Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"THIS is what being a Christian is all about!"

Day #336

Scripture Reading:  Colossians 1 - 2 ...

Many people today who claim to be Christians rarely, if ever, talk about their faith in Christ or their desire to live for Christ and show little evidence of having new life in Christ.  What Paul is explaining in his letter to the Colossians is what being a Christian is all about!  Christians are people who have been changed by the very power of God at work within them ... and the difference between those who know Christ and those who don't will be obvious.

Paul begins his letter by telling them that he had heard about their faith and their love for other believers.  He explains that the Gospel they had heard was "bearing fruit and growing" (1:6) all over the world.  People were understanding God's grace and putting their faith in Jesus.  And their lives were showing that things were different!!  Notice the connection Paul makes between faith in Jesus and living for Jesus:  "We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding ... in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way:  bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God" (1:9-10).

Being a Christian means gaining knowledge and wisdom, growing and producing fruit.  When the Bible says you and I are saved "by grace through faith" it means more than saying a few words about what you believe in your head and praying a prayer.  That's part of it, and professing your faith in Jesus, confessing your sin and asking for forgiveness is all good.  But people can do this with their mouths without having any change of heart.  Paul realized that there was more to being a Christian.  Those who are true believers know that it is "the Father, who qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light ... for He rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, IN WHOM we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (1:12-14).

You need to know that being a Christian means there has been a transfer of allegiance from the works of the flesh and the world to the kingdom of Christ.  JESUS reigns in the heart and mind of every true believer.  We who believe in Jesus Christ have been reconciled to God (1:19-22).  We are "holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation" (1:22).  That is the truth of the Gospel.  And what follows is also the truth of the Gospel ...

Paul goes on to explain that he is suffering and struggling for the sake of Christ's body, the Church.  In the Gospel the mystery of what God would do to call people to Himself is revealed.  You become a Christian when CHRIST comes to LIVE IN YOU! (1:27).  THIS is what being a Christian is all about. Paul says, "My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ" (2:2).  You can't be alive in Christ ... you can't have Christ living in you by His Spirit, and NOT be different than those who are not Christians.

Verses 6-7 of Chapter 2 are extremely important in understanding what it means to be a Christian.  Listen carefully to these words:  "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live IN Him, rooted and built up IN HIM, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness."  All who believe are united to Christ through the "baptism" of the Holy Spirit.  Paul likens this to a spiritual circumcision in which the old nature is cut away and replaced by a new nature, recreated in the image of Christ.  "Having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead" (2:12).

This does not refer to the sign of God's promise in water baptism, but to the reality of the power of God that is now at work in every true believer through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit!!  Paul says in I Corinthians 12:13 that all believers are "baptized by one Spirit into one body."  In doing so, "God made you alive with Christ" and you are now connected to Christ and reconciled to the Father.  There is no greater transformation in the entire world than that which happens when Christ comes to live within those whom God has chosen to be His children.  A transformation process begins that will end in conformity to Jesus Christ!!

THIS is what being a Christian is all about!  Being a Christian is a matter of the heart, the mind, the spirit, the will ... it is a NEW LIFE!!  For those who have grown up in the church it may be a gradual realization that you have different priorities than those who don't know Jesus.  There is a "pull" in your life toward the things of God.  But there will be a time when it becomes clear that you have chosen to follow Christ and not the world.  If that has never happened in your life, you need to examine your own heart before Christ.  Understanding God's grace produces the fruit of repentance and thankfulness.  Repentance means a heartfelt sorrow for sin and a desire to turn from it.  We who believe aren't perfect - but we WANT to be!  We know we are saved by grace and we confess we are not good enough to claim God's favor and never will be, but in our heart of hearts we know that God sees us in Christ and it is our heartfelt desire to please Him, as Paul tells the Colossians.

For those who are not yet part of the Church, but who claim Christ as Savior and Lord, you need to see that being part of Christ means being part of His Body ... not just an organization, but a body of true believers who desire to proclaim Christ to the world, in word and in deed.  This is our calling and we fulfill our calling by the power of His Spirit.  "Christ IN you, the hope of glory!" (1:27).  

THIS is what being a Christian is all about!!

"Our Father in heaven, it is in knowing Your grace in Jesus that my life has been forever changed.  Words cannot express my thankfulness as I think of what I was or what I could have been, and what I sometimes still am, and then understand what Jesus did in taking my place on the cross.  I am humbled by Your love and truly amazed at Your marvelous grace.  O Lord, continue Your work in me so that I may display Your power to those around me, giving praise and glory to You, my Savior and my God!  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"How to 'Rejoice in the Lord!'"

