The Power And Presence of God In Us

The life of Jesus is an astounding move by God to enter history and share the joys and sorrows of humanity in the most personal manner possible. Jesus forged a path to total and eternal victory and freedom through his life, death and resurrection.

God’s next move is also stunning. He sent his Spirit, his personal presence, to live in the ‘heart’ of every follower of Jesus. Whether leader or laborer, man or woman, young or old, God is with his people always through his indwelling Holy Spirit.

The work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians is comprehensive. God’s Spirit begins before people are saved by enabling each one to understand the deadly outcome of disobeying God (sin) and the amazing salvation available through God’s grace. Jesus told his followers about this work of the Holy Spirit. He said that the Counselor (God’s Spirit) will convict people of sin (John 16:8-9).

The Holy Spirit is intimately involved in salvation by faith in Jesus, the “new birth.” When a man named Nicodemus questioned Jesus, the Lord assured him that he could only enter God’s kingdom by being born again. When Nicodemus hesitated, Jesus assured him that the Spirit is like the wind, invisible yet working to bring new life in God’s people (John 3:1-16).

The moment a person exercises saving faith in Jesus Christ, that new believer is baptized by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). God’s Spirit takes up residence in the Christian’s life (1 Corinthians 6:19). The presence of God’s Spirit in a life is a seal of God’s ownership and a ‘down payment’ on the eternal inheritance that awaits all God’s sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:13-14).

The New Testament contains four commands related to the Holy Spirit. First, believers are charged to be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another with songs, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks for all things in the name of the Lord Jesus to God the Father, and submitting to one another in the fear of the Lord (Ephesians 5:18-21).

Second, followers of Jesus are instructed to walk by the Spirit, so that we do not fulfill the desire of the ‘flesh’ (our broken human nature that urges us to rebel against God). If we are led by the Spirit then we are no longer trying to please God by following rules and regulations, which is futile. Since we live by the Spirit, we keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25).

Finally, Christians are given two warnings about the Holy Spirit. Believers are not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God. We must not ever use unwholesome, angry, and abusive speech. Instead, we are to use our words to build up one another according to the needs at hand, forgiving one another as God, in Christ, forgave each of us (Ephesians 4:29-32).

The other warning is not to quench the Spirit, or not to put out the Spirit’s fire. Joyful living, constant prayer, giving thanks in all circumstances, receiving God’s prophetic word, these things fuel the refining and empowering fire of God’s presence in our ‘hearts.’

May God’s Spirit fill us and empower us to live in victory,

Brother Richard

 

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Not Under Law

In Paul’s letters to the churches he tells followers of Jesus that they are no longer “under law.” What does this mean?

In the New Testament, “the law” is usually a reference to the Ten Commandments and their related rules and regulations (recorded mostly in Exodus and Leviticus). This code was given by God through Moses to the Hebrews after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.

The law was not given to the Hebrew slaves as a pathway to freedom from bondage in Egypt. God did not send Moses to the Hebrew slaves with the law, telling them that he would deliver them from bondage if they kept the law. God delivered the Hebrew slaves from cruel bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt because they were willing simply to trust the Lord and to follow God’s chosen leader: Moses.

Once free of Egyptian servitude, God brought the Hebrew people to Mt. Sinai where he made a covenant with them, which was expressed in writing through the Ten Commandments and their related regulations, the law.

The law described a life that reflected God’s holiness, a life that was pleasing to God, a life that was distinct from the surrounding nations. The Mosaic law included details that were especially related to the ancient agricultural society that Israel (the emancipated Hebrew slaves living in the Promised Land) inhabited four thousand years ago. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the statutes and regulations in the law are applicable to any and all cultural environments at all times.

In giving the law to the Hebrews, God offered them a choice. He said that they would be his people if they agreed to follow the law (Exodus 19:5-6). They agreed, so they were “under” the law.

God did not give the Hebrew people the choice of returning to Egypt. In fact, once they were in the wilderness and realized the challenges of living a nomadic lifestyle on their way to the Promised Land, they began to grumble and complain. Their homes, food and plentiful water back in Egypt began to look better when compared to the trek through the desert. They were tempted to return to slavery in Egypt. But God would not allow it. They had made a covenant with him. The only two choices were to die in the desert or move on toward the Promised Land.

This was not the only example of the people’s resistance toward God. Only weeks after agreeing to the covenant, they set up an idol, the golden calf, and worshiped it. They discovered the painful results of being God’s people and not acting like God’s people. To be “under the law” came with blessings and with curses.

