Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In Search of Relevancy

Recently, a well known evangelical pastor in an interview with the the New York Times, said,

"And to me, the world we live in, whether we like it or not is changing around and about us. Homosexual marriage is legal in [New York City] and will be probably in most Western world countries within a short time. So the world’s changing and we want to stay relevant as a church. So that’s a vexing thing. You think, 'How do we not become a pariah?' So that’s the world we live in."

The gospel is always "relevant," always has been and always will be. Since the Fall, the universal condition of man has remained the same in every age and changing culture. Mankind is lost and in need of a Savior. I'm not sure that the relevance of the church in a changing world is as important as proclaiming the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit to a lost world.

In Paul's sermon to King Agrippa, he spoke of his encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. He received this commission from Jesus Christ,

"…I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." (Acts 26:17b-18 NIV)

He then went on to describe the message he preached to those in Damascus, Jerusalem and the Gentiles. "I preached that they should repent, and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." (Acts 26:20 NIV)

Paul went on to describe the result of his gospel message. "Some Jews arrested me in the Temple for preaching this, and they tried to kill me." (Acts 26:21 NIV) This was not an isolated experience. Paul's preaching was routinely met with opposition and violence. It was the rule not the exception. (For example see Acts 9:23,29; 14:3,19; 17:5; 18:12; 19:31; 20:3; 2 Corinthians 1:8,9)

He shared this summary statement to the Corinthians,  


"I have...been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned...." (2 Corinthians 11:23-25)

Was Paul's ministry a failure? Was his message not "relevant?" Was he willing to be a "pariah" (despised, rejected)?

These were two consistent results in Paul's gospel ministry, conversions and opposition, usually very vocal, violent opposition. Perhaps this is the explanation.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV) He continues,

"...God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:21b-24  NIV)

No mention here of the church being "relevant" to a changing world, instead two emphasis; the message of the cross - Christ crucified, a "stumbling block" to some and "foolishness" to others, and the power of God to save the lost.

Lives were changed through Paul's cross-centered message. Paul wrote these words to the church at Corinth, a city that rivaled, perhaps even exceeded the licentiousness of 21st century America.

"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexual immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Corinthians 6:10-11)

Apparently these words proved to be "relevant" to the pagans of Corinth with remarkable results. He went on to write,

"And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
( 1 Corinthians 6:11)

My concern is that we don't let a concern for being "sensitive" to the seeker, or "relevant" to the world, lead us to take our eyes off the fact that God saves those he has called through the faithful proclamation of Christ crucified in the power of His Spirit.

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." (Romans 1:16 ESV)

21st century preachers are not going to improve on Paul's message or his method. Spirit of God convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment through the preaching of the gospel. He alone regenerates the sinner's heart.

Nor can we modify the message for fear of rejection, opposition, even persecution or being a "pariah." That's where the apostles lived, as did Jesus, who said,

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:11-12 NIV)

"If he world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first....If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also..." (John 15:18, 20b NIV)

Perhaps Paul's warning to Timothy applies to us in the world that "is changing around and about us."

"For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry."  (2 Timothy 4:3-5 NIV)



Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reconciliation - An exposition of Colossians 1:18-22


(I gave this message at Pines Baptist Church in Pembroke Pines Florida on June 22, 2014. You can listen online or download this message for several more weeks here. It is listed at "The Supremacy of Christ" Col 1.)

We live in a "pluralistic" society. Just look around the sanctuary! A pluralistic society is a society where people of different cultures, religious and ethnic backgrounds and social class live together, preferably in an atmosphere of mutual respect, harmony and cooperation.

When it comes to religion, America has historically been the envy of the world with regard to religious freedom. For over two hundred years now it has stood as the quintessential example of a nation that constitutionally guarantees its citizens freedom of religion. An individual is free to exercise his or her religious beliefs as long as it does not violate the law of the land.

