Death and Life; January 15, 2020

John 11:25-27 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

I think I have used this passage at every believer’s funeral I have ever conducted. It is an enormously important passage, and one that has sustained believers for almost 2000 years. When we can agree with Martha in her declaration of faith, death indeed “loses its sting.” (1 Corinthians 15:55) Instead of a terminus, it becomes a transit point that I like to call a “graduation.” We are on this earth to learn many things, and our goal should to be to leave it “magna cum laude,” great with honor, or even “summa cum laude,” complete with honor. We have the ultimate Teacher, (John 13:13) so our attitude should be to absorb everything He tells us, making it part of us to live it out. Most people live most of their lives in fear of death, and it can really rob them of the joy of living. It is only when we let go of our claim on physical life that we can lay hold of eternal life in Christ in all its fullness. Whether our time on this earth is long or short is largely irrelevant, just as our length of time in an academic school doesn’t have a lot to say about our quality of life after that. What matters is that we learn that we are sinners in need of salvation, and that God has provided that salvation through faith in His Son, who died in our place to take the penalty for our sin, and then rose on the third day as a demonstration that it is all real and true. When we have that worked into our heart, mind, and life, then graduation is something to be eagerly anticipated!

I honestly don’t remember ever fearing my own death, which made it all too easy to attempt suicide when I was in college. God graciously intervened in that, because He didn’t want my transcript to be stamped, Incomplete. I have always loved the story of Lazarus’ resurrection, but I am very aware that he died again, physically speaking. As Jesus said to His disciples before going to Bethany, it was good that all of this happened, so that their faith – and the faith of millions after them – could be strengthened. (John 11:14-15) I don’t think Lazarus objected to being used as an object lesson. I have sometimes wondered if he resented being brought back to the physical world, but I think his faith was strong enough to handle it. My wife, Cathy, is one of those in the Lazarus camp, having died and been sent back herself, though in her case it was just a matter of minutes, rather than days. She certainly has no fear of death at this point! I’ll confess that I’m far more afraid of her death than I am of my own, but I know that God’s grace is sufficient for us, whatever He has planned. I am at times concerned that I come across as uncaring after the death of a believer, because my confidence in eternal life is so strong. However, I know that grief and bereavement are very real, and I must honor those going through that and come alongside them, not to speak so much as simply to be there. Faith in Christ is all about life, on this earth and eternally, and I am to be a demonstration and herald of that truth.

Father, thank You for this strong reminder. At this point I have many older friends, and at times they seem to be “dropping like flies.” Help me respond to each situation as Your agent, speaking truth and life to all who receive it, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Commitment; January 14, 2020

John 11:16 Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

I have a warm spot in my heart for Thomas. He is famously known as “Doubting Thomas” for demanding proof of Jesus’ resurrection, but here he demonstrated a depth of commitment we should all emulate. So many people become Christians because of what they think they can get out of it. Thomas, in sharp contrast, was willing to follow Jesus even if it meant his physical death. I think it’s no accident that when the apostles were scattered in the persecutions after Pentecost, tradition tells us that it was Thomas who went furthest, all the way to southern India, sharing the Gospel the whole way and founding a group of believers that rejoices to trace their history back to him. Jesus actually seemed to make a practice of challenging His disciples in the area of commitment. In one famous interaction, He challenged the 12: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68) God doesn’t want us to follow Him at our convenience, but out of a conviction that He is our life, and nothing apart from Him is worthy of comparison. In the American Revolution, the famous phrase that was used to describe those who served at their convenience, was “sunshine soldier, summer patriot.” Just as the Founding Fathers pledged their “lives, fortune, and sacred honor” to the cause, we need to be totally committed to Jesus Christ as Lord, even if it means nothing but suffering and death on this earth.

