Can You Know God?

March 28, 2009

Do you know all about God?

Even the question sounds presumptuous, doesn’t it? How can any man fully comprehend the God of the universe?

David makes this point in Psalm 139. He first contemplates God’s comprehensive knowledge of all the intimate details of his life:

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. . . . Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139:2, 4)

He then responds:

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. (Psalm 139:6)

Charles Spurgeon elaborates on what David says here:

I cannot grasp it. I can hardly endure to think of it. The theme overwhelms me. I am amazed and astounded at it. Such knowledge not only surpasses my comprehension, but even my imagination. It is high, I cannot attain unto it. Mount as I may, this truth is too lofty for my mind. It seems to be always above me, even when I soar into the loftiest regions of spiritual thought. Is it not so with every attribute of God? Can we attain to any idea of his power, his wisdom, his holiness? Our mind has no line with which to measure the Infinite (The Treasury of David).

He is infinite; we are finite. We cannot even begin to figure God out. We have nothing in our experience to compare Him to – indeed, He is incomparable. We can never know all about God.

Some, rightly seeing that we can have no hope of fully understanding such a being, wrongly conclude that we cannot know Him at all. While that may initially sound humble and God-honoring, actually the statement is arrogant and demeaning to God. For an infinitely wise, all-knowing God must be able to communicate aspects of Who He is to those of His creatures who have the capacity to reflect on His character.

This, indeed, is the claim of Scripture: That God reveals Himself to us to some extent in creation itself (Romans 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-4); He reveals Himself yet more fully through His working with the people of Israel, through prophets, through laws, through ceremonies, and through acts in history (Hebrews 1:1); and He reveals Himself most fully in the person of His Son, God Himself (John 1:1), the “exact imprint of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3). As John Calvin writes (echoing the second century church father Irenaeus),

The Father, who is infinite in himself, becomes finite in the Son because he has accommodated himself to our capacity, that he may not overwhelm our minds with the infinity of his glory (Institutes 2.6.4).

Or as Charles Wesley writes, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!”

In trying to understand God, we are similar to a two-year-old trying to understand his parents. The two-year-old cannot possibly comprehend their character and abilities through his reasoning and investigations. Indeed, there is much about his parents that he is completely incapable of grasping. But through the parents’ loving and caring acts, and through their simple, carefully chosen words, they can communicate to him much about themselves – all, in fact, that he needs to know at this point in his life.

Just so with God and us. We surely cannot know all about God; throughout eternity we will rejoice to learn more and more of His infinite goodness. But He acted in history to teach us about Himself (1 Corinthians 10:11); He breathed out the Scriptures so that we might know Him and love Him (2 Timothy 3:16; Matthew 22:36-40); He became incarnate in Jesus, fully God and fully man, so that we might see God’s attributes in the flesh; He died on the cross so that we might be reconciled to Him by grace through faith.

Remember this image: You are the two-year-old. God is above you. You can’t comprehend Him. But you can trust what He tells you. You can see Jesus, revealed in Scripture. You can love Him.

So humble yourself. Adore Him. Bow before Him. Submit to His perfect Word. And rejoice that He has invited you to come into His presence as His adopted two-year-old.

Which Culture is Most Christian?

March 13, 2009

Which culture is the most Christian?

There is a definite Islamic culture; there are elements of life on the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century that continue to serve as ideals for many Moslems today. There is also a definite Hindu culture. Is there a Christian culture?

Biblically, the answer is no. There is no Christian culture; no culture is the most Christian. Christianity is inherently cross-cultural.

In Acts 15 – the text for our sermons the next two Sunday mornings – the young church must deal with this very question. Paul and Barnabas have been teaching that Gentiles, non-Jews, can come to faith and be united to Christ; they need not be circumcised or follow all the requirements of the Mosaic Law, such as the dietary code. Some had come from the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem to Antioch – Paul and Barnabas’ sending church! – and declared their teaching wrong; Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, they argued, and in order to be united to Christ, Gentiles must become Jewish.

Though, as we shall see, more than culture underlies this dispute, culture is one important element. If Christ is the fulfillment of all that Judaism points to – isn’t Christian culture Jewish culture?

