Monday, April 29, 2013

Needed: A New Heart-1

The turning point, or major key, in getting to know God personally is the “new birth.” Jesus said it is impossible to really understand God or have a close relationship with Him until we are born again, or experience a spiritual heart conversion to God. Until that time, we know about God or about theology and religion, but we don’t know Him in a personal, saving way.

The reason for this is that we are born dead, spiritually speaking. The Bible teaches this in many places.  Ephesians 2:1 says we are dead, but God resurrects us to new life when we trust in Jesus as our personal Savior. Titus 3:3-7 describes this same before and after experience. Baptism, Paul says, is the symbol that we have been raised from the dead to live a new life just like Jesus was when he died and rose again. We don’t need to be better; we need a resurrection, which is just what God promises to do for us in the new birth.

The heart of our problem is the human heart. When the Bible speaks of “the heart” it means the core of who we are—our will, mind, and emotions. Solomon wrote, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Prov. 4:23

Since the Fall (the entrance of sin into our world), we are born with sinful hearts. David wrote, “I was born in iniquity; in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5). He means he was born naturally oriented toward sin and that sin was a part of his nature. Later he wrote: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.” (Psalm 58:3). Since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious perfection (Romans 3:23), Ps. 58:3 applies to everyone.

Jesus described the heart this way:  “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.” (Matthew 15:19).

The prophet Jeremiah wrote: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9) And Paul wrote “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away. . . .There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12).

What does this mean? One writer puts it this way:  “It is impossible to change ourselves. Our hearts are evil, and we cannot change them. "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one." "The sinful heart is at enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." (Job 14:4; Romans 8:7). Education, culture, the exercise of the will, human effort, all have their proper place, but here they are powerless. They may produce an outward correctness of behavior, but they cannot change the heart; they cannot purify the springs of life. There must be a power working from within, a new life from above, before men can be changed from sin to holiness. That power is Christ. His grace alone can quicken the lifeless faculties of the soul, and attract it to God, to holiness. (Steps to Christ, p. 18).

How does this happen? That is precisely the question a man named Nicodemus asked Jesus one night: “How can a man be born again when he is old?”

 Nicodemus was a very religious man, a leader in his faith and known for his generosity and good deeds. But with all of that, he felt something was seriously missing in his life. When he heard the teachings of Jesus, it spoke to his heart; and he decided to look Jesus up.

Jesus told him that he could not truly know God or his kingdom unless he was first born again.  When Nicodemus asked how, Jesus said it was something only the Spirit of God could do: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:6-8).

It is the job of the Spirit of God to create new life in us when we trust in Jesus as our Savior. God promises:  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26). David prayed, “Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right spirit in me.” (Psalm 51:10). Paul wrote, “God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 2:5-6).

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw us to God’s Saving Son Jesus. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” John 6:44, 37. Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be born again, but the original word in Greek can be translated, “from above.” Jesus was describing the Source and direction of the new birth. It is from God.

The metaphor of “birth” is significant. Birth takes place after conception and months of gestation.  In the same way, God speaks to our hearts in many ways, sometimes over a long period of time, planting his truth and revealing His character and love to us--all to prepare us for new birth. When we consciously believe in and commit ourselves to Jesus as our Savior, we are born again.

Jesus used the metaphor of wind to describe the Spirit’s work to Nicodemus. One author explains: “The wind is heard among the branches of the trees, rustling the leaves and flowers; yet it is invisible, and no one knows where it comes from or where it is going. So with the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart. . .By the Holy Spirit who is as unseen as the wind, Jesus is constantly working upon the heart. Little by little, perhaps unconsciously to us, impressions are made that draw the soul to Christ. These may be received through meditating upon Him, reading the Scriptures, or hearing a sermon. Suddenly, as the Spirit comes with more direct appeal, a person gladly surrenders themselves to Jesus. By many this is called sudden conversion; but it is the result of long drawing by the Spirit of God,--a patient, protracted process. 

