Choose to Grow

Anything that is not growing is dying.  We are made to grow.  The very idea of lif life, especially abundant life, means that it is necessary to grow.  Sometimes, because of events in your life, growth is automatic, but most of the time, we have to choose to grow. 

You are saved by grace and reckoned as righteous by Christ’s sinless perfection.  But you still have to grow.  If you don’t like it, consider that Jesus was perfect, but still needed to grow. This may surprise you, but it’s true.  

The Bible says that he was made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10). This begs the question. What was he before he was perfect?  In a sense, of course, he was already perfect.  Like a baby is perfect but still has a long way to go toward growing up.  In fact, Jesus was a baby at one point. As such, he could not talk, could not walk, could not do anything.  Like all babies, he had a long way to grow.  One day, his consciousness, that is, his ability to perceive, developed just to the point where he could build some minor concepts.  He would have been sitting there looking at the other kids who were slightly older than him, and he would have noticed some things. First, that they were a lot like him.  Two legs, two arms, hair, fingers, crying, eating, pooping.  He would realize that unlike the family goat, he had a lot in common with these kids.

But these other kids were slightly different than him. They didn’t crawl anymore.  That one there used to crawl, but now she’s doing something similar to his mother and father, the big people.  She is walking on two legs, upright. That created a longing in toddler Jesus.  Was it insecurity?  No. He was morally and emotionally perfect.  It was not sinful envy. But it was longing.  This new desire formed from the understanding that he could not do something, although he wanted to.   So, the next time he was able to pull himself up onto something, he took a step. 

What do you think happened to the glorious Savior of the world then? I think he crashed to the ground, and maybe he cried, until his adopted father, Joseph, having proudly watched the whole thing, came over, patted his head fondly, and stood him back up.

This likely happened again and again, until one day, Jesus was no longer a person who needed to learn how to walk. He had gone from a perfect being who crawled to a perfect being who walked. And this is one of the wonderful things about being a human. You can always grow, and the fact that you need to does not necessarily mean that you are less than perfect as you are. I am not saying you are perfect, but the fact you have to grow doesn’t prove that you are not perfect. It only proves that there is something you can learn, something you can grow in.  And to understand this is pure joy.  Have you ever seen the look on a baby’s face when he or she walks for the first time?  If you want to know what delight looks like, there it is.  

Now, by the way, this is a good time for a complicated thought:  What else usually happens in this moment that intensifies the emotion?  The baby is there and mom, dad, brother, sister, other sister, Aunt Peggy, and the UPS guy all happen to be there when this happens and what do they do?  They go crazy. They clap. They smile. They yell, “Good job! You’re amazing!”  The difference between you and Jesus is that somehow, perfect baby Jesus delighted in his accomplishment, and you (and I) got taken over by love for the praise of man (unless you are a lucky sociopath).  

This confuses everything.  Along with stern disapproval when they didn’t like what we were doing, we learned to do things to please others, or, we learned it was impossible to please others as much as our hearts wanted to, so we gave up and rebelled, which is two sides of the same coin of living for other people. There is a right way to live for others, generously, Christlike, and there is a wrong, and much, much more common way.  

But for now, just understand that growing is a part of life, and I would say a fun part, a rewarding and fulfilling part. Mastering things that were once hard is a superpower for building self-esteem and confidence.  

Wait!  Doesn’t that make it an idol?! Don’t preachers say that I need to find my esteem and confidence in what Jesus has done, and not what I do?

Now can you see why so many Christians are messed up?  We are hardwired by God to love a life of growth, but because of sin and bad (but well-meaning) parenting, we trade that for a life of seeking approval and praise from others.  And it is true that our primary identity is in Christ and in our Creator, after whom and by whom we are designed.  But here is an interesting question:  Did Christ build a false identity around walking?  Did he start announcing to everyone on Facebook that he was a walker? Did he go out and buy all the trendiest walking gear, shoes, ski poles with rubber on the end, T-shirts and bumper stickers for his car that announce to the world what he was about, walking.  No, he did not make an identity or a religion out of his new skill.  We would have done that, because we were born in sin, and so were our parents. But Christ did not. He was perfect.  

But that does not mean that mastering the skill didn’t give him some self esteem and confidence that informed his thinking when he noticed the next deficit.

