About Gregg Caruso

I have enjoyed the privilege of serving the Church as a co-church planter, pastor of multi-staffed churches, coach, mentor, mission’s executive, trainer, interventionist, diagnostician, and intentional interim pastor. I have served in such varied places as Carson City (NV), Santa Barbara, Oceanside, Boone (IA), London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, the North Shore of O’ahu, the SF Bay Area, Manchester NH, Temecula CA, Torrance CA, Taunton MA, and now in Rehoboth MA. My all-time favorite book on leadership is “Leadership is an Art” by Max DePree. What a great and humbling topic... Specialties: Intentional Interim Pastor (IIP) Gospel-centered theological 'reboot' Change management Organizational development Analytics (3 tiers of diagnostics available) Policy-based governance Conflict management and reconciliation

What About Revenge?

A sermon preached at Christ Community Church in Rochester MN on April 6 and 7, 2019. If you’d like to watch or listen to the sermon click here.

Jesus Christ was the most revolutionary person who ever lived. Jesus came to start a revolution–and the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) is His Manifesto (like the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence). The following passage has been debated for two millennia. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who many think wrote one of the best commentaries on the SOTM, said, “There is possibly no passage in Scripture which has produced as much heat and [contention as these verses].”[1]

Let’s take a look…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN eye for an eye, and A tooth for A tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” –Matthew 5:38-42

Today, we can compare the SOTM to a grand symphony with four movements that build upon each other. The first movement covers the Beatitudes and crescendos with the promise that those who surrender to the shaping of the Beatitudes will become salt and light in the surrounding culture (Matthew 5:13-16). In the second movement of this SOTM symphony, we find six reinterpretations of the LAW. Jesus makes six, “You have heard it said, but I say…” statements. With these statements, Jesus is diving into our innermost being probing the heart and raising the question of motive.

Today we will be looking at the 5th of the six reinterpretations and we will be asking the question, “What About Revenge?” I find it fascinating that this passage contains four very well-known sayings that are still common to our North American vernacular 2,019 years later…

  • An eye for an eye
  • Turn the other cheek
  • Go the extra mile
  • Give ‘em the shirt off your back

There are 6 phrases in these 5 verses that deserve our attention and understanding to grasp what Jesus is saying here. I have divided the 6-phrases into three points.  I’ll state them, so you’ll know where we’re headed and then we’ll go back and consider them one at a time…

  1. Godly Justice: “An eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” (v. 38)
  2. Godly Resistance: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39a) (This is the most theologically controversial—and it sounds contradictory the way I’ve stated it…we’ll see)
  3. Godly Defiance (vs. 39b-42)

We’ll look at them one at a time…

  1. Godly Justice: “An eye for an eye, and A tooth for A tooth” (v. 38)  Jesus could have said more; He’s quoting from Exodus 21:24-25 (and Lev 24:20; Dt 19:21), which reads “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” What these OT passages are communicating is that the penalty must fit the crime. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of proportional justice and it has become the foundational principle for all human justice in a free society. This law was given by God to restrain our human tendency to reactively pursue revenge. There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, which states, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” On the surface, independent of anything else, this is a true statement. However, this quote fails to recognize the context and the purpose of this law in the Old Testament. The Old Testament books of Exedous, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were written as the nation of Israel was rebuilding its social infrastructure after 400 years of captivity in Egypt. There were civil, moral, and ceremonial laws. Again, the point is that justice must be proportional. So, in v. 38 Jesus is reminding His listeners what God’s Law says, then in vs. 39-42 Jesus is telling us how to do that by emphasizing the spirit of the Law, not just the letter of the Law–something the Pharisees had not emphasized. Let’s take a look…
  2. Godly Resistance: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39a) On the surface that’s a pretty startling statement! This phrase has caused much debate over the last two thousand years. First, let’s consider what this verse is NOT saying… It’s not saying that we are not to defend ourselves against evil people. Some well-meaning followers of Jesus sincerely believe that Christianity rejects ALL violence at ALL times. These groups include (but are not limited to) the Brethren, Amish, Mennonite, and Quakers. Lloyd-Jones, in his commentary, points out that Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, and novelist insisted that this verse meant that to be a truly Christian nation meant that there was to be no police, or soldiers, or even a judicial system.  There are plenty of examples throughout both the Old and New Testaments where a defensive posture is warranted. So, what IS this verse saying? In our attempt to discern and understand what Jesus is saying here, it’s quite helpful to look at the Greek word translated in most of our English Bibles as “resist.” The Greek word for “resist” is anthistēmi. It’s the same word we use for antihistamine and it means, “to stand against.” (anti = against and histēmi = to stand). The most literal meaning of the Greek word means, “do not forcefully set yourself against an evil person.” Pastor, author, Bible teacher and Seminary President, John MacArthur describes the meaning of the word as: “Don’t start a feud.” [Don’t go all Hatfield and McCoy…] Lloyd-Jones is a bit more sublime: “It’s an ‘eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth’ until the Spirit of Christ enters in to us. Then something higher is expected of us…”[2] So, it’s not that we resist the person so much as it means that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we resist the gravitational pull to lower ourselves to their level. In any conflicted or confrontational situation (actually, with an “evil” person or not) seek to become a responder, not a reactor. (don’t get sucked into the other person’s drama!). I am a reactor on a lifetime journey to become a responder… So, how does this happen? We need to go back and review the Beatitudes keeping in mind that each movement of this grand symphony builds upon the previous movement.  When the gospel is awakened in our heart and we enter and become citizens of the Kingdom of God there is an emptying (or surrendering) and a filling (or empowering)…

A quick review of the Beatitudes…

The Emptying/Surrendering

    • Blessed are the poor in spirit… To enter into God’s kingdom, we are invited to admit that we have come to the end of ourselves and are in need of God’s help and care.
    • Blessed are those who mourn… As we are honest about our own sinful tendencies there will be a transforming grief or repentance, that surfaces – not only for our own lives, but also for the injustice, greed, and suffering that grips our world.
    • Blessed are the meek…Grieving over sin and suffering places us in a humble learning posture (disciple means learner).
    • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Spiritual hunger and thirst is the desire to be empty of those things that don’t reflect God and initiates a deep longing for wholeness in our lives (see Psalm 42:1).

The Filling/Empowering

    • Blessed are the merciful…As we receive God’s mercy we begin to give mercy – to ourselves and to others.
    • Blessed are the pure in heart… Mercy cleanses our heart and restores purity to our lives.
    • Blessed are the peacemakers… Purity gives way to a personal serenity and peacefulness. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the absence of anxiety in the midst of inevitable conflict – and when others encounter it, they want it too.
    • Blessed are the persecuted… Living life from a kingdom of God perspective will place us in conflict with those that oppose it (often times it’s “religious” people!).

So, the goal in any conflicted situation is to respond with the mercy we’ve received, motives that are being purified, and promoting the peace of God. And then we get persecuted. Persecution is inevitable, this is how Jesus lived—and they killed Him.

3. Godly Defiance (vs. 39b-42) We can’t dive into these four principles as much as they probably deserve but I’ll try and provide an overview of each. (And just so you know, there’s some theological diversity regarding how these verses are interpreted…) The best way to grasp these four principles is to picture them being spoken to a 1st century occupied people. And in many ways, it was a triple occupation…

    • Roman forces had occupied Israel for about 40 years.
    • The ruthless King Herod was a Roman “client” King of Israel and then his wicked son Herod Antipas replaced him.
    • The legalistic Pharisees and scribes who placed heavy religious burdens upon the people.

So, the common person who Jesus was speaking to was living under the weight of foreign occupation, political corruption, and suffocating legalism. With that said, we’ll take a brief look at the remaining four principles of godly defiance. Notice how nonviolent resistance could startle reactive people and deescalate an altercation…

    • Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (v. 39b) The Jews said that the most demeaning, contemptuous, arrogant act of a person is to slap you with the back of the hand. Most people were right-handed, and the left hand was considered unclean because it was used to manage bodily functions. In conflicted situations people of superior societal classes would backhand those of lesser societal classes—a Roman could slap a Jew, a master could slap a slave, etc. However, peers in conflicted situations would tend to fight with their fists. (The backhanded slap was much more demeaning.) What Jesus seems to be saying is if someone treats you as an inferior don’t retaliate physically but position yourself to cause them to treat you as a peer. In this case, if the person who was slapped turned their left cheek, the perpetrator would have to treat them as a peer and hit them with a fist to continue the altercation. Here is how MLK addressed this: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to [hit] his opponent but also refuses to hate him.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [3]
    • “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also” (v. 40) A working-class person often owned only one shirt and one coat. The vibe of this verse indicates that if a person is being sued unjustly, give them your shirt AND your coat, which in the 1st century, means you’re standing there naked. In Jewish culture, nakedness was not only shaming to the one who was naked but also to the one (or ones) who viewed the nakedness. This cultural perspective goes back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve experienced shame when they saw their own and one another’s nakedness after the Fall. This action by the one being sued—giving up both their shirt and their coat, could startle the other party and cause them to settle the case quickly.
    • “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (v. 41) A Roman soldier could conscript a Jewish person to carry his pack, which weighed about 70lbs. but the soldier was limited to only make the conscripted person carry his pack for 1-mile. So, to go the extra mile would cause the soldier to fear the consequences of his superior if it appeared he was asking more than was allowed by Roman law. This would cause the soldier to deal with the conscripted Jewish person more humanely. It would also cause the soldier to wonder about the kindness that was offered to him.
    • “Give to him [or her] who asks of you, and do not turn away from him [or her] who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42) We don’t need to know anything about 1st century culture to know that this principle is about being generous with our resources, which includes our time, energy, and money. The protection contained in this principle is that we don’t always need to give people what they’re asking for. We need to be wise and discerning in this area. What Jesus is saying here is don’t be hardhearted, callous, and dismissive—be fully present with people. Here’s an example: I live in Santa Barbara where we have a significant homeless population. When I pastored in SB we encouraged our church to buy and distribute MacDonald’s coupons (or other stores where alcohol was not sold) so that we were ready to give when asked. We are to look for ways to generously serve others without becoming codependent

As we bring this to a close, here’s another quote by MLK that summarizes what Jesus is teaching in our passage for today…  “Clearly the kingdom of heaven does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. How will we know when we see God’s kingdom?  When anger results in reconciliation rather than retaliation God must be at work.  When enemies are overcome by love rather than violence God’s reign is present.”  –Martin Luther King Jr. [4]

How do we get there from here? Two quick practical applications:

  1. Stay in the Beatitudes. They are a spiritual formation process that will continue to challenge, cleanse, heal, and fill us.
  2. As much as we are able, leave “revenge” to God. God’s “revenge” is much different than ours. Leave the person to the care of God.

