Holy, in God’s eyes

I am holy in God’s eyes – me – with all my sins and failures.

I knew this when I read it in Colossians 1:22 during a communion service in our church last weekend.

But it struck home with fresh force as I thought about it before taking communion.

We had been asked to pick up a Bible verse along with a piece of bread and a cup of grape juice and return to our seats, meditating on the scripture before consuming these symbols of Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Colossians 1, Paul gives a magnificent description of Christ and his role in creation and the fact that “everything was created through him and for him” (v. 16).  And, says Paul, he is the head of the church.

But we turned away from God, virtually rebels.

However, says Paul, “he (God) has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight without blemish and free from accusation (v. 22, NIV).

The words that caught my attention were “holy in his sight”.

God “reconciled” me – he took the step of breaking down the sin barrier between himself and me through Christ’s sacrifice.  Then, through my faith in what Christ has done, God viewed me as holy and I could enter his presence as his much-loved child because I had been washed clean of sin.

This remains true even though I still sin and do and say wrong things.

But I am different than I was before encountering Christ.   The power of God the Holy Spirit is within me and he works to patiently and gently bring me back to the right path when I wander away.

This is familiar to all believers.

But sometimes the familiar becomes “new” again and brings a smile to our lips.

That’s what happened when I read the words “holy in his sight”.

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Be ready

It’s trite but true to say that we need to live every day as if it’s our last.

I was thinking of this again after the Easter tragedy in Sri Lanka a week ago where more than 300 people died following a terrorist attack on Christian churches.

Like most people, I was appalled by the wanton killings of innocent people, celebrating Christ’s resurrection at Easter time.

I am sure no one who attended those churches expected anything violent to happen that day.  The long civil war in Sri Lanka had been over for 10 years and the country was living in relative peace.

It’s a gloomy thought, but death can come any day in any number of ways.

The question for me is: Am I ready?

I am ready in that I have made the most important decision anyone can make – I have put my faith in Jesus and I am assured a place with him in eternity.

But are there things in my life that I need to deal with before I die?  Things of the heart and the spirit?

Are my relations with others in good order?

These are deep questions.

I recall the apostle Paul’s comment in Ephesians 4 that we must not let our anger against another continue because it gives the devil a foothold in our lives.  In other words, we must resolve our relationship problems quickly.

How will we feel if friends or relatives die before we have had a chance to tell them that we forgive them for hurting us?  Or, before we have a chance to say we’re sorry we hurt them?

Unexpected death is even more of a problem for those who don’t know Jesus.

As the prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 55:6: “Seek the Lord while you can find him.  Call on him now while he is near.”

God is loving and forgiving. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he offers everyone a way to be reconciled with the Lord.

And he wants us believers to live a life of love and forgiveness, too.

Shepherd of hope

I find untold comfort and hope in the opening lines of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Often, I turn those words over in my mind and meditate on what they tell me.

Once a shepherd himself, David knew what he was talking about when he wrote that sentence.

As my wife said, those words give a wonderful picture of caring.

A shepherd in David’s day was responsible for a bunch of dumb and vulnerable animals.  David knew about fighting off predators – the sheep were his charges and he was going to fight to the death to defend them.

The shepherd also had to know where to take his sheep so they could eat and drink and rest.

And he had to do everything in his power to look for and find the occasional sheep that wandered off on its own.

The shepherd had to be alert to everything that was going on around him.

What gives me great hope in this sentence is the fact that God is my shepherd.  He has all the caring qualities that David the shepherd had – and infinitely more.

I may not like to admit it, but I am very much a sheep.  I’m wilful like the wandering sheep and stupid like most other sheep.  I think I’m smart but I’m usually wrong – even blind – about what is really going on around me.

But my shepherd is there beside me to pull me back from the brink or to prod me in the right direction.

And the great thing is that my shepherd is the creator of the universe – and me.  And he is “Lord of heaven’s armies” as the New Living Translation of the Bible puts it.

Satan may consider himself a roaring lion ready to leap upon me as his prey (1 Peter 5:8).  But God is there to drive him away.

Although I may not realize it, God is with me every moment of every day.

Indeed, David went even further in Psalm 68:19: “Each day he carries us in his arms.”

All I need to do as a human sheep is to rest in him and trust him.

