Sermons

Hope for a Glorious Future – Jeremiah 29:1-14

Jeremiah 29:1-14

As parents we’re always, one way or another, making plans for our families, especially our children.  Melissa and I are smack dab in the middle of raising older teenage boys and one of those plans is trying to determine whether college is on the table.  If so, which college, what major, how much can we afford, and so forth.  If college isn’t on the table – and I’m not convinced that every child is college bound.  There are plenty of young adults that have personalities that lend themselves to getting into the workforce and learning on the job skills and trades.  So, if college isn’t on the table for our boys, then what jobs and interests are there for them to pursue.

 

In addition to all of that we’re trying to make plans for retirement.  We’re considering plans that include caring for aging and widowed parents.  We’re making plans for holiday gatherings, and thinking about the plans for the coming week.  As your pastor, I have to carve out time in my weekly and monthly schedule to plan for sermons and Bible teaching.  I work with our staff and Deacons and Church Council to make financial plans, and ministry plans, and worship plans.  All of us are involved daily, weekly, monthly, yearly and so on, in some sort of planning.

 

Today, as we conclude this 4-week sermon series on hope, I want to take you to one of the most beloved and beautiful and encouraging passages of hope in all the Bible.  It is a section of Scripture that tells us that God has a great plan for us, as a church.  It teaches us that God has a positive future for us, as a people.  And it contains a principle that tells us God has not brought us this far only to leave us and forsake us, but rather that He has a great plan and a great purpose for us.  We have no idea just how great and glorious His plans are for us.  His future for us is intensely positive.  He has plans for us that include spiritual success and eternal glory.

 

So, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Jeremiah 29.  As you’re finding your place, however, I need to begin with a little disclaimer, a little warning, a little correction.  It’s very important that we understand the context of these verses, and that we understand who the original audience was and what these verses meant for them in their immediate situation before we move to making application for our own times.  If we don’t start here, then we run the risk of misinterpretation and misapplication and twisting God’s Word to say what we want it to say, rather than hear it for what it is – God’s message to His people.

 

With that being said, let me set the stage for us.  God is the speaker.  Jeremiah is the writer.  And God’s people – specifically the people of Israel – are the audience.  This is a letter that is tucked inside the larger writings of the prophet Jeremiah.  It’s a letter that God has dictated, if you will, to Jeremiah to deliver to the people of Israel who are living in a foreign land, and who are living under captivity.  Yet, this letter contains a message that was intensely positive in a time that was intensely painful.

 

These words came at a time when God’s people desperately needed to know that they had a hope and a future and that God had plans for them, as His people.  As this was given in this hour and this day they were living outside their land.  They were under God’s divine discipline.  It was at this time that they so desperately needed to hear these words from their God – that I have plans for you, and they are plans for your welfare and they are not plans for your calamity.  I have a plan for you to take you into the future and you ought to be filled with hope this very moment and this very hour.  I believe this is God’s message for us today.

 

Today, I have four things I want us to see.  But before we consider the first point, let’s read these verses together.  Jeremiah 29:1-14:

 

1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.  2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem.  3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.  It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

 

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  12 Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will hear you.  13 You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.  14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

 

God’s Word Was Sent

 

The first point I want us to understand is that God’s Word was sent (vss. 1-3).  God spoke to His prophet, Jeremiah, and gave him the content of this message.  Jeremiah, in turn, sent the letter from Jerusalem to the spiritual leaders of the nation of Israel that had been taken into exile in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.  Now we know, from the end of the Book of Jeremiah (chapter 52) exactly how many people were in exile at this time – 3,023 Jews – probably referring only to the adult male population.  So, it’s quite possible that there would have been as many as 10,000 Jews that had been taken captive against their will.  And Jeremiah wrote this letter, as it was given to him by the living God, and he gave it to two men: Elasah the son of Shaphan and Germariah the son of Hilkiah to deliver to the people of Israel.  So, God’s Word was sent.

 

But I also want to pause and make sure that you understand that this letter was nothing more and nothing less than the inspired and infallible Word of God.  I want you to take your eye and follow along with me through the entire chapter and notice an unmistakable theme.  Look at how verse 4 begins: “Thus says the Lord of hosts…”  Look at verse 8: “For thus says the Lord of hosts…”  Look at verse 10: “For thus says the Lord…”  In the middle of verse 11 we read this phrase, “declares the Lord…”  In verse 14 that phrase is mentioned twice.  Let your eye come down to verse 16: “Thus says the Lord…”  Look at verse 17: “Thus says the Lord of hosts…”  In verse 19 we see that little phrase again (twice), “declares the Lord…”  Verse 20 begins this way, “Hear the word of the Lord…”  Verses 21 and 25 both begin, “Thus says the Lord of hosts…”  Verse 30 says, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah…”  Verses 31 and 32 say, “Thus says the Lord…”  And the passage ends with that little phrase again, “declares the Lord…”

 

It’s unmistakable.  It’s impossible to read Jeremiah 29 and not hear the thunder of this chapter – again and again and again – that this is the Word of the Lord.  It’s unquestionable.  It’s the inspired and inerrant Word of God.  If there’s one thing that we (at Mountain Hill) want, it’s to be known as people who believe that the Bible is the Word of the Lord.

 

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, wrote this many years ago and it’s still true today: “This volume is the writing of the living God; each letter was penned with an Almighty finger; each word in it dropped from the everlasting lips; each sentence was dictated by the Holy Spirit.  Albeit that Moses was employed to write its histories with his fiery pen, God guided that pen.  It may be that David touched his harp and let sweet Psalms of melody drop from his fingers, but God moved his hands over the living strings.  Solomon sang songs of love and gave forth words of consummate wisdom, but God directed his lips.  If I follow the thundering Nahum, when his horses plowed the waters or Habakkuk when he sees the tents of Kishon in affliction.  If I read Malachi when the earth is burning like an oven.  If I turn to the smooth pages of John who tells of love, or the rugged chapters of Peter who speaks of fire devouring God’s enemies.  If I turn aside to Jude who launches forth an anathema upon the foes of God, everywhere I turn in the Bible I find God speaking.  It is God’s voice, not man’s.  The words are God’s words, the words of the Eternal, the Invisible, the Almighty, the Jehovah of the ages.”

 

So, it was God’s Word that was sent to the exiles.  Not Jeremiah’s word.  Not Nebuchadnezzar’s word.  Not some unknown, anonymous, author’s words.  It was God’s Word.  And you and I can take comfort in hearing these words today.

 

God’s Wisdom Was Shared

 

Beginning in verse 5, what we find contained in this letter from God was divine wisdom – wisdom for daily living, wisdom to help God’s people live successfully in difficult times.  Do you need that today?  Do you need God’s wisdom to help you live successfully in a difficult world?  You better believe it.  We all need God’s wisdom, and so we read very practical advice.  In verses 5-7 God basically says, “Listen, you’re going to be here a while, so go ahead and build houses and raise your kids – give them in marriage and have grandchildren.  This place where you are is going to be home for quite some time.”

 

Now this is how Jeremiah 29 is often misquoted.  People don’t realize the context of the verse was divine discipline.  They don’t realize that God was punishing His children for their disobedience.  But that’s what’s taking place.  The Jews had been living in the Promised Land for 490 years prior to this time.  And one of the pieces of wisdom that God had shared with them when they came into the Promised Land was that every seventh (7th) year was to be a sabbatical year.  They were supposed to let the land rest.  But they disobeyed that little piece of God’s wisdom and said, “Hey, thanks but no thanks, God.  If we work on the seventh year, then we can make even more money, we can be even more productive.  Let’s not rest on the seventh year.”  So, one of the ways that God got their attention was to allow them to be taken into captivity.  Jeremiah 29:10 tells us that they’re going to be in captivity for 70 years.  If you do a little math and take 490 years and divide that by 7 – representing the sabbatical year – you end up with 70 years.  God says, “Hey, you didn’t listen to my initial wisdom concerning the sabbatical year, so I’ll get your attention.”  Now, to be fair, there were many other reasons that God allowed them to be taken captive as well.  They were turning to idols and becoming more and more like the pagan nations around them.  So, it wasn’t just this sabbatical year issue.

 

But the point is this: this isn’t just some short detour from their normal way of life.  If you were among the elders and older generation, then there’s a good chance you’re not going back to your homeland.  You’re going to die in captivity.  So, the instruction that God gives them here is very basic: settle down and live your lives.  And notice verse 7, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

 

Now wait a minute.  This is a pagan city.  This is a secular and godless city, and yet God is telling them to seek its welfare.  God says, “I don’t want you to be needlessly offensive.  I don’t want you to be provocative when you don’t need to be.  Rather, I want you to be a peacemaker.  I want you to love your enemies.  I want you to live in a way that would honor me, while you’re there living in this pagan land.  Intercede for this city, because when it prospers you will prosper.”  So what God is saying is this: don’t be troublemakers, you don’t need to be needlessly irritating, rather you need to seek the very best for the city and town and country where you’re living.