Guided by the Holy Spirit, the apostles and elders – and, indeed, the entire church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:22) – declare that this is not the case. We will examine their arguments and explanations in the weeks ahead. But for now, consider some of the implications of this outcome:

1) No one must give up his culture to become a follower of Jesus. Every culture has sinful, clearly unbiblical elements, and these, of course, the new believer must avoid. For example, in the Roman Empire, abortion and infanticide (through abandonment) were common. The early Christians practiced neither and rescued many abandoned infants. Nor would they bow down to worship Caesar or any other so-called god; many were martyred in consequence. In that sense, Christians must be counter cultural. But from these early days, there were many different cultures in the church. In Antioch there were Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free, African and Asian. They came together united in Christ, not united in culture. As they preached the Gospel, they called all to come to Christ, not to come to Christ and to take on one specific culture.

2) Genuine Christian worship will look, sound, and feel very different across cultures. There are key biblical guidelines for corporate worship. Such worship includes the preaching of the Word (2 Timothy 4:2), the public reading of the Scriptures (1 Timothy 4:13), singing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19), praying together (1 Timothy 2:1, Colossians 4:2), practicing baptism (Matthew 28:19) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:26). But within these guidelines, churches in different cultures will be profoundly different.

3) These cultural differences are for the glory of God. Revelation 7 pictures those from every tribe and tongue and people and language praising God around His throne. These are the saints made perfect, worshiping God eternally – and they are culturally distinct! They retain their cultural differences. They are made one in Christ; they praise God in song; but that song is a glorious, thousand-part harmony, rather than one melody sung in unison. So God works all things together to create for His glory for all eternity one people with thousands of remaining cultural distinctions.

4) The true church welcomes and delights in this diversity of cultures. Our natural tendency is to look down on those who differ from us. We tend to question the motives or sincerity of people who praise God in ways that seem strange to us. But if our chief end is to glorify God, and if God rejoices in the diversity of cultures praising Him, we too will rejoice to see the Gospel lived out and proclaimed in different cultural forms.

5) The church that unites various cultures in one local body glorifies God. Such an assembly shows today, in microcosm, the Revelation 7 unity that we will experience in eternity.

So praise God for the guidance the Holy Spirit gave to the Jerusalem church in Acts 15. Praise God that we are not limited to worshiping Him in Jewish cultural forms. Praise God that He has made us one from many cultures. And praise Him that even at DGCC, we can reflect His glory through uniting people from different cultures in one body. Join us these next two Sundays as we rejoice together in these great truths.

Thrusting Aside the Word of God

March 6, 2009

(This sermon on Acts 13:13-52 was preached February 22, 2009. The audio is available here.)

What is the Bible? What do you think of it? How do you approach it?

Many want nothing to do with it. They might respond to such questions by saying, “The Bible – that’s old and out of date. It’s not relevant for today. If I’m going to read something hundreds of pages long, I want it to be fresh, new, written for this time period, and informed by all the recent advances in knowledge. Why should I spend time looking at that old book?”

Others might see historical or sociological value in the Bible: “Oh, yes, the Bible is an interesting record of a number of the spiritual encounters of great men and (a very few) great women. Perhaps some of those encounters have a basis in a supernatural being intervening in this world. In addition, the Bible has been esteemed by millions of people over the years; it has had a major influence on this country’s history and literature. Indeed, we can’t understand the US today without understanding the Bible. So, yes, I read it, I have studied it – as history, as an important core document of several religious traditions.”

Yet others might say more: They value the Bible for personal spiritual benefits: “Yes, the Bible has had a profound influence on me. Jesus is an amazing figure, as are Moses, Elijah, Daniel, David, and others. Jesus surely was a great teacher who was closely in touch with God. He is my example; I try to live like him. There is much we must learn from the Bible. But today, we can’t even know what the Bible originally said. The church may well have massaged the text to make it say what it wanted. And, in any event, the Bible is a pre-scientific account of origins and human psychology. We’ve learned so many things that make the Bible’s worldview archaic and obsolete. So, yes, it’s very interesting, impressive, and helpful – but today we must pick and choose what topics, what passages still make sense.”

Do those attitudes sound familiar to you? Do you yourself agree with one of them?

Consider the difference between those three attitudes toward the Bible and the psalmist’s attitude, expressed in Psalm 119:169-174: Read more

Don’t Be Cowards; Fear!

March 5, 2009

Should Christians fear? Or should they not fear?

In our passage for last Sunday’s sermon, Paul and Barnabas show great boldness in the face of fearful circumstances. Paul tells the young believers “It is necessary for us to enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22). That is, don’t fear such tribulations; they are the passageway to an eternity with our loving God. Similarly, Jesus says that we will always have such tribulations in the world. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Because He is sovereign over all that happens, we can have peace in Him even now, even when we face frightening circumstances. For we know that God is working all things together for good for those who love Him, for those whom He has called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). When nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God, then we need not fear even those who are putting us to death (Romans 8:35-39).

