HE CAME FOR US ALL

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. [Colossians 3:10-11 (NLT)]

nativityMost of us probably speed-read through the long genealogies found in the Old Testament. The New Testament begins with a lengthy genealogy, as well, but it’s worth more than a quick skim through a list of often unpronounceable names. Because it was prophesized that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham and from the line of David, Matthew takes us through Jesus’s family tree to firmly establish His royal lineage. While there are three notable omissions in the line of ancestors—the vile kings Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah, all of whom “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”—there are five remarkable additions. While highly unusual to mention women in a genealogy, Matthew mentions five women of rather questionable reputations.

We start with Tamar. Widow of Judah’s son Er, she was done wrong both by her brother-in-law Onan and father-in-law Judah. Taking matters into her hands and pretending to be a prostitute, she duped Judah into having sex with her and gave birth to Perez and Zerah. Her unconventional behavior is a blemish on the family tree but it’s nothing when compared to the next woman mentioned: Rahab. Although she saved Joshua’s spies in Jericho and married an Israelite, she’d been a Canaanite prostitute. making her another blot on the pedigree of the Prince of Peace. Ruth, the widow who accompanied Naomi back to Bethlehem, is the next woman mentioned. This devoted daughter-in-law and grandmother to King David was a hated Moabite. Because Moab had opposed the Israelites and tried to curse them, her people were cursed and could not enter into the assembly. A hated foreigner is hardly the ancestor you’d expect of the man who came to save the Jews. We then come to Bathsheba; whether the innocent victim of rape or a seductive adulteress, her husband was murdered by King David and her first child conceived in adultery. While we know little more of her, we’ve got the plot line of a soap opera now! The genealogy finishes with Mary, the mother of Jesus: a poor young girl from Nazareth who became pregnant before marriage!

These are hardly the kind of women about whom a good Jew would boast: a woman who used sex to trick a man, a prostitute from Canaan, a cursed Moabite, an adulteress, and an unwed mother! After neglecting to mention three kings, why did Matthew include these women? If women were to be mentioned at all, there must have been a few upstanding ones whose reputations were without blemish. Yet, in Tamar, we have a woman who sought justice on her own terms; in Rahab, a woman with enough faith in the Israelites’ God to commit treason; in Ruth, a woman who abandoned her pagan gods and became a sacrificial servant to Naomi; in Bathsheba, a woman resilient in the face of the loss of both husband and child; and in Mary, a woman who faced scorn and shame because of other peoples’ assumptions. Damaged and vulnerable, these are the kind of people to whom we all can relate.

Matthew’s list tells us that Jesus came for all people: men and women, rich and poor, native and foreigner, accepted and unwelcome, famous and infamous, strong and weak, honored and scorned, Jews and Gentiles: sinners all. He came to save each and every one of us and to make us members of the same family! Thank you, God, for the Christmas gift of salvation for all who believe.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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NICODEMUS

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NLT)]

impatiens flowerWhen we think of the Pharisees, we usually think of their hypocrisy and self-righteousness but they started out with good motives. Like us, they simply wanted to avoid sin. I have no doubt that some were well meaning, with high standards and pure motives. Since Jesus was teaching in the Temple, it was only right that these interpreters of the law would want to examine His teachings.

The Pharisee Nicodemus came to visit Jesus one night. Since Jesus seemed to spend his days surrounded by a crowd, the dark of night may have been the only time the Pharisee could meet one-on-one with the rabbi. On the other hand, perhaps he was afraid that others might see him talking to this teacher who challenged the behavior and beliefs of his sect. Nicodemus may have come as a seeker of truth or, possibly, as a spy who was hoping to catch Jesus in some sort of blasphemy. We don’t know his motives, only his questions, the most famous of which was, “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

When Jesus speaks of being born of water and the Spirit, this concept should not have been new to a scholar like Nicodemus. Jesus probably was referencing the above words found in Ezekiel 36 and the Pharisee should have been familiar with them. Yet, the man did not seem to understand that the Messiah would bring spiritual cleansing and a new heart—a new nature—to the people. I can imagine Jesus’s frustration as He rebuked the scholar for not recognizing that Scripture taught the necessity of a new birth by the Spirit. Their conversation ends with Jesus speaking of God’s light and people preferring darkness to light. Still not understanding, Nicodemus leaves in the darkness both of night and of spirit.

The next time we hear of Nicodemus, he’s in a meeting with the Sanhedrin. The Temple guards had been sent to arrest Jesus but, amazed at His teachings and unable to find any cause, they come back empty-handed. As the Pharisees condemn and curse the crowd following Jesus, Nicodemus speaks up: “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” [John 7:51] Could it be that Nicodemus reread the Messianic prophecies and was beginning to understand the meaning of Jesus’s words?

The last time we meet Nicodemus, he is with Joseph of Arimathea. A member of the Sanhedrin and Nicodemus’s friend, Joseph was probably a Pharisee; yet we read that he also was a secret disciple of Jesus. It was Joseph, not the disciples, who asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’s body and it was his tomb that became the brief resting place for Christ’s body. Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe with which he and Joseph prepared the Lord’s body for burial. No longer secret believers, it would seem that both Nicodemus and Joseph moved from the darkness into the light.

