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The Pastor’s Heart

“But even if I am made a drink offering over the sacrifice and worship of your faith, I rejoice — also, I rejoice with all of you!”

(Philippians 2:17)

Here, in Paul, we find the heart of a true pastor. His heart is laid forth that even if his very life is poured out from his veins as a drink offering as a means by which the faith of the people is built up, Paul would gladly do so. Paul will use this language again in 2 Timothy 4:6 as he closes in on that time when the Romans will put him to death on account of the Gospel…this is a man who is quite prepared to die so that those under his care might have true life. As David gladly fought lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-36) to protect the sheep in his charge, so too, Paul gladly fights the forces of the enemy, the devil, to protect his charge, even if it means laying down his own life.

While, as pastors in the western world, we are rarely (if ever) confronted with a situation where we might have to put our lives on the line to preserve a member of our flock, we are often called upon to make other sacrifices for the wellbeing and care of the sheep that God has placed in our care. Yet, how often the “professional clergy” fail to do this. How often, pastors sacrifice the wellbeing of their congregation to advance their own ends or their own reputation in the community or world. How often do we see pastors using a church as a means to an end (whether bouncing from church to church in hopes of bigger churches with bigger salaries or by manipulating the sympathies of the people in the congregation to gain gifts or other benefits).

Beloved, those who seek to use their congregation as a platform to serve their own ends are not serving as pastors. Pastors who are not willing to be poured out even as a drink offering for the strengthening of the faith of the congregation do not have the heart of Paul. As I was told many years ago by another pastor and as I have told many times to others, the pastorate is not a job; it is a lifestyle. We do not punch a clock at the end of the day; we are not given the luxury of not coming in because it is our “day off,” and we are by no means ever amongst those who can leave their job “at work.” We live our calling day in and day out and if we are unwilling to do so, we are unfit for the call.

Does that mean that pastors should resign their pastorate because they have lived poorly in this way? There are many who should. What it means is that, in understanding this great truth, we should repent. And all of us have room to repent daily for none of us fully lives up to the model set before us by Paul…and if not Paul, how far we are from the model Christ set before us. And, if you are not called to be a pastor, but the pastor that God has placed over you is not being faithful in this, do not set out with pitchforks and torches, but approach him in love and grace and encourage him in love to fulfill his calling. Sometimes, in the warp and woof of life, it is easy to be distracted from one’s first love by the busyness that can so consume our days. We all fall woefully short; praise God that there is forgiveness found in Christ.

Having Been Filled

“having been filled with the fruit of righteousness because of Jesus Christ to the glory and honor of God.”

“Having been filled…” Notice the language that this verse begins with. We do not “fill” ourselves but we are filled. It is God’s work in us from the beginning to the end. We take no credit, we can only ever give praise for what our God has done in and through unworthy lumps of clay such as we. With the Apostle Paul, I can say that my works are but dung…something to be cast out lest they defile the holiness of the camp. Yet, in Christ, I can also say (again, with the Apostle Paul) that I have been filled with the fruit of righteousness. What a blessed tension there is between the two.

Thus, the righteousness that I have been given — the righteousness in which I stand  clothed before the throne of God — is not my own. It is Christ’s. Everything that is good or admirable that is found within me is because of Jesus Christ. I bring nothing of my own to the table when it comes to things of value. Without Christ’s work, I would be but a hollow shell in line to be crushed…destroyed under God’s wrath for God’s glory. Such is the man that I am and such is the cause for my praise. He has done for me that which I could never have done for myself. My debt of sin has been paid and I have been redeemed from death and Hell. I have been purchased by the blood of Christ, forgiven, reconciled to God, adopted as a son of the Most High, and am being prepared, along with the rest of the church, to be part of the bride of Christ. What more can we say but, “Glory!” and “Hallelujah!” What more can we do but to tell others the good news of this wonderful Savior!

And to whom is the honor given for this work? To God himself. May we never be “stingy” with our praise to our Redeemer-King. May we never hold back the honor that he is due. May we sing our praises to the Triune God without compromise and may we strive to live lives that are honoring to Him in everything we do. Such is the heart of a believer. Such is my prayer for you.

Honesty, Humility, and Grace

“And he went out and wept bitterly.”

(Luke 22:62)

 

Though it has already been mentioned, Peter’s reaction to his sin is worth dwelling on for a moment longer. How great the contrast is between Peter and Judas. Both committed great sins against their master and both grieved deeply as a result of their sins. Yet, there was a profound difference — Judas gave up hope, which led to his own suicide. Though Peter was captured within the miry bog of despair, it seems that he never gave up hope and he never totally separated himself from the other disciples — those who would show him forgiveness.

How often, when people fall into very deep sin, one of three things happen. First, they seek to hide their sin, neglecting that no one can hide from the eyes of God. Second, they isolate themselves from the body of believers wherein healing can take place. Or third, and worst of all, the body of believers shuns the repentant brother and refuses to forgive them of the sin they committed.

Yet, what we find in Peter’s experience is wholly different and a good testimony of how repentance ought to be approached in the life of the believer and the church. Peter grieved his sin and grieved deeply. He had betrayed his Lord. Yet, he did not hide his sin — indeed, it became part of the testimony of God’s forgiveness within the Gospel accounts. Secondly, he did not flee from the presence of the other disciples — the church. Surely there must have been some frustration at Peter’s confession, but then again, they had fled as well so also stood guilty of abandoning their Lord. Perhaps the only one with a right to condemn would have been John, who did not flee nor deny, but we never see such taking place. And clearly, as we move into the book of Acts, this group of men and women never held Peter’s denial against him. It never got brought up again in a way that would compromise the message of the Gospel of Reconciliation. What a wonderful model for us as the church. It would require honesty, humility, and grace, but is that not what we have also received from Christ himself?

 

The Rooster’s Second Crow, the Look, and the Tears

“And Peter remembered Jesus’ word when he said, ‘Before the rooster crows, three times you will disown me.’ And he went out and he wept bitterly.”

(Matthew 26:75)

 

“And at once the rooster crowed a second time and Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, three times you will deny me.’ And he fell down and wept.”

(Mark 14:72)

 

“And the Lord shifted position to look directly at Peter and Peter remembered the word that the Lord had spoken to him that before the rooster crowed today, three times you will renounce me.’” And he went out and wept bitterly.”

(Luke 22:61-62)

 

Three of the four Gospel writers remind us of Jesus’ prophetic statement to Peter about the rooster crowing, but only Luke adds that at the point that Peter made his third denial, Jesus shifted his position to look in Peter’s direction. It is as if Jesus was saying, “Peter, is this how you wish to leave me?” It is an act of discipline, but an act of grace as well reminding Peter of the forgiveness that is to come on the other side of this very dark night. We are told nothing about the look — good or bad — it is simply left to us as a reminder of Jesus’ care for his disciples. Some have struggled with the idea of Jesus, on the other side of an angry mob of people, being aware of Peter’s location, let alone his denials, but that criticism forgets that Jesus is also God as well as man, with a perfect knowledge of all that must come to pass.

