Archive for February, 2008
I hope my readers know that I try my best to give fresh, new, if sometimes controversial insight into the most wonderful of texts, which has been around in some form for approximately 4000 years, yet never, ever gets old.
So, it should come as no shock that I felt somewhat surprised to find myself contemplating writing about the most recognized, memorized, and athletic eventized scripture in the history of the world: John 3:16. Actually, I have felt over the last week that my last post, Therefore, there is now no condemnation, was somehow incomplete. I realize it was long, but I think volumes could be and need to be written about condemnation.
Anyway, I was thinking about whether to continue the condemnation discussion or just move on. So, I sent a quick wire up to the Lord, “What do You want me to write about today?” Honestly, it was somewhat rhetorical, I wasn’t really expecting an answer, but the answer came almost before I finished the question, “John”. (A lesson for another day: God will answer even the most insignificant of questions, so be careful what you ask.) That was it, “John”. But, it was so clear I knew it wasn’t a mistake.
- “John what?”
- “John three.”
- “John three? John three what?”
Okay, so I decided it was just me. I mean, come on, John 3:16. Everybody knows everything there is to know about John 3:16. Or, do they? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
When Jesus spoke those words, He was answering the questions of a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is referred to in John 3:1 as a ruler of the Jews. The phrase “ruler of the Jews” means Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal or judicial body of the Jewish people. Nicodemus was a teacher and interpreter of the law, and, as a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus’ interpretations of the law could very well have become law. Like a high court judge today, if there is ambiguity in the law, and the court decides the issue in question, the decision becomes the law.
Yet, despite his credentials and knowledge of the law, Nicodemus just didn’t get it.
Nicodemus recognized that Jesus had to be a teacher from God. All this cool stuff Jesus was doing and saying could not have come from anywhere else, but that was as close as Nicodemus got to really getting it. How did Jesus respond? I’m paraphrasing, “You’re a teacher of Israel, you should know this stuff and you don’t get it. You don’t get the earthly things I’m telling you, how are you possibly going to get the heavenly stuff?”
So, what does Jesus do? He cuts to the chase and gives Nicodemus the greatest lesson ever. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” But, that’s only half of it, here’s the best part:
- For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned… And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. John 3:17-19.
Why does Nicodemus get this lesson when he wasn’t getting the rest of it? Why Nicodemus, when Jesus even said Nicodemus wouldn’t get it? Nicodemus gets this lesson because Nicodemus is the lesson. The Greek name Nicodemus means “victory of the people”. Only God is capable of such wonderful irony: the ruler of the people unable to see the victory of the people, which is within him. You almost get the idea that Jesus must have wanted to bop Nicodemus on the head.
This is Paul’s lesson from Romans that I talked about last week all over again. To be more precise, Paul’s lesson in Romans is the lesson of Nicodemus all over again. Nicodemus was a prisoner to his own knowledge of the law. He could not escape.
But wait, then most of us would need the same bop on the head because we all fall into this trap. God did not send Jesus to condemn, but to save. From what? The condemnation of the law of sin and death. Nicodemus is really a picture of each of us. Nicodemus embodies the law as a ruler of the people. Nicodemus is also a portrait of the victory of the people, that elusive victory that remains just beyond the grasp. The lesson of Nicodemus is that the victory of the people is already a part of you.
Nicodemus didn’t get it. And when we try to see the victory of the people (Jesus) through the lens of the ruler of the people (the law), we don’t get it either. The victory of the people does not come through the ruler of the people. The victory of the people is the liberation of the people from the ruler.
Yes, an important lesson of John 3:16 is that God gave his only begotten Son to save the world, but the more important lesson is what the world was saved from: the ruler of the people, or the condemnation of the law of sin and death.
I think one of the most difficult concepts for Christians to grasp is that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1. Have any of you felt condemned lately? And by lately I mean since you’ve started reading this blog post (shouldn’t you be doing something else instead of playing around on the internet?). I’m sure I haven’t felt condemned in the last 10, 15 minutes anyway.
