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Series: How to overcome sin

[Also presented with the title “5. The issue of sexual desire and self-control”]

For the full teaching on the five steps to overcoming sin follow this link.

As we end out time together tonight, I want to give a more detailed illustration of how to overcome our sinful behaviors and habits. We have already looked at the issue of faithfulness when facing death with Peter and Jesus, and very briefly at the issue of unrighteous anger. For tonight I have chosen the issue of sexual desire and self-control.

I posted some teaching on this topic on a blog that I maintain and I’ve been amazed by the number of views it’s gotten. In fact, this is my all-time most viewed topic. This tells me that people are struggling in this area. Christians are struggling with this. Listen to some of the search engine phrases used to find and read what I posted: how Christian women can control sexual urges; should a Christian have sexual desires; coping with sexual urges; how to overcome sexual desires as a Christian; how does a man control his sexual urges; how to deal with a spouse that struggles with sexual lust.

People are struggling. As one indicator, according to one set of statistics, 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women are regular viewers of pornography. Christians are struggling with this. And this is why I want to talk about this with you, even if it might make us a bit uncomfortable at times.

Let me say two things up front, 1) sexual desire was created by God and is good. Sex is God’s idea, with all of its joys and pleasures. However, like all the desires of our flesh, it often seeks expression in wrong ways. And so 2) it has to be controlled.

But this notion of self-control isn’t a popular idea in our culture, where sexual gratification has been turned into an ultimate good, without which you are not fully human. The message is “as long as you don’t hurt others – go for it. Satisfy your desires.”

Our culture tells us it’s a fool’s errand to even try to control our sexual desires fully. And even some Christians would say, “It’s impossible to be single and not be sexually active.”

But this is a pagan view of sex. We aren’t simply animals who feel an urge and then have to act! We need to recover a Christian sense of the dignity of our humanity, as those who are made in the image of God. We have sexual desires, and they are good. But we are not to be ruled by them. Rather we are to control them and keep them within the boundaries of God’s will for our lives. As Galatians 5:22-23 says, “the fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control.” This is a mark of the Christian life.

So let’s apply the five steps to our focus tonight on –

Overcoming wrong sexual desires, thoughts and actions

Step #1. Understanding what God’s will is, acknowledge your weakness to do what God says. Scripture has a lot to say about sex. Here are some verses that speak to God’s will in terms of controlling our sexual desires, thoughts and actions:

  • 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.”
  • 1 Timothy 5:2 – “Treat . . . older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.” And this would apply to women treating men this way as well – as fathers and brothers in all purity.
  • Matthew 5:28 – “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again this would apply to women looking at men in this way.

So, understanding God’s will on the issue of self-control, we need to humble ourselves and be totally honest about where we are not measuring up.

Are you lustfully looking at others? Are you allowing yourself to  engage in mental fantasies? Are you viewing pornography? Are you involved in masturbation? Are you sexting? For those who are single, are you engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage – anything from making out to sexual intercourse? For those who are married, are you involved in adulterous activity – anything from flirting to actual acts of adultery?

I can’t stress this enough. The first step to overcoming is humbly and honestly acknowledging your weaknesses and failures. Pride will keep you in your sin. Pride will kill your life with God. But if we humble ourselves and confess our sins, God can help us.

Step #2. Remain alert in prayer for testing and temptation in this area. Since you know you’re weak, and you know that Satan seeks to test you; to tempt you and pressure you to sin, you need to be alert! The danger of sin and judgment looms here.

So look to God for help. And specifically ask God to keep you from testing and times of temptation. Satan asks God for permission to test us. And so we need to be praying, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one,” as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s prayer.

“God I am weak, please don’t let the evil one test me, so that I fail. Protect me the assaults of Satan, and from circumstances that would pressure me to sin – images that come up on my computer – and people who will encourage me or entice me to give in to temptation.”

Be alert and pray. And then, even if God allows you to be tested, because he knows you can handle it and he wants you to grow in character and godliness, you will recognize what is going on and be ready for it.

Step #3 in a time of testing– Keep your mind focused on God’s truth. We all, from time to time, have inappropriate sexual thoughts that come to mind. And these thoughts can fuel our sexual desire. What’s important is that we not entertain them.

If you do have inappropriate sexual thoughts, use the name of Jesus to rebuke wrong thoughts. Satan will often put these in our minds to tempt us, or he will tell us that it’s alright to indulge in our own sexual thoughts with all kinds of rationalizations and justifications to give in. And he often does this through other people, and in general through the influence of “the world.”

So we need to rebuke Satan, so that he has 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!”

And then, use the word of God to keep your mind focused on God’s truth. This is what Jesus did when he was tested in various ways in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4-10). The Word is powerful and can bring us back to a right mind when we are being tempted and pressured. And it will remind us of God’s truth and will in this area. Use the passages I noted above. Memorize them, say them, even out loud, if you need to.

Step #4. in a time testing – Receive strength from the Spirit to control your sexual desires. Even if we control our thoughts we will still struggle at times with sexual desires. As Jesus said, “the flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38. Our fleshly desires often seek to find expression in unrighteous ways.

But Jesus also said, “the Spirit is willing” – Mark 14:38. The Spirit, who lives within us, can strengthen our desires for righteousness so that they are stronger than the desires of our flesh. As Paul said in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit (the power or strength of the Spirit) and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” So when you are struggling with sexual desires, call out to God in prayer for strength from the Spirit to do what is right.

As the Spirit strengthens us, we are then able to deny ourselves, or crucify or kill the inappropriate desires of our flesh – our fantasies or lusts. 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.

There is death and resurrection here – death to inappropriate fleshly sexual desires and the further manifestation of the new life of God within us, in this case, self-control.

Step #5. Endure the test. Keep your mind focused on God’s truth and controlling your thoughts as long as Satan is trying to lead you astray. And keep receiving strength from the Spirit to do God’s will for as long as the wrongful sexual desire persists. Keep doing these things until the immediate test or temptation passes. God doesn’t allow us to be actively tested continually.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation (or testing) has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

And then,  if you are putting the five steps into practice and continuing to fail, you will need to –

Deal with some deeper concerns

I will mention just three tonight. Sometimes wrong sexual desires and practices are connected to our inner brokenness. For instance, if you suffer from the mental health condition of mania, it can lead to reckless behavior, including promiscuity. If this is the case, then this inner brokenness needs to be dealt with, if at all possible, for the sake of Christian faithfulness.