 

Isn’t there some wisdom here for us too?  We’re living in a pretty pagan and godless society today, aren’t we?  Shouldn’t we seek the welfare of our communities?  Shouldn’t we seek to be peacemakers, if at all possible.  We don’t need to be needlessly irritating and offensive.  Now don’t misunderstand me.  When we share the Good News of the gospel and let people know that they’re sinners in need of a Savior, that message will oftentimes sound offensive.  It will oftentimes seem irritating, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  We need to love our neighbors even while we hold out the truth of God’s Word.  But there’s a way to share the truth in love and there’s a way to share the truth in arrogance and irritation.  Let’s not compromise the Word of God, but let’s also find ways to speak with grace and love.

 

God’s Warning Was Sounded

 

Look at verses 8-9, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in My name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.”

 

Now there are two things that I need to clarify for you.  When you look back at verse 1 you’ll notice that this letter was sent by Jeremiah to the spiritual leadership of the nation of Israel, and that included priests and prophets.  So, what gives?  Well, apparently what God is saying here is that there are false prophets among the crowd.  There are self-proclaiming preachers among the Jews.  There are people that want the authority and the power that comes along with being a spokesman for God, and so they just took it upon themselves to do that.  They weren’t called by God.  They didn’t surrender to the call of ministry.  They’re frauds.  They’re imposters.  And God warns the people to be on guard against their message, because it’s not coming from Him.

 

In fact, if you flip back one chapter to Jeremiah 28 this is what you’ll read: In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.  Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.  I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 28:1-4)

 

And if you continue reading that chapter you’ll discover that God did NOT tell Hananiah that He would return the people in two years.  Look at Jeremiah 28:12-17: Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke-bars from off the neck of Jeremiah the prophet, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Go, tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars, but you have made in their place bars of iron.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put upon the neck of all these nations an iron yoke to serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they shall serve him, for I have given to him even the beasts of the field.’”  And Jeremiah the prophet said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.  Therefore, thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth.  This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the Lord.’”  In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.

 

The greatest danger to God’s people while they were in an ungodly place wasn’t the people of Babylon.  It was the false teachers within their midst.  It was the false prophets that were saying, “Hey guys, don’t worry.  This is all going to be over in two years.”  They were lying to the people.  They were offering a message that they knew the people wanted to hear.

 

And folks there are false prophets today saying, “Hey, God spoke to me in a dream and this is what He said.  Hey, I have a new revelation for you today.  God’s going to deliver you from your sickness in 6 weeks.  God’s going to bless you with financial riches this coming year.  God’s going to restore your broken marriage or your strained relationship with your child.  God’s going to see to it that Donald Trump is President for the next four years.”  And God can do all of those things, for sure.  But we need to be very careful who we’re listening to and how they’re proclaiming God’s message.  Because it’s a very dangerous thing to claim to speak for God when He hasn’t said what you’re saying He said.  In Hananiah’s case it meant death.

 

God’s Will Was Sure

 

That brings us to the last point I want us to see, and it’s actually the main thrust of these verses: God’s will was sure.  We pick up in verse 10, and this is what we read, “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”  What God is saying is this: I have a calendar and I have already marked the date when I’m coming back for you.  Yes, you’re going to be here for a while, but I know when I’m coming back for you and I’ll be right on time.

 

Now look at verse 11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  God says, “I have a master plan for you as a people.”  It involves where you will be and when you’ll get there.  And I just want to break verse 11 down and look at a couple of the specifics of what God is saying here.

 

First, notice that God knows the plans.  He knows fully well what He’s about to do with His people.  He knows every detail of His plan.  There’s nothing out there that God hasn’t already considered.  There’s nothing that could happen or will happen that God isn’t already aware of.  And the same is true for me and you.  God knows His plans for us.

 

Second, these plans are carefully designed by God.  Notice that these are God’s plans.  These aren’t the plans of the people of Israel.  These aren’t Jeremiah’s plans.  These aren’t Nebuchadnezzar’s plans.  These aren’t the plans of some consulting firm.  These aren’t the plans of some ecumenical council.  They were extremely well-thought out.  Nothing was left to chance.  Nothing is left to blind fate.  God is the great designer.

 

Third, notice that these plans are blessed.  The Bible says these plans are for our welfare and not calamity.  God is not scheming their demise.  God is not planning for their failure or destruction.  God is planning for their welfare.  That word “welfare” in the Hebrew is actually the word shalom – the Hebrew word for “peace.”  These are plans for their good.  Who would ever want to go against God’s plans for their life, and yet we do it all the time.  I find great hope in the fact that we’re not alone.  God goes before us and behind, and He’s right there beside us all the way.  All we have to do is be willing to submit ourselves to His plans, rather than our own.

 

Fourth, notice that these plans are graciously given.  “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  Do the Israelites deserve a future at this point?  No, they’ve been disobedient and rebellious, that’s why they’re in captivity.  Yet, despite their rebellion, God is already making plans to bless them.  God’s out in front of this entire scene and He’s making plans to bless His disobedient children.  Sounds a little bit like you and me, doesn’t it?

 

Listen to these words from Ephesians 2:4-7, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raise us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

 

Or how about this from Romans 5, “[B]ut God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

 

Fifth, and finally, notice that the goal of these plans is a future and a hope.  Now, in one sense the Jews were always going to have a future.  You and I are going to have a future.  As long as we’re breathing and taking nourishment there’s going to be a future for us.  It might be a future measured in minutes or days or weeks, perhaps even years.  But that’s not the point of this word.  The future for God’s children is always great and glorious.  The best is always yet to come.  Why?  Because God’s plans always point to hope.  Hope that’s not uncertain, but hope that’s grounded in the reality of Christ Jesus.

 

So, as we reflect on this most glorious and beautiful promise of hope in God’s word, may we seek Him with all of our hearts.  May we call upon Him.  May we pray to Him.  May we seek to glorify God in all that we do, knowing that He already has great and wonderful plans for us and our future with Him.

Hope for the Days Ahead – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

We’re continuing this morning to discover the many avenues and aspects of hope that we find in the Bible.  And today’s passage is probably one that’s a little unconventional.  Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to 1 Thessalonians 4.  Now Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica are among some of his less studied pastoral epistles, but they contain some very encouraging words to believers living in difficult days.

 

If you’ve read through the Acts of the Apostles, then you know some of the historical background of Thessalonica and Paul’s visit to that city.  You’ll remember, for example, that Paul and Silas had been in prison in Philippi and when they’re released they travel over to Thessalonica and stay there for three Sabbaths (Acts 17).  Paul preaches about Jesus Christ in the synagogue, as the Passover Lamb, and many of the Jews listen and convert to Christianity.  The others get extremely jealous and they drive him out of the synagogue and ultimately out of the city.

 

Paul eventually makes his way down through Athens and ends up in the city of Corinth.  And while he’s there teaching and discipling, some of the believers come down from Thessalonica and tell Paul that the church is all in an uproar because of some misunderstandings about some of the things he had previously taught.  And there are two things in particular that they had gotten mixed up.

 

First, the Thessalonian believers had misunderstood Paul to teach the immediate return of Jesus, rather than the imminent return of Jesus.  Now those two words sound familiar (immediate vs. imminent), but they’re very different.  Paul did NOT teach the immediate return of Jesus.  After all, no one knows the day or the hour not even the Son.  But he did teach the imminent return, the forthcoming return, the fact that Jesus would return was a sure thing.

 

The second thing that the Thessalonian believers had misunderstood was what happened to their loved ones.  See, what they understood Paul to say was that unless you were still living when Jesus returned, then you were lost.  So, you have people that are understandably concerned and upset because they had a spouse die, or a child die, or a parent die, or a friend die before Jesus returned and they were distraught.  They were spiritually panicked.  They were anxious doctrinally.  They were restless personally.  And so, Paul comes and provides clarity and hope on these issues.

 

Pick up with me as I read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

 

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.  15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

 

Verse 18 is the entire reason why we’re considering this passage in our series on hope.  Paul explicitly tells the Thessalonians, and by extension, you and me, to encourage one another with these words.  The fact of the matter is this.  Many churches have forgotten the importance of teaching the second coming of Jesus.

 

Orthodox Christian teaching has always asserted that Jesus will one day visibly return as Judge and King of creation.  The ecumenical creeds of the early church all affirm that Jesus will “come again to judge the living and the dead,” and the Reformed confessions that have followed them also endorse this understanding.  Here is our hope.  In the days of greatest fear, that fear will dissipate if we will focus on the return of Christ.  Yet, when was the last time that you remember hearing a sermon that called you to look forward with great anticipation the Day of the Lord’s return?

 

Majestic Return

 

As always, there are three things that I want to highlight for us and the first is this – when Jesus returns it will be majestic.  That’s what’s described in verse 16, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.”  It will be majestic.

 

Now there are three things that Paul says will mark this majestic return.  The first is a cry of command.  Some of your Bibles might even call it a shout.  But make no mistake about it, it’s going to be majestic.  I don’t know what it was like on October 19, 1781 early in the morning when Gen. George Washington rode out to watch the rebel troops firing on the city of Yorktown, knowing that the French had blocked Cornwallis’ retreat and that he would witness victory for a young America.  I don’t know what it sounded like that day when Washington spoke with those troops, but I bet it was majestic.

