Bible meditations

Ascension and Pentecost IV: The Ascended Christ Sends the Indwelling Spirit

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7–8).

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

(This is Part 4 of a series. Part 3 appears here.)

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Stained glass depiction of the Great Commission, at the Cathedral Parish of Saint Patrick in El Paso. By Lyricmac at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

As we saw in an earlier message, Jesus breathed on His disciples and told them to receive the Holy Spirit on the night following His resurrection (John 20:22). This reception of the Holy Spirit was essential to their work of proclaiming the Gospel. He told them to receive the Holy Spirit; then they could go forth and preach. In Acts 1:4–8, Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them before going out to preach.

We often speak of Pentecost as “the birthday of the church” because it is the day when the disciples received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and began to fulfill the Great Commission (see Acts 2, especially verses 1–4 and 37–41).

Entire books have been written about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and the believer, so this will be a very brief synopsis (if the Lord allows, I will write a more thorough series about the Holy Spirit one of these days). This conclusion to this series will show how the indwelling Holy Spirit provides our connection with the ascended Lord Jesus Christ and enables us to observe all that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:19–20).

As I have written several times in this series, several key themes tie the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost together. Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit tie Jesus’ transcendent power and glory closely together with His immanent and permanent presence in the believer’s life.

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

In the upper room discourse, Jesus said that He would ask the Father to send the Spirit (John 14:16). After His ascension, they would send the Holy Spirit to fill believers and empower them.

What does the Holy Spirit do in the life of a believer? Jesus lists these roles:

  • He dwells with believers forever, thereby providing a permanent direct link between the Christian and the real presence of God in his life (John 14:16–20).
  • He teaches us and helps us to remember what Jesus has said (John 14:26; 16:13–15).
  • He enables us to experience the peace of God (John 14:27).
  • He bears witness about Jesus to believers so that we are able to bear witness about Him to others (John 15:26–27).
  • Convicts the world regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11).

In Galatians 5:22–23, we read that the Holy Spirit also produces fruit in the lives of believers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

At the end of Mark’s Gospel, we read that several signs will follow the disciples while they proclaim the Gospel. According to several passages in the Acts, these signs are gifts from the Holy Spirit:

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:15–18).

As mentioned earlier, this is just a brief summary. However, we can summarize the Holy Spirit’s work in a Christian’s life as follows:

  • He equips us to preach the Gospel to others.
  • He empowers us to serve Christ.
  • He brings the life of God into our lives so that we can live like beloved children of God, bearing God’s presence in our lives (the fruit of the Spirit).

Before He ascended to heaven, Jesus promised that He would be with us, even to the end of the age. The Holy Spirit brings the presence of Jesus into our lives. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He took a human body with Him. When the Holy Spirit enters our lives, we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and God’s seed abides in us (1 John 3:9). While our bodies continue to preserve their human nature and the DNA we inherited from our earthly parents, we receive a sort of “spiritual DNA” from the heavenly Father Himself.

Ascension reminds us that Jesus is more than we can imagine. Pentecost reminds us that God’s plan is to make us more than we can envision. We are His children. Let us live like it. Let us rejoice in that special relationship we have with Him. Let us “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1), living a life of holiness, forgiveness, and grace that draws others into our spiritual family.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Ascension and Pentecost III. The Gospel of Forgiveness

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:19–23).

(This is Part 3 of a series. Part 2 appears here.)

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Jesus appears to the disciples after His resurrection. By William Hole (1846-1917), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On the night before Jesus died, He gave a final “pep talk” to His disciples, often referred to as “the upper room discourse” (John, chapters 13–17). During that discussion, He went into some depth about a few topics that He had touched on over the past three years: Serving one another; loving others; the promise of everlasting life; the coming, presence, and purpose of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life; and the believers’ responsibility to spread His Gospel.

 

Between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus would go into greater detail on some of these topics. A few subjects that received passing mention earlier in the Gospels take greater emphasis during the 40 days after His resurrection. At that time, He gave them final instructions for continuing His work after He ascended to heaven. On Pentecost, He gave them His Holy Spirit so that they could fulfill those instructions. A few key themes continually arise in His final instructions.

One of the most important, and in many churches least emphasized, elements of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching is the message of forgiveness. Yet, it is central to Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples, and it should be central to our message. As He prepared them for their forthcoming ministry, He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:21–23).

Churches debate what this means. Some Roman Catholics will point to this passage to defend the practice of sacramental confession: according to them, this passage authorizes the priest to pronounce forgiveness of sins to those who confess their sins and request absolution. Some Protestants will say that this is little more than authorization to preach the Gospel so that people may receive forgiveness by believing in Jesus.