The law always recognized the need for God’s mercy. The presentation of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 is immediately followed with instructions to build an altar. In other words, the commandments came with a built-in avenue of restoration for the times when God’s people would fall short of the commandments. God knew they would fall short from the beginning, but he loved them and provided a way of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Much of the Old Testament records the long slow spiritual decline of God’s people Israel. Once they were in the Promised Land, they wanted to be like the surrounding nations. Despite God’s warnings, they followed the idolatrous and sinful ways of their neighbors, bringing God’s discipline time after time. God repeatedly showed mercy, but the people consistently returned to their disobedience and rebellion.

After generations of failure (with occasional bright spots), God sent a prophet named Jeremiah. Jeremiah warned God’s people that their persistent idolatry was about to bring terrible judgment on them. The Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem, the Temple, and many of the people. Those who survived would be carried away to Babylon, expelled from the Promised Land, exiled to a foreign nation.

The people refused to listen to Jeremiah, accusing him of being a traitor to Israel. They believed that the Temple guaranteed them protection. In other words, their position as God’s chosen people, “under the law,” left them free to sin without any worry of God’s punishment. They were wrong. Nebuchadnezzar’s armies destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple, many of the people, and carried the survivors into exile.

Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God promised that the people of Israel would return to the Promised Land after seventy years. He also promised a New Covenant. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told the people that the Old Covenant, the one made at Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, had failed. Not because the covenant was faulty, but because the people were unwilling to obey.

The New Covenant would not be written on tablets of stone (like the Ten Commandments). The New Covenant would be written on the hearts of God’s people. In other words, they would not be “under the law” as an external code of conduct, but they would be subject to a work of God from the inside, in their hearts.

Many of God’s people remained in Babylon when the seventy years were finished. Some returned and struggled to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Hundreds of years went by without any clear sign of the New Covenant which God promised through Jeremiah.

Then the resounding and authoritative voice of John the Baptist broke the silence. And on his heels came Jesus. Jesus’ teaching was so revolutionary that he found it necessary to assure his listeners that he was not abolishing the law or the prophets (the Old Testament). He was fulfilling it.

What did Jesus mean by saying that he was fulfilling the law and the prophets? He fulfilled the law by living a sinless life. He never broke a single command in the law. Jesus fulfilled the prophets by coming as the promised Messiah, eternal Savior and King of God’s people.

Jesus also fulfilled the law and prophets by becoming the ultimate and final sacrifice, thus rendering the Old Testament sacrificial system completed, unnecessary for New Testament/Covenant believers. The sacrificial system was part of the law, but once fulfilled by Jesus, it was no longer needed to provide forgiveness for the people’s sins. Faith in Jesus’ death on the cross has now become the avenue for repentance and restoration.

What about the ethical commands of the law? New Testament believers no longer follow the animal sacrifice in the Old Testament law, but what about the commandments related to righteous living (morality)? Jesus clearly affirmed Old Testament instruction about how to live in a way that is pleasing to God. He offered a memorable summary of the law in two commands: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used a formula to introduce his teachings about the ethical demands of the law: “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you,” etc. At times he was referring to established commands from the Old Testament law, like the commandments forbidding adultery and murder. In these cases, he broadened the scope of the commands. For example, when teaching about murder, he expanded the command to a prohibition against anger. “You have heard that is was said, ‘You are not to commit murder and anyone who murders will face judgment,’ but I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will face judgement” and so forth. When teaching about adultery, he expanded the command to a prohibition against lust. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You are not to commit adultery,’ but I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery in his heart.”

At other times Jesus seems to be reversing the Old Testament law. Instead of keeping one’s vows (as called for by the law), his followers were not to swear at all. Instead of exacting an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth (as defined in the law), his followers were to turn the other cheek. If these examples seem arguable, his declaration that all foods are clean comes without a hint of ambiguity.

In addition, Jesus also seems to address erroneous interpretations and applications of the Old Testament laws, usually advanced by the Pharisees and Sadducees. For example, he refused to follow their version of Sabbath-keeping, resulting in their accusation that he was breaking the law. Jesus also revealed a hierarchy of importance in the law, noting that divorce was a concession, not a command, thus making the design for marriage a priority over the ‘command’ for divorce.

Clearly, Jesus had a complex and nuanced understanding of the law. He fulfilled it with his life. He affirmed it with his teaching, including corrections of improper interpretations. But he also made at least one dramatic change: cancelling the prohibitions against ritually unclean foods.

One might try to reconcile these various attitudes about the Old Testament law by saying that Jesus affirmed the moral law but altered the ceremonial law. But this distinction is difficult to maintain. A serious difficulty with this approach is the fact that it is not advanced by the writers of the New Testament.