The revolutionary teachings of Jesus in the SOTM are beyond our human capacity to “will-power” them into existence.  Many have tried and all have failed.  Jesus teaches that anger = murder; to refer to someone as a fool condemns us to hell; lust = adultery!

The SOTM is not about exchanging one set of rules for another (thank goodness!), rather it’s about trusting in what Jesus accomplishes on the cross to re-orient our values, our vision, and our habits from mere external righteousness to grace empowered change from the inside out. This is what we call the gospel. It’s not about what we do to please or appease God, it’s about celebrating what Jesus Christ has done.

Here’s how Paul says it in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9

Theologians would say that salvation is granted by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Have you received “the gift of God”? Have you rested from thinking (or believing) that salvation is the result of works?


[1] Lloyd-Jones: 273.

[2] Lloyd-Jones: 277.

[3] MLK. Stride Toward Freedom: 92.

[4] From a speech MLK delivered to the YMCA/YWCA at the University of California on June 4, 1957.

Seeing the Relentless Love of God


A sermon from Dec 1&2 at Christ Community Church, Taunton MA

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word “Advent” means coming and Advent is all about actively anticipating the coming of Jesus to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdom of God was established with Jesus’ first coming and will be consummated at his second coming. Currently, we have a foretaste that is seen through the eyes of faith. Advent is anticipating His second coming as well as His first coming.

It might be helpful to think of the Advent Season as a four-lane highway…One lane that is easy to get caught in is the commercialism lane. We can get sucked into overspending in an effort to keep up with family or friends that have more disposable income than we do.

Another lane we can get stuck in, especially if you’re a type-A or a first-born, is the anxiety-riddled lane; wanting to make sure all the Christmas parties and family get-togethers are scheduled and well-planned and that packages sent reach their destination in a timely way. We can become an anxious presence instead of a non-anxious presence.

Another lane is the depression and grief lane. Feelings of sadness for the people you have loved who have died or walked away.  We don’t walk in denial, but also, we don’t let the feelings dominate.

The lane we want to encourage you to travel in this holy-day season is the lane of quiet prayer, reflection, worship, and anticipation regarding the implications of the magnitude of God’s gift in Jesus coming down from the comfort and perfection of heaven and descending into our brokenness of humanity to make a way for us to become part of God’s family.

To be sure, we all move in and out of the various lanes throughout the course of the Advent Season but what we’d like to do for these next few weekends (and Christmas Eve) is to provide a refuge for you, your family, and friends to move out of the commercialism lane, the anxiety-riddled lane, and the depression and grief lane and spend some time in worship, adoration, reflection, and anticipation of the gift that is Jesus Christ.

My assignment for this weekend is for us to consider the relentless love of God through one of the Messianic Prophesies recorded in the OT. If you’re new to the Bible, there are about 456 verses (or sections) listed throughout the OT that accurately describe the who, what, where, when, and how of the promised Messiah.

Pull out the insert in your bulletin for a list of some of the more important or specific prophesies pointing to Jesus. It would be worth your time to look them up…

The late mathematics and astronomy professor Peter Stoner, who wrote a book entitled, Science Speaks calculated the probability of one person fulfilling only 8 of the messianic prophecies in the OT to be one in 10^17 = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.

Stoner concludes, “Any [person] who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world.”—Peter Stoner [1] You might be thinking that is an outlandish statement??  It’s because of the sheer number and accuracy of the hundreds of messianic prophecies scattered throughout the OT that point to Jesus as the Messiah.

Today, I’d like for us to consider the first of these several hundred messianic prophesies. It’s found in Genesis 3:15.  Let’s consider some context before we read it…

Gen 1-2 are about Creation – when everything was as God meant it to be. SHALOM – much more than the absence of conflict, it’s undefiled harmony with God.  (Also, Rev 21-22)

In Gen 3 we turn a horrific corner—it’s referred to as The Fall where Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit. We’ll pick it up in v. 7 and I will read through v. 15…

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.  8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ 10 He said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.’ 11 And [God] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ 12 The man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’ 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’ 14 The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life; 15 and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

What these verses are telling us is that Adam and Eve are plunged into alienation — both from God AND from one another. V. 15 is both perplexing foreshadowing. God says to the Serpent, “Because you have done this, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. Her offspring will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” There’s a lot to be said here, but here’s what I’d like you to see…

Imagine a family at the park or, on a hike, and all of a sudden, a venomous snake slithers into their midst. One person goes after the snake and begins to stomp on it.  Finally, the head of the snake is crushed and the family is saved, but only after the snake bites the one who did the stomping—and the poison goes into him, and he dies.  That’s the picture.

So, what is God saying here? The snake is not just a snake but is the Devil, or Satan, who represents pure, unmitigated evil.  God is saying that one of the descendants of Adam and Eve, the seed of the woman, a human being, is coming and will destroy sin and death and, in the process, lose His life.  Gee, I wonder who that could be?

Gen 3:15 becomes the first Messianic Prophesy of the OT. What is truly remarkable about v. 15 is that as soon as Adam and Eve sin, God initiates a rescue plan. This is where we begin to get a strong sense of the relentless love of God.

Let’s look at v. 15 again… “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

V. 15 is such an important verse it has its own word: protoevangelium, which literally means “first gospel.” Not only is this verse the first Messianic Prophesy, but it is also the first declaration of the gospel in the Bible. It is from this point forward the gospel of God’s grace and God’s rescue plan to bring about redemption in and through the Person of Jesus Christ becomes the central theme of the whole Bible. Another way to view it is as the organizing theme for the rest of Scripture and the rest of human history. And if this registers in your heart and in your head, it will change the way you read your Bible.  You will begin to see the relentless love of God everywhere in the Bible as you read it.

“Genesis 3:15 is the perch from which to view all of world history.” When we align the plan of God with the seed of the woman, we begin to see the reconciliation and restoration of all things begin to come into view.

In order to get better acquainted with the RELENTLESS LOVE OF GOD, let’s go back and consider what just happened in Gen 3…Adam and Eve sin and destructively change the course of human history, but what does God do??

He doesn’t smite them, He doesn’t lose His temper, He doesn’t lash out…In the midst of this incredible disaster is this perplexing and intriguing response by God. God begins by asking some questions, “Where are you? What have you done?  Have you done what I asked you not to do?” What is God getting at with these questions? Certainly, God already knew the answer to these questions. The only reason God would be asking these questions is if He’s seeking to provide an opportunity for Adam and Eve to own-up to what they’ve done.  To say what they did.  Own it.  Take responsibility. But they didn’t do that did they? Adam blamed Eve AND God; Eve blamed the serpent.

What we see here is God is treating Adam and Eve as adults. He’s not treating them as objects, He’s not treating them as children.  He’s engaging in what people in AA or Celebrate Recovery would call an intervention. The bottom-line is that God is seeking them out in love. He knows they’ve sinned—and He still makes Himself available to them.  But shame keeps them hidden from God and now, from one another.  It’s important to see that God didn’t remove Himself from them, they removed themselves from God.

God is asking them honest and real questions instead of just telling them what they’ve done wrong. It’s actually a very beautiful and grace-abounding passage considering the magnitude of what has just happened. Now is a good time for us to consider our takeaway for today:

Whether you woke up amazed by God’s grace and mercy or shamed by the worst mistake of your life, the single storyline of the Bible declares God’s relentless and unending love for you.

Again, after a grievous sin God instantly quickly reinstates a rescue plan that is full of mercy and grace. It’s the same for you and me.

Finally, I’d like for you to notice one more thing about this Gen 3 passage: Notice that while God asks Adam and Eve questions, He doesn’t ask any questions of the serpent. Do you know what that means? It means that even after grievous, heartbreaking sin God holds out hope for sinners, but He will not compromise with evil. God initiated a rescue plan way back in Gen 3 that is still available to you today—no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done…

The first Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and allowed Satan to destroy his family, the Second Adam became obedient to point of death in the Garden of Gethsemane and created a new family…

Christmas is a time for giving. Not all gifts keep on giving, but there is one gift that is for everyone that does keep on giving. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, as a gift to the World.


[1] Stoner: 112.

Sacred Joy In the Assembly


The VitalChurch UK team is working with a church that held a “Sacred Assembly.”  The following are notes from a sermon that was the final step to assist the church in their preparation…

Nehemiah 8-9

Imagine with me for a moment…What if you lived in your house (or flat) with your family and it had no front door. And to make matters worse, there was no law enforcement to speak of – and bands of marauders would regularly descend upon your neighbourhood.

How would that change the way you live? How would it change the way you slept?  How would it change the way you work – or planned your day?

That’s what it was like for the people who lived in the city of Jerusalem for several decades before Nehemiah came on the scene.  The account of Nehemiah follows the humiliating defeat of the Jewish people by Babylon, the survival of a demoralized remnant in Jerusalem for 70 years, then their improbable efforts to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem.

Here’s what we need to see about Nehemiah as we prepare our hearts to allow the word of God to speak to us this morning: Nehemiah prefigures Jesus.

  • Nehemiah left the comfort and opulence of the king’s palace to go and identify with, serve, and lead a bunch of broken and desperate people. Jesus did the same thing. He left the comfort and perfection of the King’s palace to step into the brokenness, desperation, and shame of humanity.
  • Jesus is the better Nehemiah who came in obedience to the Father and out of love for the Father and laid His life down as a sacrifice for sinners to rescue us and spare us. We want to (always) acknowledge Jesus as the wise Rebuilder, primary Leader, and Senior Pastor of His Church.

From the safety and security of the palace, we read in Nehemiah 1:3-4 that when Nehemiah heard his people’s “great distress and reproach,” that he wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days on end (1:3–4).

The first of 12 prayers prayed throughout the book:

“Let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.” –Nehemiah 1:6

He took four months to pray, fast, repent on behalf of the sins of his “father’s house,” and to plan.  He presented his plan to the king and secured both the confidence of the king (and queen – Esther??) as well as the resources to carry out his plan.  Nehemiah traveled to Jerusalem and after some preliminary investigation and planning oversaw the rebuilding of the city wall and the gates in just 52 days.  Stiff opposition was consistent throughout Nehemiah’s ministry in Jerusalem.

Once rebuilt, the people gathered in the city square as God’s community to hear Ezra read and teach the Torah. The outcome of rebuilding wall was that God began to rebuild His people.  The walls give them a safe place to rebuild their lives and people, both from the surrounding area as well as Jews returning from their captivity, return to Jerusalem and begin to repopulate the city for the glory of God. (A picture of a transition season.)