A hug

Sometimes, a hug is worth more than a thousand words.

Recently, my wife gave a grandmotherly hug to a young man who has been going through some tough times.  His father told us later that the hug gave his son a real lift.

For me, this is a reminder that often an act of kindness and sympathy is the best way to meet someone’s need.

I am not suggesting that a hug will solve everyone’s problems.  Indeed, some people don’t like being hugged.

But my wife’s reaction was an instinctive – and, I believe, God-prompted – act of encouragement for someone who needed it.

In similar situations, I worry about what to say and sometimes miss the loving gesture that God wants me to make.

Listening is often the best thing we can do when someone is suffering.

A friend recently mentioned he has stopped giving unwanted advice to his son.  Instead, he listens and their relationship has changed greatly.  His son is revealing his heart to his father and is much more open to the occasional word of good counsel.

Of course, Jesus is our best guide in showing compassion.

The Bible mentions in several places that Jesus’ heart went out to hurting people.  And he responded to their needs by acts of love.

In one case, he wept before the tomb of his good friend Lazarus who had recently died (John 11:35).  Then, he miraculously raised his friend from the dead.

I realize raising the dead is rare but we all appreciate genuine sympathy when we’re suffering.  It is a great help and comfort.

Neil Anderson, author of Victory over the Darkness, says one time as a young pastor he was called in the middle of the night by parents of a young man who had been in a bad accident, asking him to come to the hospital.  He went immediately.

Several hours later the doctor came out and told Anderson and the parents that the young man had died.

“I was so tired and emotionally depleted that instead of offering them words of comfort, I just sat there with them and cried with them,” Anderson writes.  “I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I never felt so stupid in my life.  I thought I had failed the family in their darkest hour.”

The couple moved away a short time afterwards, but returned five years later and took him out to lunch.

“Neil, we’ll never forget what you did for us when our son died,” they said.  “We didn’t need words; we needed love.  We knew you loved us because you cried with us.”

What a tribute!  What a lesson!

Victory through death

Dying doesn’t sound like much of a victory, does it?

But in Jesus’ case, we Christians believe it was the most complete victory ever.  He died on the cross – and his followers live forever.

We live because he overcame death, rising to life everlasting.

It’s a story every believer in Christ knows well.  But I feel led as a believer to gain a deeper understanding of the cross and what it means.

So, I am reading – and thinking – about what Jesus went through in those final hours of his life on earth.

One writer, Sandy Kirk, says in her book The Unquenchable Flame: Revival that Never Burns Out that a true understanding of what Jesus did on the cross should light such a passion for Christ within us that we can’t help but share his love with others.

The great British scholar, N.T. Wright, has written a book titled The Day the Revolution Began which talks about how the cross transformed history.

But long before these modern authors were born, the first Christians were galvanized by the story of the cross.

Few sermons had an impact like the apostle Peter’s just after Christ ascended to heaven.

In Acts 2, we read that after being filled with the Holy Spirit, he preached to Jews from all over the Mediterranean region about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  He told them that Jesus had come demonstrating that he was the Messiah through miracles he performed.

He pointed directly at his listeners and said: “So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!”

His words struck home in the hearts of his listeners and 3,000 became believers that day.

From then on, the young church talked about the cross as the central part of its message.  The apostle Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 2 that he determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except “Jesus Christ and him crucified”.

Sandy Kirk gives me some insight into what this means in her book.

Along with other Christian writers, she points to the cup of suffering that Jesus confronted in the last supper with his disciples; in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed before his arrest; and finally in dying on the cross.

This cup – mentioned by Jesus – really was the Father revealing to him what he would face as he died.  What he saw horrified him so much that he sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In effect, he saw the darkness of all sin, committed by every person, from the beginning to the end of time descending upon him – without the Fathers’ presence.  He faced God’s wrath – his judgement – for this sin, although he was guiltless.

As he died, he did not even have the consolation of the Father who had to be separate from sin.  That was huge because he and the Father were one in love and spirit.

Sandy Kirk says this picture changed her whole view of the cross and changed her ministry.

It certainly sharpens my understanding of the cross.  Christ’s sacrifice was the ultimate in love for me – and for everyone.  He died to pay for my sin.

I need to meditate more on the meaning of the cross.

