Monday, July 28, 2014

Do you trust the Lord of life and death?

This is an adaptation of the last sermon I preached at Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago, on November 3, 2013. It was based on John 11:1-46.

The apostle John selects 7 signs that Jesus performed and 7 corresponding “I AM” statements of Jesus to show his readers who Jesus really is and to elicit their faith in him.

We’ll be looking at the 7th sign, the resurrection of Lazarus. And since this is all about getting us to trust in Christ, and since Jesus calls for our faith in him with a pointed question in this passage, we’re going to go through it first by asking three questions:

1. Do you trust him when he says “wait”?
2. Do you trust him when he says “go”?
3. And, do you trust him when it seems hopeless?

Those are all real aspects of life in this world that Christ reigns over. We will also see in this passage that he reigns over death. So the basic question that I believe God is asking us this morning is just this:

Do you trust the Lord of life and death?

Will you please pray with me?
“Our Father,” be glorified in putting your Son on display for us, by the Spirit of Holiness that you raised him from the dead with, who fills your church and inspired the Scriptures. The unfolding of your Word gives light. Enlighten our hearts even now and thereby give us enduring faith through this difficult life until we see you. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. Speak, Lord, and raise the dead. Speak order into our chaos. Speak light into our darkness. And let us who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Amen.

Introduction

John 11:1...
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick." 4 When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." 5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 Yet  ["So" (TNIV, NASB, ESV)] when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
So these two sisters send a note to Jesus that says, "Lord, the one you love is sick." Mary and Martha just assume that he loves Lazarus. They're just making a statement, that he's sick, because it's pretty obvious what they want him to do in light of it. Read between the lines. They're essentially saying: "Jesus, If you love Lazarus, then do something about this sickness! We know that you are able to do it. You are the Lord! We know you've healed others. So come heal Lazarus, Jesus. He's dying! Come quickly!!"

But what does it say in verse 6?
He "stayed" when he heard he was sick?! "[W]hen he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was." "[T]wo more days"?!! Does he not really love them?! When you love someone, you go care for them when you hear they're in trouble. Don't you? You don't just sit idly doing nothing. (Well, he wasn't idle. Verse 41 makes it look like he spent this time praying.) But he is not making it easy for Mary and Martha to trust in him, is he? Especially since the messenger who brought him word from the sisters probably also went back reporting Jesus' words, "This sickness will not end in death." How do you think the sisters coped when they heard those words from the messenger, and they waited hopefully, and waited, and waited, and their brother died, and days pass, and they still don't see Jesus!?

Did Jesus not realize that he would get their hopes up by saying that the sickness wouldn't end in death? Did he forget that verse that says "hope deferred makes the heart sick"? (Prov. 13:12, ESV) Why didn't he come?! Why did he let him die?! Did Jesus not really love him? Was Jesus not able to heal him? Was this just too much for Jesus?

I'm sure many of you have had struggles like these two sisters. Our faith is tested by times of suffering, grief, disaster, illness, death, confusion, when our circumstances seem to be totally contradicting the promises of God's word. And there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. No light at the end of this tunnel. Walking by faith is not easy! Like Martha and Mary, we live in that tension between promise and fulfillment. We often feel like Abraham after God promised to bless all nations through his offspring, but then many years pass and he still doesn't have a son as he becomes old and decrepit and the Scriptures say he was "as good as dead" he was so old. He could have easily lost all hope that it was even possible for God to do what he said he'd do. Maybe you're in a similar place now, or maybe you will be very soon. Your circumstances make it seem like God is either a liar or impotent or not good or he doesn't care or he doesn't exist. Maybe you're growing weary or even bitter crying out "How long, O Lord?!"

But you have found yourself surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses--even Jesus himself--whose circumstances have made them also cry out, "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?!" But hear the word of the Lord that can give strength even to those who "face death all day long" and "are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." Times of suffering don't mean that God doesn't love us, because he has said that "neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39). Jesus himself has said in John 15:9, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you."

Okay, so he loves you. He loves us, which means that he does care enough to do something about our suffering. Believe this as well: It is not that he's unable to do for us what needs to be done. He is omnipotent - all powerful! Jesus himself has said in Matthew 28:18, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." And we know that he "is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy" (Jude 24, NASB).

So if he loves us enough to end our suffering, and if he is able to do so, then why doesn't he?! I don't know the specific answer to your specific situation, but he does. He knows you. He knows what's best. He is never in a fog. He’s infinitely wise. Wisdom incarnate. And he is that for you, and for me. He is able to love you wisely. He knows what you really need when you don’t. And his wisdom is just one aspect of his greatness. He is infinitely great. He is the great I AM, the great Lord of lords. Now, granted, his greatness is revealed to us in his humbling himself in our place for us. He came to serve and not to be served. BUT! He is not at our beck and call, as if we were the Lord. HE ALONE IS THE LORD! Which is really good news, actually. He is not a slot machine that you manipulate through prayer to get whatever you want. He is not subject to our demands. "Our God is in the heavens. He does whatever he pleases" (cf. Ps. 115). And if he really is that great, then he is not beholden to do for us whatever our puny, clouded, sinful perspective thinks is best. Now, that doesn't mean we stop asking him for what we think is best. But the point is that when he answers our prayers, he can actually give us what he knows is best for us--even if it hurts and is confusing for a few days or decades.

