Sunday, January 15, 2017

Is There a Purpose in Suffering?

Romans 5:3-5
3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

How often do we think of rejoicing when we have problems and trials in our lives? It is much easier to feel sorry for ourselves and be resentful about why we have been dealt such a bad deck of cards. Trust me, I know what that is like because I do it from time to time. It seems soothing at the time to marinate in bitterness and resentment. But there is only one problem with that strategy? It doesn't change the problem or change us. It really doesn't make us feel any better. Those around us pay the price as well by our handling it this way. Finally, it can even eat at our relationship with God. After all, if God really loved me, why would he let me go thorugh this?

We all know that if we are going to live on this earth very long, we are going to face trials and tribulations. This is the given. What isn't a given is how we are going to handle these difficulties. Paul teaches the Romans today in chapter 5 that although we have the hope of glory one day when we go to heaven, we can also rejoice in our trials here on earth today. He gives us a pattern for how we can turn these trials into character. Character usually doesn't get built when things are going well, but when we are disappointed by life. Someone described character as, "Who you are when no one is looking."

Character is built in those moments when you feel like giving up, and you reach out to God for the strength and perserverance. Character comes when we realize that we are powerless over the people and circumstances in our lives that we cannot control. But we can control our reactions to these people and circumstances that beset us. Ultimately though, Paul says we can have joy in our sorrows because we know God is preparing us for heaven. Though we suffer we now, we won't suffer forever. In heaven there will be no more suffering. So in that sense, our suffering makes us cling to our hope of being in heaven one day. Our suffering causes us to reach out to and trust in God in a way that could never happen outside of it.

Paul is a perfect example of this. He had a "thorn in his flesh". A personal trial that dogged him. He asked God three times to remove it, but God did not. God said to Paul, "My power is made perfect in your weakness." Though God could have removed this nuisance in Paul's life, it made Paul rely all the more on God's strength. Paul says, "If my weakness gives a clear example of your power, then i will boast in my weaknesses."

Though suffering is never fun, it can build character in us and make us more confident in our hope of salvation. We are also called on to bear each other's suffering, and in this way we fulfill the law of Christ. As we suffer and allow other people to bear our burdens, they are becoming Christ-like to us. If you are suffering today, hear Paul's promises today. God has allowed this suffering to produce in your character. As you persevere through your trial and trust in God, he is shaping and molding you for the hope you have in Him. And God has given you the promised Holy Spirit who gives you Jesus power and endurance to get through the trial, a foreshadowing of the joy you will have in heaven.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

How Are Baptism and Circumcision Related?

Romans 4
We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Circumcision was a sign of the covenant God made with Israel through Abraham. When Abraham's long awaited son Issac was born, God commanded all Jewish boys and men to be circumcised before becoming eight days old. Genesis 17 describes this covenant,

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.

Paul's point in today's lesson is that Abraham had faith that was credited to him as righteousness before he was circumcised. Logically then, merely being circumcised does not constitute faith, but is a sign of covenant God made with Israel to be trusted in by faith. In Genesis 15:6 when God described the blessing he would give to Abraham and his descendants the bible says, "Abram believed in God and it was credited to him as righteousness."

Paul uses this example to tell the Jews that even though the Gentiles were not circumcised, they could come to God by faith just as Abraham did. This example is similar to baptism in the Christian community. Baptism is a sign of the new covenant God has made with us in Jesus. We are saved by faith, and baptism in water seals this covenant. It is an outward sign of the transformation saving faith in Christ has brought us. Infants are baptized as a sign that they are children of the new covenant God has made with us through Jesus.

In Baptism, God chooses us to be his children, just as God chose Abraham. Abraham believed in the promises God made to him. When babies who are baptized grow up, they come to believe in the promises that God has made to them. Of course just like in the passage there are some who come to believe in Jesus, and then are baptized.

As a pastor I am doing more and more adult baptisms now than ever before. As people come to our church from other cultures where they were not brought up in a Christian church, they are baptized as they come to faith in Christ. But as Paul says, whether someone is baptized as a baby and grows in their understanding of faith, or they come to faith and then are baptized, the key thing is they are made right with God by faith. Baptism is a sign of the covenant, as water is a reminder that our sins have been washed in Jesus' name.

And if you are baptized you should remember your baptism often in practical and tangible ways. The water of baptism reminds you of what God has done for you. It is a reminder that He has given you the Holy Spirit to assure you that you are a child of God. Thank God for these signs God has given us to remind us with earthly things the heavenly realities we have been given.

Friday, January 13, 2017

What is the Righteousness of God?

Romans 3
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

We always hear the words, "So and so is a good person." And while they may be somewhat of a good person, what does that mean?" They are better than the next person, or better than most. And what does that look like when we compare that to what Paul calls the "righteousness of God". Literally when we use this word, the original meaning is the justice of God. Or, God is always just.

Here is a good explanation of the righteousness of God,

We must then say the righteousness of God is evident in the way He consistently acts in accord with His own character. God always acts righteously; His every action is consistent with His character. God is always consistently “Godly.” God is not defined by the term “righteous,” as much as the term “righteous” is defined by God. God is not measured by the standard of righteousness; God sets the standard of righteousness. Robert Deffinbaugh

When the Jews were under the Law, God's righteousness was determined by how the Jews did, or did not, comply with God's law. When they disobeyed God's Law, they were unrighteous and deserved God's righteous judgment. It was fair. But God showed mercy to the Israelites when they cried out to him and repented of their sin. We see this process throughout the stories of the Old Testament in God's relationship with His chosen people, the Jews.

But now Paul says there is another kind of righteousness that has been given by God. It is a righteousness that can only be obtained by faith. Righteousness is given to us through a person, Jesus Christ, who is the only one who is truly righteous. Therefore, when we trust in Jesus, we are given a righteousness that is outside of us. We say we are "justified by faith", meaning we enter into a right relationship with God through trusting in the gift he has given us.

The biggest problem with the Jewish leaders was that they were "self righteous". They thought that by their good deeds and position they deserved righteousness with God. But their righteousness was like "filthy rags" in God's eyes. It did not meet God's standards because it was humanly engineered. It was not from God. That is why Paul says there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, because they both equally need this gift of God's righteousness.

So how then do we respond the statement that someone is good person? While they may be a good person, or better than most, it still does not make them justified before God. Why? Paul says in verses 11 and 12, "There is no one who is righteous no not even one! There is no one who seeks God or understands God."

The Good News we don't have to earn God's righteousness, but it is given to us. It is the greatest gift we could ever receive, a right relationship with God. This is why we will go to heaven one day because of this right relationship. We have been justified by grace (God's gift to us) through faith (our trusting in what God has done for us). This is the classic definition of what it means to be a Christian, and the clearest definition of the Good News. Simple right? The only problem is we have to admit we are sinners and need God's grace, and then trust in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This goes against human nature, where we want to try to trust in our own ability to justify ourselves. Unfortunately this doesn't work because it doesn't come close to satisfying God's righteousness.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why Judge Others?

Romans 2:6-10

6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

When I first read these verses, I was thinking these words of Paul might be misconstrued that he is advocating "works righteousness". Meaning that one is justified before God by their good deeds. But what he is really doing is speaking to those who were judging others by their own standards. The Jews were especially guilty of this, as they looked down on Gentiles because they weren't Jewish. So Paul uses this argument that God judges everyone the same.

Here is someone's summary of why Paul is not advocating "works righteousness",

"Paul is stating that our eternal state is judged not by what we believe about ourselves but by how we live before God. Paul will amplify this thought in the verses to come. It is important for us to realize that Paul is not addressing the issue as to how to get to heaven (he does this later) but who is going to heaven (no one because they fall short as he will teach in the last part of chapter 2 and the first part of chapter 3). This argument is similar to I John where there exists tests to determine one’s salvation.

Paul is attacking the false security of the men and women who are supposedly saved by their righteous deeds. Paul confronts them right where they feel the strongest, but it is their deception that makes them so blind. Again, one cannot presume to be saved on the basis of who a person is, such as being a Jew, an elder, a faithful church goer, but one’s genuine sense of security is derived from a godly life. Paul has everyone to look at their own behavior rather than on their background, for otherwise, man will be able to hide his sin. Paul further aids us to do this through the following verses."

The bottom line once again is we have to read these kinds of passages in context. In this case, reading it in the context of the whole book of Romans. If anyone reads the whole book of Romans, you would see the singular message of the whole book is we are saved by grace through faith, not by works lest anyone should boast. Romans, which many regard as Paul's greatest letter, is from start to finish all about how he was saved because of this grace even though he persecuted many Christians . He spent the rest of his life in reaching as many people as possible, Jews and Gentiles, with the Good News. He preached it first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles, which was God's specific call on his life. For there is no difference between Jew or Gentile, because all of sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. cf Romans 3:23

So the question for us today is, "How do we judge others like those in Paul's day did?" As Christians how do we judge each other in the community of faith, and also those outside the faith. Paul says in the same way we judge others, we will be judged with the same judgment we use. That's pretty scary. We tend to judge people on our standards, which are usually external in nature. But God's standard is perfection and He looks at the heart, which only he can see.

Who are you tempted to judge in your life? What do you gain by judging them? Wouldn't it be better to show them the same grace, you received in Christ. After all we are really no different, just our brand of sin is different and in differing degrees. But in God's eyes we need mercy. By grace we have been saved through faith in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Let's not forget it!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Everybody Can See God!

Romans 1:20
20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

One thing you will hear a lot is, "How can God judge those who have not even heard about Jesus and the forgiveness he offers?" That is a good question. Though the bible has been translated into 1,000's of languages, there are still some people who have not had the gospel translated into their own language. But what can they know about God?

As we begin Paul's letter to the church at Rome, which he would soon be visiting, he starts out with the sinfulness of humankind. His first point is that everyone on the earth has a basic knowledge of God just by seeing the Creation around them. In the theological world we call this "General Revelation". If we look at the sun, moon and the stars, as King David said in Psalm 8:3, who is mankind that God is mindful of us. Being a part of creation naturally would lead us to believe that there is something bigger than us, also known as a Creator.

If you read the rest of chapter 1, Paul goes on to say that even though man knew God through this general revelation, he refused to worship him. Instead man created images and worshiped them instead of seeking the one true God. One could say that those created were made to worship the Creator. That is why human beings are the only ones who wonder why we are here and what is our purpose. God put a God-sized hole in us that only He can fill. But Paul says the basic nature of sinful mankind is that we would rather reject this Creator and worship something we have made in our own image. Remember the first commandment is, "Worship the Lord Your God only." And the second is like it, "Don't take the Lord's name in vain."

As Paul states, this led to the downfall of humankind, as we served the creature rather than the Creator. And since humankind chose to worship created things instead of the Creator, God gave them over to those desires. He showed them what those desires when unchecked led to, a total perversion of the good things God had given humankind in the garden.

Sound familiar? When we look in the world we see the same thing. People worshiping all kinds of things God gave us as a gift, but we they have become our idols. The human body is one example. Today the human body is worshiped in all sorts of ways, rather than it being the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies were meant to worship and yet by worshiping in and of themselves we have fallen.

So in answer to the first question. Yes everyone has seen God in His Creation. But, as Paul begins the systematic explanation of the Gospel, he starts with the problem then moves to the solution. The problem he lays out in chapter 1. Although we are created to worship our Creator, we have gotten it mixed up and worship that which he has created.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Can We Be Like the Church in Acts?

Acts 28
23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

26 “‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
27 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

Today, we end our journey through the book of Acts, also known as the "Acts of the Apostles". Paul finally makes it to Rome, after a stop off in Malta, where he shook off a snake after it had bit him. The islanders thought he was bit from some crime he had committed, but when he lived they thought he was a god. After Paul healed the chief official's father of dysentery, the rest of the islanders brought their sick to him, and they too were healed. Through Paul, the kingdom of God had reached this remote island. You can read about Malta on the internet, and the history since Paul first landed there. There were many bishops in early church history, they send representative to the early church councils in 451 and 500 AD. Now the island is primarily Catholic.

So Paul finally makes it to Rome, his final destination, where he would spend the rest of his life under house arrest though with certain privileges. When the Jews heard Paul was there, they were interested in hearing from him. They were not predisposed against him, as no detractors from his past came to Rome. As usual, he spent a considerable amount of time in the Jewish assembly explaining the Old Testament. He explained how the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets, and how they all pointed to Jesus as the Messiah. Some listened, and some were not convinced. Paul closes with a verse from Isaiah, which the prophet foretold of how God's own people, the Jews, would harden hearts so they would not see or hear, and be healed. In conclusion, Paul let's them know that the Gospel has been sent to the Gentiles as a result of their rejection of it. After having reached Rome, Paul for all intents and purposes had fulfilled the call God gave to him when he appeared to him on the Road to Damascus.

Paul's message to his young protege Timothy typifies the life he had lived and the hope he had in store for himself.

"For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."

I hope you have enjoyed this incredible and amazing story of how the church went from received the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost to now having many churches planted across Europe and Asia and Africa. This is how the Church was planted and now there are 2 billion people who name the name of Christ and thousands of local churches of all denominations. So what can we learn from this dynamic, spirit filled and missionally potent young church?

1. The subject of Paul's preaching and teaching was persuading people that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. He was foretold by the prophets, and came into the world to save it from sin, death and the power of the devil.

2. Paul preached to the Jews first, and explained to them all about how the scriptures pointed to Jesus as the true Messiah. But due to their pride and spiritual blindness they did not believe.

4. Thus Paul went to the Gentiles in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham back in Genesis 12, that he would be a blessing to all nations.

5. The book is called the "Acts of the Apostle's for a reason. When Jesus left the disciples/apostles at the end of the gospel of John, he said to them. "You will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. He will send you the appointed Holy Spirit who will be with you and guide you into all truth."

Since God's kingdom is still here but not yet fulfilled, I don't know about you but I want to be part of its expansion. Wouldn't you like to be able to say what Paul said at the end of his life. "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith! Now is laid up for me in heaven the crown which will never fade away" God has called you like Paul and set you apart to be a missionary. To share you story with all those you meet about how Jesus is the Messiah, and He is YOUR MESSIAH.

Tomorrow we start in the book of Romans, the city where Paul ends up in Acts.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Shipwreck!

Acts 27
21 After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

As they sail on for Rome for Paul's trial before Caesar, the 276 men on the boat, including prisoners like Paul, are in danger of losing their lives. Despite Paul's warnings to stay put where they are, they go on almost to their own disaster. Though Paul is a prisoner on the ship, he takes control telling them when to eat and when the soldiers should cut rope on the lifeboats. This time they listen to Paul, and by doing so save their own lives.

Then, Paul shares with them that an angel of the God had appeared to him and told him that not one person would die. He admonishes them to take faith in the God who he belongs to and serves. Fourteen days later, he urges the men to eat. He takes the bread they have and gives thanks to God in front of them. They all eat what they need and throw the rest overboard. The next day they see land, and the ship gets stuck but some of the men were able to, swim in. They swim to the small island and bring the others in by the ship's planks. The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners so they wouldn't escape, but the centurion orders their lives to be saved on account of Paul.

Wow! This would make for a great "Prime Time" movie. As we have seen all along in the book of Acts, God is with Paul wherever he goes. Despite these life threatening circumstances, God uses Paul to spread the gospel with not only the prisoners on the ship, but the Roman soldiers and centurion as well. It is easy for us when our circumstances turn bad, to throw a "pity party". Paul shows us that God can use us anytime, anywhere and in any situation. Romans 8:28 says, "God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose."

Where are you struggling to see God's purpose in your life? Like Paul, can you find a way to show that these circumstances can show others how you rely on God, and how your faith in God can give one confidence, wisdom and strength!