 

I don’t know what it sounded like when Napoleon gave command to fire at the Battle of Austerlitz, but I bet you it was majestic.  I don’t know what it sounded like when Lord Nelson stood on the deck of a British ship and commanded bombardment of the French fleet, but I bet it was majestic.  I don’t know what it sounded like Hancock warned the Second Corps of the Federal Army, up on Cemetery Ridge, “Here come the Rebels!”  But I bet it was majestic.  I’m tell you, when Jesus returns there’s going to be a shout and when you hear that shout it will sound like majesty has spoken.

 

The second description or mark of this majestic return will be the voice of an archangel.  Did you know that there is never a time in the Bible where angels speak that the people hearing them have to go and find an interpreter?  You never find a person that says, “Hold on minute, your accent is too think.  I don’t understand what you’re saying.”  When angels speak it’s with great clarity and great power.  In that day we will hear the voice of an archangel and that angel’s voice will be understood and it will be as majestic as the Word of God itself.

 

There’s a third thing mentioned here and that’s the sound of the trumpet of God.  Now many of you have heard of the shofar, or the ram’s horn.  You might have even seen one or heard one being played, but this is not that kind of horn.  Numbers 10 describes the trumpets that I believe are going to be played here.  Listen, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Make two silver trumpets.  Of hammered work you shall make them, and you shall use them for summoning the congregation and for breaking camp.’”  Those trumpets described in Numbers 10 were made from the silver that was given as the redemption price for the firstborn.  And one day you and I are going to hear the sound of a trumpet of redemption (amen?).  And when that trumpet toots we gonna scoot.

 

Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, “Behold!  I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).  That’s what I believe he’s saying here too.  When Jesus returns in all of His splendor and glory it will be majestic.

 

Triumphant Return

 

Now the second thing I want to highlight for us is this – when Jesus returns it will be triumphant.  Look at verse 17, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”  The Greek word that’s used in the middle of that verse is the word harpazó.  It means “to be grabbed up,” “to be snatched up,” “to be pulled up,” “to be caught up,” and every time you see this word you’ll see a parenthetical comment indicating that it’s a violent snatching up and it’s irresistible.  Now this word harpazó was taken by Jerome and translated from the Greek into the Latin Vulgate as raptio, which is where we get the English word “rapture.”  When Jesus returns for His own it will be triumphant.  There won’t be any resisting or hesitation – it will be triumphant.

 

In John 14 we read these comforting words, “Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).  Listen, nobody is going to stop Jesus from doing that.  His return will be majestic and it will be triumphant.

 

Personal Return

 

Finally, when Jesus returns He will come for each of His children personally.  Look back at verse 16 again, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven…”  Jesus isn’t going to send Michael or Gabriel or Billy Graham to gather His children.  The Lord Himself will come.  Do you remember a few weeks ago when we were looking at Acts 1, and the angels said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”  If we live long enough, and the time comes for us to be called up to heaven, it will be Jesus Himself that will come for us.

 

As I close this morning, listen to me closely.  In those moments where you and I begin to despair because of the news, because of our health, because of our finances, because life is just too difficult, Paul says you encourage one another with these words.  Encourage one another with the truth and the reality and the hope that Jesus is going to come back for us so that we will always be with the Lord.  Be encouraged!  Jesus is coming back!

 

There’s no fear that this news can’t overcome.  Listen, you’ve been treated unfairly, that’s okay Jesus is coming back.  You’ve been struggling in a situation . . . lift up your head brother, lift up your head sister.  Jesus is coming back.  Oh, what a majestic and triumphant moment it will be when Jesus comes back Himself for you and me.

Hope in Discouraging Times – Psalm 42

Psalm 42:1-11

This morning, I want us to take just a few minutes to consider Psalm 42.  So, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn to Psalm 42.  Richard Sibbes, one of the great old Puritan preachers of Cambridge who died in 1635, wrote a whole book on Psalm 42:5.  He was called “the sweet dropper” because of how much confidence and joy his sermons caused.  He called his book The Soul’s Conflict with Itself, because in Psalm 42:5 that’s exactly what you have; the soul arguing with itself, preaching to itself.  You see, hoping in God doesn’t come naturally for sinners like us.  We’ve got to preach it to ourselves, and preach diligently and forcefully, or we’ll give way to a downcast and disquieted spirit.  Follow along with me as I read Psalm 42:

To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah.

1 As the deer pants for streams of water,

    so my soul pants for you, my God.

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

    When can I go and meet with God?

3 My tears have been my food

    day and night,

while people say to me all day long,

    “Where is your God?”

4 These things I remember

    as I pour out my soul:

how I used to go to the house of God

    under the protection of the Mighty One

with shouts of joy and praise

    among the festive throng.

 

5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?

    Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God,

    for I will yet praise Him,

    my Savior and my God.

 

6 My soul is downcast within me;

    Therefore, I will remember You

from the land of the Jordan,

    the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar.

7 Deep calls to deep

    in the roar of Your waterfalls;

all Your waves and breakers

    have swept over me.

 

8 By day the Lord directs His love,

    at night His song is with me –

    a prayer to the God of my life.

 

9 I say to God my Rock,

    “Why have You forgotten me?

Why must I go about mourning,

    oppressed by the enemy?”

10 My bones suffer mortal agony

    as my foes taunt me,

saying to me all day long,

    “Where is your God?”

 

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?

    Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God,

    for I will yet praise Him,

    my Savior and my God.

This morning, I want to quickly offer us (be me, specifically) some hope when dealing with discouragement.

It’s Okay To Ask God “Why”

Notice that the Psalmist responds to his circumstances at one point by asking God, “Why?”  Verse 9: “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?  Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’”  The word “forgotten” is an overstatement.  And he knows it.  He just said in verse 8, “By day the Lord commands His steadfast love, and at night His song is with me.”

It would be good if all of us were so composed and careful in the expression of our discouragements that we never said anything amiss.  But that just isn’t the way we are.  In the midst of the tumult of emotions, we’re not always careful with our words.  So, he asks “Why?”  It’s a legitimate question.  He may not have asked the question with theological or linguistic precision, but if he proves in time that he didn’t mean that God had forgotten him, we will let that be words for the wind.

He Affirms God’s Sovereign Love

Verse 8: “By day the Lord commands His steadfast love, and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”  In verses 5 and 11, he calls God “my salvation [or Savior] and my God.”  And even though he says it looks as if God has forgotten him, he never stops believing in the absolute sovereignty of God over all his adversity.  So, at the end of verse 7, he says, “All Your breakers and Your waves have gone over me.”

In other words, all his crashing and tumultuous and oppressing and discouraging circumstances are the waves of God.  He never loses this grip on the great truths about God.  They are the ballast in his little boat of faith.  They keep him from capsizing in the tumult of his emotions.

Oh, how many of you have learned this more deeply than me because of the waves that have broken over your lives.  You’ve learned deeply that it’s no relief to say that God does not rule the wind and the waves.  So, the psalmist affirms God’s sovereign love for him in and through all the troubles.

He Sings

Again, verse 8: “By day the Lord commands His steadfast love, and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”  This is not a song of jubilant hope.  He doesn’t feel jubilant hope.  That’s what he’s seeking – jubilant hope.  But isn’t it amazing that he’s singing his prayer!  Not many of us can compose songs when we’re discouraged and weeping day and night.  That’s why a singable psalter is good to keep around – or a hymnbook with the whole array of emotions.  For example, Isaac Watts wrote these verses to be sung:

How long wilt Thou conceal Thy face?

   My God, how long delay?

When shall I feel those heav’nly rays

   That chase my fears away?

 How long shall my poor laboring soul

   Wrestle and toil in vain?

Thy word can all my foes control

   And ease my raging pain.

That’s not a jubilant song.  But it is a song of faith.  And it’s shaped by thinking and feeling with God in the Psalms.

He Preaches To His Own Soul

Fourth, the psalmist preaches to his own soul.  Verse 5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.”  Oh, how crucial this is in the fight of faith.  We must learn to preach the truth to ourselves.  “How do you do that pastor?”

“Listen, self: If God is for you, who can be against you?  He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for you, how will He not also with Him graciously give you all things?  Who shall bring any charge against you as God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for you.  Who shall separate you from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:31–35 paraphrased)

He Remembers Past Experiences

 Fifth, the psalmist remembers.  He calls past experiences to mind.  He remembers past corporate worship experiences.  Verse 4: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”

Oh, how much could be said here about the importance of corporate worship in our lives.  Don’t take these times together lightly.  What we do at church is a real transaction with the living God.  That’s why it pains me that we’re not presently able to be together.  God means for these encounters with Him in corporate worship to preserve your faith now and in the way you remember them later.  This is not simply engaging in nostalgia.  He’s confirming his faith in the midst of turmoil and discouragement by remembering how real God was in corporate worship.

He Thirsts For God

Finally, the psalmist thirsts for God like a deer pants for the stream.  Verses 1–2: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and appear before God?”  What makes this so beautiful, and so crucial for us, is that he’s not thirsting mainly for relief from his threatening circumstances.  He’s not thirsting mainly for escape.

