Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rooted and Grounded in Love – Ephesians 3:17

How can you understand the love of God if you yourself are an unloving person?  It would seem that only a loving heart could receive the offers of God’s love.  It is reasonable to suppose that a heart that channels all the affections back toward the self would have a difficult time comprehending how the heart of someone else would want to channel affection outwards.  The ruts created in the heart through constant self-centeredness are sometimes too deep to jump out of and into paths of selflessness. 

It is for this reason that the apostle now prays that his readers would be “rooted and grounded in love.”  This prayer precedes Paul’s desire that they would be able to comprehend the dimensions of the love of Christ (18-19).  This indicates that the request in verse 17 is not that they would be rooted and grounded in God’s love to them (which is expressed in the following verse) but that they would be rooted in grounded in their love to God and their fellow man.  But they must be rooted and grounded in their love to others (and, above all, to God) in order to have the kind of heart that would be able to comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of the knowledge of the love of Christ to them.  Verse 17 makes verse 18 possible.

The apostle is expressing the fact that love is fundamental to living out the Christian life.  He does so by using two metaphors, one from agriculture and one from architecture: “rooted and grounded.”  The thing that roots and foundations have in common is that they both provide stability and durability to the structures they support, so it seems likely that the apostle has this in mind when praying that they would be rooted and grounded in love.  A tree with shallow roots will be easily uprooted, but a tree with roots that go down deep into the ground will not be knocked over even by a strong wind.  In the same way, a building that is anchored upon a strong foundation will not collapse, whereas one without a foundation or a flimsy foundation is always in danger of collapse.  I am told that one of the reasons why there are so many skyscrapers in Manhattan is because Manhattan is basically sold rock.  It is perfectly suited for the many tall buildings it supports.  Each building is rooted and grounded, stable and durable.

Our Lord himself used this analogy in the Sermon on the Mount.  He talks about those who build their house upon a rock, “and the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock” (Mt. 7:25).  Whereas those who built their houses upon the sand, without a strong foundation, fell, “and great was the fall of it” (27).  Thus, to be rooted and grounded in love means that love keeps us from being blown over by every blast of hate and meanness and bitterness that pummel us as we go through this world.  In other words, love gives the saint staying power in this world.  This is, in fact, one of the things that Paul says about love in 1 Cor. 13: “Love is patient . . . Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4, 7-8, ESV).

Now I think it is appropriate at this point to observe that if love has this quality, then love is very different from the kind of sappy sentimentalism that is so often smuggled in as if it were love.  The kind of love that is portrayed on TV and in movies and books is not the kind of love that Paul is praying for here.  That kind of love is easily toppled the first time the winds of lust start blowing in another direction.  Lust is not love.  Lust is the chaff of which love is the wheat.  And though I wouldn’t want to divorce desire from love, yet we must be careful that we don’t mistake every strong desire for what the apostle is praying for here.  Biblical love is something much deeper and long-lasting than mere whim and desire.  It is something that defines you and propels you and keeps you going when everything else is against you.  Paul described his love to Christ is this way: “the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14).  Or, as the ESV puts it, “the love of Christ controls us.”  It did so in the face of immeasurable difficulties and opposition.  It kept Paul going.  Mere desire won’t do that.  Desire on its own doesn’t have roots.  Love, real love, sends its roots down into the heart and will and affections and will keep you grounded in the face of hostility and failure and opposition.  It won’t be moved when everything around it is.

I think the clearest expression of this is the mission of the Son of God into the world.  What propelled the Son of God into the world to save a world of sinners in rebellion against him?  It could not have been some wonderful feeling that did this.  Nice feelings alone don’t withstand the brunt of Gethsemane and Golgotha.  What was it then?  Was it not love?  And is that not the gospel?  “For God so love the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).  The meaning of Christmas can only be understood against the backdrop of the love of God: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).  Our Lord, Jesus Christ, willingly chose to forfeit the privileges of deity for a time in order to come into a very hostile world in order to save a thankless, rebellious people.  It was love that did that.  “And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor” (Eph. 5:2).

As Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:2 indicate, it is this kind of love that we are to emulate and imitate, and it is this kind of love for which he is praying in Ephesians 3:17.  Love is something that causes us to sacrifice ourselves for the good of someone else.  Love is something that causes us to keep doing good to others when there is no immediate return for our love. 

So we see that this is important, because not only does being rooted and grounded in love enable us to receive further revelations of God’s love to us, but also because it enables us to persevere in the faith.  It enables us to “not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9).  And perseverance is important.  We are warned again and again against apostasy.  And apostasy is necessarily linked to a failure to maintain a loving heart: “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.  But [in contrast to those whose love has grown cold] he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved” (Mt. 24:12-13).  I don’t think it is for no reason that our Lord later rebukes this very church of Ephesus, “because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev. 2:4).  Then, a few verses later, he exhorts them to perseverance: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit sayeth unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (7).  Those who leave their first love will later leave the faith.