During what we refer to as Jesus’ Passion Week — the week between the Triumphal Entry and his Glorious Resurrection — Jesus told an interesting parable. He was giving what we refer to as the “Olivet Discourse,” a sermon largely looking toward both the fall of Jerusalem and the end of times when Jesus would return. As Jesus closes the sermon he does so with a parable about not knowing the day or the hour of his return (Mark 13:32-36) — that he might come during the evening, midnight, or when the rooster crows. Now, it must be stated that the context is a little different given that Jesus is speaking of his own return, but given that this is the only other time in the Bible that Jesus (or any Biblical writer) mentions a rooster (let alone a rooster crowing), it is worth drawing the connection — a connection based simply on the principle importance of being aware.

How important it is for us to keep alert and keep up our guard when sin comes crouching at our door (Genesis 4:7). How quick we are to drop that guard either when we are comfortable or when we, like Peter, feel threatened. The question that the parable asks, though, is what will we be found doing when the Master returns? In Peter’s case, when the Master gazed over in his direction, he was found denying and disowning his Lord. In our case, when our Lord looks down on our lives from his royal throne, what does he see us doing? And when he returns again, what will He find us engaged in? May the crowing of the rooster always be a reminder to us to be engaged in our Master’s business. When Peter heard the rooster crow this second time, he came to his senses and fled — doing the only thing humanly conceivable — he wept bitterly. Holy grief overwhelmed him, but in God’s grace, it did not consume him. There is a difference. May we recognize our sin for what it is and grieve accordingly, yet not end there, but turn to our God for grace. Beloved, he will give it.

The Rooster Crows a Second Time

“Then he began to curse and to take an oath, ‘I do not know the man!’ and at once the rooster crowed.”

(Matthew 26:74)

 

“Then he began to place himself under a curse and take an oath, ‘I do not know the man of whom you speak!’ And at once the rooster crowed a second time and Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, three times you will deny me.’ And he fell down and wept.”

(Mark 14:71-72)

 

“But Peter said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about!’ Immediately, even as he was speaking, the rooster crowed.”

(Luke 22:60)

 

“Again, Peter disowned him and at once the rooster crowed.”

(John 18:27)

 

It has been said that the tradition of putting a rooster on top of a weathervane is meant as a reminder of the denial of Peter and how often, by our words and by our actions, we too fall into that sin. As we reflected before, isn’t it curious as to how God uses such a variety of things to remind us of our sin and to call us to righteousness. And now, through history, we are reminded of this great truth any time such a bird crows.

We have already noted that Mark is the only one that records that the rooster actually crowed twice, something that ought not be too surprising given that traditionally Mark is understood as having been Peter’s secretary in Jerusalem — and if anyone would know how many times the rooster crowed, Peter would.

What should weigh more heavily on your soul, though, is the cursing that takes place on Peter’s part. As has been mentioned, Peter is desperate. On one level he is desperate to follow Jesus and find out what is going to happen to his master. On another level, he is rightfully afraid for his life. There is no telling what this mob will do if they get their hands on Peter. Peter knows that and the words that fall from his lips reflect the reality that he is acting in that desperation. You can almost hear him screaming, “Just leave me alone!” to those who keep prodding him. And, then, this third disowning of Jesus is wed together with curses.

Interestingly, Matthew and Mark describe the curses somewhat differently. Matthew simply describes him cursing or swearing that his words are true. Mark adds that this curse was an imprecation against himself — something along the lines of, “May God strike me down if I am not telling the truth.” These must have been devastating words for Peter to utter and then to hear the crowing of the rooster following right on its heels, it must have been a crushing blow. Peter was reduced to a broken man.

Yet, that is not the end of Peter’s story. The difference between Peter’s story and Jude’s story is ultimately one about forgiveness — both from God and by oneself. Judas rejected Jesus just as plainly as Jesus did and both were broken men. Yet in God’s design, Judas bore the blame of his betrayal to the grave and into eternity. Peter, though broken, clung to hope and in God’s design was not only brought to forgiveness, but remade into the bold preacher we find in the book of Acts. What a transformation takes place between these verses and Acts 2, just a couple months later!

But that is how God works, is it not! Through the process of breaking God shows us that He is sovereign, that He orders our days, and that He is King and Ruler over the universe. We serve Him, not He us. We get ahead of ourselves if we explore Peter’s three-fold forgiveness here, but we need to at least be reminded that for Peter, as dark as this night may be, the day is coming and the story is not yet over — and praise be to God that such is the case! May you too rest in the knowledge that no matter how dark the days may seem — God is not done with you either.

Details, Details, and More Details

“After a bit, those who were standing around went up to Peter and said, ‘Truly, you are also from them; your speech makes it evident.’”

(Matthew 26:73)

 

“But again he disowned him. But in a short while, again those present said to Peter, ‘Truly, you are from them because you are Galilean.’”

(Mark 14:70)

 

“And after about an hour had passed another was insistent saying, ‘Truly, this man was with them — he is also a Galilean!’”

(Luke 22:59)

 

“And one of the servants of the High Priest — a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off — said, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’”

(John 18:26)

 

This sets us up for Peter’s third denial, but notice that this challenge to Peter is one of the reasons that doing a harmony like this can be so valuable, for each Gospel writer adds a little different piece of the puzzle that helps us to better see the whole. Mark gives us the basic account, but from Matthew we also learn for sure that it was Peter’s dialect that has given him away. This can be surmised from the accounts leading up to this statement, but here Matthew confirms that his accent has given him away in Caiaphas’ court. Remember, in ancient times, people were not nearly as upwardly mobile as they are today, so most people spent their whole lives (except for festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem) within a small radius of where they were born. Thus, a variety of accents surrounding you was more uncommon than not. Peter was from the north and that gave him away as he was trying to blend in with the southerners who were conducting this trial.

Luke, the doctor interested in chronological details, adds that about an hour has passed at this point from the previous denials. This again goes to support the premise that Peter’s disowning of Jesus was taking place while Jesus was being questioned — first by Annas and then by Caiaphas. Finally, John tells us who it is from this crowd of bystanders that speaks — it is a relative of Malchus, the one whose ear was cut off by Peter himself. I suspect that were I to witness someone attack a relative of mine with a sword and cut off his ear, that I would be quick to recognize this man, and that is precisely what happened. Peter is in hot water and when the question of “fight or flight” comes up, he chooses the latter. We criticize Peter for his fearfulness, and rightfully so, but realistically, how many of us would have acted differently?

And that is one of the principles that we must keep before our eyes — does our life present a bold witness that we belong to Jesus Christ? Or, have we kept that under wraps? Would your co-workers be able to testify that they knew you were a Christian? How about neighbors? Family members? If the answer is, “no,” then that is not the end of the world — the follow up question is just, “What will you do to correct this fault?” Loved ones, live out your faith in the public sphere — not to point a figure at yourself, but to point a finger toward Christ. This world is in need of life and hope, only Jesus can provide that hope and life — if you know that, share that. It is good news for weary souls.

God Reigns from His Holy Throne

“God reigns over the peoples; God sits upon his holy throne.”

(Psalm 47:9 {verse 8 in English translations})

 

The plain theme of God’s lordship and rulership over his creation continues through this verse as we move through the psalm — God is worthy of our praise — he alone is King and Ruler and Sovereign over those who serve him and over his enemies as well. Yet, how is it that God is King over all of the peoples? All of the peoples certainly do not serve him nor do all of the peoples acknowledge his kingship. So how are we to understand this clause.