My personal fondness for Thomas comes from the fact that when God confronted me with my spiritual pride, my response was exactly what Thomas’ was when Jesus told him to confirm that He had really risen from the dead. Like Thomas, I fell to my knees and cried out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) I have never been called to face active persecution, but I have been called to a life of relative obscurity and sparse results. I would be thrilled if God were to pour out a Spirit of repentance and this church were to overflow with new believers, but my commitment and obedience don’t depend on results. There are times when I would be thrilled if the Lord were to say, “OK, that’s enough. Come on home.” However, until that time I am not to complain about anything, but give Him the worship of obedience. Yesterday at the annual Kyushu Revival Conference in Fukuoka, the speaker used Matthew 18:21-22 to talk about forgiveness, and it struck me that those in ministry perhaps need most to pay attention to that, because they are perhaps the most sinned against. As I was told in seminary, preachers quickly learn that people don’t consider it a sin to lie and say they’ll be in church next Sunday. The more we care about people the more open we are to being hurt by them, and pastors are certainly called to care. That’s why it was so wrenching when God told Jeremiah not to pray for the people. (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14) I have never been told not to pray, so I’d better be praying, whether people seem to be responding or not!

Father, thank You for the conference yesterday, and for getting us there and back safely. Thank You that we weren’t directly involved in the accident on the expressway that slowed us a good bit in getting back. Thank You for what You said through the speaker, and for what You did in various people in various ways. Help me be fully responsive and obedient to You at all times in all ways, whether I know what’s going on or not, so that Your will may be done on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Life in Christ; January 13, 2020

John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

I quote this verse so frequently that it’s one of the few I am completely confident of chapter and verse. That said, I am usually quoting either the first half or the last, and seldom the whole thing. The first half is a very concise and useful description of the devil that’s important to keep in mind when he offers his various enticements. They all seem attractive in some way at first, but their purpose is exactly as Jesus says here: to to steal what is good from us, to kill what is good in us, and as much as possible to destroy God’s plans for us, which are the very definition of good. The second half is Jesus’ very succinct description of His own ministry, and that can take a lifetime to unpack. In the first place, Jesus came to bring life. As He said several times in various ways, He Himself is eternal life. (John 14:6, etc.) As the clever t-shirt says, “No Jesus, no life. Know Jesus, know life.” John was sharply aware of this, because his own brother was the first of the apostles to be martyred, (Acts 12:2) but he himself, though he endured great hardship and persecution, was the only one of the original 12 to die what is considered a natural death. He had tasted the reality that Jesus isn’t stingy with Himself, but gives life abundantly to all who will receive it. One of our problems in receiving all that God wants to give us is our definition of abundance. We tend to tie it to material goods, and at the least to our own appetites. This has led to the “name it and claim it” school of theology, which is mistaken because it makes man the standard, instead of being totally focused on God’s kingdom and His righteousness. (Matthew 6:33) Some people have been so deceived by that sort of thing that when it collapses they lose their faith in God to a very deep level, which betrays where it came from in the first place. A chorus from over 45 years ago said, “I want more of Jesus, more and more and more. I want more of Jesus than I ever had before. I want more of His great love, so rich and full and free. I want more of Jesus, and He wants more of me.” My father modified the last line of that to say, “so I’ll give Him more of me.” To receive the abundant life that God has provided for us in Christ, we need to let go of everything else. Jesus taught that, (Matthew 13:44-46) but we don’t like to hear it.

If I just quote this verse and fail to apply it in my own life, I’m just deceiving myself. (James 1:22) I have seen countless examples of the devil stealing, killing, and destroying, and I have also tasted the abundant life that is Jesus Himself. There’s no comparison, when it comes to value! This is why my life is dedicated to warning people about the devil and sharing with them the abundance that is Christ. I am almost constantly amazed at the depth of God’s grace and love for me, even when I’m in the middle things like the 3-week cold I’m finally recovering from. I may feel miserable, but God is still good! Last night Cathy tripped in her work room and fell heavily. I set a new record for getting from my study up the stairs to check on her! She has bruises and strains, but nothing broken, and yet again I am reminded that God’s grace is sufficient for us. (2 Corinthians 12:9) That in no way contradicts what Jesus says here about abundance, but is a demonstration of how God desires to get us through the troubles we experience in our time on this fallen world. As Jesus said, I need to rejoice! (John 16:33)

Father, thank You for this reminder. I really have no words to thank You sufficiently for the magnificence of Your grace toward me. Help me live out my life in gratitude and obedience, so that as many as possible may know You through me, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Abiding; January 12, 2020