Unfortunately that has begun to change in recent years as the Federal government, in particular, has tried to force Christians and Christian institutions to violate their conscience and core beliefs in subservience to mandates of the state.

With regard to the Gospel, "pluralism" has taken on new meaning. As Dr. John Stott pointed out over ten years ago,

"Pluralism is not just the recognition that there is a plurality of faiths in the world today. That is an obvious fact. No, pluralism is itself an ideology. It affirms the independent validity of all faiths."  ("Why Don't The Listen," C.T. 09/2003, p. 50)

This has implications for our understanding of the gospel and evangelism. Stott, continues, this kind of pluralism "therefore rejects as arrogant and wholly unacceptable every attempt to convert anybody (let alone everybody) to our opinions."

Dr. Stott cites the book The Myth of God Incarnate edited by John Hicks in 1977, a symposium in which a group of contributing theologians, "asks whether the idea of the incarnate God is not another of those patristic doctrines which need to be criticized and interpreted afresh in the modern world." In other words they embraced T.S. Eliot's words, "Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed."

Ten years later, another book The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions was published. In it the contributors moved "from insistence on the superiority or finality of Christ and Christianity towards a recognition of the independent validity of other religious approaches." In other words they have crossed the Rubicon of Biblical orthodoxy moving from the exclusivity of Christ and Christianity to a pluralism, that apparently acknowledges the validity of all religions. In other words, Christianity has no corner on the truth.

Against this backdrop of religious pluralism let me begin with a question. Is the historic, biblical message of salvation through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross the only way man can be reconciled to God?

Perhaps some, including the theologians just cited, would question or deny the premise of that question and prefer to ask, "Is there even a need for man to be reconciled to God?" You see, my question presumes that man in some way is at odds with God. Man's relationship with God is broken in some way compromised.

The Apostle Paul answers both of these questions in the text before us this morning. Three weeks ago, in our message, "The Supremacy of Jesus Christ," we looked at the Apostle Paul's case for the Deity of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ the Creator in Colossians 1:15-20.

In verse 18, which we skipped over, the discussion moves from Jesus Christ and creation, to Jesus Christ and the Church, and then in verses 19 and following, reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ. Before we consider reconciliation briefly note three things in verse 18 about Christ and the church.

First, Paul says Christ "is the head of the body, the church." In other words, He has supreme authority over the church. Bishop Nicholson,  (Oneness with Christ 81)

"Jesus Christ is the sovereign Lord of all creation, and as such He does and will govern for the benefit of His Church; but additionally, He is the Head of it as His own body; the seat of its life, the source of its activity, the center of its unity, the inspiring, ruling, guiding, sustaining power of its spiritual being and blessedness. Thus His relation to the Church is the exact parallel of that which He sustains to the universe."

In other words, He is preeminent over the Church as He is preeminent over all of creation. If you are born again this morning, you are a member of body of Jesus Christ, the church, of which He is the head. In other words, you are organically connected to Jesus Christ. He is therefore your Sovereign and Master, and as you remain connected to Him, He is the very source of your spiritual life.

Secondly, Paul says, verse 18, "He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead." Implicit in that statement is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He became a man, a claim rejected by John Hicks and company as we just noted. As God in the flesh he died a physical death on a Roman cross.

As "the firstborn from the dead." Paul makes the explicit claim that Jesus Christ was the first to be resurrected from the grave never to taste death again. A harbinger of what awaits every believer and member of His body.

Thirdly, still in verse 18, he writes, "that in everything he might be preeminent" or have "first place" (NASB). As we noted several weeks ago, first place in creation, and now first place in the church and therefore first place in our lives as members of His body.

Now previously we looked carefully at the Deity of Jesus Christ. Notice that verses 19 and 20 are one sentence. In other words, the deity of Christ is linked with His work of reconciliation. As we will see, if Jesus Christ were not both God and man, He could not have been our Savior reconciling us to God.