Though God does not take away our liberty to go here or there or to do this or that, he has created us in such a fashion that we fulfill his design for us individually and in the world. Thus, by God’s providential governance, he orders the events of our lives so to bring about his designs. That means that even the most hardened atheist who rails against God with fist clenched and shaking in the air is still under the Lordship of God’s plan and design. They might not acknowledge Him or recognize Him in their life, but nevertheless he is there. Indeed, there will come a time and a day when they will confess that great truth (Philippians 2:9-11), but the reality is in place even now and has always been in place.

There is another principle that needs to be turned back towards home, and that is our obedience to and submission before the rule of God. God calls us to submit to Him; we tend to do what we want even though at times what we want does not honor Him. And we do it anyway. We, like the atheist, are often guilty of raising our clenched fists against God even if we do so only by our choice of actions. We too are worthy of His judgment. Forgive us, Lord, for we indeed have willfully sinned against you!

And in Christ, there is mercy, there is peace, and there is hope. We need to remind ourselves of these things because in our sin we tend to draw ourselves away from the mercies of God and from his forgiveness. We are not given license to sin in Christ, but when we do sin, we are given forgiveness and praise be to God for that! Our debt has been paid by Jesus Christ, loved ones, let us live like it and live in a way that seeks consistently to honor the one who sacrificed so much for us and now who sits exalted on his throne on high. Our God does indeed reign from his Holy throne; let us live like it.

Come and See the Deeds of Yahweh!

“Come and see the deeds of Yahweh;

How he has brought destruction upon the earth.

He causes wars to cease unto their end;

The earth and bow are shattered;

And the spear is smashed to bits.

The wagons he burns with fire.”

(Psalm 46:9-10 {verses 8-9 in English translations})

 

Come and see the deeds of Yahweh! Indeed, the psalmist calls to us to witness the power and the might of our Lord. Usually, when you hear this kind of language, the images that come to mind are images of grace and mercy given to the undeserving, yet that is not the direction that the psalmist takes as he challenges us to come and see. Instead, he speaks of the destruction brought by God’s judgment. The word he uses here is hDÚmAv (shammah), which is a term that is always used to refer to the destruction that follows judgment. Sometimes this word is rendered as “atrocities” to give it more force from the perspective of those under said judgment.

And indeed, God’s wrath is horrific for those under his judgment. Think about those who perished in the flood of Noah’s day or in the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. Think of the plagues that God set upon the Egyptians and even the judgments against those like Korah who rebelled in the wilderness wanderings. In the Israelite entrance into the Promised Land, God commanded entire cities be put to the ban; bringing death to every living thing that dwelled within the city. And then in God’s own judgment poured out against his Son, Jesus, when he was on the cross of Calvary. Indeed, these are horrific events, but events with a purpose.

Often Christians shy away from the language of God’s wrath, but in doing so, they leech the Gospel of its power. If we do not have a clear-eyed-view of what it is that we are being saved from, we will not appreciate the salvation that is extended. James says that the demons tremble at the name of God (James 2:19); unbelieving men and believing men alike rarely give God’s wrath a second thought. Why this contrast? It is because the demons know the justice of God is poured out in wrath and that they are bound to receive it in full; men have deceived themselves into thinking that God is little more than a senile grandfather who dotes on his grandchildren. What a rude awakening many will receive.

So what is the purpose of such events? On one level they are meant as a warning to us to drive us to our knees in repentance. In addition, they are a reminder that God is a just God who will not allow sin to go unpunished. Sometimes, when we look at judgment, we may be tempted to cry out as children so often do, “not fair!” Yet, were we to really grasp the magnitude of our own sin we would be forced to concede that God indeed is fairness defined. It is only through and because of the work of Christ that we have any reason to hope for an escape from judgment because he took our judgment upon himself.

Indeed, come and see the justice of our God! To you who believe, know that in our God we have a strong refuge but to you who stand firmly in your own arrogance and pride; beware, for the judgment of God is horrific indeed. Hell is a place where the fires burn and are never quenched, where the worms consume and never go away, where we are eternally in the process of being torn down and are separated from anything that is good. Such is the just punishment for our sins against a Holy and Righteous God. Praise be to God for the redemption that is given in Jesus!

Ego Deficiam

“I will fail them.” The early church fathers reflected on the relationships between pastors, the world, satan, and the church flock and developed a series of statements that described each relationship. The first of these statements was that of the pastor with regard to his people: Ego Deficiam (I will fail).

At first, our response might be to think that this is a rather pessimistic view of the relationship between shepherd and flock. How is it that a pastor could go into his role with the assumption that he will fail his people? As churches, do we want to hire a pastor who says up front, “Oh, by the way, I will fail you.” It is food for thought.

There are two aspects of this statement, that we must understand. The first is the “I.” I will fail you. I will fail as your pastor, as your counselor, and as your friend. I will fail as a husband and as a father. I will fail as an employee and as a representative of the church in the community. I will fail. Yet, this is not a pessimistic view, but a realistic view (as well as a Biblical one). For while I will fail you; Christ will not do so. Christ will gloriously succeed not because of my efforts, but in spite of my best efforts. And when I serve not in my own strength, but in the strength of Christ, then glorious things will happen—not for my praise, but for God’s.

This is the reason that a pastor (all Christians really) must be a man of prayer. And not just a prayer in the morning or evening, but a pastor must be a man of constant prayer through the day. One of the reasons that I like Nehemiah is because he exemplifies this. Not only are there formal and structured prayers recorded coming off of his lips, but also he lifts up short little “bullet prayers” throughout the day as he is making decisions. Those of you who know me or who have sat under me teaching on Nehemiah know that I am not overly fond of his model as a manager of people (even though lots of books present him that way); read Nehemiah 13:23-27 and ask yourself if you want a governor or office manager who leads in this fashion☺. I do believe, though, he provides us with a good example of perpetual prayer, seeking God’s wisdom and strength.

The second aspect that we must understand is that the fact that someone fails is not nearly as important as what someone does as a result of that failure. The true humility of a man will always present itself in failures, not in successes. If a person covers up their failures or seeks to shift blame to others, then the person’s character is such that you ought not have him as shepherd. If he is humble, repentant, and takes responsibility for his actions, then that is a man you want to lead you. The Gospel is the good news of God reconciling us poor and spiritually bankrupt sinners to himself; we are all in the same boat together within the church—wretches who have been redeemed by grace. Why should we expect our pastor of not being a sinner and thus a failure in God’s economy?

Sadly, we often create a standard that a pastor cannot hope to live up to and then make him feel like he has to hide his sin to keep up appearances. Yet, if the pastor is living hypocritically, why are we surprised when the members of our congregations live hypocritically? Our goal must be very different. We must endeavor to create a culture of honesty and transparency within our church community that is seasoned with abundant grace. Then, when one fails, the community comes together to work toward grace-filled reconciliation. It must be said, that there are some failures that must, by their very nature, remove a man from the office of shepherd, but not that ought to remove him from the church.

In discussions and counseling sessions with members of my congregation, one of the things that I have said over and over is: “We are going to make mistakes; we are going to mess things up.” The fact is, we are fallen and sinful and despite the grace we have been shown by Christ, we will not always show the grace we ought to show. At the same time, what I have told people is that when we mess up, if you let us know, we will fix it.

Indeed, I will fail you. But in Christ, I will repent and strive to make it right.

