Re-post: God Knows Everything

Image credit: woodleywonderworks (via flickr.com)When we were little children in Sunday School seventy years or so ago we used to sing a chorus that went like this:

He sees all you do, He hears all you say,
Our God is writing all the time, time, time.

Sometimes, in that simple little one room church in a prairie town in Western Canada, the superintendent would add a few words of earnest counsel. He wanted to be sure we understood. We would gaze up at him wide-eyed. God knows everything. It was a heavy message for little impressionable minds.

Choruses like these formed an early chapter in our moral training. The bottom line issue was that God knows us altogether and we can’t hide anything from him so we should keep this in mind when we go about our daily activities. I thought of those early lessons this morning as I read about the outrageously wicked King Herod the Great, and the innocent little Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

They called him Herod “the Great” for good reasons. He built the seaport at Caesarea and wisely named it after the emperor. He built a theater in Jerusalem and an amphitheater outside the city. He set in motion the rebuilding of the temple which became a magnificent structure for the Jewish people. Herod was an exceptionally skilful administrator and diplomat.

But power was his issue, and he used it ruthlessly. His police were everywhere. Purges were frequent. His own wife, Mariamne, was marched off to execution because he suspected her of plotting against him. Her three sons also, and five others of his children from various unions met the same end. He even had all but two members of the ruling council of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, murdered. Herod’s viciousness was about on a par with the viciousness of a Saddam Hussein.

So, when some mysterious figures called Magi arrived in Jerusalem coming from a land as far away as Persia, the word spread through the city fast. The place must have buzzed. And when Herod learned these Magi claimed to have been divinely guided by a heavenly light to come to the birthplace of a baby born to be King of the Jews, his paranoid tendencies flared.

No matter that the child the Magi sought was a miracle baby sent by God to be the redeemer of the world. How could such an infant be safeguarded against the murderous jealousy of a powerful sovereign who would stop at nothing to keep his shaky throne secure?

Here’s how: God in Heaven knew what was in Herod’s mind. God knows everything. He sent a warning to the baby’s human father, Joseph. He sent it by means of a dream in the night: Get up right away and get out of town; head for Egypt; the murderous Herod intends to find and kill the child. Joseph obeyed and the child’s life was spared.

Today we have a more sophisticated word for the belief that God knows everything. We say he is omniscient. But he can’t be omniscient unless he knows the end from the beginning, and the whole sweep of history down to its minutest detail. The psalmist, David, wrote, “Before a word is on my tongue/ you know it completely, O Lord.” (Ps. 139:4) Jesus said his Father sees the insignificant sparrow fall. He also said that his Father alone knows the future date for the end of human history.

The little choruses sung in Sunday Schools 70 years ago may not fit our present cultural moods. Times have changed. But the truth has not changed. It is still a cornerstone conviction of orthodox Christians that God knows everything. And when we operate on that conviction we handle the crises of life better and our daily walk is more stable.

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Holiness is Not Optional

7343174816_9d67d74f5a_mEvangelicals speak often of the forgiveness of sins (justification) as the fundamental element in God’s gift of salvation. And so they should.

Justification is a legal term and it represents our acquittal as abject penitents before a holy God. Our forgiveness is assured by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He paid our sin debt on his cross, so that by faith we can be pardoned of all our sins. Justification stands for what God has done for us. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is the focus.

But evangelicals do not speak often enough of the companion doctrine – the doctrine of sanctification. If justification borrows its language from the law court, sanctification borrows from the terminology of the temple and its holy rituals. Justification stands for what God does for us, while sanctification stands for what he does in us in his setting-us-apart ministry.

Justification means that we are pardoned–and thereby saved from the judgment because the shed blood of Christ makes possible acquittal for all our sins. Our sin record is erased.

Sanctification means that God begins to transform our characters. To sanctify means to make holy — to set apart and form the life of God in us. In the original languages the two words – sanctification and holiness — come from the same root.

The two elements – justification and sanctification — can be considered separately to help us in our understanding, but they cannot exist or function separately, for in the moment we are justified, our sanctification begins. That is, the moment we are forgiven in a genuine conversion experience, in that moment in an evangelical sense the Holy Spirit imparts Christ’s life in us.

I find the call to sanctification clear in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 4:25—32). First, he exhorts these “born again” members of this young church to participate in a full transformation. Using the analogy of changing one’s clothing, he exhorts them to “put off” the badly soiled old life in its entirety and to “put on” the new life. That is, dress in the fresh clean garb of Christ’s holiness.

This can only be possible by energy made available by the mighty Spirit of God, but Ephesian believers are required to cooperate, though not as a means of adding virtue to the process. All is of grace. Yet the Apostle Paul’s appeal is for their response.