The Catholic view I described is definitely an exaggeration of that passage’s teaching; in fact, it is actually a caricature of Catholic teaching about forgiveness (from what I read in a few books and learned from a few devout Catholics). On the other hand, though, the Protestant view above (that Jesus was merely authorizing His disciples to preach the Gospel) seems a little inadequate. He did not say, “If you tell people they are forgiven, they might be forgiven”—but that really is the essence of much evangelical teaching on this subject. However, Jesus implies that the disciples had some kind of authority to extend OR withhold forgiveness in such a way that it is counted that way in heaven. God honors that forgiveness as if He extended it Himself. (I will add that this is an application of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:19, when He told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This had everything to do with preaching and teaching with divine authorization, and nothing to do with “naming and claiming” health and wealth for yourself. It also seems to be related to Matthew 9:8, where, after Jesus healed a paralytic by forgiving his sins, the crowd “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”)

How do we, as ordinary twenty-first century Christians, exercise this authority to forgive? That is a complicated question, but here I offer at least three ways we can extend God’s forgiveness with His authority.

First, we need to actually live the message of forgiveness in our own lives. We need to live, think, and speak as people who know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but who have been fully forgiven of our sins through faith in Jesus. We must live as forgiven people.

Then, we need to forgive others as He has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Instead of harboring bitterness and resentment, we should forgive. Instead of gossiping about the sins and indiscretions of others, we pray for them, with a heart of forgiveness, seeking God’s mercy in their lives. Instead of looking down on those who sin differently than we do, we should forgive and love them, looking on them with mercy and compassion.

We see this in the life of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As he was being stoned to death, his last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). On the basis of John 20:23, it is a safe bet that none of them would have found the sin of killing Stephen held against them when they stand before God’s judgment seat. Furthermore, one of those people whom Stephen forgave (Saul of Tarsus, better known as the apostle Paul) would experience the forgiveness of Christ and become one of its greatest spokesmen.

Finally,  we must proclaim a message of forgiveness:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).

The Gospel we are called to preach contains a few key points: Jesus died for our sins; He rose again; in response to that, we repent of our sins; on the foundation of all that, we receive His forgiveness. St. Paul would later describe it as a “free gift.” If Christ’s work on the cross is absent, it is not the Gospel. If repentance is absent, it is “cheap grace” that tramples the Son of God underfoot (Hebrews 10:29). If forgiveness is absent, we are without hope, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

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In “History of the World,” Moses drops one of the tablets, thereby losing five commandments and leaving us with 10. It seems like many Christians try to add new commandments. Jesus summarized them in two.

The Gospel is not a new set of rules, designed to make us act like we are better than others. The Bible has enough clear commandments: We do not need to add “Thou shalt not listen to this music” or “Thou shalt not dance” (or some of the other extra-canonical commandments that some Christians place on equal footing with the clear teaching of Scripture). In the Mel Brooks movie, “History of the World,” Moses initially comes down from the mountain with three stone tablets, containing 15 commandments, and accidentally drops one (leaving us with 10). Many Christians try to make up for this fumble by adding 666 new sins to the list. Jesus simplified it for us (and yet, in some ways, made it more intensive) by summarizing God’s will in the two commandments to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40).

 

The Gospel is not a self-improvement program either. We do not accept Jesus Christ, then try to fix our lives to make ourselves acceptable to God, out of fear that He will reject us when we fail. We do not improve ourselves to make ourselves acceptable to God. Instead, God accepts us as we are when we come to Him in faith, and then He changes our lives on His own schedule.

This is the Gospel we are called to preach. Jesus died to forgive us. We come to Him to receive that forgiveness. That is why He came, and that is our source of confidence that we will enjoy eternal life with Him. If forgiveness is not at the center of your message, it is the wrong message. And, if the person is responsible for improving himself, it is not the Gospel; Scripture tells us it is the work of the Holy Spirit to improve us.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Ascension and Pentecost II: The Mystery of the Incarnation in Heaven

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:44-51).

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

jesus_ascending_to_heaven(This is part 2 of a series. Part 1 appears here.)

Immediately after Jesus ascended to heaven, while His disciples tried to make sense of all that had happened, two angels appeared with the most important message about end-time prophecy: Jesus will return in exactly the same way He left.

It is important to note that Jesus went to heaven with more than He had before He came to earth! From before the creation of the world, Jesus had been fully God, eternally begotten of the Father. He was the Word who was with God, and who was God (John 1:1). However, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced God’s will for her to be the mother of the Messiah, the most incomprehensible moment in the history of the universe occurred: the fullness of deity dwelled bodily in a single-celled zygote making its way through her reproductive system into her womb (Colossians 1:19). That single cell grew to become the baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, who grew up to be baptized by John the Baptist, to face temptation in the wilderness, to preach the Kingdom of God and perform miracles of healing, and eventually to die for our sins on the cross.

