[Aug 31]—Swim Against The Stream

            We’re supposed to offer ourselves back to our Lord, completely and wholeheartedly and unreservedly. Each day, actually each moment, we have to make a conscious choice to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. That’s the worship he’s looking for, and quite frankly, that’s the only type he accepts.
            But how does this work out in our daily life?
            There’s so much in this verse, but I don’t know of any other way to approach it except by submitting my notes on it:

·         “Do not conform,” per MacArthur, the wording in the Greek implies that his readers have been doing this already and must stop doing it. The NET Study Bible says that likely it’s a passive middle, so it’d be better rendered as “Do not let yourselves be conformed any longer.” The passive is very very important here. To be conformed to the pattern of this world is not something you need to put any effort into. It’s not something you need to make a conscious choice about. You just drift along, don’t think about it too much, and bingo! you’re squeezed into the mold of this world.

·         “to the pattern of this world.” Again, not the best way to render it, according to the commentators I’ve read. It’s not referring to the physical world, nor is he encouraging us to be nonconformists to the basic traditions of our culture. Again, here’s MacArthur: “Better translated, ‘age,’ which refers to the system of beliefs, values—or the spirit of the age—at any time current in the world. This sum of contemporary thinking and values forms the moral atmosphere of our world and is always dominated by Satan (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4).”

·         “but be transformed” metamorphousthe, look familiar? It’s the same word we get “metamorphosis” from. We need to be transformed, but really it’s talking about changing our outside to match what’s inside us. The Spirit of Christ who lives inside of us needs to be revealed to the outside world. And unlike being conformed to the spirit of this age, you do have to make a conscious choice to do this. Like a salmon, you have to go upstream.

·         “by the renewing of your mind.” How do we do this? How do we renew our mind? By filling our minds with his word. As his word runs through our minds, it acts like a filter that you run water through (sorry about the mixed metaphor). We need to hide his word in his heart—read it, listen to it, meditate on it—so that we don’t sin against him.

·         “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is” You want to know what God’s will is? You want his direction for your life? It all starts here. You expose your mind to his word, he shows you what his will is through it, and your spirit (with the Spirit’s help) will agree with it. And even if you’re exposed to other voices which claim to be true and right and from God, you’ll be able to “test” them by holding them up against the measuring rod of what he’s already said to you.

·         “his good, pleasing and perfect will” Not that he has a will that isn’t good, pleasing, and perfect. But this reminds us that his will for us is good, pleasing, and perfect. What’s my favorite aphorism? I gotta get this copyrighted: “No one in the history of mankind who did things God’s way ended up regretting it.”

               Again, it all starts with my thought life. All around me is the spirit of this age, pressing upon me, pressuring me to let myself be squeezed (again) into its mold. Will I give in, or will I rinse out my head?

Lord Jesus, it gets really hard sometimes. Please use your word to cleanse out my head, my heart, my mind. Where my thinking doesn’t match yours, mine needs to change. Please help me, as only you can. 

[Aug 30]—Human Sacrifices

            Yesterday we were introduced to the practical section of Pauls’ magnum opus: chapters 12-16. The opening verse, as most English translators put it, starts out with “therefore.” Because of all he’s done for us, this is what type of people you should be and how you should act.
            The first thing we should do, the umbrella under which everything else follows, is to offer a sacrifice to him. Not a dead animal; he wants living human sacrifices now. Both once-and-for-all at the moment of salvation, and moment-by-moment as we live in this sin-wrecked world, we’re to be given over to him as completely as one of those animals burning on the altar.
            Paul says that this, as the NIV puts it, is our “true and proper” worship. This phrase translates the Greek word Logiken, which is related to the word “logical.” That’s why the NKJV translates it as “reasonable,” and most other translations at least present it at least as an alternative. After all he’s done for you, it’s only reasonable for you to offer yourself to him.
            The other way to render it, as per most translations, is as “spiritual.” The NIV Study Bible says it’s “[not] merely ritual activity but the involvement of heart, mind and will.” That’s why the newest version of the NIV translates as it “true and proper,” trying to capture both meanings, which is certainly appropriate.
            Whether Paul means “reasonable” or “spiritual” (as in from the heart), I’d like to focus on the last word of today’s verse: “worship.” The word, latreian, as per several translations, can also be rendered as “service,” which makes sense. There’s a reason Christians commonly call what we do on Sunday morning the “worship service,” and the NASB even combines the two words together for clarification: “service of worship.”
The reason I’m going into such detail in the last paragraph is because I sincerely believe that we really need to expand our understanding of worship. Yes, I believe in meeting with other believers in a local body to worship on Sunday morning (or whatever day, I’m not particular about which day it is). We need that. American Christians are often so caught up in a “Jesus and me” mentality that they don’t realize that they’re part of the Body of Christ. The idea that you can have a personal relationship with Christ without being actively plugged into the Body of Christ is a concept completely foreign to the Bible.
But. . .
Worship is more, much much more, than what you do on Sunday. It’s meant to be a lifestyle. It’s a moment by moment decision that you make to give yourself over to him, completely and permanently.
Let me be specific.
When you see a person in need and (in the name of Jesus) reach out and help them, the Lord takes that as act of worship. When you take concrete steps to deal with that sinful habit that you keep falling into, that’s an act of worship. When you start the day off by praying “Father God, today I’m reporting for duty. Whatever you want me to do, wherever you want me to go, whomever you want me help, whatever burden you want me to pick up or lay down, the answer's ‘yes,’” that’s an act of worship.
And when you worship, both from your heart and soul and in the power of the Spirit, the Lord Jesus takes your (highly imperfect) act of service and makes it acceptable before the Father.
And your Father watches. And smiles.