“While the wind is itself invisible, it produces effects that are seen and felt. So the work of the Spirit upon the soul will reveal itself in every action by a person who has felt its saving power. When the Spirit of God takes possession of the heart, it transforms the life. Sinful thoughts are put away, evil deeds are renounced; love, humility, and peace take the place of anger, envy, and strife. Joy takes the place of sadness, and the countenance reflects the light of heaven. No one sees the hand that lifts the burden, or beholds the light descend from the courts above. The blessing comes when by faith the soul surrenders itself to God. Then that power which no human eye can see creates a new being in the image of God.” The Desire of Ages, p. 173

Even after all the explanation, Nicodemus was still perplexed about how this could happen, so Jesus reminded him of a story he knew well: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).

After Israel was delivered from their bondage in Egypt, they lived in the wilderness for many years. Sometimes they rebelled against God, and He could not protect them in their sin. During one mutiny, poisonous snakes, began biting them. These “fiery serpents” were always there; but without God’s protection, the people were dying.

The people turned in repentance and God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze and hang it on a pole in the middle of the camp. Anyone who looked at the snake, trusting God to heal them would be healed.

Jesus said this was a symbol of His death for our sins and how we are brought from death to life.  “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).

About three years after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Nicodemus remembered what Jesus said and finally understood that Jesus was the Savior of the world—and his Savior too. He gave his life to Him, was born again, and followed Christ the rest of his life.

Nicodemus had believed that God’s favor could be earned by good works. He had trusted that he was a good person and did good things, so God would accept him. But acceptance with God is purely an act of God’s mercy. God can only give us personal salvation when we admit we cannot change or save ourselves. “Blessed are those who admit their spiritual poverty; then the kingdom belongs to them.” (Matthew 5:3).

As you have read this, have you understood the problem of the sinful heart, and your need of the new birth? Maybe you experienced this. On the other hand, you might not be sure. So what can you do? Come to Jesus just as you are. Don’t depend on your good works or religious practices. It is a new heart you need. Ask God to prepare you and give it to you. He is the Divine Surgeon who loves to help us. Read about Jesus, especially the story of His death for you. Ask God to open your eyes to see what He did for you and to open your heart to receive Him.

He will, because His Son died to do this for you.

Michael Brownfield

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Power to Help

Last weekend after our worship service, a lady came up saying her new car (less than 100 miles on it) appeared dead. It would not start, and none of the electronics were functioning. Everything was unresponsive.

Some of our men analyzed the situation and concluded she had left something turned on, draining the new battery to nothing. They recommended she get her car jump-started and let the battery re-charge. Common problem. Probably happened to most of us more than once.

 Sometimes we feel like that spiritually. We might look good on the outside, but we feel a little (or a lot) dead inside. We don't really feel much toward God. When we try to focus on spiritual things or read the Bible, something like a low-lying June fog clouds our brain. Doubts flit around our mind like flies on a sultry summer day. We are tired, distracted, and unfocused. How can we connect with God? Is there any help?

The last two days, I have been writing about the importance of God's word. Today, I want to point out that power is available to help us know and understand God, and really connect with Him.

Writing to the Ephesian Christians, Paul told them he was praying that their eyes would be opened to see the power that was available to them. The Greek word he uses for “power” is dunamis.  This is the word we get our English words dynamite, dynamic, and dynamo from. Paul is clearly trying to tell us that a lot of power is available to help us know God and experience his power in our lives.

Here are a few other verses about the power available to us. Notice how many times Paul uses the word “power.”

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

 “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Ephesians 3:16-21

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” 1 Corintians 3:4, 5

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. . .” Philippians 3:10 (When Paul says he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection in his life, he is not thinking here about the Resurrection at the Second Coming. He is saying He wants God’s resurrecting power to be at work in his life now, on a daily basis.

That is what he was saying in Ephesians 1:18-20 too. “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know (by experience). . .his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead.”

What kind of power does it take to raise the dead? The power God is offering to jump start and maintain our spiritual life is the power of the Holy Spirit. (He is very powerful. He created the world at God’s command, gives us new birth when we trust Jesus as our Savior, and will someday raise us from the dead at the Resurrection.) Actually, we don’t need a jump start; we need a resurrection or new creation. That’s because the Bible describes us as being dead—as in dead, dead.

