down. Or more accurately, He will turn the world right side up. 

You see, the world we live in is like those upside down houses. When mankind rejected God and began to worship ourselves and the created order instead of the Creator, we turned the world on its head. Deep in our hearts we all know this to be true. Our world is deeply flawed. Everything is not as it should be, but this is all we have ever known. We are like people who have lived in that upside down house for our whole lives. It is all we know. We get used to it. It makes sense to us. You can imagine how someone like that would react if a person came to set things right... to turn our home right side up again. That's exactly how many people react to Jesus. They think He is turning their world upside down, when in reality He wants to turn it right side up. 

Jesus flipped the societal expectations and order of His day in innumerable ways. And I believe He does the same thing in our hearts. When Jesus begins to work in a person's life, He systematically goes about undoing the perversion of sin in their life. One by one He walks around the little upside down houses that are our hearts and begins turning things right side up. How we respond to Jesus as He challenges our old ways of living reveals the condition of our hearts. Consider for a moment two ways Jesus flipped the script on people in His day, and consider how He may want to do the same today with you.

First, Jesus confronted religion that was merely outward ritual and form, and offered a close relationship with God in its place. He accosted hypocrisy. He attacked profiteers who had turned worship into a marketplace for their own gain. We all have flawed perspectives on God and religion, and Jesus must confront these flawed views. He will not be satisfied with worship that equates to giving God a day here and there, or to performing some outward ritual alone. Jesus wants your whole heart and will offered up to God. You can fight Him all you want, but He won't accept anything less.

Second, Jesus challenged people's views of what success looks like. He taught that the greatest among men ought to make himself the servant of all... and then He lived this truth. He lived it out not only in His life but also in His death. And in so doing He flipped our concept of winning as well. Success isn't about what you accomplish in this life; it's about what you accomplish for the life to come. This perspective is what makes great sacrifice possible for believers. Make no mistake, when you follow a crucified Lord, sacrifice is part of the deal. The good news is that Jesus promises rewards in the next life for all we sacrifice for Him in this life.

Maybe your life has been in upheaval lately. Maybe it feels like God is challenging you or turning your life upside down. It's tempting in those moments to complain. Instead, stop and ask yourself this question, "How might Jesus be using this situation to turn my life right side up?"

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Obey the Gospel

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might
2 Thessalonians 1:5-9

Normally we Christians think and speak about the gospel in terms of a call. It's something we hear; something we respond to. It's not a command, not something to be obeyed. Or is it? 

While discussing God's final judgment and how just it will be, the Apostle Paul assures his readers that God will judge "those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel." The punishment? Everlasting destruction (i.e. Hell). Paul is clear that those who do not obey the gospel are non-believers headed for Hell. Paul assumes that believers are obeying the gospel. So what does that mean?

The word for "obey" in this passage means to listen. It can mean simply to hear but it often means to hear and hearken to or obey what you have heard. For example, this word is used in Matthew 8:27. After Jesus calms a great storm, the disciples react by saying, "What kind of man is this?-- even the wind and sea obey Him." 

So the gospel isn't just something we hear. It isn't just something we listen to. It is a command! 

The good news that Jesus died for our sins commands us to cast off our old way of living and turn to Him in repentance. The gospel tells us that Jesus set us free from the power of sin and death; and it expects us to no longer live like we are enslaved to sin. The gospel reveals God's unfathomable forgiveness and grace for us and in so doing requires us to show the same grace and forgiveness to others. The gospel changes us. It calls us out of the darkness and into the light. So we ought to walk like children of light, doing the good deeds that accompany light. 

Has the gospel really taken root in your life and started to produce fruit? Are you just listening to the good news, or are you obeying it? Obey the gospel! May we all live it out every day by the help, power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On the Other Side of Death

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Colossians 2:15

People love a come from behind win. There is nothing more exciting or dramatic in all of sports. You can see it all over the fans faces. They are already feeling the sting of defeat and then, at the last possible moment, their team starts to close the gap! With the clock winding down the last goal is scored and they win the game. At times it can seem almost miraculous. For many fans there is no sweeter victory and no more crushing defeat than a come from behind win. 

We see this same type of drama unfold at the cross, except (as He is prone to do) Jesus takes it one step farther. Jesus doesn't nearly lose. By the world's standards he does lose. The whistle blows, the buzzer goes off. Game over. The Messiah has been crucified. Jesus has lost. The Adversary has won. The Devil and his demons dance with delight.

And yet, Colossians 2:15 teaches us that at the cross Jesus not only triumphed over Satan and his minions but He made a public spectacle of them. What seemed like Jesus greatest defeat was actually His greatest victory. What does this teach us about the Christian life?

Here is the spiritual principle for us. Spiritual victory always lies on the other side of some form of death. This is what Jesus reveals to His disciples in Mark 8:34-36
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
The Christian is called to live not for this world, but for the world to come. This world has a different set of priorities, a different perspective, and different values than the believer does. You simply cannot "win" by the world's definition and gain the spiritual victory as well. Gaining a spiritual victory always requires you to sacrifice things that this world values. It always requires you to put to death your sinful desires. It always requires you to loosen your grip on this world as you reach out to grab hold of the next.

Before He could swallow death up in victory (I Corinthians 15:54-57), Jesus first had to give Himself over to death. It is the same for us. Before you can provide for the orphans and the widows, you must die to your desire to spend your time and money on yourself. Before you can win a soul for Christ you must crucify your fear of man, your desire to be held in high regard. You must be willing to be mocked and ostracized for caring enough about your faith to share it with others. Before you can help win a lost people group for the Lord, you must be willing to die to your personal American must be willing to move to that remote continent and give your life to sharing the gospel with them.  

