Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons

Ascension, Visitation, Pentecost: A Pro-Life Perspective

“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord’” (Luke 1:39–45; all Scripture quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise indicated).

This article is based on a homily I shared yesterday at my church’s monthly Liturgy for the Preborn outside Planned Parenthood in Hempstead, NY. On the first Saturday of every month, a group of us gather to pray for an end to abortion. The liturgy includes prayers from a funeral service, recognizing that the facility’s “medical services” include the murder of helpless preborn children.

An artist’s depiction of the visitation, ca. 1410. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend’s liturgy came during a busy time on the church calendar. Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, when Christians commemorate Christ’s return to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. Although many Christians overlook this date, my church believes it is important enough for all Christians to acknowledge, so we celebrate it on the following Sunday. Friday was the Feast of the Visitation, when the newly-pregnant Mary visited her relative Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist). A little over one week later we will celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the first followers of Jesus and empowered them to fulfill His Great Commission. Thus, we have three feasts within ten days to honor significant events in the life of Christ and His Church.

It is easy to see the connections between Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, ascended to heaven. He brought something with Him that He did not have before coming to earth: a human body. A part of humanity now dwells in heaven. Ten days later, He sent the third person of the Trinity to dwell in and empower His disciples. Yes, brothers and sisters in Christ, divinity dwells within you! You are now a partaker of the divine nature! The very life of God dwells within you.

This thought brings us to the Feast of the Visitation. Whereas this feast celebrates an event while Jesus was in the womb (before He was born), Pentecost celebrates an event after He returned to heaven. Although they occurred at opposite ends of His earthly ministry, they are intertwined. In each event, we can see the life and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people.

The first person to have a member of the Trinity dwelling within her was Mary, when she was carrying Jesus in her womb. The first person the New Testament speaks of as being “filled with the Holy Spirit” is Elizabeth. This infilling is closely intertwined with the fact that her preborn son, John the Baptist—somewhere between the third and sixth months of pregnancy—is the first person to testify that Jesus is the Son of God. Somehow, when he heard Mary’s voice, he recognized the Son of God within her and leaped with such excitement that Elizabeth knew something miraculous was happening.

The Bible declares the personhood of the fetus in the mother’s womb. John the Baptist began his ministry before he was even born. The Holy Spirit was at work in him. As miraculous as that sounds, he was not the first prophet whom God called before birth. The prophet Jeremiah said,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

This is why Christians speak out against abortion. If it were merely a medical procedure, we could be silent. Some of us may dislike tattoos, but that really affects only the person receiving the tattoo; no innocent lives are lost because of them. Some medical procedures, like cosmetic surgery, may feed on the sins of pride and vanity. Yet, we remain silent, since it does not affect other lives. However, true Christians cannot be silent about murder.

Many of our “political” issues are really spiritual issues which have been hijacked by politicians and the media. Abortion is just one of many social ills that have arisen as America has rejected God and ignored the deity of Jesus Christ. For the Christian, our mission remains the same as that of John the Baptist and the apostles. We must proclaim the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus Christ; we must live by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who empowers us to proclaim His kingdom and continue His work; and we must reveal His presence and power until He comes again. Christ has filled us with His Holy Spirit. He lives in us as He did in Mary, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist. May we always serve Him and share His love with those around us. May it always be our goal for our lives and words to testify to the presence of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christians and Culture, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lent and Fasting

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it? Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:1‒12; all Scripture citations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

For much of my adult life, I ignored Lent. It seemed to me like a legalistic ritual. I thought it provided nothing for salvation or spiritual growth. You get some ashes smeared on your head one Wednesday; for the next 40 days, you give up chocolate. What makes this spiritual? Where is God in all of this?

The truth is that some people will go through Lent and get nothing out of it. However, that is not because there is a problem with the season or the traditions associated with it. It is a problem with how that particular individual is approaching the situation. We can take legitimate ways of approaching and worshiping God and do them without His presence. Even the holiest acts can be worthlessly mundane if we merely go through the motions.