Throughout the approximately 33 years of His life (plus the nine months He grew in Mary’s womb), His deity was hidden or suppressed. Philippians 2:7 tells us that He “emptied Himself.” During that time, He appeared to be an ordinary man. Ancient church creeds summarize this paradox by saying that Jesus was “fully God and fully man.” Although He remained divine throughout His earthly life, it was His humanity that was most visible.

At His Ascension to the right hand of the Father, He returned to heaven with that human body. According to Revelation, He bears the scars of His crucifixion even as He rules and reigns at His Father’s right hand in heaven. He came down as a spirit and took on a body; He lives forever in this glorified state. I realize this is hard to explain and can easily raise doubts in the skeptic’s mind. The same creed that says Jesus is fully God and fully man also says that God is “incomprehensible.” I dare not say (as some do) that this faith is “illogical” or “irrational.” I believe it is, in fact, “hyper-logical” or “super-rational.” It is beyond human comprehension, trapped as we are within the confines of space and time and the limits of our own perception. No matter how hard we try to explain it, or how diligently we struggle to address the paradoxes, we still find ourselves reaching a point where logic and wisdom must surrender to faith. However, I believe that in heaven it will all make sense. I expect that one of the first things I will say in heaven is, “So, that’s how You can be three-in-one. It all makes sense now!”

This truth ties together the core of Christian teaching: That Jesus Christ is fully God (the eternal Son of God) and yet fully human. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a human baby who was, in fact, had existed since before the foundation of the world as the Son of God. During Holy Week, we remember how the Son of God, now manifesting His full humanity, yielded Himself to death on a cross. On Easter, we remember that thanks to His divine nature, He conquered death and rose again. On the Feast of the Ascension, we remember how He ascended bodily into heaven, to completely reclaim His divine glory. And finally, on Pentecost, we celebrate how Christ has sent His Holy Spirit to dwell within His followers, so that we may be partakers of the divine nature.

(Part 3 of this series appears here.)

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

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Ascension and Pentecost I: A Unified Gospel Message

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:44–51).

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:6–11).

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

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Jesus’ ascension into heaven, by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), public domain painting via Wikimedia Commons

On the traditional church calendar, the Easter season lasts 50 days, beginning with Easter Sunday and ending seven weeks later with the Feast of Pentecost. Easter and Pentecost are not merely bookends on a cycle of Scripture readings for Sunday worship. Along with the Feast of the Ascension (on the 40th day of Easter, 10 days before Pentecost), they provide a significant unified summary of the Gospel and its impact on the Christian’s life. This series of articles will examine the message of Ascension and Pentecost, with particular emphasis on how the key themes of these days intertwine.

The passages from Luke and Acts above give the biblical accounts of the Ascension. Jesus had appeared to His disciples periodically during 40 days after His resurrection. Throughout His post-resurrection earthly ministry, His teaching focused on a few key points which are summarized in the above passages (and repeated in the other post-resurrection accounts in the Gospels).

It is helpful to discern the context of these passages. Many Christians think of Matthew 28:18–20 (commonly known as the Great Commission) as an account of the Ascension. However, I think this occurred some time earlier: first, because it occurred in Galilee (Matt. 28:16), which would contradict Luke 24; and second, because Matthew does not mention the Ascension here. Matthew 28:18–20 simply presents some of Jesus’ final instructions for His disciples. It is possible (though uncertain) that this could be the appearance to 500 brethren that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:5.

Luke 24:50–51 tells us that Jesus ascended to heaven from Bethany, a village close to Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, where He had raised Lazarus from the dead. A more in-depth summary of those verses appears in Luke 1:6–11.

Some of Jesus’ key points in His post-resurrection teaching (to be more fully discussed later in this series) are:

  • The significance of the cross in light of Old Testament prophecy
  • The message of forgiveness
  • Jesus’ exaltation, authority, transcendence, and immanence
  • The authority of the Church to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness
  • The role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the Church

You may note that I do not list “end-time prophecy” here, since Jesus specifically told His disciples that the timing of His return was not their concern (Acts 1:6–7). Far too many churches violate Jesus’ clear biblical mandate here by spending too much time claiming to have figured out the entire order of the second coming of Christ, while ignoring the core teaching of the Gospel that Jesus calls us to preach. However, Jesus used their question to focus on the disciples’ role: to receive the Holy Spirit and be His witnesses. I know some Christians who, whenever I ask them what they are studying at church or in their small group, will bounce between “The Book of Revelation” and end-time prophecy. This overemphasis is unbiblical. Our core message, especially to the lost, should be Christ’s work on the cross and the forgiveness of sins. Let us not forget the message He has entrusted to us.