More commonly, we need to cut off stumbling blocks. These 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.

Jesus said, talking about lustful looks, “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 making deep changes in our lifestyles and behaviors, for instance how we interact with the internet, what friends we hang out with and how we date.

And then, sometimes we have indulged our wrong desires, thoughts and actions for so long that our sin has become ingrained within us. It is an entrenched habit. And this kind of sin is harder to overcome. If this is true you may well need to ask someone to hold you accountable, to check in on you to see how you are doing regularly. This can be a powerful help to overcoming our sexual sins.

A final word

Find righteous expression for your sexual desire in marriage. This is where our sexual desires can rightly be expressed in sexual actions – as a part of a loving, committed, life-long relationship between a man and a woman.

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, (famously) “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” – 1 Corinthians 7:9.

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.”

So work on your marriage, grow in love for your spouse. Create the kind of relationship that is mutually satisfying, where both of you can find fulfillment for your sexual desires.

I pray that God will help us in this area of sexual desire and self-control. Our culture has it wrong and so many people are hurting and wounded because of this. May God help us, his people, to be a light to the world of a different and better way to approach sex, one that is governed by God’s will, the one who thought of sex in the first place.

William Higgins

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Series: How to overcome sin

Our focus is, ‘How to overcome sin in our lives.’ We have been looking at five key steps in this process, that we learn from the example of Jesus as he overcame his test of the cross. And tonight I want us to move into looking at some deeper concerns that can trip us up in our quest to overcome sin.

But first, here’s a very brief review of the five steps, using the example of unrighteous anger.

Step #1: Understanding what God’s will is, acknowledge your weakness to do what God says. The Word says in James 1:20, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” This is anger that is according to the flesh which hurts and tears down others. Jesus likens this to murder in Matthew 5, or verbal murder, when our words destroy others.

God gives us anger to stir us up to act when a wrong has been done. But so often, once stirred up, we act in the flesh and not according to God’s will. We return harm for harm and tear down those who have wronged us or those we love. Rather than this, we are to trust God with our grievances and desire for justice, so that we can be free to focus on being Christ-like as we address the wrongs that have been done –  with love and gentleness (Matthew 5:44; Galatians 6:1). If you struggle with unrighteous anger, you need to humbly admit this, so that God can help you.

Step #2: Remain alert in prayer for testing and temptation in this area. Since Satan will seek to pressure you in your area of weakness, pray to be spared people and situations that might trigger your wrongful anger. Maybe that someone won’t slander you so that you become enraged. Or maybe that someone doesn’t start an argument with you on a particular topic that would trigger your anger. But if God allows you to be tested, at least you will be ready and know what is going on. It’s not that this person is trying to start an argument with me – this is a test from Satan!

Step #3: In a time of testing – Keep your mind focused on God’s truth. Rebuke Satan as he tempts you and offers up rationalizations to give in to your anger. “Hey that person who wants to argue with you – he needs to be put in his place!” Tell him to go away. You can respond by countering with the Scriptures – “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” And “the fruit of the Spirit is love . . .patience . . . gentleness . . . and self-control.” – Galatians 5:22-23.

Step #4: In a time of testing – Receive strength from the Spirit to do God’s will. Pray for the Spirit to fill you and help you. In this way you can put to death your desires to engage in wrongful anger and respond to every situation with love for others.

Step #5: Endure the test. Continue on until the testing and temptation passes – keeping your mind focused; receiving strength from the Spirit.

My point this evening is that sometimes, we work hard at all this and still consistently fail. And when this happens we need to look at some deeper concerns in our lives.

Here are six things to check:

1. Are you double-minded?

To be double minded means you are torn between two things; you have two minds on an issue. You know, you want God to help you with one problem in your life, but not others. For instance, “God help me overcome my anger issue, its destroying all of my relationships!” But you don’t mention your sexual immorality, because you happen to like this sin.

We have to stop playing games. If you’re only trying to stop sinning in one area of your life, while knowingly continuing in sin in other areas, God can’t help you. James 1:7-8 tells us that a double-minded person “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

We find God and his help when we seek God with our whole heart, not part of it. Deuteronomy 4:29 says, “you will find the Lord, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

So if you are struggling with anger and calling out to God for help and no help seems to be coming, check your heart. Be rid of any double-mindedness and give your whole life over to God. Then you will seek and find the help that you need.

2. Are you the cause of broken relationships?

If we don’t act to deal with relationships that are broken by our sin, this will break our relationship with God and cut us off from God’s help. Our horizontal relationships with others affects our vertical relationship with God. These can’t be separated.

So, if you have sinned against someone, make it right. Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, (that is, you have sinned against him) leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” – Matthew 5:23-24. The broken relationship with the brother or sister must be dealt with before we come to God in worship. Why? Because this affects our relationship to God. Now, we can’t control whether they are willing to reconcile with us, even if we come in repentance seeking to make things right, but the rule is ‘do what you can from your end’ to restore the relationship and then you will be free to come before God in worship and to receive his help and grace.

Also, if someone has sinned against you and seeks forgiveness, forgive. Don’t keep the relationship broken through the choice to withhold forgiveness. Jesus said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15. If we don’t forgive, this breaks our relationship with God.

With both of these situations, if you have caused broken relationships, seek to make things right. And then your relationship with God will be right, and God can help you, for instance with your weakness in the area of anger.

3. Do you expose yourself to stumbling blocks?

According to Scripture we are not only to stop sinning, we are to separate from what leads us to sin. This is what a stumbling block means – something that trips you up and gets you off the path. It is not a sin in itself, but something that leads you to sin.

Jesus says in Mark 9:43, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” What this means is that we are to create righteous boundaries that keep us away from sin. And we must do this even if what is cut off is precious to us, like a hand.

Now these boundaries are different for each of us, since we all have different weaknesses and triggers that can lead us to sin. For instance, if debating certain topics triggers your wrongful anger response, you need to avoid these for the sake of righteousness. Or if working in a certain job environment causes you to give in to sinful anger regularly, seek a new job. This job might not be a problem for someone else, but for you it is.

The rule is – ‘separate from whatever encourages you to sin’ – relationships, activities, jobs, personal freedoms, whatever. Even if the item isn’t a problem for others, if it causes you to stumble, cut it off.