I suspect we all know people who wake up and go to bed feeling guilty about something. I suspect, too, that we all know people who wake up and go to bed making others feel guilty. In my last two posts, I have discussed forgiveness at length. Condemnation is the companion of unforgiveness. Actually, condemnation is just another form of unforgiveness. It is an unwillingness to forgive yourself, and the consequences of condemnation are just as dire.
In quoting Romans 8:1 above, I left out the most important word in that verse: “Therefore”. Romans 8:1 actually reads, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The great Derek Prince would say, “When you find a therefore you find out what it’s there for.” I couldn’t agree more. One of these days, take a book of the New Testament and underline every “Therefore” and read what is written right before and right after. If you have ever had difficulty understanding portions of the Bible, this is a good way of extracting explanation.
Here is how it works. Romans is great for practicing this because it is packed full of therefore’s. Before the Romans 8:1 “Therefore” the first paragraph following the last paragraph with a “Therefore” is Romans 7:14. Therefore, a new lesson. “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” Verse 7:21 begins the next paragraph, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.”
Let’s stop for a minute and contemplate this. Paul is describing the internal struggle that goes on in all of us. Paul, in essence, is saying, “I want to do good so badly, but this evil within me just won’t let me. I’m a prisoner to my own sin.” That paragraph concludes, 25“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”
Now, the “Therefore,” 8:1 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are Christ Jesus.” What??? [Insert head scratch here.] Yeah, I know, it’s a little weird. Paul is saying, “We can’t win this struggle against the flesh, we can’t escape the slavery to sin. Therefore, we shouldn’t worry about it.” It’s one of those things that make you go “hum”?
Actually, that is exactly right. This is why, verse 8:2 says, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” This is key. Paul does not say we are free from sin or death, rather that we are free from the law of sin and death. Even better. We would all like to be without sin and death, but how much better is it be out from under the system of law that fashions sin and death in the first place?
Paul goes on in verse 3, “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Notice, God did not condemn us. He condemned “sin in the flesh so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us…”
The word “For” in verse three is just as important as the “Therefore” in verse one, it is the “because”. You will find this structure repeatedly throughout scripture: concept, conclusion (therefore), explanation (because). Because “the requirement of the Law” is now “fulfilled in us” who walk according to the Spirit, there is no condemnation in Jesus.
We all understand this: If you do the crime, you do the time. As a lawyer, I have heard this countless times. Similarly, we understand the idea that sin has consequences. But, through faith in Christ, we are no longer under the rule that if we do the crime, we do the time. Jesus served our sentence for us. This is not to say that we don’t deserve to do the time. We do, and God knows this, so in order to make sure that justice was served, He sent Jesus to be punished in our place. How much better is it that the law is fulfilled in Jesus than merely abolished (which would have put God in a compromising position since his Law was perfect)?
Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Matthew 5:17. To fulfill means to pay in full. We owed a debt to God, we may still run up the bill from time to time, but our obligation is fulfilled in Christ. It is PAID IN FULL.
Will you continue to pay your bills after they are paid? Will you keep sending the bank or credit card company a check after your debt is paid off? Of course not. Yet, this is exactly what we are doing when it comes to sin. We are still trying to pay for what has already been paid for. However, the currency we try to pay with is good deeds, not sinning too badly, giving a little here and there, and not being as bad as the next guy.
We are still using scales to measure our “goodness” when we can never, ever do enough to make them balance. Does this sound familiar, “I go to church occasionally, I volunteer here and there, I don’t drink or use drugs, and I’ve never hurt anybody, so, I think I’m a pretty good person.” That is a lie from the devil. He wants you thinking like this for a whole host of reasons I’m sure, but two that I know of: (1) so that when you do do something wrong, he can hammer you for it, and (2) so you will continue to be under the bondage of the law. The law of sin and shame is a prison, and you have been set free. Why go back?
God doesn’t measure our “goodness” the way we do. We have got to grab hold of this (and not let go). We are righteous through faith in Jesus. God doesn’t look at us and see dirty, rotten scoundrels. He sees the righteousness of Christ. If we could ever see ourselves as God sees us, there would be no limit to our potential.
Which do you suppose is more distressing to God, that we sin or that we render Christ’s sufferings worthless by walking in condemnation? “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation. No condemnation means no condemnation. No condemnation.
