“The change which our Lord here declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one.  It is not merely reformation, or amendment, or moral change, or outward alteration of life.  It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character.  It is a resurrection.  It is a new creation.  It is a passing from death to life.  It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above.  It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, and new fears.  All this, and nothing less than this is implied, when our Lord declares that we all need a ‘new birth.’

“This change of heart is rendered absolutely necessary to salvation by the corrupt condition in which we are all, without exception, born.  ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh.’  Our nature is thoroughly fallen.  The carnal mind is enmity against God (Rom. 8:7).  We come into the world without faith, or love, or fear toward God.  We have no natural inclination to serve Him or obey Him, and no natural pleasure in doing His will.  Left to himself, no child of Adam would ever turn to God.  The truest description of the change which we all need in order to make us real Christians, is the expression, ‘new birth.’

“This mighty change, it must never be forgotten, we cannot give to ourselves.  The very name which our Lord gives to it is a convincing proof of this.  He calls it ‘a birth.’  No man is the author of his own existence, and no man can quicken his own soul.  We might as well expect a dead man to give himself life, as expect a natural man to make himself spiritual.  A power from above must be put in exercise, even that same power which created the world (2 Cor. 4:6).  Man can do many things; but he cannot give life either to himself or to others.  To give life is the peculiar prerogative of God.  Well may our Lord declare that we need to be ‘born again!'”

(J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, Vol. I, 1879)

J. C. Ryle on the Necessity of the New Birth

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The Sower, the Seed, and the Soil

One of Jesus’ more popular parables is the parable of the sower or the four soils.  Picture the Middle East during the first century…specifically, life in a fishing village along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  The towns are abuzz with the news that Jesus stays at one of the homes.  He makes an appearance outside of it.  Soon enough, word spreads like jungle drums to the surrounding homes and towns.  It is not long before a mass of people floods this small, seacoast village.  Jesus spots an empty boat and plops himself down into it while the masses gather along the shore.  I call this church at the beach.  This is what they heard:

A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched.  And since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  He who has ears, let him hear’ (Matthew 13:3b-9, ESV).  

I bet these villagers exchanged various expressions of awe, confusion, or disgust or anything in between those attitudes.  Some of them might have said the following: “I can’t believe that I’ve stood in the blazing sun to hear this man teach about farming.”  Another villager probably shot back, “Oh yeah, I’m a fisherman in this village, so why not use that imagery?”  Alright, I have had enough fun.  Let me highlight something crucial at this point.  Regardless of what these seacoast villagers may or may not have been saying or thinking, Jesus did teach them the parable.  For those who have ears, there is an important truth to receive from it.  I think this is a key point.  It suggests the possibility that some in the crowd could have understood the gist of Jesus’ parable.  Of course, it is also possible that no one in the crowd understood it; however, I doubt the truth of that last statement.

One of my delights with the parable of the sower is that Jesus interprets it for the disciples and us.  He does so without being prompted by them unlike later on in the chapter with respect to the parable of the tares among wheat (Matt. 13:36, ESV).  If only Jesus had interpreted all of his parables in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, but then, such a thing would have prevented many great sermons and commentaries from being written down through the ages.  Had Jesus filled in all of the blanks for us, I suspect the kingdom would lack a certain mystery to it along with our faith.  In the end, I believe it is important to be thankful that the Lord interpreted any of the parables.  Ok, without any further ado, here is the Lord’s interpretation of the parable of the sower:

“‘Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.  As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.  As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.  As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it.  He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty'” (Matt. 13:18-23, ESV).

Understanding the parable of the sower hinges upon three components: the sower, the seed, and the soil.  I think it is intriguing to note that Jesus does not identify the sower like he does with the seed and the soil.  This does not mean that the parable falls apart because the sower’s identity remains a mystery.  From my perspective, Jesus is the sower who inaugurates the kingdom during his earthly ministry.  He preaches the word (or the gospel) of the kingdom, which is the seed (Matt. 13:19, ESV).  It is true that we become sowers like the Lord, so I do not want to rule out that nuance.  When Jesus travels from city to city and region to region throughout his ministry, he encounters a variety of responses to his message.  In the parable of sower, the different types of soil represent the various responses to Jesus’ word of the kingdom.  The alarming thing about the response to the kingdom message is that only a fraction or one fourth of it bears fruit (or the spiritual life) of the word (Matt. 13:8, 23, ESV).