4. Are you dealing with an ingrained sin?

By ingrained I mean something that is firmly fixed; a sin that is deeply rooted in your life. We practice some sins for so long that they become a part of us as negative character traits. You say, ‘Yeah, I’m a hot-head,’ because you have made a practice of outbursts of anger for so long. It’s a part of how you think of yourself now. And some sins even create physiological addictions, like drug and alcohol abuse.

These kinds of sins are difficult to break. You may well need to take drastic measures, and in the case of addictions seek medical help.

One thing that can really help is intense accountability from other disciples – who can check with us on a regular basis. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We all need this kind of fellowship to be strong. But this is especially needed with ingrained sins.

If you know that at any time someone will be asking how you are doing in your area of struggle, it can make a real difference. Both to encourage you and certainly to keep you accountable.

5. Are demonic powers involved?

When we allow sin in our life, we open up our lives to Satan and his demonic powers. They can gain a foothold, as it were. Sometimes this is just a general influence, but sometimes we can come into bondage to demonic powers in areas of our life. Our sin is energized by a supernatural evil power.

If this is the case, the demonic power must be sent away by the authority of Jesus. Say something like, “Evil spirit, I break your power over me in the name of Jesus. Leave now!” Jesus tells us, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy . . .” – Luke 10:19. Then submit that area of your life to God, so that the Spirit of God is filling every part of your life.

I’m not saying this is a common thing, but if this is a part of your struggle, for instance, with anger then you need to act. I would just add here that it might be wise to seek the help of a mature believer or a Pastor as you work at this.

6. Is your sin connected to inner brokenness?

By inner brokenness I am thinking of mental illness or just the inner woundedness that comes from life experiences of pain, heartache and tragedy. And inner brokenness can make it much harder for us to do God’s will. For instance if you want to overcome anger, but have borderline personality disorder that leads to expressions of intense anger, this is a much more complicated situation.

If you are struggling with these kinds of weaknesses, pray for God’s healing so that you can do God’s will. But if there is no relief (I Timothy 5:23), learn to manage these issues through treatment so that you can do God’s will.

Once again Jesus’ words in Mark 9:43 are relevant. Our inner brokenness is not itself a sin. But if it leads us to sin, we must cut it off by seeking reasonable treatment – counseling or medication. In either case, through miraculous healing or treatment, seek healing for your inner brokenness so that you can do God’s will. This is a matter of Christian faithfulness.

So these are six additional factors that you may well have to sort through as you seek to overcome sinful habits and areas of failure in your life:

  • Are you double-minded?
  • Are you the cause of broken relationships?
  • Do you expose yourself to stumbling blocks?
  • Are you dealing with an ingrained sin?
  • Are demonic powers involved?
  • Is your sin connected to inner brokenness?

My point tonight and the underlying theme of all of this is that we leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of doing God’s will. We must do whatever it takes.

William Higgins

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Series: How to overcome sin

Tonight we jump into the core of what I want to share with you this week – five steps to overcoming sin in our lives.

These steps come from looking at Jesus as he faced the cross -primarily from Mark 14:26-72. Here he was tested as to whether he would stay true to God and go to the cross. He overcame. And we learn from his example, how to overcome in our own areas of struggle.

We will also look at Peter as a contrast case. He was tested to see whether he would stay true to God by standing with Jesus, even if it got him killed. He did not overcome. We can also learn from, as well as identify with him in our times of failure.

I encourage you to keep in mind the area of weakness you have identified and as we go through this, and apply this teaching to your situation.

We begin with –

Step #1. Understanding what God’s will is, acknowledge your weakness to do what God says

We learn what God’s will is primarily through studying the Scriptures. As Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” We especially need to learn from Jesus and the New Testament, since Jesus gives us the complete and final revelation of God’s will for us.

Once we begin to understand God’s will, it will become apparent that we don’t measure up.

It’s just like Jesus said, “The flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38. Weak that is, in terms of doing God’s will. We sin very easily, especially in a time of testing when we are put under pressure.

In humility we need to recognize this. As Paul said, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” – 1 Corinthians 10:12. As Proverbs says, “Pride goes before a fall” – Proverbs 16:18. Our pride will kill us.

But if in humility we are rigorously honest with ourselves – God can help us.

Peter’s failure. He was confused about God’s will. Before he got to Gethsemane, he didn’t think Jesus had to die on a cross. In fact, he rebuked Jesus when he said he had to die – Mark 8:33. Despite hearing Jesus’ repeated teaching, he thought Jesus would be a warrior Messiah and he would fight alongside him.

But not only is he confused, he was overconfident. He saw himself as strong. He said to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away (the other disciples), I will not.” – Mark 14:29. And he said, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you” – Mark 14:31. Peter doesn’t acknowledge his weakness.

Jesus’ example. He knew God’s will for his life. Before he ever got to Jerusalem he told his disciples, “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.” – Mark 10:33-34. (In our story Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7 – Mark 14:27)

And Jesus was upfront that this would be hard. Just as he said to Peter and the others, “The flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38. Jesus didn’t want to die the shameful death of a criminal on the cross. He didn’t want to be abandoned by God. He didn’t want to come under the judgment of death. Mark tells us that he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’” – 14:33-34. He knew it would be hard.

Step #2. Remain alert in prayer for times of testing and temptation

At Gethsemane Jesus told the disciples “keep alert and pray that you might not enter into testing” – Mark 14:38.

As we saw, Satan comes before God requesting permission to test us. He wants to test us in order to cause us to sin, so that he can condemn us before God. 1 Peter 5:8 tells us that he “prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour.”

So, since we know that we are weak and the enemy is trying to destroy us, we should look to God in prayer (Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2) and specifically we should ask to be spared testing and temptation. We need to counter Satan as he seeks permission from Go to test us, by asking God, “do not lead us into testing but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13), as Jesus teaches in the Lord’s prayer, and as he told the disciples in our story. We are saying, ‘God, the enemy is powerful and I am weak. Have mercy on me. Don’t let me be tested, lest I sin against you and dishonor you.’

Now sometimes in mercy God will answer our prayers and we will be spared. And who doesn’t want to be spared going through difficult situations? Why wouldn’t we be praying this all the time?

