Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Forgiving Sins and Debts in the Lord's Prayer

“...forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” (Luke 11:4)

Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer is slightly different in many ways from Matthew’s version. Some critics of the Bible see that as reason to doubt the reliability of the scriptures, but truth is it is more likely Jesus taught on this more than once. This was more of a Sunday School lesson with his disciples whereas Matthew’s version was his Sunday morning sermon.

But even in Luke’s version there is an interesting difference in the petition to forgive sins that sheds some light on the severity of debts. The word used here for sin is the standard Greek word meaning, wrong-doing, guilt, evil actions. But when referencing the sins of others against us he changes words. The word there refers to what is owed to someone. Matthew only uses this word in his version of the prayer.

In our day, most of us have debts of many kinds. We have student loan debts, credit card debts, mortgage debts and so forth. If we do not pay them, it could result in bad credit, foreclosure, repossession, lawsuits and such. But the repercussions are never life-threatening nor a threat to your family. But in Jesus’ day and age, to be indebted to someone was to risk losing so much more.

In the parable of the unforgiving servant recorded in Matthew 18, Jesus tells of a king wanted to settle his accounts with his servants. One in particular was in well-over his head in debt: 10,000 talents. One talent was equivalent to 20 years of wages for an average laborer. Today the average day laborer makes about 30,000 per year, so that would be 300 million dollars today.  Because the man could not pay it (who could pay back such an absurd amount of debt?) the king ordered that he and his family be sold into slavery.

As the story goes on, the man begs for mercy, promising to pay him everything back in time. And the king is moved with compassion and instead forgives the debt. But what does this man do with his freedom? He goes and imprisons a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii which was little more than three months worth of wages. The point I am making is debts in Jesus’ day were more severe than we think of today. There was no bankruptcy court or refinance options. It could actually have landed the debtor AND his family in a permanent state of slavery.

In the parable, we are like the servant who owed 300 million - we can never pay back the debt we owe. And when he taught us to pray “forgive us our sins” (or debts) we are reminded anew that we cannot pay him back but are entirely dependent on his mercy. I think of an old song I learned in church growing up: He paid a debt he did not owe; I owe a debt I could not pay. I needed someone to wash my sins away. But God has done more than show mercy, he has actually paid the debt entirely!

But that doesn’t mean we are not indebted to him anymore. We are now debtors to mercy. We owe God a debt of gratitude and one of the ways we pay this debt is by forgiving those indebted to us; those who sin against us. That is a major point in the parable and in this petition in the Lord’s prayer.

But I think one reason Luke uses a different word is to highlight the fact that all sin is ultimately against God, and all sins against God deserve the wrath and curse of God. We usually take our sins so lightly, and frequently excuse ourselves for our actions without any qualms, but deal with the sins of others with severity. But that shows the gospel has not penetrated the depths of our hearts, just as it had not penetrated the depths of the unforgiving servant. And praying this petition is meant to help the gospel get down in there deep so that we can live out of the gratitude of the mercy and forgiveness we have received!


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Calling God "Father"


Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come." (Luke 11:1-2)

It's difficult for us to appreciate how radical the Lord’s prayer actually is because we are so far removed from the religious and social culture of Jesus' day. The term “father” for example was a term that made the religious leaders of his day furious and want to kill him.

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because...he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)
It’s not that Jews in Jesus’ day did not think of God as their father. We do see evidences of this concept in the OT. The name “Abijah” for example (one of the kings of Judah) means “My Father is Yahweh”.

For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. (Isaiah 63:16)

Most of the Old Testament usage of the term however was likely understood as a royal title, not as one of deep intimacy.

And Jesus was clearly going beyond the royal usage. There was a claim of deep intimacy and familiarity in how he spoke of God that struck them as blasphemous and presumptuous. Who does this fellow think he is to claim to have such a close relationship to God...closer even that the High Priest, or the most pious teacher of the Law?

In one sense, the Jewish leaders were right in that it would be presumptuous, arrogant and perhaps blasphemous for any mere man to claim such a deep, personal relationship. But Jesus was no mere man! He is the only-begotten Son of God and his claim was not some delusional human fantasy, but absolute reality! He had every right to call God his Father, because it’s the truth! And by teaching the disciples to address God as Father he was granting the same right to them.

