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19 May 2015

The Great Commandment - Mt 22:34-40

The Great Commandment
Matthew 22:34-40
May 17, 2015 – Kevin Rees

Love God and others authentically.  Audio file posted: www.kevinrees.sermon.net

There are laws, and then there are laws.  Some are undoubtedly essential to society, while others leave you scratching your head wondering what circus came through town to warrant such a law to be written, ratified, and codified into legal statue.  Adjectives like “strange” and “dumb” come to mind when reading some of the regulations that are still “on the books” in our national, state, and local laws. 

All the states have their own peculiar laws, but just taking Tennessee laws by themselves, it is a wonder who comes up with this stuff and why it sticks around for so long.  Most of these have credible sources cited (dumblaws.com, strangefacts.com/laws.html, facts.randomhistory.com/crazy-laws.html, tjshome.com.dumblaws.php?show=verified), but I did not fact-check every one of them, so don’t take me to court if you discover some of these have been revised.  If you do take me to court about the court, we may spark new weird laws that could make the next generation scratch their heads later on.

It is apparently illegal in Tennessee: for students to hold hands while in school, to share your Netflix password with someone else, to use a lasso to catch a fish, for anyone who has been a contendant in a duel to hold elected office, for ministers to hold elected office because they are to be dedicated to God, for anyone disbelieving in God to hold elected office, for Christian parents to require their children to pick up trash from the highway on Easter, to sell hollow logs, or to import into the state any skunk for any reason unless you operate a bona fide zoological park.  It is legal, however, to gather and consume roadkill.  It remains illegal to shoot any game from a moving automobile, except whales.  And, by the way, you cannot drive a car while sleeping.  Curiously, you cannot sell bologna on Sundays.  In Midway, it is illegal to wear socks with sandals.  In Memphis is illegal for a restaurant customer to give pie to a fellow diner.  And in Dyersburg, drumroll please, it is illegal for a woman to ask a man out on a date.

With ludicrous laws like these, it is understandable why someone might argue that certain laws are really important while other laws are unimportant.  But the human heart loves its rules—whether it is a legal rule in a dusty law book in West Tennessee or an unwritten but unanimously accepted cultural rule in West Africa.  Humans turn to rules to control the uncontrollable … or should I say, to attempt to control the uncontrollable.

For instance, if I can’t get my neighbor to tie up his adult-sized pitbull when my kids want to play in the yard, then I pressure my district legislature to write a rule that I can use to force my neighbor to behave in a more considerate manner.  If my cousin’s cousin saw a fellow with Kentucky tags unload his skunk traps in Tennessee, then I pressure my district legislature to write a rule that I can use to force my bluegrass neighbor to behave in a more considerate manner.  If somone’s grandpappy perhaps wanted to run for mayor but couldn’t find any leverage against the incumbent except the one rumor that he was in a duel in his early adulthood, then he pressured his district legislature to write a rule that he could use to force his neighbor out of office at the next election.

We have a love for rules.  We try to legislate the world into order.  To a point that’s proper—God ordained government as his servant to restrain evil so that good might flourish (Romans 13:1-4).  But rules never change the heart.  However, love can and does effect real change.  Love rules, but love isn’t a rule.

In our text for today we have a lover of rules.  A legal debate posed by a legal expert in hopes of gaining the high ground in the theological realm.  But Jesus isn’t cornered as his enemies hoped.  Instead he flips the entire conversation about laws upside down and argues instead for the primacy of love over law.

In Matthew chapter 22 there are actually four questions.  Three questions are thrown at Jesus from every unfriendly sector to score some dirt on Jesus and, thus, make his “stock go down” in the public eye.  They concoct their malicious stump-questions premeditatedly and attack him without provocation.   The Herodians—who are the political and economic powerhouses—first try to corner Jesus with a question about government and religion regarding the issue of paying taxes to Caesar (vv. 15-22).  The Sadducees—who are the aristocratic and financial powerhouses—try to trick Jesus with a question regarding the relationship between this life and the next (vv. 23-33).  The Pharisees—who are the moral and cultural powerhouses—try to pin Jesus down with a question about the Mosaic Law, which is today’s focus (vv. 34-40).  For your consideration this week, I encourage you to investigate the stump-question that Jesus volleys back to his questioners (vv. 41-46).


I.             The Greatest Law (vv. 34-36)

Floating in Jewish thought and culture—and much debated among the rabbis—was a question of greatness.  For them, of course, greatness was connected with the Mosaic Law.  The Law was revered, memorized, and picked apart, but—as Jesus repeatedly pointed out to them to such a degree that their blood boiled—not obeyed.  That being said, the Pharisees—who were the Mosaic Law evangelists, so to speak—neither recognized their hypocrisy nor the reason that the Law was given in the first place. 

The Law was never given to make humans better, the Law only pointed out violations but never any help to restore or redeem violators, the Law was given to show humans that they cannot please God and are in a state of spiritual bankruptcy, in dire need of a Savior.  That “job” the Law did extremely well, and so it was good, accurate, and holy.  But the Law does not save sinners, does not justify the unrighteous, does not help the weak, and does not impart life—just as God designed.  The Law brings us to the gospel of grace as a tutor.

What Jesus does do for this particular fellow as he asks this particular question (and for the crowd all watching to see if he will step into the Pharisees’ trap) is to show that there is a different operating principle altogether than law.  The different operating principle is love.  But love is not part of the Pharisees’ vocabulary, per se.  So Jesus shines a light on love; remarkable, humble, unbelievable love.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together” (vs. 34).  The Sadducees were the rival enemies of the Pharisees.  Sadducees didn’t believe in the afterlife or the miraculous or in the authority of any Scriptures beyond the first five books of Moses, yet they were the ruling majority in the Council of the Sanhedrin and controlled the dynasty of the priesthood.  The Pharisees were the Bible-thumpers of the day; a grassroots group of rabbis and scribes who found prominence in the Maccabean era and rightly deserved it.  But in the century after the Maccabean revolt, the Pharisees dug in to their traditions and their rigid interpretation of their tradition and their fences around their rigid interpretations of their tradition to such an extent that they were unwittingly enslaved to their own system.  When Jesus upstaged their rivals, the Pharisees were gleefully entertained.  They huddled up and decided that it would be quite a “feather in their cap” to puzzle the one who puzzled their rivals.  So they picked their best debater and sent him out to face Jesus.

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him” (vs. 35).  This lawyer was not like what we imagine a lawyer to be in the modern sense of attorney or advocate.  He was a scholar in the Scriptures; an expert Bible student.  We know from verse 35 that the intention of at least his group was malicious; even if he personally was not malicious.  But the objective was to trap Jesus in a riddle that had been unsolvable by the rabbis for many years.  The cross-reference in Mark shows a softer side to this lawyer and the tug on his heart by Jesus that nearly converted him in the act of trying to trap Jesus, whereas the reference in Luke shows a counterattack; so he seems to one of mixed motives (as all are).

Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (vs. 36).  You see, there were some rabbis who argued that of out of the 613 stipulations in the Mosaic Law—248 positive and 365 negative—the laws about circumcision where the “greatest” commandments, while other rabbis argued that the Sabbath laws were the “greatest,” and still others argued that the sacrificial laws or the dietary laws were the “greatest” commandments.  There was an unsolvable dilemma in conservative Jewish circles about which laws were heaviest and which laws were lightest.  The Pharisees threw Jesus in the middle of this melee so that he, whichever answer he gave, would at least cause some portion of the crowd to despise him; for everyone had his own favorite issues/laws.

This was a dirty, low-down, no-good trick.  Sadly, such tricks did not die with these men two millennia ago.  It is alive and well today.  We are just as well-versed as they ever were at playing to the pet issues of the crowd, or holding the group back based on our pet issues, or determining whether someone is acceptable or unacceptable based on our pet issues.  It is a dark art, and it is in every church because it is in every heart.  And we use rules, or laws, to attempt to control the uncontrollable. 

Dare I name some?  It would be nothing short of deliberately putting my finger in the eye of many people.  But I cannot begin there without first taking the plank out of my own eye with confession and repentance for the occasions when I hijacked a church, or a group, or a relationship, or an issue because of my pet issues.  Earlier in my pastoral ministry I took a strong stance on the subject of the end times.  Eschatology was my pet issue partly because it was an underrepresented slice of theology rarely covered.  However, I used eschatology like a litmus paper test to determine if other people were orthodox or unorthodox.  I had my charts and my opinions and my proof texts.  But back then, if you did not agree with me in private, then you were suspicious.  If you did not agree with me in public, then you were combatant.  If you did not agree with me in spirit, then you might not even be Christian.  There is no love when self is supreme.

