Friday, May 30, 2008

The Tenderness of His Love

This week we have the tremendous privilege to study the tenderness of God’s love. Sabbath’s lesson seems to equate compassion with “genuine love,” and while compassion is certainly a part of love, God’s love is far more. Matthew 4:23 tells us that Jesus Christ had a teaching, healing, preaching ministry. If we look at the record in the first three gospels we see that His healing ministry was significant.

The evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke often tell us that many of these healing works resulted from the compassion of Christ. When the leper in Mark chapter 1 came to Jesus for healing and said, “If you are willing,” Jesus was “moved with compassion, put out His hand and touched him ...” Matthew records in Chapter 9:35, 36: “Jesus went about ... healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.”

The lesson rightly points out the breadth of His compassion—He welcomed the little children, He wept at Lazarus’s funeral, His heart broke for the woman caught in adultery as well as for her accusers. Some of my personal favorites include His heart breaking for the woman with the flow of blood for 12 years, who was banished from any meaningful physical contact with anyone for as many years. His compassion would not let her go with just a touch of the hem of His garment, for she had been a social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual outcast too long. He had to speak to her face to face and restore her fully and call her “daughter.” Then there is the story recorded in Luke chapter 13 of the woman who had a “spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could not raise herself up,” so He healed her on the Sabbath day. His compassion sprang from who He is, for God is love. Let us explore briefly a few qualities of agape, God’s love, then we will look at Wednesday’s lesson.

  • Agape is selfless, self-emptying, self-sacrificing, self-renouncing, a love that “seeks not her own.”
  • 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” Sounds like new math it is so upside down. But the beauty of agape is that it takes something that ordinarily would be worth nothing and makes it priceless. It creates value in the object of its affection and attention. The parable of the pearl of great price tells us that Jesus Christ the heavenly Merchant came seeking beautiful pearls, “who when He had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that He had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45).
  • Agape is willing to descend. Jesus asked His disciples in Luke 22:27, “who is the greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.” A short time later John describes how Jesus in the upper room for the last supper laid aside His garments, took a towel, and girded Himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Jesus, knowing the glory that He had before time began, could have risen up from supper, laid aside His ordinary garments, called for royal robes, and bid His disciples keep their distance and do Him homage. But quite the contrary, agape does not seek it’s own, is not puffed up, and dares to step down lower so Jesus could demonstrate the greatest instance of humility.

The ultimate passage describing Christ’s condescension is Philippians 2:5-8. This passage also details a fourth aspect of agape: it is willing to lose eternal life. As we read Psalm 22 and Matthew 26 along with Ellen White’s comments in The Desire of Ages chapters 74 and 78, this was not an easy task. In the garden of Gethsemane, He requested special prayer from His three closest companions, and His sweat became like great drops of blood. The agony was so intense His face became disfigured such that the disciples hardly knew Him. But Ellen White, says, “He beholds its [the doomed world’s] impending fate, and His decision is made. He will save mankind at any cost to Himself” (ibid., pp. 690, 693).

On page 753 of the same book she says, “ The Saviour could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror ... He feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal.” The wonder of redeeming love! Agape is powerful and it constrains us to live for the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Wednesday’s lesson deals with Christ’s tender love for His enemies. Matthew 5:44. 45 says, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven ...” Jesus Christ our elder brother was spitefully used and persecuted, yet He “went about doing good” including the ultimate good, which was His death on the cross for all mankind. As He hung on the cross His heart toward His enemies cried out, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”

Romans 5:6-10 gives us a progression of our condition. Verse 6 says, “When we were still without strength ... Christ died for the ungodly.” Verse 8 says, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and finally, verse 10 says, “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son ...” The tender agape of Jesus is so powerful, so compelling that the response of Paul is the only appropriate one, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith [of] the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). It calls forth from us total surrender, and total obedience. The tender love of God—agape—is a love that will not let us go. The Lord will enable us to truly understand, appreciate, and extend that love to everyone.

—Lyndi Schwartz

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Intensity of His Walk

These special INSIGHTS accept the Sabbath School Lessons produced by the General Conference, and thank the Lord for them; our contribution is simply to inquire where the 1888 message of Christ’s righteousness may offer a valuable “insight” or comment.