John 8:31-32 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Verse 32 is widely quoted, but almost always out of the context of verse 31. We like the idea of being set free by knowledge alone, but we don’t like the precondition of obedience. It is fascinating that Jesus said this immediately after the events leading up to verse 30: “Even as He spoke, many put their faith in Him.” We get all happy the moment anyone believes, and that’s not wrong, but Jesus immediately set about “winnowing out the chaff,” so to speak. This is the opposite of “easy believeism.” He was essentially saying, “So you like what you heard? Stick with it, if you want the full benefit.” Modern society knows very little of “holding to” or “abiding in” something. We tend to be all about instant gratification, wanting what we want when we want it, but that is the opposite of genuine maturity. If we are genuinely “seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness,” (Matthew 6:33) then we will set the distractions aside to focus on God and what He has said to us. Jesus said a lot about “abiding” in the Upper Room Discourse just before He was crucified, sometimes using the word and sometimes not. (John 13-17) Actually, the theme permeates the whole New Testament, as my father discovered when he wrote his dissertation on “In Christ.” However, he told me that he didn’t really understand it until after he was in Japan as a missionary, and he had an encounter with the Holy Spirit in which he opened himself up in a commitment to obedience. In other words, it was a clear-cut choice to abide in Christ, in His Word, in His Spirit. If we want to be set free by the truth, we need to be committed to follow the truth.

This is something in which I continue to grow, and in which I expect to continue to grow until I am before God’s throne. It’s been 64 years since I was baptized, and it’s been quite a journey so far. I am constantly confronted with the choice of following Christ and His Word, or the world and my flesh. Thankfully that choice is more and more automatic, but I must not take it for granted, and I must not assume that I automatically discern the choice correctly. Deception is the devil’s specialty, and I’ve got to be on my guard. (1 Peter 5:8) I need to let God’s Word “percolate” through me, or to use another metaphor, to “chew the cud” of the Word so that I may live it out in fullness. (John 15:7) Only then will I walk in the freedom of being Christ’s disciple indeed.

Father, thank You for this powerful reminder. I’m speaking on “Born Again” this morning, but this is the natural and necessary outgrowth of that. I pray that Your Word would flow unhindered through me so that many would receive it with joy and let it transform them into Your disciples indeed, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Approval; January 11, 2020

John 5:44 “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”

Jesus is here talking to the religious leaders, and particularly to the Pharisees, whom today we would think of as “Bible-believing Christians.” Their highest honor was to be on the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a political as well as a religious body, and politicians are particularly sensitive to the opinions of others. The Sanhedrin wasn’t chosen by open elections among the people the way legislatures in democracies are, but it was still a very exclusive club into which you had to be invited. They were all doubtless concerned about the praise of their peers. Jesus was pointing out that such a focus took them out of the realm of the spiritual entirely, regardless of how religious they seemed. If we fail to seek the praise of God we are operating on strictly human rules, whatever terminology we might use. That’s what Jesus was talking about when He referred to God’s righteousness. (Matthew 6:33) Seeking God’s righteousness means seeking to live so that He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21, 23) That isn’t something we can do once and be done with it, but something we need to do consistently, day after day after day. Frankly, we can get tired of following God, when things don’t turn out the way our human imaginations would like them to. That’s what “faithful” is all about: dogged determination and obedience regardless of circumstances. When our focus is on pleasing God, we will find that our faith grows more than we realize, because we aren’t believing in faith, we are believing in the One who is before and beyond and above all things, because He created it all.

I enjoy the praise and approval of others as much as anyone, so I must be careful not to make that my goal. I desire great, mountain-moving faith, but I have seen many people who seem to have faith in faith, even more than faith in God Himself. Like the father of the epileptic boy, I find myself crying out, “Lord, I believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) My focus has got to be on my Lord, caring about what He thinks of me and not about much else. I am often reminded that everything physical is temporary, so making that my treasure is futile. However, approval isn’t physical, and it can be very seductive. There have been times when I have actually fantasized about the eulogies at my funeral, being hungry for the praise of men. What foolishness! My heart needs to be fixed on my Lord, and what He says of me.

Father, thank You for this reminder. I do care what people think of me. That’s not wrong, but help me care far more what You think of me, so that Your will may reign in my life. Thank You. Praise God!