God is not impressed if we just go through the motions of Lent or fasting. The true worshipers of God will serve Him in Spirit and truth, not merely in outward rituals. What God says about fasting in the above passage is just as true about all spiritual disciplines and practices, including Bible study, prayer, praise, worship, and serving others.

(For those of you who believe fasting is a purely Old-Testament practice that Christians can ignore, I urge you to read my article, “Principles of Fasting,” at https://darkenedglassreflections.com/2011/12/04/principles-of-fasting/. Jesus assumed that His disciples will fast, and in Matthew 28:18‒20 He told them to teach later generations of disciples to obey ALL that He commanded them.)

It is helpful to remember that one goal of any fast is to give up something physical or natural so that we can devote our attention to things that are spiritual. Many people will give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, along with a favorite kind of food and/or hobby for the entire season. Others may be more ambitious (perhaps going on a full no-food fast for a day here and there), while others may do something simpler (perhaps giving up only one food). However, whether we give up a lot or a little, we need to fill the gap with something spiritual. If you give up food, without adding prayer or other spiritual disciplines, you are dieting—not fasting.

So, here are a few suggestions for those who observe Lent:

  • While giving up food, add prayer. The time devoted to preparing and eating food can be used for additional prayer and Bible reading.
  • While giving up a hobby or activity (television, Facebook, etc.), add praise and worship. The time you would normally spend on your hobby can be spent playing favorite worship songs on a musical instrument, or listening to favorite praise and worship music on a CD, Spotify, or Pandora. (Yes, this can include songs you actually enjoy listening to in your favorite musical genre. “Holy and spiritual” does not have to mean “boring, tedious, and painful.”)

Let us take it even further, as Isaiah advises in the above Bible passage:

  • Let us give up anger and develop a lifestyle of patience.
  • Let us give up greed and develop a lifestyle of generosity.
  • Let us give up selfishness and develop a lifestyle of compassion and love.

Okay, I admit: That last list may be a little less fun than perpetually streaming a playlist of your favorite Christian contemporary musicians. However, this is what God is really seeking. He is not interested in creating a club of people who eat fish on Fridays. His goal is to mold us to be more like Him.

Therefore, let Lent be a season of self-examination and reflection. Take some time in the coming weeks to read Galatians 5:19–23. Take a look at the deeds of the flesh: Which of these have the most impact on your life? Where are your weaknesses? Next, take a look at the fruit of the Spirit: Which are most abundant in your life? Which would benefit most by a season of growth.

At its core, Lent is not about meatless Wednesdays, fish on Fridays, or 40 days without chocolate, coffee, or donuts. Like every other day or season of the year, it is a time that the Lord has made for us to worship Him (Psalms 118:24). Let us devote this season to a searching and fearless moral inventory. Let us confess those parts of the carnal worldly life to which we continue to cling, release those defects to God, and yield to Him so that He may manifest His holiness within us. Then shall our light break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up speedily. Our righteousness shall go before us, and the glory of the Lord shall be our rear guard. We shall call, and the Lord will answer.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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

Spiritual Warfare XVIII: Concluding Thoughts

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. (Revelation 12:7–13; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated)

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Demonic threats forced Joseph and Mary to flee into Egypt early in Jesus’ childhood. Spiritual warfare is very much a part of the life of Christ, including the Christmas narrative. Painting by Gentile da Fabriano, ca. 1423, from Uffizi Gallery [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When we began this series on spiritual warfare in September, I had no idea that we would reach the end just before Christmas. Yet, here we are: Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Tuesday, we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. I have a few friends who may refer to Santa Claus as “Satan Claus.” Other than that, most Christians do not want to talk about demons and spiritual warfare. The feel-good “holiday movies” on Hallmark Channel and UP TV are more pleasant.

However, Satan does not care about our calendar. He will attack whenever it is convenient for him. Life and hardship continue in spite of Christmas.

