26 August 2015

Love One Another (Reprise) - 1Jn 4:7-12

Love One Another (Reprise) - devotional
1 John 4:7-12
August 23, 2015 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at

Love shows God.

Epiphany—the full-blown, sudden, marvelous (and I might add terrifying) appearance of God in our everyday lives—is rare.  If we were to add up all the times when God’s supernatural reality pierced into our natural existence, then we would have just a handful of occasions; an incredibly small fraction in comparison to the total number of “moments” we all experience.  Even throwing in the epiphanies that exist outside the record of Scripture, and still the number is incredibly small.  But that shows their potency—for, though an infinitesimal proportion, we remember them, talk about them, and celebrate them as milestones … even secondarily, the epiphanies of others become milestones for us.

Now in my life, I have never had a full-blown, sudden, marvelous appearance of God in my everyday life.  Some would call that grossly abnormal for a professing Christian and a pastor, while others would call that completely normal.  There have been two or three times when I was entirely paused, arrested, by the voice of the Spirit interrupting the internal conversation of my thoughts—and those are highly special and intensely personal.  But by and large, there is a monologue running in my mind instead of a dialogue. 

But the epiphany is more overt; more visual … more fantastic.  It is in a separate category by itself among other spiritual experiences.  Sometimes, it is even public where several people witness it at the same time—when God shows up in the room, in the boat, on the road, in the bush that burns but does not burn up.  That kind of epiphany doesn’t just change an individual, it changes history.

Coyly, I have heard people lightheartedly pray for such appearances as though such were an option in the spiritual vending machine if we just had enough coins in our pocket to call one out.  But of the epiphanies in Scripture when God showed up the result is not what I would ever describe as a pleasant release of endorphins or as euphoria where we turn around and exchange cosmic high-fives with one another.  The epiphanies that are recorded leave the humans who see them face down in the dirt, or disjointed from their normal characteristics, or utterly changed for the rest of their lives, or profoundly ashamed, or fundamentally humbled in that they never speak of the experience in detail because of its terror and majesty.  I thumb through some of these books people write about near death experiences or about being “taken” to heaven and I think, “Wow, when Paul was really taken to heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-4), he was forbidden by God to speak of it because of the gravity of the scene and the beauty of the one sitting on the throne.”  A mass-market paperback edition seems somehow an inappropriate showcase for such an experience.  All the same, epiphanies do exist.  In fact, we bank on the Epiphany of all epiphanies as the core of our message—God showed up in our everyday realm.  And only slightly less shocking than his arrival is mankind’s disinterest in him.

Okay, so here is the devotional thought for today on our final “one another” text of the summer—“love one another” (1 John 4:7, 12)—when we love one another, consistently and persistently, John teaches that we become a kind of epiphany … a mini-epiphany … to the world.  That ultra-rare appearance of God in the mundane of life, we kind of become.  And not once and done, but steady and constant we show forth God to the world; his being, his character of love, his redemption.  There is and will always be an infinite gap between all that Christ is versus all that we are called to be in Christ—after all, we are sons and daughters of God by derivation, but never the Son of God like Jesus is intrinsically.  So it is with us as we become mini-epiphanies of God to the people of the world—we are a sparkler; he is the sun.  But don’t lose the significance of this calling in the comparison—we are, in some small and limited sense, proof of God to a doubting world.  As we continue to love one another we, in some small and limited sense, make visible the invisible God to a love-starved humanity.  In some small and limited sense, we show the world Jesus.  As we continue to love one another we are proof—not in the empirical sense but in the spiritual sense—that God exists and that God saves sinners.

That’s it.  For today, that is it—one point.  And, believe me, that is enough for today … and a million more days to come.  But let me just show you where I found that application from the text.  Then, after I show you briefly the skeleton of this text, I want to give you the opportunity to respond.  I want us to share out loud the ramifications these “one another” statements are making in our lives.  For example, I want you to name the “one another” that has resonated most with you.  Or perhaps the opposite: the “one another” that continues to mystify you the most.  I want you to share the cross-reference that the Spirit of God brought to mind by studying the Top Ten “one anothers” in frequency.  I want you to announce the change that you sense the Holy Spirit is prompting.  Maybe there is a song that has become a rallying point for these “one anothers.”  Or maybe, I want you to think of the person you are going to mentor—if possible—about these “one anothers.”

I.          The Exhortation of Love (vv. 7-8)

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

John sets out the exhortation of love plainly—simply.  But love is never simplistic.  It is straightforward, but never shallow.  “Love one another”—incidentally is in the present tense, which is significant because it demands a continuous, on-going action.  It is not: well, I was loving on my wedding day, so I am off the hook now.  Unlike when the husband said to his wife who had complained that he doesn’t say “I love you” anymore, “Well, I said ‘I love you’ on our wedding day.  If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”  No, Christ’s love for us and therefore our love for one another is a continuous and repeated action.

John gives us several reasons why we must continue to love one another. (1) We must love one another because when we love we emphasize the fact that, since love is from God, then God is still accessible, still near, still “in business.” (2) We must love one another because when we love we demonstrate that we have been born again.  (3) We must love one another because when we love we also demonstrate that we do, in fact, know God.  (4) Inversely, we must love one another, because—if we consistently do not love—we give proof that overrides our words; proof that shows despite our many words to the contrary that we actually do not have a connection with God.  God hasn’t changed; he is love and he is truth.  When we are connected to him by faith, then his qualities flow through us.  It is the Christian’s hallmark—we resemble our father; both positively and negatively.

II.         The Example of Love (vv. 9-10)

9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

We, in miniature, resemble Jesus.  We are mini-incarnations of the love and truth of God.  Jesus was the absolute and perfect Incarnation of God.  We, in miniature, show forth God to a disbelieving world.  Jesus was the absolute and perfect Epiphany.  We, in miniature, make visible the invisible God.  Jesus absolutely and perfectly made visible the invisible God.

So, when we love one another, we are mobilizing love in the same manner that God the Father mobilized love.  God the Father sent forth his Son into the world so that the we might live through him.  So, God the Son sends forth us into the world so that they might live through him (not us; we direct all eyes to Jesus!).  Love is not a reward with God.  He gives love first to unlovely people.  He initiates love.  He pays love’s high cost.  So, when we love one another, we follow the same trajectory—we initiate love, we give love to unlovely people, we do not withhold love until it is deserved.  Love comes at a cost.  Love is misunderstood.  Love is considered weakness.  Love unnerves and exposes sinners so much so that they would rather kill love than receive love.  But that doesn’t makes love less valuable or less powerful.  Love is still worth giving because it is how God operates.  We resemble and follow his example.