They begin to study the Scriptures again and in hearing them expounded by Ezra (and the other priests), a deep and gripping repentance overcomes them. And as a result, they begin to experience revival.

Takeaway: Repentance is the unlikely route to our joy.

Overview of Nehemiah:

Chapters 1-6 describe the restoration of the wall and the gates of Jerusalem.

Chapter 7 serves as a transition chapter.

  • Nehemiah wanted to give credit to those who had returned to do the work during the crises.
  • Nehemiah was transitioning from rebuilding the wall and the gates to instituting specific reforms as they repopulated the city of Jerusalem in order to re-establish Jerusalem as the vital centre for the active presence of God – as well as Jewish national and spiritual life. (Today, that centre is the Church, not a temple — or a city.)

Chapters 8-13 describe the restoration of the people of Judah. In many ways, chapter 8 is the high point of the book and of the history of Israel as a whole.  Why?

  • God’s people were re-established as a people of the book. This meant more to them now than ever.
  • The visible greatness of impressive institutions such as King David’s reign and King Solomon’s temple had disappeared. Only the promises of God remained.

Focusing in on chapters 8-9 they can be divided up into four main points:

  1. 8:1-8: God’s people re-establish the centrality of God’s Word.
  2. *8:9-12: God’s people re-establish the joy of the Lord as their strength. [Sacred Joy]
  3. 8: 13-18: God’s people re-establish biblical patterns for regular (i.e., consistent) worship and study.
  4. 9:1-38: God’s people call for a Sacred Assembly as they re-establish authentic confession and repentance as a lifestyle.

We can view these four points from Nehemiah as an overview of the transition season here at Bethany. We will take a quick look at all three of the four points this morning, but we will spend the majority of our time in Nehemiah 8:9-12, so I would like for us to read those verses now.

We will consider each of the four points:

“Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, ‘Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.’ 12 All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.” –Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NASB, emphasis added)

Let’s look at them one at a time:

1. 8:1-8: God’s people re-establish the centrality of God’s Word.

They gathered together to listen, learn, and worship “as one man” (v. 1 ff); they became unified and focused as a nation. (Ezra had arrived in Jerusalem 13-years before Nehemiah did.)

When they heard the Torah read the people began to repent, mourn, and weep (v. 9).  God’s people were beginning to get back on track. The safety and security of the wall helped them to refocus and re-establish??

An important part of the task of VitalChurch at Bethany has been to take time to consider your past, your present, and your future.  We have invited your input each and every step along the way…  There has been a rebuilding of theological and governance systems – and more recently adding to the staff to nurture and disciple the young people in the church as well as reach out to those in the surrounding area.

2.  *8:9-12: God’s people are re-established in the joy of the Lord, which became their strength.

Nehemiah and Ezra said, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” –Nehemiah 8:10

There was repentance that led to joy. Repentance is the unlikely route to joy.  How does this happen?  Let’s look first at repentance and then see how it builds into joy…


Within the safety of a rebuilt wall and a re-established governance model, the people witnessed the faithfulness and mercy of God and the people became emotionally safe enough to hear and receive the Word of God, which generated in them a deep and convicting repentance.

“You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.” — Anne Lamott

How shall we define repentance?

Repentance is an internal shift in our perceived source of life, and it involves the response of humble hunger, bold movement, and wild celebration when faced with the reality of our fallen state and the grace of God –Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart

C.S. Lewis describes repentance as the “process of surrender…full speed astern.”[1]

There is a gospel repentance that will repeatedly tap into the joy of our union with Christ in order to weaken our need to do anything contrary to God’s heart.

Repentance is the first 4-Beatitudes (Mat 5): Acknowledging our spiritual poverty, mourning over our own brokenness and the brokenness of sin-sick world system, becoming humble learners, which result in a deep thirst and holy hunger to know and embrace God’s gift of righteousness.

Repentance is Isaiah encountering the glory of God in Isaiah 6 — just walking into church one day and he encounters the glory of God.

When Isaiah is in the glorious, exhilarating, and disturbing presence of God, honesty, confession, and repentance erupt out of his soul.  Isaiah sees with disturbing clarity that his heart is sinful and incongruous with the weighty presence of God.  Then, when he repents and confesses his sin God begins to explode into his life.  Isaiah most likely thought the wrath of God was going to kill him when the seraphim picked-up the fire with the tongs and began to fly toward him.  But instead of death, there was cleansing and healing. God’s holiness did not destroy Isaiah; it (actually) cleansed him.  Isaiah’s self-image was deconstructed and reconstructed on the spot in the temple that day.  Once we’ve had an encounter with God He becomes more real than our needs, personal preferences, and desires.  And as we realize we are more sinful than we ever dared to believe, we simultaneously see that we are more loved than we ever dared imagine – and joy springs up in our hearts — and we surrender ourselves afresh into the service of the Living God.  Repentance is the unlikely route to joy.

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” –2 Corinthians 7:10

The joy of the Lord

Paul asks the Galatian church…“What has happened to all your joy?” –Galatians 4:15 (NIV)

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” –C.S. Lewis

To truly begin to understand joy we must distinguish it from happiness.

The words happiness and happenstance come from the same root word. The prefix “HAP” means “luck.”  So, we can say that happiness, like happenstance, is circumstantial.  They come and go in life.

Happiness is external, while joy is internal. Happiness depends on “happenings.” You’re just lucky or fortunate…

Joy encompasses and transcends both happiness and sadness. Joy is like the sun, always shining even when night falls or clouds cover it.  Happiness is like the moon – waxing, and waning.

Christian joy is a deep and calm delight in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as we encounter the beauty, majesty, and holiness of God in the gospel and we thus surrender our vain attempts to achieve happiness and contentment in our own strength.

Let’s look at what the Bible has to say about joy (look at the back of your outline, at the bottom):

  • “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 8:10
  • “For the kingdom of God is…righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” 14:17
  • “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” 17:13

It was not the wall that made the returning Jewish refugees strong – it was finding their joy in God that became the basis for their strength.  The joy of the Lord would unite them, encourage them, make them brave, and stimulate them to serve God’s purposes.

3. 8:13-18: God’s people re-establish biblical patterns for regular (i.e., consistent) worship and study.

We see that team ministry began to flourish in their midst.  Nehemiah, Ezra, along with the priests formed a leadership team that provided enough safety and security for the people to turn their attention more completely to God and His Word – which they did…

Until now, Nehemiah has been in the forefront. He was a gifted leader and administrator who could organize and mobilize people to get the wall built.  But when it came time to teach the Word, he took a back seat to Ezra, who was skilled in the law of Moses.  Ezra had set his heart to study it, practice it, and teach it (see Ezra 7:6, 10). These two men, along with the priests, illustrate beautifully the principle of team ministry.

This is the role of VitalChurch. We have experience in helping to build the walls of team ministry, good governance, healthy systems, and we provide consistency and a focus on a theological perspective that keeps the gospel at the centre.  (In most churches we work with there has been a theological drift.)

They prepared themselves for a Sacred Assembly (v. 18c): “and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly…” –Nehemiah 8:18c

4. 9:1-38: God’s people re-establish authentic confession and repentance as a lifestyle.

We will see how this works tonight…

What we see in this chapter (vs. 5-38) is the longest single prayer recorded in the Bible.

It is a corporate prayer of repentance. Upon completion of the wall, the people gather together to worship and hear the reading of the Torah.  In chapter 8 we learn that Ezra and other leaders preached and taught the Scriptures for an entire day, and after that, they came back to learn more.  As the Word of God was read and proclaimed the people’s hearts were convicted as they realized that God had been faithful to them, but they had not been faithful to Him.

This prayer is an expression of their desire to repent and return to their God.

Chapter 9 is a sacred assembly — a time to come together and confess both corporate and personal sins.

Remember what Nehemiah prayed in 1:6: “Let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.” –Nehemiah 1:6

The wonder of the gospel that ultimately captures the wandering and wounded heart is that in spite of our sinfulness and selfish desires God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ to die for us, and His Holy Spirit pursues us individually — and as a church.

God’s faithful pursuit is not stymied by our anger or ambivalence, our lack of faith, or our refusal to trust.  The only thing that will ultimately produce change and joy in our lives is recognizing our sin and receiving God’s grace.[2]

Some people may be sitting here saying that all sounds fine – but that was the OT and we now live under a New Covenant, so a Sacred Assembly is not necessary.  To that person I would say that Revelation chapters 2-3 are a call for these seven churches to consider their ways – remember there was both affirmation and rebuke.  Let’s close by considering what Jesus (through) John spoke to the church at Laodicea:

“I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore, be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” –Revelation 3:18-20

V. 20 is often used for evangelism yet please notice it is addressed to a church. There are seasons in the life of every church where the Holy Spirit comes alongside.  To open the door is to recommit and return afresh to the leading of Jesus Christ as the Senior Pastor of the church.

How To Start a Revival

James Burns asks the question:  Do we want a revival?  Do we really?  And then he answers…

To the church, a revival means humiliation, a bitter knowledge of unworthiness and an open humiliating confession of sin on the part of her [pastors] and people.  It is not the easy and glorious thing many think it to be, who imagine it filled the pews and reinstated the church in power and authority.  It comes to scorch before it heals; it comes to [convict] people for their unfaithful witness, for their selfish living, for their neglect of the cross, and to call them to daily renunciation and to a deep and daily consecration.  That is why a revival has ever been unpopular with large numbers within the church.  Because it says nothing to them of power, or of ease, or of success; it accuses them of sin; it tells them they are dead; it calls them to awake, to renounce the world [system] and to follow Christ.[3]


[1] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity: 44.

[2] Adapted from Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart.

[3] James Burns. Revival, Their Laws & Leaders, Hodder and Stoughton 1909:50.

Biblical Conflict Resolution – Part 2


This is Part 2.  You can read Part 1 here.  Part 1 is the theological undergirding and this blog will cover the more practical aspects of biblical conflict resolution.

“Those who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of themselves…Only those who live by the forgiveness of their sin in Jesus Christ will think little of themselves in the right way. They will know that their own wisdom completely came to an end when Christ forgave them.”  –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Conflict is inevitable. Embrace it. God will use it.  Good Communication within the church conveys accurate information and gives an opportunity to correct misinformation.  It is as necessary to the healthy function of a congregation as the circulatory system is in our bodies.  Conflict is a normal experience in life.  When conflict occurs, it demands prompt attention.  Conflict that is not attended to immediately is like a neglected infection, and sooner or later it will engulf the entire organism.