Lord Jesus, I want to worship you. I want to be living human sacrifice. You might call upon me to die for you, but until then I’m going to do the much harder thing: live for you. By your grace. 

[Aug 29]—No Dead Animals

            Whoa, Keith, looks like you skipped a few chapters there! Yesterday we were in Romans 8, and today we’re in chapter 12! What’s going on?
            I didn’t skip any chapters. I already went through chapters 9-11 when I did a study on how we’re supposed to relate to the Jewish people, which you can read here if you'd like.
            Just to remind you, though, Paul ended that passage of theology on a note of praise, a doxology:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

            If your theology doesn’t lead to doxology, then something’s wrong. And then your theology, if it’s orthodoxy (right belief), should lead to orthopraxy (right lifestyle and actions).
             It all starts with the word “therefore.” Please pay attention to prepositions and conjunctions and other “connecting” words. After eleven chapters of showing what God has done for us, now he spends the remainder of the book (five chapters) about how we should live in the light of this glorious salvation.
            “In view of”: When we know about and think about and ponder 1) where we were, 2) what he’s done, and 3) what he has planned for us, the only right question to ask is “What should we do now?” And here’s where we start to answer that question.
            First and foremost, you need to offer a sacrifice. People under the Old Covenant had offered sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. But there’s a huge difference here. God has no interest in dead sacrifices any more. He wants living ones. We’re to offer our bodies (metonymy for the whole of us) to him as a living sacrifice.
            But here’s the thing to keep in mind. An animal in that culture was extremely valuable. For you to hand it over to a priest, watch him slit its throat, pour out the blood, and then set fire to it was a sacrifice that cost you something. And once you handed that lamb or goat or bull over to the priest, there was no getting it back. I mean, it’s hard to get wool from a lamb or milk from a goat after it’s set on fire. That animal had been completely handed over to God, and you resolved yourself to doing without that animal from now on. It belonged to the Lord, completely and permanently.
            Why am I hammering this home? Because our living sacrifice is supposed to be as much given over to the Lord as that animal burning on the altar. I'm supposed to be as much dead to the world, and alive to God, as that animal. When Paul said in another context that we're not our own, that we’ve been bought at a price, he wasn’t kidding. That’s the truth we have to concentrate on and live out.
            The problem, as someone once told me, is that a living sacrifice keeps crawling off the altar. Yes, in a sense I committed myself to him once and for all when I believed in Christ and submitted to him as my Lord. But I think that Paul isn’t talking about a once-and-for-all submission to him. No, it’s a daily thing. Everyday I have to make the choice to deny myself, pick up my cross, and follow Jesus. Every day, really every moment, I have to decide—in his empowering Spirit—to give myself over to him as much as that animal.
            I have a lot more to say about how Paul describes this is as worship. That’s for tomorrow. In the meantime, let’s commit to living like dead animals.

Lord Jesus, it’d be really foolish to commit myself in any sense to you in my own strength. Only you can give me what I need to do what you command. But in your strength and power, I’ll offer myself to you today.  

[Aug 28]—(No) Separation Anxiety

            Now we come to the final verses of this glorious chapter. As I said at the beginning of this study, if I had to choose, this would be my favorite chapter of the entire Bible. To say I’ve inadequately covered it is to state the obvious and indulge in incredible understatement.
            Paul ends the chapter with two last questions, which he answers not just from theological knowledge or Divine revelation but from personal experience. When he talked about all these persons and things that tried to separate him from Christ and how they’d utterly failed, he knew whereof he spoke.
            First off, just to clear any confusion, when he refers to the “love of Christ,” he’s referring to his love for us, not our love for him. It’s the former that’s all-important here, not our puny love for him. Also, I find it interesting that every single translator I’ve seen renders it as “who,” not “what,” even though he lists such examples as “trouble,” “hardship,” “persecution,” etc., not people. I’m not sure why he put it that way, but of course when we’re tempted to doubt him or even abandon the faith due to persecution, there is someone behind it all, the Enemy of our faith.
            Let’s take these one by one.
            The first list of things that can’t separate us from him is 1) trouble, 2) persecution, 3) famine, 4) nakedness, 5) danger, and 6) sword. No matter what physical hardships we might face in this life, we can know that they can’t separate us from his love.
            What does vs. 36 mean? What’s his point there? I mean, it’s kind of a downer in this glorious context, isn’t it? It’s a quote from Psalm 44:22, as you can tell from the footnotes. According to the NIV Study Bible, it’s there “to show that suffering has always been part of the experience of God's people.” The Psalmists (the sons of Korah) apparently had gone through a lot of persecution for their faithfulness to the Lord, and this was their cry out to him in the midst of their sufferings. The point that the apostle’s making is that suffering for the Lord’s people, the ones he’s chosen and claimed, is nothing new. It’s the norm, not the exception. And if we’re going through it, the last thing we should assume from it is that God has abandoned us. Quite the opposite.
            No, in all these things, no matter what the Enemy throws against us, we’re “more than conquerors.” MacArthur says it’s a Greek compound word, emphasizing that we’re doing more than just conquering; we’re super-conquering.
            Then Paul gives a pretty comprehensive list of whatever else we might face which would theoretically separate us from him, which we might fear. Death is the great separator, after all; when we die physically, we’re separated from our loved ones and everything we’ve known in this life. In fact, Scripture uses it regularly as a term of ultimate separation: death to sin, etc. Maybe death could separate us from him? Absolutely not! On the contrary, death is now the one who escorts us to the arms of the Savior himself. Or Life: Maybe something in life could separate us? Nope. Nothing we experience in this world will sever us from him.
            Or maybe something in the spiritual realm. Angels or demons, each of whom is far more powerful than we, might endeavor to keep us from him. Well, obviously the angels won’t, and regarding the demons? You mean the ones who pled for mercy whenever Jesus came near them? Those guys?
            Paul then exhausts his vocabulary to list those things that will never ever ever separate us from the love of our Savior: Nothing in the present, nothing in the future, nothing in the heights, nothing in the depths, nor anything else in all creation. That’s about as clear as he can make it.
            Are you getting the message here? Nothing in all of God’s creation can separate you from his love. He might seem distant. He might seem like he’s not listening. Your sin might hinder your relationship with him for a time. But in the end, he is yours, and you are his. And nothing you can do, and nothing he will ever do, will change that.

