Second Reformed Church

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"The Unknown God's Name" Sermon: Acts 17:16-34

“The Unknown God’s Name””
[Acts 17:16-34]
August 29, 2010 Second Reformed Church

Silas, Timothy, and the rest of the missionary team stayed behind in Berea to debate the Jews while Paul went on to Athens. Athens had once been a great political power, but now it had been conquered and was one more part of the Roman Empire. However, it was still the place to go to discuss ideas – it was the intellectual metropolis of the Roman Empire – as it had been in the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy and the others to arrive, and he walked around Athens, and as he did, he became more and more enraged. Visitors to Athens record that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man – in other words, Athens was littered with idols and temples. Everywhere you looked, there was a statue to this god or that goddess or a temple to one or the other.

Paul began his missionary work in Athens as he always did: he preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He went first to the Jews and explained to them how Jesus is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament prophecies – He is the Savior God sent for the salvation of all those who would believe.

During the rest of the week, Paul took his place in the Agora – in the marketplace – among all of the other philosophers – and spoke to the people as they shopped. And Paul’s teaching was not the normal fare, so it caught the attention of the two leading philosophical groups in the city: the Epicureans and the Stoics.

Briefly: the Epicureans doubted the existence of a god, and they said that if there was a god, he didn’t care about humanity. They taught that everything happened by chance and the chief goal – the chief good – of humanity was to seek pleasure. The Epicureans taught that you should do everything you can do to increase your mental, spiritual, and physical pleasure. That is the only real point in living.

You probably know someone like that today. Atheism is becoming very popular. “This world is all there is, so take it for all you can. Enjoy yourself to the fullest. Don’t let any pleasure slip you by. Because when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

The Stoics believed that god is everything. They were pantheists and believed god was in the rocks and trees and you and me and your dog and in the food you ate – god is everything and in everything. They taught that the goal of life – the way a person ought to live – was to not go to any extremes – to just calmly, neutrally accept whatever happens. If your friend got married, well, such things happen. If your friend got killed, well, such things happen. If you won the lottery, well, such things happen. If you got the plague, well, such things happen. Whatever happens, happens, and that’s just the way it is – joy and sadness are a waste of life.

Perhaps you know someone like this as well: “Nothing matters – just get through today. Whatever happens, happens. There’s no point in getting excited about it. Tomorrow will be more of the same.”

Paul began to preach the Gospel, and the people were interested. Some of the philosophers tried to dismiss him, some tried to accuse him of teaching strange gods – we saw in an earlier text that it was against Roman law to try to convert a Roman citizen to belief in a god that was not accepted by the state. But enough people were curious that they led Paul up from the Agora and brought him up the hill to the Areapogus – to the site where court was held and truth was decided. He stood in the shadow of the Acropolis and the great temples of Athens, and they said, “You were talking about something strange – something we haven’t heard before – explain to us what you were saying.”

Luke gives us a historical parenthesis in verse twenty-one, in which he explains that in Athens at that time, there were people – philosophers and others – who had patrons who supported them, so they could spend their days laying about asking if there were any new ideas and then debating them. Their livelihood was based not on their finding truth, per se, but in finding something new. Some new idea. Some new theory. Some new god.

Do you know anyone who is always looking for what is new? Many of our young people are concerned for the newest gadget. If it’s new and different – they have to have it. The question of whether they need it or whether it is useful is secondary, at best.

If you look at the music charts, or the literature charts, or the movie charts, you will see the best-selling, highest rated works – by and large – are the latest ones. Is it because all of the music and all of the books and all of the movies being released today are better than the ones released last year? Of course not. We are a fickle people – we have “itching ears,” as the Scripture puts it – new excites us more than Truth.

I had a professor at New Brunswick who, in talking with us about writing papers, repeatedly told us that new books are always better than old books. Do you understand that that is a stupid and dangerous thing to say? In saying that, he was implying, at least, that the old books weren’t true, or that truth changes. If Truth is True, is it Truth forever, no matter when it was written.

Luke tells us, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Paul stood up in their midst and began his presentation by complimenting them – though he may have been being sarcastic – telling them that in walking through the city, he has seen how religious they are – they have statues and altars to Zeus and Apollo and Ares and Athena – every god you could think of. And, just to be safe – to make sure that no one was offended – in case there was another god that they didn’t know the name of – they had an altar for the worship of an “Unknown God.” And Paul said, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

The Athenians would have been sitting on the edge of their rocks – Paul was bringing a new god to them – someone new to learn about – someone new to worship. Oh, happy day, something completely new and exciting to talk about for days to come.

And as Paul spoke, he contradicted the teachings of the Epicureans and the Stoics:

“The God...”

The first thing he had to tell them is that there is indeed a God – God exists – and God is the God – the One God. He is One.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

Second, God is distinct – separate – from the Creation. God created everything that is – God is not a part of the Creation. God is not a thing and God is not found in any thing. God is His Own Being and He is self-sufficient – God does not need anything. God created everything that is because it pleased Him to create it, but God was perfectly joyful and fulfilled in the Trinity before He created and He would be so if He never had created. God is not made better or happier or greater through the Creation or our reacting to Him. And since God is the Creator, separate from the material world that He created, He cannot be contained in material, not even a temple made for Him.