The Confrontation: Genesis 20:9-10

“Then Abimelek called for Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? How have I sinned towards you that you have introduced this great sin upon me and upon my kingdom? Works which should not have been done, you have worked upon me.’ Abimelek said to Abraham, “What did you see that you did this thing?”

(Genesis 20:9-10)

 

The thing that interests me the most about this confrontation is that Abimelek does right what most Christians that I interact with seem to do wrong. When Abimelek realizes that Abraham has deceived him in this way, Abimelek does not throw a temper tantrum nor does he badmouth Abraham behind his back. Abimelek also does not try to “get even” as is so often done. Instead, Abimelek confronts Abraham and asks him what the purpose of this deception was as well as asking Abraham what he had done to make Abraham act like this.

Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20 gives us instructions as to how we are to resolve conflicts, and in doing so, Jesus begins by instructing us to go directly to the person and speak to them about what took place with the intention of restoring the relationship that was broken. Abimelek does just that. There is no question that he is upset, but he makes the choice to go and confront Abraham in his sin. How often it is that confessing Christians are unwilling to do what this pagan is willing to do. How often it is that some of the worst back-biters are those who fill the pews of churches on Sunday mornings. How sad it is that confessing Christians so often set a poorer model than do unbelievers when we should be the ones who set the bar for the culture. We who know the love and forgiveness of God should be the first to model that love and forgiveness to the culture.

Loved ones, how is it that you respond to an offense done against you? It matters not whether we are comfortable in doing so, this is the command of Jesus we are talking about! Jesus says that if you love him you will obey him (John 14:15). Obedience forces us into places and situations which will stretch us as they are often God’s tool to sanctify us. Before you gripe and complain about one who has offended you, begin by asking yourself what you might have done to cause the person to offend you (as we see Abimelek doing) and second, ask yourself how you have offended God. As God has forgiven you, forgive the offending brother and go to him in grace seeking to restore him from his sin. They say that blood is thicker than water—the blood of Christ, though, is thicker than all.

 

Forgive Us Our Debts

“And forgive us our debts, even as we forgive our debtors.”

(Matthew 6:12)

 

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

(Matthew 6:12, KJV)

 

Though the language of this petition is financial language, in the context, Jesus is using this language to reflect that which we owe to others as a result of sin (which is why some people say “transgressions” here—though I have yet to find a translation of the Bible that reads “transgressions” and not debits).  This is the only petition of the prayer that our Lord actually goes back to and explains (see Matthew 6:14-15) and when he explains the petition, he does so in terms of our sins. 

This, indeed, is our great spiritual need—to be forgiven.  Christ begins the list of petitions for our needs by addressing our physical needs and now he moves to the spiritual—the mental will come next.  But also note, that while this is our great need, this is also the only petition of this prayer that is qualified by something that we must do—that is to forgive.

This is heavy stuff.  What we are praying to God is that he should forgive us in the same way we forgive others.  If we withhold forgiveness, we are telling him that he should withhold it from us as well.  This is a terribly high standard to have before us if we are entirely honest.  Certainly, there are some people who it is relatively easy to forgive, but then again, there are others who have hurt us so badly and so deeply that forgiveness seems impossible—yet loved ones, with God, all things, all things are possible.

You who have been forgiven so much in the eyes of God, how can you fail to forgive others?  We owe a debit to God for our sin that we could never even begin to repay, yet Christ chose to pay it on our behalf—and pay it he did, in his own blood.  No wickedness that another man can do to you, no matter how hurtful and severe, can come close to the wickedness of your sin in the eyes of a Holy God.  Even the angels shield their eyes in God’s presence.  Yet for you, believer, God has not withheld his forgiveness—how is it that you can withhold forgiveness from others? 

Jesus never ceases to stretch us as we grow in faith, and to take seriously the words of this prayer, we are forced to grow beyond ourselves.  The reality is that it is impossible for us to forgive some people on our own strength—the hurt is just too deep and it is not in our heart to do so.  That is why we ask God to change our hearts and conform them to his will—that we may forgive even where it seems impossible to do so.  Beloved, will you pray that God will enable you to forgive others as he has forgiven you?

A Broken Spirit and Crushed Heart: Psalm 51 (part 18)

“The sacrifices of God are a spirit that is broken and

a heart that is broken and crushed—

O God, these you will not despise.

(Psalm 51:19 {Psalm 51:17 in English Bibles})

 

There are two ways in which we can look at David’s statement about the “sacrifices of God.”  The first way is the way that this verse is typically seen and that is to say that the sacrifices that are “of God” or are “acceptable to God” are a broken spirit and a broken and a contrite heart.  This interpretation clearly fits the context of the passage as a whole and joins hand in hand with the language about sacrifices that is found in the previous verse, and indeed, those who come before the Lord with hearts that are proud and haughty, filled with a sense of their own achievements, will be sent away in shame.  We are a people who have nothing in our hands to show or offer—our lives and works can only earn us condemnation if it is what we are trusting in to bring us to God. 

Yet, there is a second way that we can understand this verse, and that is as a prophetic statement of the coming of Christ.  For it is God himself who would offer himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of his people—beaten and broken, and suffering not only in his death, but suffering in life as he grieved the state of his covenant people.  Thus, in Christ, God himself offered up the sacrifice of a broken heart as demonstrated in Christ’s suffering and death.  In addition, do not the scriptures speak of our sin grieving the heart of God?  Indeed, out of God’s grieving heart he offered up the sacrifice of his Son so that any who would cling to Him as their Lord and Savior would be redeemed from their sin. 

Oh, loved ones, how the cost of sin should cause us to grieve sin all the more.  Someone else paid the price, took the punishment on our behalf—it cost God what we could not pay.  How, then, knowing this, do we so often take sin so lightly—do we take forgiveness so casually?  Beloved, examine your hearts; see where they are broken and supple, but most importantly, look to find those areas that have gotten proud and hard and pray to God that He will crush those parts to dust.  It will hurt when God does so, but beloved, it is only in brokenness that you can have a heart that is right before God. 

O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from thee;

I lay in dust life’s glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.

-George Matheson

Conceal Your Face from My Sins: Psalm 51 (part 10)

“Conceal your face from my sins,

and all my iniquities may you wipe clean.”

(Psalm 51:11 {Psalm 51:9 in English Bibles})

 

Have you ever had to deal with something that is just so disgusting and distasteful that you just had to turn your head for fear that you might get sick, and simply work with your hands?  Somehow, if you turn your head and don’t look at what your hands are doing, you can complete the task before your stomach turns.  This is the picture that David is painting for us in this verse.  It is one of God, who is holy and who hates sin, turning his head so he does not need to look at the sin as he wipes David spiritually clean.  “Look away!”  David cries.  But at the same time, David says, “Clean me!”  For David understands better than most that it is only God who can clean us from our wretched sin.

So often we take such a light view of our own sin.  We think of it as a little stain on an otherwise “ok” person.  How different this is from how God looks on sin.  Sin is active rebellion against God—it is a rejection of his character and of his goodness.  Sin is ugly, wretched, unholy, filthy, and putrid in the sight of God.  It is rotten and disgusting and smells of the same, and sin permeates our whole being.  Even our good works carry with them the stench of our sinful being.  We cannot escape it on our own—it oozes from the pours of our soul with an unhealthy odor.   It is dark and dank and covered with scum—and God is the only one who can take sin away.  David understands that, so he calls God to look away—to turn his face—yet to do his cleansing work.  Oh, how we would profit were we to view sin more like the way David viewed his own sin.