Then he mentions some characteristics of the old life they should guard against: They should put off falsehood, anger, stealing, and unholy speech. The suggestion is not that these are still rampant in the church but that such remnants of the old life are sure to be hanging on in some cases because awareness has not yet been awakened that such conduct does not fit the new life.

Paul’s list might leave his readers thinking that only sins committed that others can see are at issue, so he adds, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with all malice.” The work of sanctification confronts sins of the disposition, too.

Because it is only by the energy of the indwelling Holy Spirit that such transformation of character is possible, nestled in amongst these exhortations Paul makes another appeal: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

The Holy Spirit does not seal us as God’s possession by stamping some detached insignia on us; he himself and his indwelling presence are our seal. We are to avoid grieving him by our disobedience because he is real, personal, and the one who now graciously owns us.

It is clear to Paul that good can be expected from all this and it will manifest itself in the church. For one thing, holy relationships are sure to form between believers, as the Holy Spirit enables and supervises the church. In the words again of Paul, we will — “Be kind and compassionate to one another.” What a gracious result to expect!

But with this concern for God’s sanctifying work, Paul, does not forget that our grounding is in our justification. He writes: “Forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Photo credit: McKay Savage

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Re-post: Glimpsing the Heart of Peter

Simon Peter is a major figure among the personalities of the New Testament. He was one of the first to be introduced to Jesus, and later one of the original twelve chosen and appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. He is the first named in each of the three lists of apostles given in the Gospels.

Moreover, on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached the first sermon properly called a Christian sermon — centering on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. And he’s the primary figure in the first 12 chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. It was Peter who carried the message of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Beyond all this, his two letters written to Christians suffering from persecution are included in the New Testament.

Yet, his performance was on occasion less than stellar. With Our Lord’s crucifixion hours away, at one point Simon Peter declared his never-dying loyalty to his Master and only a short time later, now in a hostile environment, he denied that he knew him. From this lapse, however, he recovered in a burst of penitential tears.

But in that same general period of time there’s another moment in his life when, in spite of his dismal failure, Peter’s responses show the depth of his heart’s commitment to Jesus.

It’s Thursday. The Lord and the twelve have arrived at a borrowed room to celebrate the Passover Feast together. For the customary washing of the feet before the meal, a bowl and towel are there, but no servant appears. Jesus assigns himself the task. However, he comes on his knees to Simon Peter and the big fisherman says in surprise, “YOU wash MY feet? To him that would be unthinkable. Jesus was his leader and leaders don’t do such menial tasks.

Jesus responded: “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” The pronouncement must have rung in Peter’s ears, and his reply shows the depth of his heart’s commitment to his Master: “Not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.”

It was as though he cried out, “Being severed from you would be like death. The most important thing in my life is to belong to you.”

That response was not entirely new. Earlier when Jesus asked the twelve if they would leave him as some of his other followers were doing, Peter blurted out with the same depth of feeling, “To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” His love and connections were real!

Jesus’ words to Peter have two levels of meaning. At the material level they have to do with the washing of the feet as a social propriety. At the spiritual level they have to do with what really connects one with Jesus – called “the washing of regeneration.” It stands for an inner cleansing, the washing away of our sins, the cleansing of the soul by the blood of Christ.

To return to the account of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus adds a word about the ongoing life of true discipleship, saying, “if you’ve had a bath, you need only to wash your feet.” It’s as though he reminds them that that very day they bathed for the day and that need not be repeated. But after walking the dusty, soiled streets their feet may need attention.

Elsewhere the same John writes, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He writes this to believers.

We can never forget Brother Peter. Tradition says that he spent his closing days in the city of Rome where he was crucified under the emperor, Nero. When it came time to die, some believe, he asked that he be placed on his cross upside down because he was unworthy to be crucified in the same position as his Lord.

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Do You Have Dual Citizenship?

3699118745_2aef901f13_mSeveral years before the USSR dissolved, beginning in 1989, Kathleen and I traveled to Estonia, then one of the Soviet socialist republics. Landing there, we immediately felt the fear-generating policies of a repressive Communist government.

It was their law that we would be taken from the dock to our hotel by a government-run taxi and would stay in an Intel Soviet-run hotel. We were given no choices and we were expecting this lack of personal freedom.

Upon checking in at the hotel, however, we learned we had to surrender our passports at the front desk for the duration of our stay. That news quickened the pulse a bit. Our little dark blue document said we were Canadians and we knew, if ever needed, we could call upon our government for help. Who would want to give that assurance up?