So when you pray and address God as father, remember that this right has been granted to you through faith in Jesus! Don't take it for granted - but marvel at this glorious privilege you have been given and let this glorious truth be fodder for your prayers. Never cease to be filled with amazement that to you brother, sister has been given the privilege of intimate connection with the God of the Universe!





Thursday, January 18, 2018

Act Like Men

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)

I think it goes without saying that Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to “act like men” is primarily directed at the men of Corinth. Certainly he is not telling the women to act like men! But neither was he telling the ladies to tune out what he was saying - so ladies keep reading!

The reason Paul targets the men is they are the ones ultimately responsible for leading their homes and leading the church. That doesn’t mean women play no role of leadership, but that at the end of the day, the responsibility is laid at the feet of men. Men have a duty and calling before God to love their wives, to lead their homes spiritually and to make sure they are spiritually healthy themselves. When he exhorts them to stand firm in the faith, he is also exhorting them to be sound in the faith. Spiritual health is assumed in the same way physical health would be assumed if Paul was a football coach exhorting his team to play hard and win the game.

God wants Christian men to take their roles seriously, in the home but also in the church. But part of the reason Paul is compelled to say this is because the tendency for men is to do the opposite. Men tend to leave the spiritual responsibilities of leading their families and leading in the church to their wives.

According to a 2016 Pew Research report, “In the United States...women are more likely than men to say religion is “very important” in their lives (60% vs. 47%)...American women also are more likely than American men to say they pray daily (64% vs. 47%) and attend religious services at least once a week (40% vs. 32%). On all the standard measures of religious commitment examined in the study, Christian women are more religious than Christian men

Often when I have talked to families about what their spiritual lives look like in the home, I have found if the wife/mother does not initiate family devotions, or prayer and so forth, then it doesn’t happen. The husband is willing to go along but he is not willing to take the lead. This is to follow in the way of Adam who deferred the matter to Eve who then ate of the fruit they knew they were not supposed to eat. He failed to stand firm in the faith and to act like a man. So now there is this tendency in men to neglect their God-ordained responsibilities and to cast them off on their wives. Brothers this is not good for your families, nor is it good for the church.

Here’s another example. Many years ago I was involved in a church plant. The pastor was working on identifying potential elder candidates. I was with him in a meeting with another pastor who asked if he had any potential candidates. He quickly and jokingly replied “I have a few women who would make great elders!” Though we chuckled about it, it revealed a very sad reality - that men were not taking their faith seriously, and not growing in Christ.

1 Timothy 3:1 - "The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task."

I believe every man in the church ought to aspire to leadership in the church. That doesn’t mean every man will be called upon to lead, or that every man is qualified and gifted but every man should have a willing heart and even pursue meeting the requirements in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 regardless. And I say that because technically these qualifications are more than the standard for qualified leaders - these qualifications describe the ideal Christian man! So Christian men shouldn’t say “I don’t aspire to be an elder or deacon, so I don’t need to strive to meet these requirements.” No - every man in the church should be striving towards the level of maturity, faithfulness and godliness described by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

Now, I will be the first to say it is hard to serve in leadership on many levels and sometimes this deters men. I get that but Jesus made it clear that following him involved self-denial and carrying our own cross. This cross represents many things and one of them is bearing the burden of leadership. In fact what was Jesus doing when he went to the cross? He was leading! And so we should not expect leading in the local church to be easy. Jesus has shown us leadership involves our dying to self and following him down the path of suffering that leads to glory!

The point is there is no better example of what it means to “act like men” than Jesus. He is the man every Christian man should desire to be like. And that naturally includes being men who lead.  Men! Brothers! I urge you to take Paul’s words to heart. Be men of God. Lead your families. Teach your kids. Seek the Lord and strive for spiritual growth. Make it a priority to grow in the faith so that you can stand firm in the faith, and so you can be in a position to lead God’s people when he calls you.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

BE WATCHFUL (Part 2)

BE WATCHFUL (Part 2)

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)

Paul’s exhortation to “be watchful” is a reminder to them they are in the midst of a spiritual battle which has two battlefronts: the inner which deals with the sinful nature and temptations that we encounter inwardly (which I dealt with in part 1), and the outer which is the focus of part 2.

