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Posts Tagged ‘righteousness’

According to the Scriptures there are two kinds of trials that we go through in our lives. 1) What we usually think of as a trial has to do with suffering some kind of lack – a lack of food, a lack of health, money, a job, or protection from say, persecution. And this lack puts us in a really difficult situation that tests whether we will remain faithful to God, or not.

2) But to have an abundance of something can also be a trial. Deuteronomy 8 talks about how we can be tested with an abundance of material blessings from God. This too can be a really difficult situation in that it can be a stumbling block to our faithfulness to God. It might make us forget the Lord, or act in ways that are wrong toward others.

Today, we are talking about a test in this second category; one that has to do with abundance – in this case of power or strength. This includes physical strength, economic power, and also what I am calling social power: the influence or sway we have over others. This might come from having a certain position or office in a group that gives you authority and power or it can be more informal – you might be well-liked or popular in a group. This is social power.

I believe that all of us have power in one way or another in our lives. In other words, it’s not that some are strong and some are weak, each of us are strong and weak in different areas and at different times in our lives. And so all of us face this test at some point in our lives.

The question in such a test is ‘How do you use the power you have?’ ‘How do you treat those weaker than you, people who are vulnerable to being dishonored and taken advantage of?’ My point today is that the answer to this question reveals what is in your heart; whether you are righteousness or unrighteous. It reveals the kind of moral character you have, or don’t have.

Scripture teaches us in many places and in different ways that 1. Those who use their strength for the weak, are righteous. In fact, this is a chief character trait of a godly person.

Ezekiel 18:7, says that a righteous person (v. 5) “does not oppress anyone (that is, doesn’t take advantage of the weak) but . . . gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment (that is, helps the weak in their need).”

The righteous use their power and strength, not just for themselves, but also for others. As we will see in a moment, they use it to help, to stand up for, and to honor the weak

On the other hand Scripture teaches us that 2. Those who use their strength against the weak, are unrighteous. This is a chief character trait of an ungodly person.

In parallel to what we saw before, Ezekiel 18:12 says that an unrighteous person “oppresses the poor and needy (that is, doesn’t’ help them, but exploits them).” The unrighteous use their power and strength for themselves, for their own self-interests, not others. As we will see, they use it to take advantage of, dominate and ridicule the weak.

Let’s look at some examples, some of which are cast in a positive light – do this, and other are cast in a negative light – don’t ever do this.

1. If you are a boss or business owner, how do you treat your employees? Do you verbally degrade them? Are you unfair? Do you pressure them to work too hard or in unsafe conditions?

James 5:4-5 speaks to bosses who take advantage of their employees financially. It says, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” This is pretty intense! Are you a righteous employer?

2. If you are a husband, how do you treat your wife? Through most of history wives have been socially weaker than their husbands, although not really in our culture today. But wives are almost always physically weaker. So we’re talking about domestic violence here – verbal and/or physical abuse.

Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Just as Jesus had power, but used it not for himself but for us, so husbands, use whatever power you do have to bless and build up your wife. Are you a righteous husband?

3. If you are a parent, how do you treat your children? They are both socially and physically weaker than you, at least when they are young. We are certainly not to mistreat them through verbal or physical abuse. And even if they are older we can hurt and wound them given our status.

Ephesians 6:4 speaking of younger children says, “do not provoke your children to anger,” that is, by mistreating them. We are to love and care for them and raise and nurture them to be godly people; being above all an example to them of this kind of life. Are you righteous in how you treat your children?

4. If you are of able-bodied, how do you treat the disabled? Whether it be a physical or mental/emotional disability, the disabled are more vulnerable to being taken advantage of and dishonored.

But listen to Deuteronomy 27:18. It says, “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.” This teaches us in general not to take advantage of or dishonor such a person. Are you righteous in how you treat the disabled?

5. If you are young and strong, how do you treat the elderly? They can be physically and sometimes socially weaker than you.

Not only does Jesus warn against taking advantage of the elderly in Mark 7:10-13 here talking about one’s elderly parents,  we are to honor those older than us. Leviticus 19:32 says, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man.” Culturally this is an expression of honor. Are you righteous in how you treat the elderly?

6. If you have what you need (and perhaps a whole lot more than you need), how do you treat the poor? We are talking about economic power here.

We have already seen in Ezekiel 18:7 that a righteous person “gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment.” And there are many other passages that speak of lending at no interest, and giving food, clothing and shelter to help the poor get back on their feet again.

We are also to stand up for the poor – Proverbs 31:9 says, “open your mouth . . . defend the rights of the poor and needy.” And we are not to put down the poor. Proverbs 17:5 says, “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker.” We insult God when we make fun of the poor.

Are you righteous in how you treat the poor?

7. If you are socially secure, how do you treat those on the margins of society?

For instance, widows and orphans who often fell through the social support networks in the ancient world. And so Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” But, nNot only are we not to mistreat them, we are to stand up for them. Isaiah 1:17 says, “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause”

Another example is immigrants who are vulnerable being in a different place without support systems. Leviticus 19:34 applies the second greatest commandment to them – “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”

In a similar way, minority groups can be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the majority because they have less power. In Acts 6:1 the Greek speaking widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food in the church, in favor of the Hebrew speaking widows. There were different cultural and national differences between these groups. And this had to be dealt with.

Are you righteous in how you treat the marginalized?

There are many other examples that could be given.

  • Even if you’re not a boss, how do you use the power you have at work?
  • For those in middle or high school – are you a bully who uses physical strength and intimidation to put others down and take advantage of them? Or are you “popular,” a part of an in-group who uses social power to put down and exclude others?
  • How do we treat the not yet born, who are the weakest of all?

Scripturally this issue even extends beyond the human realm to how we treat animals, who are lower and weaker than us in many ways. If you have animals under your care professionally or as pets, how do you treat them? Proverbs 12:10 says,  “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” Are we merciful or cruel?

The principle in all this is straightforward: How you use power reveals your character. Those who use it to take advantage of, dominate and dishonor the weak are among the unrighteous. Those who use it to help, stand up for and honor the weak are among the righteous.

Examine yourself. How do you use the power you have? How do you treat those weaker than you? Where is God speaking to you this morning?

William Higgins

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A lot of people claim to be “Christian” today. In fact in the world it’s estimated that there are 2.1 billion Christians, about a third of the world’s population. And in the United States some 75 percent of adults would identify themselves as “Christians.” But when we take a long hard look at the world and our own country, the question has to be asked – What does it really mean anymore to call yourself a Christian?

  • Does it mean that you were born in a certain country?
  • Or that you go to church?
  • Or that you went to church as a kid
  • Or that you have participated in certain rituals?
  • Does it mean that you like Jesus?
  • Or are you really just saying that you aren’t a Muslin or a Buddhist or an Atheist?

What does it mean to be a Christian?? Let’s look at this. We begin with –

Some basics

To be a Christian surely means that you have asked for and received the forgiveness of your sins through what Jesus did for us on the cross. And to be a Christian surely means that you have asked for and received the Spirit of God into your heart, who gives new life and a living relationship with God.

These are God’s gifts to us; the expression of God’s wonderful grace. But it also means something more. It has to do with-

Our actions

– not just what happens hidden away within our hearts. Jesus said, “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” – Matthew 7:21. Many people call Jesus “Lord,” 2.1 billion. But real Christians are those who do what he teaches; who do the Father’s will.

After all, anyone can claim that Jesus is their Lord. And also, anyone can claim to be forgiven or to have received God’s Spirit in their heart. But as Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” – Matthew 7:20. Real Christians are known by their actions.

Now does this mean simply living a good moral life? Jesus certainly taught us to be good, moral people. He said that we shouldn’t commit adultery, murder, steal or lie. And we should honor our parents – Luke 18:20. And he also forbade sexual immorality, malice, deceit, envy, slander, and arrogance – Mark 7:20-21.

But even those who opposed Jesus, the Pharisees, were good, moral people along these lines. No, Jesus expects more than this. He said to his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 5:20. He then goes on in Matthew 5-7, in the Sermon on the Mount, to describe what kind of actions are necessary to be his disciple.