Passports validate citizenship. Travelling the world can be fun but we all need a specific citizenship as an anchor point. The Apostle Paul uses this civic blessing as an analogy to assure Christians of their anchor point — their home of the soul. To the young church in Philippi he wrote:

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20, 21).

That is, if we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of our souls and trusted his atoning sacrifice to wash away our sins, we have a citizenship in heaven. We have one foot there now, and certainly that’s where we belong in an ultimate sense.

That’s what Paul means when he says we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will become like his glorious body.

You will see that this wonderful passage includes allusions to the widely promised second coming of Christ and the resurrection of our bodies, plus the positive results here and now of those coming events. Citizenship in heaven! Incorruptible bodies! The passage is one of the gems of the New Testament.

At the same time we are now in a world that is “fallen.” So in a sense our heavenly citizenship is “not yet” to be claimed. That is, we must continue for now to live where every aspect of human existence is stained with evil that regularly shows its ugly face. It invades our businesses, corrupts our institutions and even shatters family relationships.

The words of Jesus and the epistles of the New Testament speak often of these evils and exhort us to avoid them. For example, Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking”.

There are present results to this citizenship in heaven. We listen when the Apostle Paul exhorts: “Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). We stand for Christ at each opportunity. We take our citizenship in this life seriously. But all the while we remember that we have a dual citizenship and our everlasting citizenship is in heaven.

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Re-post: From Easter — Onward and Upward

I continue my faith-trek from Easter Sunday toward Pentecost Sunday with a soul-deep awareness that Jesus Christ makes himself a living presence to all who choose to follow him.

I hear the words of the Angel who addressed the women outside the empty tomb early on that first day of the week, “He is not here; he is risen just as he said” (Matt. 28:6). Just as he said. He promised! He kept his promise!

The words of the Apostle’s Creed ring true for me, “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . who the third day rose from the dead.” And because of that, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

I read a piece by the late Wilbur M. Smith marshalling the arguments to support the truth of the resurrection. It reinforces my faith. Christ had power over death and hell. During his earthly ministry he himself raised three from the dead, the son of the widow of Nain, the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus.

What can we say to the fact that the disheartened Apostles were little by little compelled to believe after Christ’s resurrection. And in believing they moved from being disheartened and afraid to being joyful and courageous even unto death?

On resurrection Sunday the tomb was empty and no one could explain this adequately except by the facts of the resurrection. The Roman soldiers even had to be bribed to lie about what had really happened that left the tomb in its vacated state.

The arguments are many and compelling, but I am most moved by the truth of Christ’s resurrection when I read for myself the closing chapters of each of the four gospels. I have read them carefully this past week. I have pored over them. For me they breathe life and hope for this life and for the life to come.

So I pray earnestly for you, my dear reader, that you too may experience afresh this living Christ who suffered and died for you and who lives to share his resurrection life in you. If you know him, may you know him more deeply, if you are on the fringes of faith may you cross the line by surrendering to his will, and should you be one who lives without this hope may you give the truth of the resurrection the chance it requires to bring you to newness of life.

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The Story of Our Lord’s Resurrection – It’s Real History!

Rembrandt - The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen

Rembrandt: The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (1638)

God’s message to all mankind climaxes in the Gospel and its implications.

As the Apostle Paul states the essence of the Gospel it is this: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared … (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).

He appeared! As the living Christ, he appeared to real and living people who bore witness to his resurrection.

He appeared to Simon Peter. This appearing is not described by any one of the four gospel narrators. Still, we know that he did so appear, because Luke says that a group of believers who had gathered privately in Jerusalem during the evening of resurrection Sunday reported with joy that the risen Lord had appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34).

He appeared to the twelve disciples. John reports that on the evening of the same Resurrection Sunday “when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20:19).

He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time. St. Matthew gives us this account, and it coincides with the promise Jesus made to his disciples on the eve of his passion: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Matthew 26:32).

In 1 Corinthians 15:6, later Paul writes that though some of the 500 had since died, many, perhaps several hundred, were still alive to bear testimony to what they had seen. Perhaps this is his invitation to any who were still skeptical, suggesting they seek out one or more of the plentiful eyewitnesses.

If Christ’s resurrection and subsequent appearances had not been real there would surely have been some among the “more than 500” still living who would readily have announced as a fraud the claim that he had arisen and appeared to many witnesses.

He appeared to James, the brother of Jesus. We have met Jesus’ brother James before. Mark tells us of an incident early in Jesus’ ministry, before James was a believer. He had come along with his family to take Jesus home and away from the crowds. That’s because, according to Mark 3:22 and 31, When his family heard about this [his unusual ministry including bold teachings and miracles], they went to take charge of him, for they said, “he is out of his mind.”