Jesus could have healed Lazarus and kept him from death. He is Lord over sickness. The gospels record him healing people simply with a word or with a touch. When the sisters, in verses 21 and 32 say, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," they might be right. He could have prevented Lazarus from dying. When the crowd, in verse 37 said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" The answer is, Yes! He could have! God gave Jesus authority over sickness, but he is more than a healer! He is the Lord of life and death! "Do you believe this?" He wanted his followers to know who he really was. He wanted them to see his glory. That's why Jesus said that this sickness was "for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." It’s really something that can be said over any sort of suffering. God allowed the suffering of this family because it provided an opportunity for Jesus to be glorified, to be seen and cherished for who he really is. And this was the most loving thing Jesus could have done for them, to give them a glimpse not of a mere healer but of the glory of God. To show them the reality that their hearts really longed for, a reality that would sustain them when Jesus himself would die and be laid in a tomb not many days after this miracle.

So do you trust him when life gets confusing, when your circumstainces make him seem untrustworthy, or when he says 'wait'?

And do you trust him when he says, 'Let's go'?

John 11:7...
Then he said to his disciples, "Let us go back to Judea." 8 "But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" 9 Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. 10 It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light." 11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up." 12 His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." 16 Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
In this section, Jesus' says, let's go back to Judea, and he's immediately met with resistance on the part of his followers. They resist because they, like us, are trying to save themselves. One commentator observes, "The Lord did not say, 'Let us go back to Bethany,' where he had friends, but to Judea, where he had enemies" (John Phillips, "Exploring the Gospel of John," 210).

So the disciples are like, "Wait a minute, Jesus. Just hold your horses there, partner. I don't think your thinking quite clearly. Let me talk some sense into you, buddy. Uh, you do remember that you almost got us all stoned to death there, don't you?" And Jesus doesn't play the, "I'm God. You're not. We're going." trump card. He actually pauses to show them what walking by faith looks like. He begins to get them thinking by asking, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light." Jesus is speaking to them with a parable. It's in the context of another parable, in verses 11-14, where sleep represents death. His response to their fear of death here is a word that assures them that they don't have to be afraid of the darkness of death. Jesus is walking in the light of life. He is the light of the world. He is (and by extension they are) completely secure because he knows that he's in complete obedience to God the Father's will and he knows that the Father's will for him to die hasn't come yet. His hour was close, but it had not yet come.

It's pretty easy to glean the application right off the top of Jesus' words here, because he speaks in the third person. Generally speaking, "A man who walks by day will not stumble." A person who walks in glad submission to God's will does not need to fear death. Sure, you might die by obeying God. But that death does not need to be frightening, especially if it just escorts you into the exceeding joy of God's presence. Now, none of us obeys God’s will perfectly yet. But Jesus did.

And do you see the irony here? It’s God's will that made the disciples fear death, but the only time we really need fear it is when we are walking in disobedience to God's will.

So what has God called you to do that you're afraid of doing? Get some perspective here. It's a much scarier thing not to obey him. To follow your own whims and not his will is to walk in the night with no light. Who knows what you might run into or stumble over. Where has God called you to go? Whom is he calling you to go to? Don't be afraid to go. He’s promised never to leave you, and he’ll give you enough light for every step.

So do you trust him when he says, "Wait"? Do you trust him when he says, "Let's go"? 

And the question that arises from verses 17-37 is:

Do you trust him when it seems hopeless?

John 11:17...
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
We rely so much on what we can understand. As long as there’s a heartbeat—we think—there’s still hope. But Lazarus’s heart stopped. On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Nevertheless, Martha seems to be holding on to some faint hope the Jesus can still do something. And Jesus blows on that ember and fans the flame of her faith. Look at the clarity of response that Jesus gives her compared to the opaque parables he spoke to the twelve disciples:

John 11:23...
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." 25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
Do you believe this? Do you believe that the Lord who spoke with Martha in the past and who will come "at the last day" is the risen and ascended Lord of life for you today, and for all that seems hopeless to you today? Jesus redirects our gaze from the future hope to himself, as a very personal, "very present help in trouble" (Ps. 46:1, ESV). He is our hope even now, when everything seems hopeless. Do you believe this?