The Apostle John tells us that other Jewish leaders believed in Jesus but, fearing they’d be expelled from the synagogue, they kept silent. [12:42] Are we secret believers, keeping silent in the shadows or, like Nicodemus and Joseph, Peter and John, will we boldly proclaim our faith?

So they [the high council] called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” … Then they preached the word of God with boldness. [Acts 4:18-19,31b (NLT)]

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PUT IN ORDER

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-23 (NLT)]

bird houseIn both Matthew 12 and Luke 11, Jesus tells a rather confusing parable about a demon. After leaving a person, it searches for rest; finding none, the demon returns to its former home. Discovering it empty, swept, and in order, the demon brings seven more demons to live there. A rather puzzling parable, I can’t help but think of the phrase, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” First postulated in 485 BC by Parminedes and restated around 350 BC by Aristotle, it states that empty space is unnatural and goes against the laws of physics; therefore, every empty space in nature needs to be filled. I know nothing of vacuum theory, physics, or thermodynamics but, from this parable, it appears that sin abhors an empty mind or, as my mother used to say, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground!” I don’t know if Jesus was familiar with the Greek philosophers but, having exorcised several demons, he certainly was familiar with them. Empty minds and hearts must be filled by something—if not by God and good, then sin and evil.

Nevertheless, there seems to be more to this parable. Having just healed a demon-possessed man, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, people he frequently criticized for being more concerned with appearing righteous than actually being righteous. When reading that the house had been put in order, we probably think of it as neat and organized (like a file cabinet). The original Greek, however, used the word kosmeo which means to adorn, beautify or make attractive by having the right arrangement and the King James translation, which uses “garnished” instead of “put in order,” is probably closer to the original meaning. Kosmeo is the root word of cosmetics. While make-up may conceal, enhance, and even deceive, it does not change the underlying reality. The house may have looked good but the demons weren’t tricked and moved right back in. Sin isn’t deceived by appearances and will always return to hollow hearts and empty lives. Although God will take away our sins and banish our demons, it’s not enough to sweep out the old and redecorate; we must fill our lives with the new!

While they may look fine from the street, empty homes don’t do well; eventually they succumb to vermin like ants, box elder bugs, flies, termites, dust, spiders, mold, leaks, and dry rot. Empty lives are no different; they soon will be filled with demons like selfishness, anger, greed, addiction, pride, lust, pessimism, scorn, envy, prejudice and hate. But, if those same lives are filled with the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that come from the Holy Spirit, there will be no room for demons.

The first and the great work of a Christian is about his heart. Do not be content with seeming to do good in “outward acts” while your heart is bad, and you are a stranger to the greater internal heart duties. See that your chief study be about your heart—that there God’s image may be planted; that there His interests be advanced; that there the world and flesh are subdued; that there the love of every sin is cast out; that there the love of holiness grows. [Jonathan Edwards]

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. [1 Peter 1:18-19 (NLT)]

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THE NEXT STEP

Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. … This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5: 14b-15,17 (NLT)]

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]

waterfallIn writing about the Sinner’s Prayer yesterday, I wondered if, by saying it, a new believer gets the false impression that his responsibility ends with a prayer when, in fact, it has just begun! Justification takes only a moment but sanctification takes a lifetime. Addressing the guilt of our sins, justification is when, by the grace of God, we are made righteous through God’s grace and our faith. It’s as if we’re guilty criminals, standing in God’s courtroom, and God pardons us. Telling us our debt to society has been paid, He sets us free. While it’s easy to walk out of the courthouse, it’s not so easy to alter the behavior that led to our life of crime. Like any felon, we need to change our ways, which is where sanctification comes in. Rather than the reformation of a criminal, it is the transformation of a sinner.

Powered by our faith and the Holy Spirit, sanctification transforms our sinful character so we grow more and more like Christ. Focusing on the destructive power of sin in our lives, it gradually shapes our hearts, minds, and desires to those of God. Sanctification is the work part of our salvation and requires diligence in study, prayer, fellowship, witness and service. It’s coming to know Jesus, loving and obeying God, and letting both His word and the Holy Spirit convict us when we sin. It’s allowing God to work in and through us, not as a way to earn His blessings and favor, but because we delight in His will.

While holiness is the goal of sanctification, I don’t think any mortal can live a life completely free from sin in this world. Nevertheless, even though we can’t attain sinless perfection, like the Apostle Paul, we will continue to struggle against sin and temptation as long as we’re on this side of the grass. We persevere and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to grow more and more like Christ every day.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12b-13 (NLT)]

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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THE SINNER’S PRAYER

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 2:38 (ESV)]

anenome - Canada or meadowIn a book about evangelism I read, the author wrote of bringing a new believer into his office and the two of them saying the Sinner’s Prayer. After the new believer repeated the Pastor’s words, he was pronounced saved. While there is no official version, the prayer probably went something like this: “God, I know that I am a sinner and that I deserve to go to hell. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I do now receive Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen.” Since many evangelical Christians speak of saying some sort of prayer like this at the moment of conversion, I wondered if a specific “Sinner’s Prayer” is a requirement for salvation.