Ellen White was overjoyed with that message of 120 years ago. She recognized that its true identity was (and is) the long-awaited “beginning” of the Loud Cry of Revelation 18.

But as the 1888 era drew to its close with the message largely unappreciated and rejected (cf. Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 234, 235), she declared that “the disappointment of Christ is beyond description” (Review and Herald, Dec. 15, 1904). The “disappointment” was because Jesus longed for His people to get ready for His second coming, which would mean “the marriage of the Lamb.” His eagerness as a divine Bridegroom was the cause of the “disappointment.”

Our Lesson brings us to the experience of Jesus on His cross when He screamed in agony, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Never had any human being before experienced this total abandonment of God; even the multitudinous victims of Roman crucifixions never experienced the horror that Jesus did. It’s true that Moses had declared that anyone hanged on a tree is “accursed of God” (Deut. 21:21-23), yet something that God had done “in Christ” had spared all those criminals who died in ancient Rome from actually experiencing that awful “accursedness.” Romans 5 makes it clear:

“God’s act of grace is out of all proportion to that one man’s wrongdoing [Adam’s]. For if the wrongdoing of that one man brought death upon so many [everyone!], its effect is vastly exceeded by the grace of God and the gift that came to so many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ.

“And again, the gift of God is not to be compared in its effect with that one man’s sin [Adam’s]; for the judicial action, following on the one offence, resulted in a verdict of condemnation, but the act of grace, following upon so many misdeeds, resulted in a verdict of acquittal. ...

“It follows, then, that as the result of one misdeed was condemnation for all people, so the result of one righteous act is acquittal and life for all” (vss. 15-18, NEB).

Every pagan criminal executed on a cross by ancient Rome benefited from that “judicial ... acquittal” in God’s sight. None was paying the final price for his sin or crime, whatever it was.

So has every sinner that has ever died; God did not “impute” his trespasses against him (see 2 Cor. 5:19).

The punishment for sin is not now; it comes at the end of the 1000 years of Revelation 20, when all the lost who have come up in the second resurrection gather around the Great White Throne for the final judgment.

Then each will finally realize that his true name has always been “Esau,” the man who had the “birthright” that no one could have taken from him, but which he “despised” and “sold” for a mess of pottage (Gen. 25:34; Heb. 12:16, 17).

Every soul who will finally perish in the “second death” will be a soul whom Jesus has always loved since his/her birth, yes, even from conception (cf. Psalm 139:13-16). In the earth made new, God will wipe away all tears from people’s eyes (Rev. 21:4); but surely He Himself will shed tears before that time—when He has to watch the “Esau’s” of all time perish in their second death which they have chosen—which He Himself has already died in their behalf on His cross.

It’s time for us now to learn to appreciate the “breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that [we] might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph 3:14-21).

This larger heart appreciation of agape is the preparation for the close of probation and translation (without seeing death, 1 Thess. 4:15-17) which the Lord intended for us 120 years ago when He “sent a most precious message” to us, but which “we” did not appreciate at that time. We made “ourselves” like the ancient Israelites who could not enter their Promised Land because of their unbelief (cf. Heb 3:7-19).

Jesus Christ has become one of us; as an eager Bridegroom, He longs for His “marriage of the Lamb” to come soon (cf. Rev. 19:7, 8).

—Robert J. Wieland

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Puzzle of His Conduct

Both Jesus’ words and conduct have today a specific purpose—for us to repent and allow ourselves to be drawn closer to God.

It’s not easy to assign Jesus to a particular category or class, rigid or exclusive. Some are genuinely puzzled by His conduct: Does He expect us to do that, and in the same way? As we study this week’s lesson, let’s try to uncover the underlying principles, aware that two individuals may come away with completely different impressions of what Jesus’ sayings mean.

The teachings of Jesus make wonderful sense to many because they have read them many times or have grown up with them. To a new believer, however, knowing how to be born again, or to be perfect, or to forgive seventy-times seventy can be challenging concepts. What is our responsibility?