Wow. Your word is pretty clear, as clear as it could be. Nothing the Enemy could ever throw at me could ever separate me from you. I am yours, and you are mine. Thank you.

[Aug 27]—The Fix Is In!

            Once again we have a series of rhetorical questions. And in this case, Paul wants us to imagine a courtroom setting.
            Of course, according to Scripture, it’s not really an issue of us being found guilty sometime in the future. According to John’s Gospel, everyone who hasn’t believed in Jesus is condemned already. I know I’m guilty, Satan (the Prosecutor) knows I’m guilty, the Judge knows I’m guilty, and even my own Defense Attorney knows I’m guilty.
            But then there’s a hitch. The Prosecutor keeps hurling accusations against me, and the Judge keeps saying “Not guilty.” He can accuse me of whatever he wants, he can throw everything—including the kitchen sink—against me, and none of it will stick. Why?
            Because the moment I received Christ, the Judge declared me “Not guilty” since my sins have already been punished. There’s no Double Jeopardy in his courtroom. Even better than “Not Guilty,” he’s declared me to have the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.
            And if God, the Judge over everything seen and unseen, has declared me not only not guilty but completely righteous, then who’s going to successfully bring an accusation against me? The Accuser is never going to get a hearing. The only One who’s qualified to judge me has declared himself to be my adopted Father. So good luck with that. In any other context, the Prosecuting Attorney would immediately hold a press conference claiming “The fix was in! I lost this case before I ever walked into the courthouse!!!”
            The remainder of vs. 34 gives four reasons why I can never ever ever be condemned in God’s courtroom (the only one that matters):

1) My Savior died in my place. He was pierced for my transgressions, he was crushed for my iniquities; the punishment that brought me peace was on him, and by his wounds I am healed. I was just like a sheep, having gone astray; just like everyone else, I turned to my own way; and the Lord laid on him my iniquity, my sin, and my transgressions.

2)  He then rose from the dead. According to Paul in another passage, he was raised to life “for” my justification. The word could also be translated as “because of,” which is how the NASB renders it, and I actually like it better. The word could go either way, and commentators disagree on how to translate/interpret it. But this is the explanation that makes the most sense to me: From MacArthur, “The resurrection provided proof that God had accepted the sacrifice of His Son and would be able to be just and yet justify the ungodly.”

3) He ascended to the right hand of the Father. My Savior passed through the Heavens, walked through the ultimate hero’s welcome, and sat down at the right hand of God. He’s at the place of ultimate authority, second only to the Father himself. This puts the final “stamp of approval” from the Father regarding his work.

4) And finally Paul explicitly assures us that this same Jesus--who died, rose again, and ascended on high—is now pleading on our behalf. He’s the One who intercedes for us. The same One who’s sitting at the right hand of God the Father. If I tried to walk up to the main gate at the White House and tried to get the guard to let me in to talk with the President, you can guess how much luck I'd have. But if I knew the President’s child on a personal basis, I’d be in.

This is so important. Remember, this passage is at the end of an entire chapter dedicated to calming our fears and removing our doubts. When the Accuser comes to you and whispers in your ear, direct him back to your Father. He knows how to deal with this.

Lord Jesus, thank you so much for what you did and am doing for me. But the best is yet to come, isn’t it? Can’t wait.

