Jesus: Creator, Savior, King (Colossians 1:15-20 NIV)

I had another follow up to my recent sinus surgery. While sitting in the office, my ear-nose-throat specialist said, “You know, I’m honored you’d come to me, because I haven’t really ever studied the nose.” What??? On the way home from that awful appointment, my brakes started squealing so I pulled into a mechanic for a checkup. After a quick tune-up, the mechanic said, “Thanks for your business! I’ve never done brakes before!” What??? I was almost home but was ready for lunch so I pulled into a fast food joint for a quick bite. I ordered a sandwich off the menu, and the cook said that he was too busy watching YouTube videos on sinus surgeries and automotive brakes to make one for me. Okay, obviously a false story. ENTs must know noses. Mechanics must know brakes. Cooks must know sandwiches. And Christians must know Jesus.

Last week, Bob Davies gave the elder team a challenge at his last meeting with us before he pursues some new ministry opportunity, and he shared a statistic he had read that the majority of Christians do not understand that Jesus was also God. This is a really important truth to get wrong. In order to be Christ-centered, we have to know Christ. We have to know about Him and we have to know Him really well. In fact, it’s the one thing all Christians should know well! If we don’t, we shouldn’t even call ourselves Christian. We’re covering difficult concepts today, but you can handle it…you need to handle it!

We’re at the start of a new teaching series–called Orienteering–in the New Testament letters to the Colossians and Philemon. Orienteering as a wilderness survival skill is the art of arriving successfully at your destination even if you can’t see the final destination. If you deviate even slightly from the compass’s leading, you will end up miles from your end goal. Trees, rivers, mountains, and valleys stand in your way, but carefully following the compass always leads you in the right direction.

Life and church are a lot like this. On the one hand, Jesus orients us in ways that are true and good, but other stuff deters and disorients. Getting things just a little bit wrong can throw our journey off by a mile. In other words, it’s easy to get lost! Jesus, like a compass needle in the middle of a vast wilderness, orients all people in all times and all places to what is absolutely true and good.

Try this experiment: Pick an important responsibility you have, relentlessly ask the question “why?” until you get to the bottom motivation, and see if you find Christ there. Maybe you have kids. Why did you have children to begin with? You might answer, “I always wanted kids.” Well, why? “I thought it would be fun” or “I wanted to watch them grow up” or “I wanted someone to need and depend on me.” Ah! See how far we can get from Jesus? A Christ-centered motivation for having children is the desire to raise and disciple them to follow Jesus. Sure, there can be many other joys that come with it, but, at bottom, it is all about sharing the love and truth of Jesus with them. If you dissect each of your dreams, attitudes, responsibilities, and habits with “why, why, why?,” would you always find Jesus at the center? If so, that’s a Christ-centered life.

What does it mean to be a Christ-centered church? Our member covenant says: “By God’s grace I have, by faith, been made new in Jesus Christ. Having been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I now commit myself to join with others as members of Calvary Church. Together we will strive to bring glory to God by submitting our wills and lives to the authority of Jesus, as revealed to us in God’s Word.”

Again, at the center of everything we do, we should find Jesus. Our teaching series through Colossians and Philemon will give us theological reasons and practical applications for submitting our will and lives to Christ as individuals and as a church.

Today’s main idea is truly a big idea:

Because Jesus is Creator and Savior, He gets to be King.

I don’t know that it gets much bigger than this in Scripture. The paragraph we are studying today is packed with the most important truths about Jesus in all of Scripture. I’d argue in fact this paragraph contains the most important truths about anything in all of life! Here we go.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17 NIV)

In writing poetically, Paul wants us to slow down, stop, and think on these big truths about Jesus. Earlier in the letter, Paul had been thanking God for the spiritual fruit in the Colossian church and praying for more. This prayer breaks out in worship, which is essentially continuing into the paragraph. He is singing the praises literally of God’s Son Jesus.

The first thing Paul points out is that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” Human beings are made in the image of God, but our sin has muddied God’s reflection in each of us. Jesus, on the other hand, is the perfect reflection of God. Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus!

The next thing Paul points out is that Jesus is “the firstborn over all creation.” When we think of firstborn, we think of the first child born into a family. If we were to take this understanding into the text then, we would conclude that Jesus was the first created being. But that would be horribly false. Jesus was not created. In fact, if you keep reading, you see that Jesus is Creator–not created.

So what does firstborn mean in Colossians 1? It has to do with rank and authority. In the ancient world, the firstborn son inherited the household and was put in charge of every other member. All of this power and privilege came with the great responsibility to work for the good of the household and community. God uses “firstborn” language when He calls Israel to be His special people (Ex 4:22-23; Jer 31:9) and His anointed king (Psalm 89:27) so that He might bless the nations through them.

So Jesus rules creation. He’s the firstborn. He runs the house. Why? Because He is Creator! At the beginning of verse 16, Paul uses “for in him” to explain why. Jesus is “the firstborn over all creation” because “in Him all things were created…through Him and for Him” even!

Think about where, how, and why things are created in our world. A banana is created in a tree, by the fruit-bearing process, for human consumption. A smartphone is created in a factory, by human engineering, for mindless scrolling through the Facebook Newsfeed. But all things were created in Christ, by Christ, for Christ. Jesus is the where and how and why of reality itself!

This sets Jesus completely apart from creation, even from the visible earthly authorities, as awesome as they seem, even from the invisible spiritual powers as terrible as they seem. Jesus is not just a superman or a powerful created spirit. Jesus is Creator completely distinct from and in charge of creation.

Bugs and stars and people and angels and technology and nations all exist in creation. They all had their start in Christ, by Christ, and for Christ. Yes, Jesus did take on a human nature, which we’ll see in a couple verses, but Jesus existed before that and created everything and rules everything. The huge implication for us is this…

If Jesus is our Creator-King, every aspect of our lives is ultimately from Him and for Him.

This is why Paul says a couple chapters later in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Work, marriage, sexuality, family, tradition, recreation, money, politics, science, art, and not the least of which, church, which we’ll see in a moment. All of these areas of life were created, are sustained, and exist under the authority of Jesus, and we’d be wise to submit to Him.

This beautiful vision of everything from and for Christ does not reflect reality though. Something has gone terribly wrong. Nations rebel against God; my own heart rebels against God. C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian thinker and writer, said…

“There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second is at once claimed by Christ and counterclaimed by Satan.” (C.S. Lewis)

Creation is broken and needs to be restored. That’s the assumption behind where Paul goes next:

18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (1:18-20)

Now, Paul emphasizes Jesus’ authority over the church…what the Bible sometimes refers to as the beginning of the NEW CREATION. So Jesus is King of the NEW CREATION in addition to the original creation. Why does Jesus get to be King of New Creation too? Verse 19 gives the reason, and it comes in two stages. First of all, God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ. What?!?!? My kids have been wrestling with this idea. A few months ago, this idea stuck with our toddler for the first time, and I remember him running off to big sister and brother and excitedly telling them: “Jesus is God.” Older sister and brother had already heard this, and they knew it was quite a bit more complicated than that. They knew about the Trinity…

trinity

The Trinity is a historic Christian doctrine. Pretty much all Christians from all time believe in some formulation of this teaching. The word “Trinity” is not mentioned explicitly in Scripture, but the idea is implied over and over again. The Trinity is that idea that there is one God who has always existed as three Persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. So you can say, “The Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father.” Separate yet equal Persons co-existing in one Being.

This is mysterious, but it is not a contradiction. It may be helpful to distinguish between being and person. A being is something that exists, whereas a person is someone who acts. We are human beings. That’s our existence. But we are also Keith and Art and Corrie. Those are persons. Being and personhood are technically not the same thing. Now for human beings, we are used to the one-to-one ratio of one being to one person.

God is a divine being. There is only one divine being, so we often call Him God as if it’s His name. But it’s not. For example, if my family’s dog was the only dog in all the universe, we might all call her “Dog.” We wouldn’t have to call her by her name because we wouldn’t have to distinguish her from any other dogs. But “Dog” still wouldn’t be her name. Her name is Stella. In a similar way, we often call the one divine being “God” because God is a one-of-a-kind being.

At the same time, God is personal and wants us to know Him, so He inspires the New Testament authors to reveal the names of the three divine persons: Father, Son, Spirit. How amazing that the Divine Being has so chosen to reveal Himself to us in this way. We are able to know Him! Here’s where Colossians 1:19 comes in.

trinity and incarnation.jpg

The Incarnation is another historic Christian doctrine which teaches that the Person who is the Son, who is also the divine being, took on human being. We call the Son Incarnate “Jesus.” The Trinity is one nature, three persons. The Incarnation is one person, two types of being: divine and human. And Jesus’ two nature–human and divine–do not mix together or diminish one another. Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time. He’s not Superman, flying, bullets bouncing off Him, etc. In His humanity, He experienced suffering and temptation just like you and I. Yet in His divinity, He perfectly reflected God’s love and truth and wisdom and power. This is the One we worship and learn from! God was pleased to dwell in Him! That’s just the first half of the reason Jesus gets to be King of the New Creation church. Here’s the second:

18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (1:18-20)

Jesus rules the New Creation church because He is Savior. Jesus, the One in whom God was pleased to have His fullness dwell, reconciled the entire universe back to God, broken and rebellious as it was, through His death on the cross. When Jesus died on the cross, He secured made a way for repentant people to come back to God and He sealed the fate of all those who don’t repent, including demons, rebellious spiritual forces. In this way, Jesus reconciles all things to God.

This is always what God does for us. He takes the initiative to pursue us. This morning in our church-wide Bible reading plan, we read Genesis 15 where God makes a covenant with Abraham. In this story, God has Abraham fall asleep and establishes the covenant all by Himself. This is what He does through Jesus at the cross. Jesus gives Himself to establish the covenant. All we do is repent, turn from our pride and selfishness, and follow Him. This is the cosmic gospel, good news for the entire universe! And here’s the implication:

If Jesus is our Savior-King, our new life and church are from Him and for Him.