It’s not wrong to want relief and to pray for it.  It is sometimes right to pray for the defeat of enemies.  But more important than any of that is God Himself.  When we think and feel with God in the Psalms, this is the main result: we come to love God, and we want to see God and be with God and be satisfied in admiring and exulting in God.

So that’s a sermon for me, today.  Perhaps there was something in there for you too.  May the Lord increase our hunger and our thirst to see the face of God.  And may He grant our desire through the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Hope in Humbling Times – Acts 1:1-11

Acts 1:1-11

I want to invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Acts 1.  This morning I’m going to start a little 4-week series on Hope.  This will take us up to the beginning of Advent, where we’ll celebrate the birth of Hope.  But for the next several weeks, I just felt we would all need to be reminded of the hope we have in Christ.  So, if you have your copy of God’s Word, would you join me in Acts 1.  As you’re finding your place, listen to this story.

In 1996, an underwater sea salvager named George Tulloch maneuvered his ship directly over the wreckage of the Titanic which sank in 1912.  He went down in a submarine that had a robotic arm, in order to do what nobody had ever done before – salvage pieces and artifacts from the Titanic.  Now, as you might imagine, there was a huge controversy about this.  Nevertheless, Tulloch came back up with all sorts of things: reading glasses, dishware, jewelry, and so forth.

While he was down there, he discovered that there was a piece of the starboard side hull that had broken off and was laying away from the rest of the wreckage.  The piece weighed around 15 tons and measured 26 feet by 12 feet, and he decided that it would make for a great Titanic exhibit.  So, his team went back down and began securing this “big piece” with ropes and they raised it up (2 ½ miles) to the surface of the North Atlantic.  As they were trying to complete this salvage expedition of the “big piece” a storm arose and it broke free at the last moment and sank back down in the inky darkness of the ocean.

Well, George was determined that he was going to do something.  So, he took a sheet of metal that they had available and went back down in his submarine and located this “big piece” and attached that sheet of metal to it.  And on that sheet of metal were these words: “I Shall Return.”

For history buffs out there, like me, that sounds a little bit like Gen. Douglas McArthur when he was fleeing the Japanize from the Philippine Islands on March 11, 1942.  And as you know, Gen. McArthur did, indeed, return to the Philippines on October 20, 1944.

Well, true to his word, two years later (in 1998), George Tulloch returned and successfully raised that starboard side hull piece from the wreckage of the Titanic and here it is (show pictures).  I’ve been calling this part of the Titanic’s hull the “Big Piece” because that’s what it’s referred to today.  It’s on display in the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, NV.

This is a computer-generated image (CGI) showing where the “Big Piece” would have been positioned on the Titanic.  The portholes that you can see on the “Big Piece” came from C Deck and were part of cabins C-79 and C-81.  Although these cabins were unoccupied, nearby cabin C-83 housed New York theatrical producer Henry B. Harris and his wife Irene.  Also, nearby was the cabin occupied by W.T. Stead, the most famous journalist in England at the time.  Irene Harris survived, but both her husband Henry and W.T. Stead lost their lives in the disaster.

Well, long before Gen. McArthur said it, and long before George Tulloch engraved it on the side of the Titanic, it was said of Jesus.  If you have your copy of God’s Word you’re going to see that in Acts 1.  I want to take us there this morning.  Follow along as I read:

1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up, after He had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen.  3 He presented Himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

We have, at best, three accounts of Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon with a handful of German mercenaries, and yet nobody questions that event.  Why?  Because western civilization has changed.  We have no written documentation or eyewitness accounts that Hannibal ever crossed the Alps with elephants, but we know he did.  How do we know?  Because Rome was attacked.  And yet, here we have an incredible record of Jesus’ appearing over the course of 40 days to His disciples speaking about the kingdom of God.

On that Sunday morning He appeared to Mary at the tomb.  On that same night He appears to ten of the disciples: Judas is not there, and Thomas is not there.  A week later He appears to the disciples again.  This time Thomas is there and we get that famous confession from Thomas after he touches Jesus’ wounds, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  He appears to his half-brother, James, who would go on to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the author of the Epistle of James.  He appears to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus.

He appears in the morning and the evening.  He appears in the light and the dark.  He appears inside and outside.  He appears to 500 people at one time.  He appears to them in Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, and now He’s back in Jerusalem outside the city on the hill that we know as the Mount of Olives.  And that’s where we are.  That’s the background.  Let’s continue with verse 4:

4 And while staying with them He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, He said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  6 So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Now they had two good reasons for asking that question.  The knew the prophecy of Zechariah 14:4, where the Prophet Zechariah, speaking of the future coming of the Messiah said this, “On that day His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.”  That’s where they’re gathered.  That’s where Jesus’ has appeared to them in Acts 1.

They also knew the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29 where Joel writes, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”  Jesus had just told them to stay in Jerusalem because His Spirit would be given to them.

So, they had two very good reasons, two very good prophecies that were leading them to the conclusion that perhaps this was the time (the chronos) when Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel.  And notice Jesus’ response (v. 7), “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times (chronos) or seasons (kairos) that the Father has fixed by His own authority.’”  You might recall that Jesus spoke about this earlier in His ministry.  In Matthew 24:36 Jesus said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  So Jesus says, “Hey guys, don’t worry about that.  Don’t worry about the day and the hour, the time of year or the season.  That’s not for you to know.”

But notice what Jesus does tell them in verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Jesus says I don’t want you worrying about the time.  I don’t want you worrying about the date.  I don’t want you worrying about when I’ll come back.  What I do want you to concern yourself with is this: you be the witness in the world at this time!  Did you hear that church?  I want you to be sure that you got that.

Jesus did not say that He wanted us to be concerned about the political situation.  He didn’t say that He wanted us to be concerned about the bottom line and economics.  He didn’t say that He wanted us to be concerned about religious liberty.  Not that any of those things is bad.  Indeed, the Bible has an awful lot to say about those things, as I believe we saw in our study in Romans.  No, what Jesus said was I’ll take care of the return, you take care of the witnessing.

9 And when He had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”

In the few remaining minutes that we have, before we take the Lord’s Supper, I want to give you 4 reasons for hope in these humbling times.  Three of them are implicit – that is, they’re not expressly stated in the text but rather are clearly implied.  The fourth is explicit and is mentioned in verse 11.  The first is the completion of Christ.

Completion of Christ

Remember, this event that we’re reading about in Acts 1 is taking place after Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus has been with His disciples for 40 days.  It’s as if this is His encore.  When you go to the opera or a performance of a symphony or an orchestra, at the end of the regular performance people used to holler out “Encore!”  Today, when you go to any concert or musical or special performance and the show is over, if the audience continues their applause after the group or conductor leaves the stage, then usually they come back to play another round.  That’s kind of the sense that we get.  Jesus was resurrected and now He’s been called back for a 40-day encore.  But eventually the show must end, and verse 9 says that “as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took [Jesus] out of their sight.”

It’s as if God, Himself, is writing it in the clouds: It Is Finished!  It’s done.  It’s completed.  Those things that were intended for salvation have been accomplished.  Now let me tell you; I’m not aware of anybody else in history (and believe me I’ve read a lot of history) who with their last dying breathe sat up on their deathbed and said, “I finished it all.”  No, what you generally read is, “I can’t die now.  I have too much to do.  I can’t go now.  There are still things left for me to accomplish.”  And yet, Jesus, while He was on the cross exclaimed “tetelestai!”  It is finished!

What was accomplished on the cross of Calvary was the greatest work in human history.  It restored and redeemed mankind back to the Father, and Jesus could say “It is finished.”  Now do you realize what that means for you and me?  There’s not a single thing that you or I need to do in order to help complete the work of salvation.  Indeed, we can’t do anything – for to do something robs God of the glory and the honor and the praise that’s due to His most holy name.  There’s nothing the Roman Church can do.  There’s nothing the Baptist Church can do.  There’s nothing the Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church or the Pentecostal Church or the Lutheran Church or the Episcopal Church or the Community Church can do.  Jesus did it all!  And His ascension is the implication that the work of salvation is done.

Listen, if you’ve repented of your sin and accepted the grace of Jesus Christ through His life, death and resurrection, then let me tell you something; there’s nothing that can happen on Tuesday that will ever snatch you out of the Father’s hand.  You’re eternally secure.  Your ultimate hope in life isn’t pinned to a ballot box or the White House.  It’s been pinned to Calvary’s cross and you have a mansion in heaven that’s being prepared just for you.

The second hope in these humbling times is the exaltation of Christ.

Exaltation of Christ

The ascension of Jesus into heaven – described here in Acts 1 – highlights His exaltation.  The Apostle Paul described this very event in his Epistle to the Ephesians when he said, “I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe Him.  (Listen, here it is.)  This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.  Now He is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else – not only in this world but also in the world to come.  God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made Him head over all things for the benefit of the church.  And the church is His body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with Himself” (Ephesians 1:19-23).