Are you a Christian? Do you do what Jesus teaches? Here’s –

A test from the words of Jesus

Below are seven examples, from the Sermon on the Mount. See how you do.

1) How is my anger? Listen to Jesus – “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother, you will be liable to judgment . . . and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22.

I can honestly say that I have never murdered someone. So I can check this off the list of being a good moral person, right? Wrong! Jesus expects more.

God is not just concerned with murder, but also with my anger that strikes out to insult and verbally tear down another person.

The question is – “What about my angry words?” Jesus calls me to use my words to build others up, not tear them down.

2) What about lust? Hear Jesus’ words, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that  everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28.

Faithfulness to my spouse also includes not looking at another with strong desire. I must be faithful to my spouse, even with something like a small lustful look. What about my lust?

3) Do I have integrity? This is Jesus – “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not break your oath, but carry out the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all . . .. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’” – Matthew 5:33-34; 37.

God wants me to keep the commitments I make to others without the need for swearing oaths. I am simply to be honest and keep my word. How is my integrity?

4) Do I love my enemies? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . ..” – Matthew 5:43-44.

I am not just to love those who love me. Everyone does this. You know, if you are good to me I will be good to you. No. I am also to love those who hate and harm me. I am to return good to those who give me evil. Do I love my enemies?

5) Do I put on a show? Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” – Matthew 6:1.

I am not to give offerings, pray or fast or do anything else just so that others will notice me. I am to do these things solely because I love and desire to please God.

Do I try to impress others with how I practice my faith so that they will think more highly of me than they should?

6) Am I generous with others? Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth . . .. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . ..” – Matthew 6:19-20.

Jesus is talking about giving to the poor here. Instead of setting aside wealth for my comfort and security (storing up treasures on earth), I am to share what I have with those is need, which results in treasure stored up in heaven.

Do I cling to the blessings that God gives me so that I don’t share? It has to be one way or another – either treasures stored up on earth – or in heaven. Which will it be?

7) Am I merciful? Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” – Matthew 7:1.

When I see someone sin, I am not to dismiss them as condemned by God. I am to work and pray for their repentance. And if they have sinned against me, I am to give mercy and then forgive them when they repent.

Am I merciful, or do I judge and condemn?

———–

So this is the test – our actions; these specific actions (and more). How did you do?

Let me share one last thing –

Don’t be Discouraged!

Even when we have tried, we have all failed at one point or another trying to live this out. And so we must continue to seek God’s forgiveness.

But we must also press on to live as Jesus teaches. And this is my point – to give up is to be a Christian in name only; it is to be one who simply calls Jesus “Lord,” but does not do the will of the Father in heaven.

The standard for our actions is high. But it is not impossible, because God helps us. As Jesus said, “What is impossible for us, is possible for God” – Luke 18:27. Jesus said this after the rich young ruler felt that it was too hard to do what Jesus taught. It is true, we can’t do it in our own strength, but we can with God helping us.

God makes it possible for us to obey him in each of these areas. As Jesus promised, if we ask, it will be given to us. God will give us the Spirit to empower us to do what he calls us to do (Matthew 7:7; Luke 11:13).

William Higgins

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Alright, we have been looking at the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. And last week we covered the section on Dealing with Enemies. Jesus teaches us here to love our enemies. He tells us, just as you want what is good, so give good to others – whether they deserve it or not.

He also told us that living by ‘an eye for an eye’ gets you no reward, for even sinners do this. But living by love for enemies gets you great reward. That’s because the heavenly Father loves his enemies. And since, ‘like father like son,’ you show yourself to be a son of his, that is, an inheritor of his blessings.

Last week I needed to spend the whole time working with the text trying to lay out what it means. So this week I want to get more into some of the practical realities of loving enemies. I want to do something a little different and tell you some stories and then draw out some lessons I have learned.

Our hostile neighbors

We had been in our house for several years when new people moved in behind us. We lived on a flag lot, so the neighbor’s  property was surrounded by our house and other church property. As soon as they moved in they started making claims that a part of our driveway was actually their land. And it got worse from there.

We had a tree on the border that needed to come down. A part of it had fallen onto our house the last winter in an ice storm and it was diseased. So we told them, but they became hostile. They wanted the tree to stay. In fact, they claimed it was on their land, along with a part of our backyard.

He had anger issues, to say the least. He also liked his alcohol which made things worse. A police man who was later involved in an incident called him “Mr. Testosterone.” He was abusive and a bully. And if anything, I thought she was worse. At one point she was hanging over the fence, taunting and insulting me and the church as I worked in my backyard.

Anyway, I had a trustee over for dinner and told him about all this since our house was owned by the church at this time. I had to go talk to the neighbor about some issues, so we both went over to his house. He went nuts. I was nose to nose with him, kind of looking down on him because I was taller. And he was just screaming and threatening. My trustee and I calmly walked away.

At another point, when I wasn’t home, my wife engaged him about the tree and at that point, full of alcohol, he threatened to shoot her in the head. That’s when the police were brought in to try to talk some sense into him.

Well after the lawyers were brought in an agreement was made whereby the tree would come down and the church would survey the border and put up a fence (which we wanted).

I have to admit it was funny. After the surveyor was done I happened to see the neighbor wife come out to see where the  stake was put. She was standing on it looking out beyond it into our yard, thinking it was hers. But, of course it wasn’t. The border was pretty much right where we thought it was.

It was also sad in a way. The truth is that they had two structures that were too close to the border, without a variance. Although we never required it, it was a bit surreal to see him one day with a chainsaw cutting a part of an overhang off of his house – about four by twelve feet, because it was too close to our driveway.

#1. It’s really hard to love enemies. It doesn’t come naturally. When someone harms me, especially if there’s no cause, I get angry (not as much as I used to thankfully). And there is a part of me that wants to strike back – harm for harm. I want to show them how wrong they were and have them feel some of what they gave to me. So for me, to love enemies requires God to be working in me. Because there is nothing in my flesh that wants to do this. And I am guessing that this is true of most, if not all of you.

#2. If we want to overcome evil with good we have to deal with our anger. Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We are not to let someone’s evil deeds to us, change us so that we do the same thing back to them. That’s what it means to be overcome by evil. Rather we are to overcome evil with good, by returning good for evil.

So all through out this (it went on for months) I had to learn to give my anger over to God. Otherwise I would have been right there with him ‘in the flesh’ screaming and threatening and worse. I had to trust that God would take care of the wrong that was done to me.

What I learned is that when you do this, and I had to do it daily there for a while, it frees you up to focus on doing good and being Christ-like, which is our job as Christians. Instead of focusing on getting even, I could give mercy.

This was a good thing because I learned later that after provoking previous neighbors he had tried to sue them for their responses.

#3. Loving enemies is different than nonresistance. I remember that some in the congregation said that if the neighbor wanted a part of the backyard, it should be given to him, under the idea that we are not to resist the evildoer, but yield and even give more than he asks. This didn’t seem right to me. And, of course, in this case he would have asked for the whole property.

So I really began to struggle with these texts. What do they mean in this situation? What I came to over the next few years was a clearer understanding, I believe, of the context of nonresistance – as I said last week. It has to do with enemies who are also authorities.

And so what should guide my behavior in this kind of a situation is simply the command to love and do good and to pray for my neighbor, which I did.

And also, if love is the standard, not nonresistance, then I have a great deal more freedom in how I respond to my neighbor. As long as I also act with love toward him.

#4. God can intervene on our behalf. Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” God can and does act for us many times even now, when we refrain from acting ourselves in the flesh to get even.

I believe this happened in this case. First of all the neighbors moved away not long after the tree came down. And then I heard from a former friend of his that he had a stroke that paralyzed one side of his face. And his doctor told him he needed to calm down for his own health’s sake. We found out that he had moved from house to house fixing them up and selling them, and also harassing neighbors wherever he went. We certainly hoped that this would put a stop to it.

A story about Fred

(I have changed some things in this story to hide “Fred’s” identity).

I met Fred in church one day. We hit it off pretty good and he was interested in the Bible and identified himself as a Christian. His was a sad story – mental illness and time in jail.

Later Fred became angry with the church, and he focused his anger on me and one other person in the church. His demeanor changed, like he was a different person. As I understand it, he was off his medications.