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for, ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; even as some of your own poets have said, ‘for we are indeed his offspring.’”

Third, God is intimately involved with humans and history. God created the first human being, Adam, and every human being has descended from him. And God has set the boundaries as to what humans can and cannot do. He has set the time of their birth and their death. But God is not just “out there.” Paul quotes two Greek poets to show that they themselves realize that God is also among us and involved with us, because none of us could take a breath unless He allowed it, and we who believe in Him are called His children.

“Being God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, and image formed by the art and imagination of man.”

And if we are the children of God – we who believe, we understand how ridiculous idolatry is. Paul was surrounded by statues of stone and gold and silver, and Paul asked the people to consider if the children of the father are not like the father in being. That is, if God is stone and silver and gold, shouldn’t you be stone and silver and gold? But if you are a living being – a person – doesn’t it make sense that God, Our Father, would be a Living Being – a Person – someone Who is personally involved with His children?

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man who he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Fourth, Paul tells them that their time is up – now is the day of salvation. This God – the One True God – has called all of humanity to repent of their sins and turn to God – to believe in Him and the One He has sent as Savior, because the day is coming when this Person will return to judge every human being who has ever existed – and we will be judged against the standard of righteousness – of holiness – or being innocent and perfect. And God proved that This One will return as judge by raising Him from the dead.

The Greeks had an understanding of judgment, but when Paul told them that God’s Savior has been risen from the dead – reinfleshed – that His Body had been raised – they began to laugh, because the popular understanding of the Greeks was that the material world, including the body, is bad. They believed that the soul is trapped in the body and at death it is released to a better existence. So the idea that God’s Own would be put back in His Body was laughable. Why – as they understood it – would God’s Savior be punished by being put back in the cage of His Flesh?

This heresy – the Greek pagan understanding of the body – is popular in the evangelical church today. I was raised being taught in church that when we died our body went into the ground and our souls went to Heaven to float around and enjoy chocolate. But that is not what the Bible says.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and He said that the Creation was good. The material world – including our bodies – was created good.

Jesus was raised in His Human Body – perfected and glorified, yet really human. And we shall be raised in the same way.

We are taught in the Scripture that the joy or the Hell of the life to come is both physical and spiritual.

And Jesus will return. Jesus said, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.... And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all those who are in their tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:22, 27-29, ESV).

A number of those listening mocked Paul when he preached the resurrection of the body. Some wished to debate him further on the issue. And a very few believed: including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.

As we tell others about God and the salvation He provides through Jesus, let us remember these points that are still debated to this day:

God exists and there is Only One God.

God is not the Creation; God needs nothing – He is self-sufficient.

God created everything that is, including humans, and God is personally involved with each of us and our lives.

God is a Spiritual Being – a Spiritual Person – God is not made out of material stuff.

God has made One Way of Salvation through Jesus Alone, Whom He raised from the dead and has given authority to judge the world at the end of the age. So everyone is now called to repent and believe in Jesus Alone for their salvation, because He is the Only Way, Truth, and Life that God has provided.

And let us notice one more thing: Paul understood and approached the Athenians with the Gospel of Jesus Christ where they were. Paul took the time to be able to speak to them in a way that they would understand. He took the time to understand what the popular views of reality were among the people so he could address them.

As we are able and gifted, we need to take the time to understand individuals and our culture to be able to address the beliefs that they hold as we present the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s why it is helpful to become friends with people as we tell them about Jesus and not just beat them over the head.

I heard a speaker once who said he was approached by a well-meaning Christian who said, “Are you washed in the Blood?” And he said, “What?” And the man said, “Well, have you been saved? Have you been born again?” And he said, “What do you mean?” And the man said, “I mean, have you heard the Good News?” And he said, “What’s that?” And the man said, “You’re going to Hell ”

Paul knew something of the beliefs of the Athenians, and he was able to enter into discussion with them and address their concerns and present the Gospel without compromise. Let us show our love for others by getting to know them, addressing their concerns, and still telling them that there is Only Salvation through Jesus Alone.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, You have given us Your Salvation and Your Word – help us to know You and Your Word that we might go out from this place and meet up with our friends, our neighbors, and the world, and be able to present the Truth of the Unchanging Gospel in a way that shows we do care about people and not just about being right. Help us to be compassionate and well-spoken that You would receive the glory, and all those You have called to faith will believe. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Wisdom of the Fathers

“The Epicureans, following the stupidity of their teacher, put the happiness of humanity in the pleasure of the body alone, while the Stoics placed it solely in the virtue of the mind” – the Venerable Bede on Acts 17:18 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament V: Acts, 215.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reformed Wisdom

“To deny the infinite and sink into atheism, or to deny the finite and dream ourselves into pantheism, is a revolt against reason, a vain attempt to burst those limits which are necessarily imposed upon human thought” – John Eadie, Paul the Preacher, 196.

"Have You Checked?" Sermon: Acts 17:10-15

“Have You Checked?”
[Acts 17:10-15]
August 22, 2010 Second Reformed Church

Do not assume that the pastor in the pulpit is a Christian. Do not assume that the pastor in the pulpit is telling you the truth. Do not assume that the pastor has understood God’s Word correctly. Having a seminary degree does not make a person a Christian, nor does it make a person wise enough to understand and apply the Scripture. Having a pulpit to preach from and people who listen each week does not make a person right. Having a book or an article published does not mean a person is right.