John 11:27...
"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." 28 And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. "The Teacher is here," she said, "and is asking for you." 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Jesus does not resort to cookie cutter Standard Operating Procedures when he deals with grieving people. He deals with each different person in the way that is appropriate for their particular personality and experience. This is a wise love he has for us. With his frightened disciples he patiently got their attention with a parable and assured them of the true security of walking in the light of God's will. With Martha's active faith, he uses her confession of faith in a future resurrection to direct her faith to his personal presence in the present. And now we see how he relates to Mary.

Do you see how long it took her to go to him? And do you see how little she says? All she can eek out are the same words Martha said. And Jesus doesn't say much to her either. He knows she doesn't need a lecture. She just needs him, and he knows it. So he just calls for her, and he asks where the tomb is. He enters into her grief and weeps with those who weep, and then he goes to do something about it.

But before we look to see what he did, I want you to hear again the same words Mary did. "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." (11:28, ESV) He knows that sometimes you don't know what to think let alone what to say, but he's calling for you. You might feel paralyzed by something weighing heavily upon you. But listen. "The Teacher is here and is calling for you."

He calls out,
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" 
(Mt. 11:28-30).
When Jesus calls for you, you don't have to know the right words to answer in reply. Just come to him. The wonderful thing about his all-powerful voice, as we see in the next passage, is that his words can create the response that he calls for! And in that, we see him for who he really is, not only the Lord of life, but also the Lord of death.

John 11:38, "Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance."

Jesus has displayed some complex and strong emotions in this chapter. Prior to his arrival, he told his disciples that he was glad (in verse 15). But as he joins the mourners and nears the tomb, you get a sense that he really feels the weight of the reality of death. When he sees everyone crying he also, it says, "was deeply moved in spirit and troubled" and he cries with them. He does not make light of death. He does not say that death is just a part of life. He's troubled by it. It's not right. It's unnatural. It's the result of our sins. And it’s at the heart of our deepest fears and anxieties.

But as raindrops join thunder, his tears are mingled not just with sadness, but with deep anger. Righteous anger. When John says that Jesus was "deeply moved," those two English words render one Greek word that elsewhere describes a horse snorting angrily. Maybe Christ was exhaling loudly. The depths of his soul burned. And, you might say, he was venting his great controlled fury at sin, at unbelief, at death. John Calvin says, "Christ does not come to the tomb as an idle spectator, but like a wrestler preparing for the contest. So it is no wonder that he groans again, for the violent tyranny of death which he had to overcome stands in front of his eyes" (Commentary on John, 281). But Jesus doesn't come just come to wrestle death to the ground. His ultimate aim is to kill it and usher in eternal life for God's people.

So Jesus said,
39 "Take away the stone,"... "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." 40 Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have 9 heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."
Look at the vivid way that God portrays this event through the pen of his apostle. In verse 39 He has us imagining the smell of a body that's been decaying for four days. In verse 40 He has us wondering what it would be like to see God's glory. In verse 41 we feel the cold, rough, heavy stone; and we see Jesus unashamedly lifting his face to heaven giving thanks. And in verse 43 we hear a loud voice. It’s the same big voice that spoke the universe into existence, and that will one day ring through it again and make all things new.

The resurrection of Lazarus would be an amazing scene to behold. In this chapter, God has shown our hearts the gravity of the situation, and he's filled our senses with this miracle. But it's not just a spectacle for us to gawk at. It is dripping with meaning about Jesus. In the center of it all is Jesus. The whole situation has served to show who he really is. Yes, he could have prevented Lazarus from dying. But he is more than a healer. He is the Lord of all! The Lord of life and death.

He knows our pain and weeps with those who weep, but he does not stop there. He came to do something about it! He came to kill what kills us, and he did that by laying down his own life and being raised to new life, never to die again.

That’s really what this chapter foreshadows. Jesus died…
for sins because the wages of sin is death. But he didn’t die for his own sins. He was sinless. He died for ours. And when he was raised again, since he is perfectly sinless, death cannot lay a claim on him. He is the Lord of death and, as John Owen said, he is the death of death. Lazarus’s resurrection was temporary. But it served to show Christ’s power. But his power would not mean anything if he was himself still stuck in the grave. We would, in that case, be of all people most to be pitied, because we have testified that God raised him from the dead. Not only would we be liars, but we would still be in our sins.

But the truth is…
the good news is that he has in fact—historical fact—been raised from the dead!
Even as the resurrection of Lazarus was a historical fact people saw and heard—people touched him with their own hands afterwards, just like you can reach over and touch the person sitting next to you—even so (and infinitely more important is the truth that) the resurrection of Christ is a historical fact. People saw and heard and touched him afterwards. He has been raised victorious over the grave.

Application: “Do you believe this?”
So do you trust in the Lord of life and death? That’s the goal of this book, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31, ESV). And surely it’s not just for Martha’s sake that John records Jesus’ pointed question, but for ours as well. “Do you believe this?” This chapter in John was preceded by a statement that I hope will describe the outcome of this blog post. If you look at John 10:42, it says, “...many believed in him there.”