Of course, it’s not that we stop loving altogether when we stop persevering in the faith.  We are creatures of love.  We will love something.  But if God is not at the top of that list, and if we do not love our fellow man as we love ourselves, then our love will be warped and aimed in the wrong direction.  In fact, this is precisely why Demas failed to make it to the end (as far as we know): “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10).  So Paul is not praying that they will just love anything.  That’s a given.  Paul is not praying that they will end up like Demas.  He wants them to persevere.  He wants them to have the kind of love that roots and grounds them against apostasy. 

So let’s remind ourselves what this love looks like.

First, this love is rooted in love to Christ.  In other words, the primary object of love is God.  That is why the first part of verse 17 comes before the second part of verse 17: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love.”  It is as we treasure Christ in our heart through faith that love to Christ sends its roots down deep into our hearts and steadies us as we grow in grace.  Of course, love to Christ is inseparable from love to the Father and the Spirit.  To love the Son is to love the Father.  And so, the love that Paul is praying for here is love to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit.  Note that all three Persons show up in this prayer.  Paul is praying to the Father (14) to send his Spirit (16) to strengthen the saints in order that the Son (17) might be at home in their hearts.  This is a Trinitarian prayer and it shows us that all true religion is Trinitarian at heart.  If we want to be rooted and grounded in love, we must be rooted and grounded first of all in love to God.

This is the center of all true religion.  Recall that in answering the question, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” our Lord answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment” (Mt. 22:36-38).  You cannot please God, you cannot follow Christ, and you cannot walk in the power of the Holy Spirit if you do not first and foremost love the God of the Bible. 

Of all the things or people we could place our love upon, God is most worthy of your love.  The very existence of love depends upon the nature of God as love (cf. 1 Jn. 4:7).  Every good thing we have ever experienced or will experience in this age and in the age to come is a gift from the mercy and goodness of God.  The loveliness and beauty of any good thing, or the attribute of any good thing that calls out love from the heart, is owing ultimately to God who is the source of all beauty and loveliness.  Of course, we do owe love to God.  He is the creator and we are his creatures.  It is a fundamental right that we owe to him.  But it is not only right that we do it, it is also fitting that we do it.  It is for our eternal good and joy that we give God our ultimate allegiance and the love of our hearts.  To withhold love from God is to commit spiritual suicide.  To love him brings everlasting healing and joy to the soul and heart.

And especially for those of us who claim to be redeemed by the blood of Christ, how can we not love him?  How can we not love the One who shed his blood for us, who left his riches to be impoverished in our nature and to suffer for us who were once his enemies?  How can we not love him who has enriched us with every spiritual blessing and has given us good hope through grace?  How can we know the fellowship of Jesus Christ and not give him the love of our hearts?  There is nothing and no one to be loved compared to Jesus Christ.  Even heaven, with all its wonders and joys and blessings, is nothing compared to Christ.  Heaven is heaven because of Christ.  He is the light that enriches and gives beauty to the New Jerusalem.  He is worthy of the most earnest love of our hearts.

This love is therefore born out of fellowship with Christ.  You cannot love someone you do not know.  That is why having Christ at home in your heart comes before being rooted and grounded in love.  It is important to realize that we are not talking about a merely theoretical association with Christ.  We are talking about a relationship with him that draws out the love of your heart to him.

Second, we are not only to be rooted and grounded in love to God, but also in love to our neighbor (Mt. 22:39-40).  You cannot love God without loving your neighbor.  For the Christian, this especially applies to loving the brothers and sisters in Christ.  As the apostle John puts it, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.  He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8).  “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20).

It is the easiest thing in the world to talk about loving God.  But the proof is how you treat others.  How you treat your spouse.  How you treat your children.  How you treat your neighbor.  How you treat your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Do you love them?  More to the point: would they say that you love them?  We can croon about our love to others all we want, but if they don’t feel it and see it, then it’s very likely that we aren’t really loving them. 

Third, this love demonstrates itself in selfless and sacrificial acts on the behalf of those it loves.  “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13).  Love is giving.  Love looks outward and away from the self.  More importantly, when we love someone we identify with them in such a way that we seek for them exactly what we would want for ourselves, and are willing to deny ourselves of that good in order to secure it for them.  This is exactly what Christ did for us on the cross.  It was not good for him to die.  But he died so that death would not have the final say over us.  He died to give us abundant, eternal life.  This is the kind of love for which the apostle is praying.

Going back to 1 Cor. 13, we see in every description of love how selfless it is.  “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (4-7, ESV).  Every one of these descriptions can be illustrated in the life of our Savior.  As we imitate him, we too become more loving.