It is the duty and the privilege of every Christian to check to make sure what the pastor has preached is actually what is in the Bible – what is actually God’s Word. And in this country, we have the added privilege of being able to own a Bible. Some of us have many Bibles. The Bible is the best selling book in the United States. Yet – inexplicably – most of these Bibles are never opened. They are on shelves and coffee tables, covered with dust.

Most people who don’t read their Bible have told me that they don’t because they don’t understand it. Understanding anything takes time and commitment. Do you read your Bible and ask God to help you understand? Do you have a version in which the language is readable to you? Do you take advantage of Bible study, small groups, asking the pastor or others who have spent more time in the Bible, looking to good Christian books?

After the attack on the house of Jason in Thessalonica, the disciples sent Paul and Silas and their friends to Berea – about fifty miles southwest of Thessalonica. And again, Paul went to preach that Jesus is the Promised Savior – the Christ – the Only Way to Salvation.

And Luke tells us that the people of Berea were “more noble than those in Thessalonica.” We know from what follows that Luke did not mean that the people of Berea were all of a higher rank or class than the Thessalonians. Luke says that the Bereans were more noble in two ways: they received the Word of God eagerly, and they examined the Word of God daily to see if these things were so.

The Bereans were candid, impartial, just, devoted to the Truth, unprejudiced, frank – they heard Paul preach and they studied the Word of God to make sure that what he was saying was really true. They didn’t just accept his word because he was Paul, and they didn’t dismiss him out of hand for saying that the Savior had come. No, they listened to the Word of God, and studied it daily, as was their custom, and they examined what Paul said – comparing it to what was written in the Scripture, and they came to a conclusion about whether or not what he was telling them about Jesus was true.

And Luke tells us that many of the Jews believed and many Greeks, including women and men of high standing, also believed. They were acquainted with the Word of God – they knew the Scripture – and when they compared what Paul said to what the Scripture said, they found that he was speaking the truth. What he said was in line with the Law and the Prophets, and the Holy Spirit caused them to believe savingly in Jesus.

Word got back to Thessalonica that many in Berea were believing Paul, so the Jews came after him – they came to cause trouble – to stir the crowds against him. So, the disciples, concerned for Paul’s safety, put him on a ship and sent him to Athens, while Silas and Timothy stayed behind to debate the Jews.

But Paul soon realized he needed help in Athens, so he sent for Silas and Timothy to come as soon as possible, and they did.

We learn at least three things in this text:

First, Scripture demands immediate assent. The Bereans believed the Scripture – as the Word of God. They checked Paul and other preachers against the Word of God – which has no errors and cannot err, since it is God’s Word – even though it was written down by men.

Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17, ESV).

If the Bible is the Word of the Holy and Unchangeable God, then we ought to submit to it and it’s authority immediately – seeing it as the bar to which all of reality must measure up. If you believe the Bible is just human writing – that it is full of errors – what are you doing here? If any part of the text is wrong, then what reason would we have for believing any of it, much less submitting to it as the Word of God?

Second, the doctrine – teaching – of humans, even if it based on the Scripture, needs to be carefully and cautiously examined. The Bereans checked to see if what Paul was saying was in accord with the Scripture. Paul had a pretty good handle on the Scripture – he was one of the best educated Pharisees in the world, and he had been taught by Jesus, as well. If there was anyone you could just assume was right, it would have been Paul, but the Bereans did not assume that he was right just because of his training and reputation. They understood that every mere human being is capable of error – “innocent” error, sinful error, even purposeful evil twisting of the Scripture – so they checked.

Paul wrote, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:20-21, ESV). Don’t throw a person’s preaching out out of hand, but don’t accept it without being sure it is what is actually said in the Scripture. And it is not an insult to ask, “I didn’t understand how you got that from the Scripture – would you show me?”

Thirdly, don’t believe in the infallibility of the pastor. Whether we call him pastor, minister, brother, Father, or Pope, all humans, including those in the ministry make mistakes. That’s one of the reasons God appointed elders – to have a specific group of people charged with making sure that what the pastor is preaching and teaching is what the Scripture teaches.

How then shall we live?

Let us spend time every day reading the Bible – God’s Word. If the language is too difficult in the Bible you have, ask me, and I will find one that is good for you. Read one chapter each morning or evening. Or, if you would like a reading plan, ask me, and I will get you one that works for you.

We ought to read our Bibles because this is what God has said to us. The same God and Father Who sent His Son to live and die and rise and ascend for us gave us His Word that we would know everything we need to know for life and faith. This is the Word of the Holy and Unchangeable God, Who cannot err, and worked through humans to record all that we have in these sixty-six books.

And to the best of our ability – and our ability will grow as we spend time in God’s Word and receive help and instruction from God the Holy Spirit – let us check to make sure what we are told by any pastor or teacher is in line with what the Scripture actually says. Look up the text. Look at commentaries and other good Christian books. Talk with other Christians and see if you agree with the pastor’s explanation. Question the pastor for further explanation. We don’t want to be confused about what God has said.