I still hold nearly every point as I did back then, but my well-being is no longer attached to my pet issue.  I relinquished its power over me and over my ability to pigeon-hole other people because God showed me that I was really just trying to control the uncontrollable.  I was fearful that I might not be the “expert”; that I might be upstaged in competency and exposed as a fraud, which I secretly believed.  I projected upon other people the opinion I had for myself, but stuffed way, way down below the surface.  I distrusted others because I really felt untrustworthy myself.  But I disguised this deep fear with bravado and with rules, thinking that if I performed well enough in a few, highly selected spheres, then I would be okay with God, with others, with myself, and with the world at large.  But I had to control those spheres tightly, or I else would be exposed as weak.  Gross!  It wasn’t about truth as much as covering my inferiority.

So what about with you?  I don’t know you well enough to presume to speak at such a deep level.  But hear this: the Holy Spirit does know you well enough to speak at the deepest levels.  The Holy Spirit has the right to poke you in the eye if it means your maturity.  The Holy Spirit has access to not only your pet issues, but the reasons that those issues became pet issues in the first place, and the rules that you set up all around your pet issues in a vain attempt to protect you fragile ego. 

It reminds me of that pesky Tim Keller quote, “The sin that is most destructive in your life right now is the one you are most defensive about.”  Ouch!  If Keller’s quote weren’t enough, Thom Rainer, stirs the pot some more by saying, “When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the gospel, the church is dying.”  Double ouch!  Let’s make it an uneven three—Ravi Zacharias chimes in as well, “Unless I understand the cross, I cannot understand why my commitment to what is right must take precedence over what I prefer.”  Triple ouch!  But yes, Holy Spirit, please step on that nerve so that we hate whatever it is that keeps us from unity with God and community with one another; even if it is our pet issue … even our preference.  “Anything that eclipses you, dear Lord, is an idol; even if it is good … even if it is great.   If it eclipses you, it has to go.”  In our text, that is what is going on: “Jesus, please endorse my favorite rule.”  But the answer is not law; the answer is love.


II.            The Greatest Commandment (vv. 37-38)

So which law stands first, which kind of law is heaviest, which category is greatest??  This is the presenting issue.  The Pharisee leads with Law, but Christ answers with love.  Law and love are contrasts. 

The “what”—“You shall love the Lord your God” (vs. 37a).  Taking a page out of the Law itself the Lord uses their trick question to expose the dark heart of the legalism.  It is a verse that is quoted daily by the conservative Jews—then and now—Deuteronomy 6:4-5 forms the great Shema Prayer of Judaism.  But the expert in the Law had missed the entire point of the Law—the Law points to Jesus.  He missed it and misses Jesus.

To love (Greek: agapao) is not an emotional verb, though it is certainly strong enough to carry emotion.  This kind of love is more accurately a volitional word; an action word.  God decides to love us based on himself, not on us as worthy recipients, and then he acts upon that decision.  Just like John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world (volition) that He gave His only begotten Son (action).”  Love is always active. 

Here we are instructed to love the Lord our God as an act of the will that is coupled with a willing action on the basis of faith.  But we are like the legalist in the narrative, we do not know love, nor do we have it, so giving love back to God is an impossible scenario.  How can we be commanded to give what we do not have?  This is the rub of the Law—we cannot do what we are commanded to do—for a grand purpose: so that we will cry out of our need for a Savior to do on our behalf what we cannot do for ourselves.  The solution to the Law does not come from the Law, but from the love of the Lord in giving us an adequate substitute.

We simply do not have that kind of love to give back to God.  It is first given to us in Christ, and when we become rightly related to Christ through faith, we are regenerated and given a brand new capacity to love with his love—agapao.  “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  But Jesus is pointing out that Moses knew the limits of the Law even when he wrote the Law; even back in Deuteronomy Moses is showing primacy to love over duty to the Law.  This is the sphere of greatness—love!

The “how”—“With all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment” (vv. 37b-38).  Our tendency is to dissect these pieces from each other—heart, soul, mind, Mark adds strength as a fourth, but not really a fourth as much as a “3a” and “3b” for the Hebrew word for might is both mindful and a singular determination of the will (“me’od,” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament)—but the tip of the spear is the “all.”  True, we are body and soul and spirit … we have internal, external, and eternal aspects to our being.  There are certain ways that the spirit interacts with the soul and soul with the heart.  And there are some interesting and important insights gained in chased each one down.  But Jesus’ emphasis—in agreement with Moses—is clearly on the “all.”  Love the Lord your God with your entire self.  This is nothing less than a whole-person response to the whole Person of God revealed.  This is worship.  This is love.  This is intimacy.

Frankly, no rabbi was debating that love is the greatest commandment.  Jesus’ response is a complete shocker!  It was not on their “radar” in the least. 

Consider the triple emphasis of “all” in this verse; quadruple if you add verse 39.  We can appreciate “all” by considering its opposite—“part.”  What would it look like to love the Lord our God with half-hearts, half-souls, half-minds?  Sometimes the Scriptures call it double—but having a double-hearted is not having twice as much heart but a heart that is vainly trying to look in two directions at the same time.  Being double-souled is the same—the unsuccessful attempt to build a life/reputation/emotional sense of okayness on the rock and the sand simultaneously.  A double-minded man, James tells us, is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).  So follow a two-faced person, someone with a forked-tongue, or someone trying to lead a double-life.  A fractured or scattered or splintered person is an anemic person; enduring a half-life at best.  A fractured or scattered or splintered person is an alien to love and therefore an alien to worship. 

Have you experienced half-heartedness—you have given pieces of your heart to different recipients; different saviors?  Whole-heartedness would be the lump sum given to one recipient—all of you; your entirety.  This is the basis of what we call integrity; an integer … a whole number … one … a non-fraction.  A person of integrity is entire, whole, non-fractured, a non-fraction.  Three-fouths of a heart, soul, and mind is just as damaging to integrity as trying to juggle five-fifths of a heart, soul, and mind.

Do you know what half-soulishness is like?  The soul is commonly given the English word “psyche”—personality, passion, preference.  We often defend our preferences, protecting them from the cross.  But whole-souled worship is even the redirection of our personality, passion, preference, image, reputation, every internal nerve to the Lord our God.  All of me responding to all of him.

Do you know what half- or double-mindedness is like?  We can express devotion to the Lord our God by giving Him the entirety of our minds.   The doubter is literally the double-minded man.  We can have doubts without becoming the doubter.  The doubter must understand before he can rest.  Peter when he attempted to look at Jesus and the water at the same time was a double-minded man—double-faced.  He sunk. 

Whole-person allegiance to the Lord our God—this is the Great Commandment.  We cannot have the God-compartment, the work-compartment, the romance-compartment, the recreation-compartment.  It is all the Lord’s or it is not.   There are no fractions with God.  The legalist cannot conceive this.  He wants a plain answer—which commandment is first?  Love is first.  No, love is not in the box.  Love is the box.  Without love you don’t have any of the 613 commandments.  With love you don’t even have to know the commandments and you will keep them.

This may help and may serve as a good bridge to verses 38 and 39.  On the books at the courthouse here in Dyersburg, or any county seat in the entire country, there are laws on parenting.  Did you know that?  There are laws about what makes a good and a bad parent.  Neglect, provision, care, shelter, discipline—there are laws about how to parent.  Sadly, there have to be laws because there are terrible parents out there.  There are parents out there who are grown-ups, but who are not adults.  Now, I don’t have to go down to the courthouse and learn these laws so determine whether or not I am a good parent.  I know I am safe from these laws without ever laying eyes on the law book.  How can I say such a thing with certainty?  Love.  My wife and I love our children.  Because love is in operation, we know that we are obeying all those particular laws without even having to look at them.  Because love is the greatest, the first, the heaviest—when we have love, we have no fear of the law.  But if we do not love our children, then we have something to fear from the law.  It is exactly as Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:8-9, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient.”  Listen again: “The law is not laid down for the just, but for the lawless.”  When love is in operation, then law is unnecessary.  Law polices the lawless.


III.           The Greatest Overflow (vv. 39-40)

In a masterful stroke, Jesus then brings in Leviticus 19:18.  Love for God, when it is in place, will translate into love for neighbor.  It is a telling connection.  It is the first and last link in the chain.  When there is love for God, there will be love for neighbor.  It is also true the other way around: if there is no love for neighbor, we have to assume that there is no love for God. 

We referred to it, in part, already: 1 John 4:19-21.  Listen to the whole sentence, “We love, because He first loved us.  If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.”

What does it means to love our neighbor as ourselves?  This is largely unexplained in this passage, but the direct opposite is most certainly lived out—they are not loving their neighbor Jesus; they are trying to humiliate him in a feeble attempt to make themselves look better.

The cross-reference to this same question-and-answer session in Luke 10 shows another wiggle the Pharisee tries to make.  “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29).  The Pharisee was not about to disregard publically Leviticus 19:18, but he was more than happy to redefine the terms so as to create a loophole.  The Pharisees had neatly defined neighbor as: a Jew who obeyed the Mosaic Law.  But Jesus famously launches into his parable of the Good Samaritan who is the better neighbor than the Jew, the Levite, and the priest because he loved the one in need.