III.        The Emphasis of Love (vv. 11-12)

11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

And lastly, we must love one another because we ought to love one another.  We get to.  We want to.  Not as a result of some strange guilt-trip.  We love because God has transformed us into lovers.  When we are related to God through Jesus Christ, we actually desire to show love the way he shows us love.  When we love one another, we make the invisible God who transformed us on the inside visible on the outside as well.  When this is happening—when we love one another consistently and persistently, then we show forth God.  We prove him. 

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as the old saying goes—well, the proof of the believing is in the loving.  If we have been redeemed, then we will love.  If we have only masqueraded as redeemed in word only but not in action as well, then we give proof that we are liars in our non-love.  That stings, but let it sting.  If the peroxide stings the wound, then it is cleaning it.  If yours is a mask-only Christianity, then exchange the mask for the real deal this very moment.  Stop posturing as a Christian.  Make it true!

Do you need proof first?  Do you need to see more before you commit?  Well, look around.  There are 70 mini-epiphanies all around you right now.  There are 70 mini-incarnations of God’s love showing forth evidence that God transforms lives.  And even more than this one small auditorium, there is and has been a steady, unbroken, persistent, consistent testimony that God exists, that God is love, that God is truth, and that God saves sinners in the church universal.  No one has ever seen God, but when the church loves one another, then we give visible evidence that God is here with arms wide open.  Love shows God.

18 August 2015

Serve One Another - Ga 5:13

Serve One Another
Galatians 5:13-15
August 16, 2015 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at with a conclusion featuring:

Use your freedom to set others free.

“O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”  I’ve sung our national anthem probably tens of thousands of times and yet I only just noticed that this climactic line at the end is a question.  A rhetorical question for us—presuming an affirmative answer.  Does the flag still wave?  Yes, for us.  But for Francis Scott Key, who witnessed the battle at Fort McHenry in the Baltimore Harbor during the British invasion in the War of 1812, the question was far less presumable.  Does the flag still wave today?  Are we still “the land of the free”?  Some might say no.

Freedom elicits a flood of patriotism and, for Americans, national pride.  Rightly so!  But the question of freedom, if removed from national interests, is a much misunderstood concept.  Consider three aspects: national, cultural, and then biblical.  Nationally we understand and define freedom to be independence from foreign control; throwing off the yoke of forced indentured servanthood to the English crown held in check by British cannons so that we might forge and pursue our own identity and interests.  But culturally, in the development of the concept of personal freedoms and individual rights—as opposed to national freedoms and inalienable rights—we have packed more and more definitions into that originally pristine concept of freedom.  So much so that if our “freedom nerve” were pressed today, we might likely yell out, “You can’t tell me what to do.”  “I know my rights.”  Or slightly more poetically, the typical American might pound the table and utter, “Hear! Hear!” whenever any version of William Ernest Henley’s yawp is repeated: “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.” (Invictus)—which was ironically penned by an Englishman in 1875, even so our use of the expression “Hear! Hear!” since it derives from English parliamentary procedure.  But the sentiment of personal autonomy that Henley captured has distilled into the American psyche—as well as most of the modern Western civilization.  We are “free” from all limits.

But biblical freedom is a much deeper well than the puddle of rugged individualism; it is much richer than our tantrums that demand things must go our preferred way.  Freedom, however, is not defined by mere absences: the absence of restrictions, the absence of bosses, the absence of inhibitions, or the absence of boundaries.  Freedom is not the removal of the taboos of sin or the decriminalization of crime but the power to obey.  Freedom is not limitless self-expression, but the place where goodness is unbridled from the presence or expanse of sin.  Freedom is not having the no masters, but the joy of serving the better Master—the best Master, Jesus, who operates in love and grace and elevates slaves to friends.

If it were not so blatantly sad, it would be humorous—Jesus both defines and applies freedom to a mixed crowd of supporters and detractors in John 8:31-36, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ They [who were currently occupied by a foreign military power and who had been enslaved several times in history] answered him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’”  Freedom is the adherence to truth, the power to obey, and the unequivocal attachment to the Son of God through belief where the constrains of Law are forever unshackled.  Freedom is a moral category far before it ever became a political or legal one.

But the place we need to go today is not just to the threshold of freedom; we need to go all the way through the house of freedom and out the other side.  We need to get to the why, the purpose, the aim of freedom.  Why were we given the gift of freedom?  How are we going to use the freedom with which we have been blessed?  What does it look like to apply biblical freedom in line with the Scriptures?  The answer might shock you.  The answer might sound downright “un-American.”  Or, maybe, the answer might propel you into a brand new direction for meaningful ministry in the name of Christ. 

We are set free in order to set others free.  Use your freedom to set other captives free.  The truly free ones will set aside their freedoms so that they can reach more, reach further, reach deeper in ministry.  That doesn’t make sense, Kevin!  Yes, you are right—to our Western ears with our Western values, the giving up of freedoms for the sake of someone else’s deliverance or growth sounds like bondage.  If we define freedom in terms of personal gratification, then yes—it does sound like bondage.  But if we define freedom in terms of the power to obey Jesus, then no—the surrendering of personal rights for the sake of rescuing other captives is not bondage … it is the diametric opposite of bondage.  It is limitless joy to lay down our lives for others in the name of Christ.  In Galatians 5, it is worded this way: “Serve one another” (vs. 13)—douleuo, which is the verb form of the word for slave, doulos.  Apply the freedom given to you in Christ, by Christ, to become servant-heartedly devoted to one another for the sake of Christ.  We diminish so that Christ’s glory might surge.

This servant model is completely foreign to the world’s way of doing life; for sure.  But it is normal for Christians to lay down their genuine rights for the sake of catalyzing others toward life, health, and growth.  After all Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and Timothy each did it.  Jesus, in fact, did it.  “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [protectively], but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [slave, doulos].  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).  There is no way to dress up or dilute down what Jesus did; the Son voluntarily became a slave.  Not just a servant in coattails and white gloves to handle the heirloom silver, but a slave.  A slave to the purposes of God; “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18).  The rescue mission demanded it.  He gave it … joyfully.  We follow him; this is his path and so it becomes our path as well.