Sadly, however, the two verses that follow Lazarus’s resurrection show two possible responses to Jesus. Look at verse 45…
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
The Abyss of Christlessness
Many put their faith in him, but some did not. They betrayed him. How could they do that after what he just did?! How blind must they be to have the Son of God right in front of them doing his greatest miracle yet, and still to leave him and betray him?! And because they went and tattled onhim, the authorities became resolute in their commitment to put an end to him. Their rejection of him was very serious.

But is our rejection of him any less serious? And how much easier, actually, is it for us after reading this story to just shrug it off and go on our merry way. But the way without Christ although it may seem merry and easy and wide is a dark and treacherous path. A Christless life is not life at all. It is a life of sin, under the curse of almighty God.

Since the first humans turned their backs on God, this is the state all mankind is in outside of Christ. A state that brings the tomb, where the Bible pronounces us DOA, dead on arrival, dead in our trespasses and sins even before we breathe our last breath. There is nothing we can do to help ourselves. It’s a state of selfish implosion, a downward, self-centered spiral, a movement away from God and others, where little-by-little we just cave in on ourselves, a vortex, an abyss, and a bottomless pit.

You see this in all sorts of ways, don’t you? We’re just needy. Thirsty. Groping for almost anything to try to scratch our itches. We’re addicts. Users. We even use God to try to save or shine our idol of self. It’s evident even in the simple fact that we tend to focus more on the issues of others than on our own.

The Upward Spiral: The Upward Call of God in Christ Jesus
I know a guy who, before Christ saved him, was plagued by recurring nightmares. There were many nights when he would dream that the devil was pulling him underground, pulling him down so that he would just be falling, falling, in an apparently bottomless pit. And he would hear demonic voices as he fell, “We have you now. There’s no hope. No one can save you. There’s no hope for you.”

But it turned out that there was hope. Jesus called him. God came to him and said, “Awake, O sleeper. Rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light!” He was pulled from that abyss and the night terrors stopped. Maybe you sense yourself falling in one way or another. You’ve tried to find help, but all your resources are spent and you are hopeless.

But listen, no matter how much you are spiraling out of control, there is still hope because there is still Christ. He is Lord! Repent and believe the gospel. He has been raised from the dead! There is still hope for all of you under his Lordship.

He says to us even now, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

As he told Martha, if you believe, you will see the glory of God! The funny thing is that the Bible says almost the opposite of that in John 2. After Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding, it says, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (v. 11). So did something change between that wedding and this funeral? He told Martha that if you believe you will see God’s glory; but here he’s saying that seeing his glory results in belief. Which is true?

Both! His glory is revealed in his words and deeds, which elicits faith in his people, a faith that results in seeing more of his glory. He puts himself on display for us and we trust in him as he is revealed, which somehow allows us to see even more of his glory... It’s a reciprocal covenantal relationship that gets better and better throughout eternity. It’s the opposite of falling in a Christless vortex. It’s the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, an upward spiral so to speak. It’s the "further up and further in," like the adventure portrayed at the end of C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.”

But it’s not make believe. It’s reality to believe. We will be like the kid I once saw during the fireworks at the Venetian Boat show in Chicago. As the show neared the finish, he would say with almost every explosion, “This has got to be the grand finale!” And I don’t think he could believe his eyes when the grand finale really did erupt in front of him, because all he could say was, “Oh, ho ho… Oh, ho ho… Oh, ho ho…” But for us, there is no finale--no end--there is only the Grand to admire and enter more and more throughout eternity! “When we’ve been there 10,000 years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun!” And we won’t run out of energy in our new bodies, and we won’t run out of things to praise him for. We’ll keep discovering more and more in God.

Now someone may object that this is a “pie in the sky” fantasy. Or that it’s just a bunch of concepts that sound nice but it’s really just abstract triumphalistic optimism. It’s out-of-touch with concrete reality. “I’m a Christian. And it has not gotten better and better for me,” someone might say. “It seems to be only getting worse and harder!” If that’s the kind of response you find welling up as I describe this, I want to thank you for your patience as you’ve been reading this message. It could be that, like Mary, you don’t need a lecture. I can’t change your situation. And I do feel for you, but not well enough. And I don’t know what it’s like to be in your shoes. You don’t need a lecture. You don’t need advice. But let me tell you what you have. You do have a Lordand Savior. Go to him. Call on him. He is trustworthy for even you. You have him. But much more than that, he has you.

And what I mean by this spiraling upward relationship that keeps getting better is not that our circumstances get easier and easier. That was certainly not the case for Jesus, so why should we think it should be any different for us, his disciples. This world is cursed. We are still in sinful and diseased flesh. And evil will not be fully dealt with until Christ returns. But he will return. He is coming. We do have a sure hope.