It still means no condemnation. No, not yet, still no condemnation.
Election season seems the perfect time to contemplate citizenship, does it not? What does it mean to be a citizen? Certain rights, responsibilities and duties come immediately to mind. Chief among these rights is the right of the citizen to reside in and/or enter a sovereign territory.
What did the Apostle Paul mean when he wrote, “For our citizenship is in heaven…”? Philippians 3:20. We know Paul was Jewish, but Paul was also a Roman citizen, a fact which kept him from scourging and death on more than one occasion. As citizens of a country from which many seek to obtain citizenship, we in America have a good idea of the significance of citizenship. But, do we as believers truly appreciate that “our citizenship is in heaven…”?
I think we tend to think of heaven as something we hope to experience in the distant future. There is nothing in Paul’s letter, however, to suggest that this is true. Paul very explicitly claims that citizenship in heaven is our’s presently. How different would life be if we grasped this truth? Although there are many more, let’s take a look at just three of the rights of citizenship.
The right not to be tortured or imprisoned without a trial. Roman citizens had the right not to be subjected to torture, scourging or imprisonment without just cause. This is the right exercised by Paul in Acts 22:25. Actually, so important was this right, that the commander who had Paul in custody became afraid that Paul had even been placed in chains. For Christians, there is a corresponding right not to be tortured or imprisoned. All that is required to exercise this right is forgiveness. Recall the parable of the unforgiving servant whose master had forgiven him 10,000 talents. When the servant refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a small fraction of this, his lord handed the unforgiving servant over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed. Jesus said, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:35. Knowing the torturers is key, otherwise the effect of this statement is negligible. The torturers are demonic forces that cause physical, emotional, psychological and other problems. Various illnesses, chronic physical and psychological conditions, and addictions are all forms of torture and imprisonment. This is not to say that every minor problem is the result of unforgiveness, certainly not, but I would suggest that a great many chronic, recurring, and seemingly incurable or inescapable problems are rooted in unforgiveness. Forgiveness is but one of the duties we owe as citizens, and the right we are granted in return is well worth the cost.
The right of appeal. Roman citizens had the right to appeal from decisions of local magistrates to Caesar or the supreme court. Again, this is a right exercised by the Apostle Paul in Acts 25:11. Paul, unwilling to stand trial before Festus, exercised his right as a citizen of Roman to be tried before Caesar’s tribunal. This decision resulted in Paul remaining captive for considerably longer than was necessary, but Paul had to stand trial before Caesar. An angel of the Lord confirmed this on the trip to Rome, and despite a shipwreck, a snake bite, and a rather adventurous voyage, Paul arrived safely in Rome and ministered for two years unhindered. Okay, so what does this have to do with anything? As a citizen of heaven, we have the right to appeal to our emperor. The decision might not be swift, the journey might not appear smooth, and it might seem like we are not going anywhere, but if we are walking in the perfect will of God to our ultimate judgment, neither murderous plotters, severe storms, or poisonous snake bites will prevent us from reaching our destination. So, appeal to God, ask him to guide your way, and go.
The right to enter. Again, this is a right I believe most Christians are willing to accept as something that will happen in the distant future. But, is this really the case? There are other instances in the Bible of individuals being “caught up” to heaven, but since we are discussing the experiences of Paul, let’s look at Paul’s trip to heaven. “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago…was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man…was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.” 1 Corinithians 12:2-4. Is such a revelation or trip available to the rest of us? To be honest, I cannot say for sure. I do not believe anything in scripture forbids it, but the idea is so foreign that it rarely gets contemplated, much less discussed. If our citizenship is in heaven, do we not have the right to enter? If our citizenship will be in heaven, then the entry is in the future, but if our citizenship IS in heaven, can our entry be now? Can we come and go as we please? Can we visit and bring back souvenirs?
A word of warning. This revelation to the Apostle Paul came with much responsibility and even torment. Yes, torment. “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-to keep me from exalting myself.” 1 Corinthians 12:7. With great revelation comes great responsibility. I think the extent to which we are permitted entry is related to the responsibility the Lord is willing to entrust us with.