This morning, before looking at God's provision for reconciliation I want to look at verse 21, noting that the need for reconciliation implies a broken relationship. Verse 21 says, "And you were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds," That's pretty direct. No mincing of words here.

It identifies man's need for reconciliation. Paul is describing the condition of the Colossian Christians before they were reconciled to God. He had earlier described what had taken place at their conversion. In chapter one, verses 13 and 14, "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

A 2013 Harris Poll found that a healthy majority or 74% of Americans believe in God. The question verse 21 would raise is, do the 74% that believe in God see themselves as the God they believe in sees them? My guess is that most people don't stay awake at night concerned with their need to be reconciled to God. As Leon Morris writes (New Bible Dictionary 1077) "Man, left to himself is content to let bygones be bygones. He is not particularly worried by his sin. Certainly he feels no hostility to God on account of is sin. The barrier arises because God demands holiness in man."

In other words, we are unaware that from God's perspective, without Christ we are alienated from God we are enemies of God and our lives are characterized by evil behavior. The New English Bible captures the thought so well, "Formerly you were yourselves estranged from God; you were his enemies in heart and mind, and your deeds were evil."

That is the universal condition of every person -- a broken relationship with God therefore in need of reconciliation. To be alienated from God is to be separated from God. It's the opposite of intimacy. It is the opposite of friendship. It is not a picture of two parties at peace with each other. Hostile in mind. We are enemies; at heart adversaries of God; in rebellion towards God. And Paul says our actions are consistent  with that heart condition, "your deeds were evil."

Paul painted a similar picture when writing the Ephesian church. He described their pre-conversion condition as follows, (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience -- in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind."

That description should trouble us. Leon Morris, has described it this way,

"The Bible tells us bluntly that sinners are 'enemies' of God...An enemy is not someone who comes a little short of being a friend. He is altogether opposed. The New Testament pictures God in vigorous opposition to everything that is evil."

You see, it is our sin that alienates us from God. Here's the problem. God's holiness and our sin are incompatible. R. A. Finlayson explains,

"Holiness may be said to be the distinctive overall attribute of God. The outshining of all that God is. It is his holiness that particularly sets him apart from all His creation -- for he only is holy --and that renders Him unapproachable in all His perfection."

You see, apart from Christ we are in dire straits. We're in trouble! Our only hope is reconciliation to God.

Notice secondly, God's provision of reconciliation, verses 20-22,

"and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him."

We've seen our need for reconciliation. Let's make sure we understand what it means to be "reconciled." Leon Morris writes (NBD 1077),

"Christ died to put away our sin. In this way He dealt with the enmity [or deep rooted hatred] between man and God. He put it out of the way. He made the way wide open for men to come back to God. It is this which is described by the term 'reconciliation.'"

I want you to notice six things about reconciliation this morning. First of all we are reconciled Romans 6:23. In other words, because of our sin we deserve death.

A holy God must punish sin. A holy God would no longer be just if he were to overlook sin. As a just judge he must pass judgment on the guilty. The penalty for sin, death must be paid. That's what the cross is all about. It served only one purpose for the Romans. It was an instrument of death. So Paul said, God made peace, verse 20, "by the blood of his cross."

You see, peace with God comes at a price, the shedding of blood. This principle was taught way back in Old Testament times. Leviticus 17:11, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it for you on the altar (of sacrifice) to make atonement for your souls for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life." The writer to the Hebrews echoed this truth,  (9:22 ESV) "Indeed under the law almost everything is purified with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin."

And so in the Old Testament God instituted the sacrificial system of shedding the blood of animals. This was a type that pointed forward to the perfect, once for all, sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, in his attack upon the Book of Common Prayer, wrote, "It is saturated with the ancient and to me quite infernal superstition of atonement by blood sacrifice, which I believe Christianity must completely get rid of, if it is to survive among thoughtful people."