What neighbor-love looks like, specifically, is left for us to wrestle with inside our culture, but it is an overflow of love for God.  When we love God entirely and know ourselves properly (which flows out of our relationship with God), we will champion the dignity of our neighbors as an expression of devotion to the One in whose image they were created.  Love of neighbor is a necessary overflow of love for God.  Love for neighbor without love for God is not technically love; but altruism.  It will fill a belly, but it does not embody the full extent of this verse or the full expression of our calling to follow Christ.

Love is not a luxury; it is a necessity, and a great privilege.  We get to love God!  Far beyond duty.  Far beyond Law.  We have been set free from sin, regenerated from the inside out, so that love is possible, and normal, and contagious.


I would like to suggest a major application for this third “great”—the Great Commandment.  Get to know your neighbor—inside AND outside the church.  You cannot know all your neighbors, but the directive is singular—one at a time.  Love your God so completely that loving your neighbor is natural.  Start somewhere.  One great place to start is to take this summer to build relationships with your neighbors inside and outside this church.  Have a barbeque.  Throw a Frisbee.  Cut the grass of a neighbor who has gone on vacation.  What happens here on Sunday mornings is at best one fourth of the ministry here at Tucker Street Church.  Sunday morning is only the entry level—an important level, but only the first.  Step out of the doorway and into the highways and byways where life is shared and where love is expressed for God and others. 

13 May 2015

The Great Confession - Mt 16:13-16

The Great Confession
Matthew 16:13-20
May 10, 2015 – Kevin Rees

Know Christ deeply.  Audio posted at: www.kevinrees.sermon.net


The farmers are out!  I’m quite enjoying it.  Massey Ferguson, New Holland, Case, John Deere—all kinds and all sizes of tractors are driving up and down our side-roads.  I am still too much of a city slicker to know exactly what the farmers are doing, planning, and planting but they are stirring up a lot of dust and putting a lot of hours on their machines.  It is impressive. 

Visible from our front porch over the last two weeks I have watched a large field transform from fallow ground into neat and well-tilled rows.  I assume it will be cotton or corn.  But no matter; it doesn’t much matter if a neighbor knows what’s happening, just as long as the farmer knows.  And it is clear he does.

I am a fan of the process of developing something fallow into something fruitful.  It is deeply satisfying to cultivate a square of earth, plant seed, and watch a crop grow toward a specific harvest.  Even if I have only ever grown vegetables, and only moderately successful, I love to see the stages play out.  Perhaps that is why I resonate with disciple-making; the seed and soil are different but the process is largely the same—preparing the soil of the heart, planting the word, nurturing tender growth, and harvesting a robust crop to both enjoy and replant.  This is the life-cycle of the church as well as a crop.

Last week we tilled the soil (Genesis 1); we learned who we are and why we are—we are God’s image bearers who, together with one another, are placed on earth to reflect God’s character and represent God’s leadership through all our relationships.  This week we will learn about the seed and the necessary growth that must happen underneath the surface before above-the-surface growth can begin. 

So what do we hope to grow?  What kind of seed will we plant in this field that has been temporarily entrusted into our care?  The more I look at Scripture and the more I contemplate pastoral ministry … the more I find the pattern that God wants to grow not crops, but people.  He wants to grow, not just people, but disciples … and not just disciples, but mature disciples who will replicate the disciple-making ministry over and over again in ever-widening circles of people from all the nations.  So what is a mature disciple?  Or in other words, when is a disciple ready and launched to disciple others?  It is a matter of process, the ministry of spiritual formation, the privilege of disciple making.  God wants to grow mature disciples, who in due time, become mature disciplers of others.  It starts with the good soil & pure seed.

Jesus summarizes this process of growth well in Luke 6:40—“a disciple is mature when he is like his teacher.”  The process is beautiful: field, seed, leaf, fruit or be, know, love, serve.  It follows the flow of the “Greats” in Scripture—the Great Cultural Mandate, the Great Confession, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission: being, knowing, loving, and serving.

This is today’s agenda—to ask and answer: what kind of seed will we plant in this field?  Farmers can force bananas to grow in the desert with a huge injection of external resources: genetic engineering, water, chemicals, and greenhouses.  Likewise, pastors can force church programs to grow.  But isn’t wiser to figure out what will grow natively in the ground we already have?  I suggest we plant the pure, simple, high-yield seed of a strong doctrine; specifically a strong Christology.  Plant the word in the good soil.  If we want to harvest Christ-likeness, we need to plant a deep and saving knowledge of Christ.


I.             Who Do People Say that the Son of Man Is? (vv. 13-14)

The difficulty with knowing Christ deeply is that it is not a neutral subject; there is a tangle of confusion about who he is.  Knowing him is not like knowing algebra or knowing how to sweat a copper joint.  Those are unopposed, data- and technique-heavy subjects.  But knowing Jesus is relational and vehemently opposed on all sides.  There is a spiritual enemy whose sinister delight is to hinder and obstruct and even blind people “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).  But also our own unregenerate heart does not want to know Jesus; and certainly not at a relational level.  If that were not enough, the world system—the Scriptures teach—also corrupts and marginalizes true knowledge of Jesus Christ.  It is no wonder that knowing Christ deeply is so rare; so despised.  But it is the pure seed of eternal life—“this is eternal life, that they might know you the only God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  Not having information about God; but knowing God through Jesus Christ personally; relationally. 

I was in church nearly every week the first 16 years of life and I never grapsed this—that eternal life hinges on a personal, relationship with Jesus Christ; the monumental “yes” of faith to his gift of exchange—his righteousness and life for my sin and death.   A transaction that was paid in full on the cross and confirmed once and for all at the resurrection, applied to the sinner by personal faith—not works.  I knew some information about Jesus, but knowing information about Jesus is not life—he was a carpenter’s son, he was born in Bethlehem, he turned water into wine, he died as an innocent man, his disciples saw him in physical form alive again.  We need the facts, but the facts are not the Savior—the object of our faith is Jesus Christ, the one and only Son of God, the one and only Savior, the one and only hope for forgiveness of sin and reconciliation.  There may be mastery of algebra or sweating a copper joint, but with relational knowledge there we will never gain mastery because we are not the Master.  Frankly, that is a little fearsome.  But it is good.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi” (vs. 13a)—this is a most fascinating backdrop to this most important conversation.  Caesarea Philippi is a very well-known area—30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and 120 miles north of Jerusalem.  Although the name has been changed several times, the spiritual and even demonic roots run deep.  This was the Old Testament city of Dan where Jeroboam built an apostate shrine inside which he placed one of two golden calves (the other was in Bethel) and overtly led the northern tribes of Israel into open Baal worship (1 Kings 12:26-28).  When Alexander the Great conquered, he set up shrines at this place to Zeus and to Pan and changed the name to Paneas or Banias.  The cult of Pan grabbed hold of this area even long after Rome took it over.  They too changed the name of the city to Caesarea (Philippi) and added their gods to the polytheistic mix—most notably a shrine to Caesar Augustus—who was worshiped as a deity and took as his official title, the son of God.  The city would be renamed again—Neronius—in worship of Caesar Nero … but the old names and the old ways lived on in this occult region.  Pan, is not the harmless and mischievous child with small horns of the Renaissance art scene, but the highly sexualized goat-like guardian of the wild places, the terrifying one, from which we get even our English words: panic, pain, and bane.  In this place, it was believed that he kept or let the evil out—and so he was much feared.

The root of this false worship is connected to the geography.  Here at the foot of Mount Hermon—the tallest mountain in Palestine—exists a cave (Magharet ras en Neba, “cave of the fountainhead”) out of which flows the headwaters of the Jordan River.  This cave was superstitiously believed to be the door to the underworld guarded by Pan and so shrines carved into the rock cliffs were built to keep demons pacified.  Human sacrifice took place here in all its eras, where living people were thrown down its dark, watery throat at the back of this cave.  If blood emerged from the spring, then the sacrifice was thought to be not accepted by Baal/Hades, but if no blood flowed then the sacrifice was accepted and peace was achieved with the spirit world for a little while longer (“Caesarea Philippi,” ISBE). 

In the time of Jesus, this was part of the tetrarchy of Herod Philip, the brother of Herod Antipas—still firmly gripped by polytheistic superstition.  Strategically, it was here, just up the slopes of Mount Hermon (Makr 8:27; Luke 9:18), that Jesus transfigured into glory before the terrified eyes of Peter, James, and John as a demonstration (among other reasons) of his preeminence over all, even the underworld.  Just at the bottom of those slopes, just after this magnificent experience, likely in this very grotto where there were so many shrines to so many false gods with all these centuries of pagan practices Jesus initiates the conversation, “Who do people say that I am?” (vs. 13b).  Literally, he began to question them…a prolonged, repetitive kind of quizzing.  The normal posture of a disciple of a rabbi is to ask the rabbi questions, but here the rabbi asks his disciples questions.