Spiritual victory always lies on the other side of some form of death. So how are you going to die today? What are you willing to give up for the kingdom? Before you answer that question consider the parable of the treasure in the field (Matthew 13:44) and remember the precious promise that no matter how much you give up, what you will gain in eternity far outweighs your sacrifice.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Gentle Tongue Vs. Suicidal Water

Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.
Proverbs 25:15

There is a saying in Chinese that when translated states, "Constant dripping of water wears away the stone." This idiom beautifully captures the idea that something as relatively weak as a droplet of water when applied consistently over the long term can overpower something as impervious to change as stone. 

Stone. Sometimes that is exactly what the challenges we face feel like. And like that little droplet of water maybe you feel as though you have been banging your head against a stone. Maybe you have even been banging away at that stone for a long time with no discernible change. I know personally how frustrating this can be. What are we to do? 

I think help can be found in Proverbs 25:15. "Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone." Like the Chinese saying it prompts us to persevere. This Scripture fills me with hope that no matter what challenge I am up against, should it be the Lord's will for me to overcome it, nothing will be able to withstand His plan combined with my never-ending, gentle persistence. 

But this highlights one major difference between the Scriptural proverb and the Chinese saying: gentleness. The Scripture speaks of both an underling trying to persuade a ruler and a tongue trying to break a bone. Both are weak in comparison to their adversary but are not necessarily weak in themselves. They are capable of outbursts of anger, frustration or disrespect. Thus, the proverb is highlighting not only relative weakness, but the wisdom of restraining whatever power you have. If in his frustration the underling the proverb loses control of himself, and disrespects the ruler, then he will never win his case. So it isn't just persistence that we need it is patience in the waiting, it is gentleness in our approach to the problem. This is somewhat at odds with the droplet of water which continually slams itself against the stone. Sure it may get its way in the end, but at what cost?

So don't underestimate the impact of applying gentle pressure to your problems over a long period of time. Don't give up on that family member or friend you have been sharing Jesus with for years. And don't get so frustrated that you yell at them either. Instead, be gently persistent. Are you frustrated with your lack of spiritual growth? Don't beat yourself up and try to change yourself overnight. Instead, make small changes to your daily schedule to make time for the spiritual disciplines, and then ask God's Spirit to help you apply that change over the long haul. Or maybe your problem is a person who is standing in your way. Be careful to apply the wisdom in this passage. Patience and gentleness are the order of the day. Stand firm in your persistence but do it respectfully so you don't give your adversary new reasons to oppose you. Think about it this way. Maybe it's time for you to stop slamming your head into that stone (your problem) and start gently talking to it. 

To be honest, I am not entirely sure how to apply this wisdom to the particular challenges I am facing, but join me this week in prayerfully asking God to give us the to apply this proverb to our problems. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
I Peter 2:22-25

To be honest, I don't fully understand the weight of my sin. My generation makes "atonement" for our wrongs by saying "Sorry" or maybe "Please forgive me if I hurt you." We don't really comprehend the cost of our individual sins or the connection between those sins and death. For God's people who lived under the Old Testament sacrificial system the cost of sin was very personal. Today we often discuss this Old Testament practice with confused looks on our faces, even sometimes putting it down, but it really was a brilliant way for God to teach His people about sin and atonement. 

When an Old Testament Israelite sinned he couldn't just throw a half-hearted "sorry" out to God. He went out into his field and found a young animal without defect or blemish, and he took it to the temple. There he symbolically laid his hand on the animals head most likely as a sign of the transfer of his sin to the animal. Then he killed the animal with his own hands before it was burnt as an offering to the Lord to make atonement for his sin. Imagine how real the cost of sin was to him in that moment. He had looked the animal in the eye, laid his hand on its head, and killed the animal- probably by slitting its throat- with his own hand. All of this was a God-given object lesson in the seriousness of his sin. Praise God for patiently teaching His people!

I'm not saying I want to go back to this system of atonement. The truth is that the blood of animals can't atone for sin anyway. (Hebrews 10:4) The whole system was a sign, pointing out the penalty for sin and pointing forward to Christ who is the true "lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world." (John 1:29) What we have in Christ far exceeds what they had. Yet because we did not see Christ's death, it is all too easy for us to look at our sin cheaply. We are tempted to view Christ's sacrifice on the cross as universal at the expense of it being personal. In fact, it was both. Christ wasn't only the lamb who came to take away the sin of the world, but He was also the one who "bore our sins in his body on the tree." (I Peter 2:24) He bore your sin. He bore MY sin on that tree. The fact that Christ, though perfect, died to make atonement for our sins is a concept theologians call substitutionary or vicarious atonement. In other words, He took your place. He paid your penalty. His blood was applied to the dust of this earth. The very dust from which man was made, to which we will return and that also bears with us the marks of our sin from the Fall. (Romans 8:19-23)

This all has very practical import for how we live now. We dare not look at God's forgiveness as being cheaply attained. We dare not take our sin so lightly as to throw half-hearted apologies at God in our nightly prayers. Rather, we should repent of our sin with tears and mourning knowing the true cost of our atonement. That is not to say that we should fear somehow failing to atone for our own sins. We know that Christ alone has purchased our forgiveness, so we repent with confidence that we are forgiven by the blood of Christ. But knowing how precious that blood is ought to drive us to repentance that includes truly hating our sin. 

One thing more.  In a spiritual sense (but a very real sense nonetheless) because Christ died as our representative, you and I died to sin on that tree. Therefore, as I Peter 2:24 says we ought to truly die to sin and live for righteousness. Romans 6:1-14 says in part:
"How can we who died to sin still live in it?... We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin....So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus."