KINGDOM LIVING

Think of all the stories of that Jesus told to help people have a clearer grasp of what it meant to live for God in the world.  He used the most common events of the daily life of the people to whom he spoke to illustrate the points he wanted us to get.  He talked about sowing seed and the harvest that resulted.  He told of a vine and its branches and bearing fruit in him. He talked about mustard seed and leaven that was hidden in the meal of the cook.  He described treasures both hidden in a field and valuable pearls that a man was searching for.  Most of Jesus stories had one thing in common.  Most were linked to the kingdom of God or of Christ.  He would often say, “The kingdom of God is like.”  Even when he didn’t mention the kingdom it was very much a part of the whole context of his discussion.  In the single greatest sermon ever preached by anyone, known to us as the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus followed the theme of the kingdom of heaven from the beginning to the end.  He started the sermon by listing the beatitudes and in giving the blessings he started and finished with the kingdom.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I’ve often wondered what came to the minds of the people when they heard his lessons on the kingdom.  Their lives had been spent under the rule of different kingdoms.  Israel had known both very good kings and some of the worst imaginable.  At the time Jesus spoke they were both dealing with King Herod’s sons who reigned over different areas around them and with the Roman Emperor who was more often than not a horrible person.  So what entered their mind when they heard Jesus speak of the kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God?  Perhaps their minds went back to the glory days when David and Solomon were kings in Israel with the nation on the grow and with God’s blessings on them as a whole.  Probably most of them kept on with the thoughts that if Jesus were the real Messiah he would set up the kingdom of Israel again and reign like David over the people.  But, if they did, you have to wonder what they thought of so many of Jesus stories about the kingdom or even his discussion of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount.  A kingdom that blesses the poor in spirit or those persecuted for righteousness didn’t fit the mental picture they had drawn up for the coming kingdom the Messiah would set up.

In Matthew 6, the middle chapter of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus concluded the chapter with the command, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.  Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough evil of its own to deal with.”  But notice what had been discussed in this chapter.  He had focused first on the motive of our righteousness.  Don’t do your righteousness before people to be seen by them but do them in secret and the Father who sees in secret will reward you.  He illustrated the point by discussion of prayer, giving and fasting.  In the prayer discussion he gave them the model prayer saying to pray like this.  In that prayer the first plea for the Father was “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  In this Jesus gave a clear grasp of what kingdom living is all about.  When God’s kingdom is dominant in our lives we do God’s will.  It would be totally out of place for me to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven when I’m not doing anything to carry out God’s will in my own life.  I suspect the way we should pray this prayer is “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven and Lord start with me.”

In that command to seek first above everything else God’s kingdom and righteousness it is vital to see the tie between kingdom and righteousness.  If I seek God’s kingdom above all else it will certainly lead to me striving to be right with the Lord in everything I do.  Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were my servants would fight but my kingdom is not from here.”  God’s kingdom isn’t some physical, earthly kingdom to be set up in Jerusalem to have Jesus reign on this earth for 1,000 years.  It is a spiritual kingdom and Christ when raised from the dead was seated at God’s right hand on David’s throne and has been reigning as king over his kingdom ever since (Acts 2:29-40).

Kingdom living means that Christ is our king.  It means we have a heart set on doing the Lord’s will and following His guide all the time.  It means that we yield to the lead of the Holy Spirit in us.  It involves the strongest efforts to please God, not to try to please all the people around us.  If we are pleasing all the people, it is clearly the case that we aren’t pleasing the Lord and His rule isn’t dominant in our lives.  Kingdom living means that we aren’t spending our time worrying about what all may happen in this world.  It amazes me that Jesus discussion was on worrying when he told us to seek his kingdom first and all the things that we normally worry about will be taken care of by the Lord.  He challenged us not to worry about what we would eat, what we would wear or where we would live.  He said not to lay up our treasures on this earth but to lay them up in heaven where they can’t be destroyed by the affairs of this life.  If there has ever been a time when people who follow Christ spent more time worrying about what is going on in the world than they do today, I would hate to have seen it.  How can we keep from worrying about our country, about the morals of our nation, about poverty and crime in the world and about the lack of spiritual growth among even God’s people?  Jesus gave the answer.  Instead of worrying ourselves to death when it won’t do even a little bit of good, seek the kingdom of the Lord and his righteousness.  God can handle the world and its future.  Live for today.  It is all we can handle anyway.  So live as kingdom people and let Christ be the king of our lives all the time.  It will change us and the world around us when we do.