(Part 2 of this series appears here.)

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment
 
 

The Truth Will Set You Free

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

“The truth will set you free” is one of the more familiar quotes from the Bible. Even non-believers know it, and sometimes quote it without realizing that it was originally spoken by Jesus. Yet, many of us saying it without thinking about the context. As a result, we come away with only half of the message, or perhaps a completely incorrect message.

Jesus was speaking to a group of “Jews who had believed him.” Yet, the conversation rapidly deteriorated. Whereas they initially believed Him (verse 31), by the end of the conversation they questioned and challenged Him, then apparently made accusations about His parents’ marital status when He was conceived (John 8:41), accused Him of being a demon-possessed Samaritan (verse 48), and eventually started preparing to stone Him to death (verse 59). Within maybe only five minutes, they went from being almost ready to become disciples to trying to kill Him.

Such is the situation when sin is mentioned. Jesus Christ and His true followers reveal sin so that it can be confessed, leading to repentance and freedom. Yet, many people respond with hostility and hatred.

When Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” his listeners responded, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:33). I can almost picture Jesus staring back at them incredulously, saying, “Um, WHAT? Do you even hear what you’re saying?” The Jewish people were under foreign oppression by the Romans at that time. Their history, recorded in their Old Testament scriptures, was filled with repeated episodes of oppression and exile. A core element of their cultural identity was their deliverance from slavery in Egypt through Moses. For a first-century Jew to say “We have never been enslaved” would be as preposterous as an African-American (particularly, one whose family has been in America since before 1860) making the same claim.

Such is the neurosis of denial. When confronted about sin, we pretend we do not have a problem. We may say that it is not really a sin. Many people today would say that Jesus and the writers of the Bible really did not know what they were talking about; we know better. Science and Oprah have opened our eyes. Or, some people will claim that their circumstances justify an exception to the rules: “I know the Bible says we should not have sex before marriage, but our situation is different because….”

We might admit that it is sin, but not admit that it involves bondage. The Son of God
disagrees: He said, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). The apostle Paul would later expand upon this thought by saying:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:15–18).

Sin brings slavery. Many addicts have come to this awareness. They may have once thought they felt free by drinking alcohol, shooting up heroine, snorting cocaine, or getting whatever “fix” they desired. Eventually, though, as it became a life-controlling obsession, what once felt like freedom proved to be emotional and spiritual shackles, chaining them to a cycle of self-destruction. However, other kinds of sin bring similar bondage. Although many kinds of sin do not involve an obvious chemical dependency, they may become habitual, creating an emotional connection to the sin, and leading to destructive consequences. Even what we think are “little sins” involve some degree of bondage. The shackles may be looser, but they are still there.

Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free. This begins with confession. Many people
associate “confession” with a private booth, where you whisper your secrets to a priest, but that is only one aspect of the word. “Confess” merely translates a Greek word, “homologeo,” which could literally be translated as “say the same thing as” or “acknowledge.” It means to admit something is true. In the context of sin, confession involves admitting that something is a sin and that one is guilty of it. To find freedom, we must confess the truth.

We must confess the truth about ourselves. We must acknowledge our shortcomings, failings, weaknesses, and needs. We have to admit that there is some kind of chain holding us back. We must admit that we need something. In confession, we acknowledge that we have sinned and we stop looking for other people to blame. The Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer of confession that begins like this (as I recall, the Roman Catholic liturgy has a very similar prayer):

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We admit that we have sinned: not that it is someone else’s fault, or “the devil made me do it,” or I am a victim of other people’s plots. Even though all of us have fallen victim to others at some time, there are ways that we have sinned. We need forgiveness. We need freedom. We tighten our own chains when we keep pointing at others’ mistakes while ignoring our own.

But, we cannot stop by confessing our sins. That is a beginning, but if it is all we do, it will lead to despair. The Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death. However, it goes on to tell us that the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). We must confess the truth about Jesus. Jesus’ listeners in John 8 had a hard time accepting that one. They could not accept the notion that He could possibly be greater than their ancestor, Abraham. How could they take the leap to believe that He is the Son of God. Yet, this is essential. We must believe that Jesus is God incarnate. We must believe that through His death on the cross, we have received forgiveness of our sins. We must believe that He is holy, righteous, merciful, and gracious. We must believe that He is love. When we believe these truths, we are free to break free from our chains and run to Him for forgiveness, freedom, and life.