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Dependence on God; January 10, 2020

John 5:19 Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

I am frequently reminded that apart from Christ I can do nothing, (John 15:5) but I don’t often think about the fact that even Jesus could do nothing except what He saw the Father doing. We have a lot to learn about the Trinity! This awareness in Jesus obviously affected everything He did, all the way to His prayer in Gethsemane. (Mark 14:36) We tend to operate in the illusion of independence, when we all exist only by the grace and mercy of God. That God has indeed given us free will is one of the greatest mysteries and miracles of the universe. That’s why it’s absurd to the point of being laughable when we rebel against God (and we all do that at times). Any parent who has raised small children has experienced the child wanting to do things that are far beyond them, but with a little discreet assistance from the parent, those things get done. The child will often enough crow about them as though they were personal accomplishments, when actually they were done by the parent for the most part. We are very much like that with Father God, but most of the time we don’t even realize it. We would do well to realize that if even Jesus couldn’t do anything on His own, we are far more helpless without His power and grace operating through us.

This is of great importance to me, because so few things in life have seemed terribly difficult (other than sports-related things). I have taken for granted the gifts God has given me in words, music, and various other things, and too often forgotten that those things don’t originate in me. It’s not just that He’s smart and I’m not, (as He had to speak to me personally before I could really grasp it) it’s that He is the source of everything good. (James 1:17) We are indeed created in His image, (Genesis 1:27) which means we have the potential for creativity of our own, but we must remember that it all stems from the Father of Lights. When it all comes from Him, then I’ve got to be careful that it’s all directed back to Him, accomplishing that for which He intended it and giving glory to Him.

Father, thank You for this reminder. It’s interesting that I still need such reminders! Help me indeed operate in all that You have spoken to me, through Your Word and otherwise, so that I may be Your agent indeed, doing Your will on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Hearing and Obeying; January 9, 2020

John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”

Sometimes there are many differences in nuance between the English and Japanese translations of a passage, but here there is only one that jumps out at me. Where the NIV says “rejects,” the Japanese says, “doesn’t listen obediently.” There is actually a standard expression in Japanese that is, very simply, “listen and obey.” Its origins are probably wrapped up in the Japanese feudal system – bushido, the way of the warrior – that taught absolute obedience to one’s lord. I have become convinced that God has scattered gems of truth in every culture and language, which is why the Body of Christ is incomplete without representation from every one of those cultures and languages. Going back to this verse, we tend to put a more overt definition on “reject,” when in fact, simply failing to obey what you hear Christ speaking to you is rejecting Him. Any parent can tell you what that’s like, whether they have two-year-olds or teenagers! However, John the Baptist said that is inviting God’s abiding wrath, and that is dangerous indeed. Those who grow up in Christian cultures are tempted to take Christ, and indeed the whole Bible, for granted. That puts us in the position of deceiving ourselves, just as James said. (James 1:22) If we want to walk in the eternal life of Christ – and who doesn’t – then we must remember that it is a walk of obedience.

This certainly applies to me! Raised in a faithful missionary family, baptized at seven by my own volition and reading the Bible through by the time I was 10, I had Christian (and I don’t just mean American) culture down pat. I can’t remember consciously rejecting God, but there were certainly times when I didn’t want to listen, much less obey! It was devastating to me when, not long after my 24th Birthday, the Lord tapped me on the shoulder and, when I turned, showed me a mirror to see the state of my own soul. I collapsed to my knees, crying out, “My Lord and my God!” He had pulled back the web of lies the devil had used to blind me to my own condition, and I will be eternally grateful. I wish I could say that I have listened obediently with perfect consistency since then, but that would hardly be accurate. At least now I know how untrustworthy my own impulses are, so that I seek God’s guidance as much as possible ahead of time. He has used a minor little thing to help train me. When driving, if I use my own mind to calculate which lane is moving faster, trying to gain an advantage, I almost always end up taking more time than otherwise. However, if I consciously submit my mind to Him and let Him tell me to change lanes, I am always ahead of the game. In fact, I have avoided getting involved in accidents that way! I don’t want to reject God in any way, but listen obediently so that I may walk in His life/light/lane at all times, for His glory.

Father, thank You for this reminder, and for Your incredible faithfulness. Thank You that You are always worth listening to! Thank You for all that You are doing in this church. Thank You that my cold seems much better, and that I was able to sleep in the bed all night, rather than having to switch to the chair. It’s been about a week since I was able to do that, which gives me a heightened appreciation for the simple blessing of being able to sleep in bed. Help me walk in full gratitude at all times, knowing that even hard training is evidence of Your grace, so that I may indeed hear You accurately and obey You fully, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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