In the passage in Sunday’s lesson (Luke 2:41-51) it was clearly Mary and Joseph who neglected to see to it that Jesus was with the group traveling north to Galilee from Jerusalem after the Feast of the Passover. Verse 51 is explicit in its statement about Jesus’ obedience to His mother Mary and to Joseph. This incident had nothing to do with any irresponsibility of Jesus.

The mission of redemption began to dawn in the mind of Jesus as He observed the Passover ceremonies. In answer to His mother’s question as to why He treated Joseph and herself the way He did, Jesus mildly rebuked her by stating that He must be about His heavenly Father’s business. The implication is that they should have known this. The message to Mary and Joseph and to us is the same: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19).

We have a clear historical incident of neglect, irresponsibility, and unaccountability in our not too distant past. Although sharply disapproved of and criticized by church leadership for their beliefs, Jones and Waggoner and Ellen G. White responded to God’s message as supreme. While obedient to leadership, they knew their first duty was to be faithful to God’s special message beginning in 1888. That message was the uplifting of Christ in such a way as to draw everyone to Him, being led to repentance and faith. When the trio was broken up by sending Ellen White to Australia and Waggoner to England, all three remained true to the message from heaven. Although obedient to the voice of leadership, they continued to preach the message of Christ and His righteousness and other teachings connected to that message.

Monday’s lesson is about the anger displayed by Jesus when He went into the temple courts and heard the raucous noise and saw the selling of commodities in that sacred place. Jesus displayed righteous anger, not for Himself but for God, indignant because of the false message of salvation implied by the peddlers and their products. Is Christ’s indignation an example for us? Yes. But we need to be exceedingly careful to understand the difference between a sanctified righteous anger and that which springs from self.

Tuesday’s lesson is about the destruction of property. A question first must be asked: Were the pigs really the personal property of those who raised, ate, and sold them? Another question arises: Did Jesus destroy the pigs? Or did the devil stampede them over the precipice? Should we be left with the impression that Jesus did the destroying? What about today? During destructions such as Myanmar, Katrina, and 9/11, who is blamed? God. In the United States even insurance companies get out of paying money to insured people for destructions labeled “acts of God.”

Wednesday’s lesson asked two probing questions: (1) “Where is God when we hurt?” [We might also ask: “Where are we when God hurts?”] and (2) “How can His behavior during the entire episode with [John] the Baptist help understand the silence of God in our own times of trouble?” God may be silent, but He is not unmindful. He will more than make up for any suffering or inconvenience we may experience because we serve Him.

In answer to the first question we may learn something about God’s suffering as the Father stood alone at the cross when Jesus suffered and died. God’s suffering did not begin or end at Calvary. Today, He hurts for us in silence. As for the second question, we need to consider the lesson learned by John—that suffering for Christ’s sake is a weighty gift from God. “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). God never neglects those who suffer and/or are persecuted for His sake. As we study the lives of martyrs we learn that most of them died with intense suffering, but they prayed and sang songs of triumph in their agony. No doubt they were encouraged as they meditated on the sufferings of John and Jesus.

The increasing suffering and the number of natural disasters have many people wondering who controls the weather, God or Satan? There are some Christians who believe Satan’s powers to be extremely limited, therefore it is God alone who sends these “natural” disasters. This, they believe, is what the Bible teaches, a notion not unlike the interpretations given to the so-called hard sayings and doings of Jesus. However, there can be no meaningless suffering for the believer, whether it is caused by man or by a natural event. We may not always know why evil acts or natural disasters happen, but we can be assured that in all our trials and tribulations God is working all things together for His glory and for our everlasting good (Rom. 8:18-28).

Jesus mentioned that many natural disasters would be a sad reality throughout history and would build in impact as we approach the end of time. He predicted: “There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines and calamities; this is but a beginning of the intolerable anguish and sufferings” (Mark 13:8, Amplified). Disasters will continue to wreak havoc on countless thousands of people around the globe. But God says, “... the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner: but My salvation shall be for ever, and My righteousness shall not be abolished” (Isa. 51:6).

The lesson to be learned regarding the so-called hard sayings and doings of Jesus this week (and every week until His return) is this: repent and believe the Good News. When this lesson is learned He will come, just as He would have come shortly after 1888, if His people would have repented and believed His message that God intended to be given to the church and to the world.