A word of encouragement. Paul’s revelation was so grand that he gladly accepted this burden. Jesus also said that His burden would be light, but how can we possibly be expected to bear the burden of changing a nation, ministering on foreign soil, or leading souls into salvation if we whine about the relatively minor burdens of daily life. Just for clarification, Jesus said His yoke would be easy and His burden light, He never said the burden would feel easy. When the reality of the kingdom begins to effect our perception, rather than our perception effecting our reality, then yes, we will begin to experience the revelations Paul experienced and we will truly experience our citizenship in heaven.
Our Father, who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. Matthew 6:9-13.
Oh, how many times I/we have repeated those lines in public forums, during athletic events, even in church. I expect Jesus knew as much would occur. Here is what he says right before:
- And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Pray, then, in this way: Matthew 6:7-8
I do not recall ever contemplating this instruction before reciting the Lord’s Prayer publicly. Do you? Recently, I have given this a good deal of thought, but only recently. The whole WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) craze came and went well before I began to take Jesus seriously, but in this respect we have his perfect advice. “Pray, then, in this way:” How many times have I/we asked for God to give me/us direction or guidance about a particular subject? Too many for me to remember, that’s for certain. But even about this, Jesus has told us what to do. Why continue to wonder?
Have you heard this(?): “I don’t know how to pray about __________.” I’ve said this, I’ve even used this as a form of prayer, “God, I don’t even know how to pray about this, but…” Sound familiar? Since Jesus said, “Pray then in this way:”, I guess I will. Let’s analyze, shall we?
“Our Father who is in heaven.” The magnitude of this statement is almost beyond comprehension, if you really think about it. You have an all knowing, all powerful God worthy of fear, respect, adoration, and never ending praise from angelic beings the likes of which brought guys like the Apostle Paul and John to their knees. Yet, at the same time you have God as the Father, Abba (Dad or Daddy). There seems to be a tension between the sheer distance between humanity and this God and the close relationship intensely desired (probably more by God than humanity). The tension is entirely a human creation. When we are able to grasp that God wants to be our Dad, there to give advice, impart wisdom, and shower with blessings, his grandeur becomes all the more grand.
“Hallowed be Your name.” That grandeur I was talking about, that never ending praise: holiness. I don’t think we can imagine this holiness, but one day we may have some idea. I suspect that if we truly contemplated this holiness when we prayed, our prayers would be quite different. Note: this should not in any way lead to the tension I mentioned earlier, quite the contrary. God is so holy that His holiness makes even the unholy righteous. Call it grace, call it divine, call it what you will, but if your goodness is so good that you make everyone and everything work together for good, that’s pretty holy.
“Your kingdom come.” I think our understanding of this concept is hampered by temporal limits we try to place on it. I imagine that most view this as a plea for God to hasten the coming of the end. I do not mean to reject that notion entirely because I think it is a significant part of the meaning, but I think it is only a part. “Your kingdom come” should be a plea for kingdom encounters on earth NOW. We get glimpses of this when we see someone healed of a terminal illness or missing organs or limbs restored. We see glimpses of this when we experience a prophetic word and watch it unfold. But, I think Jesus meant to instruct us to ask God to make this a regular part of our life. Jesus very clearly said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3:2 I think we forget this. Implementation may not be so easy, but availability is certain.
“Your will be done.” Why do you suppose Jesus instructed us to pray for God’s will to be done? If God’s will was done by default, this would be completely unnecessary. I think too many of us dismiss things as God’s will that simply are not. Does this sound familiar? “We prayed for God to heal him/her and they weren’t healed, so it must be God’s will?” WHAT? For which diseases was Jesus’ sacrifice insufficient. As I read Isaiah 53, Jesus bore ALL of our sicknesses and by His scourging we are healed. Is this not God’s will? Perhaps Isaiah should have come with footnotes containing all of the exclusions. The notion of “salvation” is all encompassing. Whether we choose to walk in this or not is no fault of God. Explaining away what we are unable to explain as “God’s will” shortchanges what Jesus did. Imagine trying to tell Jesus that his sacrifice was sufficient for the cold or flu but not for cancer or arthritis. I truly believe that failures in this regard are due to our shortcomings not God’s. We can either take God at His word, or try to define His word by our own experiences.