Living the Christ-centered life, being a Christ-centered church is to enjoy a preliminary version of the peace Jesus achieved at the cross. The Christ-centered life is to live in hope of being with Christ and like Christ in the future and to bear the fruit of obedience to God and love for other people in the meantime. We want to rescue or fix ourselves, our communities, our churches, but in the Scriptures we needed to be pointed to the only One who can rescue and fix us. You are not the center of the universe. I am not the center of the universe. We are just tiny blips on the cosmic radar. This would be horrifying and depressing, making life pointless, if we stopped there. But when we consider who is at the center of the universe…Jesus, Creator, Savior, King…then there is hope and faithfulness and love.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the 01.19.2020 message “Jesus: Creator, Savior, King (Colossians 1:15-20 NIV).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: If Jesus is our Creator-King, every aspect of our lives is ultimately from Him and for Him. If Jesus is our Savior-King, our new hearts and relationships are from Him and for Him.

  1. When you think of the historical person Jesus, who comes to mind? See Colossians 1:15-20 for a description of Jesus that will blow your mind.
  2. Colossians 1:15-17: What does being “the firstborn over all creation” tell us about Jesus’ relationship to creation? According to verses 16-17, what is the reason for His being “the firstborn over all creation”? What are the implications of this truth for our everyday lives?
  3. Colossians 1:18-20: What does being the “firstborn from among the dead” tell us about Jesus’ relationship to the church? According to verses 19-20, what is the two-fold reason for His being “the firstborn from among the dead”? What are the implications of this truth for our new life and church?
  4. What next step do you need to take in life and in church in response to who Jesus is?

Gospel Roots Grow Gospel Fruits (Colossians 1:3-14)

We have this random little apple tree in our front yard. We’ve lived there for a few years now, but for whatever reason (perhaps the very wet summer?), this year, it gave us apples. Henry, our youngest, sampled one. They are not very good apples, but we were shocked to see any fruit at all!

There’s another tree right next to it that blooms beautifully in the spring…but it has been slowly dying. A few years ago we had to replace a sewer line that ran right next to it, and I’m afraid much of the root system was destroyed in the process. What’s the difference between the “thriving” apple tree and the dying ornamental tree? Roots. Roots grow fruits. Today, we’re going to apply that metaphor from the natural world in the supernatural world.

Gospel roots grow Gospel fruits. When someone truly understands the Gospel, it changes them to the core.

We’re starting a new teaching series called Orienteering in the New Testament letters to the Colossians and Philemon. Orienteering is the art of arriving successfully at your destination even if you can’t see the final destination. If you deviate even slightly from the compass’s leading, you will end up miles from your end goal. Trees, rivers, mountains, and valleys stand in your way, but carefully following the compass always leads you in the right direction.

Life and church are a lot like this. On the one hand, Jesus leads us in ways that are true and good, but other stuff deters and disorients (i.e. tradition, family, sex, comfort, recognition, money, fun, politics, etc). Getting things just a little bit wrong can throw our journey off by a mile. In other words, it’s easy to get lost! Jesus, like a compass needle in the middle of a vast wilderness, orients all people in all times and all places to what is absolutely true and good.

Try this experiment: Pick a habit you might have. Now relentlessly ask the question “why?” until you get to the bottom motivation and see if you find Christ there. For example, take “I go to work everyday.” Why? “To make money so my family can live comfortably.” Or maybe because, “To do something that’s personally fulfilling.” See how far we are getting from Jesus? A Christ-centered motivation for work begins with a desire to honor God with your time and talents and love your neighbors (co-workers, clients, family) through your work. If you dissect each of your dreams, attitudes, and habits with “why, why, why?,” would you always find Jesus at the center? If so, that’s a Christ-centered life.

What does it mean to be a Christ-centered church? Our member covenant says: “By God’s grace I have, by faith, been made new in Jesus Christ. Having been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I now commit myself to join with others as members of Calvary Church. Together we will strive to bring glory to God by submitting our wills and lives to the authority of Jesus, as revealed to us in God’s Word.”

“Orienteering: The Christ-centered Church in Paul’s letters to the Colossians and Philemon” will give us theological reasons and practical applications for submitting our will and lives to Christ as individuals and as a church.

3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. (Colossians 1:3-6a NIV)

Paul gives thanks for those in which the fruit-bearing gospel has worked. Hope from the Gospel (the roots) leads to faith in Christ and love for all God’s people (the fruits).

Faith here is not agreeing with theological facts about Jesus and salvation or even trusting that God will come through for you. We know this because they already believed the good news when they put their hope in it. Faith here is specifically loyalty to the one you believe exists and trust to come through for you. Faith is having allegiance to Jesus that far surpasses an allegiance to family, country, career, wealth, hobbies, etc.

Love is the radical sweeping love for every kind of person. It’s unconditional and inclusive. It’s aimed at your church family. We are called to love our neighbors (anyone and everyone) and we are especially called to love the members of our church family. It’s not picky love…(go around and greet people in a picky yet funny way); it’s lavish love!

Christian hope is not fruitful because of our hope in and of itself. Hope itself does nothing! “I hope it’s 80 degrees and blue skies when we go outside after the gathering today.” Hope is only as  powerful as the THINGS hoped in. For Paul here, the thing we hope for is stored up in heaven…it is totally secure. You don’t have to be anxious over the payout like you might watch the stock market hoping it doesn’t crash. It’s a sure thing. What is the hope exactly? All God’s people will be with Christ and like Christ.

When your kids or grandkids worry you with bad behavior or walking away from the faith, what are your roots in? If your roots are in your own parenting skills or in pop psychology, your fruit will be frustration and confusion. But if your roots are in the Gospel, you’ll be able to trust God with your kids and at the same time patiently share the love and truth of Jesus with them.

When you’re living paycheck to paycheck and a major emergency expense comes up, what are your roots in? If your roots are in material things, you’ll be a wreck. But if your roots are in the Gospel, your fruit will be contentment and generosity even in poverty.

When you get a life-and-death diagnosis, what are your roots in? If your roots are in your life dreams, your fruit will be a bitter heart at the prospect of death. But if your roots are in the Gospel, though you will understandably have some degree of sorrow, but your greater fruit will be joy in Christ and love for others.

The thing we hope in changes our whole mindset and lifestyle. The objective, historic reason for the hope we have is this thing called the GOSPEL. The English word gospel translates the Greek word evangelion, which simply means “good news.” The New Testament authors use it in two main ways: one refers generally to God’s establishing His kingdom by conquering evil and the other more specifically refers to Christ’s death and resurrection which defeated Satan, sin, and death.

After a battle in the Greco-Roman world, the victorious army would send one person, the fastest soldier to witness the battle, to run home as fast as possible and proclaim, “Victory! We won! We’re safe! I saw it with my own two eyes!” Caesar, the Roman emperor, had a gospel: the good news of “salvation,” the Pax Romana. Ironically, it was not really good news for most. Poor people and foreigners were horribly oppressed.

In the New Testament, God through Christ has His own gospel. When Mark and Luke give summaries of what Jesus preached and taught (Mark 1:15, Luke 4:43), they call it “the gospel of the kingdom of God.” So the whole way of life that Jesus teaches in the Gospels, that God enables through His authority and power, is the general kingdom gospel. But in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives a historical, specific definition of the gospel in that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again, according to the Scriptures. Roots in this Gospel bear Gospel fruit.

6 In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. (1:6b-8)

Again, Gospel roots grow Gospel fruit. Paul zooms out and applies this to what the Gospel is doing globally. Paul writes this about 30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ…the basis of the gospel…Paul knows that the Gospel has spread, people have believed, churches have started in Syria, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Greece, Italy, and likely into Egypt, North Africa, and Persia…all across the known world.

Paul then zooms back in to the Colossian church, and notes how, in Colossae, this all hinged not only the Gospel, but on this dude named Epaphras. This fruitful (love and faith) minister piled the soil of gospel hope on the exposed roots of the Colossians. Epaphras was committed to teaching, to making disciples, and the Colossian church family was committed to learning.

I find this challenging and encouraging in my own ministry. Paul didn’t plant the Colossian church; Epaphras, a close friend of Paul’s, did. Paul, as great a servant as he was, couldn’t be everywhere at once. God used ordinary, faithful Epaphras to teach the Christ-centered life to the Colossians. Who are your Epaphras’s, the people you learn the Gospel from? Who are you Epaphras to, who is learning the Gospel from you?

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father… (1:9-12a)

Then he prays that the Colossians would continue bearing fruit as God shows them more and more of Himself. Past fruit should propagate more fruit not less…it’s easy to get stuck in whatever we consider the “glory days” and be content with what God did there. But if God’s grace never said “eh, good enough,” why should our past fruit be? Jesus didn’t walk halfway up the hill to Calvary, drop His cross, and say “Welp, that’s far enough. Beam me up!” No! The urgency and determination with which Christ went to the cross should push our own prayers for God to bear fruit in our lives.

Knowledge of God’s will is continually needed or else we get swept away with what our hearts want and what the world wants. To name just a couple examples: Worldly materialism can sweep us away with all the latest gadgets. Last year, Alexas, this year, Alexa plugs. Worldly nationalism can sweep us away by taking unhealthy pride in our country and looking down on people from other nations. Instead, we need to constantly oriented by Christ in every season of life, every day, every moment by a longing to know God more and bear more fruit for Him.

We’ve got a really neat example of this mindset at Calvary. Marilyn Scraver has served God almost her entire life, the vast majority of it as a missionary, specifically in teaching the children of missionaries. She retired this year but not really. She’s calling it “retreadment,” not retirement. She is going to re-tread, re-walk new and familiar areas of service to God. If anyone could say, “I’ve done enough,” it would be Marilyn. Instead, she is asking God to bear more Gospel fruit in her life in this next season.

Gospel roots grow Gospel fruits. When someone truly understands the Gospel, it changes them to the core.

Paul then gives an epic description of the Gospel:

12 …who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (1:12b-14)

These sentences take the two meanings of the Gospel (the general good news about God’s kingdom and the specific good news about forgiveness through Christ) and merge them together beautifully. Rescued from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus! God has done this for you, if you’ve put your hope there! God will do this for you, if you put your hope there! God will do this for your family, friends, classmates, coworkers, and neighbors, if they put their hope there!