Six months before the cross (A.T. Roberston, Word Pictures in the New Testament), there was already much confusion about Jesus’ identity and a massive falling away in his general popularity (John 6:68-69).  Herod Antipas, who arrested and killed John the Baptist, wrongly thought that Jesus was the reincarnation of John (Matthew 14:1-2).  The Pharisees led the masses to believe that Jesus was a possessed by or a medium to a demon prince named, Beelzubub (Matthew 12:24; John 10:19-21).  Still others, like the disciples report, “say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (vs. 14).  These are largely flattering—but notably non-glorious and absolutely non-messianic—answers.  And it is interesting to note that they left out the negative answers, although they all remembered the fresh experiences of Jesus being accused as both demon-possessed and insane.  There have been personal confessions of Jesus’ messianic identity before this point, but it was hushed because it was a loaded title; one that could easily light a political powder keg.

We cannot know Jesus by taking a poll (Warren Weirsbe, “Be” Series).  People still attempt it, but it is completely unreliable.  This question is far too important to allow others to hijack your answer.  Who do people say that Jesus is?  Frankly, don’t allow anyone else to put words into your head or into your mouth; even me, even this pulpit—check everything out in the Scriptures that I or anyone says about Jesus Christ.  Paul would go even further, saying, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:8).  Do not deflect or defer this answer! 

But the people’s answers keep rolling in about who Jesus is.  In my office this week I was concentrating all of the different answers I have heard in the 20 years I have been in ministry.  Jesus was a good Man, a philosopher, a teacher, an example for humanity. I have been exposed to New Age mystics who name Jesus as the 5th reincarnation of Buddha. I have heard Muslims teach that Jesus is the illegitimate son of Mary who become a lesser and slightly twisted prophet of Allah. I have heard Mormons declare that Jesus is the physical son of God, brother of Lucifer, who attained a godhood status. Sung Yun Moon, leader of the Unification Church, also known as the Moonies, thought Jesus failed in His mission because He had no children. I have heard Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Jesus is merely another name for the archangel Michael. Seventh-day Adventists say the same thing and that Jesus never actually died.  I have learned of Nietzsche who thought Jesus was the greatest failure the world has ever known, crucified but never to rise again. Sigmund Freud taught that Christ was a crutch, a neurotic invention of the dysfunctional and weak-minded in society. Many liberation theologians have depicted Jesus as a revolutionary. Many see Jesus as a tool of guilt used by the Church to put a spiritual headlock on the masses. Many say that Jesus was a phantom and not a real Man while others say Jesus was a Man who achieved enlightenment. Some say that He was a magician, a con-artist, a cult-leader, a homosexual, an adulterer, a schizophrenic, a madman, or a demon. Others say that He was a mere storyteller or merely a story told by storytellers. Others throw up their hands and say that Jesus is altogether unknowable. And yet the majority of the world’s population has never even heard the name of Jesus to register an opinion of Him at all.

But Jesus cannot be accurately known by public opinion.  It has to be a personal answer based on Scripture; not human opinion … not human experience. 


II.            But Who Do You Say that I am? (vs. 15)

The precision of Jesus’ questioning has only started!  He moves from detached generalities to personalized specifics.  In a genius way, Jesus asks questions that he already knows.  But he asks them is such a way as to tease out of the hearers their core beliefs.  Emphatically, Jesus converts the question from the masses to them personally, directly.  “But you!  Who do you all say that I am?” (vs. 15).

There is no dodging this question.  There is no hiding.  Still, it is a collective question—phrased in the plural.  What is their collective answer?  Outside the Jewish cultural setting, in an overtly Gentile and polytheistic area—who do you all say that I am?  Likewise, separate from our American and Christian subculture, what would our collective answer be this morning?  With our dozens of churches with their dozens of doctrinal statements, what is our collective answer?  Even internally to Tucker Street Church—with our multifaceted background and textured history—what is our collective answer? 

This is the place where the seed germinates and begins to take root—our belief about the identity of Jesus.  But this is also the place where heresy begins—for Judas was in this conversation just as much as Peter.  Christology—our beliefs about Jesus—is where it all starts: devotion or defection.  We might have half a dozen beliefs about the mode and importance of baptism, but baptism is not the seed of the church.  Christology is!  We might have many ideas about worship styles or the gifts of the Spirit or building up the children’s ministry or the best way to spend the church’s money, but we cannot have many ideas about Jesus Christ.  We must have one voice on this question; or we will find that we have no voice on any question.  I am happily a casual person about secondary and tertiary issues, but may the Lord make me and make us absolutely stalwart in regard to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

We have become quite skilled in giving the answer that doesn’t offend; doesn’t highlight differences.  Precise language is not popular today.  It is easier to remain cryptic, but Jesus does not give us that option.  He is asking us, just as much as he was asking them—who do you all say that I am?  Openly, publicly, and on the record—we are given the mic.  What would we say?


III.           You Are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (vv. 16-20)

Peter has many faults, but this is not one of them.  We don’t know if there was a period of awkward silence in this conversation in this eerie setting, but we do know that Peter assumes the lead.  He steps forward as spokesman. 

He folds five fingers into a fist of an answer, leaving no doubt.  Whether his voice echoed off the stone walls of the pagan shrine behind him or was drowned out by the rushing spring of that formed the Jordan River—he spoke to Jesus in relationship.  This was a personal conversation.  So it can be today as well—a personal question, a personal response.  Jesus himself is asking you what you believe.  It doesn’t matter what people think, Jesus is the one who is listening; who cares immensely.  He already knows your heart, but he wants you to go through the exercise of saying to him all the same.

We are given an ear to Peter’s answer.  Notice five aspects:

It is PERSONAL.  “You are”—the one who is sharing their company, who is asking this question, is the one and only subject that matters into eternity.  God does not quiz us about algebra or sweating a copper joint.  God does not vet us based on our voting record.  God does not ask us who is responsible for shooting President Kennedy.  He wants us to voice our belief about the identity of Jesus, right now, in the present. 

It is EXCLUSIVE—“the Christ”—the first of four definite claims.  You specifically, personally, are the Christ.  “Christ” is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah.”  Yes, it is a loaded word.  Yes, it is vastly misunderstood to be a political personality.  Yes, it is likely to gain unwanted attention from Roman soldiers who can sniff out dissent from the other side of the Mediterranean.  But Jesus’ Messianic identity is the nucleus of Peter’s Great Confession.  It is both definite and exclusive—the one and only Messiah.  There is no other Messiah but Jesus.  In India, for instance, it is common to believe that there are many centers.  Jesus could be one center in a multi-centered reality—but no!  Peter leaves no room for that—and neither should we.  Jesus is not just a center; he is exclusive.  Peter leaves no room that Jesus is just one of the prophets—no way, Jesus is Messiah.

It is RELATIONAL—“the Son”—Jesus’ relational connection with Father develops Peter’s Christology.  To be the “son of” is to be equal in essence to; not to be a physical descendant of.  Peter is here claiming Jesus’s absolute deity.  In the shadow of a shrine to Caesar Augustus who is flatly called the son of god, Peter says “No!”  Jesus, you and you alone are the one and only Son of God.

It is TRINITARIAN—“of the God”—the one and only God; God is still singular, but yet Jesus is part the one God.  This is very early Trinitarian language.  It crumbles the Hebrew paradigm, but Peter sticks out his neck here with a remarkably courageous confession…even about aspects that are entirely new. 

It is REGENERATIONAL—“the Living One”—all other gods people worship are dead.  In this graveyard of pagan worship where people have, for centuries, been bowing down before the gatekeeper of the underworld, making sacrifices, even offering humans in the blind hope that the demons will be appeased—this whole scene reeks of death and panic.  But Jesus is the God who is Alive, who makes alive, who is life.  Life shatters death and the power of death and the fear of death.  Jesus, in Peter’s Great Confession, is Life—the fountainhead of eternal life.

There is no caveat.  There is no retreat.  There is no asterisk to any footnote at the bottom of the page.  This is a full-on, public, open, overt confession that Jesus is the God-Man, the only Savior of the World, the Messiah who will save his people from their sins.  Jesus can be known.  Jesus must be known!  By faith, casting aside all the counterfeits saviors and denouncing their power, we—with Peter—bow before our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.  This is the Great Confession.  It was Peter’s and it is ours, too.  I want to rescue doctrine from the periphery to the coffee houses and the dorm rooms.  True doctrine is practical, essential.  True doctrine brings us together.  True doctrine cures the cement around what is orthodox; around what is non-negotiable.  This is the pure seed planted in the good soil of our heart, mind, and soul.  You don’t have to have all the answers, but you must have this answer or else all other answers return to dust.  Jesus is the last word on every subject.  Jesus is the first word on every matter.  Jesus is the Lord of the middle as well.