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CHRISTIANS AND POLITICS

Like so many of you, I will be thrilled when this political season is over.  I’m already worn out with all the attack ads, the speeches that are much more about what an awful, unfit person the other candidate is, instead of what the speaker stands for.  I’m also weary of all the followers of Christ who are pronouncing doom and gloom on the country due to the ineptness of the presidential candidates.  It all reminds me of a strange Book of the Bible written about 800 years before Christ came into the world as a man.  It is the Book of Hosea.  Hosea was written during the period shortly before the Assyrian army came into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and captured the people, and destroyed the nation.  Hosea was sent with the mission of trying to alert the Nation of what was coming and striving to call them to repentance and submission to God instead of doing things their own way.  In Hosea the people of both Israel and Judah have had a time of prosperity.  They have expanded their borders back to what they were when the kingdoms were united under David and Solomon.

Hosea is sent to challenge the people for three major sins going on among them that seem to be very relevant for our own time.  They were trying to worship God along with worshiping different idols and thought God should be pleased since they continued to offer their sacrifices and observe the different feast days Moses commanded them to keep.  They were deeply involved in immoral behavior.  And they were giving the political leaders credit for the blessings that had come from God on them as a nation.  It doesn’t take much imagination to realize we face the same three problems in our own day.

Far too often people are trying to mix their faith and service to God with all kinds of religious ideas and concepts that have no relation to God or the Bible. How often do you hear someone who is a follower of Christ talk about what happened to them or someone else as being “Karma” which is a Hindu concept and certainly never taught in the Bible.  I’ve heard at a Christian’s funeral recently the preacher say that the were sure the person had gone to heaven because on a balance they did more good in their life than bad or evil.  That is a Muslim teaching and certainly has no basis in Scripture.  What the Bible teaches is that we all have sin in our life and that only through our faith and obedience to the Lord can our sins be forgiven so that we might be saved.  Salvation is based on God’s grace and never on what we deserve or on our doing more good than bad on a balance.  When we try to mix together other teachings with what Jesus said and make others Lord along with him we lose Jesus in the process.  He isn’t A WAY, A TRUTH AND A LIFE.  He is THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE.  There is only room for one Lord and Savior in our life and that is Jesus or we are lost.  Peter declared in Acts 4:12 “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The problems we face with immorality are as obvious as anything can be.  Between pornography, hooking up, shacking up and every other form of pretending we are husband and wife in a covenant of one flesh and a media that promotes such a lifestyle, the immoral and perverted is made to look like the normal.

But notice closely the third thing that was a problem for Israel.  They were so carried away with their human rulers or politicians that they gave them  credit for whatever good or whatever blessing came into their life.  If their crops were good they either praised some idol or credited the king for all going well.  When they won a battle against some enemy instead of thanking God for it, they praised the king.  When the king became ill they panicked at the thought the next ruler might not be so effective for them.  God’s message through Hosea was that he was the one who raised up their rulers and he was the one who took them out.  He had Hosea to plead with them to see that it was God that caused their crops to be bountiful, not some human leader or some idol they might worship.  He pointed to God’s amazing love for the nation of Israel and how he was to them their husband and they were his wife but they were rejecting Him and going after other lovers.

Now I will certainly admit that the potential President’s that are before us leave a lot to be desired.  But, whether we rise or fall as a nation depends on far more than just who sits in the White House and what party they represent.  If we persist to live immoral, ungodly lives and to try to mix every other kind of religion with our faith and worship to God it won’t matter who is elected President.  When the moral fiber of a nation is lost the nation’s fall isn’t far behind.  When the leaders put themselves in the place of God it is never long before God will demonstrate who is really in charge.