Paul anticipated Mr. Shaw's response when he wrote, the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:23-24 ESV) "for Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly [or foolishness] to Gentiles, but to those who are
called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

Friends, what has been your response to the cross.? Have you belittled it like Bernard Shaw? Are you ignoring it? Or have you embraced it as your only hope for reconciliation to God?

But notice secondly that we are reconciled through a substitutionary act. Here's the amazing truth of the Gospel. We've already seen our need for reconciliation verse 21, we are "alienated" from God, "hostile in mind," "doing evil deeds." In spite of that God took the initiative and reconciled us, His enemies, to himself by becoming our substitute as He died in our place, paying the penalty for our sin on the cross. To some, this might sound to good to be true. That's why the gospel is called "Good News"!

Paul Van Gorder writes the following of a wagon train as it journeyed West, "One day, after months on the trail, the weary travelers came to the top of a high hill. There they were met by a terrifying sight! A great wall of fire had engulfed the prairie and was racing in their direction. Death seemed inevitable. Then the leader of the expedition quickly turned and rode his horse to the rear of the caravan. With deliberate haste he ignited the dry grass behind them. The same wind that was blowing the advancing blaze toward them also began fanning the new fire away from them. Within minutes the wagons could be driven onto the burned-out area.

As the heat and smoke became more intense, a little girl cried out, 'Are you sure we're safe?' 'Oh, yes,' said the wagonmaster, 'we're safe because we're standing where the fire has been.'"Friends, Jesus bore the penalty for our sin. When we put our trust in Him, we stand where the fire has been."

Thirdly, we are reconciled through the sinless God - Man, verse 22. In verse 19, Paul emphasizes the Deity of Christ in relation to His work of reconciliation, while in verse 22, Paul emphasizes the humanity of Christ in relation to His work of reconciliation.

Just as we could not have been reconciled to God without the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ could have never died a substitutionary death in our place without sharing in our humanity. As the God-Man, He lived a sinless perfect life. The writer to the Hebrews, (4:15 ESV) because He was a human like us "...we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."

Years ago I read this story, "The keeper of a large zoo was overseeing his men as they fed the animals and reptiles. Suddenly an assistant let out a shriek. Rushing to his side, the superintendent saw that a rattlesnake, roused from its winter sleep, had sunk his fangs deep into the man's flesh. Immediately he grasped the victim's arm and began sucking the venom from the wound, spitting it on the ground. His action saved the attendant's life. The newspaper account of the incident stated that if the zoo keeper's teeth had been decayed or he had a sore in his mouth he would have been killed by the poison."

Had their been the slightest defect in Jesus, His death would have been worthless. Even one moral imperfection, His death would have accomplished nothing.

Fourthly, notice that God's loving initiative brings reconciliation, verses. 19-20. Henry Bosch, writes of the following incident,

"In sixteenth century England, Oliver Cromwell ordered that a soldier be shot for his crimes at the ringing of the evening bell. But that night at the fateful hour, no sound came from the belfry. The girl who was to be married to the condemned man had climbed up into the tower and had clung to the great clapper of the bell to prevent it from striking. Brought before Cromwell to give an account of her actions, she only wept  and showed him her bruised and bleeding hands. Cromwell was greatly impressed, and he said, 'Your lover is alive because of your sacrifice. He will not be shot.'"

As imperfect as that illustration is, in the same way it was the love of God that set in motion and accomplished our reconciliation. This passage implicitly portrays God as the initiator of our reconciliation. And He was motivated by love. Paul explained it this way to the church in Rome. (Romans 5:6-11 ESV)

"For while we were still weak, at the time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die--but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."

Number five. Notice the reconciliation of creation, verse 20. In verse 15 we saw that Jesus Christ is supreme over creation. In verse 16 we saw that He was the agent of creation. In verse 17 that He pre-existed creation and preserves and sustains creation.
Here, Jesus Christ takes all of creation and reconciles it to himself. Even creation awaits its freedom from the curse of sin.

Again, the Apostle Paul explains, Romans 5:20-21 (ESV).