Talking

“Why does it seem that the older kids seem to be saying something to each other? All I say is goo goo ga ga. What if my mom is actually trying to communicate with me and is not just making random noises? I need to learn. I am compelled to learn.” And just like you, learn he did. Then it was using the bathroom somewhere besides his diaper. Eventually it was using a mallet, and a saw. Joseph, his earthly adopted feather, was a carpenter. I’m sure that fairly early on it was reading Hebrew, then understanding the law and prophets so that by twelve Jesus could lose time in his Father’s house in Jerusalem conversing with the scribes about his Father in heaven. The Bible tells us that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature” (Lk 2:52).

And then what does it mean that he had to grow perfect through suffering?  Perfect in what way if he was already sinless?  It seems to mean that he had to suffer in order to be prepared for the ultimate suffering of taking on the sins of the world as the sacrificial Lamb of God.  Tortured. Broken. Filled with the filth of sin, which he had never experienced—my anger, my lust, my envy, my hatred, mine and yours and Adam’s and everyone else’s.  He had to endure a temporarily broken fellowship with his beloved Father in Heaven who had always been with him.   

Jesus was grown into the ability to endure all this.  He did not want to do any of it, but it was what he came to do.  In the garden of Gethsemane he even prayed that the cup of God’s wrath would pass if possible, but it was not possible.  God had to be just and the justifier.  There was apparently only one way to wipe the great sin of the world away, and God had been preparing the consciousness of the Hebrews for hundreds of years with the law and the sacrificial system.  It was time, and Jesus would say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” 

For you and I it is no less a process of growth to become what God made us to be.  Jesus deals with the sin in us, but we still have to grow spiritually. We are already perfect when we believe and put our faith in Jesus’ work to save us, repenting of our sin.  We are made into a new creation having received the righteousness of Christ as sure as he received in himself unrighteousness of us.  But we need to grow. You are perfect, but you need to and you can grow.   

See yourself right, and see your need for growth right.  Fellowship (verb) with God, abide in him (Jn 5:4), and look for what is next. What is he doing in you?  Do you still have unforgiveness? Grow. Do you still have anger?  Grow in love.  Do you still worry?  Grow in peace and trusting God.  Do you still find yourself seeking approval?  Grow in looking to what God has already done and to your own honest evaluation of yourself.  

Work with God on the things you see that need to change, and learn to delight in progress the way you did as a baby learning to walk.

But you are not alone in this. You have teachers. You have brothers and sisters in Christ. You have examples to follow. You have the Bible to learn from. And best of all, you have the Spirit of God living in you, by whom you can live and grow by his strength and direction. Choose growth and choose life. Let’s talk tomorrow about how the Holy Spirit enables us to do this.

How Jesus Restores Mankind Part 5, Anxiety about Provision

In part one of this post, we learned of the Gospel and the restoration that Jesus bought for us on the cross. We learned about the atonement that Jesus, fully God and fully man due to his birth to a virgin by the Holy Spirit, accomplished, bringing us peace with God.  This was the most crucial step toward healing the world and mankind of the effects of the fall and Adam’s rebellion. 

We learned that Jesus paid for all our sins, and that he showed us what it truly meant to be human, what it was supposed to have meant all along to be an image-bearer of God put on the earth with authority to create and rule.  When we believe and put our faith in Jesus, he causes us to become a new creation, no longer enslaved to the sin that bound us and kept us from pursuing life for the glory of God, or our own sake, and more importantly, for his sake and his glory.  Because we have been made new, we can begin to live the way God intended.  

Then we began to look at the sermon on the mount to see what Jesus considered to be the mindset and attitude of a godly image-bearer.  We learned that the inward condition of the heart is more important than the outward actions.  In general, our outward actions will be a reflection of our inward state. But in our fallenness, we often have some dishonest and selfish reasons to put on an outward show.  Whether it is about controlling anger and lust, giving or fasting in secret, taking oaths, loving our enemies, or anything else, why we obey God is more important than that we obey him.  True belief will lead to an obedience that is not done for the reward of the praise of men.  Rather, true belief leads to an obedience born out of the certainty that to obey God is the abundant life. It will lead to good results, but more profoundly obedience is the good result.  It is the reward, because it means that we are free from the necessity of sin, or what Jesus called, “slavery to sin” (Jn 8:34).  