A better distinction might be between laws for holy living (moral law) and laws for restoration and forgiveness (animal sacrifices and the related rituals). In this case, we can say that Jesus fulfilled all the regulations addressing sacrifices with his sacrificial death on the cross. As a result, the commands related to sacrifices, including the division of food between clean and unclean, would no longer be applicable. But what about freewill and fellowship offerings?

Attempts to systematize Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament law usually seek a reasonable and consistent dividing line between those laws still applicable to New Testament believers and those laws no longer in force. But when the Apostle Paul wrote about the law, he made the sweeping statement that New Covenant/Testament believers are not under law. He made no distinction between sections or divisions in the law.

Like Jesus, the Apostle Paul seems to have a complex understanding of the law. He affirms the law generally and even instructs Christians to follow many specific commands from the law, such as, honoring father and mother, not committing adultery, not murdering, and so forth. Paul wrote that the law is holy, spiritual, and good, high praise that reflects the Psalmist who expressed love and delight in God’s commands.

At Jesus’ baptism, when John hesitated to baptize him, Jesus insisted, saying that it would in some way fulfill all righteousness. Students of the Bible disagree about the exact meaning of Jesus’ statement, but one thing is clear, Jesus says nothing about following the law to fulfill all righteousness. And there was nothing in the law that was equivalent to the baptism of repentance that John was teaching.

Jesus also predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the most visible and popular representation of the law. The system of worship overseen by the Jewish religious leaders was corrupted and unacceptable to God, so it would be brushed aside, just as it was in Jeremiah’s day. Without the temple, sacrifices for sin could not be offered. How would God’s people find forgiveness if they could no longer offer animal sacrifices (since they were forbidden to offer them anywhere but the temple)? Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross took the place (fulfilled) of the temple. He challenged his enemies to destroy “this temple” and he would rebuild it in three days. They thought he was referring only to the Herod’s temple in which they stood, but Jesus’ followers later realized that the three days was a reference to his resurrection. Jesus himself took the place of the temple. Jesus’ ‘body,’ the church, is now the temple, constructed with living stones, which God inhabits by his Spirit.

Jesus’ teaching placed him under hostile suspicion by the Jewish religious leaders. They were afraid that Jesus would tear down the system of beliefs and practices they had built on the Mosaic law. At his trial, they tried twist his statements about tearing down the temple, implying that he was a threat to the established laws given by God through Moses. After Jesus, Paul was also accused by the Jewish religious leaders of teaching against Moses and the law.

Upon closer examination, Paul’s teaching is closely aligned with Jesus’ teaching. In fact, Paul develops Jesus’ teaching about many aspects of God’s unfolding revelation.

Both Jesus and Paul recognized the struggle that followers of Jesus experience in this world. Jesus asked three of his disciples to keep watch with him while he prayed in Gethsemane, just hours before his crucifixion. When they fell asleep, he exhorted them to be more diligent, saying, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Some English Bibles (1984 NIV and New Living Translation) render Jesus’ words as “the body is weak” instead of “the flesh is weak.” The 2011 NIV changed this rendering to “flesh” in order to more accurately reflect the underlying Greek term: sarx (as opposed to soma, which is often rendered as “body” in English versions). Why is this important? Because sarx, “flesh,” becomes a sort of technical term for Paul. The apostle’s use of this term is highly specialized.

In Paul’s writings, ‘flesh’ is not synonymous with “body.” He is not saying that all physical reality is evil. God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, including people, and proclaimed them good. The gospel does not promise that we will be saved from our bodies. Jesus was raised with a glorified body. We will share in his resurrection, having glorified bodies and living in a new heaven and earth, a creation free of sin and suffering and crying and dying.

The book of Genesis tells us that God’s good creation is broken because of sin. People are broken, not because we are born into physical bodies, but because we are born with a broken human nature that is prone to disobey God. This state of being broken is what Paul means when he uses the term ‘flesh.’

Like Jesus, Paul describes the believer’s life in this age as a conflict between ‘flesh’ and spirit. In Paul, however, spirit becomes Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, God’s invisible, personal, powerful presence in the world today and in the lives of Christians in a more intimate way. In fact, since first-century Greek was written in all capital letters (which means that all decisions about using lower- and upper-case letters are editorial in modern versions of the New Testament), then we might wonder if Jesus’ statement should be rendered, “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Either way, Jesus is setting up a struggle between his followers and ‘the flesh.’