If someone instructed me with delivering an important message, and then warned me that most would reject it, I would smirk and walk away thinking that the person was delusional.  The whole thing comes off as upside down instead of right side up.  I want to win people over to the truth rather than drive them away; however, it is important to set aside this knee jerk reaction for what the Lord desires to convey through the parable of the sower.  The heart condition of some will be hard toward the truth, which allows the enemy to snatch it away (Matt. 13:4 & 19, ESV).  I think that believers in our day need to realize that some people will not want to receive, let alone hear, the good news of the kingdom.  Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warns his disciples that he’s “…sending [them] out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16, ESV).  One more thing needs to be mentioned about the hard heart.  I do not believe that this condition is always permanent, but nonetheless, it is a real, heart condition.

The next two soil types are similar in that both give the appearance of life; however, neither the rocky soil nor its thorny cousin allows the seed to grow into a fruit-bearing plant.  Because of the rocks in the former, the plant’s root system is unable to dig deep.  It remains shallow and unable to handle the scorching heat of the sun.  Jesus interprets this as an illustration of a person that embraces the kingdom message on pure emotion.  When persecution comes his way on account of the word, he turns his back on the kingdom due to his shallow belief.  This is another way of saying that superficial belief in Jesus is really unbelief as it produces no fruit.  In a different way, the seed among thorns fails to display the spiritual life of the word.  These individuals drown in a sea of things.  Materialism is the symptom, but the idolatry of money is the disease (Matt. 6:24, ESV).  Instead of investing into his spiritual life, the thorny heart seeks for life and happiness in people, places, and things that suck it out of him.

Lastly, the good soil represents those who believe and understand the word of the kingdom.  These individuals demonstrate the spiritual life contained in the word whether 100 fold, sixty fold, or thirty fold.  There are some who emphasize that the order of fruitfulness indicates one of decline.  At first glance, this is an interesting observation about the parable of the sower.  I think there is a potential issue with it.  The context of the parable contrasts the fruitlessness of the seed sown among the path, the rocks and thorns versus the fruitfulness of the seed sown in good soil.  Where I land at the moment is that the good soil bears fruit regardless of its degree of fruitfulness.  To state it another way, I think the parable of the sower emphasizes that the kingdom word heard and understood produces fruit.  It is a fact that believers can bank on for the entirety of the present age.  In the next post, I will explore the parable of the tares among wheat or the parable of the weeds.

Inherit the Earth

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5, ESV).

I find this beattitude to be a wonderful promise held out for the redeemed of the Lord.  One day the whole earth will be ours.  Jesus does not promise a few acres of land with boundary markers.  He promises to give his people the whole earth.  In many ways, this promise and beattitude overturns the fall of Adam and Eve, who rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden thereby forsaking their mandate to exercise dominion over the planet.  What the first man and woman lost due to sin along with all of their descendants, Jesus promises to give back to those in union with him.

From my perspective, this blows my mind to the nth degree.  If I recall my Sunday school lessons and bible reading, the serpent used deception to steal Adam and Eve’s authority over creation.  This resulted in sin and death infecting all of it; however, Jesus won back mankind’s authority over the earth and creation by his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father.  The Son succeeded where Adam failed: Jesus overcame the enemy.  If this was not an objective fact, he could not have said that all authority had been given to him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18, ESV).  This statement would be an outright lie.