[Aug 26]—Wrapping Paper

            I remember when I was in the youth group in my church, and we had a really funny older guy named Warren. He always had a one-liner appropriate for every situation, most of the time leaving us in stitches. One time I recall in particular was when we were all at a birthday party (or some other type of party that entailed gift-giving), and as someone was unwrapping their gift, he called out “Be careful with that wrapping paper, it’s rented.” As a 15 year old, I thought it was hilarious.
            I think of that every time I read this verse. Can you imagine saying that for real? Suppose I bought a really expensive gift (like a $1000 watch) for a friend, and as he was unwrapping it, I seriously told him “Hey, be careful with that wrapping paper, it’s rented.”
            That’s a good illustration of what Paul is asking here. Of course this is a rhetorical question, and like the rest of this chapter, he has 10 pounds of deep meaning packed into a one-pound bag. Let’s examine it a little closer.
            The Father, out of love for us, sent his Son down to earth. The Son took on human flesh, was raised in a poor family, in a backwater nation, under the boot-heel of a foreign power. He constantly had to deal with all the frailties endemic to the human condition: Tiredness, hunger, thirst, frustration, etc. He also dealt with lots of things most of us never deal with, like wholesale abandonment by his friends in his hour of need. He was subjected to a show trial, beaten and tortured, rejected by the people he'd come to save and heal, and was nailed to the Cross. He was killed using the most painful, humiliating, and drawn-out method devised by the Roman Empire, people who were experts in killing criminals in the worst possible way—where do you think we got the word “excruciating,” by the way?
            And of course that’s not the worst of it. The physical and emotional agonies were nothing compared to what he endured as the Father laid on him the iniquity of us all. He offered no complaints about anything he underwent, until the Father poured out on Jesus' back the wrath which was due our sin: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
            Paul here is arguing from the greater to the lesser. If the Father was willing to give up his own beloved Son for his enemies, do you think he’d skimp on giving us—his children and co-heirs--things of lesser value? That’s the point of the illustration of the “rented” wrapping paper. After paying over a thousand dollars for a watch for my friend, do you think I’d be worried about saving the wrapping paper?
            Jesus died a horrible death in your place in order to bring you to himself, in order to save you. Do you think he’d skimp on giving you whatever else you need?
            Let’s bring this into the practical realm right now. Maybe you’re in marriage that’s falling apart. Maybe your finances are really hurting right now. Or maybe the last news from the doctor is keeping you up at night.
            He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for you—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give you all things?
            And of course this applies in the next life as well. In the book of Revelation, John exhausted his vocabulary trying to express to us in human terms what the Father has in store for us. As glorious as you imagine your Home to be, I promise that your imagination hasn’t come close to the reality. He spared no expense in bringing you into his Kingdom in the first place. How generous do you think he’s going to be once he gets to lavish on you as his child?
            Please ponder it.

Father, words utterly fail me in expressing how wonderful you are to me. How dare I think of you as stingy or tightfisted when it comes to blessing your children?

[Aug 25]—If God Is For Us. . .

            Now we come into the home stretch of the chapter. These last few verses, as MacArthur puts it, are “a crescendo of questions and answers for the concerns his readers might still have. The result is an almost poetic expression of praise for God's grace in bringing salvation to completion for all who are chosen and believe—a hymn of security.”
            The first question Paul asks is “What, then, shall we say in response to these things?” What “things” is he referring to? Well, in context of the rest of the chapter, he’s talking about anything that might cause us to doubt our position in Christ and his love for us. When we face bad things in this fallen world, from minor disappointments to life-shattering tragedies and soul-crushing injustice, how shall we respond?
            Like a good rabbi, Paul of course answers the question with another question. Sometimes this can be really annoying, but only when the answerer is dodging the question. Paul’s not doing that here; nothing could be further than the truth. No one had suffered and sacrificed for the Good News of Jesus more than he, and if anyone had an excuse to doubt, it was him. And as a person who’d been walking so closely with Christ, he was very well-aware of his own remaining sin and corruption with which he had to struggle on a daily basis.
            But here’s his answer to every problem or doubt in life, both big and small: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
            Think about it for a moment, please.
            This is the God who created everything, who spoke the sun, moon, planets, and stars into existence. He didn’t exert effort into it: He spoke, and they were. This is the God before whom angels dare not expose their faces in the full light of his presence. This is the God before whom demons begged not to send them into the Pit. And. . . this is the God who—in the Person of the Son—defeated Satan, Hell, our sin, and death itself and walked out of his tomb three days after he’d been placed there.
            This is the God who is for you.
            But we need to be careful of our terminology here. What does it mean that God is “for” you? Does that mean that he agrees with all your politics? Does it mean that he smiles upon everything you do? Does it mean that he fights for you in every battle you find yourself in?
            No, but it does mean that he loves you with an everlasting love, that he has chosen you, and that he will never let any real harm come to you. He always has your best interests at heart in all his dealings with you, and any threat that comes against you must get through him first.
I’m reminded of what Abraham Lincoln said: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” That’s my main concern here as well. It’s nice to think that God fights our battles for us. If he's fighting our battles for us, then obviously we can’t lose. But we need to make sure that we are on our Father’s side. David was known as a man who “[fought] the Lord’s battles,” instead of fighting for his own honor or interests or to avenge his own wounded pride. His primary concern was the Lord’s reputation and honor.
But if we're on his side, then he's on ours, and there’s nothing that can really stop us.
Can Satan truly defeat us? How’s about all the demons of hell under the Devil’s command? What about sickness, or financial disaster, or marital strife? Or even death itself? All of them were defeated by the Magnificent One a long time ago.
That’s a wonderful truth, and here’s another: We're forever united with Christ, and his victories are ours. When he defeated all these foes, he defeated them on our behalf. His victory is ours. 
Let those words roll through your mind right now, savor this truth like the finest of foods: If God is for you, then who can prevail against you?

Father God, I thank you that in the truest sense, you are always for me. You always have my very best interests at heart, and as long as I stand behind my Papa, I have nothing to fear. 

[Aug 24]—All Things? Really?!