Source of Conflict:

“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.”  James 4:1-3

Following are some Bible passages that instruct us in the use of our tongues:

  1. “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle.” Psalm 39:1
  2. “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18
  3. “Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceit; with his mouth, one speaks peace to his neighbor, but inwardly he sets an ambush for him.” Jeremiah 9:8
  4. “If anyone thinks himself to be [Godly], and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” James 1:26 (See also James 3:3-18)

Towards a definition of gossip:

Sharing anything about someone, when the act of sharing it is not part of the solution of that person’s problem.

Do not triangulate or allow yourself to be triangulated by another person.  Triangulation is using “go-betweens” to communicate indirectly with other parties. The results are unsuspecting, but sympathetic message-bearers become entangled in an unwanted destructive web of blame, anger, and miscommunication. If you have questions or concerns learn the skills of asking questions and engaging in honest, humble, and prayerful dialogue – and go to the person you need to speak to.

The problem with “taking up an offense” (which is a form of triangulation):  Sharing our hurts and bitterness and listening to others share theirs is an area where we need to be very careful.  For example, if someone is rude to your best friend and your friend “leaks” their hurt on you, then you might be tempted to “take up an offense” on their behalf; which means that you get hurt too.  What can happen is that when your friend and the other person resolve their conflict — forgive and forget — you’re still bitter!

Towards a definition of a “wise counselor:” Proverbs 11:14 declares, “There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors.”  Sometimes “getting counsel” is merely a pretense for gossip.  What are the criteria for a “wise counselor”?  First and foremost a wise counselor is someone who is mature in the Lord and who will exhort you to godliness and reconciliation.  Secondly, s/he is one who is willing to point out your sin in the situation, and who will not repeat the matter or be stumbled by it.  And thirdly, s/he is one who is seeking God’s will over-and-above your desire/s.  It should also be noted that we can pursue counsel without revealing the name of the person we’re having a problem with.  This is the type of people we invite into either the formal or informal Matt 18 process.

Misc. Thoughts

  • Before addressing any conflict ask, “How have I contributed?” Because you most likely have. Own what you can own first! (Matt 7:5)
  • Some conflict is rooted deeply in the emotional system of a person’s life (Ex 20:5, 34:6-7; Deut 5:9). This must be kept in mind when attempting to reconcile a conflict. When in conflict ask, “What am I feeling and what is the conflict saying about or to me?” (Prov 15:1). Or ask, “What is behind this?” This is especially true when there is explosive behavior or deep emotional reactivity in the conflict. This is often related to family of origin issues.
  • Keep short accounts in any conflict. When you need to talk to others do so in a reasonable amount of time.
  • The goal of conflict resolution moves from forgiveness to reconciliation to restoration. The goal is not to prove you are right! Don’t violate the spirit of the law while following the letter of the law.
  • Some conflict may only be resolved only by forgiving others. To forgive is to bear the wounds of another (see below) and not hold them accountable. To not forgive is to often take on the negative qualities of those who hurt you.
  • Forbearance (i.e., patience, restraint, mercy) is a gift that we give to another. Some conflict may never be resolved. It a [person’s] glory to overlook an offense(Pro 19:11).
  • Why do we become just like the people we hate? It’s a form or worship – intense focus.  We become what we worship.
  • When confronting, create as much safety as possible. Affirmation of another person’s feeling is helpful. Example: “I can understand why you feel that way.”
  • Give yourself grace when you make a mistake or create a conflict or blow a confrontation. Own it and then get back on the horse…
  • Resolving conflict doesn’t mean that you let others trample godly boundaries (by continuing to hurt you) or by being a doormat or by not holding others genuinely and justly accountable for their choices that hurt you.
  • When there are occurrences of “outbursts of anger” recognize that anger is a secondary emotion. We need to ask, what is the primary emotion?  Hurt?  Fear?  Frustration?  Own it and confess it.
  • Practice the basics consistently: (1) Take the log out (Matt 7:5) (2) Go be reconciled (Matt 5:23-24) (3) Lovingly confront (Matt 18:15-18) (4) Restore (Gal 6:2).

Guidelines for resolving conflict:  Biblical guidelines for resolving conflict can be found in Matthew 18:15-20.  If we are offended or encounter a Christian in obvious sin, we are to go to that person in private, in order to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15a).  Following are some guidelines to help us prepare for a “courageous conversation.”  It’s called The P.A.U.S.E. Principle

  • Prepare (pray, get the facts, seek godly counsel, develop options)
  • Affirm relationships (show genuine concern and respect for others)
  • Understand interests (Seek to understand before being understood. Sincerely ask: “Help me to understand…” others’ concerns, desires, needs, limitations, and/or fears)
  • Search for creative solutions (prayerful brainstorming)
  • Evaluate options objectively and reasonably (evaluate, don’t argue)

The Forgiveness of Sins (Apostles’ Creed)


(From a sermon given at Christ Community Church on May 5-6, 2018)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series in the late 19th century, played a practical joke on some of his friends. He sent a telegram to them that said only these words: “All is discovered. Flee at once.”  Within 24-hours ALL of them had fled the country!  Those were men with guilty consciences. They fled because they knew that they deserved punishment for something.

Here are two questions:

  1. How many people do you think suffer from a chronic guilty conscience in our world?
  2. How many people do you think suffer from a chronic guilty conscience in this room?  [I’ve had bouts with this myself…]

Whether it’s chronic guilt or shame — our contemporary Western culture tries to account for this restlessness gnawing in our soul without taking into consideration the biblical doctrine of sin.

We will be considering the line in the Apostles’ Creed that reads: I believe in the…forgiveness of sins. But before we can talk about God’s forgiveness, we will need to talk about sin.

We will consider just one verse…It’s located in the narrative where Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper:

“For this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” –Matthew 26:28 (ESV)

If you are new to reading the Bible, the words covenant and testament are very similar (a covenant is also a contract). The Bible has an Old Covenant/Testament and a New Covenant/Testament.

What Jesus is doing in THIS verse is initiating the New Covenant (from Law to grace). Jesus, fully God and fully Man, has completed His miraculous ministry and perfect obedience and He’s having a final dinner and saying some final words to His disciples before He goes to the passion of the cross – and then the resurrection, where the New Covenant (or Government/Kingdom) will be established.

Takeaway: The shed blood and broken body of Jesus establishes a new covenant between God and His people, with the central focus being the forgiveness of sins and access to a right relationship with God (see also Luke 22:20 and Jeremiah 31:31–34).

Today, I would like us to briefly consider two points…

  1. The Problem of Sin (It’s a problem, right??)
  2. God’s Provision for the Problem

We’ll look at them one at a time…

The Problem of Sin

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” –Romans 3:23

Let’s begin with some definitions of sin…Probably, the most common definition (or description) of sin that most of us in the room are familiar with is: “missing the mark.”  Think of a target or bull’s eye – and to miss the mark by even a millimeter is still to have missed the mark.  And let’s be clear, none of us even comes close to the perfection, the majesty, the holiness, the wonder, the beauty of God.

The most succinct biblical definition comes from:

“Sin is lawlessness.” –1 John 3:4b

This is similar to the theological concept of the Doctrine of Total Depravity. It’s fairly easy to read words like lawless and total depravity and think, “Well, I’m not that bad!” (i.e., Hitler or Manson).  Yet, the theological concepts of lawlessness and total depravity, are NOT saying that we are as lawless or depraved as we CAN be, it’s saying that we cannot reach the righteousness or perfection necessary to be in the presence of God.  We’re lawless ENOUGH to miss the mark, we depraved ENOUGH to miss the mark.

Here’s another way to think about it:

We have a total INABILITY to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, as God requires. All humankind is inclined to serve our own interests more than the law of God, apart from the empowering grace of God. (Original sin)

Here’s an example that became VERY real to me in a new way at the pastor’s conference the four of us attended last month in Memphis…to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of MLK…

Most of us have seen video clips of people turning firehoses on marchers in the Civil rights movement – or turning police dogs on them and we think, now THAT’s racism. But I’ve never done anything like that, so I must not be a racist.  And we distance ourselves from the problem…

  • But have I ever told a racist joke – or laughed at one?
  • Or heard racist talk and remained silent?
  • Have I ever stopped to think that an African American father has to have a whole different conversation with his adolescent and teenage sons than I had to have with my son?
  • I have ever sat and listened to a person of color describe what it was like to grow-up in America?

Here’s how Dr. King said it:

“Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.” ― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There are sins of commission AND there are sins of omission. And I have to admit I have been part of the racist problem in America.

I’m not as RACIST as I could be, I’m not as LAWLESS as I could be, I’m not as DEPRAVED as I could be, — but I’ve missed the mark in every area and I am desperately in need of God’s forgiveness.

God’s Provision for the Problem

The New Covenant Jesus speaks about in Matthew 26:28 concerns an inner transformation that forgives us and cleanses us from ALL sin:

“‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’” –Jeremiah 31:33-34

We can say that the spilled and spattered blood of Jesus made the New Covenant possible, and it also made it sure and reliable. It is confirmed, it is guaranteed with the life of God Himself.  Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we have can have a new covenant relationship with God.  In our contemporary culture, it is typical for non-Christians to say that the cross of Jesus Christ makes no sense.

Why did Jesus have to die?

Why couldn’t God just forgive us?’

But think about this: No one who has been deeply hurt or wronged “just forgives”!  (Keller)

When someone deeply offends or wrongs us, we only have two options:

  1. Either we seek revenge and retribution — finding ways to make them suffer, or
  2. We can refuse revenge and forgive them. But to do THAT, we must suffer.  We must suffer through the emotional and spiritual (and maybe physical) trauma.

Do you see that? We can’t truly forgive a deep wound, a deep wrong without us absorbing the suffering.  How much more must have God suffered in order to forgive us?  How much more did God experience the obligation and debt and of every injustice and sin that was ever committed – past, present, and future??

I will close with this:

Unless we come to grips with the doctrine of sin, we will not be able to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross.  And therefore, we will not understand forgiveness in a way that will truly liberate us.

On the cross, God’s love satisfied His own justice by suffering and bearing the penalty for your sin.  There is never forgiveness without suffering.

You are more sinful than you ever dared believe and simultaneously you are more forgiven and more loved than you ever dared imagine.  –Adapted from Tim Keller

And when we see that with the eyes of our heart – we become both humble and bold at the same time. We are humbled by our having missed the mark by a mile – and we are emboldened the sacrificial love of God that changes us from the inside out.