Once he came to the door of my house and was pounding on it – obviously angry. I decided to go out and talk with him, but locked the door behind me. He was making various threats. Stacey was inside and she decided it was time to get the police involved. We had talked about this before as an option.

Another time he showed up at church during Sunday school, high, playing with a knife he had brought along in a menacing way. My goal was to get him away from the church, so I asked him if he wanted to go for a ride and talk. And so we did. I drove him far away and then dropped him off near a family member’s home.

#5. Love and harm are not always a contradiction. I believe that what Jesus forbids to us is non-redemptive harm. This has to do with revenge, retribution, pay back or an eye for an eye. It’s ‘non-redemptive’ because it is meant only to hurt and punish.

Redemptive harm, by contrast, has to do with causing harm to the person for their greater good, or at least with their best interests in mind. This could be called tough love. I always use the example of a doctor that amputates a leg to save a life. This is different than someone who just cuts off your leg!

In this case we called the police. My aim was to get him a psychological evaluation and hopefully get him back on his meds. That isn’t what happened – they just held him for 24 hours. But even then, the situation was stopped. And if he had physically assaulted me I would have sought to restrain him, even if it meant causing him pain.

#6. You can trust God with your life. Matthew 10:29-31 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Based on this, this is what I believe: If I’m walking in God’s way, I’m not going to die unless God allows it. If I have someone with a knife at church or threatening me at home – I know that it’s not up to them if I live or am hurt. It is up to my Father in heaven. This frees you up to say and do what you need to, to address this situation.

#7. Love will never let me kill someone. This was certainly true with Fred or my neighbor. No matter what they did, I would not be able to do this because I am called to love them.

But this is also why I teach that Christians should not participate in war. There are many issues involved in this, of course, but for me only one is decisive. If love means what the Bible says it means – to give good to others, and I am supposed to love everyone including my enemies, then how can I kill someone and still be faithful to Jesus? How can I both destroy someone and love them at the same time? Even if the government tells me to, I have to refuse. Because as Peter said, “we must obey God rather than men” – Acts 5:29.

#8. Always be open to reconciliation. Luke 17:3 says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” We became good neighbors with the former friend of our hostile neighbors, even though he was there standing by as threats were made against us.

Also, Fred and I did reconcile. His anger subsided and he apologized. I didn’t see him as much, but talked to him from time to time when he stopped by the church. Last I heard he was doing better and I am grateful for that.

Finally, and not connected to these stories – #9. This teaching isn’t just for “enemies.” Several of you mentioned after last week’s message that you weren’t sure who your enemies are today. In general an enemy is anyone who harms you or tries to harm you.

But even beyond this sometimes it is our spouse who does something that hurts us, or a child, or a friend or a church member. But we would not say they are “enemies.” So in some cases it is best to drop the word enemy, but still apply this teaching.

In these situations as well, don’t respond in kind. Always give what is loving and good to the other – whether they deserve it or not.

  • When your  spouse says something hurtful, don’t simply say something hurtful back. Seek to return good. Deal with the issue in a kind way.
  • When your child is misbehaving, don’t discipline them in anger as payback. Give them something good – loving discipline.
  • When someone cuts you off on the road, don’t transform into a vigilante. Return good and be kind.

It’s natural to highlight more dramatic examples when we talk about returning good for evil. But these more common examples may well be harder to live out – day in and day out.

William Higgins

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[Also see the expanded teaching on this – The issue of sexual desire and self-control]

Sexual desire was created by God and is good. But like all the desires of our flesh it often seeks expression in wrong ways. So we must act to control our sexual desire and keep it within the bounds of righteousness.

1. Control your thoughts

We all from time to time have sexual thoughts that come to mind, many of which are inappropriate. And these thoughts can fuel our sexual desire. What is important is that we not entertain them. Similar to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We . . . take every thought captive to obey Christ.” That is, we have to control our thoughts with regard to sex.

If you do have inappropriate sexual thoughts, use the name of Jesus. Satan will often seek to put thoughts in our minds that tempt us, or he will tell us that it is alright to indulge in our own sexual thoughts. We can rebuke these thoughts/Satan so that they have to leave. The name of Jesus is powerful. In Luke 10:17 the disciples said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” All the powers of evil have to yield to the name of Jesus. When we become aware of inappropriate thoughts say, “Depart from me in the name of Jesus!” As James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

Also, use the word of God. After we rebuke Satan we can speak out the Scriptures. This is what Jesus did when he was tempted – Matthew 4:4-10. This reminds us of God’s truth and it teaches us to have right thoughts. It renews our minds – Romans 12:1-2. Here are some Scriptures to use:

  • 1 Timothy 5:2 – “Treat . . . older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.” Women are also to think “in all purity” about other men.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 – “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his (or her) own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

Also, to control our thoughts we must protect our mind. This is a preventative measure. Whatever we allow to enter our minds will be there and affect what we think. If we want to control our thoughts then we need to be careful what we allow to enter our minds – through images, movies, advertising, lustful looks, pornography, and so on.

2. Control your sexual desire

Even if we control our thoughts we will still struggle at times with sexual desire. As Jesus said, “the flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38. Our desires often seek to do what is unrighteous. But Jesus also said, “the Spirit is willing” – Mark 14:38. The same Spirit that gave us a new heart with new desires when we were first born anew, can strengthen our desires for righteousness so that they are stronger than the desires of our flesh. As Paul said, “walk by the Spirit (the power or strength of the Spirit), and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” – Galatians 5:16. So when we are struggling with sexual desires, we can call out to God in prayer for strength from the Spirit to do what is right.

As the Spirit strengthens us, we are, as it were, crucifying or killing the inappropriate desires of our flesh, our fantasies or lusts. Jesus tells us in Luke 9:23 that we are to deny ourselves and take up our cross in this way “daily.” Paul writes in Romans 8:12-13 “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” By the Spirit (the strength the Spirit gives us) we put to death the deeds of the body (we deny ourselves, we crucify or kill the desires of our flesh), in order to follow God. Pray, “God take this inappropriate desire and put it to death by the power of your Spirit. Give me the strength I need to do what is right.”

3. Cut off stumbling blocks

Stumbling blocks are things that are not necessarily sinful in themselves, but they lead you to sin. So, access to the internet is fine, but if it leads you to give in to viewing pornography it is a stumbling block for you. Friends are fine, but if certain ones encourage you to see inappropriate material they are a stumbling block for you. Being with your date is fine, but if spending too much time alone with him/her leads you to act in inappropriate ways, this is a stumbling block for you. When you don’t deal with these things you are putting yourself in a situation where you will most certainly sin; where your inappropriate sexual desire will overwhelm you.

Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29. We have to cut off what leads us to sin. This can mean unrestricted access to the internet or certain friends or certain ways of dating. Jesus calls us to act, even if it is difficult and painful.

4. Find righteous expression for your sexual desire

God gave us our sexual desire, in part, to cause us to seek out a relationship with a spouse. If we are struggling with our desire and are not married, Paul says, “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” – 1 Corinthians 7:9. In a marriage relationship, our spouse is to be the focus of our sexual desire. This is the context in which to give expression to our desires.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:3; 5, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . . Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

Work on your marriage, love and care for your spouse. Then you will have the kind of relationship in which your sexual desires can find righteous expression – as a part of a loving, committed life-long relationship.

William Higgins

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Sexual Purity

Let me just begin by saying that sex was God’s idea and it’s a good thing! Sometimes we get the idea that because God has so much to say about wrong sex, that sex itself is bad. Not true!

Take for instance, the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were walking around naked and happy. And that’s the way God set it up. And there is an entire book of the Bible, The Song of Solomon, which celebrates sexual love. And then there is Proverbs 5:18-19. It says to the husband, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” Sex is good.

But the fact is that like all the desires of our flesh apart from God, our sexual desire often seeks expression in wrong ways. And so God has to call us to live sexually pure lives.

To be sexually pure means that we set aside our own desires and ideas about sex, or the world’s ideas, and live according to what God says; we choose to live within God’s boundaries for sex.

Jesus teaches us the basic boundary in Mark 10:7-9. He said, “’Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’ (speaking of sex). So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Sex is for one man and one woman in a committed lifelong marriage.