Folks, listen to me.  Christ rules over everything.  He rules over this universe, over this world, over governments, over nations…  You say, “Now wait a minute, pastor.  We’ve got a world that’s in confusion and chaos because of a microscopic little virus.  Wait a minute, preacher, do you know what China is doing in the South China Sea?  Pastor, do you know that they’ve declared they’ll be number one militarily and economically by the year 2050?  And you wanna tell me…  Have you seen the stock market lately?  Do you see how the Republicans and Democrats treat one another?”

Christ’s ascension is proof positive of His exaltation and He’s in control: not Xi Jinping, not Trump, not Biden, not Putin, not Boris Johnson, not Kim Jung-un.  Jesus has been exalted and He’s in control.  He’s got a plan.  It may not be our plan, but make no mistake about it – He’s in control.

The third hope in these humble times that we see in Acts 1 is the impartation of the Holy Spirit.

Impartation of Christ

We’ve seen the completion of Christ, the exaltation of Christ, and now the impartation of Christ.  What did Jesus tell them in Acts 1?  They were to remain in Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit.  Do you remember back in John 7 “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let Him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’  (Then John adds this little commentary for us.)  Now this He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-40).

Well, Acts 1 is the fulfillment of John 7.  Jesus has been received into heaven.  He’s ascended back to the Father and Jesus sends forth His Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and the disciples begin proclaiming the Good News of Jesus and thousands of people repent of their sin and accept the Lord Jesus as their Savior.

Now here’s the interesting thing about Acts 1-7.  Those seven chapters cover approximately eight (8) years, and all eight years are spent in Jerusalem.  You’d have thought they would’ve taken the world by storm in those eight years and gotten on with Jesus’ instructions to go to Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world.  After all, they now have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit but they didn’t.  It’s not until Acts 8 when they move on from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.  Do you know why?  The Jews kill a deacon of the church.  Somehow, when you kill a deacon of the church, the church decides it’s time to move.

“Pastor, I’m not sure I know what your trying to say.”  Simply this.  There are some of us in these humbling times that are afraid to get on with the mission of the church.  We’re hunkered down.  We’re glued to our televisions and our computers and our social media feeds.  It’s like we’re waiting for someone to tell us it’s okay to get back in the pool after eating lunch.  We need to remember that we have the Holy Spirit of the living God at our disposal and there’s a charge to the church that hasn’t yet been fulfilled.  We need to take the gospel of Jesus to our Jerusalem, and our Judea, and our Samaria, and also to the ends of the earth.  We need to be on mission.

Fourth, and finally, in these humbling times there’s hope because of the consummation of Christ.

Consummation of Christ

This is the only reason for hope that’s explicitly stated in the text.  The previous three were implied from the fact that Jesus has ascended into heaven, but this one is right here in black and white.  Look at verses 10-11 again, “And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.’”

There it is right there.  Did you hear it?  This same Jesus…  This very one…  Not an imposter.  Not an ambassador.  This Jesus that you know and love with all of your heart, mind and soul, will come again in the same way as you saw Him go.  And if you read ahead, in Revelation 19, then you see Jesus coming on the back of a war horse with every single believer with Him to consummate His kingdom on earth.  Why?  Because if you know Jesus as your personal Savior, then you were made for a happy ending.  Let me tell you how it’s all going to wind up.  Let me tell you what the consummation of Christ looks like.  Let me share with you the greatest hope for these humbling days.  Are you ready?

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.  4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”  5 And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:1-5).

Folks, if you’ve repented of your sin and accepted the free gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, then you get the happy ending.

Listen to me church.  Tuesday is going to come and go, and we’ll either have the same president or a new president.  Neither result changes the fact that Jesus has completed everything that you and I need in order to be made right with the Father.  The final vote that’s cast on Tuesday doesn’t change the fact that Jesus has been exalted and rules and reigns over every nation and government and people on the planet.  Whether your candidate wins or loses doesn’t remove the Holy Spirit of God who indwells us and empowers us for His glory.  And whether we’re looking at a Republican administration on Wednesday or a Democratic one doesn’t replace the fact that this same Jesus will come again and make all things new.

So, there you have it – four reasons to hope in humbling times: the completion of Christ, the exaltation of Christ, the impartation of Christ, and the consummation of Christ.

Missions Emphasis – Rodrigo Rodriguez Ministries

Mountain Hill Community Church hosted one of its ministry and missions partners, Rodrigo Rodriguez Ministries, this weekend.  The congregation at Mountain Hill has supported Rodrigo and his wife, Mary, and their music missionary (i.e. “musicianary”) ministry for several years.  This weekend we were able to preview a new 15-minute documentary on Rodrigo’s life and his personal testimony.  If you would like to be a part of sharing this short evangelistic video with your friends, family, or another church, please click this link https://youtu.be/ZA-_COAUIs8.  You can also learn more about Rodrigo’s classical guitar background, how he uses his talents in music to share the gospel, purchase his music and Mary’s artwork, or book Rodrigo to play at your church or evangelistic outreach by visiting his website https://www.rodrigorodriguez.net/.

Greetings, Guidance, and Glory – Romans 16:1-27

Romans 16:1-27

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 16.  We’re finally at the end of this 6-month journey.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our time in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  It started out as a 12-week study and turned into a 25-week study.  And honestly, we could’ve spent so much more time here.  There’s so much more treasure to be mined in this book than what we had time for.  In fact, today’s sermon is one of those that could have easily been broken up into at least 5-6 separate sermons.  But alas, I’m going to try and jam everything together in one final summary.  So, if you’re ready, I’d like to ask the congregation to stand one last time as I read our passage today:

1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.  5 Greet also the church in their house.  Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.  6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.  7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners.  They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.  8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.  9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys.  10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ.  Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.  11 Greet my kinsman Herodion.  Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus.  12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa.  Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.  13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.  14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.  15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.  16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the churches of Christ greet you.

 17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.  18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.  19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.  20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

 21 Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen.

 22 I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.

 23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you.  Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.

 25 Now to Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!  Amen.

Father, I pray for all of your saints here today – that you’d bless them, that you’d fill them with your Holy Spirit, that you would use this message to strengthen and encourage and guide.  I pray that you would make servants out of us.  We want to serve you.  We want to serve our children and our parents.  We want to serve our friends and our neighbors, as well as strangers and people we’ve never met.  So God, grant, I pray that you would come and help me now to minister this Word and apply it for the glory of Christ in the hearts of your people, and draw people out of darkness.  I pray that some dead hearts would beat again.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

In this last sermon there are only three words that you need to remember: Greetings, Guidance, and Glory.  Those are my three points and those are three ways that this final chapter breaks down.  Verses 1-16; 21-23 contain the greetings.  Verses 17-20 contain the final guidance.  And verses 25-27 make up the final doxology.  Just a quick reminder, the word doxology is an English word that we’ve carried over directly from the Greek.  It’s made up of two Greek words: doxa (meaning “glory”) and logia/logos (meaning “reason/words”).  So, in essence, when you see or hear the word doxology what’s being expressed is glory-words, or better yet expressions of glory.  That’s what a doxology is.

Greetings

So, let’s start with the greetings.  And I know that some of you are thinking, “What in the world is there to see and learn from a whole bunch of names that I can hardly pronounce?”  Well, quite a lot, really.  I’m going to give you six very quick observations about this laundry list of names.  So, if you’re taking notes get ready.

  1. Notice the names.

There are 27 named people in these closing verses.  More people are greeted, but 27 are named.  Surely, we should learn from this that names matter.  I wish I could call you all by name.  Jesus does.  John 10:3 says, “The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out.”  Strive to know each other’s names.  Names represent people, and knowing people’s names indicates relationship.  Paul is working here at building relationships with brothers and sister in Christ.  Let’s be like him in this way.

  1. Notice the different the relationships and partnerships.

It’s remarkable to see the different words that Paul uses to describe these people, and their relationship to him and to each other: sister, brother, servant, saints, patron, fellow workers, church, firstfruits, kinsmen, fellow prisoners, beloved, approved in Christ, elect, mother to me.  The more you and I connect with people the more enriching are the ways that they bring blessing into our lives, and us to them.

  1. Notice how Christ-saturated these relationships are.

Verse 2: “Welcome her in the Lord.”  Verse 3: “My fellow workers in Christ Jesus.”  Verse 5: The “first convert to Christ.”  Verse 7: “They were in Christ before me.”  Verse 8: “My beloved in the Lord.”  Verse 9: “My fellow worker in Christ.”  Verse 10: “Apelles, who is approved in Christ.”  Verse 11: “Greet those in the Lord.”  Verse 12: “Greet those workers in the Lord.”  Verse 13: “Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.”  Verse 14: “Rufus, chosen in the Lord.”

This isn’t a simple list of greetings.  This is the way a person who is drenched in Christ talks about his friends.  When you write your family or friends, or when you talk on the phone, or send an email, is Christ in that dialogue?  Paul can’t go two or three words without mentioning Jesus.  Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).  If Christ isn’t in our speech, and in our emails, and in our telephone conversations, then maybe we have a heart issue that needs to be addressed.  Let’s be a church drenched with Jesus like Paul in Romans 16.