I wonder – and I’m not going to ask you to respond, because I am afraid of what some of you would answer – I wonder if some of us would not miss the Bible if it were gone – if we no longer had access to it. Would you miss not being able to look to your Bible to see what God has said?

In the book of Kings we have the history of the kings of Judah and Israel – and they were, for the most part, bad. They allowed the people to worship false gods and to set up idols in the Temple. And they allowed the Temple to fall into disrepair. We are even told that the Word of God had been misplaced – they didn’t remember what they had done with the scrolls of the Word of the Lord.

When King Josiah of Judah was twenty-six years old, he decided it would be good to repair the Temple. And the king turned over the money of the Temple treasury so the workers could do the work necessary to repair the Temple.

While the workmen were cleaning up and making repairs, Hilkiah, the high priest told Stephen the secretary that he had found the book of the Law – which would have been, at least, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Hilkiah read the book and then Stephen read the book. And Stephen took the book to King Josiah and told him that it had been found in the Temple.

King Josiah asked Stephen to read it to him, and as he read the Word of God, Josiah tore his clothes and said, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do all that is written concerning us” (II Kings 22:13, ESV).

So the priests went to God and asked of Him and God said, “Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says that Lord, behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against the inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place” (II Kings 22:15-20a, ESV).

After King Josiah heard this, he called all of the inhabitants of Judah together and read then entire book of the Law to them. And then he commanded that all of the idols be removed from the Temple, and the right worship of the Lord God of Israel be restored.

Josiah was in love with God, and when the Word of God was restored, he checked what it said.

The Bereans were in love with God, and they checked the Word of God to make sure that what they were being told by the preacher was actually what the Word of God said.

How might we show our love for God?

Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You for giving us Your Word through the Prophets and Apostles. We thank You for working through humans that we might understand Your Word, yet protected it from error through the superintendence of God the Holy Spirit. Increase our love for You. Let us desire to know You and Your Salvation above all things. Cause us to spend the effort to read Your Word and to seek to understand it, and we ask that You would reward our efforts with Your Joy. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Prayer Meeting

Due to the pastor being on vacation, we will not have prayer meeting on August 14th or 21st.  Please pray on your own or gather together elsewhere (Flying).  God bless you all.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: "After the Rain"

David Dobson was diagnosed with Diabetes, Lupus, Arthritis, Sarcoidosis, Obesity, and put on Prednisone. On his own, he researched ways to cure himself. He tells his story in After the Rain.

His conclusion was to adopt a vegan lifestyle, including exercise. In so doing, he has been cured of all of the diseases he was diagnosed with.

He includes an appendix with some of his favorite recipes, a glossary of terms, and a great deal of supporting references. It’s worth the read – especially if you have one of these diseases..

Review: "God's Light On Dark Clouds"

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we are comforted by God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4, ESV)

“We relieve our own suffering hears by turning the flood of grief upon some wheel of practical activity. An eminent minister of God who was under peculiar bitter trial, once said to me, ‘If I could not study and preach and work to the very uttermost, I should go crazy.’ The millstones grind upon themselves soon wear themselves away to powder. But useful occupation is not only a tonic, it is a sedative to the troubled spirit. Instead of looking in upon our own griefs until we magnify them, we should rather look at the sorrows of others, in order to lighten and lessen them” (14-15).

Theodore L. Cuyler, in his book, God’s Light On Dark Clouds, delivers a series of meditations on suffering, the Sovereignty of God in suffering, and our response to suffering. Cuyler was a man well-acquainted with suffering, having seen the death of three of his children.

Cuyler wrote these meditations to give hope to those who suffer – to comfort those as he had been comforted. Surely, one of the reasons we suffer is to be able to comfort others who suffer.

This is a wonderful book to prepare one who has not experienced suffering and to give guidance and hope to those going through suffering.

Review: "Eating Animals"

Acclaimed novelist Jonathan Safran Foer grew up being and on-again, off-again vegetarian. But when his first child was born, he decided he need to pay more attention to food and what was healthful for his son. The result of that quest is his book, Eating Animals.

Foer specifically examines the practice of factory farming and what that means for our health as took many animals are forced into cramped quarters, becoming diseased, fed garbage and drugs, and then killed in inhumane and unsanitary ways. (He is extremely thorough in his documentation of these facts.)

Foer was convinced that he could no longer eat animals for the sake of his own health, not to mention the cruelty inflicted upon the animals. Read his book, see if you’re willing to sacrifice your health and the health of your children. And then consider the suffering of the animals.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: "My God is True!"

I picked up My God is True! Lessons Learned Along Cancer’s Dark Road for three reasons: the forward is by Sinclair B. Ferguson, it is published by Banner of Truth, and I know a number of people who have had or do have cancer.

Paul D. Wolfe was a seminary student when he was diagnosed with cancer and wrote the journals that are the backbone of this work.

In the first part of the book, Wolfe examines the Scripture to see is God is Sovereign and whether the Scripture can be trusted. After bringing the reader through such Scripture with good exegesis, Wolfe says, “yes!”

In the second part of the book, Wolfe examines the Scriptural ideas of endurance and joy and show how it is possible to endure and be joyful through cancer, its treatment, and an uncertain future regarding the disease.

In the final chapter, Wolfe looks at the curse received after Adam’s sin and why it should cause us not to surprised when things like cancer occur. And he ends with a call to approach the Throne of Grace boldly, calling out to the Father Who loves us and can heal.