Let me close with an encouragement and a challenge. First the encouragement, just like God grew Gospel fruit in Colossae, He’s growing Gospel fruit here in Muskegon, even here amongst the Calvary family. In 2019, 11 people recognized the beginning of their life in Christ through baptism. 36 new people made the first-time commitment to join the Calvary family in membership. $600,000 total given to honor God and fund ministry in the church and community, missional partners, building projects, emergency financial assistance for the church family, Gifts for Christ to the Pines Christian Care Centre for Children in South Africa. About 3 times as many people are participating in the church-wide Bible reading plan as last year. People started several new LIFEgroups to help each other follow Jesus, and several people joined LIFEgroups. Outreaches and missional partnerships with Fruitport schools, Supper House, and Muskegon Pregnancy Services have done very well. What’s more? These measurable practices and commitments represent an immeasurable faith and love that comes from hope behind these practices and commitments.

This week in our church-wide Bible reading plan, we came to Luke 13:6-9, where Jesus tells a brief parable about a tree that hadn’t produced fruit in three years. The owner of the tree understandably orders it to be cut down, but the gardener who takes care of it begged the owner to give it one more year to bear fruit. This parable reveals Jesus’ heart. Jesus graciously waits for and tends us to bear fruit. But we don’t have forever. Let’s get our roots down deep in the Gospel and pray for more fruit, some of us maybe for the first time.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the 01.12.2020 message “Gospel Roots Grow Gospel Fruits (Colossians 1:3-14).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: Gospel roots grow gospel fruits. When someone truly understands the Gospel, it changes them to the core.

  1. Colossians 1:3-8
    1. What does Paul thank God for? Answer as specifically and completely as possible but using your own words.
    2. What fruit of faith and love can you thank God for in your own life? In your LIFEgroup and the broader? In other churches around Muskegon and/or the world?
    3. What steps can you take to better understand the beautiful things we hope for communicated to us in the Gospel?
  2. Colossians 1:9-14
    1. What does Paul ask God for? Answer as specifically and completely as possible but using your own words.
    2. Slowly reread v 12-14. Make it personal so that YOU might give joyful thanks. In what ways has the Father rescued you from the kingdom of darkness and delivered you into the kingdom of His Son?

God’s Sacrificed and Victorious Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

Gifts are marketed as “indispensable” this time of year…

Want to arrive in style to the company Christmas party?

1Mercedes.jpg

Mercedes-Benz…indispensable

Or maybe you need to travel farther to get to your loved ones?

2British Airways.jpg

British Airways…indispensable

Or maybe you want to have that living room straight out of a magazine?

3Ikea.jpg

IKEA…indispensable

And for the chainsaw-loving lumberjack in your family?

4Stihl.jpg

Stihl…indispensable

Jokes aside, what’s indispensable to sinful humans who want to have a relationship with great and good God? A sacrifice. A way in. Isaiah’s final servant song shows how a holy God can bring rebellious, blind, guilty people back to Himself. Isaiah tells us why the servant of the LORD is truly indispensable, how His work will actually get traction. But first, quick review:

Isaiah wrote around the time of Exile in Babylon, about 800 years AFTER the Exodus from Egypt and 600 years BEFORE the coming of Jesus into the world. Throughout his prophecy, Isaiah writes four “servant songs,” little poems packed full of anticipation about a figure called “the servant of the LORD.” Each servant song reveals a bit more about the Creator-Redeemer’s plan to save the world by bringing people back to Himself through indispensable servants.

At Calvary, our hope is to participate in God’s plan and, over time, become a church for the community–an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the greater Muskegon area. But before that can happen, you and I need to be redeemed by God’s greatest indispensable servant because our sin disqualifies us. Jesus is THE ULTIMATE SERVANT who, through the cross, qualifies us to be God’s servants. Jesus is God’s indispensable gift to us–we literally can’t live without Him. Thanks to Jesus, we, the church, are able to become God’s indispensable gift to the world.

Jesus works for us before He works in us so that He can work through us.

Jesus worked for us when He died on the cross to forgive and reconcile us to God. Jesus works in us through the Holy Spirit to make our character more like His. Jesus works through us as a church for the glory of God and the good of others. That’s why Jesus is “indispensable.” In our new teaching series “Indispensable,” we’ve studied the servant of the LORD in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

Here’s the big idea of Isaiah’s fourth and final servant song.

God’s servant will be sacrificed for His people’s sins and vindicated as King of kings.

First, one comment: we know from the New Testament that this servant song (and the previous ones) is really about Jesus. Matthew, John, Luke, Acts, Romans, and 1 Peter are just a few examples of the New Testament books that make a direct connection between Isaiah’s fourth servant song and Jesus. So even though Jesus is not mentioned by name in Isaiah 52-53, I will use “Jesus” interchangeably with the servant figure in Isaiah 52-53.

13 See, my servant will act wisely;

   he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—

   his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being

   and his form marred beyond human likeness—

15 so he will sprinkle many nations,

   and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see,

   and what they have not heard, they will understand.

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12 NIV)

This passage highlights the global impact of the servant’s shocking victory. Remember from Isaiah 49 and 50 that the servant would face opposition to carrying out the LORD’s work. He would be a martyr. Martyrs are hard to look at. This is the power behind the influence of civil disobedience. During the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, African American protesters performed sit-ins on buses and in restaurants in order to get photographed as they were being arrested. They were trying to get arrested while peaceably demonstrating and get in the paper while doing so to illustrate the outrageous injustice of racial segregation. It’s one thing to hear about an injustice like that. But it’s disturbing to actually see it. The servant will be hard to look at too. But here God as the speaker predicts that His servant’s underdog victory will shock into speechlessness even world leaders (it would take a lot to get them to be quiet, huh?).

1 Who has believed our message

   and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,

   and like a root out of dry ground.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,

   a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces

   he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (53:1-3)

God revealed His message and servant (the arm of the LORD) to everyone but few believe. Why? First, because he had ordinary beginnings. Like a little sprout growing silently up through the soil. Not a thunderstorm, not an earthquake. A little seedling! Remind you of a baby lying in a Bethlehem manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes? He also had ordinary trappings. He was likely a construction worker growing up and, for the last three years of His life, a traveling teacher without the socially acceptable credentials of His day. Jesus was altogether ordinary. Side note: I find a ton of hope in this for us. If God’s servant is extraordinarily ordinary, then He can work for and in and through those of us who extraordinarily ordinary.

The servant was worse than ordinary and unimpressive; he was actually a quite embarrassing from a human perspective as a candidate to save the world. No one would have picked him. This reminds me that, though the physical trauma was intense for Jesus, the emotional trauma of rejection was its own kind of torture.

But there was a point to all the servant’s pain…

4 Surely he took up our pain

   and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

   stricken by him, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,

   he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

   and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

   each of us has turned to our own way;

and the LORD has laid on him

   the iniquity of us all. (53:4-6)

This is important to remember: the servant here is more than a martyr, the servant is a substitute. Isaiah is smacking us in the face with it. God’s servant is not being punished because He did something wrong; he’s being punished because we did something wrong!

The imagery here is one of of sacrifice. Now these sacrifices were sacrifices. They cost you something…quite a bit actually depending on how much you loved God, how grateful you were for Him, and how much sin you had committed. And animals were used in most of these sacrifices (other times, bread, oil, or wine could be used). So they were bloody affairs. They would take these animals and ceremonially slaughter and butcher them, burning certain parts for certain offerings, saving and eating some parts. They would collect the blood of the animal too and use it for ceremonial cleansing and worship, because it was considered precious–the “life” of the animal. God had temporarily accepted animal sacrifices, but here the sacrifice is no longer an animal…it’s His servant!

The specific kind of sacrifice Isaiah is talking about it the guilt offering (see v 10). The guilt offering was one of five sacrifices (Lev 1-7). The burnt offering was given in praise and prayer to God. The grain offering supplemented the other offerings. The peace offering celebrated the relationship that God allows us to have with Him despite our sin. The sin offering purified sinners of sin that we might know the holy God. And the guilt offering, the asam, was given to repay God of the debt we have because of our sin (Leviticus 5:14). It’s restitution. The servant’s sacrifice satisfies the debt, pays the debt, that His people owed.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,

   yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

   and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,

so he did not open his mouth.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.

   Yet who of his generation protested?

For he was cut off from the land of the living;

   for the transgression of my people he was punished.

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,

   and with the rich in his death,

though he had done no violence,

   nor was any deceit in his mouth. (53:7-9)

These verses highlight the innocence of the servant against the injustice of his death. Many are concerned about justice in our legal systems…prison reform, immigration reform, pro-life reform, unjust violence from law enforcement…and there should be. Because as wonderful as the American system is relative to history, it is a far cry from the ideal God has in mind for humanity. But what we have in the death of God’s servant is probably the greatest breakdown of human systems known to history. Here we have someone who is not only innocent, but a pure gift to the world, and the courts condemn him and no one says a word. No one even protests. It seems like we have protests for everything today, but no one protested the servant’s death.

It’s so easy to fall into this defeat, despair, depression in this passage if we don’t read the last few lines. This is NOT a defeat. It looks like a defeat to us but that’s only because we’re blind. This last passage reminds of God’s glorious plan behind the sacrifice of His servant…

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,

   and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,

he will see his offspring and prolong his days,

   and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

11 After he has suffered,

   he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,

   and he will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,

   and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

because he poured out his life unto death,

   and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,

   and made intercession for the transgressors. (53:10-12)

This section lists the glorious effects of the servant’s death. Because God is ultimately behind the substitutionary sacrifice of His servant, He will maximize this greatest evil for the greatest good. First of all, the servant will live! The ancient Israelite version of the American Dream was to live a long life and have children to care for you in your old age. It was what everyone hoped for and worked for. This is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and eternal kingdom. Second, the servant will justify–or make right–God’s people. His death will pay for their sin so His faithful people are free of that debt forever. This is a reference to our resurrection and eternal life in Him that begins even right now.

What do we do with this then? When I preach or hear Bible teaching, it feels incomplete until there are some action steps: 4 steps to a godly marriage, 9 steps to financial peace, 14 steps to better parenting. Because we want to take control, conquer our demons, and check it off the list. But this passage really resists any other quick application other than to…

Be silent. Be grateful.