And the reason we can do this is because love is rooted in love to God and in who Christ is and what he has done for us.  I don’t think you can demonstrate the kind of love the apostle is praying for here apart from a relationship with Christ.  The reason I can give myself for others is because Christ has already given me all that I need and I will lose nothing of the riches in Christ through sacrificing for others.  I can give up a little temporary pleasure and comfort and security for someone else because what Christ has given me can never be taken away.  If my hope is in the age to come then I ought to be able to deny myself in this age out of love for someone else.  My treasure is never threatened by anything that is lost in this world, and therefore there is no need for me to fear losing anything out of love for others.

This is so important, it is the essential mark of the Christian.  “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (Jn. 13:35).  We talk about the need for evangelism, but evangelism will never make a dent in our community if it is not accompanied by love.  That is why I really believe that if we are to really make a difference in our community, it will only be done as we minister to people and show love to them in tangible ways.  It is only then that their ears will be tuned to hear the notes of the gospel.  Just shouting at people to repent and believe is not going to be very effective.  Jesus not only preached the gospel, he healed their diseases.  He fed them.  He ministered to their bodies so that they would be able to receive the medicine for their souls.  Love your neighbor; it is essential for the witness of the church.

It is also essential for the unity and community of the church.  You simply cannot have harmony in the fellowship of believers if we don’t work hard at practicing love to each other.  Don’t just love your brother or sister when it is easy.  Do it when it is hard.  Put in practice what the apostle Peter said: “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves [keep loving one another earnestly, ESV]: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).  Be earnest in your love to the brethren. 

Listen to what the apostle tells the Philippian church: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.  Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.  Look not every many on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.  Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:1-5).  In other words, if we want to experience all the things he mentions in verse 1, we have to have the mind of Christ, we have to put others before ourselves.  In other words, we have to be loving people.

Moreover, love is essential for the work and fruit of faith.  Love is the environment in which the Christian life grows and prospers.  It is why the apostle wrote, “Let all your things be done in charity” (1 Cor. 16:14).  It is why he wrote, “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14).  Faith works by love (Gal. 5:6).  It is the glue that ties everything together.  It is that which sums up the law and fulfills it (Rom. 13:10).

Of course knowledge is important too.  Some people go so overboard on love that they become unbalanced by untying love to the knowledge of God.  But in doing so they undermine what the apostle is praying for here.  He is not praying for some generic feeling of love for God.  This love is itself rooted in an understanding of who God is.  We must remember that the people Paul is praying for have a pretty good grasp of Biblical knowledge.  They have just heard or read Ephesians 1-3, and these were probably not unfamiliar truths to them.  The fact is that knowledge and love must go together.  In fact, Paul would explicitly pray for this for the Philippians: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent” (Phil. 1:9-10).

Love with little knowledge will end up being shallow.  But we must also beware of knowledge without love.  It may be worse.  As Lloyd-Jones argues in one of his sermons, one of the reasons Paul wrote 1 Corinthians was because they had exalted knowledge over love, and it had created all sorts of problems.  Thus, in the preamble to his chapter on love, he writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).  All the religious knowledge and zeal in the world apart from love is nothing! 

Let us love one another.  Above all, let us love God.  And may we be so rooted and grounded in that love, that it prepares us for greater knowledge of God and his love for us and make us more effective for the gospel of the kingdom.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Is Christ at home in my heart? – Ephesians 3:17

What does it mean for Christ to dwell in our hearts by faith?  This epistle is to a church, and so the apostle is praying for believers.  Thus, in a real sense, these believers already have Christ dwelling in them.  Remember what the apostle has already written to the Romans: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.  Now if any man have no the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.  And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:9-10).  According to Paul, there are only two states a person can be in: you are either “in the flesh” or “in the Spirit.”  And to be “in the Spirit” is to have the Spirit dwelling in you and to have the Spirit dwelling in you is for Christ to be in you, since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.  So if you are a saved person, you already have Christ dwelling in you through the Spirit (note the connection in Eph. 3:16-17 between the Spirit strengthening us and Christ indwelling us). 

But if Christ dwelling in us is inseparable from salvation, why then is Paul praying for it?  The answer is that he is praying for it because the indwelling of Christ is a thing of degrees.  Now there are some things in our salvation that are not things of degrees.  Justification is not a thing of degrees.  Those who are justified in Christ are no longer under condemnation (cf. Rom. 8:1).  Regeneration (the new birth) is not a thing of degrees.  You are either born again or not.  You are either in the Spirit or in the flesh; there is no halfway point between these two poles.

However, there are other things in our salvation that are things of degrees.  Sanctification is a thing of degrees.  It is a progressive experience, begun in the initial giving of spiritual life in the new birth and continued throughout our life until Christ finishes his work in us at the last day (cf. Phil. 1:6).  What the apostle is praying for here is also a progressive experience.  There is a sense in which Christ already dwells in us through the Spirit, but there is a laying hold of this reality through faith that is also very important for the Christian walk, and it is this that the apostle is praying for here.