If this is sexual purity, then we also need to talk about –

Sexual impurity

The Greek word for this is Porneia. It is usually translated as “sexual immorality” or “fornication.” But I want to make clear that it doesn’t just refer to premarital sex, as is sometimes thought, especially when the word fornication is used. It actually means “every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.” It is a word that covers every category of forbidden sexual activity. In some cases the context defines a particular meaning, like adultery or incest. But often it is used generically for all kinds of sexual immorality. I will use this Greek word -Porneia as we go along here today.

Alright, let’s look at some examples of Porneia. You have the handout. We will focus on three of these that are widely accepted in our society.

1. Pre-marital sex. It is wrong to create a one-flesh sexual union with someone who is not your spouse – I Corinthians 6:16. As we just saw this is reserved for marriage – Mark 10:7. Let’s be clear, this is Porneia – I Corinthians 7:2; John 8:41

If you are unmarried, you are to control your sexual desires. Paul says it is God’s will “that each one of you know how to control his/her own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” – I Thessalonians 4:4-5. If you feel you can’t control your desire, the answer is Christian marriage – as he says in I Corinthians 7:2, 9.

2. Adultery – This is, of course, breaking your marriage commitment through sex with someone who isn’t your spouse. The Old and New Testament are clear on this: “You shall not commit adultery” – Exodus 20:14. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery . . ..” – Matthew 15:19.

3. Homosexual practice – or same-sex activity. The Old and New Testament are clear on this as well: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” – Leviticus 18:22. And Romans 1:26-27 applies this to both men and women.

You can look at the rest of the list later. Now there are also –

Other concerns with regard to Porneia

Not just the outward act is wrong, but also entertaining the inward lust for Porneia is forbidden. Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28. So we are talking here about mental fantasies, the use of pornography and so forth – Porneia of the heart.

Now let’s be clear. Everyone has inappropriate sexual thoughts that come to mind from time to time. The point is don’t indulge them by dwelling on them, by feeding them, or by acting on them. In our verses the action is the lingering “look.” Exercise control.

Another concern – beware of stumbling blocks that can lead you to Porneia. Stumbling blocks are people or situations that pressure you or lead you to sin.

Jesus says this about stumbling blocks – “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29. These are serious. We have to get rid of them.

In our case this has to do with putting yourself in situations that tempt you to Porneia. For instance, spending too much time alone in a private place with your date.  It’s like the alcoholic who tries to hang out at a bar, but every time he gives in to his desire to drink. And he can’t understand why. The battle was lost as soon as he entered the bar. The bar was the stumbling block. The victory is won with the choice to get rid of what leads you to sin, because once you expose yourself, you’re too weak to say no to the temptation. This also applies to spending too much time alone with your date.

Another example – hanging out with friends who like to look at internet porn. If you go there, you know what will happen. So make the right choice ahead of time.

A final example – spending too much time with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse. You’re playing with fire!

Jesus is saying take this seriously! Don’t just get rid of sin. Get rid of what leads you to sin. Even if it is painful, like pulling out your right eye.

A final concern is don’t be a stumbling block to others. This is what Jesus says about the one who causes another to stumble – “ . . . it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” – Mark 9:42. And this certainly applies to sexual sin.

So we need to be careful not to lead others into Porneia. This has to do with the way we dress. We need to heed the scriptural call to dress modestly, both men and women – I Timothy 2:9-10. And this has to do with how we act and talk. Proverbs 2:16 speaks of tempting someone to adultery.

The seriousness of Porneia

In our culture it is no big deal. In fact if you take this seriously you are laughed at. But God has a different point of view!

1. It “defiles” us before God – Mark 7:23. We are made dirty or unclean by it.

2. It brings God’s judgment upon us – I Corinthians 10:8. Paul refers here to Numbers 25 where 23,000 Israelites were killed for their Porneia.

3. It will exclude us from the coming kingdom of God. Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral . . . nor adulterers . . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.” – I Corinthians 6:9-10. And he says the same thing in Galatians 5:19-21.

Because of all this, there are many –

Scriptural calls to refrain from Porneia

  • “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” – 1 Corinthians 6:13.
  • “Flee from sexual immorality. . .. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” – 1 Corinthians 6:18-20.
  • “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity . . ..” – Colossians 3:5.
  • “But sexual immorality and all impurity . . . must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” – Ephesians 5:3.
  • “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . ..” – I Thessalonians 4:3.

So these calls comes to us in many different ways, but they all say the same thing – “Christians, no more Porneia!” “Get it out of your lives!” “Flee from it!”

Let’s end by talking about –

The grace of God

Have you failed? Are you sexually impure? You can be cleansed. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Last I checked, “all unrighteousness” includes sexual impurity. Isn’t that amazing! What grace! Our sins can be forgiven.

But not only that, you can be set free. John 8:36 says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” I am not saying it will be easy. But Jesus can set you free and give you the power to do God’s will.

  • Are you stuck in an adulterous situation?
  • Do you struggle with same-sex desires?
  • Are you engaging in premarital sexual activity?

I’m not here to condemn you. I’m here to invite you to be cleansed of your impurity and to be empowered to live differently, according to God’s will. This is a message of grace and freedom.

And you need to know that other people have been where you are and have found cleansing and help. And you need to know there are people who care about you and can help you in your struggle.

If this is a concern in your life I invite you to pray along with me in your heart . . .

William Higgins

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Last week we began to look at the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” from the story of Cain and Abel. And we saw how even though Cain asked it to try to avoid any responsibility for his brother, the question actually has to be answered with a “yes.” Cain did have a responsibility to his brother. And as well, we all have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters, and neighbors.

We also spent a good deal of time looking at Scriptures that show that we are to care for and help our neighbor – especially those who are weak and in need.

Well today, I want us to look at a specific example of suffering and need, one that has been on my daughter’s heart for several years now. And then we will look at some ways to respond.

Marie: Darfur comprises the three westernmost regions of Sudan, the largest country in Africa. 99% of the population is Muslim and most speak Arabic. They are mostly rural farmers. The people of Darfur have been marginalized since Sudanese independence in 1956 when power was given to the northern Arab elites. They deliberately tried to keep Darfuris out of school. There were no hospitals, roads, schools or economic systems in place. They had no political representation, and were left poverty-stricken.

Omar al-Bashir, the dictator of Sudan has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for 7 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and 3 counts of genocide and extermination.

In 2003 rebel groups from Darfur attacked the capital, Khartoum. After some successful attacks in spring of 2003 the government responded by killing the Darfuris. They hired an Arab militia called the Janjaweed which literally translates to “devils on horseback.” The government gives them uniforms, money, arms, plunder, livestock, land and impunity. They even let criminals out of jail and pay them to burn villages and slaughter their fellow  countrymen.

There are many different forms of oppression there. They suffer starvation because their crops and livestock are burned. The government poisons their water supplies by stuffing dead bodies down their wells. The government denies access to humanitarian aid and even kicked out 13 of the major groups last spring. The militias and the government adhere to a scorched-earth policy in Darfur. Women and girls are forced to get water and firewood for cooking, but then face the risk of being raped. If the men go, they will be killed so the “better alternative” is having the women go since they only get raped. Government planes bomb their own peoples’ villages. Then once the survivors flee to a refugee camp, they are bombed there as well. The Darfuris suffer abductions, torture and murder. Facial mutilations are also common by other terrorist militias that haunt Darfur.

The dead are estimated to be between 400,000 and 600,000 and 2.7 million people have been displaced thus far. These results are devastating especially considering that Darfur only has a population of 6 million.

Now there are so many situations in the world and, no doubt, others of you would focus on a different one, because God has put that on your heart. But this gives us an example to work with. And I think it will help us to see what we can do with a tragedy that is far away from us. You know, when it’s in your neighborhood you can just roll up your sleeves and get to work. But so often the need is an ocean away.

There are certainly ways to work at this through earthly political mechanisms. That is, trying to get the United States government, the United Nations or the African Union to act to address Darfur. But this isn’t what I want to talk about. If you want to learn more about this you can find ample resources on the internet.

