Sunday, July 26, 2015

Do the WORDS of #Jesus Really Matter? #JesusFollowers

A world famous preacher likes to say that Jesus did “three day’s work” and that is all he ever did. By this, he means that he died, spent time in a tomb, and then rose to Heaven. That, to him, was all Jesus was good for.

But this ignores the mission of Jesus: to teach and preach. Jesus’ words, in the view of that minister, mean nothing.

But we cannot ignore Jesus' words, because Jesus said his words and teachings would last forever. Anyone teaching people to disregard his teachings, therefore, is misleading us.

Jesus said that to hear and follow his words is like building a house on solid rock (Luke 6:48) and whoever is ashamed of him and his words is the one Jesus will be ashamed of (Mark 8:38.)

He said to the Apostles at one point, "You don't also want to go away, do you?" Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:67-68.)

Peter was right. Where, indeed, and to WHOM would we get better information about eternal life and salvation from sin than Jesus himself? There is no one other than Jesus we need to hear when it comes to this important subject.

The words of Jesus have no expiration date.

Jesus never said that his teachings and words to the Apostles were directed only to those living in Roman Judea. Instead, he says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Matt. 24:35) While he did address certain things to his fellow Jews alone, his message and moral teachings are universal. Jesus never told us his words were only meant for a certain time in history.

There are no better teachings than the words of Jesus himself.

Jesus didn't say that after his ministry ended, someone else would be coming to interpret his words or change his teachings. Jesus said, “EVERYTHING that I learned from my Father, I have MADE KNOWN to you." Matt. 15:15. No further revelations are required for us to “learn” about God and God’s Will for our lives.

Jesus spoke on God's authority.

Jesus' words, he said, were not spoken on his own authority, but on God's (John 14:10) and Jesus said his actions always pleased God (John 8:29) making him our perfect example in all things.

If we believe this, then Jesus' words and actions reflect the Will of God, Who chose and anointed Jesus as God's spokesman, sending him out to preach a Good and Beneficial Message ("Gospel".) (Luke 4:18)

There is nothing greater, then, than the teachings of Jesus. They are to be the focus of our lives.

An often overlooked phrase in a popular verse, Jesus calls on us to teach and make disciples of all nations, and also, "teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you." All of his teachings, therefore, have eternal and profound significance, and deserve to be known by all peoples.

His clear teachings, therefore, calling us to perform Good Works, to seek heavenly treasures rather than earthly ones, to pray and act righteously without doing so just to be seen by others, to actively serve others, especially the poor, to turn the other cheek, to love and pray for enemies, and to go the extra mile in all that we do, HAVE NEVER BEEN CHANGED. Nor can we explain them away or minimize their importance, or allow others to do so.

Jesus' words have not been altered. His teachings remain in effect today. And his words were spoken in order to be followed by those who claim to love him.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The "Why" and "How" Of Good Works #JesusFollowers

Jesus tell us that we are to perform Good Works in our lives. They are not optional, nor are they something God believes we can dispense with. They are not something we can inherit, or acquire from others. Our acts must be our own.

But WHAT, exactly, ARE "Good Works"? WHY are they important? And HOW are we to do them? Jesus and the Scriptures he knew and studied were very clear in explaining these vital questions.

Why are they important? Good Works are the key way in which we make God's Kingdom visible here in this life, on Earth, in this time.

Jesus, our Teacher, tells us, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 5:16)

And the teaching of Jesus, consistent with the prophets before him, is that God will reward us for our actions.

Jesus' righteous Good Works always pleased God. (John 8:29) Obedience to God and to obeying His commandments are the basis upon which we will be judged worthy of eternal life with God after this earthly life ends.

When we commit to follow him, Jesus becomes our template, our model for how we are to act in this world. And Jesus taught us that we can do all that he did.

What Jesus means by "Good Works" are our own acts of righteousness. They exist only as acts, and we cannot claim another person's righteousness as our own. We are responsible to God for what we do, and only what we do.

