Saturday, July 30, 2011

The power of prayer

Then the LORD said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know."

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" The LORD said, "If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake."

Then Abraham spoke up again: "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?" "If I find forty-five there," he said, "I will not destroy it."

Once again he spoke to him, "What if only forty are found there?" He said, "For the sake of forty, I will not do it."

Then he said, "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?" He answered, "I will not do it if I find thirty there."

Abraham said, "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?" He said, "For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it."

Then he said, "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?" He answered, "For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it." (Genesis 18:20-32)

It’s not smart to make God mad. Abraham knew this. His father had told him the story of Adam and Eve, how God had taken away their immortality because they broke His rules and tried to escape responsibility for their sins. Abraham had been taught the story of Noah and the ark, how God had drowned everyone in the world who ignored Him so that they could live in flagrant sin. Abraham knew about the tower of Babel, where God punished human pride by changing the one language common to all men into many different tongues, making it impossible for the builders to continue working together. The lessons of history were clear: it is not smart to make God mad.

Abraham also had a personal reason to avoid angering the Lord. Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless. God had promised them a son, but they were still waiting for this gift. It would be unwise of Abraham to provoke God and put the future of his family in jeopardy.

Sadly, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah had made God mad. The list of their sins is disturbingly impressive. The prophet Jeremiah said that the people of these cities committed adultery and reassured each other that what they were doing was perfectly acceptable (Jeremiah 23:14). Ezekiel described the citizens as arrogant and proud, overfed and unconcerned with the needs of the poor (Ezekiel 16:49). Isaiah said that they showed off their sinful behavior instead of trying to hide it (Isaiah 3:9). And Genesis chapter 19 illustrates their depravity, when a group of men wanted to rape the visitors in Lot’s house—visitors who, although appearing as men, were actually angels in disguise. It was for these reasons that God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah—to remove their evil from the earth, and give warning to others who find pleasure in such behavior.

We don’t know how big Sodom was, but an educated guess might suggest a population of about 500 men, women and children. Of all these residents, there was only one family that Abraham was close to—Lot, his wife, and their two daughters. Abraham knew that his nephew’s family worshiped the Lord, even though they lived among people who loved sin and couldn’t care less about God. But now, the Lord was threatening to destroy Sodom; what would happen to Lot and his family?

Abraham was on the horns of a dilemma. Dare he risk angering God by asking for a change of plans? But with no way to get word to Lot in time, could he hold his peace and do nothing? It all came down to a matter of trust—did Abraham trust in God’s loving and merciful nature? The answer was yes—Abraham did trust God. He trusted the Lord to be patient with him as he made his request. He trusted God to temper judgment with mercy. He trusted God to forgive him if his prayers were out of line.

And so Abraham prayed. He said, Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? What audacity, suggesting that God listen to human advice on how to act! He dared ask God to spare the city if just 10% of the population were God-fearing people.

God is the Creator of the universe. He is the giver of perfect Law and the final judge of human behavior. Yet astonishingly, He agrees to Abraham’s request! If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, God says, I will spare the whole place for their sake. But the surprises don’t stop there. Abraham dares push the matter further, bargaining with God until the Lord finally agrees to spare the entire wicked city for the sake of just ten believers. Regrettably, the only believers in town were the four members of Lot’s family, who alone were given the opportunity to flee before disaster struck.

Why did God listen to Abraham so patiently and agree to change His plan of destruction? We can find the answer in the second letter of Peter chapter three, where he writes: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). God was willing to be patient because his justice is tempered by mercy.

The cross of Calvary is proof of this. On the cross, God’s judgment and mercy are displayed side by side, without either one diminishing the other. The cross shows God’s anger at sin—an anger that burns so fiercely that the sun was darkened and Jesus cried out, my God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46). God’s anger at sin resulted in bloody, agonizing death—suffering so intense that it ended the life of God’s own Son. But the cross also shows God’s tremendous mercy. By all rights, that suffering and death on the cross should have been ours, the consequence of the way we lead our lives. Our willingness to break promises and bend the rules to suit ourselves. Our quickness to make excuses for inexcusable behavior. Our unjustified pride in ourselves and our tendency to ignore those who need our help. Our unwillingness to admit our wrongs and change our ways. Our love for pleasures that harm the body and degrade the soul. We act like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah; if God treated us as our sins deserve, we would share their unhappy end.

Thankfully, He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him (Psalm 103:10-13). On the cross, God’s own Son suffered our hellish punishment in our place. Isaiah says, He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). The cross shows us the full extent of God’s love for us, that He would sacrifice His Son to spare us from the terrible judgment we deserved.

Abraham knew that in God, judgment is tempered by mercy. And so Abraham dared to ask God for a change in plan, a change that would be consistent with His merciful nature. Abraham trusted God to listen to Him patiently, consider his request, and forgive him if he had overstepped his bounds. Abraham prayed because he trusted in God’s mercy.

Jesus tells us to pray in the same way—confident in the Lord’s merciful nature. He says, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:9-13). James tells us that our prayers should come from confidence and not be wishy-washy; he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does (James 1:6-8).

Let’s go back to the Old Testament lesson for a moment. God was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people. But who is righteous? Scripture says, there is no one who does good, not one single person (Psalm 14:3). We are all sinners in thought, word and deed; no one can claim to be righteous in God’s sight. So how could it be that Lot and his family were spared dying in the flaming city?

Romans chapter one says, in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." This verse tells us two important things. First, righteousness comes down to us from God; it is a gift from heaven. Second, we receive this gift by faith; God’s righteousness becomes ours when we trust in His love for us. This is what Isaiah meant when he wrote, He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). Lot and his family were declared righteous by God because of their faith in His mercy, and so they were spared.