Paul’s solution for dealing with the ‘flesh’ is to realize that it is ‘crucified,’ passing away. He wrote that those who belong to Jesus have crucified the ‘flesh’ with its passions and desires. Believers are buried with Jesus through baptism, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, they too may live a new life. This reflects Jesus’ charge to his followers to deny self, take up a cross, and follow him. A cross, of course, was the Roman instrument of execution that was used to kill Jesus. To take up a cross and follow seems like a contradiction. Cross stands for death and follow reflects life. Jesus’ compact statement made more sense after his resurrection. What does it mean? The old life, the broken human nature, the ‘flesh,’ is passing away and the new life in Christ, eternal life, will remain forever. For this reason, believers must “count” or “consider” the ‘flesh’ to be ‘crucified,’ ‘dead,’ and live by the power of God’s Spirit instead of by the passions and desires of the ‘flesh.’

The Early Church obviously took these words figuratively. There is no record in the book of Acts of church members rushing out to find a Roman to crucify their physical bodies (the physical body is not the culprit). The practical expression of this truth is one’s daily ‘walk,’ or lifestyle. Does it reflect rebellion against God (unrighteousness), or does it reveal love for God (a life of holiness and obedience, bearing spiritual fruit)?

These realities in the lives of believers raised questions about the relationship between Jesus’ followers and the Old Testament law, for it was in the context of teaching these truths that Paul wrote, “If you are led by the Spirit, then you are not under law.”

It is helpful to consider the historical context in which Paul wrote these provocative words. Both Jesus and Paul insisted that God invites people from all nations and walks of life to participate in his kingdom. Jesus said that many will come from the east and west and take their places with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, a reference to the nations (Gentiles). Jesus irritated the religious leaders from Jerusalem by reaching out to tax collectors and sinners. On another occasion he shocked even his followers by reaching out to a Samaritan woman. Jews considered the Samaritans to be hopelessly ‘unclean.’

Paul reflected this aspect of Jesus’ teaching by preaching the gospel to Gentiles and planting churches throughout the Roman Empire, churches that included both Jews and non-Jews (the nations). In addition, Paul insisted that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These three contrasts represented a belief that Christianity welcomed all classes of people, requiring only faith in Christ, not conversion to Judaism.

Paul traveled from city to city in the first-century Roman world preaching the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus. His routine was to begin his work in each city by first teaching in the local Synagogue. Typically, many Jews and Gentiles would joyfully receive the good news and put saving faith in Christ.

After a while, however, some of the Gentiles would distort the grace of God into a license to live in unrestrained sin. If God will forgive every sin in Christ, then why not ‘enjoy’ sin to the fullest? The Jews were horrified. They knew God’s Old Testament law about living holy lives as God’s people. They mistakenly concluded that Paul’s message about God’s grace was flawed. The Jews stepped in to ‘correct’ Paul’s message, insisting that the Gentiles become full-fledged Jews, under the law, to truly be God’s people and live in a way that is pleasing with God.

Of course, one of the key features of the law was circumcision. Jews circumcised all their males as an outward sign of membership in the people of God. Paul refused to back down and mix law and grace (a cancellation of grace, he asserted). In his letter to the Galatians he insisted that circumcision was no longer necessary to be a member of God’s household and even said that Gentiles who agreed to circumcision were falling from God’s grace in Christ and bringing upon themselves the curse of the law!

Paul agreed with the Jews that commitment to God should lead to a life of righteousness, not sin. This is another point of continuity between Jesus and Paul. Jesus insisted that authentic followers of God will live in a way that produces spiritual fruit. Paul agreed, writing that the Spirit-led life will be obvious from the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and other such things. And he adds, there is no law for these types of things.

Paul came into sharp dispute with the Jews when they promoted imposing the law in order to control the ‘flesh.’ Paul’s goal was not control, but crucifixion. The ‘flesh’ was not to be subdued; it was to be ignored entirely. To return to the law was to return to the failed Old Covenant and to retreat from the glorious New Covenant.

The ‘flesh,’ Paul asserts, cannot be controlled by law. In fact, the ‘flesh’ insures that people will resist and rebel against God’s law. All who break the law are condemned by the law, cursed. Since Jesus died to free God’s people from the curse of the law, Paul is adamant that a return to the law is foolishness. Why give up one’s freedom in Christ to return to certain death?

Paul also realized that the ‘flesh’ in religious people can produce an ugly spiritual pride. Some people mistakenly think that God’s law is a sort of check list that they can present for his approval. God, they imagine, will ignore the commands they break, grading on a curve, treating the law like a test in high school: nine out of ten is a passing grade. James assures us that stumbling at one point in the law is breaking all of it because it is disobedience to God, the author of the entire law.

Paul is certainly not saying that the law is a curse. He is saying that the law condemns all who cannot follow it. This is precisely why the sacrificial system was given with the law. Without it, the law would have left God’s people condemned because of their disobedience, their inability to obey completely.