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. . .but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:1-5

Our spiritual deadness is why the writers of the Bible cry out to God to resurrect them spiritually and to create a new heart in them. David wrote, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” Psalm 51:10,11

So when we pray for God’s help to understand the Bible, we are admitting we are a little (or a lot) dead and need His creative power to resurrect us. When we admit our sin and our need, He can help us. In fact it is His great pleasure to help us. But first we have to admit our need; because if we don’t see a need and think we can figure it out on our own, He can’t do much to help us.

God absolutely loves to help us, His children. Jesus died to make that possible. All we have to do is admit our need, ask His help, and believe He will do it (that’s faith). Chances are He is already at work.

Michael Brownfield
Italics Mine. Scripture quotations from the New International Version of the Bible; 1984 by the International Bible Society

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Little Help from Your Friend

Yesterday I wrote about "God's Word in Your Life--Why You Need It." ( Today, I am beginning a new blog site for this series. But here's a summary of what I wrote yesterday: 

God guided in the writing of the Bible so that all the elements for a relationship with Him are available to us. Like food which digests into various components for energy, repair, and growth, the Bible contains the building blocks of spiritual life with God.

Beyond that, and even more important, the Bible makes God's supernatural power available to us for this new life. It is a new life, not a natural one. It takes the old life with its problems and starts a new and better life. Jesus told Nicodemus he could be born "from above," that is, through the creative power of God's Spirit working on the heart. The same power is at work in us that raised Jesus from the dead, according to Paul. (Eph. 1:17-22)

The Spirit works through the Bible. As we see God's character, read His promises, and understand His redeeming plans for us, the Spirit speaks to our minds. As we believe and choose these things for ourselves, the Spirit deepens our understanding and writes the lessons on our hearts, weaving them into our lives.

So, what do we do if the Bible has not been interesting to us, or we feel to busy to read it? Here are a few things that have helped me.
  1. Know that God is drawing you. If you have any desire to open the Bible, it is because God Himself is leading you there. Recognize it is His love at work in you.
  2. Ask God for the desire to read His word. That is a prayer He loves to answer. 
  3. Ask for His help each time you read. Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you." (Luke 11:9-13). That's a promise from God! You can believe it. He will send his Spirit to help you.
  4. David prayed that God would "open his eyes so he could see wonderful things in His word." (Psalm 119:18). Paul prayed that our eyes would be opened so we could know God better. I pray these prayers for myself; you can too (Ephesians 1:15-23 and 3:14-21). We need God to "open our eyes" because our natural heart doesn't innately know or understand God without His help.
  5. If you lead a busy life (who doesn't these days?), Ask God to help you find the time you can spend with Him. Be sure to take Him up on it when he does. I've been asking God to wake me up when He wants, and He has been doing it (and I love my sleep!).
  6. Read the Bible to know God, not primarily for facts and information. Jesus told the religious people of His day that they were searching the Scriptures, but they were not coming into a personal relationship with Him. (John 5:39). They studied to develop theories about God and to debate theology but neglected to open their hearts to Him. And, yes we need think carefully about what we believe.
  7. Keep a Bible close at hand, so when you have a few spare moments you can read it; or install one on your cell phone or electronic device. 
  8. God will start showing you things. Bookmark them, write them out on cards, or keep a journal of the things you are learning and what they mean to you. I've found that when I write things down, I remember them better.
  9. Expect God will start teaching you. That's what the Spirit specializes in. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26).
  10. Remember how important this is. It is your life!

Several years ago, I met an artist who taught at liberal arts college. He was a very good artist and very interesting to talk to. He had traveled around the world doing research for his art projects. 

There was a time when he did not know God personally very well, so he decided to start reading his Bible. He said that at first, it was like taking medicine. Then he began to look forward to it in the way he would enjoy eating a good meal. Then he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "Now it is like desert!"

It may take time for the Bible to become like desert to you. But if you begin and keep going, God will help you get to that place. There is no alternative. Jesus said that if His words are in us, we will have life, the new life He promised.

Michael Brownfield

Sunday, April 21, 2013

God's Word in Your Life--Why You Need It

A young nephew of mine has had trouble for several months absorbing nutrients and gaining weight. He was born with Diamond Blackfan Amenia (inability to produce red blood cells), endured months of blood transfusions and then a bone marrow transplant at the age of two. My devoted sister has spent countless hours at clinics and in doctor's offices while specialists try to help. 