You and I are righteous in God’s sight because of Christ. 2nd Corinthians chapter five says, God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might share in the righteousness of God. When this is the case, when we love and trust the Lord and share in His righteousness, then we can pray to God boldly as Abraham did. James tells us, The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:16). The Lord listens to our prayers and is willing to consider our requests, just as He was responsive to Abraham’s pleas on behalf of a city that was drowning in sin.

Abraham was respectful, but he did not fear going to God in prayer; he was confident that God would be patient with him, give his ideas a fair hearing, and forgive him if Abraham’s request was out of line. You can and should pray in the same way. Peter says, The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray (1 Peter 4:7). Paul says, pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). There is much trouble in the world today. All around us, people need our prayers on their behalf. So be like Abraham; pray to the Lord to show His mercy. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

God the Son

Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18).

Who is God?

Our Lord is Jesus the Savior, Son of God and Son of Man. He is the Son of God not by birth, but in terms of relationship. He became the Son of Man when God caused a woman to become pregnant without disturbing her virginity.

Jesus has always been the Son of God. Both the Father and the Son are eternal—the Father is not older than His Son. Jesus is God’s Son purely in terms of relationship. A good son trusts, loves, and obeys his father; this describes how the Son of God relates to His heavenly Father. Although they are equal in power and age, Christ always defers to His Father in all things. In Jesus, we see how children of God are expected to behave.

Sadly, we fail to live up to Christ’s example. We are willful and stubborn. We act without considering how others might feel or be affected. Our sins are a daily problem with eternal consequences.

So Jesus was born of Mary to become the Son of Man. The Son of God became one of us so He could touch our lives with love. He lived the life of a perfect Son, giving God our Father the honor and respect that He deserves from each of us. Then Jesus suffered the Father’s righteous punishment for all of our terrible behavior; He bled and died, offering His life in place of our own.

What an awful thought, that our wicked thoughts, words and deeds cost the Son of God His life! Thankfully, Christ did not stay dead in the grave. After a brief rest from His hard labor, Jesus stepped from His tomb alive, victorious over sin, death, and the devil. He returned to heaven, where He received glory and honor from His Father, the angels, and the host of saints who are with them. Jesus lives, and because He lives, His followers are guaranteed life after death. Jesus lives to forgive your sins when you go to Him in prayer, cleansing you with the blood that He shed while dying on the cross. This wonderful Savior is your God and mine.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God the Father

Grace and peace to you from God our Father (Romans 1:7).

Who is God?

God is our Father who rules from heaven. We call Him Father because He commanded all things into existence by His power and will.

When you think of birth, you think of a mother. When you think of being nurtured from infancy, you think of a woman’s tender words and soothing touch. So it’s not surprising that many religions honor a feminine goddess. This imagery has become part of our everyday speech—meteorologists refer to Mother Earth in their weather forecasts, and immigrants speak fondly of the far-off motherland where they grew up.

God is spirit, yet He always refers to Himself in masculine terms. It is the woman who gives birth, but it is the man who makes her pregnant. God the Father is the maker of all things, the author of life in all its variety. A woman nurtures the life growing within her; there is a two-way connection between mother and child through the umbilical cord. God is our Father, not our mother; we are not little godlings who share in His nature through a physical connection, nor do our sins reach out and touch Him in any way. Yet although God is separate from His creation, He loves everything He has made with an affection that no human father can approach.

That great love was put to the test when humankind chose love of selfishness over love for God. Our rejection of the Father wounded His heart and stirred Him to anger. God had created hell as a prison for Satan and his demonic horde; by rejecting God’s love and authority, the people of earth chose hell over the Father’s home when life ends. But God’s great love moved Him to send His one and only Son to join us in our humanity. God the Father sent His beloved Son to suffer the repercussion for our sins. Although it broke His heart, God the Father accepted Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, a gift of bloody death that made up for mankind’s wickedness so that we might be forgiven.

No Father has loved so deeply, put up with such terrible behavior, or given so much to make things right, as has our Father who dwells in heaven. That wonderful Father is your God and mine.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Loving stuff

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

Have you ever thought, “I need a new cabinet to show off my collection”? Have you ever told your spouse, “we need new curtains to go with the furniture we just bought”? Are you reluctant to throw things away because you might need them some day?

Do you own the things in your home, or do they actually own you? The last time you looked for a new place to live, did you pass on an otherwise perfect location because your furniture wouldn’t fit or wasn’t the right style? Have you ever moved to a larger place simply because you needed more room for storage? How much of your monthly income is spent on building a collection or restoring some antique? When children come to visit, do you always watch them closely to make sure they don’t touch anything valuable or precious? Do you worry about your home catching fire while you are away on vacation? How big a premium do you pay for insuring your personal property?

Our possessions are just that—possessions. They should not possess us. But all too often, the things we own start influencing our decisions. While on vacation, a lover of rare books might annoy her family by wanting to stop at every ‘used bookstore’ they happen upon, as she looks for volumes her collection is missing. A sports fan might empty the den and completely redecorate it with sports memorabilia, embarrassing his wife who shuts the door whenever they have guests. When a teen falls in love with a blouse, she might spend a lot of additional time and money to get coordinating slacks and the perfect accessories. In each case, personal property starts dictating personal behavior—behavior that is obsessive, inconsiderate, or wasteful.