In addition, we must note that Paul is not equating the law with God’s word. Paul did not write that Spirit-led believers are not under God’s word. God’s word includes the law but it is much more. Primarily, God’s word is the account of his marvelous work of redemption in this age. So, God’s word is more than the law.

Both Jesus and Paul insisted that the relationship between God’s people and the law was somehow altered. Jesus proclaimed all foods clean, even though the Old Testament law was filled with prohibitions about food. Paul insisted that the Galatians not be circumcised, even though the Old Testament law (and before that, God’s instruction to Abraham) imposed circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and his people.

On one occasion, a wealthy young man asked Jesus what he must do to get eternal life. He claimed to have kept the law. Jesus assured him that strict adherence to the law was insufficient. Instead, Jesus urged him to sell everything, give to the poor, and come follow him. Jesus did not say that the law was wrong. He did say that it was insufficient. The law addressed giving to the poor, but never required such a radical move. Jesus was calling his followers to something both like and unlike the Old Testament law.

Both Paul and Jesus insist that God’s people turn away from sin and produce spiritual fruit. They agree that God’s grace does not free God’s people to sin, but to live in a manner that is pleasing to God, brings glory to God, and advances his kingdom. Jesus and Paul do not hesitate to use the commands in the law to define a righteous lifestyle, but not to produce it.

Paul also included a perspective on the law that develops Jesus’ statement about fulfilling the law. The apostle wrote that the law was a sort of slave master, a kind of ‘nanny’ that exerts control over a person until Christ comes. God sent Jesus to be born under law in order deliver/redeem those under law. Jesus Christ is the culmination of the law and all those who are “in Christ” or “under grace” instead of “under law” share this culmination of the law.

So, on the positive side, the law can serve as a ‘nanny’ or ‘supervisor’ that brings us to Christ. On the negative side, those who remain under the law have missed the highest purpose of the law. Instead, they remain in the bondage of the law, never freed by Christ to live the new life, led by the Spirit.

What conclusions can we draw about this important subject?

First, the transition from Old Testament to New Testament did not erase or remove the helpfulness of the commands and instructions included in the Old Testament law. They still provide insight into the person of God. Holiness is not redefined. Righteousness reflects the unchanging character of God.

Second, the move from Old to New Testament did not remove the need for sinners to be forgiven. It did not remove the need for God’s grace, but this is precisely where the differences between Old and New arise. In the Old Testament, God’s forgiveness was available through animal sacrifices. In the New Covenant, Jesus has become the final and complete sacrifice for all the sins of God’s people. The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Now, the personal sacrifices made by Jesus’ followers are a reflection of Jesus’ sacrifice. The law pointed toward this fulfillment in Christ.

Another continuity between the two testaments is the condition of the human heart, the ‘flesh.’ In the Old Testament, people abused the law and the sacrificial system, mistakenly concluding that God’s covenant guaranteed them protection from painful discipline when they insisted on disobeying.

Our hearts are still corrupted by the ‘flesh.’ Though condemned and doomed, the flesh still exerts an influence in the lives of believers to the extent that we allow it. The flesh is crafty and creative in justifying sin. Believers are imperfect, a work in process, and as such often need objective standards to assist in growth and accountability. God’s descriptions of holy living, whether recorded in Old or New Testament, still provide guidance in holy living. These descriptions, however, do not justify us before God. Only faith in Jesus can bring redemption.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about the relationship between Old and New Testaments is expressed by Jeremiah. The Old Covenant was external, written on stones. The New Covenant is internal, put in our minds and written on our hearts. The one writing is God’s Holy Spirit. Believers are sealed with the Spirit, called upon to be filled by the Spirit and to walk by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit is the expression of God’s grace, which was purchased by Jesus. Why go back to an external written code when we have the Author’s presence and power in our hearts?

The Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel prophesied to God’s people during that terrible time when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies, deporting the Jewish survivors to a pagan nation far from their homes. At the end of his book of prophecy, Ezekiel records a vision of an ideal relationship between God and Israel.

In Ezekiel’s description of the sacrificial system, like the earlier Mosaic law, he gives exact commands and instructions about worship and offerings in the temple, even dictating the exact amount of grain for each different offering. Three times, however, the instruction deviates from such fine detail, instead saying that that grain offering is to be “as much as he pleases”! Instead of a predetermined amount carefully defined by a law, the worshiper was free to express his reverence for God according to his heart.