There are a number of ways we may be assaulted outwardly. We might be tempted outwardly (peer pressure to do something sinful), but also false teaching, false religions, worldly values, & viewpoints and such. We are constantly assaulted by these things through the media, politics, education, science, philosophy, ideology, the arts and so forth. Paul provides some insights into some of these ways in Colossians 2. “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) “See to it” bears the same idea as “be watchful”. These things are all around us and coming at us all of the time - see to it that you identify them, and protect yourself from being deceived. Unfortunately, many Christians fail to identify them and instead accept them with open arms.

Here are a few examples of what I mean: For quite some time, Disney was seen as “safe” and “family friendly” moral but spiritually benign. It was not until the Disney company came out in support of homosexuality that Christians saw Disney as a problem. And suddenly there were calls for boycotts. But truth is, Disney was never the friend of Christianity. I say this not because I don’t like Walt Disney or think Christians should be boycotting everything Disney - not at all. In fact I think Walt Disney was an amazing animator and visionary. I have great admiration for what he accomplished. However, I also recognize that he had ideas and beliefs that came from a man-centered outlook, despite his Christian upbringing. Though he spoke highly of his upbringing, and believed in good morals and would have stood against many of the things which the company that bears his name puts out today, he was more a product of human philosophies and traditions than of the truths of Scripture. Walt Disney once said “If you can dream it, you can do it.” He also said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” That sounds safe and acceptable on the surface, but what does it really mean? Simply that you can be the master of your own future. You control your destiny - that is if you have the courage to make your dreams come true. Yet when we read the Scriptures we encounter a God who is in complete, sovereign control over all of our destinies. While he does encourage us to dream and to pursue those dreams - it is all to the glory of God. Not to mention human history is full of broken, unfulfilled dreams that no amount of courage could protect. But the overarching philosophy behind much of Disney’s work has been the supremacy and self-determination of mankind.

Here’s another example found in the realm of politics. Many Evangelical Christians tend to vote along Conservative/Republican party lines, myself included. There are understandable reasons for this - we often find we share certain moral convictions on things like abortion and gay marriage. I personally cannot in good conscience vote for anyone who supports the extermination of the most vulnerable members of humanity.  But what concerns me is that evangelical Christians have been quite watchful when it comes to something like abortion or other liberal positions, but have given the keys of the city to conservative positions which may or may not line up with scripture. A pastor friend of mine said to me years ago: “It is possible to be more conservative than the Bible.” And he is right. Yet there seems to be this assumption that if it is a politically conservative idea, then it must be biblical. And the further to the right we go, the closer to Jesus we will be. And this leads us to embrace just about every “conservative” idea that we hear without searching the infallible scriptures to see if these things are so. And of course this spills over into the media, the news outlets and radio and television personalities. If the conservative news outlet says it, or we hear the conservative radio host say it - it must be true. It seems when it comes to political conservatism, we lack alot of discernment and fail to see the dangers all around.

In Acts 20 Paul told the Ephesian elders to be watchful against ferocious wolves who would seek to scatter the flock, and that some of these wolves could even come from their own ranks. In 1 Thessalonians 5:20–22, Paul said: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”  Now, he was speaking about dangers within the church that could come through wolves posing as elders, or false prophets and teachers within the church. Are we to assume the political dangers are less of a threat, or are not to be scrutinized and tested? We are to hold to what is good and reject evil in all its forms, including the ones found in conservative politics.


How do we keep watch on this battlefront?
First of all, we need to be people of the truth. Only God’s word has all of the truth and so our minds need to be shaped and conditioned by the infallible Word of God, not by fallible radio personalities or news outlets. We need to be cautious about what influences our positions on various issues and examine EVERYTHING through the lens of scripture. We need also to recognize that each one of us have already been affected by the empty philosophies of the world. No one is purely objective - no one is unbiased. We all have presuppositions that need to be challenged by the Word.

Second, we need to be wise as serpents though innocent as doves. Think about how the Enemy tries to infiltrate your thinking, or the church? His approach is to slowly boil the frog in the pot, not usually a direct assault. He uses stealth - has his wolves wear sheep costumes. Things are not as they appear! And he uses red herrings to keep us occupied and distracted so he can make is more lethal move. He wants to present himself as our ally, to get our guard down so he can infiltrate our thinking and turn us against the very things we ought to be defending.