But there is something we can all do that I believe will make a huge difference.  We can obey God and actually, regularly, faithfully pray for the leaders of the nation.  We can give glory to God for the blessings of life.  We can give total loyalty to the one God and not try to blend together all kinds of notions that leads to a mixed up mess and rejection from God.  We can refuse to excuse the sins in our own life and in the world around us.  We can live totally dedicated lives for the Lord and be ones that show love, compassion and care for those who are hurting, disabled or unable to function on their own.  Instead of thinking the solution to every problem lies with the government we can realize that the solution to many problems come only from God and that God uses us to make a difference for good.  We can refuse to justify sin no matter who may be supporting it.  Too often in life our moral standards are based on what is done by the ones we love and respect.  We need more of the heart of John the Baptist who stood up to King Herod to tell him he was sinning and that he didn’t have the right to take his brother’s wife and have her as his wife instead.  It would have been easy to compromise when he was called before the king to give account for what he had said.  But his heart was that sin is sin no matter who is doing it.  Now please understand recognizing that a thing is wrong and taking our stand against it is never justification for being rude or uncaring toward the person involved in the sinful action.  Jesus loved sinners and so must we if we are to follow him.  He didn’t justify or pretend their actions weren’t wrong.  But he loved them and offered them forgiveness and new life even though they were guilty of sin.  We should do the same.

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TO BE ONE

I wonder what it would have been like to hear Jesus pray.  We don’t have many of Jesus prayers recorded in the Bible.  By far the longest of his prayers recorded is in John 17.  It was part of a lengthy section of John that took place on the last night before Jesus was crucified.  The evening began with Jesus meeting to partake of the Passover meal with the twelve and the amazing event of his laying aside his outer garments to take a towel and wrap it around his waist and fill a basin with water to wash the disciples feet.  When Judas left to go and carry out his betrayal of Jesus, the Lord gave them the new commandment to love each other in the same way he loved us and declared that it was by such love that others would know we are really disciples of his.  He both told of how the disciples would all forsake him and Peter would deny him but then reassured them not to be troubled that he was going to prepare a place for all those who would come to God through him.  He promised the Holy Spirit to come and abide with them and us.  He compared his relationship with his disciples to being like a vine and its branches and challenged us to bear much fruit for him.  He explained that it was better for him to go away so the Holy Spirit could come and convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment to come.

Then, He prayed and the prayer fills John 17.  “Father, the hour has come.  Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.  For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.  Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.  I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”  That is the opening of this amazing prayer.  All through the gospel of John we have heard Jesus say, “My hour has not yet come.”  Now he declared the hour had come.  His whole life had moved toward this time when he would take on him the sins of the world and obediently go to the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and make forgiveness possible for all people.  He had fulfilled God’s plan and was ready to glorify the Father and the Father glorified him.  He would then be raised from the dead and go back to share the glory with the Father that they had shared before the world ever began.  He noted that eternal life was had by knowing the Father and the Son, Jesus.

He then began a lengthy segment of prayer for the apostles who were left.  Judas had left to fulfill Satan’s mission of betraying Jesus.  But Jesus prayed for the eleven.  He prayed for their sanctification, their protection and deliverance.  He prayed that God wouldn’t take them out of the world but would keep the world from getting into them.  He prayed that they might have the full measure of Joy within them.

It is the next section of the prayer that I want to focus on particularly today.  It begins in verse 20 of John 17.  “My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, THAT ALL OF THEM MAY BE ONE, FATHER, JUST AS YOU ARE IN ME AND I AM IN YOU.  MAY THEY ALSO BE IN US SO THAT THE WORLD MAY BELIEVE THAT YOU HAVE SENT ME.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  It is amazing to think of Jesus just a few hours before he would go to the cross to die for us, praying for us.  His prayer for all of us who would believe in him was simple and powerful.  He prayed that all who believed in him would be one just as He and the Father are one.  What makes this so phenomenal is that even when the disciples were only eleven men it was difficult for them to get along with each other.  But he prayed for all disciples through all the ages to come to be one.  He wanted his followers to have unity.  But why does it really matter whether or not the followers of Jesus are one?  Notice his answer.  It is so that the world may believe that You have sent me.  The openness of the world to the gospel of Christ is tied to how well those who follow him can get along with each other.