But even if God doesn’t spare us but allows us to go through testing, because he knows we can handle it, and he wants us to grow in character and godliness – we will be ready for the test, being alert and prayerful. We will recognize what is going on when it confronts us.

Peter’s failure. He was not spiritually alert to what might come his way. In fact, he was literally asleep – Mark 14:37. Jesus found him asleep three times.

Although Satan had obtained permission to test him, as Jesus said in Luke 22:31, he didn’t ask God to spare him testing, asking for God’s mercy.

The final time that Jesus woke Peter up he said, “The hour has come” – Mark 14:41. It was too late to get ready. There Peter was in the test of his life – confused and unprepared.

Jesus’ example. Jesus was alert and knew what was coming. And so he prayed to be spared. He prayed that “the hour might pass from him” – Mark 14:35. He prayed fervently, three times, “remove this cup from me” – Mark 14:36, which is another form of the prayer “do not lead (me) into testing.”

And when God didn’t intervene to offer up another way, he was ready and accepted the test.

Step #3. In a time of testing – Keep your mind focused on God’s truth

In a test, Satan will attack our thinking. He puts thoughts in our minds and plays on those we already have to tempt us to sin;  to rationalize choosing sin:

–           “It isn’t really a sin, is it?”

–           “Well, under these circumstances surely it’s OK.”

–           Or, “So and so does it!”

–           He will even quote Scripture, in a twisted way, as he did with Jesus in the wilderness.

He also uses the influence of the world to deliver these messages. He will do whatever it takes to deceive and confuse us; to get our thinking distorted.

Jesus faced this battle of the mind throughout his ministry. And he shows us what to do: 1) Tell Satan to stop and go away when thoughts of giving in come to mind. In Mark 8 when Peter told Jesus he must never go to the cross, Jesus heard in this the voice of Satan. So he rebuked Satan’s message that came through Peter. He said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – v. 33. He is saying to Satan, “No!” “You are wrong!” And he tells him to “get behind me,” that is, go away. We also see this in the wilderness testing of Jesus, where he said to Satan, “be gone” in Matthew 4:10.

In the same way, we can also tell Satan to stop and go away when he tries to confuse and deceive us. We have the authority to do this in Jesus. As he said in Luke 10:19, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.” When we hear thoughts that seek to excuse our sin, we can simply say, “Depart from me in the name of Jesus!”

2) Counter Satan’s deception with the truth. When Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness, each time Jesus responded, “It is written . . ..” He countered Satan’s distortion and deception with the truth of the Scriptures; by quoting Scripture.

In the same way, we can quote meditate on, or read aloud Scriptures that pertain to what we are  struggling with. And by repeating the truth of God is this way, we keep our minds thinking God’s thoughts and dispel the deceptions of Satan.

Peter’s failure. He entered the test already confused, and so he had no chance. He had already lost the battle of the mind. Thinking that Jesus was about to start a war, he acted in the flesh to cut off the man’s ear, who had come with those who sought to arrest Jesus – Mark 14:47 (John 18:10).

Jesus’ example. He stayed focused on God’s truth. As the soldiers arrested him he said, “let the Scriptures be fulfilled” – Mark 14:49. And he carried this attitude all the way through.

When he was on the cross and the people said, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32) he must have heard the voice of Satan in this and he must have been tempted to show them just who he was.  But he kept his mind focused on God’s truth and he stayed on the cross in obedience to God’s will.

Step #4. In a time of testing – Receive strength from the Spirit to do God’s will

This is almost certainly the most important thing I will share with you. Not only does Satan attack our mind he also attacks our heart – our desire to stay true to God. As he tests us he puts us in difficult situations that make it really hard to follow God and really easy to give in to sin.

As we saw, 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, “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. And we have to choose which way we will go.

Well, when we are struggling, what I am saying is that the Spirit can help us. Although the flesh is weak, Jesus also said, “the Spirit is willing” – Mark 14:38.

That is, the Spirit is willing and able to help us. The same Spirit of God who first gave us a new heart with new desires when we were born again, 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 and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” – Galatians 5:16. The power of the Spirit gives us the strength we need to override the desires of our flesh.

What we are really doing 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.

As Jesus told us, we are to deny ourselves and take up our cross in this way daily – Luke 9:23.

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.

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.

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.

Step #5. Endure test

Satan tries to wear us down in a time of testing. Even if we are successful at first, he continues to pressure us to give in so that we will fail. So whatever the test, however long it goes on, however hard it gets – Don’t give up!

What this means is that we keep repeating the previous two steps:

  • Keep focusing your mind on God’s truth. When the lies and rationalizations come, respond with God’s truth – the Scriptures. And keep telling Satan to leave you in the name of Jesus.
  • Keep receiving strength from the Spirit to do God’s will, denying the desires of your flesh that would lead you to sin.

No matter how long the test lasts, you don’t quit thinking what is right based on the Word, or choosing what it right by the power of the Spirit. This is what endurance means.

James 4:7 calls this “resisting Satan.” And there is a promise in this verse. Just as Satan has to seek permission to test us, he can’t keep actively testing and pressuring us forever. It says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Peter’s failure. He sinned. He denied that he knew Jesus in order to save his life. When Peter realized what he had done, “he broke down and wept” – Mark 14:72.

Jesus’ example. He endured his time of testing. He endured through arrest, beatings, mockery and crucifixion. He endured even when the test was so hard that he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Mark 15:34. Jesus endured, faithful to God – and this is the key phrase – until the end. Not for part of it or for most of it, but until the end. Mark 15:37 says, “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.”

In all of this I am making the point that – 

Jesus is our example

He shows us how to overcome sin; how to overcome our weakness; how to do what God calls us to do, even when it is really hard.

He models this for us in five steps. And what I am saying is that, if in this way he overcame the most basic desire of the flesh – to live – he surely shows us how to overcome any desire of the flesh that stands in the way of doing God’s will in our lives. Jesus shows us how to overcome in our areas of struggle.

Finally,

A word of encouragement

Keep this in mind when things are really hard. Jesus was blessed for his faithfulness to God. He was raised from the dead (Mark 16:4-7), vindicated and seated at the right hand of God above all where he reigns over all.

And he knew this would happen ahead of time; that it would be worth it to stay true to God. As Hebrews 12:2 says, “for the sake of the joy set before him Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

In the same way we will be blessed for our faithfulness to God. Testing can be really hard and painful. So we need to keep this bigger picture before us as well. If we endure to the end it will be more than worth it!