Likewise, we must believe the truth about God and His Word. We must believe that God’s Word is true and that it shows us the way to live in a way that pleases Him.

Finally, we must abide in that truth. We do not use the word “abide” very often nowadays, but it is the basis of our word “abode.” We must live in Jesus’ Word, staying there. To experience freedom and abide in that freedom, we should read and study Jesus’ teachings, meditate upon the Word of God, being doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22).

This is the foundation of freedom. We must admit that we are sinners, accepting the fact that it brings spiritual slavery. However, having admitted that truth, we should acknowledge the truth about Jesus, His Father, and His Word, trusting in Christ’s forgiveness and building our new lives on His Word. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). If you are in bondage, seek freedom in Christ today. If you have found His forgiveness and freedom, continue to walk in it.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Proverbs 7:1–5—Internalizing God’s Word and Wisdom

My son, keep my words
and treasure up my commandments with you;
keep my commandments and live;
keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,
to keep you from the forbidden woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words (Proverbs 7:1–5, ESV).

The_Holy_Bible

Much of Proverbs is King Solomon’s advice to his sons. One day, they would be rulers and leaders in Israel, and Solomon wanted to make certain they were ready. Proverbs addresses many issues: family, other relationships, how to treat the rich or poor, how to use your words wisely, money, work, time management, etc. If you can think of a life issue, it is probably addressed somewhere in Proverbs. (Unfortunately, I doubt Rehoboam, who would replace Solomon as king, was paying attention.)

Solomon taught his proverbs to his sons. God has given His entire Word, the Bible, to His sons and daughters. Are we listening? Or, are we like Rehoboam? When Rehoboam succeeded his father on the throne of Israel, he rejected the wisdom of Solomon and his advisers, and opted for the opinions and advice of his peers with whom he had grown up. The results were disastrous (see 1 Kings 12:1–23). Do we hear and obey God’s Word? Or, like Rehoboam, do we ignore God’s wisdom and choose to follow the opinions and values of current pop culture, the media, the latest Gallup poll, etc.?

Many people hear God’s Word every Sunday, but do not take it to heart. They read it daily, but it does not change their lives. Perhaps they prefer to critique it, or add it to the variety of options from which to choose when a decision must be made. “Will my decisions be based on that Bible passage I read this morning, or that song I heard on a top-40 radio station on my way to work? Maybe I should base my decisions on what I saw on CNN, MSNBC, and/or Fox News last night? Why don’t I just turn on ‘The View’ and see if they can help me decide?”

It is one thing to read God’s Word and store it in your memory. Solomon called his sons to go deeper, and God gives us the same admonition: Don’t just think about it. Absorb it! Write God’s Word “on the tablet of your heart.” Engrave it in your heart, not just in your memory banks.

“Treasure up my commandments with you.” Do we treasure God’s Word? “Treasure” is something we value. It might have monetary value; perhaps it has sentimental value. Maybe it is just a favorite object or item. The things we treasure get special treatment; I might throw junk mail on a table and forget about it until it is time for the paper shredder or trash can. However, my wife and I will make sure that a paycheck, birthday card, picture of our grandchildren, or favorite music CD does not get mixed in with the junk mail. Some things are worth treasuring, while other things are worth running through a paper shredder. If we treasure God’s Word, it will be engraved on our hearts, not shredded in the same corner of our brain where we remember boring television commercials. We will cherish and protect it like the apple of our eyes, the irises; just as we instinctively blink to protect our eyeballs when anything comes near them, we would instinctively cherish and preserve the place God’s Word holds in our hearts.

Do we “bind them on our fingers?” We do not need to do this literally. I remember hearing of people who would place a rubber band on their finger to remember something. However, do we find ways to keep God’s Word on our minds throughout the day?

Is wisdom our sister, or our intimate friend? Or is it just an acquaintance? Are we merely aware of its existence, or do we feel a genuine connection with God’s wisdom, which we are eager to pursue?

God does not want us to simply know His Word. He wants us to internalize it. He wants it to become such a part of our innermost being. As God’s Word abides in us, Jesus abides in us, and we abide in Him. Then, our lives will bear fruit showing that we are God’s children. When His Word is engraved on our hearts, it will flow out in our words, actions, and attitudes:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples (John 15:5–8).