I bought four additional copies and gave them to those I know who are suffering with cancer, and I will likely by more.

Although this book is specifically about cancer, it would be good for anyone suffering from any type of disease, because the truths about God are the same.

Review: "On a Dollar a Day"

On a Dollar a Day is a fascinating and thought-provoking book by Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard.

Greenslate and Leonard are a couple and both high school teachers and both vegans. Even without the expense of animal products, they got sick of their soaring grocery bills and decided to enter into an experiment: could they live on a dollar a day, per person, as the average person on the planet does?

They ran a blog before the book and documented their experience as they spent a month living on a dollar a day per person. After this experiment, they decided to see what would happen if they lived on the $4.13 food stamp family allotment – following the guidelines of what to buy, though they were not actually on food stamps.

Their experience and conclusions will make you examine what you buy to and what you eat and why you do so. In the third section of the book, they use what they have learned to modify their original eating habits in such a way that they end up spending less money and eating healthfully.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who eats food and especially to those who don’t think about what they are eating and/or have the money not to think about it.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

"Faith is Not Blind" Sermon: Acts 17:1-9

“Faith is Not Blind”
[Acts 17:1-9]
August 8, 2010 Second Reformed Church

Archie Bunker, on the TV show “All in the Family,” said, “Faith is believing in something no one in their right mind would believe in.” “Faith is believing in something no one in their right mind would believe in.” And it would seem that many people – even people within the Church – believe that or something like it.

Now, that is not to say that there isn’t mystery – that there are things that we cannot fully understand – because there are. No one in their right mind would say that he fully understands the Doctrine of the Trinity – our minds are too small for that. No one understand exactly how God will resurrect our bodies and what exactly will happen to us as God glorifies our bodies to be like Jesus’. But that is not what we’re talking about here.

There is an epidemic of anti-intellectualism in the Church – there is the perception that Christians need to turn off their brains to be Christians. And some Christians believe that it is not right or profitable to try to understand what God has said or to be able to explain what God has said to us clearly. There is no denying that there are mysterious parts and difficult parts of the Bible, but most of it is straightforward, and, if we take a little time, we can understand it. There is something insidiously wrong with the statement, “I don’t read the Bible, I just have faith.”

Paul and Silas were asked to leave Philippi by the magistrates, and they did. They continued their journey and went west about a hundred miles through Amphipolis and Apolonia, coming to Thessalonica on the border of Macedonia and southern Greece. And though Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, since the Gospel is to the Jew first and also to the Greeks (cf. Romans 1:16), Paul went to the synagogue first, and there – for three successive Sabbaths – “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’”

We may remember when Paul spoke to the Gentiles – the non-Jews – he reasoned with them from nature – and we’ll see this again – Paul looked at the world and reasoned with them from what they knew in the world to the need of the Savior and then he explained that the Savior is Jesus.

The Jews, however, as Paul writes, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenant, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5, ESV).

In other words, the Jews have had a special relationship with God for millennia. God has worked with them and through them – God has spoken to them and given them His Word with the promises – including those of the Savior Who was to come. So, when Paul addressed the Jews, he turned them to their Scripture and showed them that everything that happened to Jesus proves that He is the Promised Savior. This is exactly what Jesus did after the Resurrection when he met Cleopas and his friend on the road who were mourning the death of Jesus and despaired that He was not the Promised Savior. “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-26, ESV).

Paul, after the example of Jesus, took the Jews to their own Scriptures, to the promises of God and proved to them that Jesus is the Savior, because He fulfills everything that the prophets prophesied, including that He would suffer and rise from the dead.

Where did he get that proof? We’re not told what Scripture Paul used, but Jesus said that all of the Scripture concerns Him – Jesus is to be found everywhere. So, if one takes the time to look at it an think it through, one will understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Promised Savior.

We, Christians, like biblical Jews, believe that the Bible is the Word of God, written by humans, inspired by the Holy Spirit, without error, and conveying everything God wants us to know for faith and life and, especially, His Plan of Salvation.

Let us wake up for a moment and turn on our brains. Let us listen to a passage from Isaiah – written about seven hundred years before Jesus lived – and see if this prophecy sounds like anyone:

“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand. Who has believed what they heard from us? And to who has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despise and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

“Surely he has bourne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him as stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet be bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, ESV).

Now, I know you just heard me read that – and we have no reason to believe that that was the specific text Paul looked at with the Jews – though it could have been. But, even as I read it, did it remind you of anyone? “He reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’”

Paul had spent enough time in the Scripture to know it well enough that he could point to sections and say, “Look at this, doesn’t it make sense that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Promised Savior? Look at the promise – look at Jesus – didn’t Jesus accomplish everything that God promised?” Paul used his mind at the Scripture to show that Jesus is Who God – through the prophets – promised He would be.

And some of the Jews, who believed the Scripture, were convinced by Paul’s argument. Tellingly, there were also Gentiles in the synagogue, and Luke tells us that a great many of them were convinced and believed, as did a good number of the leading number of the women of Thessalonica.