Listen to these promises:

Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.” We will be rewarded.

James 1:12 says, “Blessed is anyone who endures testing. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” We will be raised to new life.

2 Timothy 2:12 says, “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Just as he endured and now reigns, so if we endure, we will reign with him in the life to come.

William Higgins

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Series: How to overcome sin

We are continuing tonight on our theme – How to Overcome Sin, or how to get rid of our sinful behaviors and habits which enslave us and destroy our life with God.

This morning we heard the call to stop sinning; to put away those sins that we know about – and yet choose to do anyway. And if this is indeed our goal, then we need to understand what we are up against. So I want to give you some teaching on ‘How Sin & Testing Work.’

First of all we look at –

How sin works

And here we begin with the biblical concept of  the flesh. This refers to our human weakness and frailty apart from God. As Jesus said, “the flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38. This weakness is connected to our human desires, longings and fears. For instance, Paul speaks of “the passions of our flesh . . . the desires of flesh and senses” in Ephesians 2:3.

Specifically, the flesh is weak in regard to doing God’s will. That’s because the desires of our flesh lead us into conflict with God’s will for us. God requires things like love and sacrifice for others. But our flesh is all about self-interest and comfort. It wants the easy way out. It wants to feel secure. It wants to soothe its fears. It is self-centered. What? Love God? Love others?

Paul says it this way, “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . .” – Galatians 5:17.

Now, to clarify, God gives us basic desires, for instance the desire to meet our needs for food, clothing and shelter; or the desire to be in relationships with others. There is nothing wrong with these. It’s what we do with these desires as we put them into practice apart from God that’s the problem. Our self-centeredness twists and distorts these desires.

Here’s a couple of examples of this:

  • God created us with a desire to meet our basic needs, you know, daily bread, but we turn this into greed – a craving for more and more beyond what we need.
  • God created us with sexual desire, but we seek to fulfill it in our own way, not God’s way, and so it leads us to sexual immorality.

So the flesh is not some alien thing, or some “other” nature in us, it is simply our humanity in all of its weakness as we try to live our lives apart from God. And this is where sin comes from. It comes from us; as we follow our distorted desires, longings and fears – instead of following God’s path. To use the language of James 1:14-15 – “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin . . ..”

And then there is our human pride which makes everything worse.

God designed us to seek after peace and to find fulfillment. This is the way we are made. But it has always been God’s plan that we find our peace through him and his will for our lives. And, indeed, this is the only way we will find real peace. God is our maker, after all, and God knows what is best for us and what will bring us fulfillment.

But, we -and this is our pride – we think we know more than God, even Christians, at least in certain areas of our lives. So instead of doing what God wants us to do, we seek after peace through the flesh. We do things in our own way, not God’s way. We act according to our wisdom, not God’s. We pursue peace through our own self-centered pursuit of what makes us comfortable; what soothes our fears; what we think will solve our problems.

And it might seem to work for a while. Hebrews 11:25 talks about the “fleeting pleasures of sin.” But it doesn’t usually take long before the other shoe drops. That’s because, although we may freely choose our sin, our sin comes to take over our lives. As Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” – John 8:34.

And we come to realize that what once seemed good and the answer to our problems, we now hate because it’s ruining our lives. Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death” – Proverbs 14:12.

Now, for sure, most who are caught in this slavery don’t see themselves as weak or in bondage, but as strong and free, choosing their own way in life. When we walk in the flesh we think, ‘we don’t need God!’ As Paul says in Romans 8:7, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” And it is this very pride that keeps us in our slavery.

This is the tragic irony of sin. Jeremiah 2:13 says it well. Speaking of us, the Lord says, “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” God is “the fountain of living waters,” pure, bubbling, refreshing; providing all we need to quench our thirst and give us life. But in our pride we choose to go our own way and we forsake God. We follow after the flesh digging our own water holes, thinking this is the way to happiness. But our water holes don’t hold water! And so we are left with nothing – thirsty, despairing, dying.

The very thing that would give us life and peace, we will have nothing to do with. This is our pitiful state, when we walk according to the flesh.

Next we look at –

How testing works

I want us to see, not just the dynamics of what goes on in our hearts with regard to sin, but also what happens outside of us that can influence us to sin.

Even as Christians, who seek to do God’s will, we have to confess that without God’s help we are mere flesh – weak and given to self-centeredness and pride.

But God wants us to grow and to come to a place where we humbly rely on him in our weakness, and to be transformed so that we find our true fulfillment in doing his will.

And this is why he allows us to be tested – that is, to go through hard times and difficult struggles. He does this for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, he tests us “for our good, that we may share his holiness.” Even Jesus was tested as Hebrews 5:8 tells us.

Satan, however, the one who actually tests us, has a different agenda which has nothing to do with what is good for us. Being aware of our weakness and pride – he uses testing to lead us to sin, judgment and destruction.

– He asks God permission to test us. We see this in the book of Job. And Jesus talks about it in Luke 22:31.

– He tries to catch us unprepared for testing. Peter tells us that “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” – 1 Peter 5:8. Satan is like a lion, who picks off the weak and the unprepared.

– He tests us by putting us in a difficult situation so that the desires of our flesh and the desires of the Spirit are brought into clear conflict, and we have to choose. We will either look to God for help or give in to sin. We will either move forward with God or backward with Satan. And he banks on the latter being the more common response.

– In a time of testing, he encourages us to sin. He lies, deceives and in general seeks to confuse us with regard to God’s truth and God’s will for our lives. Jesus tells us that he “he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44. We are also told that he is “the deceiver of the whole world” – Revelation 12:9.

And as we struggle he tells us, ‘It’s OK, it won’t hurt you,” or, “everyone else is doing it.’ He works through “the world” – other people who are not trying to do God’s will. Scripture tells us that he is “the god of this world” – 2 Corinthians 4:4. The world tells us “It’s OK.  Sin is normal.” And then if we do try to live according to God’s will, it pressures us to conform.

So this is what we are up against in our struggle to overcome sin. The weakness and pride of our own flesh and heart and the reality that Satan seeks to pressure us to sin.