Thirdly, we need to be clear on our identity, and the identity of the enemy. Our identity is in Christ. We are citizens of his Eternal Kingdom, his brothers, sisters, and mothers, members of his body. That needs to come first before any political affiliation, or even before our national identity. Christ must be first. His Kingdom and his eternal purposes must take priority in how we interact and seek to influence our world, including politics. Just to be fair, all of this applies to the left side of the political spectrum and everything in-between as well.

But please do not misunderstand me - I am not calling for anyone to stop watching certain news outlets or to vote a specific way. I am urging Christians to be discerning about what they are hearing, watching and reading so that they are not taken captive. I am also urging Christians to allow themselves to be exposed to opposing viewpoints and to get out of echo chambers and allow their positions to be challenged. Most importantly I am urging Christians to look at everything through the lens of scripture and to recognize that it is far too easy to have our worldview shaped by unbiblical ideas. We need to remember that as Christians we are in this world, but we are not of it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

BE WATCHFUL (Part 1)

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)

There are two general battlefronts that we must watch: there is the battlefront within, and the battlefront around us.


First, let’s talk about the battlefront within. This is perhaps the most important. If I am not watchful over my own heart, and I fall into sin in some way, others are affected - the church, my family, and society.
Being watchful over our own hearts requires first and foremost that we understand that our hearts are sick.
Jeremiah 17:9 - The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
Mark 7:21–23 - For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”


Granted - when we are converted to faith in Christ - we are given a new heart.
Ezekiel 36:26–27 - And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.


But understand that your old heart - the one that is sick is still in you and is at war with your new heart, which is why Paul says…
Romans 7:22–23 - For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.


This is why we must be watchful - there is  war going on within every Christian. If there is not a war, then you may not be truly converted.


Being watchful requires introspection through the Word and through prayer. David explains it best:
Psalm 139:23–24 - Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!


What this shows us is how impossible it is to watch our own hearts apart from the soul-piercing gaze of the Holy Spirit who alone can illuminate the depths of our our hearts and show us what’s in it.


The better we know our own sick hearts, the more effective our watching will be - for we will be keenly aware of how deceitful and conniving our old hearts can be. We know that our old heart lies to us about many things, and seeks to justify all sorts of behaviors, attitudes and motives. We know when our heart is lying to us, when it is trying to allure us away from the truth and getting us to believe lies. We are on guard against those attempts - we know the kind of tricks the heart likes to pull to get us to do what it wants us to do.


Being watchful involves regularly questioning our motives, desires, attitudes and inclinations. And it also involves strengthening our new heart created in us by the Holy Spirit through regular communion with God through prayer, the Word, fellowship and the sacraments.


So I encourage you to make it a regular habit of asking what David asked in Psalm 139 - search me and know my heart. Show me if there is any grievous way in me.  


Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Prayer of Repentance and Mercy as the Storm Approaches

Almighty Father, we are once again being confronted by the manifestation of your wrath and eternal power as this unrelenting and fierce storm approaches. (Romans 1:18-20).

We confess that so often we do not get the message - we dismiss the storm as “mother nature”. If we acknowledge you in any way, it is typically in the form of a charge against you; accusing you of bringing such unjust and cruel devastation down upon the undeserving and innocent. (Psalm 18:26).  But where were our praises and offerings of thanksgiving on the days of safety and peace? Is it not our failure to honor you as God and to give you thanks the reason such storms come our way? (Romans 1:21). Are they not brought upon us for this purpose: to arouse and awaken us to the reality of our sin; to expose our pride and frailty and to turn our eyes upon a loving God who calls out to a deaf and defiant world with arms stretched out? (Jeremiah 6:19; Ezekiel 18:23; Luke 13:34; Romans 10:21) Father, there are none who are innocent or good. (Romans 3:9-10) We have all sinned and fallen short of your glory. (Romans 3:23) We all have gone astray and chosen a path that pleases us}

Forgive us of our manifold sins and our pride. Forgive us for our love of money, pleasures and possessions; of the particular sins of abortion, pornography, adultery, fornication, homosexuality; of neglecting the fatherless, the widow, the poor, and the least of those among us. Send Holy Spirit upon our hearts to convict us of these and many other violations of your Holy Law. And in convicting us, we also ask that you would humble, comfort and heal us with the gospel of your grace in Jesus. (John 1:14; Hebrews 4:16; James 4:6)