“Serve one another.”  It is a sophisticated idea housed in just a handful of verses.  We have one of those verses for consideration this morning—Galatians 5:13 (cf John 13:14; Philippians 2:5).  This singular verse sits in a larger passage about the freedom we have in Christ—“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).  But in verse 13, a first glance, it looks like Paul is contradicting himself by saying, “For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”  Freedom, slave, and love are all in one verse.  This is why I spent some time explaining that freedom is not being able to do whatever we want to do; sans limitation.  That is not freedom at all but a new kind of bondage because we can easily use our rights wrongly.  What Paul teaches is not a contradiction in the slightest; it is a beautiful supplement and application of the blessed freedom we have received.  We must use our freedom in Christ to serve one another; freely posturing ourselves, as Christ did, as the slave for the dedicated purpose of advancing the gospel to more and more people. 

The outline for our singular verse is simple: (1) Our Possession of Freedom, (2) Our Application of Freedom, and (3) Our Multiplication of Freedom.  The exposition is brief.  The ramifications are great.

I.          Possession of Freedom (vs. 13a)

Freedom is our true possession.  It is our calling.  It is our characteristic that further distinguishes the gospel of grace from all other world religions.  The gospel of grace says, “Stop trying to please God.  Trust Jesus to please God on your behalf.”  Christ did please God entirely; so completely in fact that all who will simply receive by faith his perfect righteousness to stand in for their dreadful unrighteousness have the assurance that God will see them as he sees his own Son.  All other religions—even ones with crosses on the wall—that say, “Try harder so that you might one day please God” are ashy cadavers compared to the Resurrection and the Life—Jesus Christ. 

This is freedom—we can rest from our failed attempts to please God on our own.  In place of these exhausting attempts to please God on our own, we receive as a gracious gift Christ’s righteousness in exchange for our unrighteousness.  We repent from our failures in order to cling to Christ’s success with both hands of faith, so to speak.  Jesus is our only hope—and such “hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5).  This is biblical freedom—freedom from sin and freedom to approach God on the merits of Christ.

Paul’s enemies—enemies that had crept into the churches under the pretense of brotherhood—are subverting this truth at every chance.  They are poisoning the simply gospel with the heresy of all heresies—the heresy of “Christ plus.”  Christ is good, yes—they insist—but not good enough.  You must also add x, y, and z in order to please God.  But Paul—in one of the earliest books he writes in his writing ministry—gives blistering defense of the gospel of grace against this heresy calling false anything that suggests that Christ is insufficient to save sinners; a “non-gospel.”  You have to add dietary restrictions to Christ to please God—they say.  Absolutely not—says Paul—the law and its restrictions have been summarily fulfilled and its power has been set aside at the foot of the cross.  You have to become Jewish before you can become Christian—they say.  Absolutely not—says Paul—in Christ “there is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ” (3:28).  You have to add the ritual of circumcision to the gospel to please God—they say.  Absolutely not—says Paul—and because this is the tip of the spear at Galatia he leaves no ambiguity whatsoever—“I wish those who unsettle you [those who preach this “non-gospel” of circumcision] would [just go ahead and] emasculate themselves [botch the surgery]” (vs. 12).  If the truth sets you free, then the lie binds you up. 

The modern church has added multiple variations to this heresy, but while the choices for x, y, and z morph a little from one to the next, the heresy is unchanged at the root—“Christ plus.”  I have personally experienced—and you could add your own examples to mine—those who argue that you must, in order to please God, add to Christ’s finished work more rules: no dancing, no movies, no electronic music, long hair and long skirts for women, short hair and slacks for men, only using the old King James Version Bible, no fish on Friday, first communion, infant baptism, the gift of tongues, a personal commitment to soul-winning, confession to a priest, last rites, prayer to the saints/ancestors, praying certain rote prayers certain numbers of times, and a heap of good deeds “outweighing” the bad.

Some border on or fully step into cultic tendencies and go so far as to say that only one Bible teacher is acceptable, only one denomination is acceptable, only one school is acceptable, only one pastor is acceptable, only one magic hanky given by one televangelist is acceptable.  If anyone adds to what Christ accomplished through his death, burial, and resurrection any requirement or rule that must be fulfilled before you can be pleasing to God … or insists any prescription or procedure whereby you must comply to remain pleasing to God—he is preaching a bastard gospel. Reject such teaching and such teachers.  Why?  Because “you were called to freedom” (vs. 13a).  Anything “other” is not only unnecessary; it is dangerous to your faith and the faith of those in your spheres of influence.  The gospel is our emancipation proclamation from religion.

II.         Application of Freedom (vs. 13b)

But “freedom” is not a trophy to have neat and polished on the mantle; it is meant to be used.  Like an instrument—to treat it like a trophy will only cause it to deteriorate; it is meant to be played.  In fact, through the act of playing an instrument the instrument is kept supple, dynamic, and stable.  An unplayed instrument dries out, cracks, and loses the ability to hold tune or, eventually, make any music whatsoever.  Freedom that is not applied becomes less responsive, less dynamic.  Pretty soon it ceases be viable.

But the opportunity for using freedom is not one-sidedly positive.  Our text actually emphasizes the negative application for freedom.  We are free—but we have this propensity inside ourselves the Bible calls, “the flesh,” that likes to take good things and use them for corrupted purposes.  We have a level of expertise in living life on our own terms, for our own purposes, toward our own selfish interests—the flesh—that oozes into our freedom.  Instead of using our freedom from sin and the power to set others free, we can use our freedom to sin even more.  But the flesh is a liar—it promises life but delivers death.  It says—oh, you’ll feel more alive than ever if you just dabble in that sin, or if you just flirt with that person, or if you just cook the books a little for a bit of extra cash … but in the long term, all of those promises are lies.  They don’t bring freedom; they bring addiction.  They don’t make like easier; they make life harder for you and for all those you left in your wake.

We can use our freedom—our rights—wrongly.  Paul said, “I have just as many rights as any other Christian: the right to get married like the other apostles are married, the right to receive a salary like other ministers of the gospel receive a salary, the right to live where I want to live, the right to association with my kind of people, the right to avoid conflict with disagreeable and violent people.  But I have surrendered these genuine rights for the hope of setting more captives free by the gospel of grace.  I have freely enslaved myself to Christ’s mission.  I have reinvested my freedom toward the freedom of others.  Think of it like an inherited fortune—will you spend it on self, or invest it in others?

Listen to the weight of Paul’s gesture: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant [slave] to all that I might win more of them….  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 23).  And, having voluntarily placed himself under the yoke of servitude for the sake of Christ, Paul has the clout enough to instruct the runaway slave, named Onesimus, in his brief letter to Philemon, to go back to his master (vs. 15) … but not before calling Onesimus, “more than a bondservant, [but] as a beloved brother” (vs. 16).