Jesus said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The things we treasure as important take control of us—they demand our attention and influence the decisions that we make. What do you want controlling you? Do you really want a dinette set telling you which house to buy? Or do you want the Son of God directing your behavior? Do you want your thoughts, words and deeds to be motivated by love? Do you want to be known for your patience, compassion and generosity? If you want a life that emphasizes these kinds of qualities, then Jesus needs to have first place in your heart.

Let’s look at this issue from another angle. What is the most valuable thing that you own? Is it a house or a herd of cattle? Is it a car or a recreational vehicle? Is it a piece of antique furniture or a collectible signed by someone famous?

Sadly, the worth of such things can easily slip away. Time is one problem. As months go by, cars and RVs depreciate in value. Homes need regular maintenance or they become run down and hard to sell. Security raises another problem. An investment property can be hurt by vandalism. Precious antiques and collectibles can be stolen. And there is always the risk of an accident. Herds of cattle get thinned by illness and injury. Designer clothing can be ruined by a stain, snag or rip.

Thankfully, there is one thing we possess that time will not depreciate. There is one thing we have that cannot be stolen from us. There is one precious thing that our clumsiness cannot ruin. That one special thing is a promise: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9-10). Saved from what? Saved from being the devil’s mistreated plaything. Saved from being a helpless victim of your sinful impulses and emotions. Saved from God’s anger for ignoring Him, anger that would otherwise result in being sentenced to hell. God promises to save you from these awful things if you are loyal to His Son Jesus.

This is a promise that can never perish, spoil or fade, because the Creator of the universe made the promise and He backs it up. It is a promise that will never lose its value because God is eternal. It is a promise that cannot be taken from us because God is stronger than the devil. It is a promise that we cannot screw up, because salvation is by God’s design and was made effective by Jesus’ blood shed on the cross—our flawed actions don’t enter into the equation.

The promise of salvation given you by Jesus is the most precious thing that you have. Treat it with the utmost respect, because that is what it deserves. Don’t make the mistake of assigning anything else in your life a higher value.

And yet, even though we know that earthly possessions lose their value, we still prize them anyway. Why? It’s because of how we perceive the world around us. We experience the world through five senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Sight and hearing are about communication—they teach us language, and through language we gain the ability to learn and share ideas. Taste and smell encourage us to eat; touch draws men and women together as a couple and results in the birth of children. Taken together, our five senses make life productive and enjoyable.

But there is a sixth sense that we have mostly lost—the ability to perceive spiritual things. God is all around us, giving life and providing stability to a world endangered by chaos and death. There are angels everywhere, guarding us, protecting us, and nudging us in the right direction. But do we sense any of this activity? No. Our sense of the spiritual is so impaired that we explain miracles in terms of luck. The universe was not created—luck caused it to evolve into its present state. Luck saved you from being run over by that car that by rights should have killed you. Without a sense that can perceive spiritual things, we have no way of truly understanding the world we live in.

Our five senses bring pleasure, and so we indulge them whenever possible. Of course this can cause problems; overindulging our senses can lead to obesity, venereal disease, and high credit card debt. But our sense for the spiritual can bring great pleasure as well, if we develop it and pay attention. There is a peace that comes from knowing that God is active all around us. Understanding the spiritual aspect of life can give clarity in times of stress and confusion.

It is our sinful nature to focus on the other five senses so much that the sixth one is virtually ignored. Because of this lopsidedness, our lives are out of balance—we would much rather stimulate our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin than stimulate the soul. But this imbalance is a serious problem, because we cannot ignore God and hope to escape His anger for doing so. The answer is found in Jesus. Only He can heal the damage to our sixth sense, making it more sensitive to the spiritual dimension of human life. Through it, He can give us pleasures that the other five senses are unable to provide. We cannot experience life in all its fullness unless all six senses are active, and are working together in proper balance.

All around us, you can see the evidence of lives that are out of balance. Increasingly, homes are being built with three car garages—and yet you still see cars parked outside, because those garages are often filled with other stuff. Many people try to solve the problem of garage clutter by purchasing a utility shed—or maybe two. But clutter is not restricted to garages. There are many products available to help organize your closets and kitchen drawers. There are containers designed to store things under your bed. And if you get really desperate for space, there are companies that will rent you a compartment in a secured facility.

This last option amazes me. I can see the need for a storage facility if you are in the process of moving or are doing major remodeling on your home. But some people use these services to store things that are out of season, or that they don’t have room for but hesitate to get rid of. My friend, if you have possessions that are gathering dust or are buried deep in a pile somewhere, you don’t need them—you’ve got too much stuff!

God gives us property to use for the good of others and to enjoy ourselves. If you own things that do neither, they are unnecessary. You need a place to sleep and eat and maintain good hygiene. You don’t need more bedrooms than you have people living in the home. You need enough clothes so that you don’t end up doing laundry every couple of days, wasting water on partial loads. You don’t need so many outfits that one closet is unable to hold them all. You need transportation for work, shopping, and going to church. You don’t need more vehicles than you have drivers in the home, and you could probably share rides with a little planning. Art is meant to be appreciated; what good are paintings or decorative antiques that are stored away in the attic because there is no place to display them? A home theater system with a vast collection of CDs and DVDs is certainly impressive, but what good are they if you have no time to watch or listen?

Money spent on extravagances would be better off put into savings, used to support the church, or donated to a worthy charity. Our Lord expects us to use His gifts responsibly; hoarding things like a pack rat ties up resources that could be used in more beneficial ways. Take a look through your closets, attic and garage; what are you hanging on to that could be put to better use by someone else?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anything goes?

I love Your law (Psalm 119:97).

