Thursday, March 27, 2014

Freeing the Faithful

When I was at Princeton, we’d often read well-known passages in speech class.  And each time we’d read them, the professor would stop us and point to certain words or phrases, or phrasing that needed particular attention.

For instance, in Luke 19 Jesus gives two of His disciples specific instructions for securing the young colt on which He will sit to ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  He says it this way, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat.  Untie it and bring it to me.”  Now the instructions on reading these sentences couldn’t have been more clear.  “When you come to the words, ‘colt tied’, make sure you place a pause between “colt” and “tied”, for there is no such thing as a “colttied.”

There were scores of such hints, but none greater than in the second half of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:25-32.  Here, in discussing this older son, the professor asked us to pick out the most meaningful word in the text.  Some replied, “Reckless living.”  Others said, “Quick, bring the best robe, etc.”  Quickly the professor repeated his question, “What’s the most meaningful WORD in this text?  And when no one stepped in with a suggestion he read verse 32 aloud.  “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your BROTHER was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”  What the older son can’t see in this sinful blindness, the father not only sees, but he points out with emphasis.  The reason for the music and dancing is that your BROTHER is home, restored, and free.

This week marks the final Sunday in our series on forgiveness – The Heart of the Matter.  Over these thirteen weeks we have repeatedly seen that forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We have repeatedly heard from many of you, how profoundly relevant this teaching has been to you, especially at this time in your life.  So let’s review some of the clear takeaways.
  • Sin has a cost that must be paid.  Forgiveness means that the offended party pays it.
  • While sin binds the heart, the mind, and the soul, forgiveness frees it.
  • The reason Jesus extends forgiveness to the woman caught in the act of adultery, Zacchaeus, Peter, etc., is because He takes all their sin on Himself and sees them through His finished work on the cross.
  • Real “to the bone” forgiveness only flows from a heart that knows the extent of its own forgiveness. 
  • Unforgiveness at its core is the product of unbelief.
  • The greatest gift Christ has given His church is the power to forgive (Matthew 16:13-19).
  • Forgiveness frees not only the offender, but the offended.  (Remember Brennan Manning’s story of Max?)
  • The god of religion says, “Stop your sinning and I will not condemn you.”  The God of the Gospel says, “I don’t contemn you, now go live free to sin no more.”
  • There’s always the sin under the sin and until we get to identifying and dealing with that sin, we’ll never be free.
  • Only forgiveness causes us to drop the masks and come out of hiding.
  • Jesus sees us as Zacchaeus – pure and righteous through His finished work.
  • Only free people can free people.
  • Only Jesus can find us, forgive us, and free us and He does it all the time through His Word and His people.
  • Paul instructs us to confess our sin one to another because he knows that’s the only path to freedom. 
  • Forgiveness is always a matter of recovering one’s true identity.
  • Forgiveness is the best gift Christians can give to others because it always points to Jesus and His great work.
This week we look at the final part of His three-part parable in response to the scribes and Pharisees’ complaint that He welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Some have called the story “The Prodigal and the Presbyterian” because the Greek word for elder is presbuteros.  This week we focus on the presbuteros, the elder brother, for he is as lost as his younger sibling.

The father deals with the second son the same way he deals with the first one.  He pays the cost of the sin, he points him to his true identity, and he gives them the choice of living free or not.  It’s a great conclusion to our series.

In preparation for Sunday’s message on Luke 15:25-32 you may wish to consider the following:
  1. What does empathy mean?
  2. How does the father show it to the older son?
  3. What does it mean for the father to leave the party and come out to the older son?
  4. What does it mean that the father “pleads” or “entreats” him in verse 28?
  5. How different is the father’s treatment of his son than the son’s treatment of the servant boy in verse 26?
  6. How is the elder son’s address of his father in verse 29 an insult?
  7. What do you make of the son’s tirade in verse 29-30?
  8. What is the significance of the father’s description of his son in verse 31(a)?
  9. What is the Johari window?  How is it relevant?
  10. How is one’s identity wrapped up in one’s forgiveness? 

See you for Confirmation Sunday!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Freeing the Faithless

Throughout our series on forgiveness we have seen again and again that Jesus’ definition of sin is at variance with so many of the definitions we hear today.  Nearly everyone defines sin as the breaking of rules or standards.  But Jesus demonstrates, in His dealings with the Pharisees, that men who violate virtually no legal standards can be just as sinful, just as spiritually lost as the most immoral person among us.  Why?  Because, as the Gospel shows, sin is not just breaking the rules, it’s putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge.  And that’s exactly what we see in the final of three stories in Luke 15.