            Wow. Of all the passages out there, this is undoubtedly the one I’ve looked forward to the least as far as teaching. This has got to be the greatest example of Paul packing 10 pounds of theology into a one-pound bag, and to call this intimidating is the definition of “understatement.”
            Again, what’re my three favorite words when it comes to studying your Bible? Context, context, and context. I’ve heard verse 28 quoted pretty frequently, but most people don’t have the time (or inclination) to look at the surrounding passage.
            First and foremost, this verse is talking about our glorious inheritance in Christ, the benefits of being united to him. Right now, we’re groaning, along with all creation, because we have to live under the consequences of sin. But keep in mind what I noted a couple of days ago: You can’t be frustrated without knowledge about something better. We’re like birds living in a cage, created to soar but having to live in a sin-cursed world and in sin-cursed bodies. Through the eyes of faith, based on what God’s word says, we can see a glimpse in the window of our ultimate Home. And we sigh. And wait.
            What does this have to do with verse 28? Because if all you see with are your physical eyes and human understanding, then verse 28 seems to be a lie. Or worse, a sad and sick joke. As I write this, my wife’s grandfather is struggling with dementia in his later years. His moments of even semi-lucidity are getting fewer and farther between. How can my wife or my Mother-In-Law look at him and square it with God working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to a Divine purpose?
            Or take an earthquake or a flood. An earthquake hits a poor region, where people are barely getting by on a sustenance level. Their already bad situation was just made a hundred times worse. Or imagine watching a loved one slowly and very painfully waste away from cancer.
            How is this an example of God working all things together for good?
            Look, I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this whose stories of sorrow can beat any “suffering” I’ve endured by a country mile. I’d never presume to tell them to “keep your chin up,” or that “better days are coming.”
            But the Lord--who suffered more than you or I would ever dream on Good Friday (the most ironic of names)--has this to say to you: “Everything that you see and everything that you don’t, I’m working into my plan, right now. This plan is for the good of every one of my children, including you. The reason you’re so frustrated is because you dream of something better. And very very soon, I’ll take those dreams and not just fulfill them; I will surpass them in ways you can’t even imagine.”
            But it takes the eyes of faith looking through the lens of Scripture to see this. The only way I’ll be able to accept that he’s working through all things for my good is if I know him on a personal level. I read his promises, believe him through the work of the Spirit, and walk with him on a daily basis. While you’re here in this world, he might reveal to you why he’s doing certain things in your life. But most of the time, he just asks us to, as the hymn puts it so succinctly, “Trust and obey.”
            Dealing with vss. 29-30, I’ve already dealt with them at some length in other contexts. First they deal with my eternal security in Christ. Please pardon me as I quote myself:

“In this passage, Paul lays out before us the unbroken chain of salvation: We were 1) foreknown, 2) predestined, 3) called, 4) justified, and 5) glorified. There is no one in group '1' who isn’t in group '5.' And glorified is past tense, just like all the other adjectives. As far as God is concerned, I'm already sitting with him in Heaven next to Jesus.”

            If you're interested in the topic of eternal security, I've dealt with it pretty extensively here
            Second, as I discussed before, this really gives insight into the “good” that God makes all things in my life work towards. The problem is that while I think that “good” would include good health, lots of money, a wonderful family, etc., to him “good” is being conformed to the likeness of Christ, and my Savior learned obedience from what he suffered. His idea of “good” and my idea of “good” can be very different.
            But one day, once I’m perfectly conformed to the likeness of Christ, I’ll look back, and know that everything, every little difficulty, every heartbreak, and every disappointment has all been worth it.

Lord Jesus, like another man once told you, “I do believe. Help my unbelief.” More trust, more obedience, please. Thank you that you’re using everything in my life for my good and your glory. 