But let’s end with –

A note of encouragement

  • Although the flesh is weak – Jesus overcame it by the strength that the Spirit gives to do God’s will.
  • Although Satan is powerful – Jesus overcame him by the authority he has and the truth of God so that he did God’s will.

And Jesus shows us how to follow in his path to be overcomers as well. This is what I want to show you next time – five steps to overcoming sin.

William Higgins

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Series: How to overcome sin

I want to share some teaching with you this week on – “How to Overcome Sin” in our lives. Our focus is how to grow in our faithfulness to God and specifically how to get rid of our sinful behaviors and habits which keep us from experiencing all that God wants for us; which enslave us, make us miserable and destroy our life with God.

This is a crucial topic because you can be sure that there will be no renewal among God’s people until we take sin seriously. And I don’t mean looking at other people’s sins, I mean focusing on and dealing with our own failures and transgressions.

Perhaps it is:

  • Anger – where this has come to control you and it harms those around you.
  • Bitterness – where you allow resentments to poison your heart, so that your life is full of complaining, criticism of others and unforgiveness.
  • Sexual immorality – where your sexual desires have led you to act wrongly in thought and deed.
  • Dishonesty – where you come to depend on lying, deception or half-truths to get what you want or to get yourself out of trouble.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse – which you think is no big deal. You’re just having fun with friends. Or you think it will bring some relief from your problems, but it only enslaves and makes things so much worse.

And there are many other areas that could be named and we will look at some of these. Whatever your struggle, the message this week is the good news that: Jesus has provided for our freedom. Freedom from the slavery, misery and destruction of sin.

The point today is that before we can experience the freedom Jesus brings, we have to hear and respond to the call to stop sinning; to stop giving in; to stop excusing it in our lives. We have to recognize how serious sin really is. It’s not something that can be put off, ignored or dealt with another day. It must be dealt with even now as God speaks to us and challenges us! As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “now is the day of salvation.

But someone might ask –

“How can we stop sinning?”

“We’ll never be perfect!” And that is certainly true. We will fail, and we will continue to be involved in sins of ignorance – doing what is wrong without even knowing about it. So we don’t need to worry about the question of perfection. That’s not what this is about.

The call to overcome sin, so that we stop sinning has to do with sins that we know about, and yet choose to do anyway. This is what has to be dealt with. And, brothers and sisters, this will keep us more than busy! And then we can trust that in time God will show us other sins, that we are not aware of yet, so that we can deal with these as well.

The call to stop sinning isn’t about being ‘perfect.’ It’s about walking in the light you have and then getting more light as you go along.

Now, let’s hear the clear and consistent call of the Scriptures to –

Stop sinning!

  • Jesus tells us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – Matthew 4:17. The word “repent” means that you have a change of heart and mind that leads you to do God’s will from now on.
  • Jesus told a man he healed, “Sin no more” – John 5:14.
  • Paul said – “Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more” – 1 Corinthians 15:34.

This is clear enough, right? It only needs to be said once to demand our agreement and obedience. But sometimes repetition can have its own persuasion. And I’m trying to make an impression on you this morning. So in that spirit, let’s continue on.

  • Hebrews says, “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run the race that is set before us” – Hebrews 12:1
  • Peter says, “You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” – 1 Peter 4:3. Any amount of time is enough already! As he says in v. 2, we are now to live the rest of our lives not by “human desires, but by the will of God.”
  • Paul asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” – Romans 6:2
  • Paul says, “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” – Romans 13:14

The call to stop sinning is consistent and clear.

The seriousness of this call is confirmed when we look at –

What happens if we don’t stop sinning

These Scriptures speak for themselves. “The person who sins shall die” – Ezekiel 18:20. “The wages of sin is death” – Romans 6:23. Both tell us that sin leads to death.

Paul says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” – that is, eternal death – Galatians 6:7-8. James says, “Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters.” – James 1:15-16. Notice these two Scriptures have the phrase, “do not be deceived.” That’s because we always think there will be an exception for us; that we are special; we are different. But you’re not special in this case, and there will be no exception for you or for me. If you indulge your sin, it will destroy you.

Paul says, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” – Galatians 5:19-21. If you indulge your sin it will exclude you from the eternal kingdom.

And then finally, “If we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” – Hebrew 10:26-27.

These Scriptures are numerous and clear, and could be greatly expanded. And if we have any sense, they should cause us to fear allowing any sinful pattern to take root in our lives and to act with speed and determination to get rid of any that have already taken root.

But someone will ask –

“How can we stop sinning??”

“We’re simply forgiven sinners!” What we need to realize is that grace isn’t just about having our past sins forgiven. Grace also transforms our lives so that we can now do God’s will. We can’t do it in our own strength, in the power of the flesh. But God can enable us to do this.

As Peter says, God’s “power has given us everything needed for life and godliness” – 2 Peter 1:3. Nothing is lacking. As Paul says, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for his good pleasure” – Philippians 2:13.  God can empower us to walk in such a way that we please him.

And this is what this series is about, learning how to do this from the example of Jesus. And when we do this –

We can be free!

Free from our sinful habits and behaviors. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” We know what this is about. But he also said, “if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed” – John 8:34, 36. Do you know what this is about? Have you experienced this?

Paul said to his converts, “you . . . were once slaves of sin.” We have all experienced this. But he also said, “. . . having been set free from sin, (you) have become slaves of righteousness.” – Romans 6:17-18. Have you experienced this? Do you know what this is about?

Jesus can set you free! He provides you with God’s power and grace through his death on the cross. And he teaches you how to put this into practice through his life example.

This is the good news of the gospel. Are you struggling this morning? Is life hard for you? Are your despairing? There is hope because of Jesus!

Let me end today by encouraging each of you to be honest and identify an area of struggle in your life – name it. Let the Spirit work in your heart. Humble yourself. Be honest. Where are you failing? Remember not to compare yourself with others. Compare yourself with Jesus. He is the goal toward which we are all moving.

And then as we move forward in our meetings to come, I encourage you to put into practice what you learn, so that you can experience the freedom that Jesus brings.

William Higgins

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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are wrapping up our series on being at peace with one another, based on Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9:33-50. So far we have looked at three different relationship problems that can happen in the church:

1. Competing with each other for status – the disciples were arguing over who’s the greatest.

2. Excluding those who are different than you – the disciples tried to stop someone working for the kingdom because he was not a part of their group.