There are two texts which can enlighten us as to the apostle’s meaning.  The first is found in Rev. 3:20 in our Lord’s expostulations with the Laodiceans.  We noted last time that they had this fundamentally wrong attitude of self-sufficiency and spiritual pride.  They thought they were strong when in reality they were weak.  They needed to be praying for God to strengthen them with might by the Spirit, but they were not in a position to pray this because they were blind to their need.  And as a result, they were also lacking the very thing the apostle prays for next: for Christ to dwell in them by faith.  Thus, our Lord approaches the Laodiceans and says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” 

This may be one of the most misapplied verses in all the Bible.  It is often used in an evangelistic context, where Christ is portrayed standing outside the hearts of unbelievers and begging entrance.  However, this verse was not written to unbelievers.  It was written to believers.  And therefore it was written to people who on one level were indwelt by Christ already.  However, because of their sin they were strangers to any real personal fellowship with Christ.  In a real sense, he was a stranger to them and so there he is on the outside of the door of their hearts, knocking, desiring entrance and fellowship.

And that is what I think the apostle is praying for here in Ephesians 3:17.  He is praying that they would know the reality of fellowship with Christ on a deeper level than they already had experienced before.  Commentators have noted the significance of the word that the apostle chose to use here.  The word for “dwell” means to “settle down, to be at home with.”  He is praying that Christ would be able to be at home in their hearts.  He does not want their experience of Christ to be that of welcoming a stranger into their homes from time to time.  Rather, he wants their experience of fellowship with the Lord to one of continued, growing, never-ending communion.  

Another passage that can enlighten the apostle’s words is found in John 14:16-21.  There he promises the apostles that he is leaving, but in leaving them he will not leave them “comfortless” (or “orphans,” ver. 18).  He will “come to them.”  They will see him (19).  “At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.  He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (20-21).  Note the connection between Christ dwelling in his people (20) and his manifesting himself to them (21).  This suggests that the indwelling that our Lord promises here has to do with the experience of Christ’s fellowship with his people.
And, just as we see in our text, there is a connection between this indwelling and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  In John 14, our Lord indicates to his apostles that it is through the Spirit that he will return to them: “And I will pray to the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (16-17). 

This text is also misunderstood, as it is often pointed to as proof that the Spirit never indwelt anyone until after Pentecost.  But that cannot be.  The apostles were clearly born again, and the new birth is a work of the Spirit (cf. Jn. 3:5-8).  Instead, what our Lord is referring to here is the ministry of the Spirit of God mediating the presence and power of the risen Christ to his church.  They didn’t need this particular ministry of the Spirit as long as Christ was present with them.  But they would need it in his absence.  And so the Spirit has come to bring the presence of the living Christ to his people.  He is through his Spirit with us always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20).

However, it is one thing to know what a text means, and it is another thing to desire it and to pray for it with intentionality and sincerity.  Because the indwelling of Christ is a thing of degrees, and none of us are perfect, we all have room to grow in this area.  At one extreme, you can be like the Laodiceans and have a heart that is in such a desperate condition that you know little of the reality of fellowship and communion with our Lord.  On the other hand, you can be like the apostle John, who wrote of his experience and invited others to experience it as well: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1 Jn. 3:3-4).  We ought to want to distance ourselves from the experience of the Laodiceans and to approach the experience of the apostle John.

And of course we need to be convinced that this is an experience that we can enjoy.  We need to remember that Paul is not praying for super-saints.  He is praying for ordinary Christians like you and me.  This is a prayer for us to pray and an experience for us to reach for.  It is not unattainable, and in fact it is something that ought to characterize our walk with the Lord.  If it doesn’t, it’s not because our Lord is not willing to commune with you.  The problem is entirely on our end.  Remember the imagery of Rev. 3:20.  Our Lord stands at the door and knocks, desiring to come in and fellowship with us.  He desires our fellowship; why would we not desire his?

However, this does not mean that there are not obstacles, even if many of them are obstacles of our own making.  This is indicated by Paul’s previous request in this prayer, that they would be “strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.”  The fact that this prayer for strengthening precedes the prayer for Christ to dwell in their hearts by faith indicates that it is no easy thing for this to happen.  It is something that requires the power of the Spirit of God working in us that makes it possible for us to experience the fellowship of Christ for which the apostle is praying.

What are some of these obstacles?  Well, sin in general is a huge obstacle.  I don’t think it was for no reason that the apostle John, right after he had issued this invitation for fellowship with God, immediately goes on to write: “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:5-7).  God does not fellowship with people who do not live repentant lives.  Recall that in John 14 Jesus connects keeping his commandments with his manifesting himself to us.  You simply cannot walk with God if you are living in sin, if you your lusts are enjoying an open season in your heart.