III.           Multiplication of Freedom (vs. 13c)

And so finally, we have our imperative—our command: “but through love serve one another.”  As opposed to applying your freedom toward your own flesh patterns and favorite sins, instead we are urged through love to take the posture of a slave toward one another.  When freedom is present and love is activated, service is normal.  Self-service—although we use the term all the time in our convenient lifestyles—is an oxymoron in the biblical account.  Service is, by definition, others-focused.  But it is actually not service to others; it is service to Christ.  We are not slaves to other people.  We are slaves to Christ; he directs us toward others in his name, aligned with his example, and as his ambassadors.  But when we do this, we are multiplying freedom.  We are compounding exponentially freedom to more and more people in direct relationship to our willingness to forsake our freedom for Christian service of one another.  Like love, the more we give away, the more we find that we have.  It is upside-down, but so is our gospel!

Most of the Christian service that happens in this church, or in any church, is not contained inside the church building.  It is done in the home, in the workplace, in the waiting room, in the bleachers at the sports field.  Invest your freedom into service in all these places.  Continue to call that person up when she is not feeling well enough to come to church.  Continue to send those birthday cards.  Continue to post those Christ-honoring status updates on Facebook.  In a million ways, spread service of Christ far and wide.  It is my life’s calling to help you minister in the thousand varieties that are unique to you.  The leaders in the church equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12)—this is your reasonable service, not to be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1-2).

The neighbors will not understand it.  The extended family will not understand it.  Most in the church will not understand it.  It is a paradox—that the volunteer slave is the only one who is truly free.

I believe the best way to drive this home is with an almost unbelievable gesture of two sons who became slaves for the sake of setting the captives free through the gospel of grace.  Let me leave you with this testimony; this story from history—the voluntary enslavement of two young men to the Lord’s mission: Johann Dober and David Nitshmann in Herrnhut, Germany, 1732.  They are the first missionaries sent out by the Moravians that inspired, perhaps, all of what we call the modern missionary movement.  Some of the details are hard to document but not enough to silence the testimony of these two volunteers.  Watch this video and song——with these two questions on your mind and heart: (1) Are you using your rights wrongly?  (2) Are you using your freedom to set others free? 

11 August 2015

Build Up One Another - 1Th 5:1-11

Build Up One Another
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
August 9, 2015 – Kevin Rees - audio file unavailable

Be and live in a state of supernatural enlightenment; build it into others also.

“If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.”  Yes, it is a cliché, but true nonetheless.  There is constructive criticism and then there is a critical spirit.  What is the difference?  The difference is found both the motive and in the purpose; the “why?” and the “what for?”  Ah, but motive and purpose are so slippery and hard to pin down in others; not to mention in ourselves.  Why did I point out all the typos in the overheads on Sunday?  What was my motive in counting them?  What is my purpose in pointing them out?  It is to construct or to destruct?  It is not about accuracy; it is about “the why?”  Am I trying to get someone in trouble or out of trouble?  Am I trying to bind a captive or free a captive?  Am I aiming for Christ to receive all the glory due his name or for me to get a sliver of recognition for myself?”  Slippery and tricky—but the ripples of this pebble thrown in the water expand far and wide!

In the church criticism, without putting the other person’s best interest in mind, is destructive.  There is no spiritual gift of criticism.  There is a spiritual gift of helps; of encouragement—but all Christians are called to “build up one another.”  While it is true that encouragement can come as both admonition (pointing out a weakness) or affirmation (pointing out a strength)—which are both well represented in the biblical account—all expressions of the spiritual gifts put the other person’s best interest, growth, safety, maturity, awareness, and readiness in sight.  The fine line between the construction and the destruction of one another comes down to motive and purpose; the “why?” and the “what for?”

Speaking of construction and constructive criticism toward the genuine well-being and character development of other people reminds me of a time when both concepts intersected my life at the same instant.  I was maybe 10 years old and my buddies and I were building a wooden fort.  Where we got the lumber and nails, I have no idea … although I clearly remember when one of those nails pierced through my friend’s sneaker that earned him the joy of a tetanus booster … but we took this fort-building seriously.  We had built the walls and were trying to figure out how to build a roof when we took a lunch break.  While on lunch break the mother of the friend in whose yard we were building this edifice peeked at our project and snickered.  She quickly proceeded to probe into our career aspirations, hoping to find something to tease.  Unsuspectingly and halfway proud of our work on the fort, I answered that I aspired to be an architect.   She cackled, “Ha!  You better rethink your life, Kevin, if that fort is any indication of your career as an architect.”

Well, I did rethink my life but instead of a career in construction I now have a vocation of edification.  I am an architect of sorts; building up disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ … not because of her snarky remarks but in spite of them.  Her loss, really—she could have encouraged a tender soul but she chose to seize upon the pleasure of cutting a 10 year-old down in front of his buddies.  I have never forgotten this moment, but she probably never even slowed down to check for potential fall-out.  One thing for sure happened, though—I never again let my guard down in front of her and quite frankly, though it is never so one-dimensional, I grew a little more distrusting of all authority figures in my life.  In fact, “You better rethink your life,” has been a sentence that has re-emerged several times in my years.  But they have become a “tell” of the enemy.  I recognize and disregard them far more quickly now than then.

The impact of criticism—not sourced in a motive of goodwill, nor aligned with the purpose of nurturing the well-being of the other person, but for the elevation of self—helps illustrate the very wide difference between building up and tearing down someone else.  Of course, there is “a time to break down and a time to build up” (Ecclesiastes 3:3), but in God’s economy even the temporary breaking down is governed by a higher, better, longer motive and purpose of future up-building.  There does come a time when God says, “because they do not regard the works of the Lord…he will tear them down and build them up no more” (Psalm 28:5)—but this is a judgment for God to make for there is a point of no return, which sadly exists in our rebellious attitudes in the face of grace (cf Romans 1:24).  

In all fairness, I might not remember this fort episode from over thirty years ago in full accuracy.  But cutting criticism rarely looks ahead to any long term ramifications.  [If the ramifications are calculated by the assailant, then the action only devolves from selfishness nto premeditated malice.]  Nevertheless, the difference between building up and tearing down is found in the motive behind the action and the purpose ahead of the action—the “why?” and the “what for?”  Paul is calling us to inspect our hearts with regard to this building ministry—not of forts, but of people; of disciples.  From the outside looking in, I cannot read the motive or the purpose of another person’s actions or attitudes.  Only that person and Jesus can.  So far as it involves me, I want to be on the solution side of life.