Let us cherish God’s Word and wisdom, preserving it in our hearts that it may preserve us. Let us internalize it, absorbing and digesting it so that it becomes part of who we are.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Word, the Light, and the Lord

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalms 119:105, ESV).

bantry_church_of_st-_brendan_the_navigator_third_north_window_i_am_the_light_of_the_world_detail_2009_09_09

Jesus Christ, the Light of the World and the Word of God incarnate.  Stained-glass window at Church of St. Brendan the Navigator, Bantry, County Cork, Ireland. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en), CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

A few English translations adapt the wording of Psalm 119:105 to say that God’s Word is a “lantern” instead of a lamp. The Living Bible gets even more contemporary, saying “Your words are a flashlight to light the path ahead of me and keep me from stumbling.”

Whether it is a light, a lamp, a lantern, or a flashlight, this anthem to the glory of God’s Word reminds us that the Bible is intended to shed light on our paths and show us how to walk through life. If we cannot see where we are going, we are likely to get lost, trip over things, or crash into obstacles. As we walk by faith and not by sight (an absolute essential in the spiritual life), a light for our path becomes even more necessary.

 

Growing up on Long Island, I was always surrounded by light. Even at night, street lights or the light from neighboring houses would provide a way to see where I was going. An occasional journey out of the New York metropolitan area would provide a reminder of how dark the world can be without electric lights. Riding a bus to Syracuse during my college days, we would pass through some areas where I could see nothing outside the window. Eventually, there would be a faint glow in the distance ahead of us: That glow was the city of Syracuse. Light becomes more obvious when one is surrounded by darkness.

I remember one time when I lived in Missouri, making a pizza delivery on a dark country road outside the city limits. If I turned off the car’s engine, I might have a hard time finding it when returning from the front door of the house! I can only imagine what life was like for our ancestors before the invention of light bulbs and artificial light sources.

The Bible often closely associates God with light. It is an essential part of His nature. Jesus said that He is the “light of the world.” According to Genesis 1:3–5, the very first thing that God created was light. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt under Moses, He would send a pillar of fire to lead the way at night.

John (who also told us that “God is love”) tells us first and foremost that God is light:

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:5–7).

John would later tell us that the glory of God will be the light of the New Jerusalem, and the Lamb of God (Jesus) will be its lamp for all eternity (Revelation 21:23). Jesus shows us the way to the Father. In fact, He IS the way to the Father (John 14:6–7). If we can see Jesus, we see God, and we see the path to follow as we walk into everlasting life.

The Word of God is the light that leads us to God and shows us the path we should walk in. Jesus is the Word. He is the light. He is God incarnate.

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:9–14).

As we read the Bible, we should seek the answers to a few questions:

  • What does this tell us about Jesus? First and foremost, we should seek to know Christ through the Word of God. Jesus said to the religious legalists of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). How many professing Christians make the same mistake today?
  • What is the path that God is calling me to follow today?
  • What obstacles will I face on that path today? (Temptations, distractions, or challenges will come our way.)
  • How can I avoid these obstacles, or get around them, or walk over them?

We should not read the Bible merely to read a good story or learn theology. As we open the Bible, we should ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to us and show us the path through life. God’s Word gives direction. It gives wisdom. It gives life. It reveals Jesus, Who is the very embodiment and personification of that Word and Light.

If you would like to read more thoughts about the light of the world, you can look at this series of posts:

Reflecting the Light of the World

A Prayer Acknowledging Jesus as the Light of the World

Light of the World: Exposing the Deeds of Darkness

Walking in the Light of the World. I: Time and Wisdom

Walking in the Light of the World. II: Filled with the Holy Spirit

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Walking Through the Valleys. II: To the Other Side

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me (Psalm 23:4)

In a previous post, we saw that all believers wander into the valley of the shadow of death from time to time. This is an experience common to all who follow Jesus. Sometimes, we end up in the valley of the shadow of death even though we have faithfully followed our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. This article will continue where we left off.

The second thing to remember in the valley of the shadow of death is that God really is with you. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Even though deep darkness envelops the valley, God is still there, and He sees everything. Unlike humans, many animals see very clearly in the dark. The One who gave night vision to cats, owls, and deer can see in physical, emotional, and spiritual darkness. God sees everything in the valley, and He is able to take care of you even when you cannot see any proof that He exists.

When my ex-wife and I brought our newborn son home from the hospital, he needed to adjust to some new experiences. He had spent nearly one month since his birth in a neonatal intensive care unit, continually surrounded by bright lights and sound. Sleeping in a dark, quiet room was a sudden, completely new experience for him. The first few times we would lay him down and turn out the lights, he would begin to cry. I would just have to say, “It’s OK, Mommy and Daddy are right here.” This seemed to quiet him down. He may not have understood the words, but he knew he was not alone. He did not need to fear.

Be still; take time to pray while you are in the valley, and listen for God’s reassuring voice. The valley may still be dark, but if you hear God’s voice speaking to your spirit through His Word and Spirit, you can rest assured that you are protected.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you (Psalms 139:11–12).