Seeking the Kingdom

Now we will look further into the sermon on the mount, away from deeds practiced to be seen by others, and into states of being, states of the heart.  Look now at Matthew 6:19-21:

19 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

And then, in 24:

24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Now Jesus is talking about one of his favorite subjects, money. He doesn’t seem to be speaking of it in the same terms as he was in Matthew 5.  There the emphasis was on the nature of giving and why you should not give to charity in order to be seen by men.  Here it seems Jesus has in mind the heart attitude that loves money for its own sake.  Whether the issue is the desire for luxury and comfort or security and status, the issue is the same. You can’t take money with you into heaven, and you cannot serve money and the accumulation of wealth without becoming a slave to it, a worshiper of it.  And if you worship money, you do not worship God; in fact. you will despise him for getting in the way of your money-making.  

You may have heard that money is evil.  It is not, just as it is not the root of all evil.  “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6 ), but even then, you need to understand that money itself is neutral.  Here’s what happened. When men accumulated on the earth, they likely struggled with one another because of sin. But at some point, sinful though they were, they realized that they could trade with one another value for value.  One had a pig he didn’t need, and the other had a bundle of spears he wasn’t using. “How many spears will you give me for this pig,” said one.  “Twelve,” said the other. And they made a good trade. The pig was more valuable to the new owner because he needed it, and the same goes for the spears.  At some point, someone figured out that they could substitute metal and jewels for products, because it was hard to carry a pig to the spear market every time you wanted to shop.  But if a pig is worth three pieces of metal, then the pig farmer could carry twelve small pieces of metal that would represent four pigs.  This is much easier than carrying four pigs.  And money was born.  

Money wasn’t in itself a problem, because you could be as greedy for pigs or spears as you are for money.  Love of money is the problem, because greed is the problem, and money is usually associated with it. But if you took away money and currency and still had bartering, you’d still have a greed problem.  The love of money may be a root of all kinds of evil, but greed is the root of evil concerning money.  Jesus used money. Jesus was not evil, so he used money in a way that was not evil.  

Now that that’s out of the way, what is Jesus warning against? It seems that, although Jesus often addressed the issue of accumulating wealth for the sake of appearances and status seeking, here he seems to be speaking simply of the security that one feels will be attained by the accumulation of wealth.  In this case, the admonition is against laying “up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (19). The reason has to do with the heart.  Profoundly, he points out in verse 21 that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Instead he counsels to lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.  It’s easy to think that Jesus simply means give all your money away to charity and you’ll be rewarded in heaven.  But we know that God expects us to provide for ourselves (2 Thes 3:10), and for our families (1 Tim 5:8). We know that if our rent is due Friday, but we get paid Monday, we need to save our rent money at least until Friday in order to be good stewards and show good character to our landlords, reflecting well on the God we serve.  

Surely it does mean, to some extent, that we would give money away.  That seems like common sense.  But it also means using the money for what money is used for, which Jesus and his disciples did, but in a way that displays trust in God and keeps him first, our purposes in him second, and money, only as a neutral tool in the process. In verse 24 it says that, “No one can serve two masters…you cannot serve both God and money.” If God is your master, then you are his servant.  As his servant, make money your servant, so you can fulfill your job as his servant.  

This really started to make sense to me when I realized something about the responsibility I have at the church where I serve as an elder and pastor.  One of the responsibilities of our elder board is to steward the money that the members give to the church. We pay the rent on the building, staff salaries, insurance premiums, giving outside the church, and a host of other things that a nonprofit “business” like a church needs to operate.  I have a hand in both budgeting that money and spending it.  And, compared to my personal finances, it is a whole lot of money to manage. Over the years I’ve stewarded millions of dollars for the purposes of the church.  Here’s the thing: 

I’ve never once been confused about whose money it was.  It was not mine, although I helped manage it. 

It belongs to God and his church for the purposes that he has called us to in our city. Simple as that. For me to help myself to some of it (I do get a salary by the church.  I have nothing to do with what I am compensated. There are other men responsible for that) would be evil and wrong, theft even. It would disqualify me from ministry and qualify me for prison.  

It occurred to me one day that my personal finances should be thought of in the exact same way. 

My money is primarily God’s money, for God’s purposes for my life. This includes provision for me and my family, investment in business and mission work, and investment for the future care of my needs if possible (retirement), so that no one else has to supply it.  When the leaders of our church are planning and praying for God’s leading in direction for our church and the mission we’re on, profit is never a consideration. Paying the bills is.  Keeping our agreements with landlords and vendors is. Maybe building a reserve amount to have in case of emergency is.  But building a wealthy church is not anyone’s goal, nor should it be.  The same goes for personal finances.  Seeking to make a profit as a good steward is right and good, but trying to rich for the sake of getting rich is never the point. 