  1. Notice where the church is located in Rome.

Verse 5, referring to Prisca and Aquila: “Greet also the church in their house.”  So, there’s a church that he gives a generic greeting to through Prisca and Aquila.  Then there are all these other names.  Look at verse 14: “Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.”  That probably means: the church that meets with these brothers.  Similarly, in verse 15: “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.”  And there are probably other groupings.  So, we learn that the church in Rome was really churches in Rome.  May the Lord multiply Bible-believing, Christ-drenched churches in our communities.

  1. Notice the most common command – to greet.

Thirteen times in sixteen verses Paul tells them: Greet so and so.  And greet so and so.  Who’s he talking to?  The introduction in Romans 1:7 says, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.”  If I am talking to Larry Stokes, I don’t say, “Greet Larry Stokes.”  So, it seems that Paul expects this letter to be read and taught and passed around by the leaders of the church in Rome.

  1. Notice the love that permeates this chapter.

Four times Paul uses the word loved or beloved.  “My beloved Epaenetus” (v. 5), “Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord” (v. 8), “my beloved Stachys” (v. 9), “Greet the beloved Persis” (v. 12).  And then we read things like: “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (v. 6) and Prisca and Aquila “risked their necks for my life” (v. 4).  This is the language of love.  May the Lord take last week’s message on striving together in prayer and draw us into these kinds of relationships.

Guidance 

Paul then moves from greeting to guidance.  You’re like, “Come on, Paul, can’t you leave it alone?  Can’t you just conclude your 16-chapter letter and be done?”  The fact of the matter is this – and you know this to be true if you leave with a teacher or preacher – they’re always looking for an opportunity to teach.  Now be careful; if you’re a parent (and most of you are), you do this too.  You’re always looking to offer some direction or guidance to your children, and that’s a good thing.  Paul can’t help himself, and neither can I.  There are three very quick observations that I want us to see.

  1. It’s possible to go overboard on this.

In verse 17 Paul says, “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught.”  I hesitate even to say it, since I don’t think this is the temptation of most churches or most Christians today.  But it’s possible, and there are churches and people that do go overboard.  What I mean is that they become so obsessed with spotting doctrinal error that they lose their ability to rejoice in doctrinal truth.  They’re like dogs that are trained so completely to sniff out drugs at the airport, that even when they’re off duty they greet everybody that way.  It doesn’t make for a very welcoming atmosphere.

So, let’s ask the Lord to help us get the balance right here.  We must do this.  We have to be on guard against false doctrine and false teaching.  But this is not the main thing we do.  Vigilance over error is necessary, but joy in the truth is dominant.

  1. There is such a thing as a body of doctrine.

Don’t miss the obvious.  There is a body of doctrine that someone can go against.  There is a doctrinal standard.  There is something you can depart from.  Paul refers to it in several ways.  In Romans 6:17, he calls it the “standard of teaching to which you were committed.”  In 2 Timothy 1:13-14, he calls it “the pattern of sound words . . . and good deposit entrusted to you.”  In Acts 20:27, he calls it the “whole counsel of God.”

The caution here, of course, is that we must not put every minor opinion in this category so that there’s no room for any disagreement.  Remember Romans 14 – eating certain foods and celebrating certain holy days?  What I believe Paul is referring to here is a faithful summary of biblical essentials.  It would include things like the nature and condition of man, the nature and work of Christ, the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, and the nature and work of God the Father (to name a few).  Of course, one of the greatest challenges is deciding what belongs in this body of doctrine.  And when you pastor a Community Church you sometimes find yourself saying, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling…” (1 Corinthians 2:2-3).

  1. False teachers are deceptive.

Verse 18 says, “By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”  “Smooth talk” doesn’t necessarily mean slippery.  It just means pleasant and plausible.  And the word for “flattery” is simply blessing.  So, the reason we must be so vigilant over biblical doctrine is because false teachers don’t gain a following by being rough and harsh.  They gain a following by being nice.

It’s rarely popular to resist false teachers in the church, because they’re almost always perceived as bringing a blessing and speaking with winsome words.  They’re gentlemen.  They’re ladies.  And Paul says the innocent are carried away.  Hence, he says, “Watch out for them.  And avoid them.”

Glory

That brings us to the last observation in this magnificent epistle – the glory of God.  Paul’s final word in Romans (just before “through Jesus Christ!  Amen.”) is his acclamation of the greatest fact of all: God’s glory!  In order to drive this final observation home, I want to quickly review the many times and ways that Paul highlights the glory of God in this letter.

And although the word “glory” is not there, I think we need to start with Romans 1:5 because the substance of glory is there.  Paul says, “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all the nations.”  That little phrase “for the sake of His name among all the nations” is Paul’s way of saying that the name of Christ must be glorified above all other names, and all other persons, and all other ideas, and all other possessions, and all other possible dreams.  Paul’s mission is to glorify God through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And in order to offer the Good News of Jesus, the nations need to recognize their need for a Savior.  So, Paul begins in Romans 1:21 by addressing the condition of our hearts and says, “For although [the nations] knew God, they did not honor (the word is “glorify,” doxasan) Him as God or give thanks to Him.”  How did they not glorify him?  Verse 23 gives the answer; they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.”  And of course, the image most common then (and today) is not one that we carve in wood or stone, but the one we see in the mirror.

Then Paul turns to the Jews and shows them they’re in a similar condition.  In Romans 2:24 he says, “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”  In other words, you don’t glorify God’s name either.

Paul sums up the condition of all humans in Romans 3:23 with this definition of sin: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We are created to treasure the glory of God above all things, and none of us does that.  This means we have committed an outrageous crime against God – far more serious than murder or rape or theft or lying.  Therefore, we stand under the wrath of God and need a Savior.

The salvation that Jesus brings, delivering us from sin and death and judgment is received by faith.  Paul illustrates this faith with the case of Abraham in Romans 4:20 and shows how it relates to the glory of God: “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”  In other words, one reason that faith is the way that God saves us is that faith gives glory to God.  The fact that we even have faith and are able to exercise it brings glory to God.

Then in chapters 5 and 8, Paul shows that our salvation through Christ secures for us the hope of the glory of God.  This is the ultimate gift of the gospel. Consider Romans 5:1–2: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

And in Romans 8:18, Paul says this hope makes all the sufferings we have to experience in this life worth it: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  The glory of God will be so overwhelmingly satisfying that the horrors of a long illness and a painful death will be as nothing in comparison.

Then in Romans 8:21, 30, he speaks of our sharing in that glory so that we, too, become glorious, God-reflecting persons.  Verse 21: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  First, we are made glorious at the resurrection, then the whole creation is made a suitable habitation for the glorious children of God.

Then verse 30 says that our being glorified is so certain that Paul can speak of it as virtually completed: “And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.”  So, the glory of God is our supreme hope, both in the sense of seeing and being, beholding and becoming.

Then in chapter nine, Paul begins to tackle the question of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Israel, and the related question arises in verse 14 about God’s righteousness in view of His sovereignty over so much lostness and so much evil.  In verses 22–23, Paul gives his ultimate and final answer to the question, and he does it with a view to the glory of God.  He says, “What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory.”

The highest and deepest and most ultimate answer to why the world is the way it is is that in His infinite wisdom, the sovereign God chose to allow this world to reveal the fullness of His glory – including the glory of His wrath and power and mercy.

Then, as Paul finishes his description of the inscrutable ways of God in dealing with Israel and the nations in Romans 9–11, he concludes with this doxology: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be glory forever.  Amen” (Romans 11:36).  God is the ultimate origin, the ultimate sustaining power, and the ultimate goal of all things.  Therefore, to Him belongs the glory.  And may all praises rise to Him!

Then, in Romans 15, as Paul is finishing his handling of how weak and strong Christians should relate to each other in the church, he tells them the purpose of the church and how Christ set the pattern for how to build the church.  The purpose of the church is in verses 5–6,
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Displaying the glory of God is the aim of the church.  That’s why Christ bought you and me.  That’s why He builds the church.  Not just isolated, individual worship, but united voices, whether speaking of or singing to the glory of God.

Then in verse 7, Paul gives Christ as our pattern.  He says, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Jesus does everything He does – including welcoming you and me into His family – “for the glory of God.”  You are saved by Christ for the glory of God.  You are welcomed into His family for the glory of God.  This is humbling, because we’re never the final reason for anything – God is.  God gets the glory, and we get the joy.

And then in verses 8–9, Paul underscores Christ’s pattern of building the church by showing that this is the very reason He came for the nations, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.”

Which brings us finally back to where we started in the closing doxology of Romans 16:27, “To the only wise God, glory!  Forevermore, through Jesus Christ!  Amen.”  Is that the cry of your heart?  Do you love the glory of God?  Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”  And Isaiah 6:3 says, “The whole earth is full of His glory!”  God is calling out to you: behold My glory!  God is calling out for our attention and admiration every day.  So, as we close, would you join me in reciting the Gloria Patri: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.  As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen, amen.”

