The Shield of Faith

Ephesians 6:16

4/13/2008

Audio Version

The story is told of a teacher who wanted to prove to his class the law of the pendulum. The law of the pendulum states that if you release a pendulum, and it swings to the side, when it comes back it will never reach as high as its starting point. Gravity and air friction will slow it down. So the teacher demonstrated this with a small pendulum he had made for the class. Every time the pendulum came on the back swing, he marked the spot where it came up the highest. Every mark was a little bit lower than the previous mark. However, the lesson was not over. He had a much larger pendulum hanging from the middle of the science room. He asked the students whether they believed that the law of the pendulum was true. They all said yes. So he then got one of the students to stand next to a wall. He held the pendulum an inch from the student’s nose. He asked the student if the student believed that if the teacher let go of the pendulum, the student’s nose would not be in any danger. The student said that he believed that. However, he was sweating already. The teacher released the pendulum. On the back swing, the student simply couldn’t take it, and quickly got out of the way. The teacher then asked the room full of students whether this one student really believed the law of the pendulum. They all answered “NO!” And that was true. The student didn’t really believe it, did he? If he had, he wouldn’t have needed to get out of the way, since he was as safe where he was as he would be anywhere else in the room. What he lacked was faith. Faith would have shielded the student from that pendulum, because the student would have known that the pendulum couldn’t touch him. It looked like the pendulum could. However, the law of the pendulum said that the student was safe. This illustration comes from Ken Davis’s book How to Speak to Youth. Our faith needs to be the kind that will stand firm even when it looks like Satan is going to get us. To understand what Paul is saying here, we must understand what a shield was in Roman times, and how it was used.

There were two kinds of shields used in Roman times. First, there was the smallish round shield that was used in hand to hand combat. It was lighter, made of wood usually, and had a leather covering. That is not the kind of shield that Paul mentions here in the text. The shield that Paul is talking about was the long shield, rectangular in shape, although it bowed out in the middle. It also had a leather covering, and an iron point in the middle of the shield, pointing towards the enemy. That point had a purpose. It was not just for show. It was there so that direct attacks on the shield would be somewhat deflected, and therefore lose some of their force. This shield covered the whole person. The soldier could hide behind this shield and be safe from arrows, spears, or swords. Furthermore, this shield was usually drenched in water before battle, since arrows were often dipped in pitch and set aflame. Those arrows would then thud into the shield and be extinguished by the water-drenched leather. Or, they would bounce off the shield, fall into the ground, and be extinguished. Either way, this shield was an extremely effective piece of defensive armor.

However, there is one more aspect of this shield that is important for us to recognize. This shield worked the best when it went lock step with other soldiers’ shields. If a whole row of soldiers held their shields together, then hardly any arrow could attack, even from an angle. One shield all by itself could not defend from an arrow that comes from an oblique angle. But a whole row of shields could. Normally, the Roman army marched into battle with a protective wall of shields all around the outside of the square of solders. Those in the middle would hold their shields overhead. This would prevent arrows from getting at them from above. When this happened, the entire square (called a phalanx) could reach the scene of battle without loss of life from arrows. It allowed them to close with the enemy with their full numbers intact. This is the metaphor which Paul uses to convey what faith is like.

Faith is like a shield. Because it lays hold of Christ, faith covers us with the righteousness of Christ, which is immune to the attacks of Satan. Satan wants to accuse us as being not worthy of the kingdom of God. He would be right, if we didn’t have that shield. Our unprotected person would be completely open to Satan’s attacks in this regard. But our shield protects us. Now, we must be careful here. It is not faith as we exercise it, in and of itself, that protects us. Faith does not shield us because of the fact that we have it. It shields us because of the object of our faith. Faith lays hold of Christ. Faith opens up to Him. Faith is like a pair of tongs with which we take hold of something that would otherwise be too hot for us to hold with our bare hands. Faith is an empty hand reaching out to God’s fullness. In other words, faith is not a thing. It does not have a substance. Faith is always faith in something or someone. In the illustration, it was faith in a particular law of motion, the law of the pendulum. Notice, then, that faith needs to be in something that does not change. The law of the pendulum does not change. Of course, if the pendulum were to become unattached from the ceiling, then you would have cause to worry. However, the law of the pendulum stays the same, even in that situation, where you would certainly not be safe. But faith in God is not like that. God is not only unchanging, but also powerful enough to ensure that all things work together for good for those who love Him. God’s pendulum will never come undone from the ceiling of heaven. His purposes are unchanging and unchangeable. He is far more worthy of our faith and trust than anything or anyone in this world.

Do you therefore have this shield? Have you taken it up in the heat of battle? I should mention here that anyone’s faith, if it be a true faith, will be this kind of shield. Some people’s faith is stronger than other people’s faith. However, what is true about all faith is that it is a shield against Satan’s attacks. He will try to tell us that we are too sinful for God to forgive us. He will tell us that God didn’t really forgive us of all sin, and that we need to get our act together if we want God to forgive us. The problem with this kind of thinking is that we do need to get our act together! But not because we want God to forgive us. It is rather because God has already forgiven us. Getting our act together therefore is our response of gratitude to God for what He has done, and even there God has to help us to get our act together by giving us the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, do you think of your faith as joining up with your fellow Christian’s faith? Just as those shields need to work together for maximum protection, so also our faiths need to work together. We need to encourage one another, and love one another. If someone’s shield is drooping a little, we need to help them hold up that shield a little better. Of course, those soldiers who are closest to you are your own family. Are we taking pains to strengthen those shields? Are we using the catechisms with our children? Are we having them memorize Scripture? Are we reading through the Bible with them? Are we praying with them and for them? Similarly with regard to our spouses: are we encouraging our spouses in their spiritual walk, or do we cut them down? Do we encourage them to read more Scripture, and pray more? Are we honest with our doubts? Doubt is not the same as unbelief, we must understand. A doubt is something that can actually help us to understand our faith better. Doubts, of course, are never comfortable things. However, there is no Christian in the history of the world who has not had any doubts. Satan, of course, will try to turn that doubt into yet another arrow to shoot at you. But you must take the doubt to God, and ask Him to show you the way out of it. God is faithful, and He will do it.

Thirdly, when you think about your faith, do you primarily think about what is in you, or do you primarily think about Jesus Christ, the object of your faith? Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a great Scottish preacher once said these words, “For every one time you look into yourself, look ten times at Christ.” I am convinced that our faith would be a lot stronger if we would measure the strength of our faith not by how well we believe, but by how well Jesus saves, and by how much Jesus loves us, and by how faithful Jesus is as our great High Priest.

When we do these three things, actually taking up this shield, joining our faiths with other believers, and concentrating our faith on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, then our shield will be strong, since it will have God’s own iron strength holding it all together for us. None of Satan’s arrows can pierce that shield. So take up that shield!

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The Readiness of the Gospel

Ephesians 6:15

4/6/2008

Audio Version

In the time of ancient Rome, Rome was famous for many things. However, there were few things more famous that Rome’s military might. They were the only superpower of the world at that time. What made Rome’s armies so famous was the training, discipline, and equipment of the soldiers. Roman soldiers trained with weapons that were twice as heavy as the ones they actually used in battle. Roman soldiers were taken from the elite of Roman free citizens, and so they were well-motivated, since they were defending their own lands. Roman soldiers were famous for their discipline. They were afraid of nothing, since their drills were bloodless battles, and their battles were bloody drills. The Roman solder was a very formidable person. He also had excellent equipment, which enabled him to fight better. We have talked about some of this equipment already, with the breastplate. This week we look to the feet and the shoes. Oftentimes, we look at this passage and think that the shoes are light and feathery, so as to be quick. At least, I used to think this for a long time. However, this week I learned something different from R. Kent Hughes, retired pastor of a church in Wheaton.

The shoe of which Paul speaks is called the caliga, in Latin. It was a cleated shoe that had heavy leather soles with nails as the cleats. In fact, they were somewhat like football shoes today. These boots were then tied to the ankle and calves with straps. These were not running shoes, because Roman soldiers did not run. These shoes were designed to give heavy traction so that the feet would not slip in the time of battle. Most battle in Roman times was hand to hand combat. These shoes gave Roman soldiers a big advantage over their opponents, who, for the most part, did not have such good boots. If conditions were muddy, you can see how these shoes gave the Roman soldier an even greater advantage.

This gives us a clearer picture of how the Gospel helps us in our spiritual warfare. Let’s not forget that the context is that of warfare. We are fighting our own sin nature, and we are fighting Satan and his demons. Knowing the Gospel of peace helps us in the time of war. I never saw the irony before this week when I was studying this closely. As Harold Hoehner points out, the Gospel of peace helps us in war. There is profound truth there for us, if we are patient to see it. For, you see, human beings are always at war with someone. If we are at war with God, then we cannot be at war with Satan. Just as you cannot serve both as masters, so also you cannot be at war with both. So, in a sense, when we are presented with the good news of what Jesus has done for us, that is the peace that starts the war. As soon as we have peace with God, our war with Satan starts. But having peace with God gives us that stability we need so that we do not slip in our war with Satan. Any soldier who slipped in the time of battle was almost sure of being killed.