This week, my family and I are experiencing a house that through flooding has become temporarily unlivable.  There are boxes of things stacked everywhere, furniture in places where they aren’t supposed to be, floors torn up.  It’s hard to get around in the house.  It’s inconvenient.  We would never think about asking someone over in this condition; we can’t even stay very long in our own house right now.  Things are going to have to be fixed and put back together before our house is livable again.  And yet how many of our hearts are just like that?  How many of us have allowed our hearts to be flooded with sinful attitudes and desires and purposes and plans?  The debris of sin is all over the place.  And yet we have the audacity to think that Jesus would be just fine with our hearts.  He can’t settle down in a place like that!  We can’t even do it, if we are honest with ourselves.  The selfishness that plagues so many of our hearts makes us miserable in ourselves, as well as being difficult to live with when it comes to others.  Why would we think that our Lord would be okay with staying on when our heart is in that condition?  No, he is on the outside, looking in, knocking at our door, and he will stay there until we are ready to get the junk out of our hearts.

Here is the simple truth: there is no fellowship with Christ when we are comfortable with the sin that is in our lives.  There is no faith without repentance.  And I will go a step further: if you have no desire to rid yourself of the sin that is in your heart, if you are okay with Jesus standing outside and looking in, then it could very well be evidence that you are not in fact born again at all.  Our Lord told the Laodiceans that if they didn’t repent, he would vomit them out of his mouth (Rev. 3:16).  It is only to those who overcome by fleeing from sin and clinging to Christ that he promises a throne in the age to come (21).  There simply are no promises for those who refuse to repent of their sins.  If you are happier in the darkness than you are in the light, it is very possible that you belong to the darkness and not the light.

We have to especially be careful about the sin that is in our hearts.  The apostle James writes, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.”  But how do we do this?  James goes on to explain: “Cleanse your hand, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.  Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (Jam. 4:8-10).  It is not enough to deal with external problems.  We must deal with the heart.  We must repent of the sin that no one else can see.  It stands to reason that if we want Christ to dwell in our hearts, then our hearts have to be clean.

Now I want to be clear here.  I realize that all of this must be done in the context of the gospel.  I’m not talking about cleaning yourself up so that you can make yourself worthy for Christ.  The only way we can walk in the light is if the blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God is constantly cleansing us from our sin (1 Jn. 1:7).  Nor can we cleanse ourselves from our sins in our own power and strength.  That is the point of the prayer for the strengthening of the Spirit of God.  We need the power of God to give us the strength to say no to sin and yes to righteousness.  It is the grace of God that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live with self-control and godliness in this present world (Tit. 2:11-12).  We are utterly and completely reliant upon the grace of God that comes to us through the merit and worthiness of Christ for us.  And yet we need to reckon with the reality that grace does teach us to say no to sin and yet to godliness.  Those who never raise a finger to the sin that is in their hearts just show that they know nothing at all of the reality of grace.  Beware of those who turn the grace of our God into lasciviousness (Jude 4)!

Another reason why sin needs to be rooted out of the heart is because we will clearly not pray this prayer unless we from the heart desire to have the fellowship with the Lord that is held out for us here.  So it’s not just that Christ will not have fellowship with us when we harbor sin in the heart and life.  It’s that we will not want to have fellowship with him as long as we harbor sin in the heart and life.  Sin blinds us to the beauty and power and sufficiency and desirability of the gospel.  Therefore we need to rid the things in our hearts that compete with Christ for supremacy.  Anything that vies with him for the supremacy of our hearts is an idol and therefore must be vanquished before we can have communion with him.

To try to have fellowship with Christ and hold on to our idols is like the Philistines with the ark of God.  They tried to put it in front of their god Dagon.  During the night, Dagon fell over.  They didn’t get the message so they set him back up.  The next night, not only did Dagon come tumbling down, but he shattered into a million pieces before the ark of God (cf. 1 Sam. 5:1-5).  God will not compete with your idols.  You will either have to give them up or give God up.

There are a million things tugging at your heart seeking to turn you away from the fellowship of Christ.  But in those times, we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would strengthen us against those desires.  And we need to remind ourselves that there is nothing that can take the place of Christ.  No one else can give you eternal life and reverse the process of death that is already at work in your bodies.  No one else can give you joy that will only grow and will never bring regret.  If you have tasted that the Lord is gracious (1 Pet. 2:3), don’t turn from that to the plastic fruit that this world offers.

But we do not only make way for fellowship with the Lord by saying no to sin.  Positively, we must lay hold of the truths of the gospel by faith.  It is in this way that Christ comes to dwell in our hearts by faith.  We must not only look away from sin, but we must look toward Christ.  I’m not talking about a magical formula or incantation or mantra here.  We make way for communion with the Savior by beholding him in the mirror of his word, in the Holy Scriptures.  We need to meditate on the person and work of Jesus Christ as he shows up in the gospels and in the epistles.  We need to consider how he was promised in the OT and how those promises were fulfilled in the NT. 