In answer to the grumblings of the scribes and Pharisees – “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them” (same charge leveled in last week’s Luke 19 text) Jesus tells of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and two lost sons.  This week we look at the first of the two, the youngest son.  He’s often called “The Prodigal Son”, but as Tim Keller wisely points out in his book, The Prodigal God, the definition of “prodigal” is (1) recklessly extravagant and (2) having spent everything.  Therefore, the most prodigal one in this story is God, the Father.  The problem with the younger son is the same problem the older one has, he’s placed himself in God’s seat – the very definition of sin according to Jesus.

Years ago, one of my mentors was fond of talking about “the law of reciprocity.”  He called it a spiritual law –a law established by God in creation.  The law as he described it went something like this:  When you are faithful and give to the Lord and His kingdom, He will reciprocate by honoring your gift with more abundance.  A text commonly used to support this law is the parable of the talents.

However, there’s another way to look at the law of reciprocity that’s more commonly taught and practiced by Jesus.  We see it in the parable of the man who owes the king a great debt (Mt. 18:23f).  We see it all through this final story of lostness in Luke 15.  For Jesus, the answer to the question, “How can you expect me to forgive?” is simple.  Those who know that they have been forgiven much will forgive much.

Again Tim Keller is helpful.  On pages 120 and 121 of The Prodigal God he tells of a woman who came to Redeemer Church in Manhattan, New York City.  She said that she had gone to a church as a youth that taught that God accepts us only if we are sufficiently good and moral.  But now she was hearing a different message.  The message was the Gospel.  She was hearing that we are, and can only be, accepted by God by sheer grace through the work of Christ regardless of what we have done or will do.  But then she added, “That’s a scary idea!”

Keller was intrigued, so he asked her to explain, and explain she did.  She replied, “If I was saved (forgiven) by my good works, then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through.  I would be like a taxpayer with rights…But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace – at God’s infinite cost – then there’s nothing He can’t ask of me or put me through.”  BINGO!

As we’ve mentioned several times throughout our series, every sin comes at a cost.  The only question is, “Who will pay it?”  Forgiveness means the offended party pays.  Justice means the offender pays.  The foundational truth of the Gospel is this:  Jesus paid it all for you.  The payment is complete and finished.  Therefore, in light of that, any attempt to pay what’s already been paid is a fool’s errand.  Conversely, to demand of another what’s already been paid is an arrogant blasphemy.  Both errors are highlighted in this great story.  That’s why we’ve chosen to end our series with it, over these last two weeks we will spend our time where most of us are stuck.

In preparation for Sunday’s message you may wish to consider the following:
  1. Who, in Mark Twain’s opinion, is the greatest storyteller ever? 
  2. How can Muslims use the younger son’s story as a defense of their faith?
  3. What is the connection between the lost sheep, the lost coin, and this first lost son?
  4. What is the problem with the younger son’s request in verse 12?
  5. What does “dividing his property between them” mean?
  6. What is the nature of the son’s sin in verse 13?
  7. What does verse 17 mean when it says, “he came to himself”?
  8. Where have we heard the words of verse 18 before?
  9. Why does the father run to him when he’s a long way off?
  10. What does it mean for the father to give the robe, the ring, the sandals, and the fattened calf in verses 22 and 23?
  11. How does this story form the basis for our forgiveness of others?
See you Sunday!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Freeing the Foul

I heard it again this week:  “There are people who hear the message at Hebron that they are sinners and there’s nothing they can do on their own to please God, so they sit on their hands and do nothing.”  Now let’s assume that’s true.  Let’s assume that in light of hearing the Gospel they are immobilized because they have a profound sense of their unworthiness.  And let’s assume that the reason they are phlegmatic is because of their sense of sin rather than their sin itself.  If that’s true, then they have yet to grasp the rest of the Gospel.  The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners!  After all, that’s what the name Jesus means (see Mt. 1:21).

The late Jack Miller of World Harvest Mission used to say that the entire Bible can be summed up in two sentences:  (1) “Cheer up, you are a lot worse than you think you are;” and (2) “Cheer up, the grace of God is a lot bigger than you think it is.”  A friend of mine writes, “When I first heard Jack say that, I knew it was one of those statements that changes lives.  It changed mine.  I got it in a profound way.  Over the years…I have found out that I’m a lot worse than I thought  I was then, and I’m a lot worse than I think I am now.  But I’ve also discovered that the grace of God was not only a lot bigger than I thought it was then, it’s a lot bigger than I think it is now.”  How about you?  Have you come to see the truth of those words in your own life?

It’s those who begin to grasp the depth of their own sin and the overwhelming supply of God’s grace that are set free.  Free of masks.  Free of excuses.  Free of being “found out.”  Free of the fear of not measuring up.  Free of living only for themselves!  You see, the truth of the full Gospel is that for those who are in Christ there’s no more coercion.  We don’t respond to the Gospel out of duty, we respond out of freedom.