If a special prayer is required, we should find it in the Bible yet, while we find lots of prayers, there doesn’t appear to be a prayer prerequisite for salvation. Jesus told the sinful woman who kissed and anointed his feet that her faith had saved her, the woman with the bleeding disorder that her faith made her well, and the blind men that their faith gave them sight. When the 3,000 were converted at Pentecost, Peter told the people to repent of their sins, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. After hearing the gospel from Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized. After speaking with Ananias, Saul regained his sight and was baptized. While Peter preached the gospel to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and they all were baptized. In none of these cases is there mention of a special prayer before conversion, asking for salvation or taking Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior. The people believed, repented, and were baptized. If a special prayer is required for Christ’s salvation, I’m pretty sure it would have been included in Scripture and it isn’t.

Nevertheless, it is Biblical to repentantly pray and ask for forgiveness; what’s not Biblical is to say salvation comes because of a prayer. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith. We are justified by faith, not by works and certainly not by words. Even so, there’s nothing inherently wrong with praying some sort of sinner’s prayer at conversion—unless, of course, the person praying isn’t called by the Holy Spirit and genuinely repentant. When empty of faith, that prayer is meaningless and gives the person praying it a false (and dangerous) sense of security. Merely saying a version of the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t like purchasing an insurance policy guaranteeing salvation and eternal life. Even repeating dozens of prayers can’t save us. We’re not saved by the words of a prayer but by the genuine repentance and faith behind the prayer. As Christians, we don’t put our trust in words but in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

In actuality, since we’re all sinners, every prayer we say is a sinner’s prayer. Nevertheless, our faith, hope and assurance should not be in the prayers we say but rather in the God who hears our prayers.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)]

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:8-10 (ESV)]

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COME IN AT THE GATE

Such people claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good. [Titus 1:16 (NLT)]

enter by the gateI’ve been reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I vaguely remember reading some of this 1678 allegory in senior English class but that time it was in the original Middle English (the language of the King James Bible) and difficult to read. Although I thought myself a Christian, I was unfamiliar with most of the biblical references and concepts. In reality, all I wanted to do was to get through it (along with Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses). With less pressure, more biblical knowledge, and an annotated modern version, I’m actually enjoying the tale of Christian: a man who leaves his home in the City of Destruction in search of the Celestial City.

Even without footnotes, I recognized the gate when Christian arrived there and understood Goodwill’s welcoming words: “In spite of everything people have done before they come here, we make no objections against anyone. No one will ever be driven away.” After warning him about other paths that are wide and crooked, Christian is told he can distinguish the right path because it is straight and narrow.

While on the path, Christian encounters two men who have climbed over the wall. Named Hypocrisy and Formality, they think they’ve found a short-cut to the Way. Hypocrisy, of course, is someone who puts on a mask and pretends to be what he is not. He acts the Christian in public but is an entirely different person in private. He may bring food to the needy on Sunday but beat his wife on Monday. Formality is the man whose religion is based on ritual and rests on outer form. Although he faithfully attends church, fasts, kneels, tithes, takes communion, and wears a cross, He’s only going through the motions. Neither man has a spirit of godliness or a relationship with Christ. With no true faith or repentance, they have built their lives on pride and pomp, appearances and rituals. Coming from the land of Boasting (Vain-Glory in the original), their religion is empty. Thinking that God is as impressed by external appearances as are they, the proud men are going to Mount Zion for praise: not to praise God but rather to be praised!

Satisfied with the appearance of godliness and unwilling to pay the cost of repentance, the two have taken the easy way by climbing over the wall. When Christian tells them that entering that way means the Lord of the Way will consider them thieves, they tell him to mind his own business; no one likes being confronted about their superficial professions of faith. When the men come to the hill called Difficulty, the narrow path leads straight up the hill. Seeing how steep it is, Formality and Hypocrisy choose the easy paths that seem to go around the hill while Christian climbs it. Having chosen the paths of Danger and Destruction, unlike Christian, those two will not reach the Celestial City.

This part of Bunyan’s tale hit home because we just finished a sermon series about the “cultural” Christian or what Craig Groeschel calls the “Christian atheist.” Like Hypocrisy and Formality, the cultural Christian believes in God but doesn’t know Him, lives as if He doesn’t exist, won’t recognize his deceptive and shallow faith, and follows laws and ordinances without following the Way. Bunyan’s is a cautionary tale as are Jesus’s words about the gate and narrow path. There are no shortcuts to salvation and the narrow road is not one of ease; nevertheless, the journey is worth it!

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. [Matthew 7:13-14 (NLT)]

I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! … Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. [John 10:1,9-10 (NLT)]

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