Striving Together in Prayer – Romans 15:30-33

Romans 15:30-33

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 15:30-33.  George Mueller was a great missionary.  And the thing that’s probably most known about him is prayer.  He lived a very sinful life until he was 20 years old, when he came to know Jesus, and then he went to school to become a missionary.  After completing seminary, Mueller went before the London Missionary Society to see about becoming one of their missionaries, but he was turned down because he led such a sinful life prior to being born again.

 

So, Mueller said, “Lord, what do I do?”  And George felt the Lord wanted him to pray.  So, he prayed for an entire year.  After the year ended, he prayed again and said, “Lord, what now?”  And he felt as though God wanted him to go to Teignmouth, England.  So, he took his savings and went to Teignmouth and went to the only church in the city – Ebenezer Chapel – and said, “I’d like to speak with the pastor.”  They said, “Our pastor resigned last Sunday.”  George Mueller said, “Well, I went to seminary to be a missionary and God called me to come to this city.”  They said, “You’re hired.”

 

He becomes the pastor.  Then they start orphanages.  The entire time they’re covering everything with prayer.  Interestingly, one of the things he stopped was the practice of buying seats in the church.  That’s how the church was raising money.  You paid a rent on your seat.  He got rid of that and put the offering plates in the back of the church, because he didn’t want people giving out of compulsion but out of their own free will.  By the late 1800’s, the amount of money given to missions by this little church in Devon County, England was $7.5M.  They started more orphanages than any missionary organization before or since.  And all of that came out of prayer.

 

When George Mueller got saved he had five friends that didn’t know Jesus.  He prayed for them every day.  Three of them got saved in the first decade of his ministry.  The fourth friend got saved 25 years later.  Mueller got saved at the age of 20 and began praying for these five friends.  The last friend got saved when Mueller died at the age of 92, because he heard his friend praying for him.  That means George Mueller strived in his prayers for this last friend for 72 years.  And that’s what I want us to consider this morning – striving together in prayer.

 

Romans 15 concludes with Paul describing his missionary work among the Gentiles (vss. 14-21), and his plan to visit Rome after a detour to Jerusalem to take and offering to the Jews.  And we pick up with verse 30:

 

30 I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.  33 May the God of peace be with you all.  Amen.

 

Now, the fact that Paul asked the believers in Rome to pray for him was not unusual.  He asked the church in Corinth to pray for him, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11).  He called upon the Ephesian and Colossian believers to pray for him, “To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel…” (Ephesians 6:18-19, Colossians 4:3).  And twice, he asked the church in Thessalonica to pray for him and his friends.

 

So, why am I highlighting this?  Because, sometimes we think that Paul was such an extraordinary, godly saint that he wouldn’t need folks to pray for him.  Yet he didn’t see himself that way.  He saw himself always standing in the need of prayer.  You need prayer.  I need prayer.  We all need people who will pray for us whenever possible.  Some of you may be wondering, “Why do we have prayer meetings?  Why have prayer chains and prayer groups?  If God is God, and it’s His power that makes a difference in answering prayer, why does it matter how many people ask Him?”

 

One answer is that the more people that are praying for a thing, the more thanks and honor God will get when He acts.  We see this in 2 Corinthians 1:10–11, “And [God] will yet deliver us, you also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many.”

 

The assumption behind the answer of this question is that the divine purpose of prayer is to magnify the greatness of God.  Prayer exists for the glory of God.  Jesus said in John 14:13, “And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  The aim of prayer is that the Father be glorified through Jesus.  So, the more people there are praying for something, and thus depending on God for mercy and power, the more people will give Him thanks and glorify Him when the answer comes.  That bring us to the first point I want us to see this morning.

 

Pray Intentionally

 

Paul would never have requested prayers similar to how some people pray today: “Lord, please bless all the missionaries.”  In verses 14-21 Paul has just finished offering a brief summary of his work.  He’s taken the gospel to the Gentiles.  The Gentiles congregations have recognized their spiritual indebtedness to their Jewish brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, who are struggling financially, and so they want to send them a financial contribution.  Then, if all goes well, Paul plans to visit this congregation in Rome (hopefully gaining their financial support) and then on to Spain.

 

If someone were to listen in on your prayers over the last week, would they hear a zeal for God’s glory among all the nations?  Would they hear concern for the more than two billion men, women, and children who are among groups still unreached by the gospel?  Would they hear compassion for imprisoned and endangered brothers and sisters in persecuted countries?

 

Would they hear prayers for God’s mercy and justice amidst crises in Latin America or conflicts in the Middle East, or on behalf of the starving in sub-Saharan Africa, the trafficked in South Asia, and refugees forced from their homes around the world?  Would they hear pleading for the health of the global church in places where it does exist and for missionaries who are planting the church where it does not exist?

 

If the answer to any (or all) of the above questions is “no,” I simply want to encourage you to incorporate praying for the world into your regular time alone with God.  And I want to encourage you in this way because God has invited you to pray in this way.  To be more accurate, He has commanded you to pray in this way.  But as with His other commands, this is an invitation from God to participate with Him in what He’s doing in the world.

 

Just think about it.  On your way to work, or on the way to a doctor’s appointment, or as you’re headed to the golf course for some fun among friends, we can pause and play a part in what God is doing in North Korea, or North Africa – among the unreached, among the persecuted, and among the suffering in places where we may never go and in the lives of people we may never meet (at least this side of heaven).  And God has not only invited you and me to ask Him for requests around the world; He’s promised to answer our requests according to His word.  That brings us to the second point, which is…

 

Pray Intensely

 

Paul asks them to “strive together” with him in prayer (v. 30).  That word “strive” has, as its root, the Greek word agonidzo.  It’s the word from which we get our word “agony.”  Paul was asking the Roman Christians to agonize with him in prayer.  True prayer is a spiritual battle ground.  It’s an intense endeavor that requires real energy, fortitude, and perseverance.  It’s not for the faint-hearted.  Remember, prayer in the power of the Holy Spirit is prayer against the will of the Devil.  Real, authentic, meaningful prayer will be resisted by the enemy.  So, Paul calls on the Romans to strive together with him in prayer.

 

One of my favorite stories about this kind of “striving together” comes from the life of Dwight Moody (D.L. Moody).  He was a fantastic 19th century preacher from Chicago.  After one particularly exhausting period in his life, he journeyed to England for a little vacation, a little rest and relaxation, a little holiday (as they say on the other side of the pond).  He didn’t intend on preaching, but he did accept an invitation to preach one Sunday morning and one Sunday evening.

 

In the morning service he didn’t feel any anointing at all, but in the evening service about 500 people indicated a desire to accept Jesus.  Moody couldn’t figure it out.  Having met with the pastor, they determined that indeed everyone was apparently serious and desired to be born again.  So, Moody told the congregation that he’d be leaving in the morning for Ireland, but the pastor would meet with them.  That next week, Moody received a telegram from the pastor asking him to come back.  Apparently, the crowd on Monday had been even larger than the one on Sunday night.  So, Moody returned to England.

 

That’s a pretty remarkable story by itself, but here’s what happened behind the scenes.  There were two sisters who were members of that London church, one of whom was essentially a bedridden invalid.  When her healthy sister returned from the morning service and reported to her that D.L. Moody (from America) had been preaching, her ill sister said that she would’ve fasted and prayed for him during the morning service.  She told her sister to leave her along and not let anyone disturb her the rest of the day so that she could fast and pray for God’s anointing on Moody’s preaching at the evening service.

 

That’s striving together in prayer.  Without question, prayer is the hardest work that I do in ministry.  It’s harder than studying, preaching and counseling, primarily because I sense the most opposition in prayer.  But it’s also the greatest and most rewarding work as well.  There’s no doubt that there’s a direct correlation between the difficulty of prayer and its importance.

 

Besides praying intentionally and intensely, Paul asks the church in Rome to pray intelligently for him.

 

Pray Intelligently

 

There are three specific requests that Paul makes in verses 31-32.

 

First, he asks them to pray for his safety in Judea.  If you go back to the later chapters of the Book of Acts, you’ll see that a prophet named Agabus actually predicted that Paul would be bound by his enemies.  But because of the prayers of the church, he was spared.  He was saved by the working of the will of secular authorities.

 

Verse 31 of Acts 21 says, “And while they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.  And at once he took along some soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them.”  So here we see an answer to prayer.

 

First, someone willed to run and tell the commander there was a riot.  Second, the commander willed to take it seriously and came to see.  Third, the rest of the verse says, “and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.”  So, their evil will was restrained and they stopped short of killing Paul and the prayers of the Roman Christians 1,300 miles away were answered.  God influenced the wills of someone to inform the commander, the will of the commander, and the will of the mob.  And Paul was spared.

 

Second, he asked them to pray that his service to Jerusalem would be accepted by the saints.  By that, what he means is pray that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem would actually receive the relief money that he was bringing them.  Again, Acts 21:17-20 gives us the answer:

 

“And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.  And now the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.  And after he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.  And when they heard it they began glorifying God.”

 

So, we don’t read anything about the church rejecting Paul or his ministry.  God had heard the striving of His people in Rome, and He had acted.  The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love and joy and that is what Paul met in the church of Jerusalem.  God heard and answered with the love of the Spirit.