The ability to absorb nutrients is absolutely essential to physical growth, and it is critical for spiritual growth as well. God's word, the Bible, contains the elements for our spiritual growth. In fact, it is what God has given us for supernatual life. Jesus referred to this when He said, "The words I have spoken to you, they are spirit and life." (John 6:63 NIV) 

Many see the Bible as merely a collection of history, beliefs, and rules; but it is so much more than that. It is a spiritual book designed to produce spiritual life in us. The same power God exercised in creation exists in the Bible through the work of the Holy Spirit. As we read His word, depending on God to teach and feed us, we are changed; and we grow.

Referring to his death for us and the meaning of that, Jesus said, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you." (John 6:53). His listeners criticized Him for this strange saying, but he was referring to His death for our sins and the power of God's word and gospel as we believe and internalize it.

We are born with defective natures, damaged by sin. Also, there is so much we don't know about God or the spiritual life. Jesus offers us a new spiritual birth and new life through His word. "You have been born again through through the enduring word of God." (1 Peter 1:23). 

Paul wrote to his young student, Timothy:  "There's nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another--showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God's way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us." (2 Timothy 3:15-17 TM: emphasis mine). 

More than half of Americans (57%) read the Bible fewer than five times a year according to a survey report released by the American Bible Society on March 26, 2013. In the age category of 18-28, 57% read Scripture three times a year or never. How is it for you?

If God's word is literally life for us,and we don't read or understand it, what is happening for my young nephew is occuring for us in a spiritual sense .We are trying to live without eating or absorbing what we do ingest. We fail to grow. We repeat the same mistakes over and over. We are religious, but not satisfied.

I understand many people find the Bible boring or hard to understand. They don't know where to begin. Finding time is also a big problem today. So in the next day or two I will share what has helped me over the years. God's word was created to help us thrive and grow--to be filled with love, goodness, deep happiness and peace. It is a banquet of good food. But we may not know how to enjoy it. Join me again tomorrow.

Pastor Michael Brownfield

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Meaning of Jesus' Death and Resurrection - Intro