Beloved, when you cling to or hold on to pet sins—sins that you are not just yet ready to get rid of or ones that you don’t think are causing anyone any harm—think of these words of David.  Holding on to sins is like bathing in a cesspool—you will never get clean.  The problem that the unbelieving world has is that they are comfortable in the cesspool and don’t want to get out.  The problem that the Christian has is that they are drawn back to that old cesspool again and again.  Yet, loved ones, you have been cleaned by the blood of Jesus Christ!  How then is it that you would knowingly return to the filth of the sins of this world!  Yet, we do, over and over, don’t we.  Beloved, pray that God would instill in you a disgust for sin and a taste for holiness.  May God turn his head while he washes us clean.

Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling;

Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the Fountains fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.

-Augustus Toplady

Let Me Hear Jubilation and Joy: Psalm 51 (part 9)

“Let me hear jubilation and joy,

Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice!”

(Psalm 51:10 {Psalm 51:8 in English Bibles})

 

Just as forgiveness can only come from the Lord, so too does restoration.  True joy cannot be had apart from God, because true joy is something that can only be experienced in relationship with God.  We may chase after many things that bring us pleasure, but it is only God who can bring us lasting joy, and oh, how our sin deprives us of such joy.  Sin is that which drives a wedge in the relationship we have with God, yet oh, how glorious our God is, in restoring that joy as he forgives our sins.

Also, beloved, do not miss what David is showing us in this verse—it is the bones that “you (speaking of God) have crushed.”  So often when we think of the horrid things that happen to us, we immediately blame the devil and his mischief, and there is no question that the devil is at work in this world.  Yet, never forget that our God is sovereign even over the devil and his actions and our God often uses the machinations of the devil to bring about his good pleasure.  It is God who brings about all things, both great and small, good and ill (Isaiah 45:7) either though his direct action or through his permissive will, and it is God who breaks us when we persist in sin, to bring us back to himself.  Yet, even the bones that have been broken and crushed may be restored to rejoicing in repentance.

Beloved, sometimes we get so lost in the rule and instruction of scripture that sometimes we can miss the incredible joy that can be found in Jesus Christ.  Yet, note that joy in Christ can only be had if it is done in submission to Jesus’ lordship.  Loved ones, seek to repent for the sins of your life, but in that repentance, pray that God would restore to you the joy that comes from a close relationship with him.  The closer you walk to your beloved, the easier it is to stroll hand in hand.

Forgiveness is All about Christ

“And those who you forgive, I also do.  And indeed, those which I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anyone, is because of you, in the presence of Christ, in order that we might not be taken advantage of by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his thoughts.”

(2 Corinthians 2:10-11)

 

“For we are not as many are, selling the Word of God for profit, but rather out of sincerity, as ones from God, in the presence of God, it is in Christ that we speak.”

(2 Corinthians 2:17)

 

            The devil’s desire is to cause dissention and division within the body of Christ.  His desire is nothing but one of destruction, waging war against the followers of Christ.  One way he does that is by hampering our forgiveness of others.  Not only does that hamper our forgiveness from God, but it also allows the roots of the weeds to remain in your heart—and then those ugly weeds will grow back, choking the life from you.  One of the easiest ways in which you can defeat the work of Satan in your life is by being broken and willing to forgive—even at great cost.

            But we do what we do not because we want to wage war against the devil—he has waged war against us.  We do what we do because we are not our own; we belong to Christ.  And thus, all that we do must be done in Christ and through Christ.  It must be done for his glory and his glory alone.  When things are boiled down, nothing else matters.  We have been called and commissioned by God as his servants, and it is a mighty task that God has commissioned us to do: making disciples of all nations.  Yet this task begins with our right relationship with God through Christ and our relationship with others through Christ.  Our Christian witness must be one of both word and deed, forgiving as we have been forgiven.  Beloved, recognize that you have been given a sacred task to forgive both small and great for the glory of God.  As St. Francis of Assissi, once said, “Preach always, and if necessary, use words.”

 

Forgiveness is Sacrificial

“And he shall cause all its fat to go up in a smoke offering upon the altar as the fat of the sacrifice of the peace offering, and so the priest shall make atonement for him from his sin, and he will be forgiven.”

(Leviticus 4:26)

 

“If then the blood of male goats and bulls and ashes of a heifer sprinkled over the ones who are defiled sanctifies the flesh for purification, how much more the blood of Christ, which through the eternal Spirit, offered himself blameless to God, will cleanse our conscience from the dead for serving the living God?”

(Hebrews 9:13-14)

 

            Forgiveness does not come easily, but comes at a great cost.  Even unintentional or accidental sins (which the passage from Leviticus is dealing with) are not dismissed without cost.  And though the one who is asking the forgiveness may have to pay a cost, ultimately it is the one doing the forgiving that pays the greatest cost.  It is dangerous to forgive someone because when you do that, you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable to being hurt again.  Yet, God paid the ultimate cost to offer you and I forgiveness—he sent his son to die on the cross to pay the blood penalty for our sins. 

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,

What wondrous love is this, O my soul!

What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss

To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,

To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

            This sacrificial nature of forgiveness is not something that our culture values.  People usually end up on one of two extremes.  The one who has offended usually wants to take no responsibility for their offense, wanting a “get out of jail free pass” as part of your forgiveness.  In contrast, the one who has been harmed usually wants the person to pay, and pay, and pay, whether that be in a huge monetary settlement or by laying a burden of guilt upon the other party.  This is not the model that God sets for us.  While we were still rebelling in sin, he sent his son to live and to die on a cross to bring atonement.  He has promised us that if we repent of our sins, he will forgive us, the price of the sin being already paid by the blood of Christ. 

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing,

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing;

To God and to the Lamb, who is the great I AM,

While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,

While millions join the theme, I will sing!

            If our Lord, full of holiness and grace, would choose to sacrifice himself to bring us forgiveness, should we not also model this in our lives? One of the greatest ways that we can demonstrate God’s love and forgiveness is by forgiving others with the same sacrificial willingness that our Lord demonstrated to us.  Friends, this life is short and passing away.  Though the hurts and injuries caused by others my seem insurmountable now, in the scope of eternity, they are insignificant and will pass away with this life.  What better way can you bless someone than by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with them through your forgiveness—as much as that forgiveness might cost you to give.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on;

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,

And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,

And through eternity I’ll sing on!

Forgiveness is the Result of Love

“And they refused to obey and they did not remember your wonderful works which you did with them.  They hardened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their bondage in their rebellion.  But you are a God of forgiveness—gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in steadfast love—and you did not forsake them.”

(Nehemiah 9:17)

 

            This passage from Nehemiah is part of a larger prayer that was led by the Levites, proclaiming the covenant faithfulness of God even in the midst of the sin of the people and repenting of their sin as well.  This was part of a covenant renewal—recommitting themselves as a nation to the service of God on high.  The prayer extols the ds,x, (hesed) of God (translated here as “steadfast love”).  God’s ds,x, (hesed) is one of the great themes of the Old Testament and describes his covenant faithfulness and mercy despite the covenant breaking of his people.  It is a term that is very closely tied with the New Testament term, ajgavph (agape), which refers to a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether that love is reciprocated.

            Friends, because of God’s great love, you have experienced forgiveness.  You who were rebelling against God in your sin, you who were unworthy of anything but eternal condemnation, have experienced this forgiveness when you were born again.  How is it then, that you can withhold forgiveness of others?  It is because of the great love that God has shown to you that you can forgive others.  If you have never experienced the love of God, then it is understandable that you cannot forgive, but you who have experienced the love of God need to demonstrate that love in the way you forgive those who have offended you—even when they are still in rebellion against what is right. 

Most English translations of the Bible translate the central section of this verse as: “appointed a leader to return to their bondage in Egypt.” The word that is translated “in Egypt” which I have translated as “in their rebellion” is the word MDy√rImV;b  (bemiryam).  Literally, this word means “in their rebellion” as I have translated it.  “In Egypt,” though, would only vary by one letter, and would look like this: Mˆy∂rVxImV;b (bemitsrayim).  The only difference is the presence of the letter c (tsade-which gives the “ts” sound).  Given the context of the prayer, which is speaking of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness wanderings and their complaining—many expressing the desire to return to slavery in Egypt, most translators consider that the missing tsade was just a scribal error when the text was being copied thousands of years ago.

At the same time, the reading of the ancient text should not be ignored.  We must never forget that the people’s sin is rebellion against God and sin binds us in spiritual chains.  God’s redemption of the people from their physical bondage in Egypt is a picture of what God’s redemption of his people’s bondage to sin would look like as fulfilled in Christ.  The way our English Bibles translate this word, then, probably best reflects what these priests were praying, but we should never forget what is being done by God in the larger picture of redemptive history.  And that is God’s faithfulness in spite of our great unfaithfulness.

Friends, there will be people who will harm and offend you.  There will be people that it will seem like you could never forgive.  Yet, I plead with you who have experienced God’s ds,x, (hesed), show that ds,x, (hesed) to others in the way you forgive.  One thing that I often hear at funerals is “I wish that I had taken the time to tell this person that I loved them have forgiven them…”  Beloved, don’t live with regrets, love and forgive others as God has loved and forgiven you.

Forgiveness is Sincere

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous in order that he might forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  (1 John 1:9)

 

            I saw a skit a number of years ago that depicted how many American families interact with one another.  In the skit, both the husband and the wife carried a ledger around with them.  When one person did something nice for another, it was marked down in the ledger.  When something mean or careless was done, it too was marked in the ledger.  Debates then ensued between each person about how many plusses or minuses that each had.

            Though this seems like a rather silly way to live life, it is the way that many people live.  So-and-so did something nice for me so now I am obligated to do something nice for them—even the slate, as it were.  And also, so-and-so offended me in this way, so I need to keep track of it lest they offend me again.  Then, when the question of forgiveness comes along, it might be offered up front, but if anything bad ever happens again, then the ledger can come out and  the “remember when” is uttered.

            We have talked about a lot of things that forgiveness is not, one thing that forgiveness is, is sincere.  Forgiveness is meant to be acted upon and lived out.  If you forgive someone, then there can be no notes kept in the ledger book regarding their sin toward you.  It is not held over someone’s head, either, in the hopes of making them feel guilty or that “they owe you” something.  Forgiveness does not have a remember when attitude.

            This is not to say that scars will not remain even after you have forgiven another person.  Sometimes wounds are very deep and need a long time to heal.  But the reason that scars remain is not so that you can continue to hold said sin over your offender’s head, but the scars remain to remind you what God has brought you through.  The scars also remain as a testimony to the world that God has preserved you through trials and tribulations and perhaps will allow you to minister to others who are facing a similar crisis.  There is great power in being able to say that I have faced the same thing you are going through, God has preserved me, and God has enabled me to forgive.  That is a powerful testimony.

            Friends, I have said this before and I will continue to say this as long as I draw breath.  You and I have been forgiven more than we can imagine.  Our sin is more heinous to God than a thousand sins that another could do to you.  Your sin—my sin—cost God the life of his Son, what more need I say?  And beloved, if God could forgive you, then God can enable you to forgive one another as hard as that may seem.  Trust Him to do that work in you.

Forgiveness is not Optional

“For if you should forgive people their offenses, your heavenly father will also forgive you.  But if you should not forgive people, neither will your father forgive you your offenses.”

(Matthew 6:14-15)

 

“For if your Hebrew brother or Hebrew [person] is sold to you, he will serve you six years, and in the seventh year you will release him from being with you.  And when you send him free from being with you, you shall not send him out with empty hands.  You shall surely provide abundantly for him from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat.  For Yahweh, your God, has blessed you; you shall give to him.  And you shall remember—for you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yahweh, your God, redeemed you.  Because of this, I command this thing of you today.”

(Deuteronomy 15:12-15)

 

“And you shall make holy the year of the fiftieth year and you will proclaim liberty in the land to all who dwell there.  It is to be a jubilee for you. And you will return, each man to his possession and each man to his family.  You shall return.”

(Leviticus 25:10)

 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for the sake of which, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind and to send forgiveness to those who are broken down—to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

(Luke 4:18-19)

 

“And all who believed were with each other, and they held all things in common.”

(Acts 2:44)

 

            One of the things that you find as you study scripture is that there are themes that begin in the Old Testament and are developed to their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.  These themes, as they develop, point more and more to the need of something greater than simply a human fulfillment and are meant to show us our absolute need of Christ to fulfill what we cannot do on our own.  This theme of the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee is one of them.

            According to ancient Jewish law, God commanded that every seventh year, those who were in debit to you were to be let free and pardoned (see the passage from Deuteronomy (above).  This principle was based on two things.  First, it represented the principle of the Sabbath being applied to all of life.  Not only then were masters to have their servants and slaves rest on the seventh day, but in the seventh year, their slaves were to be freed and sent away with enough wealth that they could start off a new life on good financial footing.

            The second principle that this is based on is the principle of God’s release of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt.  Because they had been slaves at one time, and God redeemed them from their oppressors, they were always to remember that and do the same for the slaves in their household.  And as they had left Egypt with great possessions, so too, should their slaves leave their households with great possessions.  The language of the passage is forceful and stresses the idea that this command of God was not an abstract rule that he was giving them, but they had an obligation to their slaves that flowed out of their very national identity.  They are ones who had been redeemed—they then must be redeemers of others.

            As an important side note, earlier in this chapter about the Sabbatical year, where God is talking about the forgiveness of personal debits, there is a promise that if the people would be faithful in this, God would bless their land and there would be no poor amongst them.  Oftentimes, it was poverty and debit that forced people into slavery.  Were this principle enforced, people would not only pay off all of their debits through six years of labor, but they would get a fresh start with new possessions from the master—the wealth would not be hoarded, but distributed amongst the people. There would still be some who were wealthier than others, but no one in the land would be in need.

            In a similar vein, the Jews were to celebrate a year of Jubilee every 50th year.  Not only were debits forgiven in the Year of Jubilee, but family lands that had been sold to pay debits were to be returned to their rightful families.  It was to be a year dedicated to the worship of God and all he did and a year dedicated to restoring family bonds and connections.

            The problem with all of this is that the people did not follow through on the command that God had given them to fulfill the Sabbatical year or the Year of Jubilee.  To do so would have represented a huge financial loss to those in power financially.  Human beings, because of sin, tend to be rather selfish, and the promise of no poor in the land was not an incentive for the wealthy class to relinquish part of their wealth.

            As the misery and poverty that resulted from the people’s failure grew, God issued a new promise through the prophet Isaiah.  Because the people could not fulfill the year of Jubilee, God would do it for them.  Isaiah proclaims that a messiah would come who would proclaim this year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61:1-3).  In Jesus’ first recorded sermon in his hometown (Luke 4:18-19), Jesus quotes this passage from Isaiah and states that the prophecy has been fulfilled and it is fulfilled in him.

            You see, Christians live in the year of Jubilee, for the ultimate year of Jubilee is in Christ.  Many people wonder, when they see the picture of the early church sharing everything (Acts 2:42-47), what is going on here.  They oftentimes think of this as some kind of Christian communism.  That is not the case at all.  There were still those who were more wealthy than others.  The people understood that Christ had ushered in the Year of Jubilee in its fullness, and they were celebrating it!  As a result, not only did the church grow, but God blessed it so that there was no want or need.

            Obviously, this model did not continue—it is a very special picture of a very special time.  And it is meant to be a pointer to what living as the church will be like when we enjoy eternity with Christ in the new heavens and earth—free from the effects of sin.  At the same time, it is a reminder to us, that we live in the year of Jubilee, and as we have been forgiven our debits by God, we also must forgive the debits of others.  Just as it was God’s command that the debits (financial and otherwise) be forgiven between God’s people in the ancient Jewish time, so too, we must forgive the debits of others in the life of the church as well. 

            Loved ones, we are not the rich men, owning many slaves to release.  We are the poor slave, oppressed by sin, and God has proclaimed our release in this year of Jubilee that was inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  How is it then, that you who have been forgiven so much can justify holding forgiveness against another—especially against our brothers who, in this year of jubilee, are seeking to return home to the Christian family.

 

Forgiveness is not a “Get out of Jail Free” Pass

“Let every soul be subject to the authorities that are in power, for there is no authority except from God and those that exist are appointed by God. Thus, those who resist this authority resist what God has decreed.  Those who resist will receive judgment.  Indeed, the ones who rule are not a terror to those doing good works, but to the evil ones.  If you want to not be in fear of the authorities, then do good things and you will have praise from them.  For he is a servant of God and there for your good.  But, if you do evil, you shall fear!  He does not carry the sword in vain.  For God’s servant is the avenger of God’s wrath on the ones who do evil.  Therefore, the necessity is to be subject, not only because of this wrath, but because of the conscience.”

(Romans 13:1-5)

 

            God institutes laws and governments for the basic purpose of rewarding good and punishing wickedness (see also 1 Peter 2:13-17).  As believers, we have an obligation to submit to those governments and laws even when those laws are harsh (note that both Peter and Paul were executed by the governments that they were telling us to submit to).  The only time a believer has the authority to go against the laws of the government is if those laws would cause you to sin (for example the account of Daniel and the law forbidding him to pray to God—see Daniel 6). 

            One of the things that Christians often struggle with is do they hold someone accountable in a legal sense for something that they have offered forgiveness to another for.  Or, from the opposite side of the coin, should I still be held legally responsible for my acts if someone forgives me.  This is a difficult question and should be made both in prayer and in subjection to the law of the land.  There are times when the law would allow you to prosecute someone who has sinned against you, but to do so would be vindictive, and that would be a sin.

            Yet, if someone has caused you monetary damage, then it is perfectly valid for a believer to expect the other person to provide reasonable restitution even after forgiving the other person.  The Christian has the right to show grace on the offender if he or she is so led, but should not feel guilty about asking the person to repair or replace what has been damaged or taken.  Likewise, the believing Christian, who has wronged another Christian, should expect to repay said damages whether or not forgiveness is offered.

            But, there are some cases that the law demands legal action be taken.  If a severe offense like murder, arson, rape, abuse, etc… is committed, then the law of the land demands that the offender be tried and receive the government’s standard of justice.  The Christian should not stand in the way of this.  Forgiveness should be offered, but your forgiveness of the offender does not satisfy the demands of the government.  When Christians stand in the way of governmental rulings in such matters, they are rebelling against the authorities that God has instituted for his purposes and to do so is to doubt God’s purposes.  It would be sin.

            Loved ones, when someone wrongs you and you offer forgiveness, you should not feel afraid to expect that damages should be repaid.  These damages or costs should not be inflated and should be reasonable.  In turn, when you are forgiven for having wronged another, you should expect to repay any losses unless the offended person chooses to show you grace.  And lastly, you should not interfere with the exercise of the State’s legal action even after you have forgiven them—the state is doing what God designed the state to do, whether the state is overly benevolent or overly harsh.  Let your conscience be at peace and forgive, trusting that God will put all the other pieces of the puzzle in their proper places.

Forgiveness is not Lip Service

“When the brothers of Joseph saw that their father had died, they said, ‘What if Joseph bears a grudge—he will surely return to us all of the evil that we did to him.’  So they sent an instruction to Joseph saying, ‘Your father gave an instruction before he died saying, ‘Thus you will say to Joseph: please lift the transgression of your brothers and their sin as they have done evil to you.’  And now, please lift the transgression from the servants of the God of your father.’  And Joseph wept when this was said to him.  His brothers also came and prostrated themselves in his presence and they said, ‘Behold, we are as your slaves.’”

“And Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in God’s place?  But you, you planned evil for me; God planned good.  For on account of these doings, many people are alive today.  So now, do not fear.  I will provide for you and your children.’  Thus, he comforted them and spoke to their heart.”  (Genesis 50:15-21)

 

            Of all people who would have had the “right” to hold a grudge against those who had harmed him, it would have been Joseph.  His brothers were not only jealous of him for the favor that his father showed to him.  They abused him and stripped him of the precious robes that his father had given him (remembering for a moment that clothes had an important symbolic function in the Old Testament for they conveyed your position in a family or in the courts—the disrobing of Joseph by his brothers was an act of disowning him from their family).  Then, they tossed him into a pit and sold him into slavery rather than killing him.  While Joseph ended up in a position of great authority in Egypt, he also spent many years in Egyptian prisons after his encounter with Potiphar’s wife.  He had every reason to want revenge against his brothers and after their father died, that is exactly what his brothers feared.  Now, the brother whom they had abused was the most powerful man in the land next to Pharaoh.  From a worldly perspective, these brothers were right to fear for their lives.

            But God’s people don’t live according to a worldly perspective; they live according to the Word of God.  And when God forgives, there are no grudges that remain.  As David writes in Psalm 103:

As distant as the east is from the west,

He will remove out transgressions from us.

As a father shows compassion on sons,

Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.

Because of the fullness of the work of Christ, the forgiveness that is offered in his blood is so full and complete that there are no remnants or blots of that sin left upon our account.  Not even the impression of the sin (as a pencil leaves an impression in the paper even after the pencil mark is erased) is left after Christ has washed us clean.

            Unfortunately, because of our fallen state, we have trouble letting go even after sin has been forgiven.  As I mentioned above, if you only remove the surface part of a weed from the ground, it won’t be long before the weed returns.  Holding on to anger over sin when we have offered forgiveness is not God’s way; it is the way of the world and the way of the world’s master, Satan. 