Isaiah 52-53 is instead a deep meditation on how God works FOR us in Jesus on the cross. There is much more in this passage than we have time for, but let me illustrate with this story from our church-wide Bible reading plan which we just read this morning. In Isaiah 36-37, the prophet recounts how the Assyrian empire–a mighty empire the likes of which had never been seen before–tried to conquer Jerusalem. Other nations fell like dominos to the brutal Assyrian army. They came to the northern kingdom of Israel which had splintered from the southern kingdom of Judah decades earlier. Israel was absolutely crushed and its people were captured and shipped off to various parts of the Assyrian empire as slaves. Now the Assyrian army was on knocking on Judah’s door–they surrounded the holy city of Jerusalem. The Assyrian king Sennacherib sent word to Hezekiah, the king of Judah, and demanded his surrender, saying that no nation nor god of any nation had been able to stop the Assyrian conquest. They were outmatched and outnumbered. The end was near. So Hezekiah did all he could: he prayed something like this: “LORD God, Maker of heaven and earth. It is true that Sennacherib has destroyed many nations and gods of those nations. But those gods weren’t gods at all; they were only made of stone and wood. But you are the living God. Deliver us from his hand so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you LORD are the only God.” Isaiah then told Hezekiah something like, “For the sake of His glory and the good of the world, God’s got this.” They woke up the next morning and found 185,000 Assyrian soldiers encamped around Jerusalem…dead. God had miraculously struck them down in the middle of the night while faithful Hezekiah and Jerusalem slept. That is how God works FOR His servants.

And this is a bit like how God works FOR us through Jesus on the cross. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we slept, Christ died for us. While we were spiritually blind, Christ died for us. While we were spiritually guilty, Christ died for us. While we were in slaves to sin and death, Christ died for us. And he open our eyes. He removed our guilt. He set us free. So that He might work in us and that He might work through us. But let’s not move there too quickly. Let’s take a moment of silence to reflect on all that God had done for us through Jesus on the cross.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the 12.22.2019 message “God’s Sacrificed and Vindicated Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: God’s servant will be sacrificed for His people’s sins and vindicated as King of kings. Be silent. Be grateful.

  1. Isaiah 52:13-53:3. Describe the surprises and reversals connected to God’s servant.
  2. Isaiah 53:4-6. What is the main point of this section?
  3. Isaiah 53:7-9. Would you say the servant’s death is just or unjust? Why?
  4. Isaiah 53:10-12. What are the glorious consequences of what God’s servant has done?
  5. Based on your knowledge of Jesus’ death and resurrection, where do you see Him in Isaiah 52-53? Where can you find silence this week to reflect on all that Christ has done for you? How will you show gratitude this week for all that Christ has done for you?

God’s International Servant (Isaiah 49:1-7)

Until about 80 year ago, if you wanted to see someone on the other side of the world, you had to hop on a boat and sail for weeks if not months. Then, with the advent of airplanes, you could get pretty much anywhere in the world in less than a day. Now, I can pull out my phone and instantaneously Facetime anyone with similar technology from any part of the world. We call this rapid growth in connectedness “globalization.”

Globalization has its upsides and its downsides. One downside is fear. Americans fear that their culture might be changed or even overrun by another culture. Other cultures fear that their culture might be changed or overrun by American culture. This fear is a big downside of globalization because, even as globalization brings people together, it can drive them apart just as quickly. But for Christians, there is a huge upside to globalization–an opportunity to spread the Gospel, and that is the main focus of Isaiah’s servant song today.

Isaiah wrote about 800 years after the Exodus from Egypt and about 600 years before the advent of Jesus into the world. Throughout his prophecy, Isaiah writes four servant songs, which one-by-one reveal the Creator-Redeemer’s plan to save the world by bringing people back to Himself through indispensable servants.

At Calvary, our hope is to participate in God’s plan and, over time, become a church for the community–an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the greater Muskegon area. But before that can happen, you and I need to be redeemed by God’s greatest indispensable servant because our sin disqualifies us. Jesus is THE ULTIMATE SERVANT who, through the cross, qualifies us to be God’s servants. Jesus is God’s indispensable gift to us–we literally can’t live without Him. Thanks to Jesus, we, the church, are able to become God’s indispensable gift to the world.

Jesus works for us before He works in us so that He can work through us.

Jesus worked for us on the cross when He purchased forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. Jesus works in us through the Holy Spirit to make our character more like His. Jesus works through us as a church for the glory of God and the good of others. That’s why Jesus is “indispensable.” In our new teaching series “Indispensable,” we’ll study the servant of the LORD in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

WHAT IS GOD’S SERVANT? (ISAIAH 43:10-12a NIV)

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,

   “and my servant whom I have chosen,

so that you may know and believe me

   and understand that I am he.

Before me no god was formed,

   nor will there be one after me.

I, even I, am the LORD,

   and apart from me there is no savior.

I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—

   I, and not some foreign god among you.”

This is courtroom imagery. Ever seen a witness testify on the stand? A witness’s job is not to talk about themselves (bragging) or even to make the case (arguing); they are simply to testify what they’ve seen. As God’s servant, Israel was to be God’s witness! Israel saw God work like no other nation ever has: the Exodus, the Law, the Promised Land. God let Israel know and believe and understand Him so that they might share Him with the world. The same goes for all of God’s people, God’s servants. We are to bear witness, to testify about Him, not just through what we say but by the way we live! But don’t confuse witnessing with bragging or arguing. Bragging is talking about how great I am: “Look at how great God has made me!” Arguing is talking about how great my ideas are: “Look at my great case for Christ!” But witnessing is talking about how good God is.

It’s humbling though because, in order to talk about how gracious and forgiving God is, we’ll need to talk about our sin and our weakness. But that’s ok; God is good! Our obedience points to God’s goodness as we imitate His character; our repentance points to God’s goodness because He is gracious to forgive us through the sacrifice of Jesus.

As part of this series, we hope to record a bunch of video testimonies from the Calvary family. The greatest gift you can give someone is your testimony–the story of what God has done for you, in you, and through you. It’s simple. Beginning today and for the next few weeks, we will record your testimony right after church. Don’t be ashamed or shy to talk about what God has meant to you. If God has done something for you, in you, and through you, let the world know!

Here’s the big idea from Isaiah 49:

clinging to truth + casting a wide net = rejection by people + rewards from God

We see this equation in the servant of Isaiah 49. We see it in the life of Christ. And we should even be able to see it in our lives because we too can be servants of God, thanks to Jesus.

The servant speaks!!! In the first servant song (Isaiah 42:1-9), the Lord spoke to the servant, calling and commissioning him to His work. But in Isaiah 49, it’s the servant who speaks.

Listen to me, you islands;

   hear this, you distant nations:

Before I was born the LORD called me;

   from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.

He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,

   in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me into a polished arrow

   and concealed me in his quiver. (Isaiah 49:1-2 NIV)

The servant is clinging to truth AND casting a wide net. Here’s how wide of a net the servant is casting: He’s speaking to the islands and distant nations. Japan. Indonesia. Madagascar. Dominican Republic. The servant is coming for you. That’s a wide net! God’s kingdom is multinational! This has always been his heart, ever since Adam and Eve, the parents of all humanity, were created in His image yet rebelled against their Creator. God had called Abraham from among these rebellious nations through whom He would create a nation for the nations, to bring all nations back to their Creator. The servant is embracing this call for himself! We’ll see more on this at the end of the servant song.

Sometimes casting a wide net might tempt you to compromise the truth, but not God’s servant. The servant also clings to the truth. God is concealed carrying! His sword and arrow are always within reach. Though Isaiah uses the imagery of weapons, the meaning is not violent. The idea is that God has specifically crafted his servant to get the job done, to accomplish all God has called him to do. That purpose as we’ve seen in Isaiah 42, the previous servant song, is to establish justice through teaching. God’s kingdom is multinational but not multireligious. There is one God to worship and one kingdom to belong to and one law to follow, and God’s servant won’t back down from that.

He said to me, “You are my servant,

   Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain;

   I have spent my strength for nothing at all.

Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand,

   and my reward is with my God.” (49:3-4)

In these Scriptures we see the rejection by people AND the reward from God. Israel was to be the place where God’s glory through adherence to the Law was put on display to the rest of the world. With Israel’s failure, God calls His servant to do it. But the servant is frustrated and concerned that he is ineffective. Yet the servant remains faithful to his mission and hopes in God. Want to know one of the hardest things about being a pastor? People don’t listen. Want to know one of the hardest things about being God? I DON’T LISTEN! But He doesn’t give up on us, and that’s why we love Him.

I’m sure Jesus was often frustrated in his ministry, wondering if His work was all in vain. And yet, he trusted in God. He wasn’t in it for the money or the followers but to see God glorified no matter the cost. And there will be a cost. Isaiah is just giving a little tantalizing glimpse of hardships to come for God’s servant. We’ll see more of this next week in Isaiah 50 and it will really come into focus on Christmas Sunday in Isaiah 52-53.

And now the LORD says—

he who formed me in the womb to be his servant

   to bring Jacob back to him

   and gather Israel to himself,

for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD

   and my God has been my strength—

he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant

   to restore the tribes of Jacob

   and bring back those of Israel I have kept.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,

   that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (49:5-6)

God sends the servant not only to blind and captive Israel but also to the blind and captive world! Going after Israel alone is too small for God. What’s really big and awesome and impressive is His concern for every nation.

Let me illustrate: It’s one thing to care well for my own kids. I will gladly wipe snotty noses, change diapers, clean up bathroom accidents, etc. for my kids. Seriously. But I’ve done kids ministry before and when a snot-nosed little kid comes running up to me, I’m like, “Ew.” The real heroes are those who will gladly take care of other peoples’ kids in kids ministry. Even moreso, a truly inspiring model of God-like love is an excellent foster or adoptive parent. There’s no guarantee that foster or adopted children will bond with you. There’s no guarantee that you and your own kids will have a great relationship, let alone a child who has experienced unspeakable trauma. But the love of those parents is just a little glimpse of God who cares not only for Israel but for every last city, town, village and tribe.

Paul and Barnabas lived 600 years after Isaiah and were followers of Jesus. During a missions trip to Pisidian Antioch which was filled with Gentiles, they quote the last two lines of Isaiah 49:6 in a public presentation (Acts 13:47), and many Gentiles repented of their sin and started following Jesus (13:48). This is fascinating because we typically think of Jesus as the only servant of God. Ultimately these verses are about Jesus! But Paul and Barnabas, as followers of Jesus, saw themselves as extensions of Jesus’ international mission!

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing you do not come from a long, unbroken line of faithful Jewish Jesus-followers. If not, this text is about you! Turn to the person next to you and say, “You’re such a Gentile!” Now say back to them, “And so are you.” You and I are Gentiles who God didn’t forget about! We may not think about this often, but do you realize how much blood, sweat, and tears and faithfulness to God it took to get the Gospel from Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was raised to you? Fill in the blank: John 3:16 says , “For God so loved the _______________ that He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have eternal life.”