Finally, remember that comfort and freedom from the valley come as Jesus guides and protects you. A shepherd carries a rod and a staff. He might have to beat off wolves who are craving a sheepburger, or he might need to gently pull a wandering sheep away from danger. As long as the shepherd remains alert, the sheep are safe.

Psalm 121:3 says, “He who keeps you will not slumber.” Even in the valley of darkness, God watches every sheep in His flock. He never dozes off. He does not forget about the sheep who is wandering away, nor does He ignore or overlook the hungry wolf.

Just like the shepherd with his rod and staff, Jesus has his own tools for leading His sheep through the valley. One is the Word of God. This book will direct you along the path of life. Read it daily. Meditate upon its instructions and promises continually. Accept it by faith as God’s personal message to you. Read it to know what God wants you to do and how to journey safely through the mountains and valleys of life. The Bible is the primary means by which God speaks to us.

Jesus also uses the power of prayer. We need to continually use this spiritual weapon to ward off the wolves of hell who are out to destroy us. Pray positively. Think of the best result you can possibly expect from a situation, and ask God to make it happen and direct you to that goal. If you pray for courage to spend the rest of your life in the valley, you will probably remain there. If you pray to arrive safely at the banquet on the other side of the valley (Psalm 23:5), where you are the guest of honor, God will get you there. If you pray big prayers, you will receive greater blessings than the person who prays small prayers.

Finally, Jesus gives all Christians His Holy Spirit as a Comforter and Guide to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. Rely on His direction as you stroll through the valley of sorrow. Seek His strength when you feel weak. All Christians have the Holy Spirit within them and can seek the comfort of His presence and guidance at all times.

A valley is merely a low point between two high places. You can climb the mountain out of the valley to the glorious summit where the light of the Son dispels all darkness.

If you are in the valley, continue to follow God. Praise Him that He wants you to abide on the mountaintop, not in the valley. He has not forsaken you. He is with Christians always. When you run into the valley by yourself, He chases close behind. When the path of righteousness leads you into a valley, rejoice. Jesus Christ is still leading you, and He knows the way you must walk. He has a wonderful blessing, greater than anything you can ask or think of, awaiting you on the other side.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment
 
 

Walking Through the Valleys. I: Entering the Valley

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me (Psalm 23:4)

lleyn_sheep

By User:Jackhynes [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Whenever I read the book of Psalms, something more than the colorful language and vivid imagery grabs my attention. I can relate to the emotions expressed in these poems and songs of praise. Take the familiar “Shepherd Song” in Psalm 23. It is not merely a song about some guy and his sheep. It is about each of us. Like that sheep, probably everybody has wandered into “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Have you ever reached a point in your life where all you could see was darkness? Have you ever found yourself in a place where the light of God’s love, or anything else that makes life worth living, was hidden from your sight? Maybe you felt like that lost sheep, surrounded by thick darkness with ravenous wolves hiding behind every tree. You thought you had reached the end of the line.

You may not wander into the same valleys as I have. We all wander into different valleys: Unemployment, financial distress, legal trouble, divorce, sickness, addiction, or any other crisis can ensnare you. But when you are in the valley of the shadow of death, you do not care how it looks to an observer standing on a hill. You only care about how bleak your situation looks to you.

Psalm 23 reminds us that we may wander into the valley even while we are obeying God. This sheep could say, with all honesty, that the Lord was his shepherd. He was following his shepherd, but he still found himself in a valley. You do not need to sin or lack faith in God to face a crisis. Even so, when you find yourself in the valley, immediately review your footsteps to see if you brought this dilemma upon yourself. Did your own sins bring you into the valley? Did you get lost because you wandered away from the shepherd? Or, did the shepherd lead you to a place you would not choose to go on your own?

Sheep do not have a reputation for being very intelligent animals. They are much better at following the herd than at making decisions on their own. If they wander away from the shepherd and other sheep, they are vulnerable. Christians are the same: We need to stay with the herd (the body of Christ) and be led by the shepherd (Jesus) to avoid getting lost in the valley. However, when we lose our way, our Good Shepherd will seek us. He is not willing to lose any of His sheep:

“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12–14).

However, the sheep in Psalms 23 did not wander astray. In fact, the Psalmist describes the Good Shepherd meeting all of his needs: guiding him to green, grassy pastures where he can graze or lie down, or leading him to quietly flowing streams of cold water for a refreshing drink. He says that God is leading him in paths of righteousness. God may be leading you into paths of righteousness, and you may be following Him, but you may still find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death. Why is that?