3. Causing little ones to stumble – acting in ways that would cause those who are weak in faith to fall into sin or lose their faith in Jesus.

Today we look at the last part of this passage – vs. 43-50, a section that brings home this point – we need to get serious and work hard at having good relationships with one another.

Jesus begins by giving –

Three amputation sayings

They are all quite similar, one concerning the hand, the foot and the eye. (Just a note, in case you are wondering. vs. 44 and 46 are not in the oldest manuscripts, so they are not included in most Bibles today. They say the same thing as v. 48, however.)

v. 43-48 – “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the un-quenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”

First, a couple of observations. Jesus talks about the resurrection in several different ways here, twice as “to enter life,” as in eternal life, and also “to enter the kingdom of God.”

But he talks even more about the opposite of eternal life, which is hell. Now this is not Hades, the place of the dead. This is “Gehenna,” the final place of punishment for the wicked. Gehenna literally means the “valley of Hinnom,” which was southwest of Jerusalem. It was once a place of idol worship, including human sacrifice, but later was made into a garbage dump. As such, it became an image of the final punishment of the wicked.

In v. 43 Jesus describes hell as the “unquenchable fire.” In v. 48 he quotes Isaiah 66:24 as a description of hell (via the Isaiah Targum) – “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” This comes from the original garbage dump imagery where there would be worms and fire. The idea is that the worms will always be eating away and the fire will always be burning. A gruesome picture.

There also seems to be a progression from v. 43, that simply says, “to go to hell,” to vs. 45 and 47 that says, “to be thrown into hell,” a more forceful phrase.

The focal point of these verses, however is Jesus’ concern about stumbling. We talked about stumbling last week in connection to how our words or actions can cause someone else who is weak in faith to stumble. Here the concern is what might lead you to stumble, not someone else. There is a shift of focus.

A stumbling block is what causes someone’s downfall, or what trips someone up so that they fall. Again, there is a metaphor here of the Christian life as walking on a path. And so you are walking with Jesus, but something trips you up and you fall into sin and stop following Jesus. So we certainly need to beware of such stumbling blocks.

But what is Jesus telling us to do?! Well, he’s not suggesting that we literally cut off our hand or foot or tear out our eye. After all, this wouldn’t help us keep from falling into sin. No, these are proverbial sayings that warn about the dangers of stumbling blocks to sin, in rather drastic terms.

What they mean is simple, get rid of anything that might lead you to sin.

And this is so serious that you should get rid of the stumbling block even if it is as precious to you as your hand or your foot or your eye; even if it is as painful as cutting off your hand or foot or tearing out your eye. Better to come to the resurrection having made painful sacrifices in this life, than to have stumbled and fallen into sin, so that you are thrown into hell, the place of unending worms and fire.

So this is a strong admonition to separate from whatever might cause you to trip up and fall into sin. Don’t just get rid of the sin, get rid of what might lead you to sin. And notice that Jesus wants us to get this point. That’s why he says it three times.

Now, this warning can refer to stumbling blocks that lead to any kind of sin. (Jesus uses this language in reference to adultery in Matthew 5:29-30). But in context, the point here is more specific. Cut off anything that might lead you to tear apart the peace of the church. Deal with any issues you have that might lead you to damage relationships and people in the church.

He is talking about getting rid of anything that would lead you to do what he has already talked about in this passage:

  • competing with others for status
  • unnecessarily rejecting others just because they are from another group or are different
  • or causing little ones to stumble

And the warning part applies to this as well. And it is clearly stated. If we don’t do this, and tear apart the church, we will be thrown into Gehenna. (See 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 for a similar warning about what will happen to those who tear apart the church.)

In Luke 17:3 these amputation sayings are paraphrased like this, “Pay attention to yourselves.” Jesus is saying, look at your own life to see what might cause you to do one of these things – and get rid of it.

Well, this raises the question –

What do you need to amputate?

What leads you to sin in general? What causes you to give in to your weaknesses? Here are some examples of such stumbling blocks:

  • If you struggle with alcohol addiction, this could be a person or a place that encourages you to give in to your weakness.
  • If you struggle with pornography, unfiltered access to the internet could be a stumbling block.
  • If you are a new Christian, hanging out with old friends who pressure you to forsake Jesus would be a stumbling block

Let’s get more specific – what might lead you to damage the peace of the church? Being too competitive? Always wanting your own way? Allowing yourself to hold on to some bitterness? Not dealing with conflicts, because you don’t like to do this? Being so comfortable with the way things are, that when someone new comes who is different, you get upset. Feeling superior to those who don’t know as much as you? Any of these things might well lead you to damage relationships in the church, and so if they lead you to this you need to separate from them.

In relation to all these stumbling blocks, there may be sacrifices, but the reward is more than worth it. We will enter eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Next Jesus gives us –

Three salt sayings

The first is in v. 49 – “For everyone will be salted with fire.” This is difficult to make sense of. There’s not much to go with. Our help comes from the context just before. It is connected to verse 48 by the theme of fire and judgment.

The point is that everyone will be judged. Just as salt is sprinkled or poured out, so will the fire of judgment come upon all, even if you are one of the twelve. So the amputation warnings apply to them and to all disciples.

Now, the righteous will not experience the fire of Gehenna. But a refining fire is connected to what the righteous will experience on the last day in Malachi 3:2-3. So both the righteous and the wicked will experience fire at the final judgment. (On salt and judgment – Genesis 19:24-26; Deuteronomy 29:23; On fire judging the work of Christians – 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. This text is also connected to breaking apart the church – 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.)

v. 50a – “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again?” Salt had many uses: preservation, seasoning, fertilizer and more. It had real value. As Jesus says, “Salt is good.”

Here the disciples are the salt, who have been made salty by living out Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:13). But there is a warning. If you lose your saltiness, that is, you are unfaithful to my teaching – how will you be made salty again? If we don’t practice Jesus’ teaching we aren’t worth anything as disciples. Salt is good, but un-salty salt isn’t.

In Matthew 5:13 this saying is coupled with a clear statement of judgment. For such salt “is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

The application of this can be broad, to any teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5, Luke 14), but here it is focused on whether we are living in peace with one another in the church.

9:50b – “Have salt in yourselves . . .” Here the salt is simply Jesus’ teaching. He is saying, take to heart my teaching. Put it into practice. Again, specifically focusing on relationships in the church.