 

Third, Paul asks that they pray for his success in coming to Rome.  Paul says he wants to arrive there “by the will of God.”  Of course, Paul does arrive in Rome but it’s not under the conditions he would’ve chosen.  Nevertheless, the prayer was indeed answered.

 

Don’t neglect the amazing influence you have in the world for good through prayer.  By prayer God calls us to join Him in shaping history.  By prayer we’re able to influence the wills of presidents and kings and senators and governors and mayors (1 Timothy 2:1–2).  By prayer we’re able to influence the wills of professors and writers and entertainers and editors and pastors and elders and missionaries.  By prayer we’re able to influence the wills of our friends and our enemies.  We’re able to influence the wills of our children by prayer, and our husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and neighbors and colleagues and fellow students.

 

The amount of transforming good we can do by prayer is incalculable.  Don’t neglect this great work God has put into your hands.  Let’s use both our instruments to win people over to Christ.  Let’s work to change people’s minds with truth and people’s wills with prayer.

Let’s Just Praise the Lord – Romans 15:7-13

Romans 15:7-13

I think it’s safe to say that those of us that watched the presidential debate Tuesday night were sorely disappointed.  There’s no denying that it was the most awful interaction between two grown – supposed to be internationally influential and respectful – adults aired on national television.  It was terribly sad (literally speaking).  While most of us here know how to engage people in constructive and respectful dialogue when we disagree, there’s a large segment of our society that’s taking their ques and learning from that.  I believe that’s what I found most upsetting.  Clearly, although both men claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, neither have taken to heart the principles found in His holy Word:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.  Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21, ESV)

Anyway, while it was a horrible debate and I hope they’ll cancel the remaining two, it makes for a great sermon introduction to Romans 15.  Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 15:7-13.  Last week we considered how the church is supposed to address disputes over non-essential matters of the faith.

We’re supposed to extend liberty; meaning that there’s room for differences of opinion on things that the Bible doesn’t specifically condemn (as wrong) or commend (as right).  We need to be careful here.  There are plenty of both.  The Bible speaks rather forcefully about a lot of behaviors and attitudes that are clearly wrong, and on such matters, we need to see them that way.  So, this isn’t an opening to make the Christian life relative to whatever whim society is embracing at the moment.  At the same time, however, there are many behaviors and attitudes that the Bible is rather silent about and we need to extend liberty in non-essentials of the faith.

The example that I alluded to last week was whether Christians should mask or not mask.  I hate to break it to you, but the Bible is rather silent about masking in 2020.  Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t principles that we learn from the Bible that can help us make an informed decision.  I’ve read multiple articles by pastors and theologians that argue for both positions.  I’m just saying that you won’t find any explicit passage, or group of passages, that fully and finally settles the matter.  Therefore, we need to be careful that we don’t quarrel over disputable matters.

Second, even when there’s disagreement, we need to respond in love and not cause harm or hurt to our brothers and sisters in Christ who aren’t quite where we are in their understanding.  The stronger believer needs to be willing to lay aside his/her rights and freedoms in Christ for the sake of the weaker.

And finally, Paul told us to always look to Jesus as our example – exemplify the Lord.  Jesus came to serve, not to be served.  He came to give Himself as a ransom for our sin.  He took upon Himself the reproaches, and criticisms, and accusations, and sins that were mine (and yours).  So, when all else fails, remember Jesus.  Look to Jesus.  Exemplify Jesus.

And today we conclude Paul’s practical exhortations and encouragements.  He’s called us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.  He’s called us to submit to governing authorities.  He’s called us to the urgency of evangelism – “[y]ou know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.  The night is far gone; the day is at hand.  So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11-12).  Remember that: get up, get out, get going?  He’s called us to not pass judgment on one another over disputed things, and not cause each other to stumble.  And finally, Paul encourages us all (Jewish believer in Jesus and Gentile believer in Christ) to praise the Lord together.

Let me invite you to stand with me as I read our text this morning (beginning with verse 7):

7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.  8 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.  As it is written, “Therefore I will praise You among the Gentiles, and sing to Your name.”  10 And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.”  11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol Him.”  12 And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even He who arises to rule the Gentiles; in Him will the Gentiles hope.”  13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

The Goal Is the Glory and Praise of God

Paul’s goal is never merely good human relations.  That’s a means to his ultimate end.  Paul’s ultimate aim was the same one that Jesus had – to display the glory of God, to display the beauty of God, the greatness of God, the many-sided perfections of God.  All of creation, all of redemption, all of church, all of society, all of culture exist to display God.  Nothing and no one is an end in itself: only God.  Remember Romans 11:36, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever.  Amen.”

Church worship services, church Sunday School classes, church committee meetings, church small groups, church evangelism, church missions – all of them exist for this one ultimate thing – to make much of the greatness of God.  That’s why you and I were created.  That’s why we exist – to proclaim the goodness, greatness, and glory of God.

Would you join me in prayer that God would make this the atmosphere at Mountain Hill?  We won’t have succeeded if we’re known as a friendly place.  And we won’t have succeeded if we’re known as an unfriendly place.  On the other hand, we’ll be on our way to true success if we’re known as a people obsessed with the glory of God.  If our friends speak of the glory of God.  If our children and grandchildren love the glory of God more than the glory of sports or music or fashion.  If our career people pursue the glory of God more than the glory of financial success.  If our older people rejoice in the hope of the glory of God just over the horizon.

Almost everything in American culture threatens this radically serious, God-centered passion to see and savor and show the glory, the greatness, the beauty and worth of the full range of His perfections, His eternal being and unchanging character, His independence and self-sufficiency and holiness, His infinite power and wisdom and goodness and justice and wrath and mercy and patience and grace and love.  Almost everything in American culture threatens to make our minds and our hearts and our worship shallow and casual.

I plead with you to pray with me that God stagger us with a proper sense of His greatness, and to that end that He would give us what Paul calls a “spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17).  Oh, how we need to know God and to feel something of the wonder of His glory.  Oh, that we would pray the prayer of Moses in Exodus 33:18: “Show me Your glory.”

So, we know where Paul is going in this text – the same place he’s always going: the glory of God.

How Do We Glorify and Praise God?

Now how does he help us get there?  How do we become the kind of people who are of one mind in denying ourselves, sacrificing legitimate freedoms to please others, and being able with one voice (in spite of all the differences between weak and strong) to glorify God together, to praise God together?  How will we become that kind of people?

I want you to notice that his answer isn’t church programs or relational mechanics or external technique.  There are at least four things Paul says and does here to help us become the kind of people who can joyfully build up others and make God look glorious.  I’ll just mention them briefly and then close by focusing on the last one.

First, Paul draws our attention to Christ.  We saw it last week, in verses 1-6, Paul points to Jesus.  But he does it again (here) in verses 7-8, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of GodFor I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.”  

In other words, to become the kind of person who joyfully serves others rather than using them, consider Christ.  Look at Christ. Especially look at His sin-bearing, substitutionary work on the cross.  This is how we change: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).  Look to Christ.

Second, Paul reminds us how essential the Scriptures are.  Paul quotes from the Old Testament four times in order to demonstrate that it was always God’s plan to glorify Himself by bringing together Jews and Gentiles.  The reality of a people from every nation and tribe and tongue and language worshipping and praising God and giving Him glory is rooted in the Scriptures.  Would we avail ourselves to God’s holy Word?  Would we allow the Scriptures to speak to us and inform us and change us?  If we want to glorify and praise God we must know and live the Bible.

Third, Paul reminds us that we will never survive in the path of self-denying, sacrificial love if we don’t have hope.  Hope (elpis, is the Greek) is mentioned at the end of verse 12, in the quote from Isaiah, and then Paul uses it twice in verse 13: once at the beginning (as an adjective describing who God is – He’s the God of hope), and again at the end (as a noun – that thing we possess).

If you hope in Christ today and not in money and health and friends and joy and government, that hope is the work of the Holy Spirit.  You did not create it.  By nature, our will is at enmity with God.  We’re born depraved.  And the essence of that depravity is self-exalting, self-reliant, self-determination.  Therefore, if the glory of God is going to become our highest goal and treasure, then we must be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Fourth (and finally), he shows by example that we must pray for all this to happen, because it’s all God’s work in us.  Paul shifts from teaching and exhorting to praying in verse 13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

Paul has reached the end of his ability to persuade.  His longings for this church are beyond the reach of man.  God must do it, or it won’t be done.  If we’re going to look to Christ, God must incline our hearts to look to Christ and open our eyes to see His glory (2 Thessalonians 3:5).  If we’re going to meditate on His Word, God must incline our hearts to His Word (Psalm 119:36).  If we’re going to endure and be encouraged, God must give us the endurance and encouragement through His Word (2 Thessalonians 2:16).  If we’re going to have hope that sustains our love, God must make it abound through the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).

And if we’re so dependent on God for Romans 14 and 15 to come true, then, Mountain Hill, let us give ourselves to the precious privilege of prayer.  If Paul had to pray to see his teaching change people, so must we.