These slight momentary afflictions are attaining for us an eternal weight of glory. And, like the Psalmist who spoke of the Lord as his Shepherd (Psalm 23), we find ourselves speaking not just of him, but to him when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He is close to the brokenhearted. Draw near to him, and he will draw near to you. Through it all, though it may not always feel like it, we have him and he has us. And when he comes, we believers will know a happiness that only always exponentially increases, as we are welcomed into the joy of our Lord and Master.

Conclusion
If we turn to the next chapter in John’s gospel we see the appropriate response to what Jesus has done. Fellowship and Worship. We find Christ eating a meal with this family, and see Mary anointing the Lord in worship. It seems appropriate then for us also to respond in the same way, eating at his table and worshiping him. So join a church this Sunday. And enjoy the Lord serving you, as you speak with him and eat at his table if you believe that God raised him from the dead.

- - - - - - -

This sermon was addressed originally to the people at Immanuel Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, by Adam Smith on Sunday morning, November 3, 2013. It is not meant to be a polished essay, but was written to be delivered orally.

The mission of Immanuel is to be a multiplying community
that enjoys and proclaims the Good News of Christ in the great city of Chicago.

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this post are from: The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan. I usually use the ESV, but I primarily used the NIV here because that's the translation that was distributed under the chairs where the people gather to hear God's word.

This sermon is printed and distributed as part of the ongoing ministry of Immanuel Baptist Church
© 2013 Adam L. Smith

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Welcome!

This blog is dedicated to the glory of God. He has made himself known by sharing his most prized possession with us, his one and only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said, "Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father" (John 14:9). So my goal with this blog is to show you God by showing you Jesus.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high  
(Hebrews 1:3)
If God really let's us see him, then our lives will be irrevocably transformed (cf. John 4:10; Romans 12:1ff).

We all are in desperate need of God, whether we realize it or not. "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Your life, the fact that you lived through last night, your every breath and heartbeat, your ability to go to work, your very existence--it all depends on the One who created all things and keeps all things in existence (cf. Hebrews 1:3). It would behoove you then to get to know him and understand what he wants of you and the world. We all, whether we think we know him or don't--we all need to know him more and more. And so we all need to know Jesus, the radiance of his glory.

And think of how greatly our need for him is amplified when we consider our sin problem. The Bible says "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:21). And although it says that "the wages of sin is death," it also says that "the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Jesus is the definitive answer to our sin problem. Since he willingly died on the bloody cross we can come to God as a welcoming, holy, good Father (1 Peter 1:17-21; 3:18).

So we must turn from our sins and trust in Christ as our Lord and Savior and Treasure. That's the aim of this blog. I want to help you know God in and through Christ, as he has made himself known infallibly in the Bible that has been breathed-out by God's Spirit (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Find a Good Church

But before Christians tried making Christ-centered blogs, God made a Christ-centered community. God's word does God's work today best in the context of a local church. In our individualistic time after the enlightenment, and after the internet, where so much cheap info is available, some people might be tempted to think they can get all the truth their souls need by being consumers of blogs and listening to sermons online. But the Bible says we can only fully appreciate all that God is for us in Christ together with the church. For example, the apostle Paul prayed,
that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 
(Ephesians 3:16-19)
So don't avoid or postpone finding a gospel-proclaiming church to become a member of because you think it's sufficient just to roll out of bed on a Sunday, plop down in front of your laptop, and listen to sermons or read Christian blogs online. That's a dumb idea. If you can't get to a church, like if you're homebound, that's one thing. But if you're perfectly able to join a church, do so! Even if you are homebound, find a church that you can connect to, who will minister to you and whose ministers will come and visit you and remind you of the gospel--or even find a way to bring you into the fellowship on the weekend. 

The point is, it's not a good idea to use internet resources as an excuse for not connecting with the the community of Jesus. Proverbs 18:1 says the person who does stuff, who "isolates himself" like this, "breaks out against all sound judgment." So it would be a bad judgment call to isolate yourself from the church because you've figured out another way to get your spiritual fix (cf. Proverbs 14:12). Hebrews 10:25 warns us against "neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some," and says that instead we need to be "encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."

Serving the Church

But of course I still think there's a legitimate place for reading gospel-proclaiming blogs. Hence, this one. They shouldn't take the place of the church; they should serve the church. For example, that's why I have listed a bunch of good churches and church networks on the side of this blog (you might have to view it on a laptop instead of a mobile device to see them). Check 'em out, especially if you are not yet a baptized member of a local fellowship. Get connected to the church, "the body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:27)! And let me know if you need help finding one in your area.