Anything Goes. This song by Cole Porter laments how people keep pushing the envelope for the sake of indulging their desires.

We constantly push for more freedom. Most teenagers fight with their parents over limits on behavior. Artists, musicians, actors and celebrities use their popularity to agitate for greater freedoms. When laws are proposed to tighten regulatory standards, there is always opposition from those who fear the loss of freedom.

Why do rules exist? Rules are designed to help us live together harmoniously. Without rules, you can’t determine who won the game. Rules stop us from abusing and misusing each other. Rules are intended to preserve order so that everyone can focus on achieving their goals.

Of course, rules can be imposed for selfish reasons, or twisted to serve some at the expense of others. This is why we have judges and lawyers. Nothing designed by man is perfect; the rules we live by are in constant need of adjustment.

But trying to get rid of rules is not wise. Left to our own devices, it is human nature to seize every advantage to put yourself on top. Without rules, the strong dominate the weak; without rules, the clever liar has advantage over the simple, honest man. Without rules, chaos would run unchecked and prevent all but the toughest from accomplishing anything beyond simple survival.

This is why God gave us rules. The LORD loves us, and He knows that we need rules in order to have the best lives possible. God’s commandments are all based on love—if you love others as you love yourself, you won’t be jealous of their success, you won’t gossip about them, you won’t cheat them, betray them, fight with them, or treat them with disrespect. God’s laws are laws of love.

People argue that to be happy we must be free of restrictions on our behavior. I disagree. Unrestricted behavior leads to chaos, injury, and unhappiness. Submit to God’s Law and find blessings instead.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What if?

Your word is truth (John 17:17).

What if? This is the great question of our times. Everything is so uncertain. Who can you believe? What does tomorrow hold in store? Where can security be found? Why is it so hard to just be happy?

We look for answers by asking what if? What if I vote to support this candidate over the other one? What if I get fired? What if I pop the question? What if I get cancer? We constantly ask ourselves what if as we try to figure out the best path through life.

Today I’d like to challenge you with a what if question of my own. What if the message of the Bible is true? Many people don’t believe that it is. But humor me as we consider this very important what if question.

If the message of the Bible is true, you can stop wondering why your life is so messed up. You, along with everyone you know, is a sinner. We are all blinded by our desires. We are all misled by faulty thinking. We do stupid things because we lack the capacity to make good decisions.

If the message of the Bible is true, you can put down your burden of guilt and stand up straight. You’ve messed up repeatedly, it’s true, but God offers forgiveness through Christ. Jesus paid the penalty for your sins when He died on the cross; He took full responsibility for your mistakes, setting you free as a result.

If the message of the Bible is true, you can stop worrying about the future. Jesus rose from the dead and is watching over you constantly. He wants to guide you when things are confusing. He offers you His strength in times of weakness. He promises eternal happiness to those who place their trust in Him.

If the message of the Bible is true, then how you live your life matters. Good and evil are real. Ignoring God will result in everlasting misery. If you own up to your failings and trust in Jesus as Your Savior, your life can be filled with purpose and you will have security.

What if the message of the Bible is true? Can you afford to live as if it is not?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Tree of Life

Of the new hymns written in recent years, one of my favorites is “The Tree of Life.” I like the melody; even more, I like what it says. This hymn shows how the entire Bible is united as one message from God. It references Genesis, the Gospels and Revelation, tying together the first book of the Bible, the heart and center of Scripture, and the concluding book of promise. So I’d like to take you through this hymn, and help you understand what it teaches about sin and salvation.

Verse one takes us back to the time when our world was perfect and at peace. God planted a garden in the land of Eden; Genesis chapter two describes it this way: God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground--trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. But among all the trees of this orchard, two were unique and deserve special mention: In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The tree of life. According to Genesis chapter three, eating from it gave eternal life. When God created Adam and Eve, it was His intention that they live forever. But they had to eat from the tree of life. Only the fruit of this special tree could guarantee that death would never come, and God invited Adam and Eve to make use of it—you are free to eat from any tree in the garden.

But there was another special tree in the orchard—one that was very dangerous. God warned, you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. At this point, Adam and Eve understood goodness—goodness is loving God and embracing His priorities without hesitation. But they didn’t understand evilness—selfish desires and rebellion against God’s authority. This second tree was a moral test; it allowed Adam and Eve to prove their devotion to God by honoring His command.

Verse two of the hymn introduces Satan. The devil hates God because he wanted to rule in heaven and was cast out for his rebellion. Unable to win a direct confrontation with the Almighty, Satan decides to strike at God indirectly by corrupting God’s beloved humans. He sets out to beguile the woman; to beguile someone is to enchant them with an attractive falsehood. Speaking through a serpent, the devil contradicts what God had said. You will not surely die…For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. Sadly, the lie has its intended effect—When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

The fruit of that forbidden tree poisoned humanity’s relationship with God. Before eating, Adam and Eve loved being with their Lord. But after they rebelled against His authority, things were much different: Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD. Gone was their love and trust; now they were afraid of God.

The Lord would not allow the young couple to hide. Calling them out into the open, He demanded an explanation for their actions. But rather than take responsibility for what they did and beg for mercy, the two of them offered excuses instead: The man said, "The woman you put here with me--she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it"…The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." In their rush to avoid punishment, both Adam and Eve tried to blame someone else for their failures. This proves just how far they had fallen—it never even crossed their minds that God might forgive them if they appealed to His loving mercy.

In response to all this, God pronounced a curse—you [will] return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. The result of rebellion was death—not just death for the first couple, but death for all their descendants as well. In Romans chapter five Paul writes, sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned. God enforced this death sentence by denying access to the tree of life; God banished him from the Garden of Eden…After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. Without access to the tree of life, all have been doomed to eventually die.