            What we must understand is that the only reason for holding on to that anger and frustration is so that we might be able to retaliate sometimes down the road.  As I was growing up, there was a series of novels by Lloyd Alexander that I used to like to read and a statement was made in one of those novels that has remained with me to this day.  When asked about revenge, the older, wiser character responded, “Revenge is not sweet, but is a bitter dish to dine on with little nutrition to add.”  Friends, vengeance does not belong to God’s people, but belongs to God alone (Deuteronomy 32:36, Romans 12:19). 

            God has stated that he will bring vengeance against his enemies and he has also promised that he will order all things in this world—both good and evil—for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).  Thus, when you seek your own revenge, what you are saying is that you doubt God’s ability to bring about good from evil deeds and that you doubt God’s capacity to avenge his name.  Beloved, this is a very dangerous position to take, because in doing so; you have placed yourself above God in your capacity to right the wrongs of others.

            Friends, let Joseph’s model always remind us that God is in control of events around us.  He will provide for our needs and in his timing, he will right the wrongs that have been done to us.  Don’t fall prey to the temptation to forgive only on the surface and cling to the desire for revenge—for this is not forgiveness at all. 

 

Forgiveness is not Minimizing

“And even now,’ utters the LORD,

‘return to me with all your heart,

with fasting and weeping and lamentation!

Rend your hearts and not your garments!

Return to the LORD, your God,

For he is gracious and compassionate,

Slow to anger and abundant in mercy,

And he grieves over wickedness.”

(Joel 2:12-13)

 

            In addition to condoning sin when we take someone’s repentance lightly, we also minimize both their sin and their repentance.  When we simply say, “don’t worry about it,” we convey to the person who is repenting of sin that repentance is not that big a deal.  And, indeed, just the opposite is true.  True repentance is hard work and requires someone to set aside their pride and humble themselves before another.  True repentance also requires a change of lifestyle—a turning away from the sin that was done—and when you minimize the sin this way, you minimize their change of heart and life. 

            True repentance is not simply saying “I’m sorry” and moving on with life, but true repentance requires a turning around of lifestyle.  If we were going to take a church trip from Mississippi to Florida, and we all climbed aboard the church bus with me driving.  If we found, after we were on the road for a while, that we had just crossed the Mississippi river into Louisiana, there would be a problem.  As the driver of the church bus, it would not do for me to simply say, “Whoops, I’m sorry” and keep on traveling toward Texas on Route 20.  I would need to find the next exit and turn the bus around, putting it on the road going East and not West.  Repentance is the same way.  It takes work and commitment.  It expects you to grieve over your sin and seek to change the direction that your life is going.  There is a brokenness that takes place as part of repentance that drives you to change.  That brokenness is the work of the Holy Spirit, and when you make light of a person’s repentance by minimizing it, you also make light of the Holy Spirit’s work.

            Friends, God calls us to himself as broken and humbled sinners with nothing to our account that can be offered.  Yet, God does not leave us broken down, but begins rebuilding us that we might stand as a mark of his glory to the world.  If God took us as broken down sinners and sought to build us up (indeed, He is still doing that building), then we ought to do the same and seek to build up those who come to us in repentance for things that they have done that have offended us.

 

Forgiveness does not Condone Sin

“As obedient children, do not conform yourselves to the things you formerly did in your ignorance and lust, but according to your holy call.  You should be holy in all your ways, for it is written, ‘you shall be holy, since I am holy.’”  (1 Peter 1:14-16)

 

            So many times, when people come to us for forgiveness, we simply respond by saying, “that’s ok, don’t worry about it.”  But the reality is that if someone has done something that requires repentance, it is not “ok” and they should be concerned about it.  The reality is that they have done something to hurt you and for you not to take that seriously is to be dishonest with yourself and with the person who offended.  Our response should rather sound something like, “You have hurt me and I have been deeply offended, yet God willingly forgave me my sins toward him, and because of that, I can forgive you of your sins toward me.”  When honesty like this is expressed between two people, then the beginnings of reconciliation can take place.

            One reason that I think we take sin so casually in our culture is that we take forgiveness casually.  We do not realize how harmful our sins are before God because we are not allowed to realize how harmful our sins are before our fellow man.  Until we begin to take sin seriously, we will never take the forgiveness that God offers seriously, and we will not take seriously the unimaginable cost that Jesus had to pay on account of our sins. 

            Friends, forgiveness is not easy, and when you make it easy, you might as well be condoning the sin, because the silent message that is sent is that whatever was done was not such a bad thing to do after all.  Take sin seriously and take the repentance of others seriously.  Do not condone it, but recognize the sin for what it is—ugly in the eyes of God.  At the same time remember that your sins cost God a terrible price, and because God is willing to forgive you, you should be willing to forgive others.

He left his father’s throne above

So free, so infinite his grace!

Humbled himself—so great his love!

And bled for all his chosen race.

Tis mercy all, immense and free;

For O my God, it found out me.

Amazing love!  How can it be

That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

(Charles Wesley)

 

Forgiving Iniquity

“Who is a God like you, lifting iniquity and passing over rebellion

Toward the remnant of his possession?

He does not hold his anger forever,

For he is pleased to show mercy.

Let him return; let him greet us with love.

Let him subdue our iniquity,

You shall throw all our sins into the depths of the sea.

You shall give truth to Jacob

And mercy to Abraham

Which you swore to our fathers

From the days of old.”

(Micah 7:18-20)

 

            So why is it that forgiveness is so important for the believer?  First of all, it is modeled for us by God.  God is perfect and holy; God is truth and truly beautiful.  If we are to grow in grace, that means growing like God.  And growing like God means learning to forgive as God forgives. From the very point that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, there was a promise of redemption.  Fallen man has never lived a day where that promise has not been before them.  There was no probationary period before forgiveness was extended and no waiting in limbo until God decided what to do about sin.  Forgiveness in Christ was offered to Adam and Eve at the fall, that all who would put their faith in him (or for Old Testament Saints—in the promise of the coming Christ) would be saved and be reunited with the Father and have eternal life with him.  Thus, in light of all God has done, God expects us to work hard at forgiveness.

            And forgiveness takes work.  When I was growing up, my parents had a good sized vegetable garden, and as children, my sister and I were expected to help keep it weeded.  The problem with weeding a garden is that weeds often have deep and firm roots, and if you don’t get the weed up, root and all, the weed will grow right back practically overnight.  It is easy to pull up the top of a weed and make the garden look nice, but it is far harder to get the weed—root and all.

            When you fail to forgive someone, the hurt and frustration that you hold onto are very much like the roots of those weeds.  They may lie dormant for a time, but they will come back up all over again.  I know that there have been times in my own life when I thought that I had removed the anger over a particular situation by the root, but years later, the anger over that situation arises anew and must be killed anew.

            Friends, not only will refusing to forgive others destroy your soul in the next life, but it will destroy you in this life as well.  Just as weeds sap the nutrients from the soil that good plants need as well as choking those plants out, so too does the anger you hold onto eat at your life and hamper the good works you seek to do before God.  Friends, do not hold onto your anger; forgive others that you may be forgiven and forgive others that you may demonstrate the love and mercy of God to the world around you.