Furthermore, the Bible uses the image of being barefoot as being unready. 2 Samuel 15 describes David fleeing barefoot from his son Absalom. David had not been prepared for what his son was going to do. In contrast with that, we are to be ready. Paul describes this state of mind as being ready: “having the readiness.” It is being prepared. It is having those nails firmly nailed through the bottom of the boot. It is having those boots securely strapped to your ankles and legs so that they will not come off.

So what is this gospel that we are to have on our feet? Well, this gospel is the teaching concerning Jesus Christ in His Person and work. Listen again to what Isaiah said: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” The God who reigns is Jesus Christ, who now has the Name that is above every name.

We spoke a bit about this Gospel last week when we heard about the breastplate. The breastplate protects us against those sword strokes of the enemy. The breastplate is our righteousness, both that imputed righteousness, and that imparted righteousness; that alien righteousness of Christ reckoned to us, and that personal righteousness that the Holy Spirit gives us by dwelling inside us. This Gospel is only possible because of Christ’s perfect life on earth, His death on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead. In theology, we speak of this salvation in two ways: salvation accomplished by Christ during His lifetime, and salvation applied to us in our lifetimes. That is the Gospel.

Do you have these shoes on your feet? If so, have you made sure that they are strapped to your feet securely? If not, then you will slip in the time of trouble, in the time of battle. But if you have these shoes, then you need to make sure that they are secure. This will keep you from slipping while you are under attack.

Now, Satan attacks us as a serpent. Serpents attack the legs and feet, because serpents are animals of the ground. He tries to get us to stumble and fall. He wants to lead us into muddy ground so that we start slipping and sliding. So, we need to make sure that we are well-grounded in the Gospel of peace. We need to seek peace with God at all costs, because peace with God enables us to fight properly our war against Satan. Jesus once said that if Satan is fighting against himself, then his kingdom cannot stand. Any nation that is divided becomes very ineffective. In our own history, we could see this in regard to Vietnam. The nation was divided about that war. As a result, we did not win that war. Similarly, if we belong to the house of God, we cannot be divided against God and expect to win any battles against Satan. If you have unconfessed sin in your life, by all means, take that to God, and confess your sin. Do not let those confessions lapse. Confess often to God your sin, and receive forgiveness.

Another way in which we can apply this truth is to realize that we can never go deeper than the Gospel. The Gospel is what grounds us, keeping us from slipping. When we learn more about the Christian faith, we are learning more about how the Bible shows us the Gospel. We never outgrow our need for the Gospel any more than we outgrow our need for peace with God. Is peace boring? I should hope not. Then neither is the Gospel boring. If we are bored with hearing the Gospel, then we need to check our boots to see if they are securely fastened. If we are bored with the Gospel, then we need to ask whether God is bored with the Gospel. Does God have a problem sending out the same old Bible all over the world, which tells us about the same old story? Then, by no means should we ever tire of hearing the Gospel, which has many different facets. The Gospel is like a wonderful work of art. There are many, many levels of understanding, when it comes to art. You can appreciate it as someone who is not used to art. But as a person learns more about art, one can notice more and more about that same piece of art. There is depth. Of course, there are people out there who take one look at a piece of art, and then think that they know all there is to know about it. Those people need to be helped along to see more and more. So it is with the Gospel. There is no limit to the Gospel. It always has more for us. Just when we might think that we know it all, something new comes along. I can tell you from personal experience that there are many very familiar passages that I have read many times. However, something that someone says, or something that I read gives me a whole new angle on that passage. I am constantly learning something new about the Gospel, both what it is, and how it applies. Therefore, do not grow weary of hearing about the same Gospel, for it is rich and deep, and you will continue to learn, if you have the desire. Therefore, cultivate that desire by reading the Scriptures and by reading good books about Scripture.

Last, but not least, this passage does tell us about missions. Are we ready to march for our King, and launch an attack on Satan’s kingdom by marching into his territory and doing battle with him? The Gospel of peace is portable. It can move, and it can march. These are not running shoes that we are talking about. But they are firm and steady boots. This is the peace that marches, the peace that fights, the peace that is militant. This is the peace we have with God with which we will march on the world, and reclaim this world from Satan and his demons. For God is our Warrior. He has conquered, and has made us to be more than conquerors. Amen.

The Breastplate of Righteousness

Ephesians 6:14b

3/23/2008

Audio Version

Once upon a time, a woman went to an unusual store to buy something for her husband. Only she didn’t quite have enough money to purchase the item. But the store owner was kind, and knew how important this item was to her and her husband. And so, he set up interest-free payments on a monthly schedule so that she could take it home immediately. The woman gave it to her husband on his birthday. It was only a few days later that her husband wound up in the hospital, having been shot in the chest. She rushed to the emergency room to find out how he was doing. They assured her that he was doing fine, and that the damage was mostly bruises. You see, the item she had bought for her husband was a bulletproof vest. He was a police officer. That vest had saved his life. In the same way the breastplate of righteousness saves our lives from the bullets that Satan wants to shoot at us. We should not delay in putting on this vital piece of armor.

The breastplate was a most important piece of armor, second only to that belt that kept your clothes from getting all tangled. However, after you have the truth clearly presented to you, you need something that will protect your heart. That is the very definition of something vital, isn’t it? The word vital means having to do with life itself. The heart is a most important organ in your body. It is essential. Without a heartbeat, a medical doctor will pronounce you dead. And, in this life, there are countless things that will assault your heart, countless things that will compete for your allegiance. As Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Satan will constantly throw things at you to keep your heart from being in the right place, which is being the throne of Jesus, who then sits on the throne of your heart as King Jesus, Lord of your life. So we can see that it is important. There are two questions that we need to answer in order to know its place in our lives. The first question is this: “How do I put on this breastplate?” The second question is this: “How does it protect me?” Related to this second question is how do we use this breastplate.

So, taking these questions in order, we ask the question, “How do we put on this breastplate?” This is not a small question, since our call to worship from Isaiah tells us that God Himself wears this righteousness as a breastplate. In other words, we are seeking to put on God’s own armor. Any breastplate of righteousness that we put on is cut from the same metal as the breastplate that God wears when He goes to battle against His enemies. Of course, this is all metaphorical language, since the righteousness of God is not something distinct from who God is, whereas a breastplate is something distinct from the person wearing it. Righteousness is God’s obedience to His own law. You know, we often say that God can do anything. That is not true. God cannot sin. He cannot transgress the laws which He Himself made. That would be against His own character. So we say then that God is perfectly righteous.

That raises a most important problem. For we are not righteous. So, the question of how we put on this armor becomes nothing less than the question of the gospel itself. How can we be righteous in our lives? To begin to answer this question, we can say that there are two parts to the righteousness that we can have. First, there is the righteousness outside of ourselves that is reckoned to be ours. That would be the righteousness of Christ. Jesus came to earth, and was perfectly obedient to the law in every respect. The reason He did that was not just to take upon Himself the guilt of our sin. It was also so that we might be able to receive a perfect righteousness that answers to the law in every respect. So, it is in no way our righteousness. It is an “alien” righteousness, as Martin Luther would say. It is outside ourselves. When we come to faith in Christ, that “alien” righteousness becomes ours by God’s declaration. I wish to read to you the entire question and answer 60 from the Heidelberg Catechism, which addresses this very question in a very clear way: “How are you righteous before God?” Answer: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.” So, there you have it. It is as if I had done it, but I haven’t. Christ did. But I am reckoned to have done it, because, by faith, I lay hold of Christ’s righteousness. That is the first kind of righteousness which makes up this breastplate. By the way, this is called justification.

The second kind of righteousness that makes up this breastplate is our own righteousness. This is never perfect in this life. And it is something that God works in us. When we come to faith in Christ, not only are we justified by faith, and not by our own works, but the Holy Spirit also comes to live inside of us, and change us. When that happens, then we gradually become more and more righteous over the course of our lives. This process is gradual, and it is not always moving in an upwards direction. However, the trend line is in an upwards direction. This is an important point to remember. We should not become discouraged because there are certain times in our lives when we do not seem to be very righteous at all, and we fall into that same sin time after time after time. Then we come to doubt our salvation. We should not be discouraged. There is a reason why God leaves some sin in our lives to be gradually overcome. If we were perfect already, we would be tempted to take credit for it. Also, we would be tempted to rely on ourselves for our own righteousness, rather than relying on the Holy Spirit. You see, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, as Paul says. So, our own righteousness is always going to be imperfect in this life. That is no reason to stop fighting sin in our lives. It is no reason to give up. On the contrary, we are in a race to the finish line. Sometimes we run, sometimes we walk, sometimes we stumble. But we still keep going to that finish line. And God is waiting there for us to greet us at the finish line. He is not only cheering us on. He is helping us to get there. What a great and good God we serve! This righteousness is called sanctification. The word comes from a Latin root that means “holiness.” Holiness means being separate from the world. So, the process of sanctification means becoming more separate from the world, more like Christ every day. Of course, we do not mean separated from the world, as if we live in our own little enclave and never come into contact with people who are worldly. But it does mean that we do not behave like them because our hearts are different. We have the righteousness of Christ as a breastplate. And we have the righteousness that the Holy Spirit works in us. Those two things radically distinguish us from the world. The world has neither kind of righteousness. That is why the world will have a very rude awakening. So, again, our question has been this: how do we put on this breastplate? The answer is by faith. Again, as Heidelberg Catechism, question 60 says, just in the very beginning, “How are you righteous before God?” The answer starts out by saying “Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.” Faith is the instrument, the tongs, by which we lay hold of Christ’s righteousness. But faith is also the way in which God implants the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. Faith is our lifeline to God. By it God draws us to Himself. He uses our faith to make us more righteous. So faith is the answer to how we put on the breastplate.