—Gerald L. Finneman

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Challenge of His Sayings

“Thus it was that ‘by the word of the Lord’ all things were created. He spoke the word only, and it was so: the word spoken, itself produced the thing.

“Thus it was in creation. And thus it was in redemption: he healed the sick, he cast out devils, he stilled the tempest, he cleansed the lepers, he raised the dead, he forgave sins, all by his word. In this, also, ‘he spake, and it was.’

“And so he is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Always he is the Creator. And always he does all things by his word only. And always he can do all things by his word; because it is the very characteristic of the word of God, that it is possessed of the divine power by which itself accomplishes the thing which is spoken.

“This is why it is that faith is the knowing that in the word of God there is this power, the expecting the word itself to do the thing spoken, and the depending upon that word itself to do that which the word speaks” (A. T. Jones, Lessons on Faith, p 18; p. 10, newer edition).

The “sayings” of Jesus are the word of God also, with just the same inherent power to create what those sayings say, as when He said, “Let there be Light”—even though Jesus would use metaphors and euphemisms common to the era. For example, “If your right hand causes you to sin [offends you, KJV], cut it off” (Matt. 5:30), and “I ... will hold your right hand” (Isa. 41:13).

The right hand, being the power hand for most people, is the hand of action; and in this metaphor, is used in this way. For example, Psalms 118:16, “The right hand of the Lord is exalted: the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.” (Except for sneaky Ehud in Judges 3, the left hand was used for holding things.) So the metaphor of Matthew 5 actually is referring to actions. In today’s vernacular it might read like this: “If your actions are offensive or incorrect, stop doing them, and, if necessary, sell the television or stay away from that side of town—whatever it takes.” Moreover, by telling us this, Jesus has given us the victory by providing the power to overcome. The question is: will you believe His all-powerful word? Jesus promises to “hold your right hand”—to control your actions—if you will believe Him, thus letting Him have your thoughts and affections.

Take for example “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). The reference to the dead would seem to indicate that the father is still alive because the living can’t (or don’t) bury the living any more than the dead can bury the dead (at least so we hope!). Jesus is capable of a little wry humor, too, for He is facetiously highlighting the man’s faulty logic: “If you want to go bury your living father, then the dead can indeed bury themselves. Let them do it and save yourself the trouble. Come with me.”

Another saying dealing with the same subject of cutting off your right hand has to do with the eunuchs of Matthew 19. Jesus has just told us that the only moral ground for divorce is marital infidelity. At the same time, however, He is allowing for the condition stated in Proverbs (by the way, what is said here about women is also true for men):

“The contentions of a wife are a continual dripping. ... [It is] better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman. ... It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than in a house shared with a contentious woman [with a brawling woman and in a wide house, KJV]” (Prov. 19:13; 21:19; 25:24).

By so saying, He is allowing for the possibility that spouses may find it necessary, for physical or mental safety reasons, to live separately, and that neither remarry while the other is alive and not remarried. Divorces made on earth may in some cases be only a “legal separation” to God. This is voluntary celibacy : “There be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake” (Matt. 19:12). Remember, Jesus’ word has the power inherent within it to create the thing that it says.

The phrase “seventy times seven” was a common euphemism, but even if not, it is packed full of meaning here. Look at Daniel 9:24: “Seventy weeks [seventy times seven days] are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy.” When Jesus is saying to forgive “seventy times seven,” He is referring to His taking up His cross and giving up the hope of His own eternal life that we might have forgiveness of sins and the eradication thereof. Jesus was pointing His disciples to the cross. Are we willing to give up the hope of even our own eternal life for the eradication of sin, the vindication of God’s name, and the coming of Christ to receive His inheritance? That is the question. For if we are, what does that mean in our relationships?

I do not believe that Jesus ever used this phrase: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom” (Mark 6:23). We know Herod used it and also Ahasuerus in Esther’s day. It means you can have anything you want within reasonable limits. However, God never says this, for no limits are built in. This is what God says in Luke 12:32: “Do not fear, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The WHOLE kingdom—with alacrity, “pressed down and running over”!