In fact, we cannot remove Satan or the demonic from the Christmas story. The passage above appears right after a vision that looks back on the birth of Jesus (Revelation 12:5). The passage focuses on Satan’s attempts to keep Him from coming into the world and fulfilling His mission of redemption. Whether the “woman” is Mary (as many Catholic commentators say) or the entire nation of Israel, the main point is that this is part of the war between the dragon (Satan) and the male child (Jesus). The “woman” is involved in the battle because of her relationship with Jesus, and so is anybody else who has a connection to Him.

In Matthew 2, we read how Jesus was threatened with death even as an infant or toddler. When the magi came seeking the newborn “king of the Jews,” Herod wanted to kill him. He viewed Jesus as a threat to his throne. When the magi did not cooperate with him by telling him exactly where Jesus was, Herod sought drastic measures. Joseph, as Jesus’ guardian, had to take drastic measures as well:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2:13–16)

Satan, working through the paranoid heart and mind of Herod, would kill all of the babies in Bethlehem if that was what it took to kill Jesus. Revelation 12 may speak in very symbolic language, but Matthew 2 reminds us that spiritual warfare manifests in raw, real-world, life-and-death situations. People suffer; some die; families’ lives are uprooted and thrown into chaos.

So, with that in mind, I offer a few final thoughts about spiritual warfare:

First, to win the battle, we must be ready to believe God’s truth and not the lies of the world and the enemy. The entire account of Jesus’ birth, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is about people who were willing to take unprecedented leaps of faith and trust God, believe His Word, and accept the call to be part of His plan to redeem mankind. Mary had to believe that God could bring forth life in her womb without the intervention of a human father; she also had to trust that He would take care of her so that all would succeed. Who would really believe her story that she was still a virgin, even though obviously pregnant? The sentence for adultery (including sex before marriage by a betrothed person) in the Old Testament was death by stoning; people might show even less compassion for a pregnant unmarried woman telling unbelievable stories accusing God of having sex with her (as her story would sound). Joseph had to believe the angel’s message, which came to him in a dream, was really the word of God and not his own made-up wishful thinking. Why should he risk his reputation and life for a baby that he knew was not his? Since he married Mary in spite of her pregnancy, people might have suspected that he was really the father, and was sexually immoral himself, thereby risking his own reputation. Was it worth it?

They could only accomplish their calling by believing God, even when the message defied all logic and the mission came with great risks and sacrifices. Make no mistake: Joseph and Mary were drafted into spiritual warfare from the moment of Christ’s conception. They had to do battle against their own doubts, their egos, the suspicions and accusations of their neighbors (and perhaps even families), and Satan himself.

Second, to believe God, we have to accept some uncomfortable inconvenient truths. The Bible says that there is a literal hell and people will suffer there for eternity. It speaks of a literal, real being named Satan. If you call yourself a Christian, you have to believe in hell and Satan. Not only are they taught in the Bible, but also most of what we know about them comes from the New Testament. Most of it comes from the lips of Jesus Himself! To not believe in a literal hell, real eternal damnation, or a personal entity named Satan is to accuse Jesus of being a liar.

This is a major reason why many Christians are living defeated lives, Christianity’s influence on American culture is in decline, and many young people are flocking to false religions like paganism and the occult. Many Christians and churches are spiritually impotent because they do not believe the truth about their enemy. They think spiritual warfare is about fighting their own personal apathy or fear. They think the devil is just a symbol representing evil. Before long, people mistake “evil” as a synonym for “discomfort or displeasure.” They think something is evil because it hurts their feelings, not because it is contrary to the will and nature of God. For them, spiritual warfare is a form of emotional shadow-boxing against an imaginary opponent.

In his classic The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis makes the following observation about demons:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

As we celebrate the birth and life of Jesus, and as we prepare for the New Year that awaits us, let us renew our resolve to keep our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1–2) and, like Him, resolve ourselves to destroy the works of the enemy. The battle is real, but we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37) as we remain faithful to Him.

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

 

Categories: Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Spiritual Warfare, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

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.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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