This obscure passage from an Old Testament prophet raises the question about how God’s people will approach him. Given the freedom to choose, would the worshiper’s heart demand that he be selfish and withhold a generous offering, giving God the leftovers, or even less? Or would his heart inspire him to give sacrificially out of a burning love for the Lord? Here, in the pages of the Old Testament is a shaft of light, hinting at another way of living in relationship with the Lord, a way that includes unprecedented freedom, a heart inclined toward the Lord.

Marriage illustrates this well. A husband can fulfill the law by merely avoiding adultery. His marriage may be without love and affection for his wife, but technically he can claim to have fulfilled the law for marriage. Love inspires so much more. A healthy marriage has holy boundaries, yes, but it is far more. A healthy marriage includes positive actions that express love. A healthy marriage is not merely “under law,” but guided by love. God’s New Covenant in Christ soars beyond all minimum requirements.

John’s Gospel says that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. God is calling us to move on from being under law and enjoy a life under grace. Grace is no pretext for sin, but freedom to love, just as God loved us in Christ. The daily question for a Christian is certainly not, “What can I get away with today and still be saved?” Nor should the question be, “What is the minimum standard necessary for being right with God?” The question for the Spirit-led follower of Jesus is this, “How can I express the Lord’s love to the fullest?”

May God’s Holy Spirit enable us to live free and love freely,

Brother Richard

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Wind, Fire and Tongues: God’s Spirit In Us

God’s Holy Spirit is his invisible, personal, powerful presence in the world today. The Holy Spirit is not a mysterious impersonal energy force that binds the universe together. God’s Spirit is like Jesus, a co-equal and eternal part of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God’s Holy Spirit was active in the Old Testament as early as creation. Early in Genesis we read that God’s Spirit was hovering over the waters, then God spoke. Later, God’s Spirit empowered select individuals to prophesy and to lead his people. God promised that one day all his people, young and old, men and women, small and great, would be filled with his Spirit.

Jesus affirmed God’s Old Testament promise about the Holy Spirit. After his resurrection, he assured his followers that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit, then he departed.

At the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers were waiting in Jerusalem as the Lord had instructed. Suddenly there came a noise from heaven like a rushing violent wind. Something like tongues of fire appeared, separating and resting on each of them. They were all filled with the Spirit and began speaking in other tongues.

At Pentecost, God portrayed the powerful presence of his Spirit in three important ways: wind, fire, and tongues. Earlier, Jesus told Nicodemus that God’s Spirit is like the wind. We cannot see the wind, but we see its effects. God’s Holy Spirit is invisible, but we can see the lives changed by his presence.

Wind also reminds us that air is necessary for life. We must breathe the air or die. In the same way that our physical bodies must have air to live, our souls require the presence of God’s Spirit, the wind of God, to give us life. Without the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit, our spirits are dead.

In addition to wind, God’s Spirit was portrayed as fire. When God brought the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, his presence led them at night, appearing like a pillar of fire. When the glory of the Lord settled on Mt. Sinai, at the presentation of the 10 Commandments, God’s glory appeared to the people as a consuming fire.

Our God is a consuming fire. The fire of his holy presence burns away all that is corrupt and sinful. God’s Spirit refines us, making us pure and holy as he is holy.

The final representation of God’s Spirit at Pentecost was tongues. In the Old Testament it was common for people to prophesy when God’s Spirit came on them, to speak the word of God boldly, giving the people supernatural revelations from heaven.

At Pentecost, Jesus’ followers miraculously spoke in languages from throughout the world, languages they never knew before. This amazed Jews who were in Jerusalem from various countries. They all heard Galilean followers of Jesus speaking in their various native languages.

Jesus’ followers at Pentecost spoke the mighty deeds of God boldly and openly. The tongue is an appropriate symbol for God’s Spirit because he enables God’s people to speak the wonderful things of God in a powerful manner.

God’s Holy Spirit is our wind, fire, and tongue. He gives us new life (eternal life), he refines us (makes us holy), and he enables us to speak boldly for the Lord (witnessing). What a blessing it is to have God’s Spirit in our lives!

May God’s Spirit always inspire and empower us,

Brother Richard

 

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Why Are We Baptists?

Why do we baptize? First, Jesus was baptized and we want to be like Jesus. In addition, Jesus commands his followers to baptize, and we want to obey Jesus. But what is the meaning of baptism?

After his resurrection, Jesus instructed his followers to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He commanded not merely any type of baptism, but a certain kind of baptism, a baptism that recognizes the Bible’s revelation of God as three in one. In other words, Christian baptism.

Baptism in the New Testament starts with John the Baptist. John’s listeners were familiar with the Old Testament laws about using water in certain rituals for spiritual cleansing, but John’s baptism went further.