     After a week and a half without internet connection, I am finally back on line. In my last post I had finished writing about the events of Jesus' death and resurrection. It is time now to turn to their meaning.
     The last few days I have been reading John Piper's "The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die" and have been tremendously blessed by it.
     Pastor Piper is a Reformed pastor and theologian who has writes passionately about the salvation we have in Jesus. While I cannot agree with every point (especially Piper's belief about our state in death and the nature of hell) my heart has been encouraged and my faith strengthened by the points he brings out.
     Like the man in Jesus' parable who discovered treasure hidden in a field he had leased to farm, Piper opens the box of priceless Gospel jewels and examines them one at a time: Forgiveness, Justification, God's Love, Jesus' Personal Love for Us, Righteousness by Faith, and forty-five more. I highly recommend it.
     As we begin to examine the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, I want to begin with my own story.
     I grew up in a Christian home, and it was a privilege. Unlike some homes, the religious aspect of our family life was generally positive, at least in my experience. Dad had accepted Christ at the age of sixteen in a spiritually divided home (His father was a mean drunk who sometimes beat the family; his mother a devoted Adventist believer who took all four children to church regularly).
     At the age of sixteen my dad wanted to give his mother, who he described as his hero, a gift, so he asked the pastor for baptism. Dad was serious about his commitment and remained faithful to Christ until his death a few years ago. In my growing up years, Dad was the primary example of what a Christian was. He spoke often about the Bible and his love for Jesus. He read his Bible regularly, lead out in church, and (to my embarrassment) witnessed to everyone he could.
     But in spite of all that, I did not comprehend the good news of salvation until my junior year of college. Somehow, I drew the conclusion that to be saved meant to love God and obey Him the best I could. Looking back, I know the Gospel was clearly taught in my religious upbringing; I just didn't get it.     
     Consequently, I struggled, because the truth is, we are not saved by "doing the best we can." There is no spiritual power in that. We are rescued from the power of our sinful, broken humanity only when we see that we need Jesus Who died for our sin and rose for our salvation. I will be looking at this in detail in coming days.
     In the Adventist academy (high school) I attended my Bible teacher was also our athletic coach. I admired this man a lot. He took a personal interest in us and was interesting as a teacher. So when I left to attend college, I enrolled as a ministerial student. I wanted to help young people like our teacher. But I did not know Christ savingly yet. Consequently, I struggled spiritually in college. I was religious, but not saved. I struggled with the temptations common to young adults who have left home, and was often miserable in my spiritual lostness. Indeed the struggles had begun in academy where sports and friends and the attention of others held far more interest than God.
     In my junior year, a great tragedy led me to the cross and to Christ. I was the eldest of five children in our family. My brother and I were followed by three sisters. In the summer of my junior year, my dad, brother and I were working seven hours from home, in construction. One evening we received a phone call that the oldest of my sisters had been killed in a car accident.
     The next few days were filled with deep grief for our family, the comfort of many friends, and services for my sister. In my sense of loss, I turned to the Bible for reassurance. I had only read it for class, never because of personal interest; but now I had to know if the things I have believed were really true. Was there really a resurrection? Was Jesus going to return someday and raise my sister from the dead? I had to know these things for certain.
     At some point, I found myself in the book of John reading the story of Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus. I continued reading through the Passion Story, and as I read about Jesus' trial and death, it was as if a flood light was turned on in my mind. I clearly saw for the first time how much God loved the world, and how much Jesus loved sinful humanity. Jesus' love and sacrifice were so beautiful to see. God must have known that I was open for the first time. In that moment, I knew I had a choice to make, and I knelt down and prayed a simple prayer: "God, this is so beautiful. I don't know how to follow you; but if you will accept me, I will."
     This was not a very complete "sinner's prayer," but in His amazing mercy, God accepted that prayer and the intention it represented. I know now that He accepted me that day through His amazing grace. In fact, I know He was preparing me to receive Him through His Spirit who takes every opportunity to reach our hearts. I felt I had been born again, and know that that I truly had been (John 3).
     The next few weeks and months were amazing for me. I suddenly had a deep interest to know everything I could about Jesus and the Bible. I read voraciously, and God began to open His word to my understanding. Jesus' sacrifice and Second Coming meant more than anything now, and I wanted to learn all I could.
     Like the disciples after Jesus' death, there were many things I still did not understand, but the journey had begun for me, and God was close.
     When I write again, I will begin exploring the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, from the first dawning of understanding the disciples had to the full blown confession of faith they share in their New Testament writings. These things are truly "priceless treasure" to those who are being saved. But I close today with the words of Paul to Titus which have become a favorite of mine, and my own testimony.
     "Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaved to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. But--When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. . ." Titus 3:3-8

Pastor Michael Brownfield


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jn. 20:24-31 - Thomas Struggles with Doubt, Believes