Will you make the great confession today?  To confess is to say the same thing about an issue that God says.  God says, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased” and later, “This is my Son, listen to him.”  Will you say the same thing about Jesus that the Father says?  There is a blessing for those who will.  Peter was blessed, but any can share that blessing by agreeing in faith.

05 May 2015

The Great Cultural Mandate - Gn 1:26-31

The Great Cultural Mandate
Genesis 1:26-31
May 3, 2015 – Kevin Rees

Greatness is only reflected never accomplished. Audio posted at: www.kevinrees.sermon.net


What is greatness?  It is a question of the centuries.  It evokes many responses.  One response to the question of greatness is cleverly captured in a recent Nike® advertisement.  “Find your greatness” is the boiled down admonition … that greatness is for everyone … not only for the super-athletic and the mega-famous.  And frankly, there is a measure of truth in that.  
The image that forms the story for this “find your greatness” advertisement is a boy of probably seven or eight years.  He stands backlit by the summer sky in a near-silhouette on the 10m platform dive at a local public swimming pool.  Below him are some swimmers who don’t seem to pay this little boy any mind, a scattering of mostly empty deck chairs, and a lifeguard who is “on the clock,” doing his job.  But the focus is isolated to the boy alone.  The battle is not around him; it is within him … for his is contemplating his next move.  No one else is pressuring him to dive.  No line is forming at the bottom of the ladder for use of the high dive.  The narrator speaks over this scene, “Greatness is a scary thing, until it isn’t.”  The boy jumps off and presumably he heads back to do it again.  “Find your greatness.” 

No pictures of Nike® products are anywhere to be seen in this Nike® commercial, but in the world of commercials, this is a great commercial.  I am actually, however slightly, persuaded to buy Nike® shoes because of this commercial.  This is a great commercial, but it is not really about greatness.  It is about accomplishment.  It is about personal achievement … it is about triumph … but greatness is something more; something other … something greater. 

It is a good seed planted in the wrong field.  We don’t need more self.  We need Christ, his gospel of grace, and the freedom it brings—which among other things includes a “freedom from living for ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:15).

Don’t get me wrong—in society we do need more boys and girls, women and men to jump off more high dives—but this is not greatness.  Greatness is not attained; it is obtained by grace through faith in Christ.  Greatness is God’s attribute and therefore we can only reflect his greatness; we cannot generate it.  When we take our hope and plant it entirely in the field of God’s provision—not the field of human accomplishment—that is when greatness shows up and grows up.  So yes, find greatness … but not in yourself.  Find Christ’s greatness.  Plant the seed of faith in him—the field of God’s provision.  Cultivate this tender plant with wisdom.  And watch his greatness bear fruit thirty-, sixty-, and one-hundredfold.  Greatness is only reflected, never accomplished.

Greatness in the Bible is counterintuitive to the greatness we seek in the world.  Greatness long preceded us.  Greatness is God’s eternal attribute.  But in an astonishing divine act, unparalleled in the rest of the universe, our great God gave us the capacity to reflect his greatness in all our relationships.  Let’s look at the genesis of greatness.  In Genesis 1:26-31, a passage often called, “The Great Cultural Mandate”—What God Made (vs. 26), What God Said (vv. 27-28), and What God Provided (vv. 29-31).


I.             What God Made (vs. 26)

The sixth day of creation is different from the first five days in that God moves from creating with the spoken word to creating with “his own two hands,” so to speak.  The creation of humans is a much, much more intimate action than the creation of every other thing in the universe.  God, from our perspective, “puts on the apron” and sculpts us.  If nothing else, please hear the great dignity that this divine act imbued upon every human who has ever lived.  Every person you have ever rubbed shoulders with, ever admired, despised, loved, or hated has been specially created by God in such a careful way that he or she is set apart from the rest of creation as an object of God’s care.

Now, quite literally in our text, God has a conference; a council … a consultation within his triune self.  “Let us make man in our image after our likeness” (vs. 26a).  Many things that can be said about this inter-Trinitarian discussion, but the punch is this: our creation came as a result of a very deliberate, very intentional, very personal act.  Immediately you can see how even here in the earliest of all texts the human writer, Moses, runs out of appropriate words to describe our great God.  So God leads Moses to break some grammatical rules in order to make an ironclad point—God is greater than grammar, greater than singular and plural, greater than words, greater than his creation.  But he uses grammar, singulars and plurals, and words nevertheless to reveal himself to his creation.  “Let us (plural) make (singular) man (singular) in our (plural) image (singular) according to our (plural) likeness (singular).”  Choppy, yes, but sublime.

Another way the creation of humankind is distinct from the creation of the rest of the universe is carried in that main verb—“make (Hebrew: ‘asa’)” or fashion.  In the first verse of chapter one shout the ten most explosive and expansive words in the Bible (which are only seven in the Hebrew)—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—but the verb is “create” (Hebrew: bara’) or form.  This is a uniquely divine word that describes God’s act of creating something out of nothing.  The emphasis of this verb is on the material object created (The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “bara’”).  God forms something from nothing.  In Genesis 1:1, the something is matter itself.  And in the pattern of Genesis, God then fashions (Hebrew: ‘asa’) what he formed, and then fills what he fashioned.  He formed, fashioned, and filled the heavens.  He formed, fashioned, and filled the seas.  He formed, fashioned, filled the earth.  It is God’s pattern.

But the pattern is intentionally broken when it comes to the creation of mankind to stress not the object created, but the reason of creation.  Instead of “bara’”—create/form—he begins with “‘asa’”—make/fashion.  Don’t be alarmed, God uses “bara’” of this creative act as well—three times in verse 28 alone.  But the divine meeting resulted in the emphasis going to the careful sculpting of mankind with the connation of an ethical purpose (TWOT).  Let us make man—with a special act for a special reason unto a special end.  What is so special about the human?  The human (collectively) specifically crafted as male and female, are special because they have been creatively sculpted by and for and unto the image and likeness of God.  The why was conceived before the what was created.  That is huge. 

Who are we?  We are image-bearers of God and likeness-sharers with God.  That is our foundation.  That is our bedrock.  That is our raison d’etre.  Every human ever has been this.  It has nothing to do with ability, accomplishment, achievement, or triumph—it is our being.  Sin complicates image-bearing and likeness-sharing, but it does not obliterate it.  We still have the vestige of this high nobility in our very blood—whether we are in the slums of Mumbai or in the palaces at Versailles.  

What is an image-bearer?  It is functionally synonymous with likeness-sharer.  God fashioned us with a special ability and responsibility and opportunity to reflect his character to the universe, to represent his sovereignty on earth, and to exist in relationship with God on earth.  It is not that we look like God physically.  It is that we alone in the universe can know God and make him known; we are capacitated for relationship with God to reflect God and to represent God.  That is our birthright, which we have squandered, perverted, tarnished, neglected, and, like Esau, traded away for a bowl of soup.  But it is our birthright all the same.  None of us have any more of it or any less of it than anyone else—it is a common characteristic that marks every human being.

Like a mirror, we are put on earth to reflect and represent God through relationship.  We broke that mirror, but even the shards can reflect God somewhat, and represent God somewhat.  Restoring us to be full image-bearers of God is part of the work accomplished by Christ applied by the Spirit.

But notice that more explanation is given this high calling as image-bearers of God.  “And let them have dominion (Hebrew: rada’) over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over the all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (vs. 26b).  We are God’s representatives on earth.  He rules the universe and names us as his stewards—his co-regents—here on earth.  Adam and Eve are king and queen of the earth, and we through their lineage are royal.  The earth is entrusted into our care.  It is not our possession; it is our charge.  The Lord is sovereign—over reigning; we reign through spiritual relationship with him.

Having “dominion” implies that, although God created everything exactly the way he intended, He left it in an inexact state.  God gives a real job to man and woman to govern and develop the created order as he leads them, empowers them, and fellowships with them.  The world is perfectly designed to begin imperfectly … so that man and woman might join in God’s work of developing the creation, pruning it, shaping it, fashioning and filling it the way as God’s representatives. 

God doesn’t have to give us a job, but he does.  Work is not a result of the curse.  Work is a privilege.  Toil and thorns come from the curse, but work is originally a blessed part of the awesome job God delegated to us—which was never repealed.  This royal task is given additional descriptions in Genesis 2:15—“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”  In other words, “cultivate” and “shepherd” the garden into which I have placed you.  By application, if yours is a tiny square of land, then represent God there in that place, reflecting God’s character in all your relationships as you relate to God by faith.  If yours is a vast expanse of land and people and property, then represent God there in that place, reflecting God’s character in all your relationships as you relate to God by faith.  On a church level—what field are we called to cultivate, who is the flock we are called the shepherd?