How well has his prayer been answered?  His followers have had a tough time with oneness.  Even those who tend to agree on doctrinal matters still have difficulty getting along with each other.  Sometimes our guilt for not being united with other disciples leads to us accusing others of being wrong on some doctrinal issue to justify our inability to get along with them.  Rather than admit we just can’t get along with people we will accuse them of being off on some teaching.  It would be refreshing sometimes to just have someone say that they knew the other place where they were before all taught the same thing we do, but I just couldn’t get along well with some of the people so I decided to go worship somewhere else instead of causing problems there.

Jesus would go on to pray that his disciples might come to be with him in heaven.  But I want to think more about this oneness thing.  Did he expect us to all agree with each other on every thing?  Obviously not, since in Romans 14 he described differences that might be there between brethren but challenged us not to judge each other and to bear with the weak instead of breaking fellowship over our differences.  When it comes to our loyalty to Christ it must be complete.  We can’t go off following different people like the church at Corinth had done.  Jesus is the one Lord and Savior of all people.  So there must be fundamental teachings on which we will together stand and preach God’s message.  But it doesn’t mean that everyone must see every thing in exactly the same way to be right with God.  There can never be unity among the followers of Jesus as long as many are determined that they will not even consider another person as a brother or sister in Christ who doesn’t see everything the same way they do.  Good, godly people don’t always see things the same way.  But love and unity aren’t built on always agreeing.  Consider the marriage relationship.  We are to become one flesh before God.  But if both husband and wife always agree on everything, someone has stopped thinking and given that right totally to the other person.  At least part of the reason God said we are to “Submit to one another in the fear of God” is because we won’t always agree.  But we can still love and support the other partner even when we think they are mistaken on some point.

One of the amazing things on this topic is that in Romans 14 where he talked about our not seeing everything the same way he said, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.  LET US THEREFORE MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO DO WHAT LEADS TO PEACE AND MUTUAL EDIFICATION.” (Romans 14:17-19)

If Jesus thought unity was so important that he prayed about it diligently on the night of his betrayal, shouldn’t we be praying for such unity also?  If he worked to have such unity, shouldn’t we do the same?  If he was willing to submit his will to the Father’s will even when it meant going to the cross for us, shouldn’t we be willing to submit to others on things we may not see the same way they do in order to have unity in the body?  It is worth thinking about.

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IF YOU DO THEM

The stories about Jesus recorded in the four different accounts of his work and ministry on the earth give us very different pictures of his life and work.  Especially the Gospel account by John that was written some thirty years after the other three, points to very different things as a whole from those recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke.  John was with Jesus as one of the very early disciples and writes as an eye witness to the conversations, the signs the he performed and his life among the people.  One thing that John brings out in a powerful way that I want to focus on today is that in following Jesus it is vital to not only study and learn what he said and did, but to do what he said, to follow his example in life.

One story that makes this point powerfully is in John 13.  It was right at the end of his ministry on earth. He knew his hour had come that he should leave this world and return to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the very end. It was the night before the Passover and Satan had already entered the heart of Judas to move him to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  Jesus and the twelve were together in the upper room taking of the Passover meal when Jesus arose from the table, laid aside his outer garments and wrapped a towel around this waist, took a basin and filled it was water and began to wash the disciples feet.  That was normally the job of a servant.  The roads were dusty or muddy.  Their shoes were mere sandals which amounted to a strip of leather with straps to hold them on.  So their feet became filthy.  Washing of feet before a meal wasn’t just good hospitality.  It was a real need.  There weren’t any servants there.  None of the disciples were ready to put themselves into the place of the servant and admit they were somehow beneath the others.  Jesus, knew who he was.  He knew he was from God and was returning to God.  “SO HE AROSE AND LAID ASIDE HIS GARMENTS AND WRAPPED THE TOWEL AROUND HIS WAIST.”  His knowledge of who he was made it possible for him to take the place of the servant.