     Do you ever struggle with doubt or disappointment with God? Thomas, Jesus' doubting disciple did, for several reasons which I'll explore in this blog. But Jesus also gave Thomas a solution.
     When Jesus appeared to His disciples on Resurrection Day evening, Thomas was not with them. Later, when they saw him, they excitedly told him, "We have seen the Lord!" (v. 24, 25). Rather than believing his friends, Thomas stubbornly said, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
     Why this demand for empirical evidence? Why not believe his fellow disciples? Why this stubborn "I will not believe, unless?"
     A week after Jesus' first appearance to His disciples, He came again, but this time Thomas is with the rest. What will Jesus say to him?
     Well, let's pause a moment. What was Jesus doing for the intervening week? What were the disciples doing? Why wouldn't they spend every day together after the joyful reunion on Resurrection evening?
     Jesus always had a reason for His actions; this time is is not explained. Was He letting the reality of everything sink in? Did the disciples need time to reflect on what had happened for their own spiritual growth? Maybe repentance for their failures needed to deepen. Possibly Jesus wanted them to just think about the meaning of His life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Perhaps He wanted to let questions form in their minds so He could instruct them further in the days ahead. Quiet time is not wasted time. God's silence is sometimes for a good purpose in our growth--even in a "Thomas's" case.
     Luke tells us that Jesus "appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the Kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). This does not mean He was with them constantly, but purposefully. He was growing their repentance, faith, and resolve.
     John tells us that when Jesus appeared that day, "the doors were locked" but "Jesus came and stood among them" (v. 26). This was a miraculous appearing and substantiated again the supernatural character of the risen Christ.
     As He appeared to them, His greeting, as always, was "Peace be with you." That is Jesus' greeting to us too. He wants us to have His peace in our hearts and lives. He wants us to live in peace because He is for us. As we saw earlier, this salutation of Jesus was about much more than merely calming the disciples' fears. He is teaching them how to live in peace by trusting the Prince of Peace.
     Jesus' next words are to Thomas, and they show that He knows everything about us. He knows our thoughts, our struggles, our failures. He knows our whispered doubts and our disappointments with God. And He loves even us in spite of these. He tries to help our weak faith. Amazing grace!
     "Then He said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe'" (v. 27).
     Jesus gave Thomas the evidence he had required. He accommodates our weak faith sometimes, but our trust must learn to rest on deeper things than miracles and empirical proof. Jesus' faithfulness to His word contained in the Scriptures, the self-authenticating nature of truth, the witness of His Spirit to our hearts--all these things are deeper bedrock for faith, though apologetics, evidence, and miracles have their place.
     Then Jesus had a word of loving correction for Thomas: "Stop doubting and believe" (v. 27). Whatever motivated Thomas' demand--disappointment with God because Jesus hadn't fulfilled Thomas's messianic hopes, jealousy at having been left out of Jesus' first appearance, or just plain doubt, Jesus now gives Thomas a solution: "Stop doubting and believe."
     There comes a time after enough evidence has been given, when faith becomes a choice. In fact choice is always the key element in believing. God never removes all doubt, but He gives enough evidence for us to choose to trust Him, and to trust His word.
     "Stop doubting and believe." It is not healthy to remain in the land of doubt. It is an unstable, discouraging place. We may still have questions, but God invites us to trust the big things about Him, to trust Him. With trust comes peace, relief, joy.
     "My Lord and my God!" This is enough for Thomas. In a moment, he makes his choice and leaps from dejected doubt to worship. Whatever was holding him back, He gives up and surrenders to faith.
     Jesus' response was not congratulatory, but instructive. Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (v. 29).
     Is it possible to believe only on the testimony of others? If it is not, then Christian witness is useless, and its mission is doomed. But Jesus is about to send His disciples out to witness to thousands who have never seen Him. The disciples must learn that a simple witness given in the power of the Holy Spirit--and backed up by the predictions/fulfillments of God's word, is enough for saving faith.
     Jesus was making the success of His Church's mission dependent on the testimony of transformed witnesses, not scientific fact or personal observation, per se. Truth appeals to the mind and heart, and that is enough to make a saving relationship with God. People can believe without seeing. They can sense the Holy Spirit stirring their hearts through a believer's testimony.
     Peter describes some of these believers: "Though you have not seen Him, you love Him: and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Pet. 1:8-9).
     The Christians of India and Syria tell us, backed by ancient history and tradition, that Thomas came to them in 52 A.D. to share the Gospel. Thomas, then, travelled further outside the bounds of Palestine than the other eleven disciples. He preached to people groups who not only had never seen Jesus, but didn't know anyone who had. He share Christ with those who found it most difficult to believe and had great success even with the leading, high class Brahmin families of India, before he was martyred there.
     To me it is so wonderful that Jesus takes us where we are, with all our weaknesses and foibles, and helps us. Then He sends as encouragers and witnesses to people who struggle with the same things we have.
Pastor Michael Brownfield


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Jn. 20:19-23 - Jesus Appears to His Disciples