This is greatness—but it is not found within ourselves.  Greatness is only reflected, never accomplished … and it is only found in relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  When we find him, then we find ourselves—and never vice versa.  We can only “find ourselves” when we are faithfully “lost in him.”  God tells us who we are.  God reveals to us why we were created.  God shows us where we are planted.  We are image-bearers.  We are created for the reason of reflecting God’s character.  We are planted on the earth in order to represent him through relationship.  Aligning ourselves with our great God by faith; that is greatness.


II.            What God Said (vv. 27-28)

So what do we have so far in The Great Cultural Mandate?  All humans are image-bearers; and both genders … but specifically both genders as they cooperate together.  That privilege enables us to relate to God, to reflect God’s character, and to represent God on earth.  Because of this, we can know God and make him known in a way that nothing else in the universe is able. 

Whether we contribute to society or not, we are image-bearers.  Whether we are unborn babies or residents in the geriatric wing no long able to perform independent actions—all humans, by birthright, are image-bearers of God and carry his dignity in our very hearts.  This is why abortion is anti-god.  This is why euthanasia is abominable.  This is why eugenics is irrevocably corrupt.    This is why murder is a capital offense in God’s eyes.  This is why suicide is ultimately a rebellious act against God.  This is why hatred of women or hatred of men or hatred of other cultures or hatred of other ideologies is unacceptable.  All of our societal woes pass through the gate at Genesis chapters 1, 2, and 3.  To disrespect God’s image-bearer is to disrespect God.

Back to the text: into his act of creation, God now speaks his word—in song, in blessing, and in command.  In verse 27 God sings a song; the first song of history.  Three lines: “So God created them in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”  Notice the repetition of “create,”  “image,” and the interplay of singulars and plurals.  But clearly, from the very beginning, God designed distinct genders to cooperate together in reflecting the image of God and representing God on earth through relationship.  Together as distinct males and females working together in unity, they are equal as image-bearers and co-regents.  Although their roles are different they are both essential to bearing the image God.  There is something that males bring that, when cooperating with females, uniquely displays a portion of God’s character.  There is something that females bring that, when cooperating with males, uniquely displays a portion of God’s character.  Imaging God is not a fraternity thing, neither is it a sorority thing.  It is a human thing—equal in essence, distinct in personality, submissive in role.  And we do not have the prerogative to mess with God’s original design or God’s original definitions.  Gender identity is not negotiable; not changeable, not culturally defined.

After God sings the first song in history, he adds something to the narrative that is quite precious.  He adds his blessing.  “And he blessed them.”  God pronounces upon them as a unit the good word.  Have you ever heard someone say, “I just wish God would tell me what it is all about.”  Well, he does that over and over again in Scripture, shouted again throughout the heavens—“blessing” rests upon us.

After this blessing, God re-emphasizes his commissioning upon the first couple as image-bearers—to reflect his character and represent him in the entire created order.  He commands—“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (vs. 28).  These five imperatives further explain but add nothing more to the commissioning given to the man and the woman in verse 26—“have dominion.”

Notice that the imperatives are all plural—that is they are given to man and woman both.  Aalthough chapter 2 makes it clear that God spoke to the man first and through the man to the woman thus setting him up in the role of head.  That doesn’t make him better than her; it simply makes him answerable for her.  Like God whose image they bear, males and females are equal in essence, distinct in personality, submissive in roles.  Both royal, both co-regents, both ambassadors of God, both are stewards of the earth—dignified and servile at the same time.

Bear fruit”—not merely physically, but spiritually.  Replicate, reflect, represent God’s image all over the world—through children, yes, but also through all relationships—with God, with one another, with self, and with the creation.  “Multiply”—become many or become great—this is our word that got things started this monring.  “Fill the earth”—be fulfilled in the earth.  When God created the fish of the sea, he created them instantly in great numbers.  When God created the birds of the air, he created them instantly in huge numbers.  When God created the animals on the earth, he created them instantly in huge numbers.  When God created man and woman, he created them alone; the pair.  And to them he delegated part of his divine job—to become many and fill the earth.  Remember that was God’s pattern—to form, fashion, then fill.  God leaves the conclusion of this to the first couple.  But let me stress it again; this is not merely physical … this is spiritual.  Bearing fruit, multiplying, filling—this is all in regard primarily to reflecting the image of God and representing the leadership of God through the avenue of relationships unto the ends of the earth.  This has many parallels with “make disciples.”

Subdue it”—implies that work is required.  “Have dominion”—repeated from verse 26.  This kind of leadership is not automatic.  Granted, before the curse the creation was compliant and so shaping it was a creative joy, but I am sure Adam and Eve produced sweat, got tired muscles, had to make and revise plans, and constantly collaborated with one another.  God forms, fashions, and fills.  Man, like God more than any other creature, resembles God in this way—especially fashioning and filling that which God had formed.  Creatively cultivating the garden as God leads them—this is our prime directive ... more than growing flowers, this is cultivating and shepherding relationship with God, others, self, and the creation.

Greatness does not reside in Adam or Eve, but Adam and Eve were given the privilege of cultivating the earth to reflect the greatness of God—through task, through relationship, through harmony, through work.  Without a vital relationship with God, Adam and Eve resemble and return to the dust from which they were sculpted.  However with a vital relationship with God, they resemble him and reflect his glory.  We cannot know or do any of this identity or activity unless God speaks—both then and now.


III.           What God Provided (vv. 29-31)

What God Made—humankind exists in distinct genders together bearing the image of God.  What God Said—greatness comes secondarily through our relationship with the great God whose image we bear.  That vital connection with God as his image bearers is both a blessing and a responsibility.  We are blessed in order that we might be a blessing to the entire world.  We are responsible to be and do as God is and does; giving leadership, protection, care, and structure to those in our charge.  What God Provided—God does not call us to a task without giving us the resources necessary.

Verse 29 gets down to logistics—“Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit.  You shall have them for food.”  God has created the universe to be self-replicating; each after its own kind.  The job given to Adam and Eve is to keep this process flowing.  Everything is at their disposal; not to consume, not to horde, but to channel toward longevity, sustainability, and beauty.  Adam and Eve are permitted to eat and enjoy from its bounty, but not to eat, drink, and be merry in and for themselves only.  And consider this: their sphere of responsibility included even the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—though not permitted to eat from it, it was still inside the garden over which they were custodians.  By application, we are even to “own” our triggers; our temptations, for how we manage our weaknesses is a reflection of God, too.

God also provides for the animals, but he places that provision into the care of Adam and Eve to manage.  “And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.  And so it was” (vs. 30).  God provides for Adam and Eve.  God provides for the animals through the mediation of Adam and Eve.  What an important task!  In a cooperative universe, this would have been a big but enjoyable job.  In an uncooperative universe, this has become an overwhelming and difficult job.  But nevertheless, our Great Cultural Mandate was never nullified.  Where we failed, Jesus succeeded.

Incidentally, everything in the original order was vegetarian.  Carnivorous activity was allowed after the flood by divine proclamation since the plant life was no longer able to sustain the animal population because of the water damage.  But it is important to remember that death did not enter the created order until sin—“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).  This is very important to the gospel.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.  And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (vs. 31).  This multifacted created order with Adam and Eve as the co-regents under God in leadership, pleased God to a degree that the first five days did not.  He speaks the final conclusion: “it was very good.”  Why was it very good?  Because he finally got it right after six days trying?  No!  It was very good because he was best reflected and best represented through relationship with humans.

Conclusionthe ramifications are tremendous of this Great Cultural Mandate.  Let’s quickly review:  we are created by God, made in God’s image, bonded with each other, and placed over the entire created order as reflectors of God’s character and representatives of God’s leadership. 

We are created by God—not by chance, not by ourselves, but by God’s personal, special creative act.  That places us under the Creator—we do not create him, nor do we have any leverage over him.  We are neither the center of the universe nor the main characters in history.  We are not autonomous beings, captains of our fate, nor masters of our soul.  But we are loved.

We are created by God, made in God’s image—he is not in our image.  We did not invent God nor the idea of God.  Our only job is to reflect his character and represent his leadership him through all our relationships.  If there is something we find particularly difficult about God, we do not have editing power over God.  We are low in importance compared to God, but simultaneously exalted in importance in relationship with God.  There is nothing inherent among any race, any people group, any culture that makes them less of an image bearer in identity.  We can squander this birthright, but it is in all of our blood.  Accordingly, we are answerable to God for how we reflected or represented him on earth.