The content on this blog is for you to ruminate on, discuss, and apply, to strengthen the church of the Living God. And I believe it will, because I intend on saturating it with Scripture. Scripture (synonymous with the Bible, God's word) feeds our souls. As God says through Moses and Jesus,
"It is written,
'Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the
mouth of God.'" 
(Matthew 4:4; cf. Deut. 8:3)
And it feeds our souls because it showcases the Lord Jesus Christ, the bread from heaven, the treasure of God. (I hope to publish another post soon on that fact that Jesus is God's supreme treasure.)

Another benefit of a Scripture-saturated blog is that it will help this not be just another place on the internet with someone airing out his opinions. The Bible says, "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion." (Proverbs 18:2) So if there's anything I write here that seems weird to you, don't just take my word for it. Take God's. Use it as an opportunity to grab a Bible, ask God to help you understand it, and study how God has guided others to understand it in the church from history to the present.

"The unfolding of your words give light..." (Psalm 119:130)

Since this is my introductory post, one "housekeeping item" is necessary. As I mention above, I plan on quoting Scripture a lot. As my dad used to say, "When Scripture speaks, God speaks." God does his work through his word. If anything good is to come from this blog, God's got to do it. I have no power with my thoughts that I share. He alone has the ability to speak light into someone's heart, just as he spoke the entire universe into being. Unless otherwise noted, I plan on quoting God's word as it's been faithfully translated in the ESV (Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001.) or a newer update of that translation.

Now may the Lord Jesus lift up the light of his glorious countenance upon you through his word. And as the light of his face dawns upon your soul, may you prize and praise him as your greatest treasure.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Femininity, Masculinity, and the Trinity