Day #335

Scripture Reading:  Philippians 3 - 4 ...

Living as a follower of Jesus Christ in this world is never easy.  It never HAS BEEN easy!  We who know Jesus and who have the Spirit of God within us desire to be like Christ, to be perfect, to be focused on serving God in all that we do.  But we are bombarded with temptations from our own flesh, from the world and from our enemy, the devil.  We struggle ... yet, we REJOICE!! Why?  How?

As Paul writes his letter to the Philippians from prison we have seen that he believes that "to live is Christ and to die is gain" (1:21).  He has no illusions that he is about to slip into a nice, quiet, peaceful retirement after his missionary journeys.  He also understands that he is not the only one who is suffering or who is struggling to live for Christ.  His affection for the believers in the churches he had helped establish motivated him to help them understand how to find joy in the Lord in spite of their circumstances.  So he writes in Chapter 1, verses 29-30, "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have."

Unlike some who preach today, Paul had no "pie-in-the-sky" view of the Christian life, so when he calls the Philippians to "rejoice in the Lord" he is teaching them that it is possible to rejoice in the midst of the struggles and trials that we face here on the earth.  He makes it clear at the beginning of Chapter 3 that his rejoicing does not come from trusting in his own goodness.  He says, "We ... put no confidence in the flesh" (3:3).  Rather, "whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ" (3:7). The basis of Paul's joy, and of ours, is in possessing a "righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (3:9).  KNOWING that we are righteous in Christ in the sight of God motivates true believers to be like Christ.

Some today think that if we know we are saved by faith, apart from works, there is no motivation to overcome the flesh and to serve God, but just the opposite is true.  Those who know that Jesus paid our debt and who have the Spirit of God within us "want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings" (3:10).  Paul's desire to "attain to the resurrection from the dead" doesn't mean that he was trying to earn eternal life, but that he wanted to experience the fullness of Christ in him.  This is made clear in verses 12-14:

"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

God's goal, as Paul stated in Romans 8:29, is that we who believe will "be conformed to the likeness of His Son."  So Paul writes, "All of us who are mature should take such a view of things" (3:15).  This is how true believers think.  We want to be like Jesus.  Others "live as enemies of the cross of Christ" (3:18).  "Their mind is on earthly things" (3:19).  "But OUR citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, WILL TRANSFORM OUR LOWLY BODIES so that they WILL BE like His glorious body!" (3:20-21).

We WILL reach our goal - GOD's goal!  "THEREFORE ... that is how you should stand firm in the Lord" (4:1).  The result of this assurance is peace of heart and mind.  Paul picks up his theme of rejoicing in chapter 4, verse 4:  "Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!"  Knowing that God is with you, that "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose" (2:13), we who believe have a peace that the world knows nothing about, for it is found in Christ Jesus.  Paul encourages them to "put into practice" what they have learned and heard from him and have seen in his example.  All of us should be able to say that.

The "secret of being content" is found in knowing that your strength comes from your relationship with Christ.  He is always with you.  You are never alone.  "And my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus" (4:19).  When your desire is to bring glory to the God who saved you, peace is yours, for He is at work in your life from beginning to end.  So Paul concludes, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.  Amen" (4:23).

Desiring to be like Christ is the key to rejoicing in the Lord ... first, because of God's promise to complete the work He has begun (1:6), and secondly, because thinking about being like Jesus, desiring to be like Jesus, straining toward being like Jesus helps you to THINK right thoughts ... thoughts that lead to right actions:  "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things!" (4:8-9).  Occupying your mind with the things of God changes your thinking AND your living, giving you peace in the midst of your daily struggles ... and that leads to JOY!

Don't let your mind and your heart get bogged down with the "stuff" of this world.  In the midst of trials, God gives His children all we need to overcome the negative thoughts that so easily creep into our minds.  Ask Him to help you today to set your mind on being like Christ and remember that you CAN do what God calls you to do, through the strength that is yours through your oneness with Christ (4:13).  "To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (4:20).

"Father, You have given me joy in the knowledge that the righteousness of Christ is mine by faith.  Now I desire to be like Christ, to think and to act as He did as He walked and lived in this world.  Fill me with Your Spirit and help me to find my peace and contentment in trusting You and serving You.  Thank You, Father, for Your promise to me and to all who believe that when Jesus returns we will be made like Him, for we shall see Him as He is!  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Partners in the Gospel …"

Day #334

Scripture Reading:  Philippians 1 - 2 …

If you were in prison and didn't know if you were going to live or die, what would you write to your fellow-believers who may face the same persecution that you are facing and may themselves die for their faith in Jesus Christ? That sounds like quite a scenario, doesn't it?  But that is the true circumstances of Paul's life as he writes this letter to the Philippians.  God's Word was not written from the imagination of those who dream up stories, but in the real life circumstances of the battle between the kingdom of God and the powers of evil.  