What Paul did is what we call “apologetics.” He offered a reasoned argument for why Jesus is the Savior. Now, we should remember that no one can believe unless God causes them to believe. So, someone could offer the absolute, perfect argument for Jesus being the Promised Savior, and yet those who God has not chosen to believe will still not believe. However, that should not discourage us from offering arguments for the truth of the Scripture and for Jesus being the Savior, because God wants us to use our minds. Remember the greatest law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27a, ESV).

So let us understand that God has called us to love Him with our minds. That means we are to use our minds in such a way that shows God to be our greatest love. We are to love God with our intellect – with our ability to reason and argue and prove and think and understand.

In every way we use our mind, we should strive to use it in the best and most accurate way. We ought to study well in school and try to understand what we are being taught. We ought to use our minds at our jobs to do the best job and to make the job better for everyone involved. We ought to stretch our minds and try to understand as much as God allows us to understand – not merely for the sake of knowledge, but so that we will know God better and glorify Him for all that we understand.

We waste our minds when we “read” pornography – when we watch trash TV – things like “The Jerry Springer Show” – (at least I don’t know anything God honoring about that show). We waste our minds when we don’t think – when we accept what we are told without proof or reason. We waste our minds when we accept what the news tells us – our modern, television news is first and foremost entertainment – it is only secondarily to convey information and, perhaps, truth. Watch out. Guards your mind. Don’t waste your mind on trash.

Now, that is not to say that you have to spend every moment reading text books. I plan to bring a number of mystery novels with me to the beach. On TV, I enjoy the “Hetty Wainwright Mysteries” and “Keeping Up Appearances” and “Columbo” and “Stargate SG-1. It is largely obvious what is trash literature and what is good. And there is light literature and heavy literature, and it is fine to have a balance. We don’t have to be reading Einstein every day. But we do well to engage our minds in reading or watching something that stretches our minds – develops them, causes us to think.

Go to a museum. Read a good novel. Read a scientific book. Discuss current events with someone. Discuss art or philosophy or how to plant a garden with someone. Learn about architecture or business – even wine.

Do something more than sit in front of trashy TV or read trashy books.

We love God with our minds when we study His Word. When we read it and try to understand it on our own and in groups and with the use of good Christians books. We love God with our minds when we explain the Scriptures – and the Gospel, in particular – to others.

Paul and Silas spent three Sabbaths explaining the Scripture in Thessalonica and God was pleased to cause some Jews and many Gentiles and a good number of the leading women to come to faith in Jesus as their Savior. Their faith was not blind, it was based on understanding that Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament – the promises that God has made to Israel through the prophets.

And what happened?

Well, the Jews who did not believe were jealous of Paul and, since they knew that Paul was staying with Jason, they gathered up a mob of wicked men, set the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason – hoping to take Paul away. But he wasn’t there. So they grabbed Jason and brought him before the magistrates – this is getting to be a pattern – and they made two accusations against them: They were turning the world upside-down and, they were proclaiming that Jesus was king, not Caesar.

The magistrates were disturbed by this report because they wanted peace in their city and because they were afraid of the retaliation that Rome would bring if they tried to set up a king opposed to Caesar. Still, they accepted bail money and let Jason go.

But their accusations were actually true: Jesus does turn the world upside down. We know that – this world is not all there is – this world is fallen and broken and sinful, but Jesus will return and restore it and there will be a new heavens and a new earth and a new Jerusalem – Paradise like Adam and Eve enjoyed. Yes, if you believe that this world and this life is the be-all and end-all – no, you need to have your world turned upside-down. You need to understand that following after this world will guide you down the path to Hell. You must repent and turn to Jesus. He is the Promised Savior Who will deliver you from your sin and credit you with His Righteousness, so you can be forgiven and called holy – a son or daughter of God – who will be welcomed into His Kingdom at the end of the age. Enjoy the world – yes, God has given it to us to enjoy – but turn it upside down – and understand the Beauty and the Truth of Jesus.

And Jesus is King – Jesus is the King of King, the fairest of ten thousand, the Lord of a thousand hills. He is the Ruler and the Judge of all. He is our God and Savior and no mere human being can ever rule over Him.

So, how ought we live?

Let us use our minds. Let us think. Let us do something with the minds God has given us. Let us use them to learn, to enjoy, to know God and love Him.

Let us use our minds on worthwhile things. Let us learn to distinguish between those things that waste our minds and rot our minds and those things which grow our minds and make them more glorifying to God.

And let us use our minds to understand all that we can – both in the Scripture and in the world. God has given us His Word so we would know Him and love Him more. He has given us His Word so we would be able to see what He has done in sending Jesus to be our Savior and so we could explain it to others that they might believe in Jesus as God is willing to cause them to believe. And God has given us this whole world – all of Creation – that we would enjoy it and know it – understand it. God is glorified as we come to understand all the wonders of what He has created. Follow what interests you and know it better that you might praise and glorify God for His Work in Creation.

Let us love God with our minds.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You that You have given us the Creation and Your Word. We thank You that You have given us minds that can understand and reason and explain, and we ask that You would help us to use our minds to love You and bring You glory. Help us to understand Your Word and be able to explain it to others. Help us to take an interest in Your Creation and learn more about it. For You have given it to us to enjoy and to glorify You. May Jesus Christ be praised. Amen.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

"God & Country" Sermon: Acts 16:25-40

“God & Country”
[Acts 16:25-40]
August 1, 2010 Second Reformed Church

Paul, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and the rest of their missionary team were preaching in Philippi in Macedonia, just north of Greece. And one day when they went to the place of prayer by the river, they were met by a slave girl who could tell fortunes because she was demon-possessed. And the demon. kept proclaiming, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation. These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation. These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Over and over again, out of fear, the demon cried out – truthfully.