Sometimes, the path God has chosen for you winds through rough terrain. David, who wrote this psalm, was acquainted with hard times. Even though he was a man after God’s own heart, a devout believer and servant of the Lord, and loyal to his king and country, he had spent years as a fugitive. King Saul had paranoid-schizophrenic delusions that David wanted to destroy him, so he devoted much of his time trying to capture and kill David. David spent years on the run, even though he had done no wrong. Because of his abiding faith in and obedience to God, and his perseverance during this time when he could have cried that “God’s not fair,” he became one of Israel’s greatest kings and the forefather of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I do not believe he could have accomplished this if he was not sympathetic, from first-hand experience, with those who suffer from injustice.

Do not grow discouraged in the valley. God leads all of His children through different valleys as He leads them to their desired haven. The journey through the valley is part of His plan for your life. In a following post, we will see how Jesus leads us through the valley.

(See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8335465/Sheep-are-far-smarter-than-previously-thought.html and http://scribol.com/environment/animals-environment/8-amazing-ways-sheep-are-smarter-than-you-thought/ for some recent interesting science about sheep intelligence. They are not actually stupid animals, but are much better at following a leader or a group than at leading. They have excellent ability to recognize and remember people and other sheep, something Jesus may have considered in John 10:4–5.)

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment
 
 

The Annunciation: Saying “Yes” to God

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).

pierre_paul_rubens_-_l27annonciation

“The Annunciation,” by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Many churches will observe the Feast of the Annunciation on April 9, 2018. This is usually observed on March 25 (nine months before Christmas) but, since that date fell during Holy Week this year, it was moved to the first available day after Holy Week and Easter Week. On this date, we commemorate the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she has been appointed to be the mother of the Son of God.

Some churches, in reaction against Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on Mary, choose to downplay her. This is unfortunate. She and Joseph had been entrusted with a mission like no other: to bear and raise the Son of God. God the Father entrusted His Son to their care. To those who think Mary was nobody special, let me ask when God entrusted anything that important to their care!

Christians are so familiar with the story of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary that it seems so simple and sweet. An angel appears to Mary. He tells her that she will be with child, and the baby will be the Son of God. Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin.” The angel responds that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, so that she will be pregnant with this holy Child.

The story sounds so sweet and spiritual. But, let us imagine this from Mary’s perspective. First, we do not know what she is doing at the time, but it seems like she is alone. Nowadays, teenage single girls might get uncomfortable if some strange man pops up out of nowhere and starts talking to them, but that was even more unacceptable in her society. While Gabriel was speaking to her, she probably thought, “Who is this creep? How did he get in here? How can I get rid of him? I should probably call Dad, but he might hurt me if I scream.” At some point, Mary must realized he was an angel. Still, his announcement made no sense. How can she become the mother of God’s Son while she is a virgin? The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God…. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:35, 37).

It sounds like this clinched it for Mary, but I am sure it was not that easy. She had already raised her question about how this was possible for a virgin. Even after being persuaded that God could do what seems impossible in her life, other questions must have run through her mind. “What will Joseph think? We have never been intimate. He will know it’s not his baby. He will most likely assume that I have cheated on him and slept with another man. Everybody else will think I slept with somebody. They’ll blame Joseph if I do not say it was somebody else and tell them who that is. Nobody’s going to believe me that God is the father! If I say that, they’ll stone me for adultery AND blasphemy!”

Somehow, Mary found the faith and courage to say yes: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The Bible does not tell us how she found the courage to say yes to God. It does not tell us how she and Joseph were able to handle the whispers and gossip, even though it seems such suspicions persisted about Jesus’ birth continued throughout His lifetime. In John 8:41, some members of His audience said, “We were not born of sexual immorality,” possibly taking an accusatory pot-shot at Him.

In spite of risk, uncertainty, potential shame and danger, Mary had the courage to say “Yes” to God and devote her life to His will. The last quote we read from her in the Bible is at the wedding at Cana, where she enlists Jesus’ help when the wine runs out. She tells the servants to “Do whatever He tells you.”

We might be tempted to treat Mary’s words as if they related only to her situation. However, in speaking to the angel, she speaks FOR all true disciples of Jesus: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Let this be our prayer: That we can be faithful to God, obeying Him and doing His will regardless the circumstances and risk, trusting Him to work all things out. In speaking to the servants at the wedding, she speaks TO all true disciples: “Do whatever He tells you.” As she has surrendered herself to the will of God, we can now entrust ourselves to His will. When God speaks, we listen, obey, and trust Him. Then, we can be called blessed, even as all generations now call her blessed (Luke 1:48).

Today and every day, let us join Mary and say “Yes” to Jesus, willing to do whatever He tells us.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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