Because Jesus won the victory over the adversary, he has the right to grant his inheritance to all those who call upon his name.  What this statement means is that Jesus occupies the role of the firstborn son.  In ancient, Hebrew culture, the eldest son stood first in line to inherit all of his father’s possessions.  This exchange did not have to occur at the father’s death.  It could take place beforehand, especially if old age prevented the father from functioning as the head of his household.  At some point, the father handed over to his firstborn son all of his possessions and his authority to oversee them.  Now, the oldest son’s entire family, friends and strangers interacted with him in the same way that they used to with the father.  This entire portrait applies to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Son of God is the firstborn of all of the redeemed throughout redemptive history.  He stands first in line to receive everything from the Father.  According to the second chapter of Hebrews, the Father has promised to subject all of creation to the Son in the world to come; however, in the present age, the Son’s work of salvation inaugurates this rule (Hebrews 2:5-13, ESV).  This is the famous already-not yet tension within the New Testament.  This tension gets to the heart of the word meek.  In the Greek, the word means exercising God’s strength under his control or demonstrating power without undue harshness.  Jesus is all that and more.  In fact, his picture needs to be next to the Greek word praeis (translated meek in English) since he lived it out to the full during his suffering and death on the cross.

If redemption’s goal is to conform the redeemed to the image of his son, then meekness characterizes them as it did their savior (Romans 8:29, ESV).  When persecutions come my way, do I retaliate or compromise my witness because of them?  Jesus did not retaliate against his persecutors, and he remained true to his testimony.  At no point in his life and ministry do we see Jesus caving in to culture and society.  He remained steadfast to the end, and he commands his people to do the same (Matt. 24:13; Mark 13:13; Revelation 2:10, 17, 26, ESV).  Jesus is the example for the redeemed.  His meekness is to be ours via the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  In turn, our Lord will reward us with inheriting the earth alongside him.  It is a promise that stretches back to the Old Testament: “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace” (Psalm 37:11, ESV).

 

Wanted: Dead or Alive

I love Western movies.  It does not matter the era whether the Golden Age of Hollywood or today.  Count me in as a diehard fan of the genre.  More than likely, the Western captures my imagination because of its mythical elements.  I could not resist wording today’s post the way I did.  It represents a cliched reference to the catching of criminals in every Western story whether television or cinema.  When I came across the following scripture passage, I felt inspired to pay homage to the Western:

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23, ESV).

At the risk of sounding pretentious, I submit to my readers and followers that the apostle Paul fits the mold of a gruff, Western hero.   He might be the New Testament’s version of John Wayne.  Again, this runs the risk of caricaturing an historical figure, who advanced the gospel message in mighty ways before the internet, electricity, the train, the automobile, you name it.  Respect is due a man who gave his life for the very message that I proclaim while steeped in comfort and convenience.  There is no Roman Imperial Cult demanding complete veneration from its citizens on pain of death at the moment in the United States.  Of course, this could change over the coming decades.

If one does a smidgen of homework on the letter to the Colossians, one learns that Paul writes these words from prison.  He is a criminal in the eyes of the Roman Empire.  If I take this one step further, Paul’s imprisonment illustrates the consequences between being dead or alive.  He has died to the world and its ways by proclaiming the gospel and living its message.  This has landed Paul in prison.  If he remained alive to the world, but dead to Christ, then he would be free to engage in Roman society as a Roman citizen.  Rather than engage with the world according to its ways, Paul sits in prison while using this letter to the Colossians in order to jostle them into obedient living.  This is exactly the context previous to the above quoted passage.

When reading Colossians 2:13-15, Paul exhorts the Colossian believers to remember their position in Christ and how he accomplished it before God and all the principalities.  The apostle stresses three key points: 1. God made the Colossian believers alive in Christ while dead to him; 2. God forgave their trespasses (or sins) in Christ by his death on the cross; and 3. Christ disarmed or weakened the demonic forces by his death and resurrection.  Instead of these truths forming a heart and life of obedience to Christ, the Colossians reverted back to their old ways of submitting to human and fleshly rules or regulations (Col. 2:20-22, ESV).  Paul pleads with them to examine their lives to determine whether they are dead or alive to the world.