How the Ascension Secures Our Joy


It is widely thought that the greatest human achievement of all time was traveling to and landing on the moon.[1]

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew landed the lunar module Eagle on the moon (with less than 30 seconds of fuel left!).  That day Mission Commander Neil Armstrong uttered two now-famous quotes…

  1. When the lunar module touched down, he said, “The Eagle has landed.”
  2. And then as Neil Armstrong descended down a ladder to the moon’s surface he uttered the words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was the first-time human beings had ever traveled to another celestial body.  Well, actually, it was the second time… 

When Jesus Christ accomplished the greatest act of love and redemption of all time—He ascended through the clouds and landed on heaven’s shore—what a celebration there must have been as Jesus returned to heaven victorious!

In this post, we will be considering the Doctrine of the Ascension and, more specifically, how it secures our joy.

Here is how the author and apologist C.S. Lewis rightly describes the Ascension:

“A new chapter in cosmic history has opened.  Christ closed the door to everlasting death by his own death and opened heaven for all as easily as he opened his own tomb. The dragon is slain, the Lamb has conquered and now the King ascends to his throne.”  –C.S. Lewis, Miracles [2]

We will be looking at Luke 24:46-53 and consider how the Ascension of Jesus Christ to sit at the right-hand of the Father can secure our joy:

“Thus, it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations [ethnos], beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. 50 And he led them out as far as Bethany and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great [Greek: mega] joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.”  — Luke 24:46-53 (ESV, emphasis added)

Big picture, what this passage is telling us is that there are distinct stages of redemptive history. In this passage we see one stage transitioning to the next stage… it is a movement from the Incarnation, which establishes of the kingdom of God upon the earth as redemption is accomplished.  In our passage today, we see this stage gives way to the Church Age stage.  The goal of the Church Age is to spread the good news that the Kingdom of God has been established (but not yet consummated).  This stage, that we are in now, will give way to the final stage where Jesus will come back – just as He left.

The verse that really caught my attention when I began to study this passage afresh was v. 52:

“And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great/mega joy.”

When Jesus first told His disciples in John 16 (16:16ff [3] – The Farewell Discourse) that He would be leaving to prepare a place for them in heaven the night of His arrest, they reacted with great consternation, confusion, and concern, but then when it actually happened, we see in Luke 24:52-53 they responded with great joy and continuous (and I would add contagious) worship!

So, we need to ask why?? What happened??

We read in Acts 1:3 that:

Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” –Acts 1:3  

It seems that Jesus taught a 40-day theological intensive on the meaning and practice of the Kingdom of God.  They needed to know that one stage of redemptive history was giving way to the next stage – the Kingdom established to the Kingdom proclaimed.  It seems that after the resurrection the disciples began to connect many of the dots of Jesus’ 3-years of teaching — as well as their understanding of how the whole Old Testament actually points to Jesus (see Luke 24:27).

Good theology stabilizes the soul – and prepares it for real joy.

After the 3-year ministry of Jesus, after the resurrection, and after the 40-day theological intensive – the penny dropped, the dots were beginning to get connected, the fog was lifting.  So much so that when Jesus was taken up into heaven 40-days after His resurrection there was now an exuberance, joy, and continuous worship!

Today we want to ask, “How can we share in their joy?”

It seems the Apostle’s joy stemmed from intimate day-to-day knowledge of the Person of Jesus Christ as well as a growing theological understanding of who Jesus is, where Jesus went, and what Jesus was going to do.

So, there are three questions we will ask: Who? Where? and What?

One of the well-regarded Protestant catechisms[4] is the Heidelberg Catechism.  It was written over 17 years (1559-1576) to instruct youth as well as pastors and teachers.  It’s divided into 52 sections (with a total of 129 questions and answers) so it could be explained in churches over a one-year period.

Here’s a question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism: Lord’s Day 18 / Q-49

How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?

  1. First, He is our Advocate in heaven before His Father.
  2. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, our Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself.
  3. Third, He sends us His Spirit as a counter-pledge [first fruits], by whose power we seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and not the things that are on earth.

Grasping the Who? Where? and What? will open our hearts to new vistas of joy and worship.

Let’s look at them one at a time:

Who has Jesus become in His Ascension?

Jesus ascended into heaven and has been crowned King of Kings and Lord of Lords and is sitting at the right hand of the Father. In this new stage of redemptive history, Jesus becomes our Redeemer-Advocate (supporter, defender, attorney).

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” –1 John 2:1

When John calls Jesus “our Advocate,” he means that our Redeemer now ruling and reigning His kingdom from the throne at the right-hand of the Father — to plead our case.  Jesus’ work as our Advocate goes far above and beyond the work of an earthly defense attorney, because the “case” He is handling for us is grounded in the work He has done to secure God’s favorable verdict of innocence (see Romans 8:1–4).

For those who are “in Christ,” God is no longer the Judge who condemns, but the Father who adopts the Christian into His family.  We are all guilty of sin and unable to meet God’s demands of perfect obedience and perfect righteousness, but the perfect righteousness of Jesus imputed[5] (not imparted) to us in our justification, which makes us right (or, righteous) before God.

“The clients are guilty; their innocence and legal righteousness cannot be pleaded. It is the Advocate’s own righteousness that He must plead for the criminals.”  –Matthew Henry

Practically speaking, Jesus’ work as our Advocate involves our once-for-all justification as well as Jesus actively praying for our ongoing sanctification — or transformation.

Where did Jesus go?

Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father and as He becomes our Redeemer-Advocate – and our shame is replaced by His loving care – both covering our past and praying for our present.  The second part of the Heidelberg Catechism answer says, “we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, our Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself.” What does that mean?

Here’s a verse that might help us to understand this:

“…[God] raised us up with [Jesus] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” –Ephesians 2:6

Jesus is alive and sitting at the right hand of God the Father with all power and authority and He will one day come again in great glory.  As Jesus rules and reigns from His throne, He is glorified, resurrected body.  He is a single man, with fingernails, Mary is still His mother – you could shake His hand and ask Him how His day has been.

This is the same Jesus who is returning to consummate the Kingdom of God in the same manner that He left – in His glorified resurrected body

Here’s a way to think about it: It’s like a train where Jesus, is the engine (locomotive), which has already pulled-in to the station with His glorified body and we are still on the journey.  We are the boxcars in His train.  BUT, at the same time, we are already in the station because our Head is there. That’s what Eph 2:6 says that we are “seated with him in the heavenly places.”

What was Jesus going to do?

We read in Acts 2 that the Holy Spirit was poured out 10-days after the Ascension.  We call it Pentecost (i.e., 50th day).  The Father and the Son pour out (or release) the Holy Spirit to both launch, empower, and build the Church.

In essence, in this new stage of redemptive history, the Holy Spirit and Jesus switch places – Jesus goes back to heaven victorious and the Holy Spirit is released across the whole earth – as well as to live (habitate) in the heart of the Christian.

The empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, being directed by Jesus, floods the whole earth to convict, to convert, to transform, and to build Christians into the Church.  Jesus said it was better for Him to go so that the HS could come.

“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”  –John 16:7

It is better to have the Holy Spirit IN us than Jesus BESIDE us.

It doesn’t matter what Christ accomplished outside of us in history, if what He accomplished outside of us, for us, is not made ours by the Spirit’s uniting us to Christ.  –-John Calvin

After the Resurrection, another event was required in the history of redemption – another phase of redemptive history is now necessary to prepare for the final stage, which is the consummation and glorification of God’s Kingdom.


The Ascension of Jesus Christ marks the completion of the work Jesus came to do on earth and the beginning of what He continues to do in and through the Church by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.  Our joy is secured as we see that all of the majesty, grace, mercy, life, and power of God are wrapped-up in the glorious gospel and are firmly established by the fulfillment of the finished work of Jesus Christ.

The Ascension marks the conclusion of one stage of redemption and the beginning of another.  It is truly finished!  And we await the consummation of the kingdom of God.


[1] #2: Electronic devices, #3: Domesticated fire, #4: Air travel, #5: Created writing, #6: Photography, #7: Theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, #8: Theory of Evolution, #9: Created Music, #10: The internet.

[2] HarperOne Revised 2015: 236.

[3] In John 16 Jesus promised the emergence of great joy—similar to the transformation of pain into joy when a mother gives birth to a child. Years later, the apostle Paul used the same metaphor—of our world being “pregnant with glory”—to describe life in Christ (Rom. 8:25) –Gospel Transformation Notes (John 16:16-24).

[4] Meaning to instruct in the form of a series of questions and answers.

[5] Reckoned, credited, assigned, ascribed – or, cloaked (see Is. 61:10).

The Basics of True Belief (Romans 10:9-10)


The following are sermon notes from a new series at Christ Community Church entitled “We Believe” — a series unpacking the core beliefs of the Apostles’ Creed.  The sermon title was “The Basics of True Belief.”


Today we begin a new series entitled “We Believe.” We will be taking a 12-week look at the Apostle’s Creed.  The word ‘creed’ is derived from the Latin word credo, that means “I believe,” which is what we will be looking at today — a theology of what it means to believe…


Every person on the planet is a theologian.  (Theology = the study of God.)  Even atheists are theologians — we all think about God, have beliefs about God and live our lives accordingly.  Here’s the deal: We’re either good theologians or we’re poor theologians.  Good, sound theological bearings in our lives will provide stability, contentment, and an undercurrent of joy that will keep us humble during the good times and sustain us during difficult times.

“What comes to our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  –A.W. Tozer (Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1)

The Apostle’s Creed was not written by the Apostles but is a summary of apostolic teaching that contains essential Christian doctrines and beliefs that summarize the gospel and make up the foundation of our faith and is rooted in truth and a rich history that connects the 21st century Church to the early Church – a time when the Church was growing exponentially.

Two types of people who might be nervous about a series based on the Apostles’ creed:

  1. If you have a Catholic background you’ll either think this is awesome because it’s a prayer that is often prayed in the Mass – or you could be pretty nervous right now thinking that the Apostles’ Creed is a distinctly Catholic prayer. It’s not.  The Apostles’ Creed dates back to between 180-250 AD.
  2. On the other hand a few of you may have grown-up in a very conservative church where you heard statements like, “No creed but Christ!” If that is your background and general disposition I would urge you to reconsider.

creed is a concise statement of faith that is used for three primary reasons:

  1. To identify and list essential historic Christian truths.
  2. To clarify doctrinal distinctives
  3. To distinguish truth from error.