[Aug 23]—The Spirit’s Groans

Romans 8:26-27

            Well, there seems to be a lot of groaning going around, huh? The creation is groaning because it’s been subjected to frustration, and we as believers are groaning because we’re awaiting the redemption of our bodies. Both “groaners” are subject to decay, awaiting a Better Day. But here in today’s passage we see another Person who’s groaning: The Holy Spirit.
            He’s not groaning because he’s complaining, at least not really. What’s this passage talking about?
            Hopefully you’re already aware of the fact that Jesus is our Advocate before the Father. As the author of Hebrews asserted again and again and again (in fact, one of the main points of the book), he’s our Great High Priest, the One who stands between us and the Father, sort of like a Defense Attorney. He pleads our case before the Father, and he reveals the Father to us and mediates blessings down to us. 
            But according to this passage, we have another Intercessor, the Spirit who lives inside of us. Now, this is a great mystery, especially since this is the only passage (of which I’m aware) that speaks about this aspect of the Spirit’s work in our lives.
            Another reason this is mysterious is because Paul doesn’t exactly elaborate on what the Spirit’s doing. What are these “wordless groans,” and how does the Spirit intercede for us? What does he do that Jesus isn’t doing already?
            There are two explanations which I’ve heard. The first interpretation, which we tend to hear from those of a Pentecostal/Charismatic persuasion, is that this is in the sense of “words that cannot be expressed in human language.” They believe that this to be some sort of “Spirit” language, that it’s a reference to speaking in tongues. We don’t know what to pray, so the Spirit within us takes over our mouths and speaks a “prayer language” to the Father on our behalf.
            Now, I don’t buy their explanation, but it could be interpreted that way, and my disagreement certainly isn’t over a theological essential like the Resurrection. The second interpretation, which sounds better to me, is that they’re groanings which are completely wordless, not just unable to be expressed in human language.
            Why do I lean towards the second instead of the first? Why do I think they’re completely wordless? Because of verse 27 and 1 Cor. 2:11 and the point that those verses are making.
            Verse 27 says that he who searches our hearts and minds (God, probably referring to the Father) also knows the mind of the Spirit. And the second part of the verse says that the Spirit intercedes for us “in accordance with the will of God,” “God” again probably referring to the Father.
            1 Cor. 2:11 says “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” I can’t read your mind, and you can’t read mine (thank goodness!). But the Spirit knows the thoughts of God (the Father).
            You see, the Father and the Spirit are in complete unity with each other. They don’t speak to each other because they don’t need to speak with each other. They’re in complete sync with each other. Just like the Father and Son are “one” (one in purpose, one in nature, one in essence), the Spirit and the other Persons of the Trinity are “one” as well.
            So how does this affect us? Remember, I’m a practical theologian because the Bible is a practical book, even when it’s delving into a grand mystery like this. It doesn’t tell us anything about God without a purpose behind the telling, without a way that it should affect us in our daily lives.
            How should this truth affect us? Well, one way I see it affecting me is that I shouldn’t worry so much about how I pray. Yes, you should be as theologically correct as possible: It doesn’t do to think thoughts about God which aren’t worthy of him. But I shouldn’t worry so much about finding the exact right words to say to the Father. Eloquence is not so important to him. Sincerity is, of course. But even the most sincere among us still have lingering sin and distractions and selfishness and baser motives. Or I might even be sincere yet praying sincerely for the wrong thing. That’s why the Spirit “helps us in our weakness.” I can take comfort in the fact that the Spirit takes my far-less-than-perfect prayers and brings them to the Throne and makes them exactly what the Father wants to hear. How can he do this? Because he—so to speak—is reading the mind of the Father and knows what the Father wanted to hear in the first place.
            Again, the point is not to worry so much about the words, nor even about your sincerity. The point is to pray. Today’s passage assumes that we’re praying. Just go to him and open your heart to him. And rest assured that you have the Spirit in your corner, making the imperfect perfect in the Father’s ear.

Holy Spirit of God, I certainly need you. If Paul could talk about his “weakness” before the Father, how much more me! But in my weakness, you take my fumbling prayers and make them beautiful in the Father’s ear. Thank you so much.

[Aug 22]—Painful Hopes

Romans 8:19-25

            Creation is groaning. Things are not as they should be. You can feel it in a mosquito bite, when a lowly creature dares to attack an image bearer of the Creator himself. You can hear this groaning grow into a deafening shout when you see an earthquake that destroys the lives of thousands.
            But according to Moses’ writings in Genesis, this is due to God’s curse. We rebelled against him (always a bad idea), and in turn creation rebelled out from under us. A garden that only produced the most delicious of fruit and the sweetest smelling flowers now produces thorns and thistles and weeds. Yes, Adam worked before the Fall; he had a job to do, but this work was nothing but unalloyed pleasure. Now, his choice was to either 1) earn his food by the sweat of his brow, or 2) starve.
            But as we saw from yesterday, Paul affirms the truth of Genesis (which of course he would) but also goes past it. Jesus didn’t come to abrogate the Law but to fulfill it. The curse that all creation was under (along with us), Jesus turns into a blessing. In fact, with the Good News of Jesus’ coming--on this side of the Cross and Empty Tomb--Paul never refers to a curse here. He says that creation was subjected to frustration in hope. Hope in what? A vague hope that somehow things might be better someday?
`           My friend, like faith, hope must have an object, and it's only good as its object. If I’ve already used this illustration, then please forgive me. You might have complete faith in the pilot of the plane in which you’re flying. You might have complete confidence in his skills, experience, competence, soberness, etc. But if that faith is misplaced, if you believe in him but he’s not worthy of that faith, you’re in deep trouble.
            Hope in the Bible is not a vague feeling that things might be better. It is complete confidence that God will accomplish everything he says to the benefit of his children. The term “sure hope” in terms of the Bible is repetitive: There’s no other kind that the Bible knows.
            And what is this sure hope that Paul is referring to here? It's when our Lord Jesus returns to claim his own, at which time he'll redeem our bodies. Notice that Paul says that we’re looking forward to the redemption of our bodies. My spirit is already redeemed, that is, bought back. As far as God is concerned, I'm completely clean and whole and righteous in his court on the inside.
But outwardly my body is wasting away. Presently my body needs eyeglasses to see properly. I’m diabetic, completely dependent on an insulin pump to stay alive. I’m getting older, which means as time passes I’m going to get weaker and sicker and frailer. I can exercise and eat right and try my best to keep healthy, but I’m only slowing down the inevitable decline.
There’s a parallel in creation as well. Everywhere we see decay and sickness and death and seeming futility. And the Lord has done this on purpose. Why? Because he—in his perfect wisdom—has permanently linked the physical creation’s state with ours. Right now it groans, along with us. But when Christ comes and redeems our bodies in the Resurrection, he will then also liberate creation “from its bondage to decay and [bring it] into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
But for now. . . we groan. Of course, all humanity groans, but we especially. Not necessarily because we’re experiencing so much worse lives than anyone else, but because by the Spirit we know better. Remember what we said about frustration? You can’t be frustrated without knowledge about something better. Yes, as far as God is concerned, we’re already adopted. The Spirit of Adoption who lives inside of us groans along with us as we lift up our hearts and prayers to our Father. But when our Lord returns, all the universe will see him proclaim us as his sons and daughters, his heirs and co-heirs with Christ. In the meantime, the Spirit is our “firstfruits.” Firstfruits? MacArthur: “Just as the first pieces of a produce to appear on a tree provide hope of a future harvest, the fruit which the Spirit produces now (Gal. 5:22, 23) provides hope that we will one day be like Christ.”
But regrettably hope is not something we see now with our physical eyes. “Who hopes for what they already have?” But we have God’s promises in his word, and we have the Spirit living within us who gives us everything we need. . . for now.
And also for now. . .enjoy a simple song that meditates on this truth. 