According to Paul, living for the world goes against being made alive in Christ.  It is sheer insanity for the Colossians to live this new life in Christ as if they were dead to him and alive to the world.  If this previous sentence sounds contradictory, then it has served its purpose.  The apostle Paul’s intent is to illustrate the futile existence of believers who revert back to the flesh for living.  In fact, the twenty-third verse, of Colossians chapter two, is a sobering reminder for followers of Christ today just as it was in Paul’s day.  How can I possibly believe and live according to human precepts and teaching for victory over sin, when Christ secured the victory over sin and death through his death and resurrection?  The law does not save.  It reveals to me my sin and corresponding need of a savior; however, using the law or works to accomplish righteous living subverts the gospel and Christ (Galatians 1:6-8; 3:2-4, 23-25, NASB).

When I reflect upon the title of today’s post, “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” I see it as a clarion call by the apostle Paul to stir up the believers in Colosse and throughout the entire church age.  The apostle leaves no room for believers to straddle the fence with respect to their devotion to Christ.  God the Holy Spirit uses Paul’s words to call his people into greater intimacy and faithfulness.  There is no victory over sin according to the flesh.  I can manage my sin to the best of my ability apart from Christ…but, Paul says rather bluntly that such efforts “…are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23, ESV).  I call that a reality check.  It demands that I examine where my focus is at in life: on Christ or on myself.  Am I living life according to the flesh by strict adherence to rules or regulations (otherwise known as legalism)?  Or, do I submit my flesh and its desires to the Holy Spirit and his word for true restraint and victory?

In Our Right Mind

If a public speaker addressed an audience by saying, what I’m about to say may give you the impression that I’m not in my right mind, what effect would that have on them?  It could be construed as a stunt in order to keep folks from exiting too soon.  I might be inclined to see just how insane the person would become over the subject.  Now, suppose a missionary or a minister conveyed that sentiment. There is good reason to expect the crowd or audience to tune out at that point.  Depending upon the context, ministers come off as insane or not in their right mind.  What else is new?  Take a look at the following passage from the apostle Paul:

“13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.  14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:13-15, ESV).

Clearly the language of verse thirteen is hyperbole, which Paul uses to maximum effect.  His audience may find his message and himself to be insane as he discusses the resurrection of Christ.  After all, there is no other way to read verses fourteen and fifteen.  The apostle Paul makes a strong statement about Christ’s love controlling him and others like him who have believed in Christ’s death and resurrection.  It is their reason for living and speaking as they do (2 Cor. 5:15, ESV).  Paul began verse thirteen by making an apparent concession to his audience, but the hyperbole and the subsequent logic of the next two verses turn the tables on the audience.  He has placed the ball in their court as to Christ’s death and resurrection.

This brings to my mind a key observation about the text and its context.  Paul had no qualms about sounding and looking like an insane person.  If he came off like a crazy person for conveying the truth about Christ and his gospel message, then Paul accepted those consequences.  According to the text, he knew himself to be in his right mind; therefore, he states with boldness that the love of Christ controls him and those in his audience who believe in Christ’s death and resurrection (2 Cor. 5:14, ESV).  When I read over this section of scripture, I sense an individual who possessed great conviction about the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection. There is no other possible conclusion unless one believes the apostle Paul to have been insane.  Of course, that remains a dicey stance given Paul’s insistence on the veracity of message independent of the messenger.

Because our culture today soft pedals many issues, individuals who express truth with conviction and boldness come off as either weird or those who rock the boat.  Keep your head down and be a good little boy.  Now, now, we do not want you to stir up any trouble, or to disturb the peace otherwise we will have to correct such behavior.  When it comes to the truth claims of the gospel, believers must remain true to the truth of the message and its source: the resurrected Messiah.  The apostle’s Paul’s life serves as a convicting example of one committed to proclaiming the gospel message in full.  He cut no corners, or rounded the edges.  Paul delivered the gospel regardless of how he sounded and looked to his audience.  He knew who he served and believed: the God-Man Jesus, who died and rose again for his sake and the redeemed.