Adam and Eve were wrong—wrong to disobey God, wrong to have no faith in His love. But as verse three says, God still loved humanity in spite of sin. When speaking to Satan, God pronounced a curse on him that also showed His love for us: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. Eventually, the Gospels would make clear what God meant with these words. A child descended from Eve would crush the power of the devil, although not before Satan caused him great injury. That descendant was Jesus, child of Mary and Son of God.

Jesus came to address our greatest need. Sin is a part of our makeup, and it complete alters our understanding of reality. At the beginning of time, Adam and Eve knew how God thought; that ability was lost when they exchanged love of God for fear of God. Now, because of sin, we think of God as an enemy, if we think of Him at all. Paul writes, the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so (Romans 8:7). And the result? You were dead in your transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Being alienated from God results in death. Our greatest need, then, is to be freed from sin.

God is just; when the law is broken, punishment must follow. Sometimes the Bible describes God’s punishment in terms of drinking bitter wine from a cup. This is the image used in Psalm 75: In the hand of the LORD is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs. In Revelation chapter 14, listen to the curse pronounced on those who follow Satan: If anyone worships the beast…he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath.

Jesus came to spare us from this bitter cup. He came to drink the cup of suffering in our place. The cup of God’s wrath is a terrible, awful thing. Our sins had filled that cup with so much suffering that even the Son of God hesitated to drink it. Remember what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane? He…knelt down and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:42-44).

When He suffered for our sins, Jesus accepted God’s curse in our place. Galatians chapter three says, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." This is in reference to a law God gave back in Deuteronomy chapter 21: If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse.

The Son of God was holy and sinless, yet He was hung on a tree to die, cursed by God for our sins. The apostles often referred to the cross as a tree of execution. In acts chapter five Peter told the Jews, The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead--whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. Years later Peter wrote, He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

As odd as it sounds, Jesus considered this tree a place of hope and triumph. On one occasion He said, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:31-33). Another time He had this to say: the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15). All this was predicted in the Old Testament, when God the Father spoke these words through Isaiah (chapter 52): my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Because He was raised on the cross, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow (Philippians 2:9-10).

Because of Jesus’ suffering and death, He has provided a new tree of life to replace the one lost to us by sin. The new tree of life is the cross on which He died. This is the theme of verse four. Because Jesus endured the punishment for our sins, He has the right to forgive everyone who comes to Him begging for mercy. Jesus reconciles us to God, and as a result eternal life is available to us once more. Our Lord promised, he who believes has everlasting life (John 6:47). Even though we still die, that death is only a temporary matter; Paul writes Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

The tree of life also figures in Revelation’s picture of heaven. In chapter 22 John writes, Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…On each side of the river stood the tree of life…yielding its fruit every month. In paradise eternal life will be freely available, just as God always intended. But only certain people will have access: Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life. Eternal life in paradise is only for those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). That washing happens when we tell Jesus that we are miserable sinners and trust in His loving mercy. The new tree of life, the cross, was stained with Jesus’ blood, but it is by that blood that we are purified and receive the gift of life that will never end.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Embracing change

I the LORD do not change (Malachi 3:6).

People change. Sometimes that’s good, but often times it’s bad.

Change is bad when it leads to disappointment. You grow close to someone and decide to get married, but as time goes by the person you thought you knew starts to change. It might be increasing laziness. It might be worsening anger. It might involve growing addicted to something unhealthy or unsettling. Or change might result from medical issues—a stroke, a crippling accident, or the development of a mental disorder. Regardless of the cause, the person you love has changed, and not for the better. As a resul, you’re going to feel disappointed, depressed, maybe even fearful.

We can be grateful that God does not change. He does not go back on His promises. He doesn’t tell us to do something and then pull the rug out from under us by changing His mind. His expectations are constant and everlasting: `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, `Love your neighbor as yourself' (Luke 10:27). When we fail to meet this standard, He promises to have mercy on us if we have been cleansed by the blood of His Son, offered on the cross of Calvary to atone for our sins. With our ugly thoughts, nasty words, and bad behavior forgiven for Jesus’ sake, we are assured of peace with God and a place in His wonderful kingdom forever.

God does not change, but He changes us. He frees us from guilt over mistakes we can do nothing to fix. He works in our hearts, replacing hatred with love, fear with confidence, despair with hope, and sadness with peace. He teaches us how to forgive and let go of the hurts that have put up walls between us. He gives our lives purpose by serving each other instead of only focusing on ourselves.

Of course, all change is scary. It’s hard to give up old grudges. It’s hard to abandon old habits. It’s hard to see old friends walk away because they don’t like the new direction your life is taking as a follower of Christ. Just be sure of this: God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). You can depend on that to never change.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Surviving change

A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm (Mark 4:37-39).

Change can be terrifying. Just ask a woman who suddenly lost the love of her life after decades of happy marriage. Just ask the man who has gotten a pink slip after years of employment with the company. Just ask anyone who has been recently diagnosed with aggressive cancer.

Even good change is stressful. Many look forward to retirement, yet get nervous as the time approaches. Parents thrill to see their children grow up and start life on their own, but dread becoming empty-nesters. Marriage and childbirth, a new school or a new job, these wonderful events are also nerve-wracking to go through.