With the church’s money we budget faithfully and somewhat conservatively so that we are financially healthy. We follow biblical principles, operate honestly and wisely, and trust God completely. Tomorrow we will look in part 6 at the next section, which shows how Jesus wants his people as individuals to think the exact same way, especially the part about trusting God completely.

How Jesus Restores Mankind Part 3, on Lust and Sexuality

Yesterday we took a look at how Jesus redefines the severity of the anger problem, tying it to the heart behind hatred and murder. After his discourse on anger, Jesus moves to the topic of lust with an equally devastating redefinition.  

27 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:27-28). 

For obvious reasons, this is devastating to those who, while they haven’t acted on their desires, have entertained thoughts and fantasies.  But why?  Doesn’t it mean something that we control our impulses to act, and relegate lust to feelings and thoughts? Perhaps, but again, let’s not assume that Jesus is only saying this in order to make us see how bad we are and drive us to the cross and our need for a savior.  Let’s assume that he wants us to have total freedom in this area.  

Why does it matter to God what we do with our minds and hearts?  The answer is that God doesn’t just care what we look like. He cares about who we are. He made us in his image to show the world what he is like, especially those of us who he has saved and filled with his Holy Spirit.  To entertain lustful thoughts, we must forget all that.  We must be like animals who don’t think, just move by instinct.  We must suspend our God-given abilities to step back and consider what is best. Not what is easy, fun, or what would satisfy our momentary craving, but what is best.  Is it good for us to forsake in our minds God’s desire for us to be pure?  Should we rebel against God by ignoring his instruction on sexual purity?

God created sex, and he designed the idea of romantic relationships.  How happy Adam must have been when God woke him up and presented him with the wife that he created from Adam’s own body.  “This is now flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone” (Gen 2:23). I can’t even imagine the joy of discovery that ensued.  This is God’s desire for all of us unless he specifically calls us to singleness (Mt 19:12).  It is a gift, a mind blowing gift.  There is no reason whatsoever to pervert that gift by using it in a lesser, cheaper way than how he intended it. Pornography is cheap. It does damage to us in so many ways, not to mention exploiting the brokenness of some young woman who doesn’t know God and has sold herself cheap.  Prostitution is even worse.  But even just plain old fashioned premarital sex doesn’t come close to the good design God has for love and relationship in a marriage.  It is a pathway to destruction of a relationship, to mistrust, to conflict. If you get married to the person you are crossing those lines with, there will be years of pain and mistrust to overcome together. Nothing is impossible with God, but it is usually very difficult to overcome. 

Jesus doubles down on this point and says that to look “at a woman with lustful intent” is to already commit adultery with her.  The same goes for women looking at men with lustful intent.  When you do that, man or woman, what does that say about the position of your heart?  What does that say about the belief that God is in your mind and sees what you see, hears what you think, and knows what you are?  If you can know Jesus’s words and ignore them, then I have to assume there is a good chance you don’t actually believe any of it.  God is watching. Always. To fear God is to believe that is true. To love God is to care what he thinks and love to please him.  But there is more to it than the fact that perversion dishonors the God who watches.  

Jesus is showing us the way to freedom.  

Do you want sexual freedom in the area of your actions?  Then get sexual freedom in the area of your thoughts.  The good news is not that God doesn’t want you to think about those things, perverting your spirit and dishonoring his, but that God has actually set you free from the compulsion to do those things, to think those things. Furthermore, he has something much, much better for you if you are married, especially if both of you are believers.  Do it right, and learn this.  

But maybe you aren’t married. Maybe you have no spiritually viable outlets for sexuality. Neither did Jesus. He was a single guy. Do you think he kept himself in check by repression? I don’t think so. I think Jesus understood reality well enough to know that even sex that is within the confines of holy matrimony is not the end all be all of abundant life. He knew that the love of a woman is not the greatest love of all; it is not the key to happiness and joy that our current culture believes that it is. This is one of Satan’s greatest lies. From what the Bible says, there will be no sex in heaven. No marriage (Mt 22:30). So, that tells me that what there is in terms of love and fulfillment is much, much greater. Jesus would have us see that now, take sex off of its current pedestal and start living. Romantic love pales in comparison to agape the love of the Father, the love for God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and the love for our neighbor as our self. It is the love that we must subordinate even the romantic love of our spouses to, if we are to have a godly, and healthy, even a romantically fulfilling marriage.