"For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God."

Number six. Lastly, the result of reconciliation, our justification, verse 22, "he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him."

Paul is speaking of our justification. When we confess our sin and repent of our sin and trust in Jesus' death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sin, God will regenerate us by the power of His Holy Spirit, delivering us from the power of sin. He will give us a new heart.

Paul put it this way, 2 Corinthians 5:17  (ESV), "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come."

But He will also deliver us from the penalty of our sin. That is, He will justify us, declaring us righteous in His sight because our sin has been put to Christ's account and we stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Again Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV), "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." That's what justification means. Someone has defined it this way, "The act whereby a holy and just God declares the unjust and guilty sinner to be righteous or just in his sight, having imputed to them the righteousness of Jesus Christ."

You see when we are justified a legal transaction takes place in the Court of heaven. Our sin is put to Christ's account, it is imputed to Him. And His righteousness is put to our account or imputed to us. Therefore God can justify us declaring us righteous in His sight, because as Paul wrote, we are "clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ."

Lastly, there is an alternative to reconciliation. Implicit in this passage and stated explicitly in others, there is an alternative to being reconciled to God. For example, Paul spoke of the consequence of rejecting the gospel in 2 Thessalonians 1:5a, 7-10 (ESV),

"This is the evidence of the righteous judgment of God...when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed."

The consistent message of the Bible is that the alternative to reconciliation with God is the reality of facing the judgment or wrath of God. Admittedly this is not popular today in the culture and even to some in the church. In his classic book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer writes,

"The modern habit throughout the Christian church is to play this subject down. Those who still believe in the wrath of God (not all do) say little about it; perhaps they do not think much about it. To an age which has unashamedly sold itself to the gods of greed, pride, sex and self-will, the church mumbles on about God's kindness, but says virtually nothing about his judgment." If that was an accurate statement in 1993 it is even more true today. Earlier in this message we dealt with the term religious "pluralism" referring to an ideology that "affirms the independent validity of all faiths." In other words Jesus Christ is not unique in His person or work. It's a denial of His claim. "I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me." Dr. Stott points out (CT Stott) we must reject religious pluralism because,

"we are committed to the uniqueness of Jesus (he has no competitors) and his finality (he has no successors). It is not the uniqueness of 'Christianity' as a system that we defend, but the uniqueness of Christ. He is unique in his incarnation (which is quite different from the ahistorical and plural 'avatar' of Hinduism); in his atonement (dying once for all for our sins); in his resurrection (breaking the power of death); and in his gift of the Spirit (to indwell and transform us). So, because in no other person but Jesus of Nazareth did God first become human (in his birth), then conquer death (in his resurrection) and then enter his people (by his Spirit), he is uniquely able to save sinners. Nobody else has his qualifications."

Many today are attempting to reach God in their own way, ignoring the claims of Christ. The English explorer William Perry took his crew to the Arctic Ocean to chart the far north. He calculated the team's position using the stars. Then they began the dangerous and exhausting trek north, hour after hour. They stopped to check their position hoping they had made progress. What they found was not what they had expected. Though they had been traveling north they found they were further south than when they began their trek north. They double-checked their readings. Then they realized they were trying to make progress while walking on an ice flow. The ice flow was moving south faster than they were walking north.

Could that be where some of you are today in your spiritual journey? You think you're making progress but you're on an ice flow that is moving in the wrong direction. In other words you have misplaced your trust.

Jesus used a similar illustration as he concluded his message, bringing his audience to a place of decision as recorded in Matthew 7:24-27. He said,

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had the foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, and the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house, and it fell with a great crash."

What is your house built on this morning? The rock Jesus Christ or the sand of your own choosing? Your soul hangs in the balance. Are you trekking on the solid ground of God's truth that you've heard this morning or walking on an ice flow that is taking you in the wrong direction?

If you are apart from Christ this morning, As Paul said "God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (2 Corinthians 5:20)




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