He washed their feet one at a time, including Judas’ feet.  I might have used a steel brush to work on Judas’ feet, but I suspect Jesus was tender and especially gentle with Judas.  When he finished washing their feet and put his garments back on he said to them, “You don’t know what I’ve done to you.  You will know later.  You call me teacher and Lord and that is good for so I am.  If I your teacher and Lord have washed your feet you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have left you an example.  A servant is not above his master or a messenger above the one who sent him.  If you know these things, blessed are you IF YOU DO THEM.”

Calling Jesus teacher and Lord is important.  But only if we actually follow His teaching and obey him as Lord.  It is great to know what Jesus did and why.  It is important to understand his lessons.  But the blessings only come when we DO THEM.  Please understand this isn’t some rare thing Jesus said on one occasion but wasn’t a pattern for him.  Two chapters later he declared, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”  A little later in that chapter he will say, “He that loves me is the one who keeps my commandments.”  In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  Luke records Jesus saying, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do the things that I say?”

Our Lord’s grace is truly amazing.  His love won’t stop even when we are failures like the twelve, whom he said in the same chapter of John 13 would all forsake him.  Judas would betray him and Peter would deny him.  Yet he loved them to the very end.  But please understand something.  His unfailing love for Judas, didn’t mean that Judas wasn’t lost.  He called him the Son of perdition.  He said it would have been better for him to have a millstone tied around his waist and be cast into the sea than to betray him.  Peter said in Acts one that when Judas hanged himself he went to his own place.  Jesus loved him.  He would die for him.  His grace was there for him.  But he was lost eternally.

The insane notion that because God loves us and he is gracious toward us that we can’t be lost is not only a perversion of all God says, it is the exact opposite of what the New Testament teaches from beginning to end.  “God’s grace that brings salvation has appeared to all people teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly lust and to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world.” (Titus 2:11-13)  We can’t be separated from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus according to Romans 8.  But we can be separated from God.  We can turn back, fall away and even fall so far that it is impossible to renew us to repentance.    (Hebrews 6:4-6)  The Book of Romans is a powerful declaration of how we are saved by grace through faith and that we can’t earn our way into a right relationship with God.  But it is immediately after his declaration in Romans 5 that where sin abounded grace abounded all the more that Paul says in chapter 6:16-17, “Don’t you know that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are whom you obey, whether of sin that leads to death or to obedience that leads to righteousness.  But thank God you have obeyed from the heart that form of teaching delivered to you and are then made free from sin you became the servants of righteousness.”

God’s love and grace are beyond imagination.  But grace isn’t liberty to live anyway we want and expect to have the blessings of glory and salvation.  James was right when he said, “Faith without works is dead being alone.”  The blessings come when we know his will and do them, not when we know his will and talk about it.

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HUSBANDS LIKE JESUS

We don’t often think of Jesus as a husband, much less as a perfect one.  Yet the Apostle Paul writing to the church in Ephesus used the illustration of a husband and wife to describe the relationship between Christ and the church.  In Ephesians 5:21-33 he offered a lengthy analogy that led to many instructions for husbands and wives on how to have a great marriage.  It is extremely important to see that the whole discussion began with the appeal for us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  He then used the wife to illustrate the point that she is to submit to the husband as the church is to submit to Christ.  The problem that too often arises is that because of the immediate illustration of the need for the wife to submit, is that husbands fail to notice that the whole thing started with submitting to one another so he is to submit to the wife as well.

But notice the next major point was specifically to husbands in the challenge to follow Jesus in how you love your wife.  Love her like Christ loved the church.  Remember when you read this that Jesus’ love for the church has never been conditioned on the church doing everything right and pleasing to him.  He loved the church even before bringing it into being so much he was willing to be crucified to purchase the church with his blood.  Paul challenged every husband to “Love your wife just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Now it is pretty easy to focus on how the wife is to submit.  But what if husbands really loved their wives this intensely?  Think of some of the results of such love from a husband.  It would be cleansing so there wouldn’t be any keeping a record of all the ways she has messed up or failed along the way.  If a husband loved this much there certainly would never be a time when he would say negative and hurtful things or make fun of her before others.  Can you even imagine Jesus doing such with the church?  If a husband had and showed that kind of love he would spend lots of time listening to her and understanding what her thoughts and feelings were instead of simply trying to force her to buy into his thinking.  What if Jesus declared how much he loves the church but never had time for us and paid no attention to our prayers?  Would you still believe he loved us?  Of course not!  Neither will any wife believe her husband loves anyone but himself if he only wants her to listen to him and follow his dreams.