The second main question we wanted to answer was this: how does this breastplate protect me? What good does it do? Why should I have it on? Well, Satan is known as the accuser of Christians. He is always accusing us of leaving the faith, or of having bad motives, or of sinning our way out of God’s grace. He accused Job of bad motives, and he did that to God’s face. What is important to know here is not only that our breastplate protects us (since the righteousness of Christ is not something that can be lost, nor is it imperfect), but also that God uses those accusations to defeat Satan’s own purpose. God turns the table on Satan. I would say, then, that the best thing that the breastplate does is to comfort us. For those who trust in Christ, we have protection for our very hearts. We have the breastplate of righteousness. So put it on by faith so that Satan’s accusations will bounce off like a bullet does against a bulletproof vest. He cannot pierce your heart, for your heart is in the hands of God. Indeed, Satan could no more pierce your heart than he could pierce God’s own heart, since your breastplate is of the same metal and manufacture as God’s own armor. So put it on by faith, and see what it will do.

Truth as a Belt

Ephesians 6:14

3/9/2008

Audio Version

Pulpit and Bible Study Helps vol 16 number 5 tells this story: Dr. Clarence Bass, professor emeritus at Bethel Theological Seminary, early in his ministry preached in a church in Los Angeles. He thought he had done quite well as he stood at the door greeting people as they left the sanctuary. The remarks about his preaching were complimentary. That is, until a little old man commented, “You preached too long.” Dr. Bass wasn’t fazed by the remark, especially in light of the many positive comments. “You didn’t preach loud enough,” came another negative comment; it was from the same little old man. Dr. Bass thought it strange that the man had come through the line twice, but when the same man came through the line a third time and exclaimed, “You used too many big words” –this called for some explanation. Dr. Bass sought out a deacon who stood nearby and asked him, “Do you see that little old man over there? Who is he?” “Don’t pay any attention to him,” the deacon replied. “All he does is go around and repeat everything he hears.” The people were complementing the pastor there, but were not telling the truth. They were not sincere, and their remarks did not measure up to what was true of Dr. Bass’s sermon. This is a great illustration of why we need the belt of truth, as Paul tells us.

There are two main things that this passage means. The first is that there is a standard of truth that is outside of us, namely, the Word of God. I realize that Paul is going to talk about the Word later, describing it as a sword. However, that does not mean that what Paul says here about the Word is redundant. Here we learn about the power of truth. When Paul tells us about the sword, he is telling us that the Bible is our offensive weapon. Anyway, the Bible is our truth. That is the first thing. The second thing is that we must be truthful. Truth must characterize us. To get at these truths, and to show what truth does for us, we will look a little at the background of Paul’s statement here.

Paul was writing from prison in Rome at the time Ephesians was written. This means that he had a soldier guarding him at all times. Of course, such a soldier would not have been wearing all the armor of which Paul speaks here. However, he would have been wearing some of it. That probably sparked Paul into thinking about the Old Testament and its descriptions of armor, as we saw last week.

The description of armor here follows a natural order in which the armor would be put on. We learn something important from that: the belt goes on first. What did a belt do? Well, a belt kept all the clothes together. Normally, a Roman would be wearing a toga, or robe. It was a long, flowing garment that would get in the way of a solder in the middle of battle. So a belt would be used to hitch up that robe and tie it together so as to keep it out of the way. Oftentimes such a belt would also hold the sword. But in any case, the most important point about the metaphor is that the belt held everything together. Without the belt, all would be disjointed, uncoordinated, and chaotic. You had to have the belt. That had to go on first.

So it is in the Christian life. Truth is of paramount importance. It must go on first in our lives. We must know the truth about Jesus Christ. That is, we must know what the Bible says. There is no substitute for this. A bank once decided to have a seminary on how to tell true currency from counterfeit bills. What they did was have their tellers go to a place where they would handle thousands of bills, just counting and counting and counting those same bills. But by handling true bills that much, they were able to tell instantly when a bill was counterfeit. They had handled the truth so much that an error stuck out like a sore thumb. We need to be like that with the Word. We need to handle the Word of God so much that an error will be obvious to us. All of us, myself included, can definitely improve in that area. Furthermore, we are a confessional church, which means that we believe that the truths of Scripture are accurately summarized in the teachings of our church. That would mean the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. Do you read those for yourselves? They make wonderful devotional reading. What is so important about them is that they summarize the Bible’s teachings on the most important things we need to know. Of course, these teachings are not infallible as the Bible is. However, those documents are a description of how we as Reformed people have agreed to read the Bible. This is our confession of faith.

The importance of knowing your Bible and knowing the church’s teachings can be seen in what happens when we do not know the truth. The Bible itself declares that if we do not know the truth, then we will be blown around by every wind of doctrine. The latest new fad in doctrine will have us hooked. Truth in the sense I have used it here of being the truth of the Word of God is contrasted with all forms of heresy. Heresy means false teaching. Anyone or any teaching which contradicts the Word of God is heresy. Any fancy dancy television evangelist who never tells you about sin and salvation, but instead talk about money and how much the Holy Spirit is telling him to tell you to give him money, such people will rope you in unless you are firmly grounded in the truth of Scripture. Why do churches have pastors? It is not so that the pastor does all the work of ministry. The Bible itself says that the pastor’s job is to equip the saints, which is everyone, for the work of ministry. A pastor’s job is to preach the whole counsel of God to the people so that they will know the truth themselves. My job is is to make myself unnecessary. At some point, we should all know the truth of Scripture so well that we are all firmly anchored in the Bible, and therefore safe from errors. We should all have that as one of our top priorities in life: that we should know the truth so well that any error will immediately be obvious to us, because we have handled the truth so much. The truth will have mastered us. And the truth will have set us free from man’s errors, and confirmed us into all truth.

Jesus is the best example of this. When Satan came to tempt Him, Satan misquoted from the Bible, trying to convince Jesus that He should short-circuit the cross, and avoid being a mediator for His people. Jesus opposed Satan’s errors in interpreting the Word of God. The way He did that was to put forward God’s truth. It is not enough merely to quote the Bible. Satan did that with far more skill than modern heretics do! What Jesus does is give the true interpretation that allows Scripture to interpret itself. Jesus knew that the Bible does not contradict itself. Satan was quoting one part of Scripture in such a way that another part of Scripture was denied. Jesus fixed that problem by opposing error with truth. The error of Satan was not in the words that he quoted, but in the way in which he made use of them, the way he twisted Scripture’s meaning. Jesus opposed this error with truth.

Oh, how little most Christians today desire this truth! Most Christians today want entertainment rather than truth, comfort rather than the hard work of obtaining that truth, a standard of living that makes us look good rather than the love of God’s truth. May that not be true of us, though I fear that many of us have these wrong priorities. Without the truth, our lives will be confused when it comes to battle. The long robes of wealth, social standing, ego and vanity will trip us up when we try to fight against the evil powers. The evil powers want us to have those nice long robes. But they do not want us to have that belt of truth that restrains those things, and keeps them in check, keeps them from becoming idols in our lives. Make that belt strong, wide and deep! Then it will be able to regulate our lives so that we can be nimble and agile in the fight against Satan and his army.

So, the first aspect of this truth that is so necessary is that we believe in the truth of the Word of God so that we are safe from errors. The second truth that we learn from this belt of truth is that our lives are to be characterized by the truth. This means that we are truthful, and not hypocrites. We are not to be like those people who said one thing to the pastor, but something entirely different to the little old man. This aspect of the truth is that which we experience in our personal relationships. Of course, the truth of God’s Word helps us here, too. I am merely distinguishing here between objective truth and subjective truth. Or, in other words, the truth that is outside of us, and the truth that is inside of us. Now, by “truth that is inside us” I do not mean some kind of inner light that glows all by itself. What I mean is the Holy Spirit working with the Word of God inside us. The Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John. The Word is on the outside, and the Holy Spirit makes that same Word live in us, ruling and directing our lives. Of course, that truth will have many positive effects in our lives. We will love God and our neighbor. We will tell the truth. We will visit the poor and the widow and the orphan. We will struggle against Satan and his temptations. But here in Paul, the main point is that we will be truth-tellers. Just as God’s Word is truth, so also are we truthful when that Word of God dwells in us. As Colossians 3:16 tells us: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” We will not be hypocrites. However, it is human nature to be hypocrites. As Mark Twain said, “We are all like the moon. We have a dark side that we don’t want anyone to see.” The moon, you see, is always turned with its face toward the earth. The moon turns just as the earth turns. This happens in such a way that we only see the same face of the moon toward us. However, we as Christians are not to be like the moon. Only truth indwelling us will cause us to cease to be hypocrites. Only God’s grace in changing us to be like the true Word, Jesus Christ, will change us. So, ultimately speaking, when Paul tells us to put on the belt of truth, what he is really saying is that we should believe the truth about Jesus Christ, and that Christ’s person and work is for us. Secondly, we should live that out in our lives in such a way that we become more like Jesus. These outward and inward truths are connected in such a way that we cannot have the one without the other. So, believe the truth, and do the truth! Put on that belt of truth!