The Bible contains a number of creed-like passages…

  1. For example, The Shema, based on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, is used as a creed (usually benedictory).
  2. Paul included a number of creed-like statements in his letters. Whether or not he generated them, or they were teaching creeds circulating around the churches written by other teachers, we don’t know for sure.  But scattered throughout his letters are several poetic, devotional, and instructive meditations.  1 Timothy 3:16 is a good example.
  3. We could also identify The Lord’s’ Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) as a creed.  Not only was it meant to be prayed as written but it is also meant to describe and teach us some basic concepts about prayer — What does it mean for God to be “our” Father?  “Hallowed” means we are to reverence and worship God.  We are to long for God’s kingdom to come in fullness.  Etc…

As the early church spread, there was a very practical need for a statement of faith to help believers focus on the most important doctrines of their Christian faith. As the church grew, heresies also grew, and the early Christians needed to clarify the defining boundaries of their faith. Here at CCC we view this series as an opportunity to review and teach the basic doctrines of our Christian faith.

Over the next 12 weeks we will not be preaching the Creed but using the Creed to preach the gospel as well as to teach some basic foundational and historic theology.

I heard one pastor explain it this way:

  1. The SUN is like the Bible and the MOON is like a historic creed…
  2. Like the moon reflecting the light of the sun – a historic creed reflects the light of Scripture.

The scriptural truths contained in the Apostles’ Creed help us to live-out good theology with the knowledge that our faith is rooted in truth and in a rich history that spans past and present.

“Throughout church history it has been necessary for the church to adopt and embrace creedal statements to clarify the Christian faith and to distinguish true content from error and false representations of the faith.” –R.C. Sproul


W will consider the first two words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I Believe.”  We will look at just two verses but then turn our attention to focus on exactly how belief occurs.

“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. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  –Romans 10:9-10 (English Standard Version, emphasis added)

Takeaway: To believe in Jesus Christ is to confess Jesus Christ.  The result is justification, which forever changes our legal standing before God. God declares us not guilty, but righteous because of the finished and complete work of Jesus Christ.

Two points to make concerning these verses:

  1. There is a difference between knowing something and believing something.  To know something is to have it registered in our brain.  To believe something is to have knowledge travel the 18-inches from our head to our heart.
    • To confess and believe happens when the truth moves from something we understand to something we stand under.
    • To use the Apostle John’s language from 1 Jn 3: We go from knowing to beholding.
    • Think of a father taking his son to his freshman year at college. They unpack the car into the dorm room and the son walks his dad back out to the car.  When they get to the car the father hugs his son, kisses him on the cheek, and says to him, “I love you and I will do anything necessary, even die, to make sure you have everything you need.”  And the boy weeps…[1]
      • What’s going on here? This is not new information.  The son already knew that his father loved him.  It’s not a new idea — but the idea becomes new.
      • He doesn’t get new information but the information becomes new. He experiences his father’s love in a new and profound way.
    • What it means to believe and confess is that we experience God’s sweet embrace – and the truth becomes radioactive in our heart.
    • I have to ask: Has this happened to you yet? Have you experienced the Father’s sweet embrace?
  2. Notice how Paul reverses the order of verbs in v. 9 and v. 10: confess–> believe –> believes –> confesses.
    • This a literary technique called parallelism.[2] When a writer employs parallelism, it is done to add emphasis to the author’s intent.
    • What Paul is saying in these verses is that heart-belief and mouth-confession are one and the same — and that hey come together for our justification (some translations use the word “righteousness” – NAS, KJV, NKJV).

Now we turn to the theological doctrine of justification in Romans 10:10 – What does it mean to be justified??  I would like to take the next few minutes and quickly walk you through what is called in Christian theology circles as the Order of Salvation (v. 10a: For with the heart one believes and is justified):

Order of Salvationor the Latin phrase Ordo Salutis, refers to the lining up in chronological sequence of the events which occur from the time when a person is outside the community of faith and dead in their sin, through to the time when a sinner is fully and finally saved.

A short version of the Order of Salvation can be found in:

“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” –Romans 8:29-30

An Order of Salvation is as follows:

  1. Election, or God’s choice of us.  (The terms election and predestination are often used interchangeably, both referring to God’s gracious decree whereby He chooses people for eternal life.) “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.”  –Ephesians 1:4
  2. Gospel Call
    • Outward Call: God sends us an outward call by bringing the message of the gospel across our paths, either through reading or hearing the good news of the gospel proclaimed.  We have a “wait, what?” moment.
    • Inward Call/Heart Awakening: Next, God provides an inward call through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, which awakens, or calls to life previously dead hearts.
  3. Regeneration: God imparts new life to us so we have the spiritual ability to respond. “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.”  –Titus 3:5
  4. Conversion = Repentance + Faith. Repent of sin and trust in Christ for salvation.  (Think of a two-sided coin.)  Regeneration and conversion is our response to the inward gospel call.  We see Paul’s dramatic conversion detailed in Acts 9.
  5. Justification: Immediately after conversion comes justification, which forever changes our legal standing before God. God declares us not guilty, but righteous — because of the finished and complete work of Christ.  Our justification / righteousness is not imparted but imputed.[3]  Let’s consider the difference between imparted righteousness and imputed righteousness…
    • Imparted Righteousness – The word “impart” means to “give.” (It is also called “infused righteousness” — think of a teabag). The idea of imparted righteousness is that Christ’s righteousness is given to, or infused within, the believer such that he or she actually becomes righteous.  I believe this is the wrong view of justification or righteousness…
    • Imputed Righteousness – The word “impute” means “ascribe” or “credit.” Imputed righteousness thus carries the theological weight of being “counted” or “considered” or “reckoned” righteous.
      • Paul is not writing that we are transformed into people who possessrighteousness, but rather that we have been united to Christ (i.e., the 30 “in Him” passages of Paul’s letters) and because of our union with Him (the emphasis of Romans 5), we have that which He possesses, that is, Christ’s righteousness.
      • Here’s what imputed righteousness accomplishes:
        • In God’s eyes Jesus’ perfect record is imputed to us.
        • We are treated as if we had lived the perfect life that Jesus lived.
        • We are given the love that Jesus deserved (through His obedience).
        • We have the same access to the Father that Jesus did.
      • The best news is that all of this comes not from us doing anything (i.e., works) at all, but simply by confessing and believing.
  6. Adoption: At the same time, God adopts us, making us His children and the brothers and sisters of Christ; and He also unites us with Christ, so that henceforth we are in Him (think of a judge declaring you not guilty and then taking of his judicial robe and adopting you into his family).
  7. Grace Empowered Sanctification: Beginning at that point, and on throughout the rest of our lives, God changes us into His likeness.
    • This occurs mostly through worship and surrender (not willpower – although the will is involved).
    • When (or, as) we worship and surrender the grace of God comes and does IN us and THROUGH us what we could never do on our own.
  8. Grace Empowered Perseverance of the Saints: Throughout this time, God empowers us to persevere in the faith through grace, so that we do not fall away. Then, at death, we enter an intermediate state, where we are in the presence of the Lord, but without our physical bodies.
  9. Glorification: Finally comes glorification, when our bodies will be resurrected and changed so that they will no longer decay, and we will inherit the new heavens and new earth, where we will live in the presence of God for all eternity.


A woman named Hetty Green died in 1916 and left an estate valued at between $100-200 million. She went down in history as, “America’s Greatest Miser.”[4]  It was said she ate cold oatmeal to save the cost of cooking it.  Her son had to eventually have his leg amputated, because she was too cheap to pay for medical care.  Hetty Green was wealthiest woman in the world, yet she chose to live like a pauper.

Her life becomes an excellent illustration of the way many Christians live today:

We have unlimited spiritual wealth at our disposal and yet we often live in spiritual and theological poverty.

Do you just know about God, or have you experienced the Father’s love in a new, regenerating, and profound way?

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary:

Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:

The third day He rose again from the dead:

He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:

From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead:

I believe in the Holy Ghost:

I believe in the holy [universal] church: the communion of believers:

The forgiveness of sins:

The resurrection of the body:

And the life everlasting. Amen.




[1] Adapted from Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), an English Puritan theologian and preacher.

[2] A balance within one or more sentences of similar phrases or clauses that have the same grammatical structure.

[3] The justification of a sinner is based solely upon the complete and unwavering righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed at salvation (see Romans 5:18-21; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:7-10). Imputation means that the merit of Christ’s work of mediation is legally applied to the person, to their account, so that s/he is saved, justified, positionally made fit, and entitled to all of salvation based on a righteousness they personally did not produce, the righteousness of Christ becomes their Substitute and Surety.

[4] She was also known as the “Witch of Wall Street.”

Biblical Conflict Resolution


Matthew 18:15-35

Here’s what we know…Conflict is inevitable – it’s not about IF there will be conflict in our lives (or in this church) it’s more about WHEN there is conflict.  Most churchgoers are familiar with the passage from Matthew 18 that I will be exegeting, but beforehand let’s climb up to 30,000 feet and look at the whole chapter.  The passage in Matthew 18 concerning church discipline is almost always studied in isolation of the rest of the chapter and I would like for us to see some context.  The theme of the whole chapter is God’s great concern for the spiritually broken, lost, and needy:

  1. God deeply cares about the powerless
  2. God deeply cares about those who have been victimized by sin
  3. God deeply cares about those who have victimized others

Verses 1-14:

Verses 1-6: Addresses our status in the kingdom of God.

We are to become like children (child-like, not childish) and recognize our dependence on God and trust God like a child trusts a loving and attentive parent.  V. 4 tells us very clearly that it is the truly humble people who are the most highly regarded people in the kingdom of God.

Verses 6-14: Tell us that the church is to be a place where the powerless are cared for, that the abuse of people will not be tolerated, and that God deeply cares for each and every person – and is willing to leave the 99 to go after the 1.

With that said, let’s look at Matthew 18:15-35, and consider what Jesus is saying to us:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”  21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven…

Then beginning in v. 23 we have the account of the Merciful King and the Wicked Slave. The King forgave the Slave a multimillion dollar debt, but the Slave would not forgive a fellow Slave a debt of a few thousand dollars.  The highlight of this account is found in v. 33:   Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?'”

Takeaway: The church is to be a place where sinners are mercifully restored and the church is to be a place where people are quick to forgive and quick to seek reconciliation.