If all this sounds difficult and sacrificial, remember that Jesus is talking about freedom. What’s not to love about freedom? He came, lived, and died to set you free from sexual sin. Believe, and go free. Let’s talk more tomorrow about the sermon on the mount and what Jesus had to say about giving, praying, and fasting in secret

How Jesus Restores Mankind

A virgin teenage girl, named Mary, was visited in her room by an angel, Gabriel. He told her that the Messiah, the savior, that the Jewish people had been awaiting for centuries was finally coming, and she would be his mother.  This was startling and more than a little puzzling, because, as she said, “I am a virgin”. The messenger explained that God, the Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the Trinity, would overshadow her and she would be impregnated with the Son of God. In this way her son would be fully God and fully man.  Whether or not Mary realized it at the time, this fact was crucial to the whole rescue plan that God had had since the beginning.  

Jesus would come to save the lost, and that means a whole host of things beyond that we will go to heaven for believing — no small thing.  But it also means that we can be restored to the image of God according to his original intention, and that we can be a part of restoring the world in the same way, both here in this age in some limited capacity, and certainly in the next when Jesus returns.  Let’s look at four main aspects of Jesus’ ministry to see what he has done, and how we can apply it to our lives in order to begin living the life that God has called us to.  These are the atonement, the teaching of Jesus, particularly in the sermon on the mount, the understanding of losing our life to find our Life, and coming of the Holy Spirit for empowerment and abiding in Christ. 

The Atonement

The first and most important aspect of Jesus’s life is that he was born to die. In my very first blog post I said that God is the great I AM. This means that he not only exists, he is the source of all life, goodness, and laws about the way things are, from physics, chemistry, and math, to philosophy. In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, The Greeks may have thought of this as simply reason, but it is much more than that. John 1:14 says this Logos, the “Word, became flesh and dwelt among us.” All that God is, and all that is true is embodied in this. Truth flows from God. That two plus two equals four flows from God. Love in all its forms flows from God. Justice flows from God. Value flows from God. Life flows from God. Light flows from God. Glory flows from God, who is the standard of all glory.

God is the source of all truth and justice. As such he can only be perfect.  He is perfect in every way, but particularly in the realm of justice.  He does all things in a way that is right, or righteous.  It is very hard for humans, who are not perfect, to grasp this fact and why there needed to be a substitutionary sacrifice for the evil that is in the world, the imperfection which is an affront to the Creator.  The Father, like the father of the prodigal son, waits and longs for our return to him and to his way of existing, which is not only perfect, good, and righteous, but designed for human flourishing to the glory of God. 

There must be a just way to restore creation without himself acting unjustly. This is why Jesus had to be fully man — so that as a man he could restore men — and fully God — so that he could actually accomplish a sinless life, making himself the only proper sacrificial lamb for all time. The Bible says the law could not accomplish it because men could not keep the law. But the righteousness of God was manifested “apart from the law” in Jesus Christ (Ro 3:21) so he could be the just and the justifier (Ro 3:26), meaning God could be the one who demands justice, but also, lovingly, provides justice. Jesus lived a life of perfection, though he was tempted like us. He never once sinned. Satan tempted him and he never once gave in to temptation.

Then, he allowed sinful men to arrest him. He watched his friends abandon him like cowards. He stood silently as his enemies mocked him, beat him, and gave him a farce of a trial, a formality, and then they killed him by crucifixion, hanging him by nails in his hands and feet up on a Roman cross. The Lord of Glory was killed for our transgressions, uttering with his last breaths, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they are doing.”

And so his followers could later go back to Jesus’s words to Niccodemus in John 3:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Whoever believes in him, meaning, whoever believes that they are a sinner and in need of a savior, and puts their faith in Jesus, will have everlasting life. They will go to heaven forever when they die, or Jesus returns. Whoever does not believe, will remain condemned. As John the Baptist would say in the same chapter,

“36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (Jn 3:36).

So we are saved for eternity from the justice of God to come, but too often this is thought of as, eternal life will start when I am dead. But this is not the case. Eternal life begins at regeneration. This is the nature of this eternal life. The first and most important step is to trust Jesus for salvation and new life. The Bible says that when we are saved we are made into a new creation, to walk in the newness of life.

Later we’ll start a multi-part series of articles that get into the Sermon on the Mount in order to think through some of the key teaching points in Jesus’ ministry. These have great significance for how we deal with the problem of being fallen and broken in the image of God