We are created by God, made in God’s image, bonded with each other—as male and female he created us as distinct genders with different personalities, yet equal in essence and dignity.  Men cannot rightly reflect God without the contribution of women.  Women cannot rightly reflect God without the contribution of men.  We are counterparts; not the same as one another, but complementary to one another and therefore even strong together than we could ever be apart.  Gender distinctions are part of the original design and cannot be voted or vetoed away by personal choice or popular demand.  We cannot look to each other or to self to define us; God defines us and a relationship with God redeems us.  Prejudice of any kind has no place in humanity; it is an invader from the realm of sin.

We are created by God, made in God’s image, bonded with each other, and placed over the entire created order as reflectors of God’s character and representatives of God’s leadership.  This authority is not an autocracy, but a stewardship.  We own nothing, but we have all things made available to us in order to do our job well.  We must carefully cultivate all that has been entrusted into our care—but still we are set apart from the rest of the created order as its clear and unrivaled leaders.  The creation does not issue its demands over us, but we issue our demands over it as God’s servant-leaders.

This is a greatness; but it is not our greatness.  It is God’s greatness that we reflect and represent through relationships.  This is the genesis of greatness; the nucleus of all our being, the origination point of all our doing.


So, yes, jump off the high dive!  Face the challenge head on, but not in order to find your greatness!  Do it because you bear the image of your great God; because you have found Christ’s greatness … because reflecting his greatness is your great mandate.  Reflect his character and represent his leadership in your relationships. 

03 May 2015

A Purposed Unity - John 17:20-26

A Purposed Unity
John 17:20-26
April 26, 2015 – Kevin Rees

Unity and of itself is incomplete without mission.  Audio posted at: www.kevinrees.sermon.net


The elders have been praying, and many of you have been praying with us on this, that the Lord will show us the next step and the way forward as a church.  Please keep praying to the Lord for these things, but also join with us in praising the Lord for the answers that have already arrived. 

It is a braided idea really that has come, I believe, from God in answer to our prayers prayed in faith—a new idea, an old idea, and an ancient idea.  The new idea came from Tom—let’s plow up the ground that we already have.  That pulled an idea out my mental archives from over 20 years ago—obey the portions of the will of God that we already know with the belief that more light will illuminate our next step.  And which portions of God’s will have been better revealed than “The Greats”—The Great Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1), The Great Confession (Matthew 16), the Great Commandment (Matthew 22), and the Great Commission (Matthew 28).  Whatever the particulars of God’s will for Tucker Street Church might be, these four “Greats” are immovable landmarks … like the Big and Little Dipper in the night sky … by which we can gain our bearings and begin heading in the right direction.  I would like to take the month of May to look at each of these “Greats” individually with the continued prayers for vision and the mind of Christ for Tucker Street Church’s next and future steps. 

Plow the ground we already have.  Obey the portions we already know.  Move in the direction that already has been outlined.  As a sort of a primer for the month to come, I find this entire braided idea and all four of these “Greats” collected into one place and compressed in one prayer, which will be our consideration and inspiration for this morning: John 17:20-26.

From my two months here, I easily observe that Tucker Street Church is marked by both its unity and its desire to be unified.  This is lovely.  This is rare.  However (and I am genuinely excited about this … and I hope you will be, as well), unity—while it makes for a good church slogan—is not an ultimate purpose statement for the church.  It is a purpose statement, but it also leads unto a further purpose.  It is necessary.  It is beautiful.  It is powerful.  But “unity” is not our final goal; it is our means to our final goal.  Unity is a wonderful gift, but unity unto what … unto where … unto which end?  Unity in and of itself is incomplete without mission.  Let’ allow the text to pack its punch.

Having already prayed for glory (John 17:1-5), security and sanctity (vv. 6-19), Christ finishes his famous words praying for unity in the church (vv. 20-26).  But his prayer makes it clear that unity is not the end of his hopes in the church but the beginning of his plans for the church.  He knew and we need to know that—more than merely an admirable and enjoyable thing that the church celebrates—unity must be fundamentally and gloriously purposeful or it is not functioning.  Achieving unity is not our purpose, but applying unity is instrumental toward the church’s ultimate purpose: equipping, catalyzing, and mobilizing the church toward the helping the world believe that Jesus is the only Savior.  Unity, without this world-encompassing and belief-inducing aim, is incomplete and scantly a shell of what it could be.  

Alas, as with any pure thing, counterfeits abound.  Knock-off unity comes in many forms.  Perhaps we have been fooled into thinking that institutional union is the same thing as biblical unity; it is not—just ask the two cats tied by the tail and thrown over the clothesline.  Perhaps we have erroneously substituted external uniformity for spiritual unity; they are not similar in the slightest.  Perhaps we have confused sameness with oneness; the two are worlds apart.  Or equally disturbingly, perhaps we have looked at the schisms in the church and just given up on unity ever existing in any true form. 

But Jesus was not a cynic about unity in the church.  He prayed for our unity.  He expected it.  Therefore, let’s consider the unity for which Christ prayed.  We will find six aspects of Christian unity—all of which reflect the unity of the Godhead … all of which have no proper comparison in the world.


Six Aspects of Christian Unity

The entire 17th chapter of John is one prayer.  We will pick it up at the end.  Jesus’ prayer shifts at this point from himself and his apostles to include all believers of all ages.  It is absolutely amazing that Jesus prayed for us way back then.  It is absolutely astonishing to realize that Jesus still prays for us right now.  Notice how he sets up the climax of his prayer in John 17:20, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”  Salvation is not a belief in the apostles.  It is not belief in the apostles’ words themselves in isolation from the God of Truth who inspired them.  It is not belief in the apostles’ traditions, customs, successions, preferences, or even their relics or bones that saves.  It is belief in Christ alone that saves.  The power of faith is not bound up in the believer himself, but in the object of his belief—Jesus.  And this same Jesus prays for our unity in six very distinct, interesting ways.

From first glance, Jesus prays the same thing six times at the end of his prayer—a real, deep, abiding oneness to flavor his entire church.  Six times in one paragraph and we can know that an emphasis is being made—it hardly needs a 30-minute sermon to elaborate.  But it would take every bit of a 30-minute sermon—and arguably a hundred 30-minute sermons—to understand the minor variations to each of these six times Jesus prays oneness into us.  We need to see oneness, not as a monolithic, mono-chromatic, mono-dimensional description, but as a rich and textured mystery that envelopes us, invades us, awakens us, and indwells us.

Because Christ references the Trinity several times in his prayer for our unity, let’s begin there.  The doctrine of the Trinity says that God is one essence, who exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit—equal in essence, distinct in personhood, and submissive in role.  It is a doctrine that exists outside of our rational ability to explain, but not irrational; it is suprarational—“above ration.”  The Trinity forms a community with each other without becoming a plurality of gods.  They each individually and collectively have all the divine attributes yet they function with and for and under each other with humility and submission and joy.

Here’s the boiled down point.  Our God is an invisible Godhead; we cannot pierce into this divine reality with our human eye.  But, for our benefit and stooping to our low estate, God makes himself visible in the person of Jesus Christ who came to earth as 100% God and 100% Man—“He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).    The way he obeyed the Father.  The way he depended upon the Spirit.  The way he died on the cross and rose from the dead.  He made the invisible God visible to our eyes.  He enjoyed complete unity with and in the Trinity, but he applied that unity on earth so that the world might know God. 

In a similar move, Jesus commissions his church to apply spiritual unity on earth so that the world might believe Jesus and therefore know God.  Of course our similarities with the Trinity cease, because we are not equal with Jesus or divine or perfect, but in a secondary and derivative sense, we make the invisible Jesus visible.  As we reflect and apply true unity to our relationships in the eyes of the world, we confirm our testimony of Jesus.  This is what Jesus is praying—a purposed unity.  A unity that makes the invisible God visible before the eyes of the world.

Oneness is not sameness.  Unity is not forced uniformity but voluntarily focused diversity toward a singular goal.  We do not cease to be individuals in biblical unity; we are neither homogenized nor assimilated.  We cooperatively and humbly tune our various symphony instruments to the same tuning fork.  Together we play to God’s glory.


I.             A Cooperative Unity without Assimilation (vs. 21)

“[I pray] that they may all be one.”  Our most repeated word, “one,” is so commonly used yet so rarely applied.  For this reason it is so much on Jesus’ heart on this last evening with his remaining eleven disciples.  It is essential to note that this kind of “oneness” comes from distinction, not from uniformity.  This is the same word used in another one of Jesus’ sermons (Matthew 19:5), “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  The two distinct beings—male and female—shall be one flesh.  Not merely will they become united in their bodies, they will be one flesh.  They together make a third reality of oneness without erasing the distinction of individuality.  They voluntarily and “unto-death-us-do-part” both step into the covenant of marriage of oneness.  Heterogeny and distinction are part of the covenant.  Homogeny and sameness do not communicate or reflect the depth of this word: oneness.  Unity is forged from diversity that is voluntarily submitted to the same goal.