Below are two questions that arose during IBC's 'Man Night.' Since these two questions are related, lets consider them together.
1. We are told that we are created in the image of God – “man (sic) and female He created them.” Which part of the Trinity is masculine? Which part of the Trinity is feminine? Should a man have both qualities? Should a female?
2. In what ways should a husband treat his wife as his equal? In what ways should he not?
Let's take that first question first. There are no 'parts' to the Trinity that are masculine and feminine. Humanity's masculinity and femininity corresponds in a finite, creaturely way to aspects of the infinite, uncreated Creator (qualities like strength and beauty - cf. Ps. 96.6). We cannot simply read our gender observations back into God. 1.) He is unutterably transcendent, which necessitates our keeping in mind an illimitably vast Creator/creature distinction. 2.) However, he has graciously revealed himself to us in his creation, in the Bible (which authoritatively interprets our observations of the creation), and especially (and ultimately, c.f. Heb. 1.1ff) in sending his Son to become a creature without ceasing to be God. Therefore the only legitimate way of using gender language to speak of God is to do so by depending wholly on his revelation of himself. We must rely on Biblical inspiration, not intuition or inference; on special revelation, not speculation.
There are plenty of places where the Bible refers to God with gender language. It even refers to him with feminine metaphors. It's possible that God's name, El Shaddai, refers to the nurturing care of a breastfeeding mother. King David referred to his relationship with God "like a weaned child with its mother" (Ps. 131.2). Jesus even compared himself to a hen gathering Jerusalem's kids under her wings (Lk. 13.34).
But God is not a woman. Nor is he a man (Ps. 50.21; Hos. 11.9), even though the majority of the language God uses of himself is masculine. So what are we to make of the fact that God refers to himself in both masculine and feminine terms? I think it helps to note that gendered language for God is both symbolic and human. It's symbolic in the sense that it stands for something about God. Each gender symbolizes or images God in a different way. Men and women are gendered image-bearers of God (Gen. 1.26-27). Each gendered person is the image of God in his or her own God-given right, but he or she images God differently than the other and does so best in loving fellowship with the other.
So this language is symbolic, but we must bear in mind that it is also human. It's Almighty God graciously communicating to us lowly creatures. To borrow John Calvin's verbiage, it is God 'lisping' to us in our own baby talk, using categories we understand in order to show us that which 'surpasses knowledge' (Eph. 3.19). God is like a strong man and cares for his children like a nurturing mother. Or, more accurately, we should put that the other way round. God isn't like them, they are in some way like him.
We do best not to adhere too strongly to any particular metaphor or image of God. If we choose a favorite symbol for him we may end up worshiping an image rather than the true God. But insofar as the Bible gives us leave to think of God as strong like a warrior or an impenetrable refuge, or as beautiful as a fountain or a breath-taking sunrise, we should treat them as merely helpful gifts and turn and thank the Giver, who is in no way limited even to the sum total of Biblical metaphors multiplied by infinity. He is not limited by the metaphors, rather, he is so amazingly gracious that he uses even our pitiful words to enlighten us with himself. He is so great that he cares enough to use our imperfect words to point us to himself, to shine millions of colorful rays into our dark minds to help us see him who is unseen.
These metaphors tell us true things about God, but God is not like these things. Let me try to show you what I'm saying. The Grand Canyon bears witness to God's grandeur. But God is not like the Grand Canyon. Rather, he is the definition of grandeur, and he dug that little hole in the ground so that we his creatures might praise him - because it really is grand to us! So masculinity and femininity bear witness to aspects in their Creator. But, strictly speaking, God is not like a man or like a woman. He created us so that each sex would be like a mirror, tilted 45 degrees that reflects his light in distinct but equally valuable shades. We should make use of all the Biblical images for God that we can, employing them in our fight against sin so that we trust in his power and believe the truth of all the glorious promises summed up in Christ over against the fake beauty of temptation's allurements. So we should cherish him through both the feminine and masculine language.
But I do not believe that this permits us to think of God as either he or she. We really need to be careful about playing fast and loose with our theology. Ideas have consequences. And Ideas about God have the greatest consequences. We cannot rightly pray to 'Our [Mother] which art in heaven...' That would be to stray from the verdant fields of Biblical revelation. Even though God can use feminine imagery to describe himself, the consistent way that he directly refers to himself is in masculine terms. None of the Biblical writers refer to him as she or her, and so, neither should we. (Whether we know exactly why this is the case is beside the point. For if we prefer to think of God according to the spirit of this overly inclusive age rather than letting the Bible shape our thoughts, we will be found worshiping a 21st century god and not the Biblical, living and holy One. So we would do well to take seriously the Apostle Paul's insistence 'not to go beyond what is written,' 1 Cor. 4.6.)
I hope this helps us think about using human gender language for God. And as far as whether a man or woman should have both qualities, the answer is yes and no. Men should not act like women (cf. Deut. 22.5), but men should still be in touch with their emotions and have relationships that they take pains to nurture (1 Thes. 2.7).
Now on to question number 2: In what ways should a husband treat his wife as his equal? In what ways should he not?
For this question we need help from both the OT and the NT. The apostle Peter refers to the wife as 'the weaker vessel' (1Pet. 3.7). But he doesn't say that we should belittle them accordingly, rather, he says that husbands should 'honor' them accordingly. It's like he's saying, 'Women aren't made like you roughnecks. They must be handled with care like fine china.' But this doesn't mean they're more valuable than us. We are both equal in value as God's precious images (Gen. 1.26-27). When we say that men and women are different, we do not mean to imply by that statement that one gender is better than the other. Although distinct in gender and functions, we are equal in worth as God's images.
We are equal, but we are different. Sara is strong in areas where I am weak, and vice versa. Just the physical structure of our different bodies testifies to things one gender can do that the other cannot. Since the Bible is so in touch with the reality of our differences, it commands that we relate with one another according to those distinctions. So in the church, men can take the responsibility as elders (1Tim. 3.1ff) but women cannot (1Tim. 2.12). In marriage, the buck stops with the men not the women to be the head, and so, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands and husbands are commanded to love their wives (Eph. 5.22-33).
This headship language is really helpful in understanding both our differences and our equality, because it doesn't terminate in its usefulness in the marriage relationship. It is crucial to accept in order to have a consistent and clear vision of God and salvation. The first head of humanity, Adam, failed miserably at his responsibility and alienated the entire human race after him from the life of God. But God the Father sent God the Son to become the last Adam. He became the head of a new humanity through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. He is the faithful husband who has claimed all our debt as his own and given to us all of his riches as our own (even his own relationship with God the Father!). As our head, Jesus represents us before God. So everything he is and does and has is reckoned by God as what we are and do and have!
Let's go deeper and we'll discover even more buried treasure here. 1 Corinthians 11.3 says, 'I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.' So headship doesn't refer to something in marriage or salvation only; it actually refers to something in the Trinity! The Father is the head of the Son. 
So if you think that headship makes some sort of inequality in marriage, let the headship within the Trinity correct your assumption. The Father is not more important than the Son, even though the Father sends and the Son gladly submits (cf. Jn. 5.19ff). They are equal even though they're different (Jn. 5.18). Therefore husband and wife are equal even though they're different.
We can draw the above conclusion because interpersonal human relationships are meant to reflect interpersonal divine relationships. We see this applied not only to marriage, but also to other relationships in Ephesians. The last descriptor Paul uses for a church that is filled with the Spirit is, 'submitting to one another.' He then gives examples of what this submission looks like: Wives submit to husbands (Eph. 5.22). Children obey their parents (Eph. 6.1). Slaves obey their masters (Eph. 6.5). The ESV says this submission is to be done 'out of reverence for Christ' (Eph. 5.21). Christ is worthy of all reverence, but I think we can see what Paul is actually saying here better with a more literal translation. This submission is to be done, literally, 'in the fear of Christ.'
What is 'the fear of Christ' that submission is to be done in? Let's define that phrase to get the answer. 'Christ' here is to be taken as the subject, not the object. He is the one fearing, not the one being feared in this phrase. So you could say that submission is to be done in his fear. But what is this fear? It is what the Bible calls 'the fear of the Lord.' Here then, submission is to be done in Christ's fear of God. It is not a servile fear that shrinks back from God (Exod. 20.20). It's a familial fear, the good kind of awe we are to have of God. It includes things like admiration, reverence, respect, and even submission, like that which a son reserves for his father, or, as the case may be here, like what God the Son has for God the Father.
So let me try to bring this all together and clarify what I'm asserting here. The submission of a Christian wife for her husband is nothing less than a participation in and reflection of God the Son's relationship with God the Father. One more look at Ephesians should support this. In Eph. 5.18 Paul commands us to be filled with the Spirit. The submission we've been looking at is a descriptor of this in Eph. 5.21. But before that, in Eph. 5.20, Paul says the Spirit-filled church is one that's 'giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.' To summarize, then: Filled with the Spirit, everything is about relating to the Father in the name of his Son (cf. Eph. 2.18). All our human interactions reflect this Father/Son relationship one way or another. In some relationships, we lead and send; in others we submit and are sent. The Son submits in everything to his Father in holy reverence or fear, but that does not mean he's in any way inferior to God. They are equal in divinity. Likewise, a wife who submits to her husband is in no way inferior to him. They are equals.
We are different, but we are equal. And that equality is very important to assert, especially for its theological ramifications. Humans are not genders who have God's image; we are image-bearers who have different genders. Our basic identity as humans is not man or woman. Our basic definition is that we have each been equally created in the image of God.