The Full Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-13

3/2/2008

Audio Version

Craig Larson says this: “Recently National Geographic ran an article about the Alaskan bull moose. The males of the species battle for dominance during the fall breeding season, literally going head-to-head with antlers crunching together as they collide. Often the antlers, their only weapon are broken. That ensures defeat. The heftiest moose, with the largest and strongest antlers, triumphs. Therefore, the battle fought in the fall is really won during the summer, when the moose eat continually. The one that consumes the best diet for growing antlers and gaining weight will be the heavyweight in the fight. Those that eat inadequately sport weaker antlers and less bulk. There is a lesson here for us. Spiritual battles await. Satan will choose a season to attack. Will we be victorious, or will we fall? Much depends on what we do now–before the wars begin. The bull-moose principle: Enduring faith, strength, and wisdom for trials are best developed before they’re needed.” And that is what Paul is saying to us. We need to put on the full armor of God before we go into battle. It does no good to be putting on armor in the middle of a fight. “Excuse me, will you wait a minute while I put on my armor?” is not a thing to which any enemy would pay attention. He would cut you down as you stand there. Armor or no armor, our enemies are attacking us. Will we be ready? Will we put on the full armor of God?

Verse 10 is a summary of the armor of God. The armor of God is strong. That is why Paul exhorts us to become strong in the Lord. We can see this very clearly by looking at Isaiah 59, where Paul got the idea of the armor of God: “Then the Lord saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor; therefore His own arm brough salvation for Him; and His own righteousness, it sustained Him. For He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloak.” You see then what is so great about the armor of God: God Himself wears it! Of course, Isaiah is speaking metaphorically about what is true of God Himself. God Himself is righteous, and accomplishes the salvation of His people. What is interesting is the conclusion of that passage in Isaiah: “’The Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,’ says the Lord.” In other words, we see the armor of God in its full brilliance in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was the righteous One in a pre-eminent manner. He also brings salvation in His person and work. So, when Paul tells us to put on the armor of God, what he is telling us to do is to put on Christ Himself. That is, exercising faith in Christ, we become like Him.

But why do we need this armor? Because Satan is a schemer. He is crafty and sly. He was crafty and sly even in the Garden of Eden. Just think of how much he has learned since then! He has had several thousand years to study human nature, and its weak points. He knows exactly how to attack us, when to attack us, where to attack us. He has many schemes and methods of temptation. What does Satan want? He wants to pull us down with him. He knows that his days are numbered. Ever since the Resurrection of Christ, Satan has known that he is beaten. However, he would want as many souls to go with him into hell as possible. Yes, Satan would want us to sin as much as possible. However, that is not his goal. His goal is to draw people down into hell with him. He would even try to drag down the elect with him. Let’s remind ourselves that Satan is much more powerful than we are, spiritually speaking. As Luther says, “On earth is not his equal.” However, Satan is no equal to God. It always bears reminding ourselves that God has infinitely more power than Satan has. Satan would want nothing more than to keep you from recognizing this. Satan loves that bumper sticker that says that God votes for you, Satan votes against you, and you cast the tie-breaking vote. He loves it when people think that he is the equal of God. So, though he is no equal of God, he is still more powerful than we are. That means that we need to have the right Man on our side. We need to have Jesus to fight our battles. It is He who has conquered Satan, sin, and death, that we might be more than conquerors.

In verse 12, Paul tells us about the nature of this struggle. This is important, because all too often we think that our battle is with people. Our battle is not with people. Our battle is a spiritual battle against Satan and against the demons that scheme to try to get us to fall. At this point, many people will laugh at us. They think that Christians are crazy to be thinking about fighting Satan. Oftentimes, that is because they don’t believe he exists. Or, if he does, he is a relatively harmless practical jokester. It is the height of folly to think so. In fact, people who think in this way have proven that they are in the very grip of Satan himself. There is a battle going on, and everyone is a soldier. The question is this: in whose army do you serve? There is no neutral ground here. You are either for God and against Satan, or for Satan and against God.

The second thing to know about the nature of this contest is that it is hand to hand combat, or wrestling, as Paul puts it. We do not engage in this battle from a long ways away. We are up close and personal with our spiritual adversaries. It is hand to hand combat. Let no one think that he is above fighting, above the fray, and that fighting is not dignified. Sometimes fighting is required. It is definitely required in the Christian life.

The third thing we need to know about this battle is that it is on the broadest possible front. Paul gives us a clue when he says “this present darkness” in verse 12, and “the day of evil” in verse 13. The Jews thought about time as having two ages. The first age goes from the creation up to the time when the Messiah came. Then the new age would start and the old age would finish. Paul took that idea and modified it just a bit. Paul knew that Christ was the Messiah. Therefore the new age had arrived. However, the old age had not gone away yet. So Paul thinks of this as being two ages that overlap. The old age will not completely perish until Christ comes back the second time. In the meantime, these two ages which overlap are also fighting each other. The old age is the age of Satan and the demons. The new age is that of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit dwelling in the midst of the church. These two ages are continually fighting. Of course, they have really been fighting ever since the Garden of Eden. As Augustine puts it, there are two kingdoms always fighting each other, two seeds, two religions. And we are a part of that fight. Paul then tells us to stand against these attacks.

The fourth thing that we need to know, then, is that our conflict is mostly defensive. There is one piece of armor that Paul is going to tell us about that is an offensive weapon. That is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. However, all the other pieces of armor are defensive. Christ has done all the conquering. We extend that conquering by using the Sword of the Word of God to bring people home to Christ. However, the majority of our fighting as individuals is defensive. It means we are defending against the attacks of Satan and his demons. And it is true. We will get chances to share the Gospel with unbelievers. But most of our days are spent in resisting temptations to sin and to falling away. That leads us to the fifth and final thing.

The fifth and final thing we need to know about this conflict is that we need to stand and fight. In other words, we cannot run and hide. You will notice that God does not give us any armor for our backs. This fact was noticed by John Bunyan, in his book Pilgrim’s Progress. In that part where Christian fights the devil, who is named Apollyon, the Destroyer, Christian thought about going back when he saw just how terrifying his opponent was. But then he remembered that he had no armor for his back. If he retreated, then he knew that Apollyon would have the advantage. So he resolved to go forward and fight. He knew that his chance of survival depended on using the armor of God in the way that God meant for him to use it. God means for us to stand and fight, not run and hide. And it doesn’t matter what age you are, you are still a solder called to stand and fight this spiritual battle. Of course, there will be some times in life when this battle is a bit fiercer than at other times. Still, there will always be spiritual battles to fight. We are not part of the church victorious until we pass into glory. In death itself, what would have been our greatest spiritual defeat has been turned by God into our greatest spiritual victory, for it is then that we are rid of sin entirely. So, stand and fight.

How Shall We Then Work?

Ephesians 6:5-9

2/17/2008

Audio Version

A retired friend became interested in the construction of an addition to a shopping mall. Observing the activity regularly, he was especially impressed by the conscientious operator of a large piece of equipment. The day finally came when my friend had a chance to tell this man how much he’d enjoyed watching his scrupulous work. Looking astonished, the operator replied, “You’re not the supervisor?” It’s a funny story. But isn’t it just the way of the world to work hard when people are looking, but to slack off when there is no one watching. They like to please people’s eyes. Paul here tells us that we are not to do such things. We are to work as unto the Lord. We might think that this passage does not apply to us, since it is talking about slaves and masters. None of us have slaves, and none of us are slaves. However, slavery is not really the main issue of this passage, as many writers have noted. What is the point? The point is that we should work as unto the Lord.

Paul starts off by addressing the slave. Of course, that is remarkable in itself, just as we saw two weeks ago that Paul addressed children. He also addressed women. This elevates the importance of such people. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.

In the first century, slaves constituted a major part of the population. Probably about a third of the population were slaves. But when Paul mentions slavery, we should not think that all slavery was like what the African Americans experienced in the last century (although even there, there were many kind masters). Slaves could be medical doctors, teachers, administrators, counselors, baby-sitters, and yes, also the more grunt work type as well. Slavery was not necessarily viewed as a bad thing in those days. It was often the only way to avoid further financial difficulties. Actually, many people purposefully sold themselves into slavery to a high-ranking person in order to better his social status. Slaves could always save up enough money to buy themselves out of slavery. So, we should not think of American slavery when reading about slavery in the ancient world. There were undoubtedly many masters who abused their slaves. However, the majority probably did not suffer. What I want us to see is that the situation of slaves in the first century is actually much more like our modern employer-employee relationship. As the story told in the beginning illustrates, we are subject to the same temptations that first-century slaves were. We too are tempted to work hard when people are looking. We too are tempted to work with something less than our whole hearts in it. We too are tempted to work only for ourselves, failing to see that it is for God that we should work.