I see this passage divided into three sections – each with a one-word descriptor. I will give them to you upfront and then we will go back and look at them one at a time.  We will see that there is to be:

  1. CLARITY (vs. 15-20)
  2. FORGIVENESS (vs. 21-22)
  3. MERCY (vs. 23-35)

We could also view these as CLARITY (or a clear process) in the context of FORGIVENESS and MERCY (this is why it’s helpful to look at the whole chapter in order to identify the full context)

One at a time…

Vs. 15-20: CLARITY

When conflict happens it must be dealt with immediately. Our natural tendency to look the other way and pretend it’s not there – hoping that it will just go away.  But it won’t.  Conflict that is not attended to immediately is like a neglected infection, and sooner or later it will engulf the entire organism.  Unresolved conflict can do great damage to us as a church as well as to our witness as a church. For that reason, Jesus gives us very clear and specific instruction.  Jesus tells us with specific CLARITY what to do when there is tension between the church members.  Our goal in resolving inevitable church conflict is never retaliation or vindication, but always reconciliation – we want to show and honor Jesus Christ in our healed relationships.

Step 1 – one on one (v. 15) “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

I don’t circulate, I don’t inflate, I don’t inflame, but the first step is to go talk to that person.  We will need to identify if we each have a clear picture of what happened, or what was said.  I would like to point out that in these conflict resolution steps there is both an informal process as well as a formal process.

  1. Informally, we could engage Matt 18 in a home group if someone says something that hurts your feelings or that you think is untrue — or the church hallway if we were to overhear a brother speaking harshly to his wife or his kids. Again, informally we might come-up alongside the person from the home group and say, “You know, I have a different view of the circumstance you spoke about…” – or come alongside the brother in the hallway and ask, “Is everything okay, you seek a little bit uptight today??”
  2. A more formal process might occur if some habitual sin, like gossip, continues to surface in a person’s life.

The main idea of Step 1 (or v. 15) is, can we settle this at the lowest level possible?  The goal is to establish a renewed “family” relationship with our brother or sister. It may take a little time and a little work.  “Help me understand…” is a great intro to what could be a difficult conversation.  This isn’t to be mechanical and reconciliation certainly isn’t automatic, it’s something to be done with great care.

But what if it doesn’t work?

Step 2 – Go in two’s (v. 16) But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.

**This is where it can get harder, or messier. Often times it “feels” so much easier to talk to someone we feel would be more on our side of the conflict than it is to actually talk to the person we are having the conflict with.  This verse reflects the ancient Jewish standard of fairness. That everything would be established by one or two credible witnesses.  The “witness” or “witnesses” are to delve into both party’s perspective of the conflict.

Illus – Perspective matters…If we were to ask the 12 disciples to submit to a battery of tests to determine their aptitude for management positions in a modern organization, we might find that: Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper, that Andrew has very little aptitude for leadership, that James and John tend to place their personal interests above company loyalty, that Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that may tend to undermine morale, and that Matthew had been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau – but that Judas Iscariot is found to be highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible…

What if Step 2 doesn’t work?

Step 3 (v. 17) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Tell it to the church. This DOESN’T mean that we talk to all our friends in the church!   We are to speak to those who represent the authority in the church. Ultimately this would be the elders in the church.  The role of the elders is primarily 3-fold: Doctrine, Direction (vision), and Discipline – yet after steps one and two have been unsuccessful.  The goal is always to help people build a holy consensus and unity that will express the reconciliation that God has brought to us in the Person of Jesus Christ. As Christians we have been reconciled to Christ and there are times when we need to be reconciled to one another.  Again, conflict is inevitable.  The gospel is to be expressed in the way we deal with one another.  Sometimes the elders need to get involved. Sometimes it can get really messy and difficult.  And sometimes we need to involve outside Christian arbitration.  Sometimes it is necessary to inform someone they are in great spiritual danger.

The NT describes three categories of sins that reach this level of seriousness[1]:

  1. Major doctrinal error (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:20)
  2. Major moral failure (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:5)
  3. Persistent divisiveness (e.g., Titus 3:10)

You may be denied access to the communion table – and your fellowship at this church will be in jeopardy.  No one likes talking about this – until it is your reputation that has been smeared… Or your family has been cheated… Or your marriage has been shattered… Or your church leaders have been scandalized in some way.  What Jesus is saying here is that to protect His Church, He has given us a clear guiding process. God protects His Church by providing a process.  What is the purpose of this process? We are not to be mindless or automatic… Why would we bother to do this?  The primary reasons are rescue and reconciliation. We are willing to engage in uncomfortable conversation in order to rescue and reconcile people due to their own sinful behavior OR from being victimized by other people’s sinful behavior.  The whole purpose of this process is to gain a brother or a sister.

We go back to vs. 12-14 Parable of the lost sheep…

We sometimes think that Matthew 18 is there to protect and vindicate us – but it’s really about caring for those who need rescuing and reconciling…

Verse 17: What does it mean to treat someone as a Gentile and a tax collector?

What Jesus is saying here is that an unwillingness to see and own our sin – even after the highest authorities in the church have weighed in — causes the church to no longer view them as being part of the Christian “family” and, possibly, in need of conversion. (e.g., 2 Corinthians 13:5: Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.)

We are to cut off the unrepentant from access to the sacraments as well as from social relationships.

The Westminster Confession (30.3) explains: “Church [discipline is] necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof [the sacraments] to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.”

The purpose of church discipline in all its forms is not to punish for punishment’s sake, but to call forth repentance in order to recover the straying sheep. Ultimately, there is only one sin for which a church member is excommunicated — an unwillingness to repent.  When there is genuine repentance, the church is to declare the sin forgiven and receive the offender into fellowship once again.

We have one more question to ask of the text in this section. What is Jesus saying in Matt 18:18?  Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. [This verse is VERY often taken out of context!]

The ruling authorities (usually the elders) pray a prayer that removes the church’s covering from the unrepentant sinner/s. Paul applies this disciplinary action in both 1 Corinthians 5 and 1 Timothy 1:20.  There was obvious and blatant sin in both Corinth and Ephesus and Paul was admonishing each of the churches and their leaders to address it.

  • “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”  —1 Corinthians 5:5:
  • “Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.)” –1 Timothy 1:20

This is not an angry, reactive, pugnacious determination, it is a humble and sorrowful response to sin with a longing for full and complete repentance and restoration.

Matthew finishes this section of his Gospel by emphasizing the need for church discipline to be exercised in the context of continuous forgiveness and extravagant mercy

Verses 21-22: FORGIVENESS

We see Peter attempting to be generous by offering to forgive someone seven times (he doubled the Jewish standard of three times and added an extra).  Then Jesus lovingly says, “Not exactly Peter – it’s seventy times seven times.” The idea is that if we actually tried to keep track we would lose track along the way.

Forbearance is a word found mostly in the King James Version of the Bible.  The idea is that God has show great forbearance with us and we are to show forbearance with one another.  We find a good example of this in Colossians 3:12–13: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another” (KJV).  The New Living Translation words it this way: “Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you.”

Here is something you may not have thought about before: The goal of this biblical process is ultimately about our mission as a church. That others, even outside the church, would see the gospel in operation as we continually pursue healing and reconciliation with one another.  We want to make the gospel known by the witness of the church.  The separation that can happen in church can have eternal consequences for some people when we don’t follow the biblical processes laid down by Jesus for His Church.

Verses 23-35: MERCY

We are to extend the mercy we have received from Jesus Christ at the cross to one another.  Luke 7:47 tells us that those who have been forgiven much will love much.

Here is something that is continually surprising to me…In almost every church there is a person, or group of people, who want to be regarded as church leaders – or, people who regard themselves as gatekeepers in the church who often cause the most damage and strife through gossiping and triangulation (explain triangulation).  These people can even have a strong understanding of the Bible and be very gifted in many areas, but in the end they disqualify themselves because they cannot hold their tongue – or they cannot take their concerns to the people who actually need to hear them.  The rest of the church needs to lovingly stand up to these people and point them to the people they are complaining about or gossiping about.


[1] D.A. Carson, Editorial On Abusing Matthew 18, Themelios, May 2011, Vol 36, Issue 1.


Does the Bible Condone or Condemn Slavery?


The church I am serving is currently studying Colossians.  The next passage I will speak to is Colossians 3:22-4:1, which begins with: “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth…”  Given the history of The United States of America along with our current political and social context I did not think I could easily jump to pretending this passage is really just speaking of employer/employee relationships.  I did some research — both secular and church-based and composed an essay that reports on what I found.  When it comes time to preach my sermon I will need to condense what I found into about 5-7 minutes so that I can actually address what the passage is saying.  I was surprised and saddened by what I found — the USA is one of a very few societies in recorded history that was both a “slave society” as well as a “closed slavery system.”  See below…

 The practice of slavery has developed in virtually every civilization known to humankind. Slavery in ancient Rome differed from its more modern forms in that it was not based on race. Nevertheless, it was an abusive and degrading institution. As much as two thirds of the Roman Empire were slaves during the 1st century — in both lowly and prestigious positions. Besides manual labor, slaves performed many domestic services, and might also be tasked with highly skilled jobs and professions. Greek slaves in particular were often highly educated working as accountants, tutors, and physicians. Unskilled slaves, or those sentenced to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were often brutal and their lives were usually short.

Slave Societies

Ancient Rome was one of only a few “slave societies” in recorded history.[1] The term “slave society” distinguishes between societies where slavery was practiced and societies where slavery defined the principle labor market through buying and selling. The 18th century (or Antebellum) American South would also be considered a “slave society.”

Open vs. Closed Slavery Systems

Another distinction historians and anthropologists make is distinguishing between “open” and “closed” systems of slavery. In the “open slavery system” slaves could be freed and accepted fully into general society; in the “closed slavery system” slaves were a separate group and were not accepted into general society even if freed. Roman slavery generally conformed to the “open slavery system.” Cicero, the Roman politician, lawyer, and orator noted in his speeches that a Roman slave could usually be set free within seven years and under Roman law a slave would normally be freed by age 30.[2] By contrast, “American slavery [was] perhaps the most closed and caste-like of any [slave] system known.”[3] Thus, 17th-19th century slavery in America[4] was both a “slave society” as well as a “closed slavery system.” And, sadly, many of the effects of our “closed slavery system” remain embedded in our culture.