And then finally, 9:50c – “. . . and be at peace with one another.” This is the summary message of the whole of Mark 9:33-50, which begins with arguing and ends with this exhortation to peace.

Let me end with a question –

How salty are you?

Are you putting this teaching of Jesus into practice?

  • Lowering yourself to serve others?
  • Accepting others from groups that are different than yours?
  • Helping little ones who are weak and susceptible to falling?
  • And in general, living at peace with one another?

If you are putting Jesus’ teaching into practice, you are salty salt and you are useful for all kinds of good things in the kingdom. Let us all put this teaching into practice.

William Higgins

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Our text today is often called the parable of the two sons. I think parents with teens will relate to it. It’s about a father trying to get his kids to do chores. One kid is rude about it and the other doesn’t do anything.

But in all seriousness, it’s an important Scripture because it gives us a very clear understanding of what God wants from us.

It comes right in the middle of a fairly long confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem – the chief priests and the elders of the people (21:23). And this is the first of three parables intended to give them a message.

First, let’s work at –

Understanding the parable

Jesus initiates this stage of the conversation with a question. v. 28 – “What do you think?” They had just refused to answer a question he posed, but as we will see in what follows, this parable forces them to answer him.

Now before we move on, let me say here that in some ancient manuscripts of the New Testament the order of the two sons is actually reversed. So if your Bible has this you will know what is going on. For instance the older New American Standard Bible. I am using the ESV as always.

The first son. v. 28 – “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’” The word translated as “first” can also mean “older,” as in the oldest son. Some translations take it this way.

“Sons” is actually the word for “children.” And when the father says, “son, go and work,” it is actually “child, go and work,” a more affectionate way of putting it. He is asking him to do some work on the family farm.

v. 29 – “And he answered, ‘I will not.’” The son’s response is rude and disrespectful. In its culture this would be seen as rebellious and unacceptable. And it’s a real contrast to the father’s affectionate address to him.

The story goes on, v. 29 – “but afterward he changed his mind and went.” Although he said no, he does work.

The word behind the phrase, “changed his mind” can also be translated as ‘he regretted it’ or ‘he thought differently about it,’ or even ‘he repented.’

This part of the parable has some connection to Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, the only other parable of Jesus that involves a father and two sons. The first son here is quite similar to the prodigal son. And both show us what repentance looks like. They changed their minds and acted differently.

The second son. v. 30 – “And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir.’” This is a very respectful answer, in contrast to the first son’s words to his father. The word “sir” is actually the word for ‘lord’ or ‘master.’

v. 30 – “but did not go.” He said yes, but he was full of hot air.

Now let’s look at –

Jesus’ interpretation

v. 31 – “’Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.’”

  • From this we see that the father represents God.
  • The first son represents the tax collectors & prostitutes. They said no to God initially, but when they heard the message of the kingdom, they changed their minds and began to do God’s will.
  • The second son represents the chief priests & elders. They said yes to God, but when they heard the message, they did not act.
  • And most likely the vineyard represents Israel – the people of God.

The point of the parable is clear. Those who refuse God but later repent and obey, like the first son, will go into the kingdom. And they will go in before those who say yes, but don’t obey God, like the second son. (Indeed the leaders won’t get in at all unless they repent.)

Jesus gives his strong affirmation to this lesson when he says, “Truly I say to you.” He is saying, ‘take note!’ ‘This is absolutely the truth.’

Finally, notice how Jesus forces them to answer. The only possible answer to his question is that the first son did the father’s will. Yet the first son undeniably represents well repentant sinners – those moral outcasts that these leaders looked down on.

And the leaders look very much like the second son, in that they did not take heed to the message of the kingdom. So they, in effect, condemn themselves.

Now this parable can be applied quite broadly, but in this context Jesus applies it specifically to –

John the Baptist’s ministry

– the subject of the argument at this point between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem.

v. 32 – “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” Even though they had said yes to obey God, they did not believe John was from God. So they didn’t do what he said.

Although John came in the way of righteousness, that is, he was righteous and preached a righteous message from God, they rejected him.

v. 32 – “but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” Even though they had said no to God, they believed John and repented.

Finally, Jesus says, v. 32 – “And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” Even after they saw others respond, they rejected him, and would not change their minds about him, and heed his message of repentance. They blew it twice with John, just like they were blowing it with Jesus as they spoke with him.

Lessons for us

1. We learn what God wants from us. God wants us to believe and respond to the message of the kingdom. And how do we respond? We are to respond by obeying God. To say it another way, God is looking for a change within that leads to obedience; so that we come to do our heavenly father’s will, instead of ours or anyone else’s.

This is the bottom line of what God wants from us.

2. Don’t be the second son. As Christians we have said “yes” to God, and so we are reminded in this parable that we need to come through on our commitment. We need to make sure we are working in the vineyard, doing God’s will; using our gifts and doing all that God tells us to do.

Now, the second son echoes Matthew 7:21. “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.” Both use the address of “Lord,” and both don’t obey the will of the father. And both are, as Jesus interprets the parable, excluded from the kingdom of God. (Davies & Allison)

This is a word to us not just the ancient leaders of Israel. We must come through on our commitments to God.

3. Don’t be self-righteous. We need humility so we don’t become like the leaders of Jerusalem.

Think about it. Who are the ones who will never repent? Rank sinners? No. There’s a chance for them. The ones who will never repent are those who think they don’t need to repent; who don’t see the need; who think they are in the right.

Paul says, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” – 1 Corinthians 10:12. This is a warning for us. You never get to a place where you can’t receive God’s message to you; where you don’t need to be open to repentance.

4. The gospel is great news for sinners! So if you are here today and you have sin in your life – I mean even really bad sin; you have made terrible and shameful choices – it isn’t too late.

You haven’t done God’s will so far? Jesus teaches that you can change your mind! You can have a change within so that you believe the message and start to obey your heavenly father. It isn’t too late.

And if there is anyone here today who wants to do this very thing I invite you to come forward . . ..

[Note: This is not an example of the first and the last from 20:16. In this last verse the first and the last has to do with equalization, not reversal – both the first and the last were made equal.]
 
[Note: Literary structure of the parable.
A. Question/two sons: What do you think? A man had two sons.
B. First son: And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.
`B. Second son: And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.
`A. Question/two sons: Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

William Higgins

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