Paul tells the slaves to obey their earthly masters. This is the third example of what Paul means in chapter 5, verse 21, when he says “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” First, he gives an example of wives submitting to their husbands, then children submitting to their parents, and finally slaves submitting to their masters. Obviously, there are differences in what these three submissions look like. But they are all examples of Paul’s summary in 5:21.

In this verse, respect and fear are easily understood. Paul means “without sass.” It means acknowledging that the employer has the authority to tell you what to do, and you do it. Interestingly, these same words are used for how we respect and fear God. There are limits to such fear and respect. We do fear God more than man, and so we must never go in with a shady business deal our employer wants to do. Instead, we should obey God. But most of the time, that is not necessary. Most of the time, we do best simply to do cheerfully what our employer wants us to do. I realize that many, if not most of us are farmers, neither having employees nor being employees. However, the attitude that Paul commands still holds good for farmers as well. After all, is not God our ultimate employer? Notice that verse 6 says that obeying our employer is obeying God. It is the will of God for us to obey our employers. Traditionally, Reformed folk have said that this is part of the fifth commandment. To obey our parents implies that we are to obey all authorities that are over us, whether it be our employer, or the government, or our parents, or God Himself. So, we are to obey with fear and with respect. That is the first way we are to obey.

Note carefully the next way in which we are to obey. “With sincerity of heart” means without guile, or deception. James Boice uses the origin of the word “sincerity” to illustrate its meaning. In old times, a dishonest potter might pour some wax into any cracks his pottery might have. If someone didn’t look closely at the pottery, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a pot that didn’t have any cracks, as opposed to a pot that had cracks filled in with wax. So, eventually the more truthful and honest potters would advertise their wares as being “without wax.” The Latin for that is “sine cera.” Sine means “without,” and “cera” means wax. Sinecera is the root for “sincere.” Sincerity of heart, therefore, means without guile, without an attempt to deceive. If we are in our right minds, we will recognize that it does not benefit us, even in a bad way, to try to deceive Jesus Christ. There is no way to do it. Christ reads everything that goes on in our hearts. So, what Paul is telling us is that we should obey our earthly masters, our employers, as we obey Christ, not attempting to deceive, but working honestly.

Verse 6 is well translated by the NIV. Literally, the text says “don’t be an eye-pleaser.” Don’t work for show. Don’t work hard only when the supervisor is watching you. Work hard at all times, doing what you were commanded to do. And, if you are your own boss, work with the knowledge that God is watching you always. And that is not just a warning. When God is watching you, and you are doing what God wants you to do, then you should know that God is watching you with pleasure. He loves to see His children doing what is right. As verse 8 says, we should “know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.”

Verse 7 tells us that there are rewards for what we do. Let us be careful here. We do not get eternal life because of what we do. Paul is talking about additional rewards on top of eternal life. What this tells us is that it is not wrong to work for a reward. The question is, for which reward are you working? Are you working for the temporary, monetary reward that perishes when you die? Or are you working for eternal rewards that will never fade away or perish? What is your motivation for working? Is it to have your kingdom here on earth? Or is it to build an investment for the future life?

Verse 9 is a short word addressed to employers, or masters. Some of us might very well have people serving under us. How do we treat them? We should be treating them with kindness, not with harshness. Paul says “treat them in the same way.” What same way? Is Paul saying that employers ought to reverse positions and become the employees? Well, no. Paul is giving us a form of the Golden rule: as you would want yourself to be treated, so also should you treat others. If you would want an employer to treat you with kindness and understanding, then you should do that for your employee. The reason for this is that both you and your employee have a higher master, namely, God Himself. The opposite of that is threatening, as Paul says. We should not threaten our employees. They should have job security as long as they are doing their job. They shouldn’t always feel “under the gun.” See, God has no favoritism. When Judgment Day comes, God is not going to give you a pass just because you were the master, and someone else was the employee. He will judge each person on the same standard.

That raises the most important question, doesn’t it? If the standard is perfection according to God’s law, how can you, the employee of God, measure up to that standard? Well, we obviously cannot. We fail on the job. Our job is to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have not done that. And no amount of apologizing or trying to make up for it is going to work. Instead, we need to trust in the one great Employee, the one who put Himself under the yoke of slavery to sin. That is, Jesus took on the yoke of our heavy slavery, that heavy guilt that belonged to us. He lifted it right off from us, so that we would not have to carry it. Now, you see, we can have Jesus as our taskmaster. And Jesus tells us that His burden is light, His yoke is easy. We can only have one master. Either our master is Satan, who is an impossible taskmaster. In this life, he might give you pleasures that are sinful. But he will own your soul. And then he will deliver you up to God’s wrath at the end of time. That is one option. But the other option is to have God as your master. It might be harder here in this life. But in the next life, you will see with unclouded vision just how much He really loves us.

Parenting: Nurture, Not Exasperation

Ephesians 6:4

2/10/2008

Audio Version

J.A. Peterson writes this in his book For Families Only: “When the 10-year-olds in Mrs. Imogene Frost’s class at the Brookside, N.J. Community Sunday School expressed their views of ‘What’s wrong with grownups?’ they came up with these complaints: 1. Grownups make promises, then they forget all about them, or else they say it wasn’t really a promise, just a maybe. 2. Grownups don’t do the things they’re always telling the children to do–like pick up their things, or be neat, or always tell the truth. 3. Grownups never really listen to what children have to say. They always decide ahead of time what they’re going to answer. 4. Grownups make mistakes, but they won’t admit them. They always pretend that they weren’t mistakes at all–or that somebody else made them. 5. Grownups interrupt children all the time and think nothing of it. If a child interrupts a grownup, he gets a scolding or something worse. 6. Grownups never understand how much children want a certain thing–a certain color or shape or size. If it’s something they don’t admire–even if the children have spent their own money for it–they always say, “I can’t imagine what you want with that old thing!” 7. Sometimes grownups punish children unfairly. It isn’t right if you’ve done just some little thing wrong and grownups take away something that means an awful lot to you. Other times you can do something really bad and they say they’re going to punish you, but they don’t. You never know, and you ought to know. 8. Grownups are always talking about what they did and what they knew when they were 10 years old–but they never try to think what it’s like to be 10 years old right now.” Yes, it is a challenge to be a good parent, isn’t it? What I hope to show you is that it is impossible. Only the grace of God can enable us to be good parents.

Paul gives parents two commands. The first is to avoid exasperating the children. The second command is to raise up the children in training and instruction. Now, even though he is directly addressing fathers, Paul does not mean to exclude mothers from these commands. He commands fathers because they are the heads of their households, and because they have the responsibility to ensure that the children are not being provoked to wrath either by them or by the mothers. They are also responsible for the training and instruction of the children that should go on in every Christian household. Mothers are secondarily responsible for these things, even though they may be more immediately connected with these areas.

So, the first command is to avoid exasperating the child. Literally, the word means “provoke to anger.” We should not be provoking our children to anger. What provokes our children to anger? Well, certainly, many of the things I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon will provoke children to anger. Lack of consistency in discipline is very exasperating to a child. Playing favorites with one child over another is exasperating. Making unfair comparisons between children is exasperating to a child. Having unrealistic expectations, and then punishing the children for not meeting those expectations is exasperating. On the other hand, expecting nothing of our children, and simply letting them do what they want may not produce immediate anger in our children. But when our children become teenagers, they will not respect parents who do not have standards. Being overly critical is exasperating. In fact, this one is very important. Criticism is very important in a child’s life. They need to know how they can do better. But if they then do better, we need to tell them what they are doing right. If a child can never do anything in life which a parent approves of, then the child will eventually stop trying. They will say, “Since I can’t please my parents, no matter what, then I’m not even going to bother trying to please them.” This is a very sad state of affairs, since children naturally want to please their parents. It is inborn in them to want to please their parents. Be willing, therefore, to be pleased. You have no idea how powerful a word of encouragement can be sometimes.