New Testament Roman Slavery

I found that the following quote serves as an adequate overview: “In the first century, slaves were not necessarily distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech or by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves [or their children] into slavery for economic or social [reasons]; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated after [several] years of service…they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; their natural inferiority was not assumed.”[5]

Basic NT Teaching

Jesus is the most revolutionary person who ever lived – and the purpose of His coming was to initiate a full-fledged yet subversive revolution, an upside down kingdom. Jesus, in His first coming, established the kingdom of God on the earth. Jesus, in His second coming, will consummate the kingdom of God on the earth. A helpful illustration is the Allied troops successfully landing on Normandy Beach in WW-2. With the success of the invasion the back of Hitler’s army was broken and the end of the war was inevitable. However, some of the fiercest fighting of the war occurred in the 11-month period between the Normandy invasion and VE-Day (e.g., Battle of the Bulge). It is the same with Jesus and His kingdom – His death and resurrection breaks the back of Satan’s army and the end of the war is inevitable yet we are still in a very real fight.[6]

Jesus and the NT writer’s subversive and revolutionary Christian affirmations, if taken seriously, begin to tear apart the fabric of institutional slavery. Jesus and the NT writers proclaimed the kingdom of God, declaring God alone as the one true King over heaven and earth. Jesus called His followers, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to live in a radically different way on earth and to “fight” in a radically different way. Rather than hating their enemies, they were to love them. Rather than seeking revenge, the disciples of Jesus were to turn the other cheek. No ordinary revolutionary would say things like this. Jesus was advancing a deeper and more pervasive revolution, the overthrow of the kingdom of the Evil One and the victory of the kingdom of God. Jesus (and the NT writers) sought to keep the good news of the gospel at the hub of the cultural wheel – not social justice or any number of other legitimate causes.

The NT writers’ position on the negative status of slavery is more than clear:

  1. Jesus clearly stated that His role and calling was to “proclaim release to the captives…[and] to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19)
  2. Paul clearly and decisively repudiated slave trading (1 Tim 1:9-10)
  3. NT authors repeatedly affirmed the full human dignity and equal spiritual status of all people (Matt. 7:12; Acts 17:26-31; Eph. 2:14; Gal 3:28; Col. 3:11, 4; 1 Jn. 3:17)
  4. Paul encouraged slaves to acquire their freedom whenever possible (1 Cor. 7:20–22)
  5. In Revelation 18:11–13, doomed Babylon (i.e., spiritually speaking those who oppose God) stands condemned because she had treated humans as “cargo,” having trafficked in “slaves [literally ‘bodies’] and human lives.” This repudiation of treating humans as cargo assumes the doctrine of the image of God in all human beings.

The Bible clearly teaches a fundamental equality because all humans are image bearers of God (Gen 1:26; James 3:9). Yet, an even deeper unity in Christ is to transcend human boundaries and social structures: no Jew or Greek, slave or free, no male and female, as all believers are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Col. 3:11; Gal. 3:28).

The seeds for the destruction of slavery were sown in the New Testament (see Philem. 16-17, Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; 6:1-2) –Wayne Grudem

In the NT, the Greek word doulos is frequently used to designate a slave (one bound to another), but also a follower of Christ (or a “bondslave” of Christ).[7] The term would have been an extremely common metaphor that every strata of society would have understood, which points to a relation of absolute dependence where the master and the servant stand on opposite sides with the former having a full claim and the latter having a full commitment. The metaphor indicates that a true servant can exercise no will or initiative on his or her own. Jesus Himself took on the form of a doulos” (Phil. 2:7). As believers we have moved from being slaves to sin to become slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:17-18) by the matchless grace of God through the Incarnation of Jesus.

Returning Onesimus

John Piper writes that instead of a frontal attack on the culturally pervasive institution of slavery in his day, Paul took another approach in his letter to Philemon.[8] Onesimus was a slave, Philemon was master and both were now Christians. Onesimus had evidently run away from Colossae (Colossians 4:9) to Rome where Paul, in prison, had led him to faith in Jesus. Now he was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. This letter tells Philemon how to receive Onesimus. In the process, Paul does at least 11 things that work together to undermine slavery.

  1. Paul draws attention to Philemon’s love for all the saints. “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (1:5). This puts Philemon’s relation with Onesimus (now one of the saints) under the banner of God’s saving grace and love, well beyond commerce.
  2. Paul models for Philemon the superiority of appeals over commands when it comes to relationships governed by love. “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (1:8-9). This points Philemon to the new dynamics that will hold sway between him and Onesimus. Acting out of freedom from a heart of love is the goal in the relationship.
  3. Paul heightens the sense of Onesimus being in the family of God by calling him his child. “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (1:10). Remember, Philemon, however you deal with him, you are dealing with my child.
  4. Paul raises the stakes again by saying that Onesimus has become entwined around his own deep affections. “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (1:12). The word for “heart” is “bowels.” This means, “I am deeply bound emotionally to this man.” Treat him that way.
  5. Paul again emphasizes that he wants to avoid force or coercion in his relationship with Philemon. “I would have been glad to keep him with me…but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (1:13-14). This is pointing Philemon to how he is to deal with Onesimus so that he too will act “of his own accord.”
  6. Paul raises the intensity of the relationship again with the word forever. “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever” (1:15). In other words, Onesimus is not coming back into any ordinary, secular relationship. It is forever.
  7. Paul says that Philemon’s relationship can no longer be the usual master-slave relationship. “[You have him back] no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (1:16). Whether he lets Onesimus go back free to serve Paul, or keeps him in his service, things cannot remain as they were. “No longer as a slave” does not lose its force when Paul adds, “more than a slave.”
  8. In that same verse (1:16), Paul refers to Onesimus as Philemon’s beloved brother. This is the relationship that takes the place of slave. “No longer as a slave…but as a beloved brother.” Onesimus now gets the “holy kiss” (1 Thessalonians 5:26) from Philemon and eats at his side at the Lord’s Table.
  9. Paul makes clear that Onesimus is with Philemon in the Lord. “[He is] a beloved brother…in the Lord” (1:16). Onesimus’s identity is now the same as Philemon’s. He is “in the Lord.”
  10. Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus the way he would receive Paul. “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (1:17). This is perhaps as strong as anything he has said: Philemon, how would you see me, treat me, relate to me, receive me? Treat your former slave and new brother that way.
  11. Paul says to Philemon that he will cover all Onesimus’s debts. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (1:18). This is a beautiful picture of the gospel. All our debts are charged to Christ’s account.

The upshot of all this is that Jesus, Paul and the other NT authors pointed the church away from slavery because it is an institution that is incompatible with the way the gospel works in people’s lives. Whether the slavery is economic, racial, sexual, mild, or brutal, Paul’s way of dealing with Philemon works to undermine the institution across its various manifestations while keeping the gospel of Jesus Christ front and center. To walk “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14) is to walk away from slavery.

In summary, Jesus and the NT writers stringently opposed oppression, greed, lust of every kind, slave trade, and treating humans as cargo. It should also be noted the NT teaches that only through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone do we receive the life and power of the Holy Spirit to walk in the way of God’s kingdom. God’s grace comes TO us and does IN us and THROUGH us what we cannot do on our own. The earliest Christians were a subversive, revolutionary, new community united by, in, and through Jesus Christ — a people transcending racial, social, and sexual barriers. And some days, if I am honest, it doesn’t look like we’ve made much progress…


[1] Moses Finley. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, Chatto and Windus, 1980.

[2] Marcus Tullius Cicero. Orationes Philippicae 8.32. (A series of 14 political speeches Cicero gave condemning Mark Antony in 44 BC and 43 BC.)

[3] James L. Watson. Slavery as an Institution, Open and Closed Systems, in James L. Watson (ed.), Asian and African Systems of Slavery, Blackwell, 1980: 43.

[4] Slavery in America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco.

[5] Murray Harris. Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ, IVP 2001: 44.

[6] Adapted from Oscar Cullmann. Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time, John Knox Press, Rev October 1964.

[7] Another common NT term, diakonos, derives from a verb meaning “to wait at table,” or “to serve.” As the Son of man, Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45).

[8] How Paul Worked to Overcome Slavery, desiringgod.org.

Happy 500th Reformation Day!


This is an expanded re-post from Dr. Stephen J. Nichols who is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.  I added some definitions as well as several links to help expand the historical account.  You can read Dr. Nichols original post here.


A single event on a single day changed the world. It was October 31, 1517. Brother Martin [Luther], a monk and a scholar, had struggled for years with his church, the [Roman Catholic] church. He had been greatly disturbed by an unprecedented indulgence sale.  [An indulgence is a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for some types of sins.]  The story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Let’s meet the cast…

First, there is the young bishop—too young by church laws—Albert of Mainz.  Not only was he bishop over two bishoprics [a district or a diocese], he desired an additional archbishopric over Mainz.  This too was against church laws.  So Albert appealed to the Pope in Rome, Leo X.  From the De Medici family, Leo X greedily allowed his tastes to exceed his financial resources.  Enter the artists and sculptors, Raphaeland Michelangelo.

When Albert of Mainz appealed for a papal dispensation, Leo X was ready to deal.  Albert, with the papal blessing, would sell indulgences for past, present, and future sins.  All of this sickened the monk, Martin Luther.  Can we buy our way into heaven?  Luther had to speak out.

But why October 31?  November 1 held a special place in the church calendar as All Soul’s Day.  On November 1, 1517, a massive exhibit of newly acquired relics would be on display at Wittenberg, Luther’s home city.  Pilgrims would come from all over, genuflect before the relics, and take hundreds, if not thousands, of years off time in purgatory.  Luther’s soul grew even more vexed.  None of this seemed right.

Martin Luther, a scholar, took quill in hand, dipped it in his inkwell and penned his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517.  These were intended to spark a debate, to stir some soul-searching among his fellow brothers in the church.  The 95 Theses sparked far more than a debate.  The 95 Theses also revealed the church was far beyond rehabilitation.  It needed a reformation.  The church, and the world, would never be the same.

One of Luther’s 95 Theses simply declares, “The Church’s true treasure is the gospel of Jesus Christ” [#62].  That alone is the meaning of Reformation Day. The church had lost sight of the gospel because it had long ago papered over the pages of God’s Word with layer upon layer of [dead and greedy] tradition.  Tradition always brings about systems of works, of earning your way back to God.  It was true of the Pharisees, and it was true of medieval Roman Catholicism.  Didn’t Christ Himself say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” [Matthew 11:30].

Reformation Day celebrates the joyful beauty of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is Reformation Day?  It is the day the light of the gospel broke forth out of darkness.  It was the day that began the Protestant Reformation.  It was a day that led to Martin LutherJohn CalvinJohn Knox, and may other Reformers helping the church find its way back to God’s Word as the only authority for faith and life and leading the church back to the glorious doctrines of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  It kindled the fires of missionary endeavors, it led to hymn writing and congregational singing, and it led to the centrality of the sermon and preaching for the people of God. It is the celebration of a theological, ecclesiastical [i.e., clergy – pastors, etc.], and cultural transformation.

So we celebrate Reformation Day. This day reminds us to be thankful for our past and to the [Martin the] Monk turned Reformer. What’s more, this day reminds us of our duty, our obligation, to keep the light of the gospel at the center of all we do.