If husbands loved their wives as Christ loves the church he would long for real partnership in all of life and would make certain to have lots of time carved out for the  wife.  In a conversation a few days ago a couple was talking about taking care of some children and in the conversation mentioned that the parents didn’t feel comfortable leaving their children with their grandparents because the husband who is a preacher was never home to help his wife if she had them.  Only a short time before I had heard someone talking about what a good preacher the man is.  I have never heard the man preach and know nothing really about him but I know this if he isn’t ever home to just be with his wife and family he isn’t even a good example of a Christian, much less a good preacher.  No wonder so many preachers wives feel like the church is the other woman who has stolen her husband’s heart.  Husbands are to love their wives like Christ loved the church, not love the church the way he did and use it as an excuse to break the vows he made when he married his wife.  How in the world could one think he is loving his wife like Christ loved the church when he doesn’t even make time to be with her, love her and listen to what is on her mind.  Now, understand, I’ve heard the excuses that the preacher is doing the Lord’s work so it is his priority to be out every night studying with or counseling with someone.  Don’t forget that your work for the Lord very much involves being the person who loves his wife like Christ loves the church.  Nothing excuses not doing what God tells us to do.

I have met some elderships that actually felt like it was admirable for their preacher to be out every night and day “working for the church.”  When that preacher’s wife throws in the towel or has a nervous breakdown, those same foolish men will often blame the wife.  No one is the leader God wants them to be who isn’t the man God calls him to be at home with his wife and children.  It amazes me that the same men who will tell a young man in business that it isn’t right for him to let that business destroy his family and lead him to fail his obligations at home, will turn to praise their preacher for making the same mistake.  If a wife and children are saying about the husband that he is never at home, then no excuse he offers is sufficient.  Many times the husband wants to respond by telling how many hours he is home.  But if those hours are spent with his mind and heart at the office, then he isn’t at home even when his body is there.

Be a husband like Jesus if you really want to be a Christian husband!

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RACIAL DIVIDE

It seems that every day someone else is declaring how wide the divide is between the different races.  Most of the time the speaker is quite certain who is to blame and that largely depends on their political persuasion.  There is no question that there is division in our world and that too often it is between different races.  But I would add the divisions among us aren’t just racial.  Often the divides have as much to do with economics or part of the country where we grew up, or even our educational background, as they do with race.  Whatever brings the prejudice, the divide, and the false judgments we tend to make about each other there are some things we need to see from God’s word.

One of the first is a point made by the Apostle Paul in his sermon on Mars Hill to the people of Athens as recorded in Acts 17.  He had been talking to people in the market place every day and trying to persuade them that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Many of the Epicurean philosophers were bothered by his teaching and declared he was setting forth some strange new teaching that they didn’t get.  He was escorted to Mars Hill to speak to the Areopagus, a ruling body in the city.  He complimented them on being very religious but noted he found an altar “To the unknown god” whom they worshiped without knowing.  It was the God they didn’t know that Paul declared to them.  He said he was the God who made the worlds and all things in it.  He doesn’t live in temples made with hands nor is he worshiped by anyone’s hands as though he needed anything since he gives to all life and breath and everything else.  “From one man he made all nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-28).

Focus on the statement he made from one man he came all the nations.  All of us, no matter what race or heritage can trace out ancestry back to Adam and Eve.  Actually we can come even closer since God destroyed the world by a flood in Noah’s day we can all trace our ancestry back to Noah as well.  Every race comes through one of his three sons, Shem, Ham or Japheth.  If we have such a close heritage, how in the world did we ever become so divided?  God answered that question in Genesis 11.  People were gathered in one area and longed not to be separated.  They came up with the idea of building a tower to heaven so they wouldn’t ever be separated.  Yet God’s plan was that mankind would be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.  When he observed their actions he came down and said it was because they were all speaking the same language.  He wanted to push them into the whole world, so he confused their languages so that they couldn’t understand those who spoke differently.  So the separation of people to spread through the earth with different languages came from God because of the sinful pride or arrogance of mankind.