We can only look unto you and appeal to your great mercy and enduring love. (Psalm 25:6, 103:8). Grant repentance and faith! Soften hearts and open blind eyes! Help us to respond rightly to the warning message this storm brings in repentance and turning our eyes to Jesus who endured the fierce storm of your wrath on the cross! May we heed the warning and look unto you. (Jeremiah 36:7)

We also appeal to your great and abundant mercy on behalf of those who have already experienced your heavy hand of wrath through this awful storm. May they now experience the gentleness of your Fatherly hand. May your kindness and mercy surround them and turn every eye to our loving and merciful Savior.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

RACISM AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:1–5)



Several years ago, I met a Jewish journalist who, after learning I was a seminary student, asked me what the Book of Revelation was about. Without even much thought I said: “The return to Eden. At the end of the book the Tree of Life reappears, the curse of death mentioned in Genesis is no more. All things are made new.” “Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad!”, he replied. To this day I am surprised at how quickly I replied with such a simple concise summary of such a complicated book. But that is precisely what Revelation depicts: the removal of the curse of death, of weeping, crying and pain. (Rev. 21:1-5) The Tree of Life reappears and mankind once again has access to it. And the leaves are for the healing of the nations.


What an amazing concept - all the nations of the earth being given access to the Tree of Life and being restored and healed!  That’s the future of humanity in Christ Jesus. That is where we are going folks! That is why Jesus came into the world. And it is also why he has left us in the world, to give the world a glimpse into this glorious reality!


And this brings me to my main concern which has been weighing on me for some time and got heavier over this past weekend. It has to do with how we as Christians respond to issues of race in general, but particularly to the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville. I realize that what happened is like an onion and that we cannot simply peel back one layer and think we’ve gotten to the core of the problem. I am not claiming to have all of the answers, or understand all of the dynamics that were in play. But here’s what I know to be absolutely true: it is the duty and obligation of every Christian to be a window into this glorious reality which Jesus is preparing. I doubt any Christian would argue with that, but I am not convinced all of my brothers and sisters understand the full implications of this obligation. It means that we put the agenda of God’s Kingdom and of the Gospel of Jesus Christ ahead of every other agenda, whether that be political or social. It means that we Christians are to be careful about how deeply involved and entangled we get into worldly agendas and ideas. It means our future shapes how we live today, how we see the world AND how we view the past, including our heritage.


There is a lot of talk about ‘heritage’, particularly southern heritage these days. I say this as one whose heritage is southern. Everyone with the last name ‘Bradsher’ who fought in the war between the states fought for the Confederacy. So I understand that many southern Americans believe the heritage and history of the south is being wiped out by liberals and are upset by this. They claim that the battle flag and the monuments are not about racism, just about southern heritage and history. But those on the other side of the issue view these monuments as celebrations of a hateful ideology; reminders of racism, slavery and oppression. For them these emblems also represent the fact that racism is alive and well today. And this is only reinforced by what happened in Charlottesville. For them, separating southern “heritage” from slavery and racism is an impossible task.


So how should a Christian respond to this issue? What is the biblical response? The danger for Christians is to get sucked into the conflict by choosing “sides” and by losing our Kingdom bearings, forgetting that our primary citizenship and our primary heritage is not of this world, but is of the world to come.  And so the right response is the one that most clearly gives the world that look into that glorious reality which Jesus is preparing. This includes speaking out against the rhetoric of the White Supremacists and calling it what it is - evil and demonic.  Racism and the Kingdom of God do not mix. Racism and the Kingdom of God are opposites. Racism and the Kingdom of God are not at peace and cannot be at peace with one another. Racism will lose in the end. The Kingdom of God will overcome and destroy racism in all of its forms. The Kingdom of God will endure forever and ever!

In the Father’s house there are many rooms for all peoples, colors, tongues and tribes. (John 14:2). Therefore, our response to what we saw in Charlottesville, and even to racism overall needs to reflect this Gospel truth. Let us endeavour to bring the healing leaves of the Gospel of peace to our wounded nation.