“On earth as it is in heaven.” When Christ returns this will happen, undoubtedly, but we are instructed to pray for this now. Again, if God’s will were the default, why bother to pray for it? I firmly believe Jesus could have come to earth and healed everyone, rid the earth of demons, and saved the world, but the time had not come. The demons knew it wasn’t time (Matthew 8:29) and Jesus knew. Why do things this way? Because this IS God’s will. Jesus did, instructed his disciples what to do, and then sent them out. Our commission is still the same.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” If there is one thing God wants us to know about Him, it is that He is a provider. This is not to suggest there is a hierarchy of roles, but God very clearly wants our trust and faith. This is all he asks in return, a rather small price. Jesus came so that we would have life, and have life abundantly. God wants to provide abundantly, and some of us need to think bigger. I have always felt somewhat guilty about praying for provision, it always seemed somewhat selfish. I am shedding that guilt now. If Jesus said to pray for provision then I will do so abundantly.
“And forgive us our debts” Having been raised Catholic, I grew up saying “forgive us our trespasses (or sins)”, but I think the term “debts” is really all encompassing. All encompassing not just of the type of wrongs or obligations, but encompassing of the people who have been wronged and to whom the obligations are owed. Clearly we owe and have wronged God, but we should earnestly seek forgiveness, which is readily available, for all of debts. Tip: if you are unsure of what qualifies, ask. The Holy Spirit is faithful to answer, but only if you ask.
“as we have also forgiven our debtors.” Note that the “forgiven” in this clause is in the past tense, it is required before we can rightfully ask for God to forgive us. When we have forgiven, God will forgive. I would say that unforgiveness is one of the most dangerous things facing humans. So important is forgiveness that immediately following these instructions, Jesus emphasized forgiveness. “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:14-15. The unwillingness to forgive is the one thing we know will cause God to “hand [us] over to the torturers.” Matthew 18:34. Quite a dire statement of fact, but one for which the evidence is abundant. I would venture to say that many if not most problems (be they health, emotional, psychological, or otherwise) can be traced to a hurt and subsequent lack of forgiveness. We have all been wounded, so it is fortunate that we also have the first-aid kit.
“And lead us not into temptation,” Admittedly, I have always struggled with this concept. Would God really lead us into temptation? The answer is not necessarily implicit, but Jesus clearly instructs to pray that He not. That’s close enough for me. We know Satan tries to tempt us all of the time, so, for good measure, we probably should pray for protection from that as well. But, if I can submit a slightly different take on this idea: I do not believe that God leads us into temptation, per se, where temptation is the ultimate destination, a test designed by God to test our faithfulness. Rather, I believe God leads us in a direction we are ready to go, though there might be land mines along the way. In Is That You God? Act 2: The Attack, I wrote that I doubted anyone could accomplish any real good for the kingdom without going through a little to do it. I still believe that, and I wonder now if this is the kind of “temptation” to which Jesus was referring. A “help me get there without stepping on any land mines” sort of thing.
“but deliver us from evil.” If you have landed in evil, or ever stepped in it along the way, God probably needs to deliver you from it, it will seldom go away on its own. The “lead us not” is protection for the future, the “but deliver us” is for the past and present. Deliverance is an idea that is foreign to most. The notion of repelling, or expelling, evil makes for good Hollywood drama, but not good dinner conversation. It’s sad really because deliverance needn’t be so spooky. It is simply a matter of surrender/ownership. A surrender to the ownership of Christ. The battle has already been won, it is the claiming of the victory that remains elusive. In Ephesians 6, Paul explains this distinction between the spiritual battle and the fleshly battle. Too many of us battle against flesh, when the war is in the spiritual. It’s a battle we are sure to lose, unless we enlist God’s minister of deliverance, the Holy Spirit.
Five simple verses, one all encompassing prayer. The simplicity and beauty of the Lord’s Prayer. Meditate on it, appreciate it, but most importantly, use it.