Our passage today puts the example first and the “one another” statement last.  Paul does what he instructs the church to do before telling them his core teaching—“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (vs. 11).  So, let’s take it backwards, since verses 1-10 only illustrate verse 11.

Building up one another is actually a robust theme throughout the Scriptures.  Although it is techinically only coupled with “one another” twice in the New Testament (Romans 14:19 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11), it reaches all the way back to Genesis.  Interestingly, when God made Eve (Genesis 2:22) out of Adam’s rib the Greek text says that he built her—oikodomeo—the same word that we showcase today.  When the prophet looked forward to Messiah’s arrival in Jerusalem and the apostles looked back, they lamented as well as rejoiced—“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 21:42; 1 Peter 2:7).  This, too, is the same word—oikodomeo.  Jesus’ enemies were perplexed at the metaphor of building up in terms of people—they were bound to the physical realm and therefore repeatedly balked, “‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’  But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:20-21).  Yet, the metaphor of building was not lost on Peter.  He whose faith elicited Jesus’ famous promise, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail” (Matthew 16:18) wove the same metaphor into his own epistle years later—“You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

So the metaphor remains for us today to enjoy, to observe, to internalize, and to flesh out—are we building up one another the way that we were built up by Jesus into his spiritual house?  Are we building up or tearing down on the everyday level of each individual relationship in the church?  Thoughts, words, deeds, as well as our inner motives and our purposed targets—on the level of “why?” and “what for?”  Are you building up or tearing down—not forts, not church programs, but people; disciples of Jesus? 

Whenever there is a genuine “one another,” there is always a shadow “one another” nearby.  Jesus clues us in to the building projects of the false.  He names the Pharisees as hypocrites who build not people, but “tombs” of human tradition and law (Matthew 23:29).  Paul who formerly populated that Pharisaical crowd knows the bondage of building a façade of life that only masks death.  Perhaps that is why he can spot it in the enemies that dog him everywhere he goes.  But he unmasks them and reminds himself, “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.  For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:18-20).

Well, if we are going to be a people that build up, then we need a plan.  We need an understanding of people—of ourselves and of others.  We need to inspect our site, build on the foundation of Christ and his word, remove barriers, solve problems, use quality building materials, apply skill, and train others.  Paul is doing this.  Even in the act of writing this letter, he is doing exactly what he calls the church to do.  He is encouraging and building up others.

In this particular church in Thessalonica, there was intense suffering and persecution.  The church was young but was enduring intense trials because of the faith they now embrace.  And, it is not a surprise, that with intense suffering there is intense interest in and longing for the day when Jesus will return to right every wrong and settle every score.  So, Paul writes to encourage them; to build them up in the truth.  They have erred in their reaction to suffering to the point of fatalism and isolationism; some will go so far as to quit their jobs in their sophomoric zeal to await the Lord’s return.  Paul will have to deal with that in 2 Thessalonians, but for now he is careful to remind them of what they are doing well.  He has already instructed them about something they have misunderstood about theology in chapter 4, but in chapter 5, he is reminding them of what they have well-understood—“the day of the Lord” (5:2)—and repeating what they have already well-received—the need to “keep awake”; to remain vigilant.

While we breeze through this particular issue, which was localized to this congregation, please see Paul’s treatment of their situation with both encouragement and building up.  He is doing exactly what he calls them to do because frankly, it is not enough for the apostle to encourage and build up; all the church needs to embrace this as their motive and their purpose; their “why?” and their “what for?” 

Paul does not berate them for misplaced zeal.  Paul does not belittle them for inaccurate theology.  Paul does not bemoan what “might have been” if they were just a little bit wiser, bolder, or stronger.  No!  Paul figures out where they are, metaphysically speaking, joins them, and helps them take one step closer to Jesus.  He affirms their victories.  He fortifies their weaknesses.  He shows them what it looks like to be on the solution side of life instead lingering too long on the problem side.

I.          Awareness of the Lord (vv. 1-5)

1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.

Paul continues his various lessons on the end times, but shifts from what happens to when a believer dies (which is happening in Thessalonica because of persecution), to the immanency of the end times—“the times and the seasons” (vs. 1)  We, like they, are in the end times.  There is nothing that needs to happen in the prophetic chronology before Jesus returns.  They get this point already, and Paul affirms them—“you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (vs. 2).  By repeating verses from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24, Paul reminds them of an established truth—“While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come…and they will not escape.”  Sometimes … many times … we don’t need a new teaching; we need an formerly taught lesson to be repeated.  The Lord knows who is a good guy and who is a bad guy; God will settle all scores.  In times of intense suffering that is supremely comforting to hear again.

But Paul expands that idea to the level of identity—God will take care of his own.  Listen to the tenderness, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.  For you are all children of light, children of the day.  We are not of the night nor of the darkness” (vv. 4-5).  It is cryptic language from our perspective, but for those in that congregation, they know exactly what and who Paul is talking about.  We live in a world that shies away from labeling people and movements as evil, but Paul does not.  We have children’s books that ideologically include no villain anymore because we want to believe on a societal level that no one is inherently evil, but that is not the case.  There are those who are of the day and there are those who are of the night.  This has nothing to do with skin color or political party or socio-economic strata; it has everything to do with those who are in the kingdom of God and those who are against the kingdom of God.  There is no middle ground.

But don’t be fooled; all of us who find ourselves in the kingdom of God through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ were formerly against the kingdom of God.  If it were not for the merciful rescue operation of the Jesus to invade our planet, pay our penalty, and open the door to the Father, then we would still be an enemy combatant to the living God.  So none of this is reward; it is all grace.  Those who are of the night are not our enemy; night is our enemy.  The people who are still captives of the night, although they are willing participants in the activities of the night, are not our enemies even if they think that we are their sworn enemies.  Our enemy is Satan, his lies, and the corrupt world system built in opposition to Christ.  But these very people who kill us, who threaten us, and who tear us down are the very ones we want to see “delivered…from the domain of darkness and transferred…to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13)—just as we were transferred.

Paul is issuing his clarion call to us, for us, to remember who we really are in Christ.  “You are all children of light; children of the day.”  Oh, how I desire for us all in the church to heed this call to know our identity.  In fact, I so desire it that I am convinced that God is leading me to take the fall to preach and teach toward it specifically—more structured information will come shortly.  But Paul is affirming their awareness of the Lord in the church at Thessalonica.  Next Paul will fortify their readiness in the body.