After some time of this, Paul got annoyed, because the demon’s proclamation – though it was true – was distracting from the Message – so Paul cast the demon out of her in the Name of Jesus, and she was free from the demon. And she was unable to work as a fortune-teller anymore, which angered her owners. So they dragged Paul and Silas to the magistrates and accused them of breaking Roman law – of trying to convert people to the belief in a god that was not recognized by the state. The crowd with them was in a frenzy, so the magistrates ignored the law, themselves, which said Paul and Silas were to give a defense before punishment was rendered, and the crowd beat Paul and Silas with rods.

Now, that may sound terrible enough to us, but the word that is literally translated “beat...with rods” is a word that is only used in one specific way in the New Testament – to refer to the Roman practice of scourging. Scourging was “scouring with the flog.” Remember, Jesus was flogged. The flog was a whip that had pieces of metal or glass or some other hard, sharp object imbedded in the ends of it, so when the whip came down in would embed itself in the flesh and tear as it was pulled out. Now, when you scour a pot, what do you do? You clean it quite vigorously all over to remove any dirt from it, right? So, let us understand, Paul and Silas were not merely beaten with pipes; they were whipped with the flog – all over their body – until it had scoured them. A horrific punishment. And then they were thrown in the interior jail and chained in the stocks so they couldn’t move, because the people were afraid of the Power of the Holy Spirit in them.

After this horrific and unjust treatment, we come to this morning’s Scripture: how did Paul and Silas respond to this unjust treatment? They prayed and sang hymns to God. They had an all-night revival meeting in their cell – praising God and praying for the spreading of the Gospel – and that it might all be to the Glory of God. We’re they nuts?

Remember what Peter wrote, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (I Peter 4:16-17, ESV).

If we suffer as a Christian, that ought to lead us to prayer and praise. Why? Not because we should enjoy suffering; suffering is not enjoyable, and God doesn’t ask us to be happy about suffering. No, if we suffer as a Christian, we ought to be led to pray and praise, because, if we are suffering for being a Christian, that means our persecutors understood what we were saying about Jesus and His Gospel. And, if we suffer as a Christian, then we pray and praise, because God is our Hope – and He is our Sure Hope. He cannot fail, so we are right and wise to trust our futures to Him.

So, Paul and Silas were praying and singing to God, despite their injuries, because they knew the Gospel had been heard and God was faithful to them and would save them in eternity, no matter what happened to them on earth at the hands of those who were against the Gospel. And Luke tells us: “and the prisoners were listening to them” – and we can assume the guards were listening to them.

We never know who is listening to us and who sees us and who might respond to the Gospel, though we never know about it. You could be passionately explaining the Gospel to someone and a totally different person who just happens to be passing by is the one who turns out to hear and repent and believe in the Gospel. Or you may be doing something, not particular thinking about making an impression for the Gospel, but the way that you do whatever it is, does make an impression on someone and because of it, they turn and repent and believe in Jesus. We never know. That is just as true concerning our sin: we don’t know who will overhear our sinful words or see us do something we ought not to do.

We are called to live lives of holiness in response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ – and people will listen and watch – even when we don’t realize it. And they will hear and respond in part due to what they see and hear in us. So let us be examples worthy of our Savior.

God chose at that moment that Paul and Silas were praying and singing and everyone was listening to them to cause an earthquake to occur, which opened the chains and the prison doors of all of the prisoners – not just Paul and Silas – suddenly, everyone was free. And the guard took out his sword and got ready to commit suicide. And we need to understand this was not the coward’s way out by Roman standards. He knew he couldn’t capture all the prisoners again – some would surely escape – every door was open, every chain was off. He could not fulfill his duty to guard the prisoners. Suicide, in ancient Rome, was considered a heroic and rightful act. Since he could not keep all the prisoners as he was charged to do, it would be a great honor for him to commit suicide.

Paul knew this and cried out with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” No one had left. Everyone was still in their cell. God had set everyone free, but they had remained where they had been imprisoned. Normally, if a prisoner has a way of escape, he escapes. Why didn’t these prisoners run? Because they had heard Paul and Silas singing and praying.

Now, some might wonder why we should care about the jailer: wasn’t he on the side of those who put Paul and Silas in prison? Why should Paul cry out to save him? Because love for our neighbor includes love for those who want to kill us. Jesus did not say, “Love your neighbor if he or she is someone you like.” No, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor” – and that includes the people you like, the people you don’t like, the people who don’t like you, and even those who want to see you dead.

The jailer couldn’t believe it – everyone was there. So, he rushed into Paul and Silas’ cell and fell on his knees and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” If the core question of philosophy is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The core question of theology is “What must I do to be saved?” The jailer was a wise man – he understood what had happened. He knew that Paul and Silas were the men to talk to about what happened and what he should do.

We never know who’s listening or watching, so we ought to be on our guard; we ought to be ready at any time for anyone. Remember what Peter wrote, “[always be prepared] to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15b, ESV).