For more info on the things above, check out the things below: 
http://www.cbmw.org/Journal/Vol-14-No-1/Rob-Bell-s-Feminine-Images-for-God It seems a little reactionary but, it might be a good place to begin thinking about such things. cbmw.org has better stuff than this, so I encourage you to take a look at it.

For an amazing treatment of how the main stuff of the Bible has to do with our participation in God the Son's relationship with God the Father, check out Donald Fairbairn's book: Life in the Trinity. (If you just want to borrow it, I can lend you my Kindle eBook. I think you can borrow it for 15ish days, and you don't even need a Kindle to do so. Let me know!) He also has some fantastic lectures on theology here. And I just found out that he's started blogging! Yes! I love his stuff because it's so essential, and he writes in such a clear and nontechnical way.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Depth for the Present

Responding to Nietzsche's idealizing of youthful ignorance as, "Not yet having a past to disown," Miroslav Volf writes...

"Complete immersion in the present might produce happiness - that is, if our present circumstances were happy ones - but our lives would be shallow, not to mention downright dangerous. Imagine chasing a stray ball across a busy highway without looking for oncoming cars because you 'blissfully' ignore your knowledge about automobile accidents and fail to consider your mortality! Assuming we could survive, however, our lives would lose depth and richness for lack of memory and hope to bring the past and future into the present. For the way we experience time is similar to the way we hear a sound from a good stringed instrument. When we hear a sound from a good cello, for example, we don't hear a tone produced only by the base length of the string - co-present in that sound are tones from the string's half-length, fourth-length, eighth-length, etc. This is how a stringed instrument produces a complex tone. It is similar with the music of our lives. At any given time, we do not hear only the simple, solitary tone of the present; rather in that present resonate many sounds of past actualities and future possibilities. This is how our present acquires depth." ("The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World," pp. 72-73)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Charles Spurgeon on the carrot


“Once upon a time in an old kingdom, there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot in his garden. Now this man loved his sovereign, so he came and presented the carrot to the king, saying, ‘This is the best carrot my garden will ever grow. Receive it as a token of my love.’ Now the king discerned his heart of love and devotion and saw that he wanted nothing in return. This moved the king and he then gave the gardener far more land than he currently had for his garden, so the man went home rejoicing.
Now a nobleman at court overheard this conversation. He thought to himself, “If that is the response the lord makes to such a small gift, what will he give in response to a great one?" So the next day he brought the king a fine horse, saying, ‘This is the best horse my stables will ever grow. Receive it as a token of my love.’ But the King discerned the nobleman’s heart, and in response he just received the horse and dismissed the giver. When the king saw the look of confusion on his face, he said, ‘The gardener’s gift was a gift, indeed, out of love, but you are just trying to make a profit. He gave me the carrot, but you gave yourself the horse.” Now do you see what this teaches? If you know God offers you his salvation freely, and that there is nothing to do but to accept the perfect righteousness of his Son, then you can feed the hungry and clothe the naked just for the love of God and for the love of people. But if you think you are getting salvation in return for these deeds, then it is yourselves you are feeding, yourselves you are clothing.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Calvin on Union with Christ

"...that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts-in short, that mystical union-are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body-in short, because he deigns to make us one with him."

Institutes 3.11.10.