If God’s love is so international, mine must be too! God’s Word exposes and condemns my own ethnocentric tendencies–those sinful impulses that place more value on people of my race or culture or nation than people from other nations. There’s been times in my life where I’ve rooted harder for the triumph of American culture over other nations than I have for the triumph of the Gospel of Jesus in those nations. I’ve heard it said that 1 death in our home feels like 1,000 deaths in our country and 100,000 deaths on the other side of the world. It’s natural, I suppose, to feel this way, but it’s supernatural, literally from God, to feel compassion for all people.

God does not want to spread one culture to the rest of the world. He wants to bring all cultures under His right and good rule. I’m reminded of the philosophy at the Pines Care Center for Children in South Africa. They explicitly state that they are not trying to “Americanize” the children. Even though there are several American missionaries working at the Pines, they intentionally hire Christian South Africans to care for and disciple the South African children on how to follow Jesus in South African culture. Most, if not all of our missionary partners, have this mentality, and that’s really important to us: keeping Jesus and His kingdom–not American culture–front and center.

This is what the LORD says—

the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—

   to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation,

   to the servant of rulers:

“Kings will see you and stand up,

   princes will see and bow down,

because of the LORD, who is faithful,

   the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (49:7)

The servant will be rejected, but, in the end, kings will honor him. Presidents and kings will stand up to honor Him when He enters the room. Senators and CEOs will fall flat on their faces. This is the reward the servant hoped in and deserved. Exaltation after humiliation. Reminds me of Philippians 2:9-11, where Jesus is exalted as King of kings because He humbled Himself obeyed God even to the point of death on a cross. It’s because of God’s heart for the world and the vindication of His servant that every corner of creation has reason to rejoice!

Shout for joy, you heavens;

   rejoice, you earth;

   burst into song, you mountains!

For the LORD comforts his people

   and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. (49:13)

We get to rejoice but remember…this is only possible due to the servant’s faithfulness and it will cost him dearly…

clinging to truth + casting a wide net = rejection by people + rewards from God

God does all this for us. All we can do–must do–is testify! One of the greatest gifts we can give another person is the testimony of what God has done for us and then in us and then through us. I wanted to share a brief version of my own testimony of God’s work for, in, and through my life, in case it might encourage some of you to begin thinking about and sharing yours.

I grew up in a Christian family going to church every time the doors open (none of that made me a true Christian, by the way). All growing up the churches I attended would invite people to share their very spectacular testimonies. From drug addiction to Jesus, from sexual sin to Jesus, from murder to Jesus, from tax fraud to Jesus. So I always thought I had a really lame testimony. I first believed in Jesus in my church’s kids ministry. I was 6. No, I was not a prior member of a drug cartel. No, I did not have five baby mamas. I had only ever stolen this one toy from a friend but it was probably less than $1. Not very dramatic, or so I thought. Until it dawned on me one day, that my testimony is not really about me. It’s testimony about God and how good He has been to me, especially in giving His Son Jesus on the cross, Jesus who willing laid His life down for the glory of God and the salvation of all those held captive to sin and death who would repent, like me! It can’t get me epic than that! So the first Gospel seeds took root when I was 6, and the entire rest of my life has simply been God growing that Gospel seed in me, in every new season of life, forgiving my sin and changing my heart. So as a kid, he forgave my selfishness and began created selflessness in me. As a young man, he forgave my lust and began creating purity in me. As a pastor, he forgave my selfish ambition and began creating humility in me. As a husband and father, he forgave my proud independent spirit and began creating self-sacrificial love in me. I hope in God that people will have been blessed through me in the meantime, that Jesus will have been made to look as good as He is because of my living and my teaching and my repentance.

Share yours today! Or repent and follow Jesus today and let your testimony of what God has done for you begin today!

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the 12.08.2019 message “God’s International Servant (Isaiah 49:1-13).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: Clinging to truth plus casting a wide net equals rejection by people plus rewards from God. Jesus lived this formula well and calls His followers to be God’s servants in this way.

  1. Compare Isaiah 49:1-13 with Isaiah 42:1-9. What qualifications, qualities, and objectives are echoed in Isaiah 49? Which are emphasized in ch 49? What new elements show up in ch 49?
  2. Why is it hard to speak the truth to people? How does God’s servant motivate himself despite feeling frustrated? Where do we see this in Jesus’ life? What can we learn from this as God’s servants?
  3. Why is it “too little a thing” for God’s servant to focus solely on Israel? What then is the bigger thing God’s servant is up to?
  4. What attitudes and practices can be evidence that we increasingly share God’s heart for people from all over the world?

God’s Chosen Servant (Is 41:8-9; 42:1-9, 19-24; Mt 12:15-21)

Does God even care? That’s a very reasonable question to ask in a world full of pride, selfishness, and violence, and it’s a question God’s people were asking after the destruction of Jerusalem and forced refugee crisis at the hands of the brutal Babylonians. Through the prophet Isaiah, God speaks “comfort” (Isaiah 40:1) into this chaos because, as Creator and Savior, He has a plan to bring people back to Himself through indispensable servants.

At Calvary, our hope is to participate in God’s plan and over time to become a church for the community–an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of the greater Muskegon area. But before that can happen, you and I need to be redeemed by God’s greatest servant because our sin disqualifies us. Jesus is THE SERVANT who, through the cross, qualifies us to be God’s servants. Have you ever felt not-good-enough to represent God to others? Well, thanks to Jesus–God’s indispensable gift to us who we literally can’t live without, we, the church, are able to become God’s indispensable gift to the world.

Jesus works for us before He works in us so that He can work through us.

Jesus worked for us on the cross when He purchased forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. Jesus works in us through the Holy Spirit to make our character more like His. Jesus works through us as a church for the glory of God and the good of others. That’s why Jesus is “indispensable.” In our new teaching series “Indispensable,” we’ll study the servant of the LORD in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

To set the stage for this series in Isaiah, we’re going to be jumping around a bit this first week, mostly in Isaiah, so try to keep up! We’re going to let Isaiah answer two questions today about the servant of the Lord. What does God’s servant do? Who is God’s servant?

First, what does God’s servant do?

GOD’S SERVANT IS A WITNESS (Isaiah 43:9-13 NIV)

All the nations gather together

   and the peoples assemble.

Which of their gods foretold this

   and proclaimed to us the former things?

Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right,

   so that others may hear and say, “It is true.”

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,

   “and my servant whom I have chosen,

so that you may know and believe me

   and understand that I am he.

Before me no god was formed,

   nor will there be one after me.

I, even I, am the LORD,

   and apart from me there is no savior.

I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—

   I, and not some foreign god among you.

You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.

   Yes, and from ancient days I am he.

No one can deliver out of my hand.

   When I act, who can reverse it?”

This is courtroom imagery. You probably know it well…dun, dun, dun, dun, dunnnnn from Law & Order. O.J. Simpson. Casey Anthony. How many of you have ever seen a witness testify on the stand? A witness’s job is not to talk about themselves or even to make the case; they are simply to testify what they’ve seen. The prosecutor says, “What did you see on the night in question?” The witness shouldn’t reply with, “my favorite ice cream is mint chocolate” or “I’m thinking of asking my girlfriend to marry me” or even “I really think the defendant is guilty…he just looks guilty.” Those details would be irrelevant! Witnesses testify to what they’ve seen and nothing else. That’s kind of the job description.

As God’s servant, Israel was to be God’s witness! Israel saw God work like no other nation ever has. The miraculous exodus from Egypt. The gift of the Law. Provision in the wilderness. Deliverance into the Promised Land. A Kingdom. A Temple. Etc. But God wanted to reach EVERY nation of the world, not just Israel, so that all might know Him. So He calls Israel to testify on His behalf, to know and believe and understand Him so that they might share Him with the world.

The same goes for all of God’s people, God’s servants. We are to bear witness, to testify about Him! Don’t confuse witnessing with bragging or arguing. Bragging is talking about how great I am: “Look at how great God has made me!” Arguing is talking about how great my ideas are: “Look at my great case for Christ!” But witnessing is talking about how good God is. Of course, this can be humbling because, in order to talk about how gracious and forgiving God is, we’ll need to talk about sin. But that’s ok! God is good!

The second question I wanted to look at is WHO is God’s servant in Isaiah? Isaiah uses “servant” 27 times in the last 27 chapters of his book. Sometimes it refers to some unnamed future figure, sometimes it refers to God’s people in general, but in the first of these 27 occurrences…

ISRAEL IS GOD’S SERVANT. (Isaiah 41:8-9)

“But you, Israel, my servant,

   Jacob, whom I have chosen,

   you descendants of Abraham my friend,

I took you from the ends of the earth,

   from its farthest corners I called you.

I said, ‘You are my servant’;

   I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

God chose Israel to be His servant, to testify about Him to the world, but there’s a problem…

GOD’S SERVANT ISRAEL IS BLIND AND GUILTY! (Isaiah 42:19-24)

Who is blind but my servant,

   and deaf like the messenger I send?

Who is blind like the one in covenant with me,

   blind like the servant of the LORD?

You have seen many things, but you pay no attention;

   your ears are open, but you do not listen.

It pleased the LORD

   for the sake of his righteousness

   to make his law great and glorious.

But this is a people plundered and looted,

   all of them trapped in pits

   or hidden away in prisons.

They have become plunder,

   with no one to rescue them;

they have been made loot,

   with no one to say, “Send them back.”

Which of you will listen to this

   or pay close attention in time to come?

Who handed Jacob over to become loot,

   and Israel to the plunderers?

Was it not the LORD,

   against whom we have sinned?

For they would not follow his ways;

   they did not obey his law.

Israel is spiritually blind. The great irony of God calling Israel to be His witness in Isaiah 43 is that He calls them blind in Isaiah 42! Israel did not listen to God or love His law like they should. God had made His law great and glorious after all! God’s law wasn’t meant to hurt them or hold them down but to create a flourishing society that would reflect His greatness and goodness to the world. Instead, Israel turned its back on God and His Law, worshipped idols and oppressed people, and brought God’s judgment on themselves! Israel’s spiritual blindness resulted in captivity in Babylon without hope.

Frankly, all people everywhere find themselves in the same place. You and me are originally blind to God’s glory and His ways and are therefore captive to sin and death. Except God still has His plan to work through an indispensable agent who will make things right…

JESUS IS GOD’S GREATEST SERVANT. (Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 12:15-21)

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

   my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

   and he will bring justice to the nations.”

These are the credentials of God’s chosen servant! He will be faithful to God and empowered by the very Spirit of God. And what is His mission? To bring justice to the nations. Literally to make things right. The biblical vision for justice isn’t just legal; it’s spiritual too. The idea here is that the servant will make things right between God and people and between people and people. That’s what Jesus does by dying on the cross for the sin of those who would believe and repent. That’s what Jesus does by leading and compelling us all to love God and love our neighbors.

When Jesus is baptized in three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke,) there is famously this voice from heaven, presumably God, who says, “You are My Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” and the Spirit of God is seen descending from heaven and landing on Jesus. If that isn’t a straight callback to Isaiah 42:1, I don’t know what is.

“He will not shout or cry out,

   or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

   and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Esarhaddon was famous Assyrian king around Isaiah’s time, and one of Esarhaddon’s scribes recounted his rule: “…with the trustworthy support of Ashur, Shamash, Nabu, and Marduk…all those not subservient to him, kings not subservient to him, he snapped like a marsh-reed, he subdued them under his feet…” Brutality would not characterize Jesus’ ministry.

“In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;

   he will not falter or be discouraged

till he establishes justice on earth.

   In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

God’s servant Jesus is absolutely determined to carry out His mission. He is like Rocky Balboa in the boxing ring, taking blow after blow, but refusing to give up until he’s won. We’ll look more at the resistance and persecution God’s servant Jesus received in the next couple weeks, but for now, Isaiah just wants us to know He’s determined.

Matthew, one of Jesus’ closest followers and the author of one of the Gospels, saw this passage from Isaiah come alive in Jesus’ life. In Matthew 12, Jesus was drawing the attention of the religious leaders and they were looking for a way to take him out, but Jesus was strategic…

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah… (Matthew 12:15-17 NIV)

Matthew quotes Isaiah 42:1-4 next to illustrate how Jesus stayed under the radar as much as possible in order to meet the needs of as many as possible until the moment came for Him to confront the Temple leadership and get killed for it.

Back to Isaiah’s servant…

This is what God the LORD says—

the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,

who gives breath to its people,

and life to those who walk on it:

God grounds His authority to choose and commission this servant in the fact that He is the Creator. He made sun, moon, stars, earth, you and me! And He has a plan…

“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;

   I will take hold of your hand.

I will keep you and will make you

   to be a covenant for the people

   and a light for the Gentiles,

to open eyes that are blind,

   to free captives from prison

   and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

This servant is related to but distinct Israel because this servant will be a covenant for Israel and a light for the Gentiles. Remember Israel’s problem? They are blind and held captive in Babylon. The servant has come to open their eyes and set them free! Is the opening blind eyes and setting captives free political or spiritual or something else? Good Christians disagree on this. Some take these words metaphorically and spiritualize to mean that the servant will cure spiritual blindness and free spiritual captives. There’s a spiritual bent to it. Others take this literally and politicize (I mean politicize in the best possible way) them to mean that the servant will cure physical blindness and free actual captives. There’s a social justice bent to it. So which is it?

In my super humble opinion (who am I really???), I think Isaiah is talking ultimately about rescue from spiritual blindness and spiritual slavery. In Isaiah, Israel is spiritually blind and, while their imprisonment is very much literal (Babylonian exile!), it is the spiritual consequence of their sins. So, while God certainly stands against physical blindness and against unjust imprisonment, Isaiah uses those physical/political realities as a metaphor for spiritual need and deliverance. Both Israel and we have gotten ourselves into a situation that we cannot get out of! We choose to ignore what God deserves (blindness) and become slaves to the powers of sin and death (imprisonment)! Someone else has to come and open our eyes. Someone else has to come and set us free. That’s what the indispensable servant of the LORD does. The servant opens blind eyes to God’s glory and sets slaves to sin and death free.

“I am the LORD; that is my name!

   I will not yield my glory to another

   or my praise to idols.

See, the former things have taken place,

   and new things I declare;

before they spring into being

   I announce them to you.”

God’s purpose in His servant is to bring people back to Him to worship Him as He deserves and reshape them for His purposes and He is in absolute control of making this happen…even to this very day. Here’s an update from Kelly Fath from a pastor in Bosnia, which is receiving a flood of refugees from Syria:

“Oct 30, 2019: Dear brothers and sisters, The last two days were very cold. It is raining and situation with refugees is getting worse. We are still managing to keep all kids and women in our church building. Also, we are managing to keep the most of teenagers in our building (at least those who are traveling alone). Our church building is full. People are sleeping in an office, chapel, youth ministry room, classroom and now even in corridors. We are not able to provide places for sleeping for all people who have serious health conditions. It is hard and painful to choose who will have a place for sleeping and who will stay outside. People are nervous and in panic. IT IS VERY HARD. We are still managing to provide food for people who are sleeping in our church building and on Saturdays we provide dinner to all refugees staying close to bus station. Every evening we make coffee and tea (we also try to provide some snacks) for all people at the bus station. Our medical team is now working in an open place and this part of our ministry is also “on the edge” of being possible. We are looking for a place close to a bus station that we will rent and where we would organize medical aid and some other ministries. During the next few days we will buy one more drier for clothes. The whole church is mobilized, (waves of) volunteers are doing a great job, and we are going forward step by step. Please continue to pray for our team and for this great ministry that will hopefully bring many fruits in the future.”

I don’t know about you, but that is some of the most beautiful kind of work a church can do. To testify to the love and truth of God by caring for desperate, needy people in Jesus’ name. This little Bosnian church has become “an indispensable asset in the spiritual and cultural renewal of these Muslim refugees,” they’ve become “a church for the community.” How do we get from where we’re at now to there? Come back the next 3 weeks as we hear Isaiah tell the story of how God restores and reshapes us for His work. Jesus works for us before He works in us so that He can work through us.

As part of this series, we hope to record a bunch of video testimonies from the Calvary family. The greatest gift you can give someone is your testimony–the story of what God has done for you, in you, and through you. It’s simple. Beginning next week and for the next few weeks, we will record your testimony right after church in the prayer room. How and when did God first save? What has He done for you and in you and through you? Don’t be ashamed or shy to talk about what God has meant to you.  If God has done something for you, in you, and through you, let the world know!

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the 12.01.2019 message “God’s Chosen Servant (Is 41:8-9; 42:1-9, 19-24; Mt 12:15-21).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: Jesus works for us before He works in us so that He can work through us.

  1. Read Isaiah 43:9-13. In this passage, how does God define the mission of His servants? What is the role of the witness in these verses? How might Christians sometimes confuse witnessing with bragging or arguing? How might this understanding of witnessing help us to do so more often?
  2. Read Isaiah 41:8-9; 42:19-24. In what sense was Israel to be God’s servant? What responsibility did each of the following have for Israel’s punishment: Israel, Babylon, God?
  3. Read Isaiah 42:1-9. List the qualifications, qualities, and objectives of the servant. How does Jesus match up with these?
  4. Read Matthew 12:15-21. What verses from Isaiah is Matthew quoting and how does he apply them to Jesus? How does this passage highlight the indispensability of Jesus for our lives and the life of the world?

Real Faith Saves Lives (James 5:19-20)

Now that we are settling into the building, we’re finalizing our emergency action plan. We hope and pray that there will never be an emergency here at Calvary, but we know that we should absolutely be prepared for them. For example, in the case of a fire evacuation due, you need to resist the urge to go get your kids or grandkids and head straight to our onsite gathering area is the southeast corner of our lot. We don’t want parents stampeding up the stairs to get kids while kids are stampeding down the stairs to get out. Let our many excellent kids ministry leaders get the kids out and meet them outside.

Another aspect of our emergency action plan is that all staff will be certified in first aid, CPR, and AED aka automated external defibrillator. When used correctly, an AED delivers a potentially life-saving shock to someone experiencing cardiac arrest. They are so easy to use that even someone like me can use it with just a bit of training! You shouldn’t mess with these things if you don’t know what you’re doing, but if you want to save a life, you should get trained! I hope we’ll never have to use it, but we know we’ll have to use it at some point to save someone’s life, which brings me to today’s big idea in James:

Real faith saves lives.

Saving lives has been James’ heart throughout his New Testament letter, which we’ve been studying for the past few months, and James drives this point home at the end of his letter. This James is likely the same James who grew up as Jesus’ little brother. Imagine the cloud that would have been over James and Jesus’ family growing up–neighborhood gossip, family tension, sibling rivalry, everyday mess all families, especially blended families have to work through.

But there was Jesus–growing up right in the middle of it–full of grace and truth. And there was James too, with a front row view of his big brother, God-in-the-flesh working through the mess of real, everyday life. James, while initially skeptical of Jesus, later became a follower and worshipper of his big brother. What an impact Jesus must have had on his little brother. And what an impact James’ letter had on the churches he wrote to–enough of an impact for them to pass on the letter for 2,000 years! In his letter, James emphasizes how real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

If you’re going to church but aren’t being changed, something’s off. If you’re going to church but aren’t helping others be changed, something’s off. He calls fellow church members “brothers (and sisters)” fourteen times and writes the entire letter in the second-person plural…“y’all.” It’s relationally-driven wisdom for a life-changing family. This is relational spiritual formation.

Relational spiritual formation is one of our core vehicles as a church. Core vehicles are the most important things we do as a church, those things we do that help us become a church for the community: worship gatherings, missional initiatives, missional neighboring, and relational spiritual formation.

 

Relational spiritual formation is when we gather in smaller groups–like kids ministry, youth group, adult LIFEgroups–in order to help each other become more like Jesus in real life. The heart of relational spiritual formation is captured in our member covenant.

My prayer during this teaching series on James’ letter to the churches called “Real Faith for Real People” has been that those of us who have discipling relationships would grow wiser and deeper and that those of us who don’t would make finding them a priority (talk to me if you need help) because following Jesus together should change our life.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20 NIV)

There is a ton at stake here. What does James mean by “death”? In chapter 1, James pictured death as the child of sin and grandchild of temptation. 1 John (3:14; 5:16-17) refers to a death that is clearly not simply physical. It is more like living under the reign of death while still physically alive. You can be spiritually dead while your body is very much alive. Spiritual death is a disconnect from God and other people. Spiritual death is hard heartedness to what is right and good. Spiritual death is destroying the world and is destined for divine judgment and destruction.

Thank God, James describes a way out, and that way out is YOU! YOU can save others. OTHERS can save you. We often talk about how Jesus saves us, which is absolutely centrally to all that we are, all that we believe, and all that we do. But there is a sense in which, we become little saviors by helping people connect or reconnect with God. Jesus, through His sacrificial death on the cross, saves those who repent from death and covers over the sins of those who repent, and WE save others from death and cover over sins when we help people repent and follow Jesus.

We’re going to look at 3 steps to saving a life in James:

HOW TO SAVE A LIFE: #1 Know and live God’s way

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (5:19-20)

There is a source of truth higher than each of us. Premodern cultures held that God or the gods were the source of truth. Modern culture held that science and reason were the source of truth. Postmodern culture holds that the individual is the source of truth. But James asserts that there is one truth greater than us, and we die if we wander from it. This source of truth, for James, is his big Brother, the One to whom He belongs as a “servant:” Jesus. God, in His Word, has given humanity an absolute standard, and our goal as Christians is to learn and live that standard.

So, James assumes that all Christians are striving to know and live God’s way. If you’re on an airplane and the cabin depressurizes, they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before you help someone else. Even if it’s your own kid. Because, without your own oxygen supply, you’ll be unconscious in seconds and won’t be able to help the person sitting next to you anyways. If we aren’t already walking in the truth, we won’t be able to help anyone else. Living out our faith is what he’s been challenging us to do throughout his letter:

  • Real faith listens to and obeys the God who saves.
  • Real faith shows radical hospitality without prejudice.
  • Real faith–saving faith–is the kind of faith that acts.
  • Real faith uses words to praise God and bless others.
  • Real faith skillfully lives out God’s good rule.
  • Real faith pursues unity over self.
  • Real faith includes God in your plans.
  • Real faith values people over money.
  • Real faith suffers patiently.
  • Real faith expresses itself in prayer.

If we’ve been listening to James, these are ways to walk the truth! And once we ourselves are living out the truth, it’s time to go get others…

HOW TO SAVE A LIFE:  #2 Go on mission into the mess

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (5:19-20)

The phrases “wander from the truth” and “the error of their way” means someone’s life has gotten out of whack with their faith; they are not living in a way that matches what they say they believe. But James is not writing to that person; he’s writing to those who are still walking in the truth! It’s written as encouragement to go and get that person whose lost and in the wrong, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Even if you have to spend a bit less time with the people and things that make you feel warm and fuzzy.

It’s really easy to lob religious grenades at culture or at lost and wandering people. Hannah More, a 19th century British writer, once observed, “We contrive to make revenge itself look like religion. We call down thunder on many a head under the pretense that those on whom we invoke it are God’s enemies, when perhaps we invoke it because they are ours.” Sinners are never rescued through passive aggressive sermons, words, or social media posts. They are rescued through the loving pursuit of a relational God and His relational servants.

In the early stages of your walk with Christ, you need to surround yourself with great Christian brothers and sisters who can mentor you so that you can be grounded with a rock-solid connection to Jesus. The Christian voices should at some point drown out those worldly voices. But there comes a time in your growth, different for every person, where you need to start heading back out more and more into the mess to save people.

Especially those of you who would be pastors or elders or deacons or deaconnesses or LIFEgroup leaders or women’s ministry team leaders…you are not called to care only for those who seem to have it together but especially to those stuck in their mess. Don’t give up on people. Here’s a secret: we are ALL messes. Let’s not think we’re too far above something. Let’s not be scandalized and ashamed of people who sin as if we’ve never sinned ourselves. Let’s get in the trenches with sinners (because we too are sinners in need of grace) and bring them back…

HOW TO SAVE A LIFE: #3 Pray and plead

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (5:19-20)

Now, James doesn’t tell us exactly how to bring people back, but we have hints from earlier in the letter. A major emphasis in James has been how God is eager to work in response to our prayer. Ultimately only God can really bring someone back. Recently I had a chance to share a meal with a pastor from Mexico named Ramon. Ramon came to faith 30 years ago despite having an atheistic father. For 30 years, Ramon has prayed for his father, but his dad had two master’s degrees, a PhD, and was completely content and convinced to not believe in God. Earlier this year, Ramon’s father experienced a heart attack. He bounced back pretty quickly, but then he had another heart attack, which really scared him. And then the doctors discovered he had colon cancer. Ramon’s father had been brought to his knees, truly humbled, he called for Ramon’s pastor to come and visit him, and right there, in the hospital bed he submitted to Jesus and was forgiven of his sin. Now he goes to Ramon’s church! Only God could ultimately bring Ramon’s father to repentance, so never give up praying for those who wander or are lost.

But we shouldn’t just pray and then abandon our own relational efforts to save lives. Only God can ultimately save someone, but there is also this sense in which God entrusts me to play an indispensable role in it. Pleading is what we can do. Earlier in James, he talked about how the tongue–our use of words–impacts people. Just like bits turn horses and rudders turn ships, tongues turn lives for good or evil, for life or death. As sinners, we tend to use that power to destroy, but we can also use it to save! How do you talk to someone who’s about to die?!?! You freaking plead with them!

As a pastor, I do lots of pleading. I spend a lot of my relational time with the lost and the brothers and sisters who are wandering. And it’s tough. Let me tell you the ideas and beliefs in the air today are really difficult to go up against. People are just so…convinced.

But it’s not just the pastors’ responsibility; it’s the church’s responsibility. This vision for church here is so countercultural to our consumer impulses as Christians. We come to church for ME! What I can get out of it, how much people welcome me, how good I feel. But James is insisting on a different path where we look out for others just like we would look out for ourselves. This is like going to a Black Friday sale not to buy things but to help people carry stuff to their cars. It’s cross-shaped. It’s putting others before self just like Jesus did.

The more we do this, the more God will work through us to save people. We’ll celebrate more and more baptisms over time as people surrender their lives to Jesus for the first time. We’ll share and hear testimonies as God does things for us and in us and through us. We’ll see people come back to church and make it a habit. We’ll welcome more members and recommit together each year.

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, has the kind of heart to go after every lost person. In His life, He went after as many of the poor, lost, and hurting as He could. In His death, He paid the debt of every repentant sinner so that they might be able to come back and be reconciled to God. In His resurrection and exaltation, He unleashes all of His followers to help bring people back.

Would you refrain from using the AED if it was too difficult, too awkward, or too inconvenient? No! You’d figure it out and jump right to it…unless you were some psychopath who enjoyed watching people die. How much more then should we rush to rescue those who wander or are lost with the life-saving Good News of what Jesus has done. What areas of your life need to be realigned with God’s truth? And who do you need to go after, pray for, plead with as a matter of life and death?

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the 11.24.2019 message “Real Faith Saves Lives (James 5:19-20).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: Real faith saves lives by going on mission into the mess and praying for and pleading with sinners to repent.

  1. Because we live in a post-modern world where individual define their own truth, what unique challenges might Christians face in applying these verses with fellow church members? Unbelievers in the community? How can we deal with these challenges?
  2. If the crucified and risen Jesus is our Savior, in what sense are those who turn sinners back to God considered “saviors” and “coverers of sin”?
  3. James doesn’t tell us HOW to turn sinners back in this text, but how might previous sections of his letter inform our efforts? Using your prior knowledge of Jesus in the Gospels, how did He model the practice described in James 5:19-20?
  4. What kind of death is James talking about in verse 20? Check out 1 John 3:14; 5:16-17 to further familiarize yourself with this type of death. How might truly believing in this kind of death motivate us to pray for and plead with sinners? Are there unbelievers or wandering believers in your life? If so, how does Jesus want you to respond?
  5. How might the idea of church membership support and enhance James’ vision for going after wanderers and helping them come back? To what extent do you value this aspect of church membership?

Real Faith Suffers Well (James 5:7-12)

Last Sunday, was the “international day of prayer for the persecuted church,” but we waited until today because we’ll be talking about suffering in James 5 today. Praise God that we don’t really experience persecution in the United States. Sure, our society is broken, and we live here as strangers and exiles. Sure, we may experience rejection or ridicule when we talk about our faith in Jesus, but we do not live in fear of discrimination or reprisals.

Some of Calvary’s own partners in a Muslim country reported the conversion of a local Muslim woman to Christianity but, when her fiance found her reading her Bible, he told her she was going to hell and broke off the engagement. In China, a church family with a 3,000-seat sanctuary, was interrupted during a worship service when a demolition crew showed up to take down the building. The pastors were later arrested for “gathering a crowd to disturb the social order.” That’s suffering.  In Nigeria, the government has sanctioned the persecution and slaughter of Christians, where the terrorist group Boko Haram and the Fulani ethnic group killed approximately 9,000 Christians and destroyed approximately 1,000 churches in a 12-month period from June 2017 to June 2018. That’s suffering.

Here in America, we enjoy unprecedented freedom and protection to worship, learn from, and talk about Jesus, but even that won’t last forever. There is a very good chance that Christianity, in general, or at least some historic teachings from Christianity, will face increased opposition in the years ahead. For example, some politicians are floating an idea, right now, to remove the tax-exempt status of churches and colleges who teach historic Christian doctrines about sexuality and marriage, which would be a major blow to church budgets everywhere, not that God wouldn’t still be at work anyways!

Suffering is a tough concept for us as American Christians. Not because we suffer so much, but because we suffer so little. Sorry, but I don’t think slow WiFi or lake effect snow really count as suffering. The truth is most of us, most weeks, don’t really suffer. But sometimes, some of us really do. A chronic, life-altering illness. The death of a loved one. This sermon is for you.

One of our church members who served in the Vietnam War has been having some terrible lung problems, perhaps as a direct result of interacting with “agent orange,” the herbicide the American military used to kill off crops and vegetation cover used by its enemies. As if the disease wasn’t bad enough, the health system specifically designed to serve him is really dropping the ball and dragging its feet. That’s suffering.

The Terrill and Zavala families, both part of Calvary, are hurting right now as Don Terrill, the patriarch of the family, is near death. He’s a beloved husband, father, grandpa, and church member, and it is heart-wrenching to see the man you know and love suffer so. That’s suffering.

How have you suffered? How are you suffering now? We’ve been studying the New Testament book written by James, and James, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wants to help us suffer well. This James is likely the same James who grew up as Jesus’ little brother. Imagine the suffering that James and Jesus’ family went through growing up–a working class family with at least five mouths to feed, living under the iron fist of Rome. And imagine the suffering James witnessed in Jesus’ life as he ministered to the masses and was arrested, condemned, tortured, and crucified.

But there was Jesus–right in the middle of it–full of grace and truth. And there was James too, with a front row view of his big brother, God-in-the-flesh working through the mess of real, everyday life. James, while initially skeptical of Jesus, later became a follower and worshipper of his big brother. What an impact Jesus must have had on his little brother. And James passed that impact on in a letter he wrote to a bunch of churches, in which he emphasizes how real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.

If you’re going to church but aren’t being changed, something’s off. If you’re going to church but aren’t helping others be changed, something’s off. For James, real faith is also relationally-driven. He calls fellow church members “brothers (and sisters)” fourteen times and writes the entire letter in the second-person plural…“y’all.” It’s life-changing wisdom for a life-changing family. This is relational spiritual formation.

Relational spiritual formation is one of our core vehicles as a church. Core vehicles are those things we do that are key to accomplishing the vision to become a church for the community. Core vehicles are the most important things we do as a church: worship gatherings, missional initiatives, missional neighboring, and relational spiritual formation. Relational spiritual formation is described in our member covenant:

 

I will be devoted to love for the Body, partnering with other members to be discipled and to disciple one another. I will regularly pray for and with others. I will pursue peace and unity with others by speaking encouraging, uplifting words and shunning gossip and divisive speech.

Relational spiritual formation is when we gather in smaller groups–like kids ministry, youth ministry, adult LIFEgroups–in order to help each other become more like Jesus in real life. My prayer during this series “Real Faith for Real People” on James’ letter to the churches called “Real Faith for Real People” is that those of us who have discipling relationships would grow wiser and deeper and that those of us who don’t would make finding them a priority (talk to me if you need help) because following Jesus together should change our life.

Let’s get into it.

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (James 5:7-8 NIV)

“Be patient THEN” points us back to verses 1-6, where the wicked rich are condemned for living in luxury while exploiting the poor. The suffering James has in mind here is the economic exploitation of the poor, so this text immediately applies to all of you are being taken advantage of financially. It also indirectly applies to ANYONE being oppressed, being made to suffer, whether by evil people or systems, by disease or death. The call for patience is the call to wait for Jesus to come back to exact justice and enact a great reversal. The wicked will be humbled and those who have humbly believed and repented will be saved.

James uses a common everyday example of patience: farmers. Farmers don’t give up after they wake up on the first morning after planting and see that nothing grew overnight. On day 13, they don’t go out and pull up all the sprouts because they aren’t big enough to harvest and replant the crop. No! They know it will take time! They know they need to wait patiently. What are they waiting for? Rain. Lots of rain. Israelite farmers depended on rain from God not the perpetual rivers of other civilizations. They lived life on the edge. No rain meant no food, so they begged God for it. Over time, God’s gift of rain produced plenty of fruit. But they had to wait.

Real faith waits for something better.

We live in a quick fix culture where sitcoms resolve in 30 minutes minus commercials, where smartphones need to load in less than a second, and where politicians should be able to fix all of our problems in their first year in office. But God is not interested in quick fixes. He is not interested in treating the symptoms of a broken world but in transforming our character as well as the world.

I do not understand how an agnostic (someone who claims no beliefs in God) or atheist (someone who doesn’t believe in God) can endure suffering. Where is the hope? What is the point? For Christians, suffering is NOT futile. There is an end and a point to it. The end of suffering is the reward of the kingdom at the return of Christ! The point is the character-building, life-changing growth process guided by God.

Jesus’ coming is near? Why is Jesus taking so long??? For 2,000 years, Christians have not believed Jesus must return soon, but that he could return soon. They believed that nothing stood between them and the return of Jesus in God’s Big Story. It is “imminent”…could happen at any moment…so they encouraged one another to live like that!

So what is Jesus doing in the meantime? Why the wait? Two things: He wants the gospel to be preached to all nations and for as many as possible to believe, repent, and follow Him. And He wants us to mature and become more like Him. If it’s worth having, it’s worth waiting for.

Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! (5:9)

Nothing turns people against each other like suffering. Money’s tight so spouses turn on each other. In-laws battle over time with their kids. Hurting people scramble for recognition and relationships at work or at church. Suffering can bring out the worst in us unless Jesus is giving us His best.

“Jesus at the door” reminds me of little kids fighting in the playroom and then noticing that Mom is standing in the doorway, watching their every move, patiently tapping her foot. “Oh…” she’s watching, they think, and get back to playing. If we really believe King Jesus stands ready to rule over us in His goodness, it will shape us because…

Real faith practices self-control.

When Calvary member Bernita Colthorp was in the hospital with some heart issues, she was in pain, she was exhausted, and she faced some scary medical prospects. Yet, she seemed to be her most composed, most joyful, most kind self. She’s got ice in her veins…and faith in her heart…real faith in a good God. She is a wonderful example of patience in suffering, even in our own church family. James gives us two examples of patience in suffering in the Old Testament: the prophets and Job.

Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (5:10-11)

The prophets are wonderful examples of patience in suffering because they worked so hard but saw so little fruit in their lifetime. We’re reading Ezekiel right now in our church-wide Bible reading plan, and one part jumped out at me in connection with James:

The people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.” The Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel had the responsibility to call God’s people to repent, but the vast majority of people didn’t. The prophets never really saw fruit, never saw the restoration of God’s people, never saw God’s plan come to a head in Jesus (like we have!), but they never stopped patiently speaking the love and truth of God. (Ezekiel 2:7-9)

If the prophets are examples of PATIENCE IN SUFFERING, Job is an example of BLESSING AFTER patience in suffering. Job’s story is awful. Job was family man with seven sons and three daughters who he loved very much. He was also an extremely wealthy man with a massive farming operation (oxen and donkeys), a clothing line (sheep), and a trucking business (camels). But in one day, he lost all three businesses and all ten children died. The entire book of Job is a conversation between Job, his wife, and his friends about why, why, why would God allow this to happen! By the end of the book, God restores Job’s family and businesses because Job never lost faith. He came close, but he patiently persevered.

“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” We’ll come back to this point at the end.

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned. (James 5:12)

James repeats almost word-for-word a teaching from Jesus in Matthew 5, and the teaching has to do with swearing oaths. In the ancient world, someone might make a promise and, in order to guarantee it, they would swear the oath by something, usually by God Himself or heaven, as a euphemism. In other words, they are saying, “May God strike me dead if I don’t make such-and-such happen.”

Today, we might make a silly oath with a pinky “promise” or someone might say “I swear on my mother’s grave.” But there are serious oaths out there. Government officials are “sworn into office” by placing their hands on a Bible, as if that guarantees their commitment to do what is right and good.

James is using Jesus’ teaching here for a specific purpose in the context of patience in suffering. When we swear oaths, we are trying are human best to take control of something we really have no ability to control. What does this have to do with patience in suffering?

Real faith surrenders control to God.

When bad things happen to us, some of us might respond by trying to take control of the situation. If our kids or grandkids are screwing up, we might try forcing the Bible or church down their throats. If a relationship is falling apart, we might try to manipulate the other by showering them with gifts to “win them back.” But in the end, trying to force or manipulate these situations leaves God out of the picture. We don’t know exactly what He is doing, but He is doing SOMETHING! Give Him space for it.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:11b)

Our willingness to wait in suffering, our self-control in suffering, our surrender of control in suffering is all rooted in the love of the Lord. But this is so odd. Why would a good God allow suffering in the first place? C.S. Lewis responds to this question in his book The Problem of Pain:

“We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven–a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’ Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction.”

Lewis then goes on to give four biblical metaphors that help us to understand the kind of love God has for us. First, God is an artist, and we are His art. The Bible portrays God as the potter and us as the clay. It also says that we are God’s “workmanship.” Clay, as it being shaped, might say, if it could talk, “Why are you pressing me so? It hurts!” But clay is unable to understand the beautiful pottery the Potter has in mind. The Potter loves His creation and shapes it.

Second, God is our master, and we are his creatures. God is a shepherd, and we are His flock. My dog is my creature, and she probably wonders why she has to be bathed and groomed and trained and house-broken. She doesn’t realize that I am trying to make her into something even better. The Master loves His creatures and trains them.

Third, God is father, and we are His children. Good parents raise their children, disciple their children, discipline their children into becoming blessings to society…even if the child doesn’t yet understand. Parents don’t let kids become drains on society. Our Father in Heaven loves His children and disciplines them.

Fourth, God is a husband, and we are His wife. Israel was pictured as married to God in the Old Testament, and, in the New Testament, Christ is the Groom to His Bride, the Church. Husbands are passionate for their wives, aim to set them up for success, make them beautiful. Wives, let me ask you this, “If your husband showed no concern for your health or beauty, would you think he loves you more or less?” Less! Husbands tenderly press in to provide and cultivate their wives, and anything less wouldn’t be marital love. Christ loves His Bride and washes her with His Word.

If clay, beast, and child were on level with the potter, master, and father, we would understand what our loving God is doing in the face of our suffering. But we don’t, so, like the wife gladly accepts her husband’s tender care, we must accept God’s and patiently wait until the end He has for us.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Based on the 11.10.2019 message “Real Faith Suffers Well (James 5:7-12).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.

Big Idea: Real faith suffers well by waiting for something better, practicing self-control, and surrendering control to God.

  1. James 5:7-8 – What does James want us to learn from the farmer about patience? How hard is it for you to be patient? What can make waiting easier?
  2. James 5:9 – Why do people tend to turn on each other in high-stress environments? Practically speaking, how might Jesus transform that kind of response?
  3. James 5:10-11 – What does James want us to learn about patience in suffering from the prophets, most of whom never saw the fruit of their labor, and from Job, who was rewarded after his suffering?
  4. James 5:12 – If swearing oaths is a futile attempt to control the future, how does this practice taint patience in suffering? What are practical ways to relinquish control to God?
  5. James 5:11b – How can God be this good if suffering exists? How can trusting in a good God enable you to suffer well?