It wasn’t God’s plan for all people to be in any one place.  He wanted us to fill the whole earth.  So, our being different came from God, because of the arrogance of humans in that time.  Unity is a wonderful thing if people are united for a good purpose and have a heart to do good toward others.  But unity can also be achieved by people joining to do the wrong things and being involved in an evil cause.

Sometimes the very division that we hate ends up producing all kinds of good things.  Their division caused them to spread through the earth as God commanded.  As awful as church division is, it has often led to lots of good things being done.  Even churches in dividing quite often end up reaching people they wouldn’t have reached had they stayed together.  Does that mean we should seek division?  Certainly not.  God wants oneness.  But he wants a oneness that is totally devoted to doing his will.

How can people who are very different from each other come to understand and unite with each other?  Joel the prophet told of a time when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and people would speak in languages they had never learned.  In Acts 2 that promise was fulfilled and as Peter and the other apostles preached the people were able to hear them in their own language in which they were born.  Because they could hear and understand together it lead to a powerful unity that led to thousands of people coming to God.  The first day the church launched they added 3,000 people.  Soon the message would spread to the people of Samaria then to the Gentiles and to the whole world.  Why did it grow so much?  People listened to one another and learned the story of a savior who could change their whole lives. The gift of speaking in tongues meant that people could hear the good news of Jesus in their own language in those early days of the church.  It opened the door for mission work like it has never been seen again.

What is the point?  Simply this, that when people take the time and energy to actually hear each other instead of simply trying to be heard, there can be understanding and ultimately unity for many.  Even when the church grew like wild-fire, there were still enemies galore so even the greatest message didn’t reach all and never will.  It should also be seen that the walls coming down between people from all different backgrounds didn’t come by some political movement.  It came through the message of a savior and God’s amazing grace for all people.  The gospel message was meant to tear down the walls between people and bring reconciliation to God and each other.  That message is found in the second half of Ephesians chapter two right after the strongest teaching on God’s grace ever found.

I would love with everything in me to see people listening to each other, learning why others think the way they do and trying to understand them.  But such will never come about because of a political movement, a march of protest or the actions of police.  We need the good news that can only come through the story of Jesus and the salvation he offers to all.  When Paul wrote the church in Rome, before he had ever been to the capital of the known world, he said he was in debt to all people, slaves, free, Jew, Greek and barbarian, “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentiles.  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:14-17).

Peace, good will, unity and a longing for what is best for all people, not just ourselves or not just for those who look like us, comes from a God of love and grace.  When people honestly worship Him it leads to them having the same spirit of grace, love, good will and longing for what is best for all.  A belief in a god of any sort that brings hate to all who differ from us is not a faith that saves and is not the faith tied to gospel.

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IT IS CLEAR TO ME

One of the most amazing things in talking with people about the Bible and faith in Jesus is that we all tend to see the things we believe as crystal clear in Scripture.  Over and over again it is said, even when discussing something that the Bible really says nothing about, “I don’t see how anyone can miss that.  It is so clear to me that it is what God demands of us to follow him.”  Now if such statements were made with regard to the deity and humanity of Jesus or fact that God demands faith for one to be right with him it would make sense to declare it as clearly taught in Scripture.  But it is seldom such things that are being discussed.  Instead we come up with some ridiculous interpretation of some obscure text and declare it to be clearly teaching what must be done.