John’s was a baptism of repentance. He called on people to turn away from disobedience against God. He baptized those who responded by immersing them in the Jordan River, signifying a comprehensive spiritual cleansing, a radical life change.

John insisted that his baptism was merely preparation for a greater baptism, one which would come through a greater messenger. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

When Jesus appeared, John recognized him as the one sent by God, the one John was preparing the people to receive. Like John, Jesus also preached repentance, calling on people to turn away from a lifestyle of disobeying God.

But Jesus went beyond John. Jesus provided forgiveness for disobedience by sacrificing himself on the cross as a sin offering. And Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven, sending God’s Holy Spirit to empower his followers with a new life that is pleasing to God and fruitful for his kingdom.

John’s words were fulfilled in the Early Church. Baptism in Jesus’ name is a sign of receiving God’s Holy Spirit, the invisible, personal, powerful presence of God. God’s Spirit is a fire that purifies the life of the believer, a lifelong process of being changed into the image of Christ.

The symbolic meaning of Christian baptism is elegantly and powerfully communicated in Romans 6: Believers are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. This demonstrates that Christian baptism is by immersion. It is a picture of death and resurrection, the old life of sin is buried and dead, the believer is raised to walk in a new life.

Finally, John, Jesus, and the Early Church all baptized only those who responded by faith to their message. Baptism is for believers. Baptizing those whom we hope will believe in the future creates a group mixed with believers and unbelievers. The Church consists of believers.

So Christian baptism is a symbolic act done by immersion to everyone who has exercised saving faith in God’s Son Jesus, which begins with repentance. It is a public act affirming that the person is a new creation, forgiven and reconciled to God the Father, sealed and empowered by the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

“Baptist” is a name that was given generations ago to those who dared to practice Christian baptism even though it was out of step with the institutional churches of the day. Baptists have endured and thrived because our faith and practice is built firmly on the immovable rock of God’s eternal truth.

May the fire of God’s Holy Spirit purify us for God’s service and God’s glory,

Brother Richard

 

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Jesus: Failure or Focused?

When Jesus was arrested and condemned to die, everyone seemed to be terribly confused. Peter was so confused that he denied even knowing Jesus, not once, but three times. Judas was so confused that he betrayed Jesus, with a kiss!

The Jewish religious leaders had so much hatred for Jesus that they were willing to lie, cheat and murder. They condemned Jesus then tried to convince the Roman governor, Pilate, that Jesus was a threat to Rome, hoping he would execute Jesus.

Pilate interviewed Jesus and concluded that he was no threat to the Empire. He knew that the religious leaders had turned Jesus over to him out of envy. They were jealous because Jesus was so popular with the people of Israel.

Pilate also got a note from his wife urging him to have nothing to do with “that righteous man” Jesus. Why? Because in a dream that very day she suffered much because of Jesus. Romans took dreams seriously.

So, from his interview of Jesus, from his knowledge of the Jewish religious leaders’ real motives, and from his wife’s dream and warning, Pilate was surrounded by evidence that Jesus was innocent. What would he do?

The governor had a custom to release one prisoner to the crowd during the feast. Pilate brought out a notorious prisoner named Barabbas and gave the crowd a choice between him and Jesus. Pilate hoped that they would choose Jesus over such a dangerous man. Then he could set Jesus free.

The crowd surprised Pilate by choosing Barabbas. They were persuaded by the religious leaders to insist that Jesus be crucified. They threatened to riot. So, in a pathetic attempt at absolving himself of responsibility, Pilate washed his hands in front of the crowd and proclaimed himself innocent of Jesus’ blood.

Surprisingly, the crowd accepted responsibility for Jesus’ death, saying “His blood is on us and on our children!” Just days earlier, on Sunday, the crowds accompanied Jesus into the city with palm branches and praises, shouting, “Hosanna!” By Friday morning they were persuaded to shout, “Crucify him!”

The crowds were fickle and foolish. Pilate was worried about his political power. The religious leaders were worried about their personal honor. Politics, religion, and popular opinion all turned against Jesus.

If Jesus came for political power, he failed. If he came for religious honor, he failed. If he came for popularity with the people, it didn’t work. What was Jesus’ goal?

Barabbas was a man guilty of murder and insurrection, worthy of death. A Roman cross had his name on it. But Barabbas was unchained and released. A guilty and unworthy man walked away free.

Jesus, a man everyone knew was innocent, allowed himself to be taken and condemned. He died on a cross that had Barabbas’ name on it. Jesus came to die for the unworthy. Jesus came to die for sinners, for us.

If we chase political power, religious honor, or popularity, we have parted ways with Jesus. Jesus’ mission is to save lost sinners.