Paul writes this letter from prison, aware that his imprisonment might cause some to question what God is doing.  Here is perhaps the greatest promoter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and defender of the faith at that time - maybe in any time - and he has been imprisoned unfairly and restricted in his travels.  Why?  Why doesn't God DO something?  So Paul writes of his love for the "saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi" (1:1), and expresses his joy for their "partnership in the gospel" (1:5).  Such fellowship among believers is an encouragement to all … then and now.

To encourage them further, Paul declares his confidence that "He who began a good work in you WILL carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (1:6).  As a pastor I know that these words expressed Paul's fervent desire that those to whom he had proclaimed the Gospel would persevere in the faith and glorify God (verse 11).  There is an affection for those to whom one preaches and teaches God's Word that is difficult to describe except as Paul does … as a feeling of a father for his children … desiring the best for them and knowing that the best can be found only in knowing and loving and serving God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul then assures them that God is using him, even in his present circumstances.  He has been sharing the Gospel with the Romans who are guarding him and many of them have become believers.  As he sits in prison, he continues doing the Lord's work.  What an example of faith and perseverance!  He believes he will be delivered, but he wants the Philippians to know that even if he were to die, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (1:21), the Gospel is still true and God is still good.  In fact, he says, "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (1:23).  He believes God wants him to stay "in the body" longer for the sake of the Philippians and others, but if not, he does not want them to lose hope, explaining, "It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him" (1:29).  Suffering for Christ is part of our calling.

Some claim today that God has only good things planned for believers.  It is significant that even the Apostle Paul did not claim to have that kind of knowledge from the Spirit.  His concern was not to predict the future, but to trust God in the present.  He told the Philippians:  "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ … whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the Gospel" (1:27).  People in the Church today should be more concerned about standing firm than in giving in to the culture around us.  We should be talking more about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and worrying less about the other things that are going on in our lives over which we have no control!

In Chapter 2, Paul encourages the believers to find encouragement in the example of Christ Jesus, having the same attitude of humility and servanthood.  He calls them to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose" (2:12-13).  God is ALWAYS at work in ways that we do not understand, and it is important to know that WE who believe are part of His purpose!  His Spirit is at work in us and we are never alone.  It is HIS grace that empowers us daily to "shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life" (2:15-16).  We who know and confess Jesus Christ have a calling in this world that no one else has:  to proclaim the name of Jesus and so to give glory and praise to the one true God.  No one else can do this.

Even as Paul faces death, he has a deep concern for his brothers and sisters in Christ.  He mentions Timothy and Ephaphroditus, two fellow-workers in the teaching of the Gospel.  Paul was concerned for them, but also for the Philippians, that they were understanding how very important their ministry was for the glory of God and for the cause of Christ.  Do you understand that?  What does it mean to you to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?  Is your desire every day to serve Him, to shine the light of His truth into the darkness around you?

For some around the world faith in Jesus Christ is truly the "anchor for the soul" (Hebrews 6:19) that God intends it to be.  Some are holding on tightly to other things, even life itself, thinking that in them you will find hope, peace, joy, contentment and meaning for life.  God gives us gifts to enjoy - but not to worship … not to place our hope in.  I pray that you, like Paul, will understand God's work IN you and His desire to work THROUGH you.  I pray that you will long to be with Jesus, whether in life or in death, and that your attitude will be like that of Jesus:  a humble, willing servant.  And I pray that you, as partners in the Gospel, will share God's truth with others on a regular basis, praying for them and putting their needs before your own, giving your life away for the King!  For in doing so, you will find true joy in Christ Jesus until that day when you see Him face to face.

"Father in heaven, the joy of knowing You and serving You surpasses even life itself.  Fill me with faith and the confidence that I have a calling from You and that You Yourself, by Your Spirit, are at work in me to accomplish all You intend for my life.  I long to be with You and pray that You would give me a humble Spirit and a willing heart to serve others, holding out to them the word of life so that they, too, may know You and be partners in sharing the Gospel.  To You be the praise and glory, in Jesus' name, Amen"

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Live a life worthy of the calling you have received!"