The Hebrew Scriptures proclaim that God is pleased when we follow a righteous path in our lives.

"Yahweh is righteous; He loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold His face." (Psalms 11:7)

"Turn away from evil and DO GOOD!" (Psalm 37:27)

"Take courage!" says the prophet Azariah, "Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded."  (2 Chron. 15:7)

The proverbs proclaim: "One who sows righteousness gets a sure reward." (Prov. 11:8) "To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to Yahweh than sacrifice." (Prov. 21:3)

When King David repented and did what was right in the sight of God, he wrote, "Yahweh dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Psalm 18:20)

Jesus calls us to work righteousness in all we do, taking the form of service to others.

He teaches that obedience to God's moral Law, God's commandments, is the key to eternal life (Mark 10:17-19; Luke 18:20; John 12:50)

We are called by Jesus to not lay up for ourselves "treasures on earth," but instead, to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Matt. 6:19-20)

We store up these treasures when we serve others, when we feed and clothe them, when we comfort them, and when we encourage them to also seek Righteousness.

"Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" he says (Matt. 6:33) And "Where you treasure is, you heart will be, also." (Matt. 6:21)

When we actively have our heart set on righteous Service, we are becoming Spiritually Complete people, and are living the life God wishes for us, and the life Jesus modeled for us to follow.

When we give to the needy, when we pray, when we give others food and drink and even when we are persecuted for doing Good Works, we therefore receive a reward in Heaven.

But while we are promised that God rewards our Works, Jesus teaches us that we are not to be prideful of them.

"Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 6:1)

While our acts become lights to the world, we must not do them just to put on a show, or to make us seem more holy or better than others.

In the same way, we should not be in the business of judging others' Works and acts.

Jesus warns that we should not judge - looking for the sawdust of bad actions in others' eyes when we have a log of worse behavior in our own (Matt. 7:1-3)

It is not our place to judge others' actions as "worthy" of reward, nor must we arrogantly claim that OUR OWN actions are fully pleasing to God.

God alone is our Judge. While we surely should be encouraging others to be Righteous, not one other human being gets to judge us as God does, nor can we judge another. It is enough that we serve God in spirit and in truth and in great humility and reverence.

We cannot earn our heavenly reward by demanding it from God, nor can we simply act as if we are accruing a certain number of good deeds to purchase it. God calls us to act and then trust Him to judge whether we are worthy in the next life. It is not for us to know how God determines that worthiness.

But let us not pretend that our Good Works count for nothing, or are not required from us, because they serve the purpose of building God's Kingdom in this life.

We must therefore fully trust in God to determine our eternal destiny. In the meantime, we should tend the sheep who follow Jesus alongside us, and seek to spread God's love throughout the world by our acts, each and every day.

Let's be assured that Good Works of Righteousness are the way of God and the way to God. They aren't simply the extra decorations we put on for show, they are the vital cornerstone of our lives as Jesus Followers.

Good Works are a blessing, when we DO them. We must have the courage and the strength to put them into action, otherwise they remain unfulfilled in our minds.

If we act righteousness through our Good Works, we both transform ourselves, and bring in God's Kingdom.

We should always be mindful of God and of the one He chose and sent out to preach to us, Jesus, who showed us how to Do Righteousness and follow the path God wishes for us.

Good Works of Righteousness bring us joy, as much joy as they bring to God, and are worth pursuing.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Not "Faith Alone" or "Works Alone" but "GOD Alone"

Many - perhaps the vast majority - of Christians beliefs about salvation are like a certain student on her first visit to the admissions office of a university. Picking up a college catalog, she randomly opens it to the end, and, seeing that at the end of the fourth year, she would be rewarded a diploma, she mistakenly assumes she does not need to do any other work, or attend any classes.

So, ignoring the requirements for earning that diploma in the part of the catalog containing the coursework, she demanded her degree on the first day of  college.