And then we need to lay hold of God’s word by faith.  This does not mean to take a leap of faith into some spiritual unknown.  It means that we need to have absolute confidence that God’s word is true.  There are all sorts of reasons to have this kind of confidence.  The testimony of the apostles is both credible and believable.  But historical research is not the only way we gain this confidence.  The fact of the matter is that the word of God is unique because to those whose eyes have been opened, the word of God is its own witness.  We hear God speaking to us in the Scriptures.  Not an audible voice, but there is an inner certainty that the saints of God know as they hear or read the Bible.  As our Lord himself said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  And I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:27-28).  It is perhaps what John was referring to when he wrote, “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself” (1 Jn. 5:10).  We need that witness, that certainty, if we are going to open up our hearts to Christ as we ought.  You are not going to be seeking the kind of fellowship that Paul is praying for in Ephesians 3:17 if your attitude toward Jesus is to try him for a while and see if it works out.  No, you will not seek this indwelling unless you are absolutely convinced that he is the only one who can fill your heart.  And that is the attitude of faith, of confidence in the reliability and trustworthiness of God’s word.

Jesus Christ is worthy of your confidence.  We are all aware of his competitors.  But to put your trust in his competitors is like putting your trust in an idol.  Why would you put your trust in something that ultimately owes its existence to Christ anyway?  Why live for power when all power ultimately belongs to Christ?  Any power we grasp from him and take unlawfully or as a way to gratify our desire for self-worship will have to be eventually surrendered under judgement anyway.  And so with all his other competitors.  Why live for pleasure apart from Christ when true pleasure is found only in Christ?  Why live for fame when all fame justly and ultimately belongs to Jesus?  Why live for philosophy when all truth is found in the Word of God, the Word made flesh?

And then the fellowship of Jesus Christ is far more to be desired than the possession of any earthly, temporary pleasure or accomplishment.  Moreover, it is the testimony of millions of believers over the past 2,000 years in every part of the world that this is no shadow of a dream.  It is spiritual reality.  It is not a self-induced spiritual experience, but a real experience of fellowship with the risen Son of God, our Lord and Savior.  If you belong to him, the fact of the matter is that he desires your fellowship.  He stands at the door and knocks; those who open and invite him in will enjoy the company of our living Savior. 

How does it stand with you?  Does Christ dwell in your heart by faith?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Strengthened with Might – Ephesians 3:14-16

The Christian is the possessor of incredible privileges, for we are through the merit of Christ entitled to the riches of the glory of God.  In chapters 1-3, the apostle has reviewed many of these riches with us.  It is important that we know what we have in Christ.  It is important not only for the comfort and peace that such knowledge brings, but also because such knowledge is essential for living out our Christian identity.  Our life of obedience to Christ ought to be rooted in the gospel and related truths.  All sorts of problems that Christians struggle with can often be traced to the fact that they are not really embracing who they are in Christ.  Those who are constantly struggling to gain God’s favor instead of embracing the grace of God in Christ have simply failed to understand the Biblical theology of grace.  Or, those who deny that obedience has any place in the Christian life also have misunderstood the theological implications of the gospel.  In other words, theology is fundamental to the Christian life. 

You see this in the overall structure of Ephesians.  Paul has just spent almost three chapters, not in exhortation, but in theology.  Paul has touched on the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of the church, the doctrine of last things, among other things.  He does this first, in order to establish the ground of and to give motivation to the life of obedience that he will move into in the second half of this epistle.  When Paul begins chapter 4 with the words, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,” he is grounding everything he is about to say in what he has already said.  You cannot properly move into the application of the gospel unless you have first mastered the theology of the gospel. 

This is perhaps most pronounced in the book of Romans.  The first eleven chapters are theology.  The last five are application.  The bridge between theology and application is Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore brethren by the mercies of God. . .”  The meaning of the “mercies of God” are to be filled up by the teaching and theology of the first eleven chapters.

Paul sometimes does this in reverse order, as in Titus.  There application comes first, but he inevitably ties it back to the theology of the gospel (see Tit.2:12-15).  We are to “speak the things which become sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1), not just to be theologically correct but also because the Christian life cannot be lived out in a vacuum.  There must be context and motivation for the life we are called to live, and theology does that.

So beware when people tell you that theology is unimportant.  I realize that there are people out there who master theology on an intellectual level but who don’t show love and grace to others, who can tell you all about the nature of Christ as the God-man but who won’t live like Christ before others.  And that is truly repugnant.  But the answer to this kind of hypocrisy is not to rule theological knowledge out of bounds.  The answer is to live a life that loves theology and lives theology.  After all, what is theology anyway?  It is not so much an academic discipline as it is the study of God.  Which means that everyone in the end is a theologian.  The question is not whether you will be a theologian; the question is what kind of theologian will you be?  Will your theology be based upon a thorough knowledge of the word of God or will it be based on whim and cultural influence?  Unfortunately, a lot of Christians who decry the study of theology don’t realize that they have a theology that has been filled up with unbiblical thinking.