“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, ... to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 2:4-6; 3:19; emphasis supplied)

Craig Barnes

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Wonder of His Works

The Sabbath School lesson for Sunday asks, “What lessons can we learn from Matthew 8:23-27?”

“When Jesus was awakened to meet the storm, He was in perfect peace. There was no trace of fear in word or look, for no fear was in His heart. But He rested not in the possession of almighty power. It was not as the “Master of earth and sea and sky” that he reposed in quiet. That power He had laid down, and He says, “I can of Mine own self do nothing.” John 5:30. He trusted in the Father’s might. It was faith—faith in God’s love and care—that Jesus rested, and the power of that word which stilled the storm was the power of God” (The Desire of Ages, p. 336).

So, we see that the “work” of stilling the storm was by the faith of Jesus. This work sprung up and out of His faith in His Fathers power; His works are always the product of His faith.

Paul instructs us further in Galatians 5.6 teaching us that it is faith that works through love (agape). It is never faith + works, but always a faith that works by love.

The year following the 1888 General Conference, E. J. Waggoner wrote, “The great characteristic of faith is that it works. We do not mean that works are attached to it, but works come from it. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” James 2:26. Faith ‘worketh by love,’ says Paul. There may be that which is called faith, but if no works proceed from it, it is not faith.

“A just man is one who acts in harmony with the law of God. Therefore a just man is an obedient man. So we may understand ... that an obedient man shall live (a life of obedience) by his faith. The obedience springs from his faith, and therefore there is no chance for him to be lifted up, since the act of obedience is not his personal action, but is the action of his faith, and credited to him as his own. The man, whose soul is lifted up in him, is the man who thinks that he can of himself do all that is required, ... thus, ‘pride goeth before destruction’” (Signs of the Times, Feb. 4, 1889).

God has given to the world His only begotten Son (John 3:16) and His Son comes with His own faith. This is the faith that is given to us in Romans 12:3. He comes with His faith so that we may live the same just life that Jesus lived, for the just shall live by His faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17).

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. ... For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (Psalm 33:6, 9). When the creation week was over all God’s work was finished and He rested on the seventh day. Rest follows finished work. (Genesis 1 is the greatest faith chapter in the Bible! God spoke and it was! God never changes and is ever present, therefore His word has the same characteristics.)

The Father chose us in Christ from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3, 4), therefore when Christ went to the cross all mankind went with him. When Jesus died, we all died in Him (2 Cor. 5:14, 15). By this righteous act, Christ gave all men justification of life (Rom. 5:18). In the believing of this good news, the justification of life becomes justification by faith. Paul nails this truth for all to see: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith [of] the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Hence by the faith of Jesus we are a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). We now walk in the Spirit and not after the flesh. Even though we still retain our flesh, the Spirit controls us and we are safe because God has condemned sin in our flesh that His entire law might be perfectly fulfilled in us by the faith of Jesus! (Rom. 8:3, 4).

We have not to worry about “helping” God to fulfill His promises in us. Our efforts to contribute to salvation are a boastful demonstration of unbelief. Our fingerprints need to be off of everything! “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). These works are the fruit of the Spirit—“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. ... If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5.22, 23, 25). This fruit grows naturally and is demonstrated evidence of the new creation.

The mystery of God, which was hidden from the ages and generations, is now made known among us: this mystery is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1.26, 27). Revelation 10:5-7 speaks of this present mystery: “ ... in the days of the sounding of the seventh angel, when he is about to sound, the mystery of God would be finished, as He declared to His servants the prophets.” God will have a people ready before He comes again! Christ in you cleanses the sanctuary by the blotting out of sin and the reproduction of the character of Christ in His people. Seen at last are the saints who have the faith of Jesus that comes with His obedience to all the commandments of God. Like Jesus they can of themselves do nothing; like Him they rest in the love and care of the Father.

So the cross is the wonder of His work! We, the object of His love and the perfection of His workmanship have been given His life and His faith. Today, if we will hear His voice, let us not harden our hearts like we are accustomed to doing, but let us believe His voice and enter His rest.

—Daniel Peters