Change is tough when you have time to prepare for it, and change can be devastating if it catches you unawares. Experience has taught us that change often brings unpleasant consequences and responsibilities that we are not equipped to handle. This leads us to assume the worst when thinks get shaken up. We want time to get ready; we want to be prepared for any difficulties brought about by change. Put simply, we fear the unknown. Change disrupts ordinary routine by introducing something new, something we don’t feel ready for. This is why most people resist change, especially when things start happening fast.

When change causes stress, we need something stable to hold on to. This is why the Bible describes God as a rock, a solid footing we can anchor to. God does not change; despite all the chaos surrounding us, He is the calm eye in the middle of the storm.

Our Lord is all-powerful. He brought order out of chaos at the beginning of time, and He still does so today. God is wisdom incarnate; He never acts rashly. And God is love; His actions are always motivated by what is best for us. So really, what have you got to be afraid of? The LORD can bring you safely through any change if you just put your trust in Him.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


I thought about the former days, the years of long ago (Psalm 77:5).

When we think about the past, usually we remember the happy times. The pictures in our photo albums celebrate people, places and events that were important to us—your best friend from grade school, the day you were confirmed, you first prom, high school graduation, your wedding day, your first house, the birth and baptism of your children. Most of us are convinced that the best music ever made came out during the years we were in high school. We hang on to mementos picked up on vacations. Many of us decorate our homes with antiques. Lots of our favorite TV shows from long ago are being made available for purchase on DVD. Many emails remind us of how things used to be in our youth and are nostalgic for ‘the good old days.’

Getting nostalgic about the past is like wrapping yourself up in a warm fuzzy blanket on a cold winter’s night. There are many days when the world seems confusing; there are too many choices and things are constantly changing. The news is full of crime, dishonesty, and conflict. All around us sex and drugs are misused and lives are ruined as a result. There is little respect for God and country. And when anyone dares speak up, they are told to mind their own business and be tolerant of what other people say and do. When we are confronted with such things, it is comforting to look back to the past and remember how much better things used to be when we were young.

But there is a problem with nostalgia—it suffers from selective memory. When we think about the past, we tend to avoid remembering things that hurt—the times that we were sick and had to take medicine that tasted awful, the times when loved ones let us down, the times we were scared or felt isolated and all alone. As we age, we sometimes get aggravated that our memory isn’t what it used to be. But forgetfulness is often a blessing from God, which frees us from the pains of long ago.

When we think about the past, we usually focus on the good and shy away from the bad; as a result, we tend to believe that the world is a worse place now than when we were young. But is that really true? Let’s take a walk down memory lane and look at the things we would rather forget…

Years ago, racial segregation was perfectly acceptable. I never even saw a black person until I was almost an adult. Back then, it was rare that a white person would work with a black as an equal partner. If a black person dated or married a white, people were horrified. Racial jokes were a normal part of daily conversation.

Years ago, the mentally retarded were objects of pity, made fun of, or hidden away. Many who were retarded were forcibly sterilized so that they could never have children.

Years ago, lots of people went to church. But some of them went only because a husband or wife made them, not because they wanted to be there. Others attended church mainly because they wanted to be seen as respectable. And many churchgoers never read a Bible at home or brought a guest along with them to worship.

Years ago, no one acknowledged domestic abuse. Wives with bruises made up excuses to explain their injuries, and rarely left the men who hurt them. There was no such thing as child abuse; families were almost never broken up by Social Services, regardless of what went on behind closed doors.

Years ago, many diseases had no viable treatment options. Polio was especially feared as a crippler of children, and a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence.

Years ago, smoking was a sign of sophistication and drinking proved how tough you were.

Years ago, smart kids were made fun of and sometimes got beaten up. Girls were expected to not be fat, not be skinny, not be tall, not be short, have no freckles and not need glasses. A deep tan could make people suspicious of your racial heritage.

Years ago, you never tattled on a classmate, no matter what kind of trouble or harm he caused.

Years ago, women unable to find a husband were expected to be nurses, teachers or secretaries.

Years ago, you could not have a personal conversation on the telephone unless you had enough money to pay for a private line.

Years ago, food produced hundreds of miles away was a rare treat at the grocery store.

Years ago, only the well-to-do had air conditioning.

Years ago, some people still didn't have indoor plumbing.

Years ago, children born out of wedlock were made to feel as if the sin was theirs.

Years ago, no one worried about air pollution or deforestation; such things were 'signs of progress.'

Years ago, it was 'America, right or wrong' and you were a traitor if you spoke up against government policy.

Years ago, sin was just as big a problem as it is today. People misused God’s name, disobeyed their parents, got into bloody fights, had secret affairs, stole things, and told lies. People sinned, came to church for mercy, then went right back out to sin some more. If you think that the world is a worse place now than it was years ago, consider this—your sins are contributing to the problem! The people you voted for have shaped public policy into what it is today. The children you raised have inherited your sinful nature and repeat the sins they learned at your feet while growing up. If you don’t like the way this world is going, guess what? You had a hand in making it this way. Paul says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Somehow, we have gotten the notion that change is bad. But did you ever stop to consider that Christianity is a religion of change? Think about it. The Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. Which part do you prefer reading, the old or the new? If you think change is bad, then you shouldn’t like the New Testament—in it, Jesus changed the way God deals with us. Under the old covenant, we were slaves to God’s Law. Under the new covenant, Jesus has made us children of God by faith, not obedience. The new relationship with God forged by Christ is superior to what had been previously in effect, as the writer to the Hebrews points out: The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God…Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant (Hebrews 7:18-19, 22).

Jesus is an agent of change. He changed the way people are saved from sin and brought to heaven. Instead of having to obey page after page of regulations, salvation has been made simple: if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved (Romans 10:9-10).