Coming together

Years ago, I watched a film which described a revival in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

What sticks in my mind is the story of Ugandans from quite a range of denominations praying together, ankle deep in a swamp to avoid Amin’s police.

As I recall, the producers of the film Transformations interviewed several Christians from diverse denominations who spoke about those desperate times and how they pulled together, leading to a great revival.

It seems to me that trouble – even oppression – is often the impetus for great movements of God.

The church itself was born in oppression.  Jewish leaders sought out many believers and jailed – and even executed them.  And the church grew by leaps and bounds, fuelled by the Spirit and God’s love.

The church in China is a modern-day example.  Some say there were only 1 million believers in China when the Communists took power – and today there are an estimated  100 million Christians there.

Despite the government jailing and killing many Christians, the gospel has spread dramatically in that country.

There are other amazing stories of many Muslims becoming Christians in Islamic countries that are officially closed to the gospel.

The story of revivals in England and the United States again is all about God moving across denominations to bring many into his family.

Again, this sometimes happens in tough times.  The Wesleyan revival in England, Scotland and the United States in the 1700s broke out when social life was at a very low ebb – somewhat like the direction we are drifting in right now in the Western world.

Do we have to wait for trouble before we see something like that today?

I don’t think so.

All it takes is for people to join together in prayer and a willingness to work together to spread God’s love and the good news.

It’s good to see that many are taking up this challenge at the local and national level.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed to the Father that all his followers be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:20-23).  Jesus wants unity among believers in the mission God has given us – to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

Dedicated prayer is key to revival.  It played a major role in the Wesleyan revival which lasted 50 years.

If we come together and pray together fervently, who knows what might happen?

God pursues me

God is chasing me – how great is that?

I have been pondering that for a couple of days now.

Some might be frightened by that thought.  I’m not.

In fact, I find it comforting, encouraging, and even joyous.

What triggered this in my mind was Psalm 23:6: “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

That’s in the New Living Translation of the Bible and the New International Version is similar.

It is God’s goodness and unfailing love that is pursuing me, not any old goodness and love.

I guess every believer knows that – but I’m a little slow.  Anyway, the full implications of this truth are just sinking in now.

I read it years ago in Francis Thompson’s great poem The Hound of Heaven. In it, Thompson pictures God as pursuing him with love even as he tried to run away from the Lord.

It reminds me of Psalm 139:7-10: “I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!”

And the psalmist continues: “If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave you are there.  If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength support me.”

And Jesus said something wonderful in his picture of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7).  He declared that the shepherd will devote all his time and effort to find a lost sheep and there will be great rejoicing in heaven when the sheep is found.

That is really a picture of someone who has not given his or her life to God.  But, the same love pursues us even though we may have been Christ’s followers for a lifetime.

Many of us feel the evil one’s condemnation when we wander away from God.  Satan tells us God has turned his face away.

That is not true!

We just have to stop and let him catch us.  And love us back to himself.

Weak, but strong

In some ways, it’s amazing Christ entrusted the church with his mission of expanding the kingdom of God on earth.

Too often, we Christians reflect all the failings of the world around us.  Why would anyone believe that we are truly ambassadors of Christ?

Of course, I know that Christ had to work with us – we are here and he is no longer on earth.  His mission on earth is completed.

God had already chosen not to intervene directly with heavenly armies to frighten people into submission.

He chose to woo us back to himself.

And that explains a lot about his long, painstaking and frustrating work with us human beings.

God does not think of us as slaves – he considers us his sons and daughters.

He wants as many people in the world as is possible to be part of his loving and joyous family forever.  We are to help in this great task.

But, I believe there is another reason God is so patient with Christians.  He is preparing us believers for an eternity with himself.

For me, the Bible is a handbook for Christians as we seek to grow into the likeness of Jesus.

There we see people who are weak, just like us.  We see how God worked in their lives – and changed them.

I think of David, shepherd boy who became King of Israel.  He is called a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).

David made serious mistakes – sins – in his life, particularly having sex with another man’s wife and arranging for that man’s death.

So why did God call him a man after his own heart?  Because David was teachable and always committed to loving and following God with all his heart.

In the case of sex with Bathsheba, David recognized his sin when the prophet Nathan told him a story showing upset the Lord was with him (2 Samuel 12).  David immediately repented and accepted God’s judgement and punishment.