     "On the evening of the first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!'" (v. 19)
     On the evening of Jesus' resurrection, the disciples were barricaded behind locked doors out of fear they might meet the same fate as Jesus. Their Leader had been killed and not only were they grieving the loss of their Friend and their dreams, they felt defenseless and in danger.
     If God could allow Jesus to be killed, what would happen to them? It seemed to them they were at the whim of strange, dark, and unexpected circumstances.
     Though Mary and the other women, and the two from Emmaus had come saying they had seen Jesus, the rest did not believe them (Mk. 16:1-13). Their hopes had been so thoroughly crushed and their faith so devastated, all they could think about was their loss and survival.
     Jesus' first words to the disciples were "Peace be with you!" Thoughtful Savior that He was, He wanted to calm hearts and alleviate their fear. Luke reports that when they saw Him, they were "startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost" (Lk. 24:37).
     But Jesus' statement is about more than the antidote for fear. It is the primary proclamation of the Christian faith. He would repeat these words over and over in successive appearances, just like He had in His days of ministry. You see, the Christian message offers peace to us because Jesus secured peace with God for humanity and can give each of us peace of heart when we choose to trust in what He did for us.
     "Peace be with you!" This was the song of the angels at Jesus' birth, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men" (Lk. 2:14). Jesus' Substitutionary death for our sins created an armistice between heaven and humanity. Not that God was at war with us. He loved us and provided salvation through Jesus while we were still helpless sinners and enemies toward Him (Rom. 5:6-10).

     Together, the Father and Son had created the plan by which Jesus' death would pay the just penalty for the world's sin and provide grace to anyone who turned from sin to God, through His mercy. "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Col. 1:19).
     "Grace and peace be yours in abundance" (1 Pet. 1:2). This is the New Testament greeting, repeated constantly in Paul's letters. It is the Christian treasure: peace and grace (mercy and help) are ours in abundance through Jesus' death on the cross. Sins forgiven, God-accepted, covered by Jesus' perfect life, we have peace with God. As Paul says in Romans 5:1, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God." Forgiven and accepted, we rejoice (fear no longer) at the prospect of living in God's presence.
     Because Jesus gave the greatest gift that could be given on the cross, His death for our sins, we have confidence that God will forgive us if we ask and give us anything we need in the Christian life. "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32). "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9). That gives us peace!
     Jesus' parting promise to His disciples was, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (Jn. 14:27; 16:33)
     Peace because God is in control. Peace because everything necessary for our salvation and assistance has been provided. Peace because Jesus took our sins and offers us God's acceptance. Peace because the Holy Spirit comes into our minds and hearts with supernatural peace.
     Like the disciples in the Upper Room, we lose our peace when we forget that God is in control, that Jesus has provided everything we need for life and godliness. "Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Pet. 1:2-3).
     After Jesus calmed their fears and offered His peace, John says "he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw (it was) the Lord" (v. 20). "Overjoyed" almost seems to tame. They must have been ecstatic, amazed, overwhelmed. Their dead Messiah was alive!
     When the disciples recovered their senses enough to listen, Jesus said again, as if they missed His intent the first time, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (v. 21).
     Repeating the assurance of peace, Jesus now gives His first statement of their future work. In Matthew (28:18-20), we call it the Gospel Commission, but it is the life work of the disciples, the reason they were called to follow Jesus in the first place. He called them to be with Him to witness His life and teachings, His death and resurrection, and to share this great news with the world.
     The disciples are to carry on the work of Jesus in this world. As the Father sent Him, He is now sending them--to give the message of salvation.
     "With that He breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (v. 22). The Holy Spirit would officially be given at Pentecost, but Jesus wanted to impress them of their need of the Spirit at His first appearance to them. Knowing this moment would be riveted in their minds forever, He promises them help and Pentecostal power, the only power they could ever work in (Zech. 4:6).
     Before His death, He had already promised the Spirit (Jn. 14-16), now He reemphasizes His promise and their need.
     "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (v. 23). This will be the core message of the Christian faith: forgiveness is available through Jesus' death. In these few verses, Jesus announces the disciples' work, their message, and the power they will work in. Why did Jesus live, suffer, and die? So humans could be forgiven, reconciled to God, and prepared for heaven.
     Jesus words were not giving some magical power or authority to the disciples to forgive sin. The original language is: "If you forgive anyone his sins, they have already been forgiven." Jesus' death provides the forgiveness; we disciples only announce the good news and reassure people God will forgive them based on Jesus' work on the cross.
     Their work is also ours. May peace, forgiveness, and mercy be yours as you trust in Jesus. And may you always share the good news with others.

Pastor Michael Brownfield