II.         Readiness in the Body (vv. 6-11)

6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

“So, then,” indicates an application.  “Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep away and be sober.  For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night.  But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (vv. 6-8).  The basis for our behavior is rooted in our identity.  We can never reverse that flow; we never behave our way into a new identity.  We can never do enough good so as to become good.  We are declared good in Christ and therefore do good.  We are given a new identity and that identity demonstrates into our behavior.  We tend to show in our lifestyle whether we are day people or night people.  Like the psalmist of old says, “Those who make idols become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:8)—we resemble that to which we bow down.

I am always surprised when people think this is somehow about light skin or dark skin.  This has nothing at all to do with skin!  (Neither does any verse in the Bible!)  The day/night contrast has to do with allegiances.  We show our loyalties in our lifestyle.  If we are God’s people, then we tend to show it in our on-going behavior.  If we are anti-God people, then we tend to show it in our on-going behavior.  Of course there are isolated sins for the children of God and isolated bursts of kindness for the children of the devil, but the overwhelming evidence of long-patterned lifestyles will show where our loyalties lie.  We can and should observe external “fruit,” but only God can see the heart and bring judgment.

But friends, this is a battle!  There is real armor.  There is true danger.  There is live ammunition.  We are fools to forget this.  This is not cultural Christianity that flits from Sunday school to Sunday service to Wednesday night prayer meeting without cause for concern.  No way!  This is war.  Only the spiritually immature or the spiritually deluded can remain in the illusion that evil and enemies no longer exist.

“But God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (vv. 9-10).  Notice still how Paul continues to use “us” and “them” language.  This dichotomy is not politically correct in modern America, but it is the biblical worldview—humans are either in Christ the Blessed One, or in Adam and therefore still subject to the curse.  But notice also this important truth—“whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”  This is a different word for sleep that that which was used in chapter 4, which was a euphemism for the death of a believer.  For the believer in Christ the cessation of a heartbeat is not the cessation of life—therefore, we merely sleep who die in the Lord.  Here in chapter 5 a synonym is used—a figure for readiness and awareness to the ways of God.  We can be children of the day who are alert or children of the day who are not alert, but either way we are children of the day.  The identity question has been settled.  Our alertness does not form a prerequisite for our identity as children of the day.  In other words, while alertness is always valuable and consistent with our identity, we aren’t going to be “kicked off the team” if we fail in our level of alertness.  This goes a long way in the solid biblical teaching of the security of our salvation; it is something we cannot lose due to poor performance.  But—as Paul teaches—if we never live in a way that is consistent with salvation; never bear fruit, then Paul is quick to encourage us to examine ourselves to see whether or not we are born again; whether or not we are “in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

And so, full circle, we come back to our “one another” for the day—“Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you are doing.”  “Keep it up!  You’re on the right road.  You’re going the right direction.  Yes, there is still work and improvement to do, but you are doing well.”  But Paul is not there physically.  He has to write a letter from another location.  Therefore it is necessary that they continue this ministry of encouragement and up-building “on the ground,” so to speak.

The application is easy to see—are we building up one another; encouraging one another?  Or are we tearing down one another?  Are we constructing our brothers and sisters with pure motives and toward the Lord’s purposes in their lives?  Or are we destructing our brothers and sisters for selfish motives; even if those motives and purposes are hidden to all eyes but the Lord’s.  If applicable, this is the place for repentance if impure motives are detected.  If applicable, this is the place for forgiveness if selfish purposes are pulled into the light.  May we be people of the day; children of the light who take seriously our brothers’ and sisters’ spiritual condition.  May we build one another up, but also keep an eye out for those who might want to tear one another down.  May we speak up, even stir up, the church to this! 

04 August 2015

Forgive One Another - Co 3:13

Forgive One Another
Colossians 3:13
August 2, 2015 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at

Forgiveness for others is an overflow of the grace of God given to us through Jesus Christ.

If asked to name the most heinous atrocities committed by humans against other humans, most will name those acts committed by Third Reich of Nazi Germany.  No doubt there are and have been other equally evil individuals and groups of people in China, Russia, Japan, Iraq, Iran, and even here in the United States of America—I shudder to include this month’s revelations about Planned Parenthood’s industry of selling baby parts among history’s most evil atrocities.  But none except perhaps Stalin’s Russia can begin to rival the scope and cruelty of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and 40s where 12 million were murdered under the cold, calculated, demonic banner of Nazism.

Yet from that dark chapter in human history in one of the small nations near the epicenter of that ideological maelstrom emerges one of the brightest examples of human forgiveness.  Corrie ten Boom and her family, who were Christian in more than name only, risked their lives to house and shelter Jews in their Holland home.  But their “crimes” were discovered and young Corrie and her sister Betsie were shipped off to the death camp of Ravensbrück, Germany.  There Corrie watched many, including her sister, die.

After the war, in 1947, Corrie felt compelled by God to return to Germany with the message that God forgives.  She recalls in her book, Tramp for the Lord, the core of her message (pp. 53-55).  “When we confess our sins, God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.  And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, ‘NO FISHING ALLOWED.’”

She tells how, at one evening service, she saw the solemn faces staring back at her, not quite daring to believe.  “And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others…one of the most cruel guards [from Ravensbrück].” 

“A fine message, Fraulein!  How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” […]  “He did not remember me…one prisoner among those thousands of women…but I remembered him.  I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.”

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk.  I was a guard there.  But since that time I have become a Christian.  I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fraulein—[and] the hand came out—will you forgive me?”

That moment, right there, is where I want to linger this morning—forgiveness.  Not an irritability over losing a parking spot to a zippy sports car, but the awful ache of true and heavy personal loss because of the active sins of another.  Not mistakes.  Not misgivings.  Not miscues.  But the fall out of full-on malice.

What about forgiveness for those who have sinned against us?  This is today’s “one another.”  Perhaps you were hoping that I would skip this one and stick with the fun ones like love and encourage one another.  But no list of “one anothers” is complete without “forgive one another.”  I know of no other element in the Christian life that causes more grief, more confusion, more anguish than this.  But no other element in the Christian life is more Christian, more Christ-like, more Christ-glorifying than this. 