In the same way, a man was hired at a new job. Once hired, the employee, knowing he will be getting a huge salary at the end of every month, somehow convinces himself that any WORK he does will be incidental to that salary.

Each day, he assures himself that he WILL be paid, but that he cannot possibly EARN such a good salary, but instead views it as a "free gift," given to him because he was hired to work at the company. Any WORK he does, he says, will be merely "evidence" that he has a job.

This hypothetical student, and the employee, are both in for a surprise when told how universities and workplaces actually work. And many pastors' flocks may be surprised to learn that Jesus did NOT teach that our Creator makes no demands upon us in this life, and instead, that God will actually judge us according to our Works in the next.

Simply enrolling in a College doesn't permit us to view ourselves as graduates, and being hired doesn't mean our employers hired us to warm a seat in exchange for a cash "gift" at the end of the pay period.

Scanning the words of Jesus and ripping out a phrase here and there, and proclaiming that ONLY belief in Jesus is necessary for eternal salvation, does the words of Jesus and his Gospel a grave injustice.

In truth, belief - in Jesus' plan of repentance and righteousness, not just "on" him - is only a first step in our Faith. Simply professing belief, without accompanying it with active Good Works, is not enough (James 2:19.) 

Jesus, in the only time he was asked how one achieves eternal life, answered, "You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" (Mark 10:17-19) Those who condemn "commandment keeping" have a real and serious problem with Jesus, who believes the way to achieve eternal life is keeping God's moral law, just as all the Prophets have said.

Jesus calls us to seek the righteousness of God's Kingdom, to make that Kingdom "on earth as it is in heaven" to seeking heavenly treasures instead of earthly ones, and to do "good works" so that others may know of what this Kingdom is composed.

Belief alone, without seeking this Kingdom, and without performing these Good Works, is not the Gospel preached by Jesus.

Nor can we have "faith alone" without works. That is also not part of the Gospel message of Jesus.

"Faith alone" as a phrase, appears just once in the New Testament writings, and then, it is spoken of in the negative. "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (James 2:24)

Nor, it must be said, can we have WORKS ALONE without Faith, because our Faith is based on the teachings and example of Jesus, and without faith in Jesus and following him and abiding in his words, carrying his cross and his message in our hearts daily, we have no idea what "works" to do, nor how to do them.

It is in this sense that Jesus says "without me you can do nothing" unless we "abide in him" (John 15:15) just as Jesus could do nothing without doing what God had him do (John 5:19;30.)

And to do works, in order to be "seen by men" (Matt. 6:1;5;18) is prideful, and Jesus does not allow us to do this.

Our works are to be seen by God alone, because it is God alone Who judges all people according to their Works (Matt. 16:27, Psalms 62:12, Prov. 24:12, Isaiah 3:10-11, Jer. 17:10; 32:19, Ezekiel 7:27.) We are not judges of either ourselves nor of other people's Works ("Judge not" Matt. 7:1.)

So, let's not pretend the Bible's Prophets, including Jesus, gave us no "coursework" and no work from our "Boss," God, our Father.

We must strive to enter the "narrow door" of Salvation (Luke 13:24) humbly allowing GOD ALONE to be our ONLY judge of worthiness, just as the student will be judged - not by herself, or her fellow students, but by her professors and university administrators; and the employee's work performance will be judged by his boss.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

He Has Shown Us. #JesusFollowers

“He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8 (WEB version)

"He has shown you, O man." Whoever among you makes this inquiry, if you think and consider, may perceive that God has already taught you those services that He requires, and what things are the most acceptable to Him.

He teaches us by our own reason, if we will use it. He has also shown us this in his word, in the Law, and in all the revelations He has made to us.

So, in the Law of Moses (Deut. 10:12-13) it is written, “Now, Israel, what does Yahweh your God require of you, but to fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep Yahweh’s commandments and statutes, which I command you today for your good?”