May God’s Holy Spirit keep us focused on our kingdom mission,

Brother Richard

 

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The Pope Made A Mistake With The Lord’s Prayer

The Pope says we should change the Lord’s Prayer.  Pope Francis is the world leader of the Roman Catholic Church. News reports say that he believes our English rendering of one phrase in the Lord’s prayer is wrong.

The phrase in question is this: “Lead us not into temptation.” Jesus taught his followers to ask God in prayer not to lead them into circumstances that would tempt them to sin (to disobey God).

The Pope takes issue with this because he believes a loving Father is never “pushing” his children into temptation (note: the prayer says “lead” not “push”). The Pope endorses the following rendering: “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

Apparently Pope Francis thinks that his version makes God sound more friendly. Did Jesus reveal an unfriendly God? Was Jesus having a bad day when taught the Lord’s Prayer? Should we listen to the Pope over Jesus?

First, the Pope’s suggestion finds zero support from the thousands of ancient Bible manuscripts. Matthew’s Gospel is clear and has been faithfully rendered for generations. The Pope has no linguistic leg to stand on. The word is “lead,” not “fall.” His view sounds more like a surrender to popular opinion than a scholarly treatment of the biblical text.

Second, the Pope’s suggestion is out of step with the rest of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation we find clear examples of God testing his people by leading them into temptation.

Job would be surprised by the Pope’s understanding of God. God allowed Satan to wreak havoc in his life. As a result, Job’s wife tempted him with this advice, “Curse God and die!” Job refused.

Peter would be surprised by the Pope. Jesus told him, “Satan has asked to sift you like wheat.” What did Jesus do? He said that he would pray for Peter, not that the temptation would be removed, but that Peter’s faith would not fail.

Jesus would be surprised by the Pope. The Bible tells us that God’s Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness. Why? To be tempted by the devil!

True, in the book of James we read that God cannot be tempted by evil and he never tempts anyone to do evil. Is this a mixed message? No. A clear distinction exists between temptations meant to cause defeat and tests meant to encourage growth.

Testing is a teaching tool meant to identify strengths and weaknesses. God sometimes tests his people by leading us into temptations. His desire is to reveal our weak spots and inspire us to trust his word and to walk in his ways.

Satan is the Tempter. He tempts us to destroy us. God’s plan for us is not doubt and destruction, but faith and deliverance. God trains us to walk in the power and wisdom of his Spirit.

The Pope’s suggestion misrepresents God. Wrong expectations about God are dangerous. If we believe that God will never lead us into temptation, we may have a crisis of faith when he does.

Better to accept the Bible’s clear testimony about God’s ways and live accordingly. In other words, let’s build our lives on God’s truth, not on popular opinion.

May the Spirit of God not lead us into temptation,

Brother Richard Foster

 

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Teaching Kids About God

In Psalm 78 the people of God say, “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord . . . so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children” (NIV).

The Bible addresses this subject frequently. God instructs his people to tell their children about him. God’s work of redemption is multi-generational. Stretching from Genesis to Revelation, God’s plan spans this entire age.

This is our generation. We are a link in the chain of God’s work that reaches back to Jesus and even further to the patriarchs of faith, a chain that will be forged into the future until the day Jesus returns. Those who came before us taught us about God. Now it is our turn.

We teach children about God.

Teaching children about God can be intimidating. God is a big subject. So the Lord has given us a method for teaching kids about him which is tried and true: Bible stories. The Bible is filled with accounts of God working in various people’s lives.

By telling kids the stories in the Bible we transmit great theological truths to them. As they grow and reflect on the accounts in Scripture, God’s Spirit will continue revealing himself to them. Every Bible story is a theological package filled with eternal truth. Telling Bible stories and hearing them is a theological journey that unfolds over a lifetime.

What a joy it is to be the first one to tell children about Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Moses and the Ten Commandments, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions’ den, Jesus feeding the 5,000, Jesus’s death and resurrection, and so much more.

We teach children about God by telling them Bible stories.

Psalm 78 goes on to say, “Then they would put their trust in God” (NIV). The goal of telling kids about God is not just to inform them. The goal is to inspire trust in them, to encourage them to exercise saving faith in the Lord.

As New Testament believers, we understand that trust in God means faith in Jesus Christ. We want children to become followers of Jesus, filled with God’s Spirit and fulfilling God’s call on their lives, which includes telling kids about God when they become adults.

We teach children about God so that they will trust and obey Jesus.

May God’s Spirit inspire us to be faithful in our generation,

Brother Richard Foster

See also What Happens When We Fail to Tell Our Children Bible Stories?

 

 

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