The Nature of the Atonement

http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/penal-substitutionary-atonement

Jarvis Williams provides a brief and concise explanation regarding Christ’s atonement. For whatever the reason, this has become a controversial doctrine with misrepresentations of those on either side of this issue. The atonement is central to the gospel and to our Savior. Williams deals with two main texts from Romans 3 and Galatians 3; however, he barely scratches the surface on this great and wonderful doctrine. For more on the atonement as it relates to the Old Testament, feel free to check out my blog post from several weeks ago.

Whiter Teeth: Vanity or Upkeep

On Wednesday, I submitted myself to a teeth whitening procedure for the very first time.  The hygienist strapped me into the chair, and she placed something in my mouth that exposed my pearly whites.  Protective gauzes or something like them were placed around my gums and teeth.  Lastly, the hygienist applied a protective substance along each tooth at the gum line.  After that, my teeth underwent three fifteen minute sessions of exposure to ultraviolet light.  About the only cool thing with this whole process had to do with the fact that I wore bright, orange, UV shades.

When the second of the three sessions wrapped up, the hygienist asked me an unusual question.  She wanted to know if I experienced any sensitivity in my teeth.  I shook my head in the negative, and then thought to myself, what on earth is she talking about?  Little did I know what I would experience in the third session.  Halfway through the final session, I twitched after experiencing a needle like pain in my lower front tooth.  Another minute whizzes past, and the needle-like pain happens again.  At this point, I wanted to knock the damn UV machine away to end the torture.

During this time, I rose up my right arm in order to signal someone given the sharp pain.  For a split second, I thought to myself about the woefully understated question by the hygienist about teeth sensitivity.  From my perspective, I was experiencing sharp pain at unexpected moments, which caused me to whince.  I much prefer having a tooth pulled in the dentist’s office because Novocaine numbs the area.  Unfortunately, there was no use of a local anesthetic.  The irony is that I have a high tolerance for pain, but this teeth whitening process crossed my threshold.

If anyone desires to undergo similar treatment, I urge him or her to think it through a bit.  My teeth are whiter after the procedure than before it; however, I find it highly unlikely that I will rush to do this again.  Granted, I signed the waiver about the sensitivity issue, so there really is no reason to complain.  All that aside, I kept thinking in the chair about the vanity of teeth whitening.  There are so many in this world who are unable to even afford a regular dental checkup let alone a teeth whitening procedure.  I wondered to myself the morality or ethics behind spending hundreds of dollars on my appearance.  Am I really this vain or maintaining how I look?  Is it vanity or upkeep?

Ok, so the last thoughts of the previous paragraph borders along exaggeration and falsehood.  It took me awhile to warm up to teeth whitening.  Who cares about whiter teeth if one does not take care of them: brushing, flossing, and regular checkups?  I really saw no need to whiten my teeth.  Apparently, this is the most requested dental procedure in the Western world.  The dental industry hauls in billions every year, but that is not all.  It is an ancient procedure, too.  For example, the ancient Romans employed a method of teeth whitening that used a combination of goat’s milk and urine.  All I can say to that is the modern method has come a long way.

When I reflect on the ancient Roman method of teething whitening, and the cost of today’s procedure, it seems like mankind will go to great lengths to maintain a youthful appearance.  This smacks of wanting to live forever while facing one’s mortality.  Our culture prizes youth, even worships it, rather than giving the Lord his due.  King Solomon is right, God has set eternity in the heart’s of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11, ESV).  Maybe there is no correlation between teeth whitening and eternity.  From where I sit, it might better to enjoy the whiter teeth and to embrace the fact that Jesus had them, too.  What are you talking about you say?

Have my readers ever read this verse in the Old Testament: His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk” (Genesis 49:12, ESV).  Even if the teeth whitening procedure caused me some momentary discomfort, I can take solace in the fact that my Lord has extremely white teeth.  He does not need to shell out hundreds of dollars to keep them white…he has a glorified body, and sits at the Father’s right hand in glory.