Just as we cannot know Christ truly without receiving his forgiveness, we cannot show forth Christ fully in our relationships without re-gifting his forgiveness to one another.  This is the nexus of the gospel.  Our decision to forgive others is directly linked to our decision to receive God’s forgiveness to us through Jesus Christ.  If there is a disconnect here, then there is a fundamental disbelief in the essential nature of the gospel.  So, take a deep breath.  Here we go into the awful/wonderful place of forgiveness where we fear to go, but desperately need to go.

So let’s take out our microscope today and inspect this thirteenth verse of Colossians 3 for the purpose of edification of the saints and glorification of God.  It unfolds with a structure of its own, pivoting upon three little/big words: “if,” “as,” and “so.”  “If one has a complaint against another forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (vs. 13).

I.          Forgiving One Another (vs. 13a)

The church at Colossae, though small, is nonetheless divided.  I appreciate how Paul does not reserve his passionate teachings for only the larger congregations, but devotes himself to the smaller congregations as well.  We who are of the small church type may not be often represented at the national conferences or in the big city publishing houses, but we have the watchful eye of the apostles in the majority of the epistles.  For there is nothing that happens at a large church that does not also happen at a small church—good or bad—since people are people and the gospel of grace is the gospel of grace.

But Colossae is divided; wrangling over traditions because of false teachers that slither their way into the assembly and hiss their accusations, “Did God really say?”  “Did Paul really mean?”  “What about all this other evidence of God’s activity outside the parameters of the Bible—doesn’t that count for something, too?”  And what was being considered as authoritative was a mongrel gospel that borrowed a little from Judaism, a little from paganism, a little from philosophy, a little from something that will soon become Gnosticism, and a little from Paul.  But Paul cuts to the heart of the matter and rings the warning bell for Colossae—“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).  [So also do we need to hear that warning today!  Even more so, perhaps.]

But that act of pressing in by the false teachers into the soft wax of young faith has caused an interpersonal rift in the assembly.  People have been hurt, manipulated, twisted, and turned.  But there are no other churches to go to; this is the only one in the region.  They have to find a way to get along.  In that vein, then, Paul says, “And if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.”

It is important to realize that the first little/big word “if” governs this first part of our verse.  Not everything calls for forgiveness.  Remember that “love is not easily offended” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  Also remember that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).  There is a general call for tough-skin in the Christian world.  This is not practiced often.  I see a whole lot of paper-thin skin; irritation that is felt and recorded in the ship’s logbook for later retaliation; that escalates to the level of personal attack and moral offense often before the offending party even knows there is a problem.  That being said, there are times when sin is undeniable and necessitates forgiveness.  But not all irritabilities count; thus the “if.”  Only if there is a genuine cause for blame or complaint do we have to stop everything else and walk through the process of forgiveness.

So here, within that caveat of “if,” we have forgiveness staring back at us in the face.  When it cannot be set aside we must “charizomai” each other—a fascinating word that is here translated as “forgive.”  It is not the usual word for forgive; which is root idea of removal or release of debt (Gr. aphiemi), but unique to Paul is his use of the word “charizomai” as a synonym of “forgive.”  In other contexts, this word “charizomai” means to bestow grace.  God graces us (charizomai) through Jesus Christ by freely granting what we do not deserve.  We grace one another through Jesus Christ in the same way.  Grace (charis) is activated toward undeserving people (charizomai) through and for the sake of Jesus Christ.  We won’t have time to get into it here, but the end of this passage talks about thanksgiving, which is another use of this same word, grace/charis.  God graces us (charizomai) with his grace (charis), we return thanks (eucharistomai) with worshipful thankfulness (eucharistos).  Notice that “charis” becomes one of our words for the communion celebration: the Eurcharist—the returning of grace through thanksgiving to the giver of grace in the act of worship.  It is what I sometimes call the Cycle of Grace: charis à charizomai à eucharistos à eucharizomai.  The middle of the Cycle of Grace is giving and receiving forgiveness.

But in the context of interpersonal relationships, we forgive each other—we bestow grace to one another—actively, continuously, repetitively.  All of this theology was rumbling through Corrie ten Boom’s mind when the Ravensbrück guard extended his hand to her asking for forgiveness as her blood froze.  All that she had shared about the forgiveness of God given to undeserving sinners now impacted her conversation with her captor.  What will she do?  What would you do?  What must we all do?

II.         As the Lord has Forgiven You (vs. 13b)

“If one has a complaint against another, forgiving one another; as the Lord has forgiven you.”  The second little/big word that governs our verse of consideration is, “as.”  This is our motive and reason as well as our manner and method.  We are to forgive one another as—in the same manner—the Lord has forgiven all of us.  Wow, that is a tall order!

To err is human, so the saying goes, but to forgive is divine.  We are called to … expected to … commanded to forgive each other just as God forgave us through Jesus Christ.  This is perhaps why Paul repeats his otherwise unusual synonym for forgive—charizomai—because we are not talking about a human category or even a human capacity.  Forgiveness is a divine act that we have to apply to our interpersonal relationships as God gives us power.  Paul, in repeating this word “charizomai,” is reminding us that we are completely dependent upon God for forgiveness just as we are completely dependent upon God for salvation.  We are not the source or the destination of grace or forgiveness.  All of God’s gifts come to us through Jesus Christ, but they are never meant to stop with us.  They must flow through us to others and ultimately back to God again (remember the Cycle of Grace).  If I refuse to relay this forgiveness down the line, then I demonstrate that there is a short circuit in my own heart; in my own reception of God’s forgiveness to me.

So, how—in what manner—does God forgive us through Jesus Christ?  Paul just gave us a pristine explanation of that process in Colossians 2:13-14a.  Look back one chapter with me.  “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven (charizomai) us all our trespasses (past, present, and future) by canceling the record of debt that stood against us.”

In the ancient word there was little paper as we know it in the modern sense.  Sometimes there were expensive rolls of papyrus fiber, but more commonly records were written on vellum (skins).  Apparently this thing, this “record of debt” was an official certificate of debt in the commercial world that was signed by the owner of the debt; a running ledger of how much is owed.  “I, K.R., attest that J.D. borrowed $100 from me on July 1, owes a parking ticket for $20 on July 15, missed an interest payment of $5 on July 31, etc.”  But even more than financially, there were also formal lists of criminal charges written against the accused—“J.D. was arrested for tampering with the scales at the local wheat market in April and released on bond, he failed to appear before the judge in May, skipped town when the police came to inquire about his location in June, and broke the arm of a constable when they finally tracked him down in July.”  Sometimes these rap sheets were hung around the criminal’s neck when they were punished or hanged.  But when the debts were paid; the ledger on this legal “record of debt” would be blotted out or a nail would be driven through the certificate to indicate payment and summarily set aside as “finished.” 