Jesus is an agent of change. He changes us from lost and condemned sinners to forgiven and believing children of God. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation (Colossians 1:21-22). Jesus has changed us so radically that Paul writes, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5).

Jesus is an agent of ongoing change. Change does not end when we become followers of Christ; instead, Jesus calls on us to continually change as we go through life. In 1 Peter chapter 4 the apostle writes, As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy." But attaining holiness is a long-range goal, one we can never fully achieve in this life. And so Hebrews chapter 10 says that when Jesus had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. Every day we are to change, leaving behind the ways of the sinful world for the righteous ways of God.

Jesus calls on us to change, but God says, I the LORD do not change (Malachi 3:6). God’s unchanging nature is a comfort to us, especially when change fills our lives with stress. God’s justice does not change; this means that the sacrifice Jesus made for our sins will be valid forever. God’s love does not change; this means that He will always forgive those who seek forgiveness in the name of Jesus. Hebrews 13:8 says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever; when you trust Him as your Savior, you can have confidence that Jesus will always be there for you.

Things change. There were good things in the past, there are good things to be found today. The world around us is corrupt with sin; the same was true when we were young. Things change—sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. Thankfully, our Lord does not change—you can always count on His perfect power, wisdom, and love. Thankfully, our Lord helps us to change, to shake off the sins of the past and work toward becoming more forgiving, more patient, more generous. Change can be bad, or change can be good; but since change is inevitable, seek God’s help in order to make the best of it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Unchanging truth

All Scripture is inspired by God…It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

There are people who say that the Church needs to change with the times. They don’t like some of the things taught in the Bible, because those teachings seem out of step with modern sensibilities. But their concern raises an important question: who actually wrote the Bible?

If the Bible was written by a variety of wise men, each building on the teachings of his predecessors, then the Bible is a living document like the Constitution of the United States; as society changes, the words we look to for guidance need to adjust with the times. But if the Bible was written by God, we must treat the Good Book as an unchangeable document because it speaks the words of an unchanging, eternal God.

Although it was penned by a variety of holy men over a span of centuries, God was the source of every word set to paper. Peter says, Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). Paul says that all Scripture comes from the mouth of God (2 Timothy 3:16).

In Malachi 3:6 God says, I the LORD do not change. This means that His message does not change either. Moses said, hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you…Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it (Deuteronomy 4:1-2). Jesus said, don’t think that I have come to destroy the Law of Moses or the teaching of the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to bring about what they said. I tell you the truth, nothing will disappear from the law until heaven and earth are gone. Not even the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will be lost until everything has happened (Matthew 5:17-18).

It all boils down to this: if you accept the Bible as coming from God, you dare not make changes to it. The Bible is God’s message of truth spoken to a world that is confused by lies and distortions of the truth. It should not surprise you that the Bible contradicts conventional thinking; but you don’t meddle with the truth in order to remain comfortable with falsehood.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Old vs. new

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Most Americans have a taste for the new. You only purchase a used car when you can’t afford a new one. When an appliance stops working or a piece of clothing rips, you are more apt to replace than to repair. After several years together, there are individuals who are ready to exchange the person they married for a partner who is fresh and new. As families grow, the older kids find themselves taking a back seat to the newer children when it comes to parental attention.

Thankfully, there are still people who appreciate old things. Some collect antiques. Others restore old cars or houses. I happen to love old books—I’d rather hold the paper in my hands and enjoy the smell of the pages than do my reading from a computer screen.

Sadly, our society has lost respect and affection for things that are old. In other parts of the world, senior citizens are valued for their wisdom and life experiences—but that’s not true in America. It used to be that we valued traditions, but these days most people have little contact with their heritage. The desire for what’s new and innovative has divorced us from the riches of the past.

This sad state of affairs also affects how people feel about the Church. Church life used to be pivotal—baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals were big events and well attended. The local church was a community center as well as a house of worship. People of all ages found common ground within its walls; the traditions handed down from one generation to the next bonded the members into a tight knit community.

These days, church seems old-fashioned, stuck in the past—as if that was something bad. Many fail to see the value of old things, because they assume that new is automatically better. But no human innovation can trump the unchangeable greatness of the LORD. God is immeasurably old, and He never changes—that’s a good thing. Age does not wear Him down because He is eternal. You can count on Him to keep His promises because the LORD does not change with the passing of time. Scripture says that His grace is new every morning, but each fresh start He gives us comes from His unchanging love and commitment to our welfare.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Respectful, loving treatment

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village (Luke 9:51-56).

Samaritans and Jews did not like each other. In part, it was due to history; in part, it was due to religious differences. The problem started when King Solomon died and two men were both interested in his throne. The nation was soon split in two; one leader took control of the northern and central parts of the country, while another man ruled the people of the south.

Civil war is a terrible thing, but this conflict also created religious problems. All of God’s people were required to offer sacrifices for their sins at the Temple in Jerusalem; but since the southern kingdom claimed Jerusalem as its capitol, the king of the north was unwilling to let his people go there to worship. As a result, the northern king set up alternative places to bring sacrifices to God. In time, the northern kingdom built its own capital city and named it Samaria, and eventually the people of the north became known as Samaritans.

But the Samaritan religion strayed from God’s laws and the Samaritan kings angered God with their evil conduct. After 200 years, God punished the Samaritans by allowing the Assyrians to conquer them. The nation of Assyria was large, powerful and brutal. To keep newly conquered people in line, the Assyrians would uproot thousands of families and relocate them elsewhere; in this way, the people would be too spread out to organize a revolt and would eventually lose their cultural identity. Most of the Samaritans were forced to leave their homes and move hundreds of miles away; their country was repopulated with settlers who came from a variety of cultures and practiced many different religions. Those who had not been deported shared their faith with the newcomers, but foreign influences made the Samaritan religion different from the religion of the Jews who still worshipped in Jerusalem.