Now back to the church and the Trinity, “I pray that they may all be one.”  Unity is forged from diversity that is voluntarily submitted to the same goal.  Christ prays all of them distinctly to be one cooperatively.  This word “all” is how this first petition is distinct from the rest.  Christ emphasizes the distinction that is housed in the church and desires that there will be a voluntary submission of the many toward one goal.

Christ strengthens the quality of this oneness with the next phrase—“just as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you that they also may be in us.”  This is where the Trinity returns.  Jesus, the Father, the Spirit—though they are the one true God, they exist with a distinction in personhood.  It is biblically wrong to say that there is one God who puts on three different masks—the mask of the Father, the mask of the Son, and the mask of the Spirit.  A thousand times, “No!”—although it is still taught in many places unworthy of the classification of “church.”  Jesus and the Father are distinct from one another in personhood, yet they form a cooperative hierarchy in relation to their roles.  They are equal in essence, distinct in personhood, and submissive in role. 

Jesus desires our relationships in the ministry to resemble his relationships in the Trinity.  What is this one goal toward which we voluntarily submit ourselves?  That we all are inside and do the will of the Father.  Just as Jesus was and did the will of the Father, the church is and does the will of the Father.  In our text it is summarized this purpose statement: “so that they world may believe that you sent me.”  Our message is not, “Go to church.”  Our message is “God sent Jesus to you; believe and receive this Jesus.”  If we are pointing the world to the church, then we are not doing our job.  If we are urging the world to engage in church rituals, then we have failed our main directive.  If we are soothing the world’s “ouchies” without declaring that “by his stripes we are healed,” then we are unfaithful stewards.  Unless our unity is a purposed unity toward the belief of the nations, it is not the unity for which Christ prayed.


II.            A Collective Unity without Inferiority (vs. 22)

Faster now; petition number two.  “The glory that you have given me I have given them, that they may be one even as we are one.”  The highlight of the first petition was the word, “all.”  The highlight of the second petition is the absence of the word “all.”  The first petition highlighted distinction.  The second petition highlights collective equality—“you” is taken as a collective unity, just as the Trinity is referred to as a collective, “we.”  Although the persons of the Trinity are individuals; they form one Godhead.

Glory is the sole possession of the Trinity without variation.  It is not proper to say that God has more intrinsic glory than the Spirit or the Son has less glory than the Father.  They are all the one true God.  There is not a plurality of gods.  There is submission but no inferiority of divinity.  They have equality in essence, distinction in person, submission in role.  So it follows: the church has equality in essence, distinction in individuality, submission in ministry task.  But the first of these is highlighted here—equality.  In the church, our equality is not an equality in essence with God, but with one another.  We are not gods nor will we ever become gods (like the Mormons teach).  We are humans.  But as the Lord’s special people, we are equally given a delegated aspect of his divine glory.  We are marked by his majesty whether we are a church in Rome or a church in Istanbul; whether we are in prison for our faith or in prison for our foolish decisions, whether our congregation is 65 people or 65,000 people—we all have the same delegated glory and the same standing before God.  We are not separate churches; we are one church.  We all plow one field.  We are all grafted into the one true vine.

True, we have been given different scopes of ministry; different particulars in ministry—but we are all equally given ministry.  Some serve in youth rooms, others serve in board rooms; but we all serve the same Master if we have taken his name by grace through faith.  Some have different gifts, some have different offices—but we all collectively participate in the same church set toward the same purpose.


III.           A Progressive Unity without Boundaries (vs. 23)

Petition number one highlighted our distinctions.  Petition number two highlighted our equality.  Petition number three highlights our progression.  “I in them, and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that that the world may know that you send me and loved them even as you loved me.”  

When we say we believe in the inerrancy and the infallibility of Scripture—which we do—we are saying that even down to the words themselves, that every word of Scripture is out-breathed by God himself.  God used human authors, but he maintains that he is the true source of all Scripture.  So when John switches from the verb “be” to the verb “become” we are subscribing to the idea that God moved God to make that switch for a reason.

I believe the verb switch is the distinction to take note of in this third petition—“that they may become perfectly one.”  To be one is important for those reasons that we have already mentioned—identity, personality, equality.  To become one is important for a different reason—progression.  We are declared one in Christ, but we must also become aligned to our oneness.  We are declared holy in Christ, but we must also become consistent with our holiness.  We are declared sons and daughters of God in Christ, but we must also become worthy of our calling.  We must strive toward the mature application of our unity in our lives and ministry.  This is superb—we must press on in our unity toward becoming perfectly united.  Not to achieve, but to understand all that we have already received.  Not to attain, but to appreciate all that we have already obtained.  “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).


IV.          An Actual Unity without End (vs. 24)

Now we are rolling!  Petition number four—the distinction is the word, “with.”  “[I pray that] they may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

If you glance back at the first section of this prayer, Jesus prays a prayer that only he can pray—“Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (vs. 5).  Notice that Jesus mentions the word “with,” the word “glory,” and the word “presence.”  He was eternally glorious.  He relinquished the external expression of that glory to become a man.  The hour has now come for him to replace that mantle of glory that was temporarily set aside.

In conjunction with verse 22—“The glory that you have given me, I have given to them”—we can see that Jesus believes his prayer has already been answered; or is as sure as answered that he can switch to the past tense.  Is Jesus in heaven yet?  Not physically but nevertheless actually.  He will be physically in heaven in a short, short time, but he has been given glory, importance, weightiness already.  This union is a time-defying, space-defying union that is and yet is not.  But all the while, it is actual.  Jesus wants this unity with the church and prays for it explicitly—“that they may be with me where I am, to see my glory.”  The purpose of this oneness is for the ultimate purpose of seeing and savoring the glory of Christ both now and then.

The church needs not to wait until death or rapture until it perceives the glory of Christ.  Just like Jesus need not wait until death and resurrection to regain his glory.  That will happen.  Just like death and the rapture will happen.  But the unity for which Christ prays can be a reality now, too.  It is an actual union with Jesus.  We can be “with” Jesus actually, really … long before physically, but certainly not at the expense of a physical union.  What a glorious thought, that we might perceive the glory of Christ with the eyes of faith now; long before our invisible faith becomes sight … that we can be “with” Jesus long before we see the pearly gates and receive our incorruptible bodies.


V.            A Relational Unity without Comparison (vv. 25-26a)

Petition five out of six takes a remarkably relational distinction.  “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you sent me.  I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that they love with which you have loved me may be in them.”

Right away, there is a clear distinction to this relational unity than all other relationships in this world fail to understand or rival.  The world does not know this biblical unity.  It knows uniformity.  It knows union.  It knows coalitions, confederacies, coordinations, and councils.  It knows tribalism, nationalism, racism, egotism, but it does not know the name above every name; the only name given under heaven whereby we may be saved.  But the church knows this name; we have taken it by faith as our very own family name. 

The relational distinction is wrapped around the word “love.”  The love that the Trinity eternally shares, Jesus prays into the church.  That relational, self-contained, given-but-undeserved love that marks the one true God—Jesus desires it to mark the church.  Even more so, to be “in” the church; inside … digested and filtered down to every single cell in the body of Christ … the love of God; the love beside which the world has no comparison.


VI.          A Christological Unity without Compromise (vs. 26b)

The first petition for unity highlighted the distinction of the individual.  The second petition highlighted the equality of the collective unit.  The third highlighted the progression to mature in this unity.  The fourth highlighted the actual union we can have with Jesus now; long before we stand in the physical presence of Jesus.  The fifth highlighted the relational bond we have with God that the world cannot understand or counterfeit.  The sixth and final petition highlights an uniquely christological union.

Five times, with minor—but significant—variations, the pronouns have been: that they, that they, that they, that they, that they.  In this sixth one, there is a switch: “I”—“[that] I [may] be in them.  It is accurate to say that the entire Trinity indwells the individual Christian, and the collective church.  But Jesus makes a personal appeal that he, himself—as a distinct person—might personally indwell the church in a special way.

We are in Christ, and through Christ in the fellowship of the Trinity.  But reverse that whole blessing and find a remarkable and unique aspect of our Christology—that Christ is in us as well, and through him the entire Trinity.  Paul will later grab this idea and write, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  There is no problem of bigger or smaller with this arrangement.  The God who is infinitely larger than the universe simultaneously indwells the heart of the singular believer and the unified church.  That blows my three-dimensional brain apart.

God takes unity very seriously.  He has gone through great lengths to expand his unity to include us.  He has taught decisively that we would expand our unity to include his purposes in world-wide ministry, his glory, his love, and himself.  Without unity in Christ we cannot know God or make God known among the nations.  Yet unity in and of itself is incomplete without mission.


We have been gifted with a comparatively large measure of unity, friends, here at Tucker Street Church.  It has been threatened and hard-fought to preserve in our history.  But it is here.  And now … now is the time to ask God how we ought to apply this unity we have been given; for an applied unity is a mature unity.