What do you say when someone asks you why you come to worship? What do you say when someone asks you why you give to the church? What do you say when the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons come to your door? “[always be prepared] to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15b, ESV).

“What must I do to be saved?” There is only one answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Again, Paul writes, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9, ESV). That is the answer and the hope for every person throughout time, space, and history.

And the jailer believed, and he brought them to his home to tell the Gospel to his family, and they all believed. And he washed their wounds, and they baptized him and his family. And they all rejoiced in the Lord, their God.

But that’s not the end of the story: Paul and Silas were still prisoners. So they returned to the jail and waited until the morning. Then the magistrates sent word by the police to let Paul and Silas go. No questions, no trial, no further punishment. We can imagine the jailer being thrilled to hear this, and he went and told Paul and Silas that they were free to go and preach the Gospel

But Paul said, “We’re not leaving. We were publically beaten – scourged, without condemnation, without trial, and thrown in prison. We are Roman citizens. Now they think we will secretly go away? No Let them come and face us.”

What was going on? Shouldn’t Paul have just forgiven them and gone on with his missionary journey? They could have pushed for their death, why is he making an issue of this? Because even though we are to be willing and ready to suffer for Christ and His Gospel, we are not called to be doormats or to give up the rights we have as citizens.

Paul and Silas rejoiced at suffering for Christ. Paul and Silas rejoiced at the conversion of the jailer and his family. But it is not against Christ that we assert the rights that have been given to citizens. And according to the Roman Porcian Law, Roman citizens were exempt from scourging. According to the law, all a person had to do was say, “I am a Roman citizen,” and it was illegal for them to be scourged. Never mind the fact that they had been scourged without trial or defense – which was against Roman law – they had been punished in a way that was against the law to inflict on a Roman citizen.

So Paul said, “No way. We are Roman citizens, and we are not going to slink away and ignore the fact that our civil rights have been violated. The magistrates will have to come here to tell us that we have been released.”

So the police told the magistrates, and the magistrates were afraid – they had broken the law – and broken it against Roman citizens. Civilly, they couldn’t have done much worse. So they went to the prison and offered apologies to Paul and Silas, which they accepted. And then the magistrates asked them if they would leave the city, and they said they would. So, after one final meeting with Lydia and the other Christians, Paul and Silas were off to their next stop.

How then shall we live?

First, let us be willing to suffer for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. Let us open our mouths and politely, honestly, rightly, tell others Who Jesus is and what He has done as the Savior of all those who will believe. And if those we tell choose to be violent against us, let us rejoice that the Gospel has been heard, thanking God for the opportunity to be His witnesses. And let us pray for all those we speak to.

Let us also remember that we don’t know who will hear and see us and how they will be affected. It is not just the people that we specifically talk with that response to what we say and do. So let us be careful and live lives of holiness so those who see us will not have a reason to turn from Christ because of what they have see or heard from us when we didn’t think anyone was watching.

Second, let us remember that we are dual citizens: we are citizens of heaven, and we are citizens of earthly realms. First, it is interesting to note that it is to the church at Philippi that Paul writes these words: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now even tell you with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:17-21, ESV).

As citizens of heaven, we will shortly meet with our God and Savior as we receive the Bread and the Cup of the Lord’s Supper, as we eat and He meets with us and gives us His Grace that we would be able to do everything He has planned for us. And as Paul has said, one aspect of the Lord’s Supper is that we remember our Future Hope in the Return of Jesus and our being made completely holy like Him. Let us keep that Hope before us as we proclaim the Gospel and suffer as we are called to suffer for His Name.

Yet, we are also citizens of our country here on earth. We are wise to use the rights that we have been given to further the cause of the Gospel – to seek to make things better for all of our neighbors, not just Christians – so that we might witness to the world that we love our neighbors because Jesus first loved us.

What does that look like? One thing that we are allowed to do in this country is to contact our leaders to express our thanks and to ask that change occur. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-4, ESV).

What does Paul tells us the job of the government is? To protect the people and to punish evil. That is what government is to do, and when it does not do that, or if it tries to do things it ought not to do, we are to stand up and complain – as citizens. One way we can do that is through writing letters or making phone calls to our leaders. And I know, some of you are probably thinking, “That’s a waste of time; they will never see the letter, and they will never do anything about it.” That may be true. I have written many letters, and I have only gotten any kind of a response from two people. But that’s not the point: the point is that we as citizens have the right to stand up and make sure our government is doing what it ought to be doing. And as Christians, we have the obligation to stand up to make sure that everything is being done for the furtherance of the joy of all people.

Yes, this is a fallen, sinful world. There will continue to be unjust suffering and the denial of rights until Jesus returns. We may never see the effect of the letter or the comment we make for the good of others. But, if we do nothing, we have received payment in full.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You for making us Your people, citizens of Heaven, with the sure Hope of Salvation in Jesus – in this world and the next. We rejoice in living and witnessing for You, not matter how the world responds, just so long as the world knows there is Only Salvation in Jesus Alone. We ask that You would help us to be good citizens in our countries, doing what is right, loving our neighbors, and standing up against the wrong. And may this all be done for Your Glory and in Jesus’ Name, Amen.