My purpose is to help us see what we can do precisely as Christians, with the resources of the kingdom of God to help those in Darfur; to be our brother and sister’s keeper.

1. Pray for God to act

We know that, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” – Psalm 103:6. And “The Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.” – Psalm 140:12.

And so we should call on God to be true to his nature and intervene to bring the suffering to an end. Remembering that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” – James 5:16.

Here are some things to pray for in Darfur:

1. For the evildoers, both individuals and governmental powers, to be put down; that is to lose their power to harm and kill.

2. For resources to meet the material needs of those who are suffering and the refugees.

3. For peace and healing for the many who are broken and traumatized by this war. Even if the war were to end today the effects would go on for decades. And there will be great need for work at healing.

2. Help to relieve suffering

Now, God might well call some of us to go and help with the situation in Darfur. To be there in person. But apart from this, any of us can give resources from here to be shared in Darfur and with the refugees.

And Jesus teaches us to give to those with needs. He said, “give to the needy” – Matthew 6:2; and “give to the poor” – Luke 12:33.

Jesus also told the story of the Good Samaritan who helped one who was not like him. The people of Darfur are different than us.  And he told us to “go and do likewise” – Luke 10:37. The people of Darfur are different than us. They are Muslim and speak Arabic.

Paul says, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone . . ..” – Galatians 6:10. And in context he is saying, don’t just help fellow believers, also help others.

If you would like to give toward this need, you can give to Christian Aid, a British interdenominational Christian aid organization, which does work in Darfur. (Freepost, London, SE1 7YY; or online at christianaid.org.uk/give).

3. Speak out in the name of the Lord

This particular tragedy is not the result of a natural disaster or an accident. The suffering in Darfur has come from the hands of humans. And so there is an element of human sin that needs to be addressed in our response and which must stop for the suffering to stop.

Now when I say speak out, I’m not referring to politics. I am talking about representing God’s point of view on what is going on in Darfur. We speak in the name of the Lord to name the evil that is being done; to call for repentance, and to warn of God’s judgment on sin.

It is not right or Christian to know of and to watch great evil happen while saying nothing. This is a way for you to make your voice heard as a representative of the kingdom of God.

The prophets did this, for instance Amos speaking to rulers in his day. And  Jesus did this speaking to the authoritative teachers and the leadership of Jerusalem – Matthew 23:13-36. And we should also speak up when there is need.

I have written a letter to send to the government of Sudan, and I am going to sign my name to it. If you would like to add your name, just let me know.

“To the Government of Sudan – Hear the words of the one, true God: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4.

Hear the cry of those who suffer in Darfur – innocents including women and children. So many have been terrorized. So many have died. So many are refugees. God calls you to change your heart and bring this to an end!

But know this, if you do not hear their cries, God does. And God will incline his ear “to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.” Psalm 10:18.

And God hears the blood of the innocent as it cries out against you even now. And God will not forget what has happened. “For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.” Psalm 9:12.

Will you hear what God says? Then weep for your evil deeds. Humble yourself before the Lord. Lift up those who are bowed down, and bring healing to those you have broken.”

Finally, and more radically, there is –

4. Intercessory suffering

We talked about this in the Sunday School class on loving enemies, but let me say a few words about this.

It goes like this. When you suffer oppression, instead of returning evil for evil, endure it and call on God to act for you. And God will act to bring justice. This is biblical nonresistance, as I understand it (or cruciform holy war).

We see God acting to bring justice in the story of Cain and Abel. Even though Abel suffered death, God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” – Genesis 4:10. And then God judged Cain.

We also see this in Jesus’ words in Luke 18:7-8. “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”

And you can do this on behalf of others, this is the intercessory part, by going to suffer with them and calling on God to act.

This is what Jesus did for us. Jesus came and suffered with us without returning evil for evil. Rather, he called on God to act for him. And both spiritual and political powers were brought down:

  • Satan was cast out of heaven – Revelation 12:9
  • And the authorities that killed Jesus were judged in 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, as he predicted -Matthew 23:32-24:2.

Alright these are some specifically Christian ways to respond. And I certainly encourage you to respond as the Lord leads you.

William Higgins, Marie Higgins

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We are looking at the final verses of Haggai today. We have already looked at Haggai’s first message: Instead of building up your own houses, get to work on rebuilding the temple – God’s house. And we have looked at Haggai’s second message: Even though the temple doesn’t seem glorious, God will give it glory; in fact, more glory than the previous temple.

In our verses today there are actually two messages that Haggai gives on the same day – December 18th 520 BC. (And so we will have two messages on the same day). In the first of these, or Haggai’s third message overall, he encourages the people by telling them that-

The  blessings are coming

The blessings are on the way.

Now this third message is connected to Haggai’s first message in chapter one, in that both of them note that they were going through hard times because of their disobedience. In other words, God was disciplining them. But the background to this third message is that they had been obedient now for some three months and things were still hard.

To address this, the Lord has Haggai ask two questions. v. 11 – “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests about the law.” He is asking for an official ruling from the priests, as a way of making a point.

In v. 12 we have the first question, “’If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ The priests answered and said, ‘No.’” After certain sacrifices, you would carry the leftover meat in the fold of your garment. The meat was considered holy, and the garment as well (Leviticus 6). But the holiness of the meat and the garment doesn’t make anything else it touches holy. And this is the point. As a general rule, holiness isn’t contagious.

In v. 13 we have the second question. “Then Haggai said, ‘If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ The priests answered and said, ‘It does become unclean.’” So if holiness isn’t contagious, uncleanness is contagious. We are dealing with the rotten apple principle here. A good apple can’t make a rotten apple good, but a rotten apple can make a good apple bad.

Next, Haggai makes the application, which is that the people of Judah were unclean. v. 14 – “Then Haggai answered and said, ‘So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the Lord, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean.’” They were unclean due to their disobedience in that they put themselves first and didn’t work on the temple. And this uncleanness infected all that they did and had. More specifically it is the “work of their hands” that is unclean; that is, their harvests and their animals – all that they brought before God as sacrifices.

They thought that, even though they were walking in disobedience, their sacrifices would make them acceptable; that they would cover over their disobedience and make them holy. But the message of Haggai is that their disobedience made their sacrifices unclean and unacceptable.

The holiness of their sacrifices didn’t make their actions holy. But the uncleanness of their actions made their sacrifices unclean.

Next Haggai reminds them that because of their prior disobedience God disciplined them. vs. 15-17 – “Now then, consider from this day onward. Before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the Lord, how did you fare?” He is asking, ‘how were you doing before you started working on the temple?’

And then, in words similar to what we find in chapter 1, he says, “When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the Lord.”

And then Haggai points toward the future. Since they began work on the temple; since they began to be obedient, God will now bless them. v. 18-19 – “Consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid, consider: Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.” [The time reference here is unclear. Is it looking back three months to when they began work on the temple and they are now, on December 18th supposed to start looking for the blessing? Or is it saying that the foundation was laid or finished on December 18th  and because of this the blessings will start on this day?]

This is a bold prediction. At this time of year (December) the seed would have just been planted after the late fall rains, and the orchards would not have been bearing fruit. And so without any outward indication of the kind of harvest the seed will bear, and without any indication of the kind of harvest the orchards will bear next season, the Lord says, “from this day on I will bless you” – v. 18.

The problem that they had complained about – hard economic times, would be dealt with. God’s discipline would be lifted, and God would bless them.

What Haggai is really doing in these verses is presenting a before and after picture. Before, they were disciplined because of their disobedience. But now, after, they will be blessed because of their obedience.

Lessons

Let’s see what we can take away from Haggai’s third message. First of all, obedience brings God’s blessing. They were under God’s corrective discipline because of their sin. God was trying to get their attention; to wake them up.

And God does the same with us. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.” When we allow sin in our life, we get discipline, not blessing.

But like them, if we submit ourselves to God and obey the Lord, we can know the fullness of God’s blessings for us.

I guess it’s just human nature that everyone thinks they will find happiness by doing their own thing; making their own choices apart from God. But it only comes by doing God’s will. This is how we find peace and happiness.

Second, you can’t cover over sin with good or religious practices. Or to say it another way, you can’t cancel out a life of disobedience to God by doing other good things, so that you say I have done some bad things, but I have also done some good things and they balance each other out.