Father God, your servant Paul said that in hope we wait patiently. I guess that’s true, but it’s also true that it’s really hard to wait sometimes, especially as this world—and this body—seem to decay faster and faster as the days go by. But as it becomes more and more apparent that this world is not my home, the prospect of seeing your Face seems sweeter and sweeter. And in that, I hope, and groan. 

[Aug 21]—Birth Pangs (really really strong ones)

Gen 3:17-19; Rom. 8:19-21

            Remember when we tackled the book of Job and then got into a study of why bad things happen in this life? One of the main reasons (for bad things) we discussed was the fact that this world is not what God created it to be. Let’s look at it.
            Like much of Paul’s writings, he packs 10 pounds of meaning into a five pound bag of words. He’s talking about the glorious benefits of our salvation in Christ: past, present and future. And before he talks about us, he takes the broader view of all creation and gives us insight into how our sin affected it.
            I’ve hammered this home again and again, especially at the beginning of year one, but it bears repeating: You cannot understand the rest of the Bible, nor life, without knowing, understanding, and believing the first three chapters of the Bible. Let’s focus on the second part of that statement for a moment. A few months ago as of this writing, a major hurricane battered the Northeast U.S., leaving a lot of people homeless and devastated. Every year we read of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, etc., which destroy peoples’ homes, livelihoods, and even take lives. Why do these things happen?
            Well, the ultimate reason anything bad happens at all in this life is because of sin—maybe my own personal sin or someone else’s—but there’s something more to it.  When he was created, Adam was put in charge of the entire world. He had a perfect world in front of him: He had no experience of disease, pain, hardship, or death. But then he (and his wife) chose to disobey their Creator, and in that moment. . . everything changed.
            Bringing sin into the world had a lot of effects, but the one in today’s passages is the effect it had on the physical creation. Adam was head over physical creation, but only so long as he was under the headship of the Lord. Once he rebelled, creation rebelled under him as well. That’s why creation doesn’t work the way we like. That includes everything from mosquitoes biting us to earthquakes and floods which kill thousands.
            But there’s a further aspect of this we need to consider: This was a terrible thing for creation as well as us. Our sin negatively affected the world, which in turn negatively affects us. Genesis quotes God as saying that he would curse the ground for Adam’s sake. We have to experience horrible things in this world, but so does everything else. We get frustrated, sick, hurt, and dead, and so does everything else.
            But Paul’s passage add a whole new light to all this. The coming of Jesus changed everything. That's why Paul doesn’t call the condition of our world a curse, but birth pangs. Think about that. A woman in birth is in incredible pain (or can be), worse than almost anything she can undergo. When God told Eve she would bear children in pain, he wasn’t kidding. But her pain has a purpose. She produces a child, and (ideally) at the end of it she says that it was all worth it. Her pain on one end is more than balanced by the joy she has when she looks upon her newborn. And in this world, the only way she could completely avoid the pain would be to not get pregnant. So in that way, her pain is completely necessary to the end result, the child.
            The Lord subjected the creation to frustration. Why are you or anyone else frustrated? The only reason anyone gets frustrated is if they know of something better. The reason why creation is “frustrated” is because deep within it, there’s an unconscious echo of what it once was, an intuitive knowledge that this is not the way it’s supposed to be, and a whisper of what one day will come. Just like us.
            Just like with us, he's not subjecting creation to frustration for no reason. He subjected it to frustration in anticipation of liberation. Liberation of who, or what? Well, as God’s children, one day we’re going to be liberated from these sinful bodies and souls, cleansed, and given brand new ones which will never wear out. We get liberated, and creation will be “brought into” that. Which we’ll discuss more tomorrow.
            In the meantime, let’s focus on the fact that—just like us--this world is not what it was, nor is it what it should be, but it also isn’t what it will be. When you see the “birth pangs,” take heart.

Father God, it’s really heartbreaking to read and see people and all creation broken in front of me. But I know that the reason it’s so frustrating is because I know that there’s something better—behind us, and in front of us. Help me be patient. 