Early in my preaching life I had a person come to me wanting to be baptized and I told them to come on down to the church building and I would be happy to do so.  His response was, “No, I want to be baptized Scripturally in running water.”  At the time I had never heard of anyone saying such a thing and said, well tell where you want to be baptized and I’ll meet you there and do it.  He named a river near there and I met him there and baptized him.  It didn’t take long to realize this would be an issue he would harp on for the remainder of his life.  It wasn’t enough that he was baptized in running water, he was sure than anyone who had not been baptized in such a river really wasn’t right with God at all.  He caused more trouble with people than should have been allowed anywhere.  No amount of teaching helped because it was absolutely clear to him that baptism was done by John in the Jordan River so it had to be a river.  When asked if the river was necessary, why wasn’t it necessary for it to be the Jordan River it made no sense to him.  From that time on if someone wanted some such novel thing done I’ve said, “I’ll be glad to study with you on the subject.  I believe you have totally misunderstood what the Bible teaches on the subject and we need to talk about how to study and understand God’s word before we talk about your being baptized.”

During this same period of time I became very frustrated with the individual and went to see Brother Gus Nichols in Jasper, Alabama to ask how I should handle such a problem.  I don’t remember a lot of what was said on the whole topic, but one thing that he said has affected my study and thinking from that day on.  He said, “Leon, if you ever come to some understanding of a Scripture that is different from what others who love God and are doing their best to serve him see in the same Scripture, be very careful and don’t share that with anyone else as what the Bible says until you run your ideas by several good students of God’s word to see if what you are seeing in the text is really there or just something that you want to see in the text.”

Think of all the goofy things that people declare the Bible teaches that isn’t in the Bible at all.  I’ve heard brethren fuss and fume about the age of the earth and one declare the other to not be following the Bible because they disagree with them.  How utterly ridiculous since the Bible says absolutely nothing about the age of the earth.  It says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  If the beginning was 10,000 years ago or 10,000,000,000 years ago it is still in the beginning.

I’ve heard hundreds of arguments about how elders in the church are to handle the problem of divorce and remarriage when someone wants to place membership that is in that situation.  The answer is that your job is to teach what the Bible says not to try to become the enforcers of what I think it means.  Show me from Scripture where anyone gets the notion that elders have the right to determine who can and can’t become members of the congregation.  Show me where the New Testament says a single thing about what we are to do if a person messed up in their marriage and now wants to get their life right with God.  If you say, “They must separate and live single.”  Show me that in the text somewhere.  All God says on the matter is that it is like other sins in life it must be repented of in order to be forgiven.  Anything that goes further and says that repentance means you must separate and live single is just from the infertile mind of some person.

Many things seem absolutely clear to us because of circumstances and training from our background instead of anything said by God in his word.  I become so frustrated with people drawing lines that declare if you don’t see this the same way I do then I can’t fellowship you as a fellow Christian, I could scream.  Jesus came to save the lost not to nit pick the world to death.  Read Matthew 23 one more time and think of the strong teaching Jesus had for the religious leaders of his day.  They were really intent on reaching people but Jesus said they compassed land and sea to make one disciple and when they made them they became twice as much the child of hell as they were.  He said they paid tithe of the smallest herbs but omitted matters like justice, mercy and faith and should have done those without leaving the other undone.  Too often we major in minors and minor in majors.  I was talking to a man from another southern state who said he started attending a church that believed it sinful to help anyone other than a Christian from their church treasury and several other such things.  When he visited there they asked him how he felt about those topics and when he told them he agreed on those issues they accepted him.  But they didn’t ask about his beliefs and actions in other areas of life that were far more significant.  If they had done so they would have learned his problems as a pedophile before he messed up the lives of two young boys and one little girl in the congregation.  But they were so intent on the agreement with them on their issue that his real problems were no concern.

Some things are absolutely clear in Scripture.  Some things are extremely difficult to understand.  Some things are mentioned simply as incidentals in the story.  Some things that were done as a practice in the area or time were only expedient ways of doing a thing and never intended to become the law and gospel for everyone in all time.  Jesus said to the Sadducees, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have life, but they are they that testify of me.”  They were Bible students.  But in their study they missed the most important thing of all, that Jesus is the Christ the savior of the world.  So, question what you understand.  Re-study, re-think, pray and ask other godly servants of the Lord what they see and if they can help you in your understanding.  No one but Jesus has everything right.  So, “Put all things to the test and hold on to what is good.”

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