They thought that since they offered up sacrifices, their disobedience could be overlooked. Sometimes we do the same. We think, ‘I will pray to God,’ or ‘I will come to church,’ or ‘I will help in the soup kitchen’ even though we are willfully choosing to sin. We think, ‘It will be OK. God will accept me. Things will be alright.’

But our unrepented sin contaminates all that we do, just as their sin contaminated their sacrifices. The only remedy is repentance – as Haggai 2:17 says, to turn to the Lord.

Haggai’s fourth message, given on the same day is brief. It has to do with a –

A promise concerning the house of David

By way of background, in Jeremiah 22 King Jehoiachin, or Coniah, as he was also known, a descendent of David, is rejected. v. 24 says, “As I live, declares the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off . . ..” And in v. 30 the Lord says, “none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling again in Judah.”

Why is this relevant? Zerubbabel was the grandson of Jehoiachin, and this pronouncement would certainly put a cloud over him and the line of David.

And so Haggai speaks to Zerubbabel, personally, but also as a representative of the Davidic line. vs. 21-22 – “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.”

This shaking of the nations is also referred to in Haggai’s second message. Although here it seems more uniformly to point to the end of all things.

v. 23 – “On that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the Lord, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the Lord of hosts.” A signet ring is the seal of a king. It functioned like a signature. It was an instrument of authority and a symbol of a most prized possession, usually kept on the possession of the king. And so Haggai is saying – if Jehoiachin is rejected, Zerubbabel is accepted. He is precious, like a signet ring that is not cast off, but kept near. He is God’s servant. He is chosen.

But God is also speaking to him as a representative of the Davidic line. And he is saying that when all other kingdoms have run their course and are judged – the line of David will continue on.

This is similar to the second message about the temple. Even though it seemed paltry, there was a glorious future for it. So also here, even though Zerubbabel is a mere governor in the Persian empire, what will come from him will be great and beloved by God.

The fulfillment can be seen in that:

  • God preserved the line of David through Zerubbabel
  • Jesus comes from this ancestry, from Zerubbabel, through Joseph – Matthew 1:12.
  • When Jesus returns all kingdoms will be judged and he will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Lesson

From this last message of Haggai we learn something about God that we need to remember. And that is that God is in control. Certainly the nations seemed all powerful to small and insignificant Judah. But God can shake them and judge them when he chooses. And even though they sin and rebel, ultimately, they are under his control.

And God has a plan for the world which he will fulfill in the proper time. God is in control of the outcome of history, and this will include the line of David.

But God also has concern for individuals, as we see with Zerubbabel. And so in the midst of our confusion, our inability to control things and our inability to see into the future – we can trust the God who does see into the future, who is in control and who cares for each of us. And we can know that if God can make all of history turn out like it should, he can certainly do the same with our lives – as we seek to follow him.

William Higgins

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[rewritten]

We are looking at five steps that you can take to overcome sin in your life; to overcome in the area where you struggle to do God’s will. Today we look at step #4. Once you are in a test, receive strength from the Spirit to do God’s will. Now, we need strength in a time of testing, because not only does Satan attack our mind, he attacks our heart – our desire to stay true to God.

 Satan pushes hard to get us to choose sin

And we are weak and prone to sin. As Jesus said, “the flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38. And this is especially the case when we are put under pressure to do what’s wrong; when we are in a test. Satan wants to make it so that it is really hard to follow God and easy to sin.

When the pressure is applied, what happens is that there is a conflict between the desires of the Spirit, who encourages us to do God’s will even if it is hard and requires sacrifice, and the desires of the flesh, which want us to take the easy way out even if it means sinning against God. It’s like Paul said, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other” – Galatians 5:17.

We have to choose which way we will go – the desires of the Spirit or the desires of the flesh.

Let me give you an example of this conflict. I worked as a house painter when I moved to Boston in my 20’s. Well, when tax time came around I asked for my information and I found out that most of my pay was meant to be “under the table.” So I am on the phone with my boss and he is telling me this and I realize that he expects me to go along, because it helps him save money and if I don’t then my coworkers might have to start declaring their income and paying more taxes as well.

I was under pressure and I felt the conflict. I knew I should pay my taxes (Romans 13:7) and that this was a matter of integrity. But I didn’t want to lose the job; I didn’t want to cause my coworkers trouble; and I was poor and the thought of having more money was pretty appealing. I should probably just go along and get along. It’s just the way things are done, right?

This is a conflict between the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the flesh. We have all experienced this many times and in different ways.

Well, in times of testing, when we are struggling, what I am saying is that –

The Spirit can help us

So in your moment of weakness pray, “Spirit fill me and empower me. Give me the strength I need to do your will.” The Spirit is powerful and can enable us to overcome.

When we do this there is a death and resurrection that takes place within us. The wrongful desires of our flesh are crucified and the new life that God is raising up in us is more fully manifested.

Although the flesh is weak, Jesus also said, “the Spirit is willing” – Mark 14:38. That is, the Spirit is willing to help us. How does this work? Well, it is the Spirit of God that first gave us a new heart with new desires when we were born again. And the same Holy Spirit can strengthen our desires for righteousness in a time of testing, when the desires of the flesh seem to be prevailing so that our desire for righteousness is greater than our fleshly desires and so we choose to do God’s will.

As Paul said, “Walk by the Spirit (the power or strength of the Spirit), and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” – Galatians 5:16 (NRSV). The power of the Spirit gives us the strength we need to override the desires of our flesh.

What we are really doing when we do this is putting to death the desires of our flesh that oppose God. Paul writes in Romans 8:12-13, “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” By the Spirit, that is, the strength the Spirit gives us, we put to death the deeds of the body; we deny or say “no” to our fleshly desires that oppose God, so that we can do God’s will in our lives. As Jesus told us, we are to deny ourselves and take up our cross in this way daily – Luke 9:23.

Another way?

Now, often we try to overcome the desires of our flesh on our own. We don’t look to God for help. Sometimes we use rules or being hard on ourselves; sometimes even religious rules. Paul talks about, “self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body” and he says these, “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” – Colossians 2:23.

Sometimes we rely on our own good intentions and will-power. And we may make some progress here or there, but there will always be areas where we fail. Paul describes such a person, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . Wretched man that I am!” – Romans 7:18-19; 24.

The problem with these other ways is that the flesh can’t fix the flesh. The power of sin is too strong. The flesh is too weak.

It is the Spirit alone who can set us free from the power of sin. As Paul says, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” – Romans 8:2. The Spirit sets us free! The Spirit enables us to do “the righteous requirement of the law,” that is, God’s will – Romans 8:4.

How do we receive strength from the Spirit?

We ask for it. We pray for the Spirit to come and fill us and empower us. This is the promise regarding receiving the Spirit, “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” – Luke 11:10

We should pray this, opening ourselves up to the Spirit to change our hearts and strengthen us in righteousness.

Now, let’s illustrate this step with –

Peter and Jesus

First, Peter’s failure. He tried to stay true to Jesus, but he only relied on the power of the flesh. As you remember, he secretly followed Jesus after he was arrested and was outside in the courtyard where Jesus was being tried – Mark 14:66-72. Satan used the world to pressure him. The crowd put him on the spot. They said, “This man is one of them!” – Mark 14:69. And they did this three times. The third time it says, “Peter began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man (Jesus) of whom you speak’” – Mark 14:71.

Despite what he had said earlier, Peter wasn’t prepared to die for Jesus. When it came down to it he denied Jesus in order to save his life. Only relying on the power of the flesh and under pressure – he gave in. To use the words of James 1:14-15, Peter was “lured and enticed” by his desire to live. This “desire gave birth to sin.” He denied Jesus to save his life.

Jesus’ example. He received strength from the Spirit to do God’s will. Jesus didn’t want to die on the cross. He didn’t want to be abandoned by God. He didn’t want to come under the judgment of death.

But Jesus received strength from the Spirit. Again, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit is willing” – Mark 14:38. And the Spirit was at work in him. You can see this in his prayer in Gethsemane, “not what I will, but what you will (God)” – Mark 14:36. His desire to do God’s will was greater than his desire to stay alive.