Day #333

Scripture Reading:  Ephesians 4 - 6 …

How few Christians today understand that they have a CALLING from the Lord?!  Do YOU?  There is actually a debate today about whether or not those who are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ should be told that God now expects them to live in a certain way, confessing Jesus "not only" as Savior, but also as "Lord."  Some complain that telling people who believe in Jesus that they must submit to Jesus as Lord is somehow ADDING to salvation by grace alone.  These argue that if we are saved by GRACE, apart from works, as the Bible clearly teaches, then we can't tell people that they need to do good works, can we??

"YES!!"  There is no conflict between preaching the Gospel that says we are saved by grace apart from works … that it is the gift of God … and then helping those who believe in Jesus to understand that the Holy Spirit is now at work in them to PRODUCE good works from thankful hearts to the glory of God!  What's so hard to understand?  In fact, if we go back to Ephesians 2 for a moment, Paul makes this fact as clear as it can possibly be made:  "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - NOT by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus UNTO good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:8-10).

James makes it clear in James 2 that true faith … faith produced by the Holy Spirit … always produces good works.  We who have been born again by the Spirit don't try to EARN our salvation through our good deeds and we don't trust in our works for assurance that we are saved.  We understand that we are saved by GRACE!  However, the heart that is turned from sin to righteousness will always desire to please God out of gratitude for His gift of life through Jesus Christ.  So, after explaining the power of God's sovereign choice, His grace and His love, Paul begins Chapter 4 by saying, "I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have RECEIVED!" (4:1).  And that calling begins with your connection to Christ AND to His body, the Church - the "called-out ones."

Many push merely for an outward "unity" of  the religious structures that exist within Christianity, as though uniting all the various “branches” of Christianity is the goal.  The truth is, there is only ONE body of Christ, as Paul states it here:  "There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (4:4-6).  The "all" refers to those to whom Paul is writing … all believers.  It is these to whom he then writes concerning God's purpose in giving some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, "to prepare God's people for works of service," so that the body will be built up and those in it will become mature in Christ.

The Church was and is GOD's idea.  He has given the Church a foundation - the apostles and prophets - and a Cornerstone, Jesus Christ (2:20), and now calls and empowers some as pastors and teachers to build up His body until He comes.  God does all of this to fulfill His purpose to transform believers and to conform them to the image and likeness of His Son (Romans 8:29; 12:1-2).  God calls believers as we are, but He doesn't leave us that way! Unbelievers remain "darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God" (4:18), but believers "were taught … to put off your old self … and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:22-24).  Those who are "in Christ" cannot and will not live like those who are still "dead in their trespasses and sins" (2:1-2).  While we still struggle against sin, we are not alone, as we see in Chapter 6.

God now gives believers His Spirit so that we can "be strong in the Lord and in HIS mighty power!" (6:10).  In Chapter 5 we are called to "be imitators of God, as dearly loved children" (5:1).  In one word, we are called to SUBMIT to Jesus Christ, and because we submit to Him as Lord, to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21).  That goes for wives and husbands, for parents and children, and for slaves and masters (employers and employees).  In that way we honor the Lord.  The idea that the life of a believer should not look radically different than the life of an unbeliever is contrary to what the Bible teaches.  GOD is at work in believers and the transformation that is taking place will be obvious!

OUR part in this process of transformation is to "put on the full armor of God" (6:11).  The "belt of truth," the "breastplate of righteousness," the "gospel of peace," the "shield of faith" the "helmet of salvation" and the "sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" are our weapons (6:14-17) … once again, gifts of God's grace to His children "so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground" (6:13).  God is able and God is with us and God is IN us!!  He has given us all we need to live with joy and hope and peace as we live to serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

God calls us as individuals, but calls us into the Body of Christ. Individualism has no place in the Church.  "Living a life worthy of your calling" means serving Christ by living in relationship with your brothers and sisters in Christ in His Body, using your gifts for the welfare of other believers.  The beauty of God's plan for His children is that we are never alone!  God lives in us by His Spirit and when we are adopted by God through His grace in Christ Jesus, we are made part of His family, now and forever.  This is all the incentive you and I should need to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received."
"Heavenly Father, I thank You for calling me to be one of Your children and for making me part of Christ's Body, the Church.  Fill me with Your Spirit daily, that I might glorify You by living in a way that is worthy of the calling I have received.  Help me to submit to the Lordship of Jesus and to put on all the spiritual armor You have provided, using Your Word as my sword against the spiritual forces of evil that come against me and so stand firm until that day when I stand in Your presence.  In Jesus' name, Amen"