Recently I read: “In America you are not required to offer food to the hungry or shelter to the homeless.  There is no ordinance forcing you to visit the lonely or comfort the infirmed.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it say you have to provide clothing for the poor.  In fact, one of the nicest things about living here is that you really don’t have to do anything for anybody.”

And yet, how do you explain the fact that Americans are among the most generous people in the world?  The amount of money we give to charity per year dwarfs all other countries combined.  Why?  While there may be many reasons for this, but chief among them is a lack of coercion. 

My friend writes, “Do-goodism watered by guilt only goes so far and lasts so long.  Do-gooders grow weary and go home.  After they leave, though, those who have been loved keep on loving.  Those who have been forgiven keep on forgiving.  Those who have been rescued stay around to rescue others.  “Why?  Because Jesus always changes hearts.

That’s what we see in the story of Zacchaeus.  He’s worn a mask all his adult life.  He’s sought to hide true identity in very common ways.  But when Jesus finds him, forgives him, and frees him, he responds as a man who’s transformed and set free.  I hope we see all of this and hear all about it this week as we gather around His word and His table. 

In preparation for Sunday you may wish to consider the following:
  1. How can authentic ministry be described as a game of hide and seek?
  2. How is forgiveness foundational to the story of Zacchaeus?
  3. Why does Luke alone record this story?
  4. How is Luke 19:1-10 set up by Luke 18:31-43?
  5. What does Luke mean when he says in verse 1 that Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through?
  6. Why is Zacchaeus named three times in these 11 verses while the blind beggar outside of town remains unnamed?
  7. Why does Jesus look up into the tree and address Zacchaeus by name?
  8. What is the significance of what Jesus says in verse 5?
  9. What does it mean that Zacchaeus received Jesus joyfully? (verse 6)
  10. Why does Zacchaeus stand and announce his intentions in verse 8?
  11. What does Jesus mean when He calls him a son of Abraham? (verse 9)
See you Sunday as we learn more about forgiveness.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Substitute

Isaiah 53 is one of the Bible passages where I feel like I need to take my "shoes off" (Exodus 3:5).  It is one of the "Songs of the Suffering Servant" found in the book of Isaiah.  The others are Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and some include 61:1-3.  Jewish and Christian scholars are not in agreement about who the "Servant" is.  Many Jewish scholars say the "Servant" represents the nation of Israel while Christian scholars  see the "Servant" as Jesus.  The writers of the New Testament certainly believed the passage  was connected with Jesus.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as Peter, Paul, and Phillip all quote Isaiah 53 in speaking of Christ!

One of the most powerful sermons I ever heard was on this text.  Dr. Jesse Boyd of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C. was the preacher that day.  His strong, steady demeanor, large physical frame and deep, powerful voice enhanced his presentation was his gripping expostion of the suffering of Jesus for us that brought tears to my eyes and an overwhelming awe to my heart.  I hope I never forget the impact of that sermon!

Ephesians 1:7 tells us that we have forgiveness of our sins through the blood of Jesus Christ.  His shed blood (shed by torture and crucifixion) is the foundation of our forgiveness before God.  This forgiveness is brought about because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin = THE SUBSTITUTE.  Consequently, we are now to also be forgiving of others since the Lord has forgiven us as taught in Colossians 3:13.

Allow me to close with a doxology from Revelation 1:5b, 6b "...To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His Him be glory and power forever and ever!  Amen."

See you Sunday!
1.  The prophet Isaiah is quoted around 80 times in the New Testament.  Study some of the quotes from Isaiah 53:1-6  found in the N.T.: Matthew 8:17; Mark 9:12; John 12:32; Romans 10:16; 1 Peter 2:24.  Can you locate some other quotes from the book of Isaiah in the N.T.?
2.  Isaiah 53 was actually used to help bring the Gospel to Africa.  Read the evangelistic encounter in Acts 8:26-39.  Who is the evangelist (Acts 21:8) and who is the new convert?
3.  What is  the connection between Christ's suffering and the forgiveness of our sins?  Matthew 26:28; Ephesians 1:7; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:6
4.  The concept of the Substitute is seen in the sacrifices of the Old Terstament where the animal died to "atone'  for the sins of the people.  (Leviticus 6:6,7) How is Jesus described in the following verses?  John 1:29-36; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6-12
5.  Hebron Church foundations its ministry and membership on six essential Bible doctrines.  #5 in our Membership book is "The Substitutionary Death of Christ".  What does that phrase mean?  Can you find Scriptures to define and defend this teaching?