He received strength to undergo arrest, false accusation, mockery, torture, crucifixion and death. Jesus crucified the desires of his flesh in his heart, which led, in this case, to him offering up his body for literal crucifixion.

Do you receive strength from the Spirit?

When you are in a time of testing and you feel weak, do you ask God to empower you and enable you to do his will?

This is absolutely the key to overcoming sin in your life, above anything else we will talk about. Even if you want to do God’s will, you will find yourself in situations where you don’t have what it takes. You are too weak. And if you don’t access God’s power, you will fail.

The Spirit gives us power beyond what we have in ourselves – to do what is impossible in our own strength. And by this power we can deny any fleshly desire in order to do God’s will. Even when it is extremely difficult and involves self-sacrifice.

William Higgins

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I want to share with you some teaching today that speaks to the big picture of how we interpret the Scriptures, but which also deals with some specific aspects of Christian obedience; things that are rarely or never talked about.

We begin with the big picture question, which is: Are Christians supposed to keep the Law of Moses? For instance:

  • Are Christians to keep the Sabbath, that is, Saturday, as a day of rest?
  • Should Christian men be circumcised?
  • Should Christians eat only clean foods and abstain from foods like pork?
  • Should we maintain ritual purity for example, if we touch a dead body?
  • Should Christians tithe according to the precepts of the Law?

It seems like there has always been confusion among Christians about the role of the Law of Moses in the Christian life. Didn’t Jesus change things? Didn’t Paul teach that it is no longer binding?

Well, I want us to look at the answer given by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:28-29. But first we have to note, by way of background, that . . .

Jewish Christians continued to follow the Law of Moses

Jesus himself was Law observant, all the way down to wearing four tassels on his garment (Deuteronomy 22:12/Matthew 9:20). Oh, he stretched some things now and again, like touching a leper (Matthew 8:1-4; Numbers 5:1-4), but this was to heal the leper. And even in this case, he told the leper to follow the Law of Moses to be certified as clean.

And not only was Jesus Law observant, he also taught his Jewish disciples to keep the Law. As he said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, I have not come to abolish them.” (See Matthew 5:17-19; 23:2-3; 23:23).

Now for sure, Jesus rejected the human traditions, or the “tradition of the elders” (the oral law) which the Pharisees used as a guide for keeping the Law (Matthew 15:1-9). Rather, he gave his disciples his own teaching and example as a guide (Matthew 23:10) which clarifies and perfects the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:17). So for instance, with regard to the Sabbath: his Jewish disciples should keep it, but recognize that mercy has priority, which is why Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14).

Paul also kept the Law. James, the brother of Jesus, and the leader of the church in Jerusalem, who was himself famous for his strict observance of the Law, bears witness that Paul was Law observant in Acts 21:20-24:

  • When Paul came to visit Jerusalem, James spoke of how the Jewish Christians there were zealous for the Law.
  • But, they had been told a rumor that Paul was teaching Jewish Christians to forsake the Law.
  • To counter this, James had Paul publicly go through a Mosaic vow ceremony.

James says in v. 24, “Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”

Now, these Jewish believers, didn’t keep the Law in order to be saved by it. Jesus is the Messiah and Savior. They kept the Law because Moses is the authority that God has placed over them, just as we submit to the authorities that God has placed over us and the laws of our land. And the authority of Moses for Jews will not pass away until the coming of the kingdom in its fullness, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:18.

The Jerusalem Council

But what about Gentiles? Should they keep the Law? There was a heated debate about this because Jesus didn’t leave any specific instructions on this point.

  • Some taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and become fully Law observant Jews in order to be accepted by God (Acts 15:1; 5). [To be circumcised is to commit to obey the whole Law of Moses – Galatians 5:3]
  • Paul and others taught that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised and keep the Law, to be fully accepted by God (Acts 15:2).

So, there was a gathering to settle this issue, the apostles, along with the elders of the church of Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas, called the Jerusalem Council.

They decided that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law of Moses to be saved (Acts 15:13-19). As Peter said:

  • Gentile Christians, like Jewish Christians, are “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11).
  • They are “disciples” of Jesus, that is, they obey Jesus’ teaching (Acts 15:10).
  • They have received the “Holy Spirit” as a witness to their salvation (Acts 15:8).

But Jewish Christians would continue to keep the Law, not for salvation, but in submission to Moses.

So this helps us to understand the bigger picture of Scripture, why some passages sound like the Law is to be followed; talking to Jewish Christians (see again Matthew 5:17-19; 23:2-3; 23:23). And why others sound like the Law does not need to be followed; Paul talking to the Gentile Christians.

Now to the issue of specific behaviors – that are rarely if ever talked about. It was also decided at the Jerusalem council that there was one portion of the Law that Gentile Christians should observe.

We see this in what is called . . .

The Apostolic Decree

. . . a letter that was sent out to the Gentile churches. It says in part,

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” – Acts 15:28-29.

This letter gives three essentials that apply to everyone: 1) Do not eat idol food. 2) Do not eat blood (or what is strangled, because the blood hasn’t been drained). 3) Do not practice sexual immorality

If we ask, where do these essentials come from? It is quite clear. These refer back to Leviticus 17-18, which talk about these same issues in the same order as in the Apostolic Decree: 1) Idol food – Leviticus 17:1-9; 2) Eating blood – Leviticus 17:10-16; 3) Sexual immorality – Leviticus 18.

So the decision of the council was that, Gentile followers of Jesus do not need to submit to the Law of Moses, except for a particular part of it that comes from Leviticus 17-18.

What does this mean practically in terms of specific behaviors? 1. Do not eat idol food. This isn’t a pressing issue in our context today. It was huge for them, and still is in some parts of the world. But basically it means, if you know the food has been offered up to an idol, don’t eat it.

2. Do not eat blood. This means that our meat needs to be butchered so that the blood is drained, which is the common practice today. (The widespread acceptance of the Decree in the Gentile churches and the later influence of the church on society no doubt played a role in this being common today). And also don’t eat dishes that have blood in them.

3. Do not practice sexual immorality. This seems self-explanatory, but Leviticus 18 gets pretty specific, you know, beyond just the basics, (you can read the whole chapter yourself, I rate it at PG 13 or above). Here are three examples:

  • Do not marry close relatives – vs. 6-18
  • No sexual relations during menstruation – v. 19
  • Do not engage in same-sex acts – v. 22

Alright, as I said, some of this is never really talked about, but this is God’s will for our lives. As the letter said, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (the apostles and elders)” – Acts 15:28. It really doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Why these three items?

It’s because they teach a ‘creation righteousness’ that is not Jewish specific, but applies to all people, everywhere.

  • Why can’t we eat food sacrificed to idols? Because God is our Creator and we are to have no participation with idolatry or false gods, including idol food. This applies to everyone, since God created everyone.
  • Why can’t we eat blood? Because the life is in the blood, (Leviticus 17) and the life belongs to the Creator. Originally God only allowed a vegetarian diet. God gave Noah permission to eat meat, but then only without the blood (Genesis 9:4). So this command applies to all the children of Noah; that is, to all people.
  • Why can’t we engage in sexual immorality? Because our Creator has established the boundaries of sexual behavior. And as the end of Leviticus 18 makes clear, Gentiles are held accountable to these boundaries. The Canaanites were judged, in part, for the sexual immorality described in Leviticus 18. These boundaries apply to all people.

Finally, what about Paul and the Apostolic Decree?

Well, he was there, he shared, and he supported the Decree – which, in fact, vindicated his position. Act 16:4 says, “As Paul and Timothy went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.”

He supported the specifics of the Decree. Now, there is no discussion of eating blood in Paul or anywhere else in the New Testament, other than Acts 15. But on the issue of idol food, Paul taught his people not to knowingly eat food sacrificed to idols – I Corinthians 10:14-22. (See also Revelation 2:20). And on the issue of sexual immorality, numerous examples could be given. Here are two: no incest (I Corinthians 5:1) and no same-sex behavior (I Corinthians 6:9-11).