[Aug 20]—Dust On The Scale

Romans 8:18

            Today I want to focus on just one verse. It’s just a few words, but like much of Paul, he packs 10 pounds of meaning into a 5 pound bag.
            Before we talk about it, though, I need to address a potential objection out there. I am fully cognizant of the fact that there are tons of people out there who’ve suffered a lot more than I ever have or ever likely will. I didn’t have abusive parents, we lived in a middle-class home, I never went without the basics such as food or water or shelter, etc; in fact, we very rarely went without any material possession we really wanted. I live in a wonderful country, I have my health, I have a good job, and I have the most wonderful wife in the world. I’ve never been beaten up in my life.
            And there are plenty of people who read this and who think this disqualifies me from talking about suffering at all. “Yeah, come back to me when you’ve gone without a meal or had a beating or been told you’ll never walk again.” And they have a point. I do feel self-conscious as I talk about verses like this. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who’ve learned about suffering not by sitting in a classroom but in the “school of hard knocks” who could easily dismiss what I have to say about it.
            But I’m not the one who wrote this verse. Paul was. And here’s some of his suffering “résumé”: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
            I want you please to slowly read the above passage and then read today’s verse. I mean, it’s really easy for a wuss like me to say “You know, the sufferings we get in this life aren’t worthy to be compared to what our Father has in store for us.” But this is exactly what Paul said.
            This is how he was able to call his sufferings “light and momentary troubles.” It wasn’t that he minimized the bad things he’d gone through. That’d be stoicism at best or masochism at worst. He didn’t downplay these things because they weren’t painful.
            It’s just that when you look at what we go through in this life, no matter how bad, it’s not worth comparing to the glory he has in store for us. In the 2 Corinthians verse above where he called his troubles “light and momentary,” he said that the only lasting effect is that they’re “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” On the “scales” of the bad and good in your life, if you put all the bad things which have ever happened to you on one side and the good on the other, there might be a comparison to be made between the two. Most of us experience a mixture of good and bad in this life. But when you drop our future glory in Christ onto the “good” side, the “bad” side is like dust on the scales, not even to be noticed.
            No matter what bad (and what good) you get in this life, all of it will be overwhelmed someday by the glory we’ll see. As the song below says, all of it will be swept away by the first glance of our Savior's face. That's all it'll take.

Father, I’m so quick to complain when I suffer just the smallest bit of pain. Take away any of my material comforts, and I scream like a banshee. Please, by your Spirit, quiet my soul. Take my eyes off my (very) light and momentary troubles and back onto you. 

[Aug 19]—Abba

Romans 8:14-17

            Several years ago, my wife and I applied to be foster parents, hopefully leading to adoption. Let me tell you, we’ve heard some horror stories about children who’ve been abandoned or neglected or abused. My wife was an emotional mess the entire night after we were forced to listen to stories about children who were treated this way. Most of these kids have some emotional problems of some sort, since they’ve had to deal with being alone. Often they’re shuffled from one place to another until they find. . . home. Family. A place where they know (or at least can know) that they’ll be loved, provided for, and protected.
            When you come to think of it, every Christian should be pro-adoption, right? None of us were natural members of God’s family. Contrary to what you might’ve been taught, not all people are God’s children. By our nature and actions all of us were enemies of him. If we were searching for him, like C. S. Lewis said, it was like a mouse’s search for a cat.
            But he sought us out. He sent his Son into the world to become fully human. This Son underwent all the humiliations and pains, both trivial and egregious, that we undergo: Hunger, thirst, tiredness, frustration, loneliness, etc.
            By placing our faith in Christ, we exchanged one spiritual “father” for another. We’ve been adopted out of one family into another.
            And that brings us to today’s passage. When you become God’s child, you don’t come into your inheritance all at once. One day you will, but for right now, your Father's given you a down-payment on your inheritance, so to speak. Of course I’m talking about the Holy Spirit. He comes to live inside of you from the moment you receive Christ for the rest of eternity. What does this passage tell us about this glorious Invader?
            First off, he’s the starkest possible contrast to the spirit who used to rule over you and live with you. The Enemy of your soul is a slave master who makes the harshest, cruelest, most horrific plantation owner of the Antebellum South look like a piker. This Spirit is the Spirit of freedom: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
            He’s also the Spirit of adoption. According to MacArthur, this isn’t referring to the Spirit as the means of our adoption, but the sign of it. He testifies along with our spirit that we’re God’s children. MacArthur: “In Roman culture, for an adoption to be legally binding, 7 reputable witnesses had to be present, attesting to its validity.” Apparently here we need only one. He’s the Spirit of Truth, so when he says something, you can count on it.
            How does he do this, by the way? Paul doesn’t go into detail here, but I think that there are two aspects to this.
            First, he testifies before the Father, the Son, the assembled angels, and every demon from Hell that you belong to him. He’s the mark of ownership upon you, like a company logo. The fact that he lives inside of you proclaims who you are and whose you are.
            But there’s another aspect to this we need to consider. He testifies to all the above, to be sure, but he also testifies to us. When you feel alone, he’s there to tell you “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” When you’ve committed that sin once again, he tells you “I’ve forgiven your wickedness and will remember your sins no more.”
            And when you feel far away from the Father, he’s the one who puts the word Abba on your lips. Abba. One of the most beautiful words ever uttered. Do you know the history of this word? It’s an Aramaic term that children used to address their fathers. "It connotes tenderness, dependance, and a relationship free from fear or anxiety." (MacArthur again). It was the first words a baby usually uttered, since it’s also the simplest and easiest word an infant can learn: “Ah-bah.” It’s roughly equivalent to “Papa.” And it’s the word Jesus used to address his own Father in his darkest moments before the Cross.
            This is the word the Spirit puts on our lips as we address our Father. Not in flippancy, but in intimacy, closer than a heartbeat, closer than the breath on our lips.
            And he also speaks to us about our inheritance. Remember, as wonderful as he is, he’s the down payment. As God’s adopted children, we’re heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. He wasn’t satisfied with just forgiving our sins and pulling us out of Hell. He names us as his heirs. What belongs to him belongs to us. Of course, for right now we have to go through a little of his suffering, but that only shows that we’re going to share in his glory.
            I can’t wait. Can you?

Papa. Wow. I get to call you that. I’ve got to say it again. Wow. Thank you, Papa.