We need to be people who live out our Lord’s words in John 4:23-24: “But the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.  God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”  Worship, which is the chief thing that we are called to do in this world and the next must be done in spirit and in truth.  And this means that it is not only important to be sincere, but that our worship be true.  But worship cannot be true if it is not motivated and informed by the knowledge of the true God.  Which is to say that you can’t truly worship God unless you are a theologian. 

The fact of the matter is that eventually you are going to be faced with the question, “Why am I doing this?”  For the Christian life is not easy.  Our Lord himself described it as taking the cross.  The apostle Paul described it as enduring hardness.  It is a warfare, not a vacation.  And when the world, the devil, and the flesh are pressuring you to give in and take the easy way, it will be very easy to give in unless you have a powerful motivation to do the hard thing.  That motivation is not going to be found in, “This is just the right thing to do.”  Or, “The Lord commanded it, therefore I must do it.”  You are going to have to persuade yourself to do the right thing, not just know that it is the right thing.  And I would argue that the way to persuade yourself to make the difficult choice, to deny yourself, is to preach the truths of the gospel of grace to yourself.  You will need to sing to yourself the beauty and glory and majesty of God in Christ.  In other words, you will need to draw from the rich theological implications of the gospel if you are going to withstand in the evil day.

But as we have seen from our Lord’s words in John 4, you not only need “truth,” you need “spirit.”  You not only need light, you need heat.  It is not enough to simply know truth.  We must apply it to our lives.  However, again, this involves more than just knowing that we need to apply it.  Living the Christian life is much more than knowing what we must do and why we must do it.  We need to be empowered to do it.  Remember that we are in a warfare.  You don’t only need to know how to fight and be motivated to win, you have to have the ability and strength to fight.  An army can be very motivated to win, but if it doesn’t have superior resources than the enemy, it will almost certainly lose.  Witness the Confederacy in the American Civil War or the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars.

We are up against a very motivated and powerful and smart enemy.  The apostle will describe them in the sixth chapter: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (6:12).  Our enemy has resources.  He is very powerful.  He is not a poodle snapping at your heels, but “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).  He is not out to make your life miserable; he is out to destroy your faith, and he will if he can. 

So how do we persevere?  How do we fight and live out the Christian life?  How to we live out the realities that the apostle has described for us in the preceding verses?  The answer is found in the prayer of the apostle in Eph. 3:14-21.  And it is very important to see how the apostle begins this prayer.  It is a prayer for strength: “That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.” 

Paul would not be praying this prayer if his readers didn’t need strength.  You and I need strength as well.  And you need strength that comes from outside yourself.  In yourself, you do not have the resources to defeat the world, the flesh, and the devil.  You need God’s strength to live out the life that Christ is calling you to live.  The first thing this text teaches us is that we need the help of the triune God – God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us this help through the Spirit. 

I think it is important to note that Paul is not praying for unbelievers here.  He is praying for believers.  He is praying for people who have already been given spiritual life.  And yet he prays for strength for them.  Why? 

One reason is that God never intended you and me to live our lives apart from his constant help and grace.  In the Christian life, we don’t grow up to a point where we don’t need God to hold our hands anymore.  We are always in some sense to be like “newborn babes” (1 Pet. 2:2).  God did not create us to be independent of him.  Our identity as creatures of the living God means that we never outgrow our constant need of God.  Maturity in the faith does not mean that we can do more and more on our own; it is actually the reverse.  As we grow in our faith we become more and more dependent upon God, we grow to realize more the reality of just how much we need him.  Self-sufficiency is not a sign of spiritual growth; if anything, it is a sign of spiritual decay.

The church of Laodicea is an unfortunate example of this.  Their thought was, “I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.”  But God’s verdict was the very opposite: “…and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  They thought they were strong, but they were weak. 

The opposite attitude, and the one we ought to have, is exemplified in the apostle: “For when I am weak, then am I strong” (1 Cor. 12:10).  In fact, the apostle constantly gloried in his dependence upon Christ.  To the Philippians he would say, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).  And our Lord reminds us, “Abide in me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4-5).

All of us need to realize that we can do nothing apart from the help and grace and strength that Christ provides.  Left to yourself, no matter how far you have come in the Christian life, you will shrivel up and die, like a branch that is severed from the vine.  You have no grace in yourself.  It comes from Christ, and Christ alone.  You have no strength in yourself and you will never have strength in yourself.  For that, you must look to the grace of God, every minute of every hour of every day.