By Jesus’ time, Jews and Samaritans barely tolerated each other. So it is no surprise that the Samaritans wanted nothing to do with Jesus once they found out that He was planning to worship in Jerusalem. But look at how the disciples reacted to this snub: When…James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village.

Why such a reaction? The Samaritans’ religion was polluted with false teachings, but they still knew who God was. They were still waiting for the promised Messiah, the Savior who would free humanity from sin, death and Satan. These were not heathens who prayed to the sun in the sky or sacrificed children to idols in return for a good harvest. These were people whom Jesus was anxious to visit and teach. So why would James and John want to call down God’s wrath on them?

We have a name for this—it is called ‘righteous indignation.’ We are proud to be members of God’s holy family. We have great respect for the terrible sacrifice Jesus made on the cross to free us from our sins. We know that the world would be a much safer and happier place if everyone honored God and followed His commandments. And so it infuriates us when someone treats God disrespectfully. We are disgusted by people who brag about the sins they indulge in. It makes our blood boil to hear jokes that make fun of Christ. We resent being ignored, as if a Christian opinion is not worth listening to.

Righteous indignation results in an angry response. There is a Christian activist on the Internet who sends out emails every week urging boycotts and letter writing campaigns; among others, he has targeted a TV comedian because he makes fun of Christians. There is a Christian journalist who mails out a weekly paper; in that paper, he constantly finds fault with those pastors whose views do not agree with his. When church bodies meet in national convention, there are people who come to the microphone and openly question the integrity of other delegates and church officials who are seated right there in the room with them.

When we believe that someone is treating our religion lightly or is manipulating it for personal gain, we get angry. We lash out with harsh words and threats; if we cannot get our way through brute force, then we are tempted to undercut the other person by making fun of him or questioning his character as a Christian. Any method is acceptable, so long as we assert the truth of our religion and the rightness of our position as a spokesman for Christ.

But there’s a problem. Treating other Christians this way is wrong. In Galatians 5:15 Paul says, If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. There is nothing so hurtful as an attack from another member of your own family. In Christ, we are a family. In Christ, there is supposed to be unity. Harmony among Christians is so important that Jesus had this to say: if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).

We would like to believe that we are always right. The fact of the matter, however, is that each of us is a sinner. Sin clouds our ability to think and renders our conclusions suspect. When we assert something to be true, we must tread carefully lest pride lead us to a humiliating fall. There is only one way we can be sure of the truth—we must study God’s holy and perfect Word. In 2nd Timothy Paul writes, All Scripture is breathed out from God’s mouth and is useful for teaching, identifying error, correcting and training in righteousness.

Yes, there are errors that need to be identified and confronted. The three ecumenical creeds (Apostles', Nicene and Athanasian) were written to unify all Christians in correct beliefs. Paul goes so far as to say, If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:9) Paul was angry—angry that teachers of false religion were putting people of God at risk. Christ is the only way to heaven—Jesus said, no one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). Any teaching that undermines Jesus as our Savior is dangerous; if we shift our hope for salvation away from Christ, eternity in hell will be the result. Our Lord warned, whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:18).

In Romans chapter 16 Paul writes, I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. But notice this: Paul does not call on us to vilify such people—he just says to keep away from them. A Christian has no business resorting to hate speech. James warns us, consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire…It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James chapter 3). James goes on to say, no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Jesus is concerned both with what we feel and what we say: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…anyone who says, `You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matthew 5:21-22).

When a fellow Christian is wrong, Scripture tells us how to respond. Brothers, Paul writes in Galatians chapter six, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Paul understood the danger of righteous indignation; he himself had wrestled with pride and arrogance. Until Jesus confronted him in person, Paul thought that it was fine to use violence in confronting false religious teachings. Similar thinking has resulted in the horrors of the Inquisition and the Thirty Years War.

Jesus said, Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division (Luke 12:51). To align with Christ is to invite attack from Satan who will manipulate anyone, even other Christians, in his efforts to tear down the Church. But the Christian response to conflict does not involve violence; Jesus said, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39). The Christian does not respond to religious disagreement by tearing down others verbally; James said brothers, do not slander one another (James 4:11). Jesus gives specific instructions on how we are to resolve conflicts among ourselves: If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).

Jesus is God, and that permits Him to do things that we cannot. The Son of God can look into our hearts and see what we are thinking and feeling; because of this, He is always right when He judges our words and deeds. We don’t have this ability, and so we often misinterpret what other people are trying to say. We often jump to wrong conclusions, and so Luther advised us to “put the best construction on everything.” We must resist Satan’s temptation to always assume the worst about others, because such assumptions are sometimes wrong and they always invite conflict.

The Son of God did something else that we cannot do. He suffered and died in our place, paying the price for our sins. He confronted Satan face to face and walked away the victor. He rose from the dead so that He can answer our prayers and invite us into His eternal home.

Jesus did all this out of love. So we should not be surprised when He tells us to show love to everyone, even those we disagree with. Listen to what He says in Matthew chapter five: You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

If we are to treat unbelievers with love, how much more our fellow Christians! And so Paul writes in Colossians chapter three, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. To this Peter adds, The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:7-8). Yes, we have an obligation to point out sin and false religious teaching, but we also have an obligation to do so with love, gentleness, and humility.

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