Furthermore, parents need to spend time with their children. This one is almost lost in our culture, which tends to use the television to babysit children. Watching television with your children is not time spent with them, because there is no interaction of parent and child. Chuck Colsen notes that parents today spend 40% less time with their children than parents did a generation ago. James Dobson cited a Cornell University study showing that fathers of preschool children on the average spend 37.7 seconds per day in real contact with their youngsters. In contrast, the study indicated that children watch television approximately 54 hours per week. Then we wonder why our children are leaving the faith, leaving the moral standards which we grew up having. How can 37 seconds compete with 54 hours? Now, the figures are going to be quite different with mothers, who will usually spend a great deal more time with their children than the fathers do (at least with very young children). But again, remember that parents are both spending less time with their children. Other statistics are just as shocking: right now half of all children in the US live without their fathers. In the inner city, only 20% of children live with their biological fathers! In such situations, children are far more likely to engage in crime, illicit sex, drugs and alcohol. Christianity Today, in their August 1993 edition says this:

In the 1950s a psychologist, Stanton Samenow, and a psychiatrist, Samuel Yochelson, sharing the conventional wisdom that crime is caused by environment, set out to prove their point. They began a 17-year study involving thousands of hours of clinical testing of 250 inmates here in the District of Columbia. To their astonishment, they discovered that the cause of crime cannot be traced to environment, poverty, or oppression. Instead, crime is the result of individuals making, as they put it, wrong moral choices. In their 1977 work The Criminal Personality, they concluded that the answer to crime is a ‘conversion of the wrong-doer to a more responsible lifestyle.’ In 1987, Harvard professors James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein came to similar conclusions in their book Crime and Human Nature. They determined that the cause of crime is a lack of proper moral training among young people during the morally formative years, particularly ages one to six.

This provides a good segue into the second command that Paul gives to parents. They are to bring up children in training and instruction. What is this training and instruction? The words mean one positive thing and one negative thing. The positive thing is instruction. Parents are responsible for instruction in the things of God. It is not enough simply to bring the children to church and expect the church to do it all. The church cannot substitute for daily instruction in the Bible and catechisms. You need to read the Bible every day with your children, and ask them questions about the text to make sure that they are listening. They should be able to summarize what you read at a fairly young age. Ask them several easy questions about the text first. Then ask the older children slightly more difficult questions about how the text applies in situations in which they might find themselves. Memorization of the catechisms is very important, since that will give them a summary of the Christian faith that they can always have at their command when someone asks them what they believe. You can start with the children’s catechism, which has very easy questions, such as “who made you? God.” Then after that, you can go through the Heidelberg catechism, or the Westminster shorter catechism, which will give them a wonderful tool for knowing what the Christian faith is. That is instruction in the things of God.

Secondly, the negative thing mentioned is discipline. As Proverbs says, spare the rod and spoil the child. We must discipline our children. A few things are important here. We should always discipline fairly. That means investigating the “crime” so that you know what happened and who is responsible. Then make sure that the punishment fits the crime. I find it helpful to explain beforehand what I am doing and why I am doing it. I always tell my children that I do not like to spank them, but that it is necessary for them to remember what is right. Another excellent thing to remember is that we should never spank or discipline out of personal anger. This one is difficult, because a lot of things our children do make us angry, and then we are tempted simply to lash out at them. We should not do that, however. Instead, we should be calm when we discipline. Otherwise we will be too harsh. However, the greater danger that faces parents today is being far too permissive. Our culture wants to throw off all authority, and destroy all boundaries. The boundaries should be firm in our discipline. The child should know exactly where those boundaries are, and what will happen if he crosses them. We might think that to be harsh, but in fact, it is incredibly loving. Boundaries make children feel secure. They know that they will not incur unjust anger if they do not cross that known boundary. They know what pleases and what displeases you. Children are very happy in that kind of environment. And when they are pushing you, know for a fact that they are wanting to know where the boundaries are, how firm they are, and whether you will love them enough to enforce those boundaries.

It should be clear by now that none of us are sufficient to this task. Many of us might feel that we have failed already. Some of us may be disappointed at how our children have turned out. We do fail in many ways, and those failures are sinful. However, such failures are not the unforgivable sin. We can have forgiveness for what we have done, and what we have left undone. Furthermore, we need to remember that although it is our responsibility to raise our children in this instruction and training, there are no promises in Scripture that tell us that our children are guaranteed to turn out right as long as we do our part. It does not matter how well you parent your children if God does not regenerate that child’s heart, then that child will not be a believer. Conversely, no matter how badly you parent your child, God can still work in that child’s heart to bring him to God in repentance and faith. The importance of parenting does not lie in some kind of guarantee that faithful parenting will get the desired result. That may be hard for some of us to hear. Nevertheless, it is the truth. The importance of parenting is that it is missionary work. You need to show your children that they are sinners. You do that by showing them the law of God in its perfection. That shows a child that he cannot please God, though he may desire to do so. Instead, he needs to put his faith in Christ, who has pleased God. Here you can use your child’s desire to please you as a handle to show them the Gospel. That is the ultimate importance of parenting. Of course, your child may be a Christian from the womb. That can certainly happen. And we shouldn’t necessarily require that they have some kind of violent conversion experience. We want them simply to grow up into the Christian faith, never knowing anything different. We should not doubt them if they say they believe in Christ. Instead, we should instruct them in the faith, and bring them up in the discipline of love. So, we should not exasperate our children, but bring them up in the instruction and discipline of the Lord. Amen.

Children, Obey Your Parents

Ephesians 6:1-3

2/3/2008

Audio Version

Children, this is a sermon especially for you. I hope that you always listen and try to understand what is being done and what is being said in the worship service. If you listen hard enough, you will hear things that are eternal life for you. But today, since Paul is talking directly to you, I will also speak directly to you.

The first thing I want to say here is that even though you might not particularly like what Paul says here, there is something here for you that I think you will like: isn’t it wonderful that Paul is in fact talking directly to you? Did you children know that in Paul’s day, the father had the power to kill his children if they disobeyed him? Children were not usually seen as good things by the world at that time. However, Paul here sees children as a beautiful thing. That’s why we read Psalm 127 at the beginning of this service. Children are a blessing from the Lord. Paul thinks of you as so important to what he’s trying to do, that he feels the need to talk to you directly. You should be amazed at this. Don’t forget that it is not just Paul talking here. It is God Himself, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who is talking to you. How special would you feel if the President of the United States came up to you and shook your hand and started talking with you about what you like to do? I would hope that any of us would feel that it was a great privilege. Then what a greater privilege it is that God Himself has chosen to speak with you, and give you the most important thing in your life right now: obey your parents.

Now, you may be thinking right now: Oh, man, that’s the last thing I want to hear right now! The pastor was going good, making me feel great, and then he has to go spoil it by talking about obedience! Maybe some of you have parents who are fond of saying this verse to you all the time. Maybe you are tired of hearing about it. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is what God says to you. Again, if the President of the United States came up to you, and talked with you, and then gave you a command, would you do it? I would hope you would jump to do it. All the more then with the King of the Universe.

All right, then, what exactly does God tell you to do? He gives you two commands, really. The first is to obey. You need to do what your parents tell you to do. It may not be something you feel like doing, such as doing the dishes, or taking out the garbage, or cleaning up your room. But because God is telling you to do this, you should say to yourself, “When my parents tell me to do something, it is really God telling me to do it.” Your parents represent God to you. We all know that our parents are not perfect. Some parents look a lot more like Jesus Christ than some other parents. But as long as your parents are not asking you to sin, then you are required to obey them.

There are some ways of doing things that may seem like obedience, but really are not. For instance, you should not grumble and argue and complain when you are outwardly obeying your parents. I remember that this was a particular temptation to me when I was a child. My mother would tell me to do something, and I would grumble and complain about it. But I had no reason to grumble. I just grumbled because I felt like it. Do all things without grumbling or complaining. That is exactly what Philippians 2:14 says, “Do all things without grumbling or arguing.” In other words, our obedience to our parents is a matter of the heart. You cannot just obey your parents on the outside, when the only thing you are thinking about on the inside is how much you hate doing the dishes, or cleaning up your room, or going to bed when you would rather stay up. Obedience means knowing that this is the right thing for you to do. This is what God commands. Rejoice, then, that you have the opportunity to obey your parents, and by so doing, obey God.

Also, you should obey your parents without arguing. Now, this one is especially difficult for teenagers, I think. Teenagers love to argue with their parents. They want to show the world just how dumb their parents are, and how smart they are. Teenagers always have something to prove. Obeying your parents is not popular among today’s teenagers. Oftentimes they are afraid of what their friends might say if they found out that they are doing what their parents told them to do. They are afraid that their friends will call them goody two-shoes. If you are afraid of that, then you need to remember that people will always try to throw mud on people who are trying to do what’s right. That never changes. And you know why they do that? It’s because they don’t like it when someone does what is right when they’re not doing what’s right. It makes them look bad. So cheer up, and don’t be afraid to do what’s right. All throughout history, people have been persecuted for doing what is right. Never let that stop you. God also tells us that if we are persecuted for doing what is right, then we are blessed. Which would you rather have, the blessing of God, or the “blessing” of the world? Obey your parents.

The second command that God gives you is to honor your parents. How do you talk about them when they aren’t there? Do you tell your friends how much you hate your parents, because they restrict you too much, and because they never let you have any fun? Oh no, your parents are terrible because they won’t let you fry your brains on drugs. Your parents are terrible because they won’t let you ruin your life by doing something unimaginably stupid. You may not think that your parents are very smart right now. But the fact is, they know more about the world than you do. You should not trust your own judgment very much right now. You are learning and growing, and hopefully your parents will see that you are learning and growing. Hopefully they will see that and give credit to you for that. But even if they don’t, you shouldn’t assume that your parents have your worst interests at heart. You should assume that they have your best interests at heart.

Honoring one’s parents will look different depending on how old we are, and how old the parents are. When we are children, honoring our parents means that we don’t sass our parents when they tell us to do something. When we are out on our own, honoring our parents means listening respectfully to their advice. When our parents are old, honoring them means taking care of them in any way they need for us to do.

Notice that there is a promise here. The promise is that you will live long. There are several important aspects to this promise. The first is that people who obey their parents generally live longer. The people who are always trying to buck the system never live as long as those who try to live quietly and at peace. Another aspect of this promise however, is the promise of everlasting life. The Scriptures promise that those who obey the law absolutely perfectly will enter into eternal life. But notice that it has to be a perfect obedience, without one single error. Children have you ever disobeyed this commandment? Here’s a hint as to the answer: if you say that you have never disobeyed the commandment, then you are a liar. No one can possibly obey this commandment perfectly. Nor does God sit up there and say, “Well, as long as thy do their best, that will be all right with me.” NO! NO! NO! The standard is perfection. God also does not say, “Well, as long as they have done more honoring than dishonoring, they’ll be okay.” NO! NO! NO! We have to realize that we have not obeyed this commandment. We have sinned. The only way to avoid the punishment of hell for this sin is trust in the only person who has ever obeyed this commandment perfectly: Jesus Christ. He kept this law perfectly. And He is God. And He is man, both at the same time. And He took on Himself the punishment that you deserve. There is salvation for sinners at the feet of the cross. Jesus was the one who obeyed. We were the ones who disobeyed. And yet, Jesus took the penalty for us. Children, imagine for a moment that you broke a window in your parents’ car. You felt really guilty about, because you knew that you were playing with a baseball outside when you should have been inside doing homework. You know that you’re going to get grounded if your parent finds out. Now, your brother knows that you did this. He was not outside playing baseball. He was inside doing his homework. He knows what you did. Now suppose your father comes home, and sees what happened to the window in the car, and asks his children what happened. And before you can say anything, your brother says, “Father, whatever you are planning on doing to my brother for what he did, do it on me instead.” Jesus would not lie and say that He actually did the sin that we had done. No, but He did say that He would take the penalty on Himself for what we did. It is never too early in your life to put your trust in Jesus. You don’t know for sure that you’re even going to be alive tomorrow. Don’t delay. Jesus is the best teacher, the best parent, the best friend, and the best brother that you could possibly have. If you don’t believe in Him as Lord and Savior, do so right now.

Now, we are not saying here that because Jesus took away that penalty of eternal condemnation, that therefore we can do whatever we want. Jesus did take away the penalty for eternal condemnation for all those who will put their trust in Him. However, God does not keep us from experiencing the consequences of our actions here on earth. The command still stands: obey your parents, and honor them. For this is right.

One word must be said to parents here. It is your responsibility here to enforce this command. You are not being good parents if you let your children be disobedient to your commands. We will say much more about this next week, of course. However, a lot of parents think it is a good thing if the children challenge their authority. After all, they need to stretch their wings. We need to let them fly. There is only one possible objection to this kind of thinking: it will result in brats. If you spare the rod; that is, if you do not discipline your children when they do wrong, then you spoil the child. He will be a spoiled, rotten child. Now, of course, we need to make the punishment fit the crime. We don’t want to be too severe, or too lenient. But we need to enforce this commandment. At the same time, we also need to realize that it is not just about outward obedience. Far too many parents are content with an outward obedience. They don’t care if the child is sulking, and only grudgingly doing what they told him to do. Instead, we should care more about what is in the heart of the child than we do about outward obedience, and we should care about that, too. We should constantly be asking the child, “Child, what is in your heart?” Obedience is most truly a matter of the heart.

So, children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor them. Parents, discipline your children, paying special attention to what is in the heart. Amen. 

Marriage and Church

Ephesians 5:28-33

1/27/2008

Audio Version

Brian Peterson, in the October 1994 edition of the magazine New Man, says this: “Divorced couples in Albuquerque, New Mexico, can take advantage of a new business in town. The company is called Freedom Rings: Jewelry for the Divorced. Founded by jeweler and divorcee Lynn Peters, the company makes custom jewelry out of wedding rings. Each customer at Freedom Rings pays a fee, and the ring-smashing ceremony begins–complete with champagne and music. Just before the smashing the M.C. says, “We will now release any remaining ties to your past by transforming your ring–which represents the past–into a token of your new beginning. Now take the hammer. Stop for a moment to consider the transformation that is about to begin your new life. Ready? With this swing let freedom ring!” She then uses a four-pound sledgehammer to whack her emblem of love and fidelity into a shapeless piece of metal. And the ceremony ends. The fact that women are pounding their wedding rings into pendants and men are grinding theirs into golf ball markers doesn’t surprise me. We’ve all heard the divorce statistics. But let’s focus on the women for a moment: How many American women stop short of divorce, but would love to make a clean break from their marriage if it were convenient? How many Christian women feel the same way?” Why do they often feel this way? Last week we saw that men are the heads of the household, and are therefore ultimately responsible for the direction that the marriage takes. It is not as if women do not contribute to that direction. But if the marriage goes in a bad direction, the husband is ultimately responsible. I think that one reason that explains why a lot of women want to get out of their relationship is that the husband has not truly loved his wife as he loves himself. Instead, he loves himself more than his wife. Oftentimes, men are selfish. I know that I am guilty of this sin quite often, and so I am certainly preaching to myself today, even as I hope there is something for everyone.

The first part of this passage, consisting of verses 28-31 tells us something about husbands cherishing their wives. We have two examples laid out for us. The first is a husband’s own self-interest. Husbands, how well do you take care of yourself? You should do at least that well in caring for your wife. How much do you want food when you’re hungry? We should be at least that eager to tend to our wives’ emotional needs. In other words, husbands, we nourish and cherish ourselves. That is a measure, an example for how we are to love our wives. How eager are we to buy something for ourselves? We should be that eager to buy something for our wives. Do we want time to go do something we like? Then we should make time to go do something our wives want to do. This should be voluntary, and not in a grudging manner. We should not be selfish. Therein lies Paul’s genius. He uses our own selfishness to take any excuse for not loving our wives. Notice that Paul goes on to say that husband and wife are one flesh. So, selfishness is really a contradiction to marriage. How can one be selfish when husband and wife are one flesh? It makes no sense. So, the first example of how husbands are to love their wives is the example of how husbands take care of themselves.

The second example for husbands is that of Christ Himself. Christ nourishes and cherishes His Bride, the church. How does Christ do that? Well, He gave us the Word. From that manna we are to eat every day. But He also gives us the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In that Sacrament He feeds us out of His fullness. Christ Himself is our food in this sense. It is a spiritual sense. The Holy Spirit is present in us, providing us with intimate fellowship with Christ.

Verse 30 tells us why Jesus is so keen on feeding us. We are His body. John Calvin once said that it is one of the highest honors that Christ has ever bestowed upon the church that He does not reckon Himself complete without His church. Of course, Jesus doesn’t need us. But He acts as though He does need us. So, if we are the members of His body, and He is the Head, then he feeds and cares for us. Dan Bernard once said, “Remember putting your face above a headless frame painted to represent a muscle man or a clown? Many of us have had our pictures taken this way, and the photos are humorous because the head doesn’t fit the body. If we could picture Christ as the head of our local body of believers, would the world laugh at the misfit? Or would they stand in awe of a human body so closely related to a divine head?” Let me put it this way: if you were an arm or a leg, would you like it if the body decided that your body tissue really didn’t need to be fed anymore? Wouldn’t you feel useless, like dead weight in the body of Christ? You need to keep your blood vessels open, your nerves going, your muscles exercised. In other words, you need to be connected to the body of Christ, feeding on what the entire body eats. When your body receives some nourishment, the blood vessels take those nutrients everywhere they need to be. But an arm the decides to cut itself off from the rest of the body will not receive that nutrition. Most importantly, the body without the Head is completely dead. Oftentimes, however, the church does not fit the Head. Some doctrinal or practical problem is in the way. How do we, as a church fit our Head, Jesus Christ? This is a very important question that I challenge us all to ask this week. How well does our church fit our Head, Jesus Christ?

Paul finishes this important instruction by telling us about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and what the ultimate significance of that marriage was. The ultimate significance of marriage is that it is (or should be!) a picture of Christ’s relationship to His church. Paul tells us that it is not easy. He says that the mystery is profound. However, by the word “mystery” here, Paul is not telling us that it is mysterious. The word “mystery” means something that was before concealed, but is now revealed. When God created Adam and Eve, He did not reveal just exactly what that marriage was going to mean later on. We see glimmerings here and there. However, the full light of it is not found until the New Testament. Have you ever wondered why it is that Jesus never married during His lifetime? The reason is that He is married to His Bride, the church! Of course, Israel was the church in the Old Testament. So Jesus was not “available” when He was alive to any other woman except the church only. That fact is what Paul is explaining here.