There are some great pictures of this in the OT.  Have you ever wondered why the Philistines didn’t know where Samson got his strength?  You know, if the pictures of Samson are right, I don’t think the Philistines would have been confused.  There is no doubt where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his strength – he got it from body-building!  Personally, I think the reason the Philistines were confused is because Samson looked just like any other man.  Just looking at him you would never have guessed he had this incredible strength.  And the reason is that the strength was not in himself – it was a gift given to him by God.  It was grace that gave Samson his power!  And when he became cocky and self-sufficient and lazy and careless, he lost it.  And so will we, unless we remain dependent upon God for all the tasks set before us.

Another example of this is found in the confrontation between David and Goliath.  Goliath had spent his entire life in the study and practice of warfare.  On top of this, he was an obvious giant of a man.  He was armed to the gills.  His appearance was so fearful that the entire Israelite army refused to face him.  And then there was David, a little shepherd boy armed only with a stone and a sling, who hadn’t had a day’s military training in his life, and yet who took down this monster with a single stone from his sling-shot.  Why?  David himself gives us the answer, as he put it to Goliath: “Thou comest to me with a sword, and a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.  This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand . . . that all the world may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Kings 17:45-46).  David had it right; the difference was not in David, but in the God who empowered David to smite the enemy of Israel.

Let us beware of self-sufficiency.  It is rooted in pride and there is nothing that will kill our spiritual walk with God faster than pride.  We are told to “be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace unto the humble.  Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” [then follows the caution about the devil who goes about like a roaring lion] (1 Pet. 5: 5-7).  Instead, let us pray that God would strengthen us with might by his Spirit in the inner man.

Another thing this prayer teaches us is that we not only need to realize our utter need and dependence upon God, we also need to pray out of a sense of that need.  And we need to pray for power.  It is not enough to know we need God.  We must bring to him our every need.  If we cannot take one step apart from the grace of God, then we need to be praying over every step that we take.

This truth deals with another problem that Christians face.  There is the problem of self-sufficiency and pride.  But there is also the problem of a sense of helplessness and defeatism.  The feeling that we can just go no further.  The feeling that God has abandoned us in the wilderness and left us to die.  The feeling that we are on our own and that we are therefore defeated.  The feeling that we will be overcome and overwhelmed by our enemies.

But this is a lie.  Because if so, why would Paul pray for this?  He prays for this because there are infinite resources available to the Christian.  He prays for it because there is “the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power” (Eph. 1:19).  Paul in fact begins and ends this prayer with a contemplation on the power of God.  He prays for God’s power on behalf of believers in verse 16, and then in verse 20 he exults in it: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.”
Yes, we have a powerful enemy.  Yes we are in ourselves very weak.  But “ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).  Like Elisha’s servant we need to see that surrounding all our enemies are the horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:15-17).

The Christian who leans upon the grace of God has no reason to fear being defeated, for he or she has all the resources of heaven at hand.  We are strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.  It is the Spirit of God himself who comes down to help us.  In other words, God does not just send help; he himself is our help.  It is his power that works in us.

That is why Paul begins this prayer the way he goes: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (14-15).  In opening this way, the apostle again reminds us of the special and close connection that each believer has with God.  In Christ, God the Father is our Father.  We bear his name.  We are his children.  And because we are his children we can be sure that he will look after and take care of us.  He will not leave us as orphans.  He will come to us.  He will send the Spirit of his Son to us to strengthen us in our time of need.  “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Lk. 11:13).

And so, if we are in want, it is not because we lack the resources, or because our Father doesn’t care.  Rather, “ye have not, because ye ask not” (Jam. 4:2).  God waits for us to ask him because it is only in this way that we will be constantly reminded not only of our need for him but also of his care for us.  The call to prayer is a call to remember again that God our Father loves us and cares for us and will strengthen us for the road ahead.

Now, before we end our consideration of this part of Paul’s prayer, I think it is important to see where this helps goes.  It is aimed at “the inner man.”  That is so say, it is aimed at the heart and soul and mind.  That is not to say that our bodies will not be redeemed.  And that is not to say that God does not sometimes slow down the process of death which grips every one of our bodies by healing us of our diseases.  But the reality is that unless our Lord returns, this temple will crumble.  Nevertheless, the promise of our text is that, whatever happens to our bodies this side of the resurrection, God will never allow the saint to lose continual access to God’s power and strength for the inner man.  Paul put it this way to the Corinthians: “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).  We may even lose the ability to use our ability to think insofar as it is connected to the function of our brain, but we will never lose the help that God gives the inner man. 

We must never forget that every gift, including spiritual strength, is not based upon our goodness but upon God’s free favor and grace that comes to us through the righteousness of Jesus Christ on our behalf.  All the riches of the glory of God are rooted in the riches of his grace.  And his grace comes to us solely through Jesus Christ.  And so let us look afresh to him, approach the throne of our Father which in Christ is a throne of grace and find strength and grace and help in our time of need – which is right now.

Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)

At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon...