Growing In Godliness Blog
Beatitudes: The Character of Kingdom Citizens
by Paul Earnhart
Jesus opens his momentous sermon with a series of eight pungent and largely paradoxical statements known traditionally as the “beatitudes” (Matthew 5:2-12). They must have fallen like thunderbolts upon those first century Jewish ears. A more likely formula for success could hardly have been imagined. They assaulted every maxim of conventional wisdom and left the hearer startled and perplexed. In this way Jesus gains the attention of his audience and drives home the essential character of the kingdom of God and its citizens, The whole world, then as now, was in earnest pursuit of happiness and had just as little conception as men today of how to obtain it. There was no surprise in the announcement that there was true blessedness in the kingdom. The shock came in the kind of people who were destined to obtain it. The beatitudes speak exclusively of spiritual qualities. The historic concerns of men—material wealth, social status and worldly wisdom—do not simply receive little attention, they receive none at all. Jesus is clearly out-lining a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), a kingdom whose borders pass not through lands and cities but through human hearts (Luke 17:20-24). This altogether unlikely kingdom arrived as announced in the first century (Mark 9:1; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 1:9) but most were unprepared to recognize and receive it~even as they are now. It must be further noted that not only were the qualities of the kingdom citizen spiritual but they are qualities which would not come to men naturally. They are not the product of heredity or environment but of choice. No one will ever “fall into” these categories. They not only do not occur in men naturally, but are in fact distinctly contrary to the “second nature” which pride and lust have caused to prevail in the hearts of all humanity. Perhaps there is no more important truth to be recognized about the beatitudes than the fact that they are not independent proverbs which apply to eight different groups of men, but are a composite description of every citizen in the kingdom of God. These qualities are so interwoven in one spiritual fabric that they are inseparable. To possess one is to possess them all, and to lack one is to lack them all. And as all Christians must possess all these qualities of kingdom life, they are also destined to receive all its blessings — blessings which, like its qualities, are but components of one reward- one body called to one hope (Ephesians 4:4). In sum, then, the beatitudes do not contain a promise of blessing upon men in their natural state (all men mourn but all will certainly not be comforted, 5:4) nor do they offer hope to those who seem to fall into one category or another. They are a composite picture of what every kingdom citizen, not just a few super disciples, must be. They mark off the radical difference between the kingdom of heaven and the world of other men. The son of the kingdom is different in what he admires and values, different in what he thinks and feels different in what he seeks and does. Clearly, there has never been a kingdom like this before. A Kingdom for the Sinful and Lowly There have been many approaches to the specific content of the beatitudes. Many feel that there is a progression of thought moving through them which begins with a new attitude toward self and God, leads to a new attitude toward others, and culminates with the world”s reaction to this radical change. There is some merit to this analysis, and whether or not such a neat format always coincides with the actual order of the beatitudes, the ideas are certainly there. To a society governed by some serious misconceptions of the kingdom of God, the beatitudes make two basic statements. First, that the kingdom is not open to the the self righteous and self·assured, but to the supplicant sinner who comes seeking out of his emptiness. And, secondly, that the kingdom is not to be had by the “mighty” who obtain their desires by wealth or violence, but by a company of patient men who yield not only their wants but even their “rights” to the needs of others. Though not explicitly stated (Jesus was not to speak clearly of His death until a year later, Matthew 16:21) there is nothing quite so obvious in this sermon as the central gospel truth that salvation is by the grace of God. Here the dispensational premillennialist is palpably wrong. How could men and women so hungry for righteousness (5:6) and so much in need of mercy (5:7) find a place in a kingdom governed by a system of law alone? And who could imagine that citizens in the earthly kingdom envisioned by the dispensationalists would ever suffer persecution (5:10- 12)? The righteousness of the kingdom does not rest on a system of law but upon a system of grace. Its holy standards are attainable by sinful men (5:48). Otherwise, the Sermon on the Mount would be the source of greater despair than the law of Moses (Romans 7:25).
“How to Avoid a Spiritual Failure
by Paul Earnhart”
In his final hours in Rome, awaiting an inevitable execution, a very lonely apostle Paul suffered some additional heartbreak. "Demas," he wrote, "hath forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Timothy 4:10). We are left to speculate as to the particulars — what dread fears or powerful allurements led this faithful friend and co-worker to abandon the kingdom of God and to forsake his burdened brother. It was not as though he had fled the field at the first approach of trouble. During Paul's first imprisonment in Rome Demas had evidently been a steadfast companion (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:14). Now, unexpectedly, this heart-mauling betrayal and desertion.
Paul said that Demas "loved this present world." The "world" is many things. John describes it as a way of thinking where lust, materialism and pride abound (1 John 2:15-16). What was it that got to the faithful Demas? Was it fear of death or imprisonment? Or was it something more subtle like a nostalgic longing for the old easy ways free of constant warfare? We are not told which one of these undid Demas but one of them found its mark.
Breaking points can come to us too if we are not very careful. A deep hurt we cannot find it in ourselves to forgive. A disappointing marriage. Failures with our children. Lost health or prosperity. Anything we had never imagined happening to us. And often it's just plain prideful stubbornness. At any rate, don't ever say you'd never do what others have done. You've never been all the places you could be. Peter learned a valuable lesson about that (Matthew 26:31-35). It is far better that we know our own weaknesses and watch and pray that we enter not into temptation (Matthew 26:41). Satan loves an arrogant and self-confident man.
Another lesson to be learned from the failure of others is that those who at last go back, at first look back. Departures of apparent suddenness are really the end of a process. Our Lord warned that those who put their hand to the kingdom plow and look back longingly at the world are not fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). The disciples who go back are those who first begin to cultivate again the values of the world and like the Israelites in the wilderness grow nostalgic amidst their trials for the fleshpots of Egypt. They forget, of course, the galling bondage that accompanies the life of sin. These are the ones who gradually cease to meditate upon God's word (Psalm 1:1-2), then become prayerless (James 4:1-2) as God and Christ seem far away. First men cease to study, then to pray, and, finally, to care.
Sometimes this all begins as a casual flirtation, a few little compromises dismissed as harmless. Too much time with worldly companions (1 Corinthians 15:33), too much interest in a job (1 Timothy 6:9-10), too much concern with being accepted and making our mark in the world (1 Peter 5:5). Finally, it becomes a passionate love affair that makes us heedless of the injury we do to our Savior, ourselves and others.
Satan is the master of the "short step" method. Slow change is more effective in producing spiritual collapse than sudden departure. The danger of alerting the victim to what is happening is eliminated. We can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12-13). Warning flags need to start flying the moment we feel the slightest ebb in commitment. Beware the spiritual slow leak.
The unfailing answer to this kind of spiritual failure is the daily discipline of an uncompromising dedication which admits of no exceptions and makes quick and humble redress for every transgression. Burn all your bridges and press on to the heavenly mark (Philippians 3:7-14). And if, in spite of everything, you happen to stumble badly, don't let despair destroy you. Remember that everyone who has faltered has not ultimately fallen. We can all thank God for that. John Mark's disgraceful desertion in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) was not the end of him because he didn't allow it to be. Paul sent for him during his last hours (2 Timothy 4:11) and the Holy Spirit chose him to record the gospel story. We don't have to be like Demas. In the mercy of God we have the privilege of being like John Mark or Peter, and, yes, even Paul.
A Season of Healing
By Wyatt Taylor
This Sunday, as the elders have announced, we will end most pandemic protocols and assemble for worship as a full congregation for the first time in 15 months.
I'm grateful that the elders took the precautions they did and that the congregation has weathered this time as well as it has. I very much appreciate the elders' judgment and the good work done by so many to facilitate our church life in a time of pandemic.
But while tools like live-streaming were blessings, and separate services were necessary for a time, I don't believe anyone has dared claim these arrangements are superior to, or even on par with, the traditional gathering of the church in the same place at the same time.
After all, God does not call us to join a virtual church, but a local church.
The last 15 months have been a trying time for the church. The pandemic lockdowns and precautions forced upon us a separation and an isolation that disrupted the common rhythms of church life, and this took a heavy toll on our relationships and bonds. As a society, and as a church, we labored to overcome the separation. We had “drive-by” parties and “quaran-teams” and “bubbles” and countless Zoom gatherings. But it was not the same. To say that our congregation has endured the pandemic relatively well is not to say that there has been no negative impact. And though the physical distance that has separated us for these 15 months may be gone on Sunday, the emotional and spiritual distance will not automatically disappear along with it.
Our isolation has taken its toll on our bonds of fellowship. Amid the pandemic, we had to navigate a slate of cultural controversies using social media tools that drive our outrage and division. We've seen pitched debates over the pandemic and pandemic precautions, racism and policing, and a heated presidential campaign. In times past we may have had these debates in-person around a table, a setting that more readily lends itself to resolving conflict. But in this time of isolation, we too often relied on online interactions that fed misunderstanding, hasty judgments, suspicion, cynicism, and distrust. I know I did, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels some alienation has developed between myself and other brethren.
Now, I believe it is critical that Christians discuss these topics and that it will not do for us to throw up our hands at the first sign of disagreement, accepting an equivalence between both sides in the name of peace rather than doing the hard work of engaging, discerning, and making a judgment about truth. But I would suggest we ought to be doing this together, with our bond in Christ at the front of our minds.
In every relationship, people disagree and get frustrated with one another. Especially in marriages. My wife and I aren't the type to have vocal arguments. Instead, when we get angry with one another, we tend to do something maybe even worse - we withdraw. We say nothing and retreat into a kind of Cold War. In a marriage book we studied some years ago, this kind of phenomenon was likened to building a wall between the spouses. We build a wall between us, brick by brick, with every little disagreement or disappointment that goes unaddressed. Until, over time, we can no longer even see one another. Understanding this tendency has helped us to counteract it. And we do so by confronting our feelings and sharing them in a healthy way. We strive to keep the lines of communication open, to not let a single brick be laid between us.
Brethren, we don't have to look far among the brotherhood to see the walls that have been built in the last year. It is time to bring them down.
- Behind them we may just find folks suffering in isolation, in need of burden bearers and fellow soldiers to lift them up.
- We may find folks who have gotten a little too comfortable in isolation, in need of a reminder of the joys of brotherhood.
- We’ll surely find difficult conversations and the need for forgiveness.
We may feel safe behind the walls we've built, justified in having built them, not sure we're ready to re-engage and deal with the messiness of community. It won't be easy to bring the walls down, and we might be fooled by the lack of open conflict into thinking we have nothing to worry about. But we must not mistake the quiet for genuine peace.
We all long for peace, and God has called us to be at peace as a church. Yet this never happens by accident, peace is made by peacemakers who employ the meekness of wisdom.
- James 3:13-18: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."
We must carefully examine our attitudes toward one another, put away the bitterness that may have built up, and soften our hearts toward our brethren, esteeming them above ourselves.
- Ephesians 4:31-32: "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you."
- Philippians 2:1-4: "Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."
- Colossians 3:12-14: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”
As I’ve reflected on the last 15 months and the meaning of our coming back together, I believe the lesson is simple: we need one another. As sojourners and exiles in a world that does not believe, God's people must walk together.
I want to spend these coming months re-building bonds that may have weakened through neglect and separation, breaking down walls and healing wounds I may have caused, practicing hospitality to get to know brethren at a deeper level, and taking opportunities to be of service and encouragement to my brethren. I want to widen my circle. I realized during the pandemic that there were far too many brethren whom I know of, but hardly know well. I want to correct this, and I ask everyone to take up this challenge.
May this be a time of breaking down walls. May these next months be a season of healing, of repairing the bonds of fellowship that have frayed, of drawing one another out of isolation and into a community of grace where we will "stir one another up to love and good works". May the spirit of grace and forgiveness be mighty among us and overcome the cynicism and anger that may have prevailed. May the disagreements of the last 15 months recede into the past and unity in our love for God and desire to serve Him be elevated.
As we once again assemble in full, let us not forget the loss we felt in separation. And let us celebrate the beauty and joy of our coming together, which is but a foretaste of the joy we will one day share when gathered in heaven around the throne of God.
Discipline and Holiness
By Austin Shearer
“Do you understand why I am punishing you?” I can still hear those words ringing in my ears. I heard them often enough growing up. Usually, I had done something wrong at the beginning of the day, and my mom valiantly took on the task of correcting me. I did not appreciate it then, but mom would send me to my room for thirty minutes so that she could prepare to teach me why what I had done was wrong, why I needed to be punished, and how it really was for my own good. I appreciate it now. Now years later, the time spent to help me understand my faults, and the consequences of those faults, has helped me to begin grasping a deep truth; God wants us to share in His holiness.
In (Heb. 12:7-11), the writer makes the point that God, “disciplines us for our good.” When we sin against him, the consequences of those actions are designed to propel us forward into deeper devotion, and deeper service to Him. It is interesting, however, that the writer clarifies what he means by, “for our good.” He goes on to say, “that we may share in His holiness.” There is a purpose to God’s discipline. It isn’t disciple just because God likes to tell us we are wrong and to punish us, rather, it is God creating a people who share His holiness. Perhaps this is a point we are to learn from the old law, and the sacrifices that were to be perfect and without blemish. God wanted His people to display His image of holiness throughout the world.
It is mind boggling, that God wants us to share in His holiness. After all, we are all sinners, we have all failed to attain to the perfect holiness of God. I am confident that most Christians have faced moments of doubt and discouragement, because we are called to a higher standard, and we have not lived up to that standard. I am also confident, however, that we can find joy in knowing that God’s discipline, for our failure, is His love, and deep desire to share His holiness with us.
With that astonishing realization, perhaps, when we face the discipline of God, we will have a different view. Perhaps we will understand the words, “Do you understand why I am punishing you,” a little bit better, and we can answer, “Yes, that I might share in Your holiness.”
The Cross and Me
By: Olivia Shearer
The story of the cross is familiar to Christians. Sometimes this familiarity with the text keeps us from seeing how cruel this event was. I remember a few years back watching The Passion of The Christ (2004) and being overwhelmed by that palatable hatred that surrounded the figure of Jesus. A man the Jews had praised and honored days before was now the center of mocking, shame, and unimaginable pain. I couldn’t fathom hating anyone that much, let alone someone who hadn’t personally done anything to me, but recently I realized that my actions toward God when I sin aren’t so different from the actions of the people who put Christ to death. When you look deeper at the crucifixion story and our own past or perhaps present mentalities toward God the resemblance is unsettling. The cross and the actions taken there are the physical symbol of my sin and what it does to God.
Let’s start early on in the garden. Even before the pain and destruction of the cross I can see similarities between what I do and what Jesus’ disciples did in the garden. In Luke 22:27-48 we see Judas come and kiss Jesus on the cheek. Jesus immediately sees through this supposed friendly act, and God still sees through our acts of supposed friendliness. Are we so different from Judas when we sit in a pew singing and praising God all the while knowing that when we return home or when the next day comes, we plan on sinning? Not all sin is premeditated, but when it is and we pretend like that sin isn’t on our hearts and minds are we any better than Judas kissing the son of God and delivering him over to the Pharisees. Even if we aren’t deliberately betraying Jesus, if we know a
trial or temptation is about to arise in our lives, but we refuse to prepare for it are we any better than the disciples in verse 45 of Luke 22 who Jesus finds sleeping when he asked them to pray. I wish I could say this was the only resemblance I saw, but my similarities and I suspect many others’ similarities with the people and events of the crucifixion don’t end there.
Matthew 26:56 tells us that the disciples fled and abandoned Jesus. I think this is exactly what we do when we sin. We have a friend in Jesus, a companion, a rock, a guide, and a hope, but when we sin, we abandon all of that. We run to another refuge whether that be ourself, riches, or other people, we abandon Christ. We leave him alone as the world looks on and questions and ridicules him (often because of our sinful behaviors while calling ourselves his representatives on earth). We leave him without our support. I think Jesus stands there hurt by our betrayal knowing he will be okay because he has God, but worried for our souls and our next decisions.
When I’ve sinned and sometimes before I’ve sinned, I find that I put God on trial just as the Pharisees did. I come with a motive and agenda already in mind just as the council in Mark 14:55 sis. I come without an open mind and open his word searching for something that will make what I want to do or what I’ve already done okay. I pull scriptures out of context and twist words just as the Pharisees pulled together false witnesses and took Jesus words out of context. I question God and ask him if he really has my best interest at heart, and when I find that God is innocent, I recreate my memories and point out times when I couldn’t see his design for my life or when I felt that he was being unfair, and then I question his deity by sinning and putting myself in a spot of higher prominence and authority.
After I’ve effectively won my case, with the loaded jury in my own mind, I mock his deity further with my sin. I sin and effectively spit on him and his blessings. I thrust a crown of thrones on his head and throw a purple robe over his beaten body like the soldiers in Mark 15:18 and tell him he’s not the king of anything in my life. I make myself a king. I sin and I strike his back and leave pain behind as I use his own love for me against him.
After I’ve mocked and beaten my savior, I hand him the weight of accusations, hatred, pride, and rebellion and say carry it, just as the Jews handed Jesus his cross. Then I try to nail him down to those accusations to keep myself from seeing how I’ve failed and what I’ve become. Meanwhile my fellow Christians stand by and see my life of sin and the pain it causes God just as Mary saw her son hanging on a cross in John 19:25, but I am unmoved by their pain for God and for me.
Then I wait. I watch as my savior struggles under the pressure of my sins, my pride, and my willful ignorance. Christ sits there interceding for me asking God to forgive me and the others who have nailed him there, but one spot in which I differ from the Jews is that unlike the people in Luke 23:34, I do know what I’ve done. I knew it was wrong, but I don’t want to face it.
Then God allows me to have my way. He delivers my world into darkness as his son take his last breath and my world is split into two. It is only there in my darkest moments when I’ve hit rock bottom that I turn back to him and like the centurion in Mark 15:39 declare him to be the innocent Son of God.
It’s frightening to see the parallels between the story of the crucifixion and my own life. Something that once seemed unfathomably evil, now seems all too familiar, and I feel a bit like David in 2 Samuel12:7 as Nathan tells him “You are the Man!” Not all of our sins follow this exact course, but I do find that almost all sins have some variation or combination of the events above in them. I think this calls us all to evaluate our attitudes towards the Jews of Jesus’ day (who may be more like us than we like to admit), towards God when we sin, and towards the deity and sovereignty of God which we call into question anytime we sin.