One final thing that we need to see out of this text. Loving our spouse is an example of what the second table of the law is all about. You will remember that the first table of the law consists of the first four commandments, which can be summarized as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.” The second table of the law is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our spouses are, in a sense, our neighbors. Oftentimes we forget. We think that our spouses do not need to come into the picture when it comes to the law. However, the seventh commandment is all about marriage. We are not only to avoid those things that tend towards disharmony in marriage, but we are actively to pursue those things that help our marriages become stronger. And by “our marriages” I mean both our marriages: our marriages with our spouses, and our marriage with Jesus Christ, as we are the church. So, in reality, marriage is a picture of the entire law: as we are married to Christ, we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. As we are married to our spouses, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Obviously, then, this passage does not apply only to husbands, for those of us who are married to Christ include men and women. That is why Paul ends the chapter the way he does. Like any good teacher, he summarizes what he just said: husbands are to love their wives, and wives are to respect their husbands. We want to put out of business those jewelry experts who bang wedding rings into something unrecognizable. We want to see divorce disappear. Then we need to heed what Paul says here.

One last thing is vital: this passage shows us just how much Christ loves us. He loved us as He loved Himself, even going to the cross to save us. If some of us are not married to Christ, then we need to look at Christ’s love. What Bridegroom could we love more than Christ? His love is so amazing, so divine, that it demands our souls, our lives, our all.

Husbands, Love Your Wives!

Ephesians 5:25-27

1/20/2008

Audio Version

Well, last week we saw that wives are to submit to their husbands in all things. Not a very popular thing to say. I hope, however, that some discussion came about because of that sermon, and maybe some reevaluation of our relationships. But now, it is the husbands’ turn to receive exhortation. You know, the writer Ambrose Bierce once defined “exhort” as meaning “to put the conscience of the listener upon a spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort.” I hope that this sermon will communicate grace as much as it challenges us.

The command from Paul to husbands is that they love their wives. That is the basic command. However, in our culture, the word “love” means so many different things, and it almost never means what the Bible says it means. Usually, our culture says that love is an emotion that cannot be commanded. In other words, if you “fall in love,” you just can’t help it. It just happens, according to Hollywood. It is as if no one really can take responsibility for “falling in love.” If it just happens, then there is no reason to say anything bad against having an affair, since the people involved couldn’t really help the fact that they loved each other. This is not what the Bible means when it talks about love.

What the Bible means when it talks about love is a conscious decision to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of the one loved. Look at the end of verse 25. The example for husbands to follow is Jesus Christ: “just as Christ loved the church…” and what? “Gave himself up for her.” There you have it. Love means self-sacrifice. However, it does not mean just any kind of self sacrifice. It means a sacrifice with a particular goal in mind. Not mindless sacrifice but a sacrifice that has her best interests at heart.

That sacrifice assumes, of course, that the husband knows what the best interests of his wife are. What are the best interests of the wife? Health, long life, wealth, stuff, or relationship? Well, there is nothing inherently wrong with those things. But that is not the goal of which Paul speaks. The goal is given for us in the beginning of verse 26: to make her holy, and in verse 27: to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. God cares much more for our holiness than He does even for our physical needs and desires, though He cares for those as well. But God wants us to be holy more than anything else. Why is that? Because God Himself is holy, and He will not have intimate fellowship with anyone who is not holy. That is why our fellowship with God on this earth is limited. We are still sinful. Jesus Christ has given Himself up to death so that we could become holy. There is the Gospel, folks. Marriage is to be a picture of the Gospel. The husband is to sacrifice his own interests so that his wife may become holy. And the wife is to submit to that sacrifice and leadership. This is parallel to Christ and the church. Christ sacrificed Himself, and the church is to submit to that sacrifice, as well as to Christ’s kingship. Indeed, Paul almost seems to weave in and out, now talking about the marriage, now talking about Christ and the church. This indicates the closest possible connection between the family and the church. The family is to be something like a small church.

So what we’ve seen here is the command: husbands, love your wives. We’ve seen the goal of that command: to make the bride holy and blameless, without stain or wrinkle. Then thirdly, notice the means by which the command is carried out to its goal. The means are the cleansing of washing with water through the word. Now, baptism is a sign of this washing. What Paul is ultimately talking about is the spiritual cleansing that happens when the Holy Spirit plants the Word of God in our hearts. What the Holy Spirit does is to remove the filth of our unclean sinful nature, and replace it with Himself indwelling us. The new nature is really the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Okay, you might think. That’s what Christ does. But what am I as a husband supposed to do? Obviously, I cannot take out the old nature of someone else and put in a new nature. No, but what I can do is to focus the marriage on faith, bringing my wife constantly to the means of grace. Christ cleanses His church by the means of grace, which are the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer. So also husbands are to lead their wives back again and again to those means of grace. What does this look like, practically speaking?

Well, it certainly means devotions. We must be a people of the Word of God. To do that, we must read it. There is no substitute for this. And again, I wish to stress here the importance of reading the books of the Bible straight through. I don’t mean that we always have to start at Genesis and then read all the way through to Revelation, although that is certainly a good idea. What I do mean is that we can decide to read a book of the Bible, and then read it straight through, maybe a chapter at a time. I say this because we have these little devotional books that people read. I know that a lot of people in our churches read these books. There is nothing wrong with these devotional books. However, they do not always have us read a book of the Bible straight through. They tend to skip around a lot. What I would recommend, then, if you like the devotional book, is to read the devotional book and the Scripture that goes with it after one of the meals of the day. But then at another meal, read a chapter of a book that you will go through completely. There is something that we gain by the cumulative effect of reading straight through that we miss completely if we skip around all the time and do not read our Bibles systematically. That is why I preach straight through books of the Bible. There is a cumulative effect that such preaching has that we don’t even necessarily consciously realize. But it is vitally important. I would also recommend that you ask questions about the chapter that you read. Maybe you won’t be able to answer all the questions. That’s all right. Write down all the questions that you cannot answer. I would be happy to attempt to answer some of those questions. I am here partly as that kind of resource, after all. I cannot guarantee that I will know the answer either, although I will probably know where to find the answer. I would love to help in this way with people’s devotions.

Prayer is something vital here as well. We need to pray with our wives and for our wives. What do we pray for? We pray for greater personal holiness. We pray that God will continue the work that He has begun in us, and bring us to completion. All too often, it seems, we pray for physical things, physical problems, and physical solutions. However, our goal should be what Paul tells us it is supposed to be: holiness. That is, we should pray that we become more and more righteous, more and more in conformity with the Word of God, and less and less like the world. There are many people out there and even in the church who just want to fit it with the world. They just want to coast along in life, not really spending much effort in the Christian life. That should not be us, my friends. We should desire that our lives match up with what Scripture says. Scripture is guide and compass for our lives. Just as a compass tells us what direction we need to go, so does Scripture. The reason I say this is that so many in our community do not make their decisions on biblical principles. Oftentimes, they don’t know what the Bible would even say to such and such a topic. So they simply make the decision, usually without prayer, and certainly without reading what the Bible might have to say about it. You would be surprised to learn just how many things the Bible does talk about. Read Proverbs and you will find much wisdom for life. Read Jesus’ words and you will find out how to interpret the law. Read Paul and you will see how the Gospel is applied to our lives. Of course, you will find all these things all over the Scripture, though clearer in some places than in others.

One final thing should be mentioned here. Paul says here that the church will not have a stain or wrinkle. Now we know as much as we love our wives, that they are not perfect. I made this point last week with regard to husbands. We are all sinners in need of grace. It is our job, husbands, to bring our wives again and again back to the Word, back to the Sacraments, and back to prayer in order that God may make our wives more holy. That is our responsibility. Wives, you need to be reminded that you are sinners, and that it can often be difficult for your husband to love you. Just as your husband is a sinner and it is difficult for you to submit, realize also that you are a sinner, and that your husband is to sacrifice himself for you anyway. It is clear here that husbands have the greater responsibility. Wives, when Judgment Day comes, you will only be held responsible for how you submitted to your husband out of love, and how you raised your children. Realize that husbands are responsible on Judgment Day for the entire family. The husband is responsible for how the whole family operates. He is responsible for how the wife raises the children. So, wives, are you going to make such responsibility an easy thing for your husband to bear, or will you make it difficult? Just as I urged husbands last week to make it easy for their wives to submit by loving them, so also wives should make the enormous responsibility easier to bear by being submissive as the church submits to Christ.

So husbands are to love their wives. It is a self-sacrificing love that has her holiness in mind. The husband sacrifices himself so that the wife may obtain the means of grace. The result is beautiful. I firmly believe that if husbands were to love their wives truly, then their wives will become more beautiful over time, not less. Of course, by beauty I mean spiritual not just physical beauty.

One final word to both husbands and wives. It is very common to blame the problems of the relationship on the other person. We should not do this. If our relationship is not what we would want it to be, the solution is for the wife to examine her own life, and prayerfully consider what she needs to change, likewise for the husband. The husband needs to consider what he needs to change in his own life if the relationship is not what he wants. It does no good to blame the other person, because you cannot change each other. You can only change yourself, and even that is only by God’s grace. So, husband, love your wives as Christ loved the church. It is an impossible standard, of course. But, with God’s grace to help you, you can achieve an imperfect mirror of what Christ does for His church.

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