But by the time of Jesus’ resurrection James is a believer. Tradition, a secondary source of evidence, says he was met by Jesus at the open tomb and converted through the miraculous reality of what he saw there. Paul later writes of him calling him “James, the brother of our Lord.” (Galatians 1:19)

To all the above Paul adds his own name. Last of all Jesus appeared to me also as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:7) This refers to Jesus’ separate appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, many years after the crucifixion and resurrection when as “Saul, the persecutor” he was on the way to take Christians captive to punish them. (Acts 9:1 –19). Paul becomes one of the apostles due to this late personal and specific introduction to the living Jesus, and the direct assignment from the Lord.

If Christ’s Resurrection, and by extension the promise of our own, were just a notion aimed at any who face the reality of death that would at least be a source of comfort. If it were only a “story” to be enacted in passion plays around the world, that would at least be entertaining. On the other hand, if it were a hoax to deceive the gullible, that would be shameful.

The resurrection of Jesus is none of these. It is history with many witnesses. The New Testament, with many copies and fragments of copies in existence from antiquity even when cities of those times lie in ruins, sets the facts forth simply but compellingly. The recognition and joy of followers who saw the resurrected Christ are authentic. The most skillful of minds have been unable to disprove claims convincingly and instead many have pronounced the accounts of the life of Christ to be the writings of trustworthy men and of reliable history.

So we are summoned to listen to the witness of many who were there, and to the witness of the lives of many more down through the centuries, and to the witness of the living Spirit of Christ, who impresses on our spirits the reality of the resurrection dissolving fear of the judgment for believers.

We are summoned to respond when we hear the living Christ announce: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and he who lives and believes will never die. (John 11: 25, 26).

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It’s Time for the Church to Shine

7945046588_dd7ef1ef1e_mIn the reportage of the battle for the American presidency, the airwaves of late have been full of epithets, unproven charges and vulgarity. The charges and emotional responses to them hang in the air unresolved long after they are spoken, and the battles rage on.

Society of course has legal procedures for dealing with such things. But to paraphrase Miss Manners, etiquette exists to resolve such matters outside of court and we seem as a western society to be neglecting etiquette these days. As well, western culture has centuries of jurisprudence to draw on.

But in times of high emotion we can easily descend to incivility and injustice toward others. In the church, as in society, we can depend upon etiquette and unenforced virtue to render apology and make restitution, or the church’s legal apparatus can be utilized. If we do neither, wounds go unhealed and our Lord is displeased.

In conversation with an ordained minister of one of America’s largest denominations recently I learned that he has such a passion for fair play and integrity in his church that he is spending much time in his retirement years as counsel to ministers who he believes are not getting just treatment under his denomination’s laws.

It seems to me that when in society the injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” is so often disregarded, it is a good time for the church to shine with obedience to both grace and fair play. We have such a longstanding and rich source of procedures for promoting neighbor love, and a collection of examples in the Christian Scriptures from which to take our bearings.

For example, early on in the development of the early church, the Apostles heard complaints of alleged wrongs committed by Hebrew Jews against Grecian Jews regarding the unfair distribution of aid among the Greek-speaking widows (Acts 6:1–5). The Apostles didn’t say, “stop complaining” or in any other way disregard the complaint. They called the whole Jerusalem church together and asked them to put forward seven men of sterling Christian character to be sure the Greek widows were not neglected. That done, they then appointed seven disciples (who had Greek names) for this purpose.

And thanks to this wise and fair action of leaders, the work of evangelism went on with effect. The church grew, the account says. A contingent of Jewish priests even came to faith and joined the ranks of the church.

It was not as though the Apostles were plowing new ground. They had a source book — the Old Testament, richly endowed with teaching about justice. Consider for example, King David’s abject repentance when brought face to face with his sin by the prophet Nathan, prompting his psalm of repentance, “Create in me a new heart, O Lord.” Or the Lord’s charge through eighth century prophet, Zechariah: “Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgments in your courts” (Zechariah 8:16).

Or the custom of having elders who gathered at the city gate settle disputes that were brought to them. The Christian cause has always had a place for individual repentance in response to the “court of personal conscience” and also for committees, and even courts to reconcile differences between brothers and sisters, and to redress objective wrongs.

This is an excellent time in secular history for the church to examine its commitment to fair and righteous dealings, both in the community of believers itself and in the broader community where the people of God are to shine as lights in the darkness. But leaders must have the heart of a King David, and the courage of a prophet Nathan as they pursue righteousness for themselves and those they lead.

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