Famously in the case of Jesus, the charges were written on a placard for the public to read which was nailed to the cross of his crucifixion—“Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews” in three languages: Latin, Greek, and Aramaic (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).  It is no accident that Jesus’ final cry on the cross was this very word used in the commercial and the legal settings for a debt to be finished and formally set aside—“It is finished” (tetelestai) in John 19:30.  Jesus became our “record of debt” who was nailed to a cross when full payment was made.

So Paul’s description of forgiveness in Colossians 2:14 jumps to life—answering for all time the question of “How?” How did God forgive us all our sins?  “By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”  Our list of debts—moral, legal, emotional, eternal—were not ignored, but paid in full by Jesus Christ’s.  Though he was innocent, and even personally sinned against, he bestowed grace to us by assuming our debt and accepting our charges.  We are forgiven, released and justified because God’s wrath, justice, and holiness were satisfied in Christ. 

This is how we must forgive each other.  We release each other from our debt of sin because Jesus already paid the price.  There is no repayment plan.  There is no pre-assessment of worthiness; no CreditKarma®.  There is no guarantee that this sublime gift will be fully appreciated.  It is a gift of grace—the release of our sin debt—based on the goodness of the forgiver not the forgiven.

Corrie ten Boom’s story continues to parallel our passage.  “And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive.  Betsie had died in that place.  Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?”  Do we have forgiveness from God simply for the asking?  Yes.  Gulp.

III.        So You Must Forgive (vs. 13c)

“If one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (vs. 13).  The first portion is governed by the “if,” the second by the “as,” whereas the third is governed by the “so.”  The continuation of this Cycle of Grace that releases us from our sin debt with God must carry on through us into our relationships in the church.  There is a necessary application of forgiveness for each other that corresponds to the method of our forgiveness we received from God.

You say, “But I’m not God.  I can’t forgive like God.”  That’s true.  But the good news is that now you can forgive like God if you have been forgiven, because he has changed you into a new person by and through his gift of forgiveness.  And what’s more is that he is with you, in you, before you, and behind you.  Truly, it is he who is waiting to forgive through you.

Incidentally, we don’t forgive others because of the health benefits that occur after we forgive.  We don’t forgive others because of the relief we will feel in the act of forgiveness.  We don’t forgive in order to gain the admiration of the onlookers.  We don’t forgive in some sort of quid pro quo arrangement that wrongly bargains for favors with favors. Christ’s forgiveness is reason and power enough for us to forgive those who sin against us. 

Forgiveness is not forgetting, not pardoning, not excusing, not ignoring, not minimizing, not condoning what someone else did.  In fact, forgiveness in the Christian sense takes sin far more seriously than even the sinners and the victims of sin ever do, because those sins put God’s Son on the cross and into the grave and interrupted the otherwise uninterrupted fellowship between the Father and the Son.  But forgiveness is the gift of release of debts.  Forgiveness is demonstrative of the new life we have been given in Jesus.  And, whatever else might be said about forgiveness, forgiven is normal for the Christian.  It is should not be rare; although it is. 

Does that mean that we just lie down as doormats and let people in the church walk all over us?  Of course not!  Was Jesus a doormat?  Never!  Jesus showed a new kind of strength in mercy.  Jesus gives a new kind of confidence in humility.  When we release another’s debt, we are actually deferring all judgment over all sin to the court of Christ—and he never misses a case or fails to deliver justice.  When we decide to forgive others as we have been forgiven, we are saying that Jesus can handle all that he or she or they did to me the same way that Jesus handled all that I did to him.  

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that I don’t call the cops when a crime is committed.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t give witness in court that locks someone up.  It doesn’t mean I have to say, “Yes,” to anything that is asked of me.  On the contrary, forgiveness understands best that all debts must be paid by someone at some time.  But as far as it depends upon me, I will do whatever I can—within faith, without surrendering love or truth or obedience to the truth—to live at peace with everybody (Romans 12:18).  I pass along this debt to Jesus in the full belief that he has already made payment for it and all sin.

Forgiveness is not given because of the worthiness of the recipient, but because of the decision of the giver to live in line with God’s character.  We ask by faith on the merits of Christ for forgiveness and God forgives us.  We ask other or others ask us for forgiveness, and we believe on the merits of Christ that the forgiveness that was given to us is sufficient to extend through us to one another.  We are not reinventing the wheel, but allowing that wheel to keep on rolling. 

When we realize, I mean truly realize, that apart from Christ we are completely bankrupt, completely offensive, completely guilty without excuse and without covering before our Creator and God.  Yet our God did not condemn us as would have been completely warranted.  Instead, he allowed our guilt, shame, and death sentence to fall on his own Son.  That whoever will believe that this great exchange took place at the cross of Christ’s suffering; that it extends to any who will reach out and receive this gift of grace in the belief that there is no other hope under heaven given among men by which we can be saved—then it is ours. 

When we really get that, we will have access to this reservoir of Christ’s grace that we never before even knew existed; grace enough for us, for our debts, and even for the debts that others have against us and we have against them.  I believe that if we as Christians do not forgive others in the church (and beyond) it is because we have not rightly understood the depravity of our own heart and the fatal effects of our sin upon our eternal standing before a just God.

So back to Corrie ten Boom in 1947, in her frozen moment when her captor asked for forgiveness.  But know this first: we nearly automatically think of ourselves in terms of Corrie.  But no!  Primarily, we must understand ourselves in terms of the Ravensbrück guard standing before her with indelible blood on our hands.  When we remember that that was our status and state in the universe before God—completely guilty, despised, and cruel; when we remember what God did through Christ to forgive us in his mercy and reconcile us to himself by his grace, then we will not fail to give to others that which we have received: the grace that supplies forgiveness to the sinner.

Corrie writes and we conclude with this:

“I had to do it—I knew that.  […]  And [yet] I still stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.  But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too.  Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.  ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently.  ‘I can lift my hand.  I can do that much.  You supply the feeling.’  And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust out my hand into the one stretched out to me.  And as I did, an incredible thing took place.  The current that started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands.  And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.”

“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried.  ‘With all my heart.’  For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner.  I have never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.  But even then, I realized, it was not my love.  It had tried, and did not have the power.  It was the power of the Holy Spirit.”