He also supported the general principle of the Decree. This gets us back to the big picture level. All were to follow Jesus’ teaching and example as Christians, and then according to the Apostolic Decree:

  • Jewish Christians continued to keep the Law of Moses (Acts 21:20-24)
  • And Gentile Christians were only to keep the three essentials from the Law (Acts 21:25)

Paul affirms this in I Corinthians 7:17-20:

“Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision in nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

He is saying, if you are a practicing Jew when you become a follower of Jesus, don’t give up your observance of the Law; don’t remove the marks of circumcision. But, if you are a Gentile when you become a follower of Jesus, don’t seek to start obeying the Law of Moses; don’t seek circumcision (at least not as a means of salvation).

Remain in the condition in which you were called, when you were saved. The Jew remains a Jew, the Gentile remains a Gentile. Just make sure, whether Jew or Gentile, that you are obeying God; that you are following Jesus’ teaching and example.

This is the mystery of God, according to Paul, that was hidden from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 3:1-6).

God has chosen to put together both Jews and Gentiles as the people of God.

  • Gentiles should not be forced to become Jews, which is what Paul fought.
  • And Jews should not be forced to be Gentiles, which is pretty much what has happened ever since the time of Paul.

Both Jews and Gentiles come together in Christ as one, on an equal footing.

____________

A footnote: The teaching of the decree was followed in Gentile churches for centuries as is evidenced in various church manuals and other writings:

  • No idol food: Didache 6:3; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:21.
  • No eating blood: Irenaeus Fragments xiii; Tertullian Apology 9; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:20.
  • No sexual immorality: The Apostolic Tradition 16:20; Apostolic Constitutions 6:5:28 forbids same-sex practice, intercourse during menstruation, etc. and appeals to Leviticus 18.

For an earlier version of this teaching – Should Christians Obey the Law of Moses

For a version of this teaching that focuses on sexual immorality and in particular same-sex practice – The voice of the Spirit and the Jersusalem Council on same-sex practice

William Higgins

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Well today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember when Jesus presented himself to Jerusalem as king. 

We are looking today at “How to be ready for the great gathering” that is, the resurrection of the righteous. I think that this is a timely topic for Palm Sunday. Consider this: 

  • At Jesus’ first coming, he presented himself as king, but very few were ready
  • At Jesus’ second coming, when he appears in glory as king, will we be any more ready?

Review

We saw last week why we need to be ready for when Jesus returns and sends out his angels to gather those who claim him as Lord. We need to be ready because the unfaithful will be separated out from the faithful.

We saw how Jesus talks about this a lot. Here are just two examples:

  • Matthew 25 – parable of the bridesmaids: five make it in, five don’t
  • Matthew 25 – parable of the talents: two make it in, one doesn’t 

So there is a sorting process, and some who are gathered, or who seek to be gathered, will not make it into the eternal kingdom. While those who are found faithful will be gathered to Jesus, will be resurrected, and will receive eternal rewards.

Now we know that . . .

The foundation of our salvation is the gift of grace in Jesus 

It is based on what he did for us through his life, death and resurrection. To receive this gift, we must:

  1. Acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, whom God has sent to be the Savior of the world.
  2. Turn from our old life of sin and wrongdoing, and commit to live a new life just as Jesus has taught.
  3. Ask for and receive the new life that comes through Jesus. This includes the forgiveness of our sins and also new life by the Spirit; new birth.

Without this you don’t get anywhere! This is the foundation. And this is all assumed in what our Scriptures talk about today, for Jesus is speaking to his disciples – Christians. 

The question that is focused on in our scriptures today is: Have we been faithful with the grace we have received?

It’s one thing to receive the mercy of God’s salvation. It’s another to continue on in that mercy until the end; to be faithful. It is as Jesus said, in the midst of the trials and testings of this life, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” – Mark 13:13

And on that day of sorting we want to be found among those who are faithful! So here are . . .

Three marks of faithfulness 

. . . that Jesus speaks of, that show us how to be alert and ready for his coming.

#1. Be Dead To Your Earthly Life. This comes from Luke 17:28-35 –

“Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.”

Jesus teaches us here that the great gathering of the resurrection will be like when the angels gathered Lot and his family out of Sodom. Jesus said, “Just as in the days of Lot (v. 28) . . . so it will be when the Son of man is revealed” (v.  30). So lets look at this comparison:

The Gathering from Sodom:

  1. Angels were sent to gather Lot and his family
  2. Lot’s wife longingly looked back to her home in Sodom
  3. She was attached to her life in Sodom  and was judged. She was sorted out of the faithful remnant.

The End Time Gathering:

  1. Angels will be sent to gather us (as we saw last week)
  2. We should not tarry or turn back. This is what Jesus is talking about in v. 31. In that day don’t seek to grab your possessions, or if you are in the field don’t turn back toward your home.
  3. So this raises the question for us – Are we attached to our earthly life?

As he says in v. 33, in the context of his second coming, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” This is a warning. Don’t be attached to your earthly life! That is, to your family, possessions, status and earthly plans.  

If you cling to your earthly life on the day of gathering, you will be sorted out, just like Lot’s wife. That’s why Jesus said, in v. 32 – “Remember Lot’s wife.” That’s the lesson here. She sought to preserve her life and so she lost her life. Don’t be like her.

We have to be able to let it all go, to lose it all in a moment – unsaved loved ones, our possessions, our projects and our earthly dreams. 

And the way to prepare for this is to choose now to die to your earthly life. In the words of Jesus “to lose your life.” Already now put God first above all else on this earth. Then you will be ready and not hesitant on the great day of gathering when the angels come for you. 

#2. Do the will of God, just as Jesus teaches. By far, Jesus talks about this the most when he speaks of being ready for the great gathering. 

We will focus in on one example: Matthew 7:21-23 –

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” 

  • Notice that they confessed Jesus as Lord. They looked to him as the Messiah.
  • They did works by the Spirit of God – prophesying, casting out demons and performing miracles 
  • And they ministered in the name of Jesus

These are disciples that thought all was OK in their lives. Indeed they thought that they were outstanding followers of Jesus, waiting for their commendation. But they don’t make it in!

Why? They did not obey the will of God. Jesus has just taught about this in the Sermon on the Mount, right before this passage – much of it focused on what it means to love our neighbor. They didn’t practice this.

As Jesus says in v. 21 it is “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” who “will enter the kingdom of heaven” on that final day of sorting.

But these people knowingly allowed sin to remain in their lives. They chose not to deal with it. This is why Jesus said, “depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” They are sorted out due to continued unrighteousness in their lives.

What do we learn about being ready for the great gathering? Obey God in every part of your life. Put into practice all that Jesus has taught and modeled for us. Hold nothing back; no part of your life. 

And when you fail, repent and find forgiveness and move forward again. Endure in your obedience until the end.

#3. Do your work for the Kingdom. That is, whatever God has called you to do, whatever God has gifted you to do, make sure you do it.

Jesus speaks of this in several passages, but we will focus on the familiar Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents. Here’s a summary:

  • Jesus, the master is going away 
  • And so he gives to his servants specific tasks to do according to their abilities, while he is gone
  • Two worked hard at their tasks and were blessed when the master returned
  • One didn’t work. He was lazy and did nothing and was judged. Jesus says about him, “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 25:30.

It will work the same way for us on that final day when Jesus returns. If you do nothing to work for the kingdom, you will be sorted out as well.

What do we learn about being ready for the great gathering? Serve Jesus with your life, your gifts, your time, your resources. Find out what Jesus wants you to do, and then get busy! Work hard to advance the kingdom.

A final note

Now, I know it can be a somber thing to think about this business of being sorted, and some being sorted out. But we are given this teaching (and there is a lot of it) so that we can examine our lives and make the changes we need to make in order to be ready. So that we can indeed be found faithful. 

But, having said that, lets end on a more joyful note. For if you:

  1. Die to your earthly lives so that you are ready to go
  2. Do the will of God and 
  3. Work hard for the kingdom – you will be blessed! 

You will hear these words from Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We will have Jesus’ seal of approval before all of creation.

He will say, “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” We will be rewarded for our faithfulness; for all of our troubles and sacrifices for him. It will all be more than worth it.

And he will say, “Enter into the joy of your master.” We will have joy with Jesus for eternity in the kingdom of God. (Matthew 25:21)

William Higgins

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