And again, (Deut. 30:11-12; 14) “For this commandment which I command you today is not too hard for you or too distant. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us? ... But the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”

The examples here insisted upon are only the sum and substance of the Ten Laws or precepts, delivered at Mt. Sinai.

And many of the Prophets speak in perfect agreement what is here said in Micah. In Isaiah: “Wash yourselves, make yourself clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do well. Seek justice...” (Isaiah 1:16) And in Hosea: "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6.)

Therefore what is said had been said before, and often taught, and shown to this people by reason, and by other Prophets and messengers. But now God reminds them of it, and shows them again.

"He has shown you what is good," or right, what is in itself reasonable and excellent, useful and profitable.

The several branches of our duty are sometimes reduced in Scripture to "love of God and our neighbor."

Our Master says that the love of God is the first and great commandment. And in the Law of Moses, written on two tables, the duties immediately respecting god are placed first. But in this text, it is first said that we should "do justly and love mercy," THEN "walk humbly with God."

But the order is of little concern, because the parts of duty can never be separated. And our Master having said, that to "Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all the soul is the first and great commandment, then adds, "And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself." John writes, "he who doesn't love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother." (1 John 4:20-21.)

"What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly?" This covers everything that is fair and equal between man and man, according to the relations they keep, or the obligations they are under to each other.

In this chapter, just after this text, God by His Prophet lists many things contrary to this duty, without changing this unrighteous conduct, could never hope to be accepted by Him.

We are to be just in our dealings with others, without imposing on their ignorance or falsehood.

In our common traffic with others, we are to observe truth in our words, so on all other occasions we are to regard the truth of things, not saying anything falsely to the disparagement of our neighbor, which would be shown an injustice, a most injurious action.

We are also sincerely to keep what we promise, and to the utmost of our power be as good as our word.

We are to be faithful in all the trusts given us.

We should likewise diligently and prudently provide for those who are under our care, and depend on us.

It follows next, "And to love mercy" or goodness and benevolence. When the duty owed to our neighbor is described as "loving," them both justice and mercy are included in that one word. Here they are mentioned separately, and distinctly. And also elsewhere. "Therefore turn to your God. Keep mercy [kindness] and justice, and wait continually for your God." (Micah 12:6)

Showing mercy is doing no more to others than what we, in the same circumstances, would have others do to us. And not just relieving our own relatives, or friends, but also strangers, if we have the power to do it.

In this is included not only dong what others can claim of us, but something more: acts of kindness and benevolence, and forgoing and giving up what is due to us.

It includes guiding and counseling those who are inexperienced in the world, and helping them out of our wealth, so they may better care for themselves and their families and be useful in the world, as well as speaking favorably of others.

The last thing in this text said to be required of us is, "to walk humbly with God," or as the Hebrew is, literally, "and to humble yourself to walk with your God." In the ancient Greek of the days before the coming of Jesus, it was, "And be ready to walk with your God." The meaning in general is, "and to resolve to obey all God's commandments, and to continue and persevere in them always, to the end of life."

It is to resolve to worship the true God, and Him alone. In the text it is "Yahweh, your God,” meaning the God who has made us. This, certainly, is the one thing intended by the Prophet Hosea: to engage the people of Israel according to the Law as well as the dictates of reason, to fear Yahweh, their God, and to serve Him alone. This includes a respect of all God's commandments and readiness to submit to His authority.

This humbling ourselves to walk with God includes dependence upon Him, trusting in Him, and committing ourselves to Him.

We perceive that the holy obedience required of us is of great extent - consisting of justice, mercy and piety. It can therefore be no very easy thing to be truly religious. It must be a difficult and a high attainment. We have need, as Jesus directs us, to strive, to exert ourselves, and to do our utmost to enter in at the narrow gate. (Matt. 7:13-14)

Let us seriously attend to this representation of true religion, and remember that the things insisted on are absolutely necessary.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Nathaniel Lardner)