David consulted God constantly for direction and guidance and he worshiped him wholeheartedly.  In Psalm 37:4, he says that all he wants to do is to spend his life in God’s temple, seeking him there.

Few people are like David.  But we can follow his lead in seeking God, listening to him, and following his guidance.

In fact, the apostle Paul learned that weakness –  probably physical weakness in his case – was a stepping-stone to spiritual power.

He had been calling on God for healing of something that was tormenting him when the Lord said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12)

And Paul reacted with these great words: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In other words, we need to depend completely on God as we live our lives.

So, yes, the Church of Christ on earth is deeply flawed.  There is considerable sin in the church.

But in the midst of the messes, God is at work.

Aroma of life – or death?

Funny how the same news can be good for some and bad for others.

Christians assume that the news of Christ’s sacrifice for us is something people should welcome.

But it is obvious that not everyone agrees.

The apostle Paul said something long ago that has stuck in my mind.

In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul says that God used him “to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere”.  He continues:

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.”

It’s as if we, as believers, are like heady perfume that can almost intoxicate people with the truth of Christ – or a great stink that drives them away.

It’s possible that in my stumbling way, I have turned off people from Jesus.  I know I am not a gifted evangelist.

But I don’t think that’s Paul’s point.  Paul is talking about spreading the knowledge of Christ.

As a follower of Christ, I know that the Holy Spirit prepares people to put their faith in Christ.  Without God drawing them to himself, no one will come.

I see the Spirit at work in Nicodemus, a Pharisee in the highest Jewish religious body – the Sanhedrin – when Jesus was on earth.

Jesus’ message intrigued Nicodemus so much that he determined to talk with him privately (John 3).  He chose to meet him privately because most other Pharisees had rejected Christ and his message.  He did not want his colleagues to see him with Jesus.

The same message – different reactions.

Jesus had one of his most famous conversations with Nicodemus, telling him he had to change his view of life and God so dramatically that it was like being “born again”.

Unlike most Pharisees at the time, it is probable that Nicodemus put his faith in Jesus.  In John 7, he tells the Sanhedrin that a person should be heard before being condemned by that body.  And in John 19, he helps another prominent citizen – Joseph of Arimathea – to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

The story of Nicodemus should be an encouragement to anyone who is praying for someone who seems closed to faith in Christ.

People cannot put their faith in Jesus without hearing the message of Christ’s sacrifice for them.

So, I believe God is able to use even my weak efforts to share Christ’s loving message.

Because, in the end, it is God – not me – that embraces them and draws them into his family.

Rewards

I am surprised by how passionate believers become on the question of receiving rewards in heaven.

For non-Christians, this is a rarified topic.  But it is certainly a back-of-mind issue for many believers.

The reward  popped up this morning at a Bible study group on a shipboard cruise that my wife are taking in Latin America.

The central question is: Does someone get better rewarded by God in heaven for a lifetime of service and commitment than someone who becomes a believer at the last minute before death?

On one side, there are those who point to God’s grace.  They say that no one deserves to be with the Lord in eternity – it is only because of God’s forgiving love that we enter his family.

I agree with this.  The person who is a believer from childhood is no more deserving of God’s grace than the thief on the cross who appealed to Jesus to bring him into the Lord’s kingdom.

And yet, there are a number of passages in the Bible which do speak of rewards.

For instance, Jesus tells the story in Matthew 25 of the owner who gives talents to various servants and expects them to produce more money with what he has given them.  He takes away the one talent from the servant who does nothing with what he has been given.

The apostle Paul also speaks about rewards in 1 Corinthians 3:5-15.

Clearly, Jesus expects us as believers to bear spiritual fruit through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

But does this make the person who makes a commitment late in life less deserving than someone who has served the Lord for many years?

Jesus deals with this problem in Matthew 20 where he tells the story of the workers in the vineyard.  The vineyard owner paid the workers who worked only at the end of the day the same as those who worked through the full day.

Those workers who worked through the day grumbled about everyone receiving the same pay.

And the owner replied: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

In other words, God will decide what rewards his children will receive in heaven.  The latecomers will be treated as justly as the early birds.

We can be sure that God’s reasons for giving rewards will be good.

The greatest reward is that we will be with Jesus forever.