Consider the story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, told in Mark 4:35-41. While out on the lake, a great windstorm arises – so great that the waves are breaking over the sides of the boat. Though the disciples bail and bail, the water in the boat rises higher and higher. It looks certain to sink in a few minutes. And the wind continues to howl; the waves continue to pound. Read more

Through Many Tribulations We Must Enter the Kingdom of God

March 2, 2009

(This sermon on Acts 14 was preached on March 1, 2009. The audio will be posted at this link.)

There is more suffering in the true Christian life than you ever thought you could handle.

There is more joy in the true Christian life than you ever thought possible.

Those are the two main points of Acts 14. We’ll come back to them. But now: Suppose you knew you were about to die. What would you say to those remaining behind?

When the Apostle Paul wrote 2 Timothy, he knew he was about to die by execution. Recall that Timothy grew up in Lystra (Acts 16); Paul met him there for the first time in the visit recorded in today’s passage (Acts 14). Near the end of his life, he wrote:

You . . . know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance,  11 persecutions, sufferings– what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.  12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  13 while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it,  15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:10-17

Paul says “Timothy: Follow me as I follow Christ – and following Christ means suffering. Everyone who lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. And you know very well what happened to me in your hometown.”

As described in today’s text, Paul suffered horribly in Lystra – and he had the scars to prove it. Timothy too will suffer if he continues in the faith.

But Timothy is not to respond to this prediction of future suffering with fear! Instead, Timothy is to take encouragement from Paul’s own suffering. Paul says: ‘You will suffer – like I have suffered. So you must be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus! – like I was strong in His grace. You must continue – because you know me and my faith (and the faith of your Mom and grandmother), and you know the Word – this Word that makes you wise to salvation, and thoroughly equips you to suffer and endure.”

As we saw last week:   We must continue in the WORD – we must learn it, lean on it, love it. THIS is God’s revelation to us – and we will never get through times of suffering without it

But 2 Timothy is a letter neither of sorrow in suffering, nor of simply endurance through suffering. Paul shows himself to be full of joy in suffering. He goes on to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.”

Suffering – yet joy.

Just so in Acts 14: Tremendous suffering. And tremendous joy. Read more

Salvation By No Other Name

March 2, 2009

(This sermon on Acts 4:1-22 was preached on 11/2/2008. The audio is available here.)

Can a person be saved apart from calling on the Name of Jesus?

Last week we looked at Acts 3. Peter and John go to the temple to pray. There they encounter a lame man, a beggar asking for money. God heals him through Peter. This man is more than 40 years old; he has been begging for a long time, and  thus is well known at the temple.  The people are astonished.

Peter takes the occasion to proclaim the Gospel, saying,

And on the basis of faith in Jesus’ name, his very name has made this man- whom you see and know- strong. The faith that is through Jesus has given him this complete health in the presence of you all. Acts 3:16 NET

Peter makes four things clear:

1) Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises

2) His listeners are in the covenant!

3) They are murderers: They deserve to be cut off from God’s covenant people

4) They have a choice: If they call on the Name of Jesus, they will be saved.

So Peter is saying that this man was healed by the Name of Jesus, that this healing is a picture of spiritual salvation, and that there is spiritual salvation in that Name.

But could there be salvation through any other name or in any other way?

While Peter doesn’t directly answer that question in chapter 3, he does provide us with hints:

  • He calls Jesus the author of life in verse 15. Could there be another author?
  • He calls Jesus the promised Christ, the promised Messiah.
  • He says Jesus is the descendant of Abraham through whom all nations are to be blessed
  • He says Jesus is the prophesied Prophet like Moses – and that those who don’t listen to Him must be cut off from God’s people.

All these hints suggest that there is salvation through Jesus alone. But the question remains: Could there be some alternative way, some means perhaps for those who are not descendants of Abraham, who aren’t part of God’s covenant people?

In our day, as in the time of Peter, there are many who believe there is no existence past death, and thus no salvation. But the majority of people then and now believe in an existence after death; they even believe that there will be rewards and punishment meted out for what we do in this life. Many believe in a coming judgment (though most reserve that judgment for terrible people unlike themselves), and a coming salvation for all who are sincere, who try, who are regular participants in religious activities of any kind.

In this country today, a large number believe in this salvation by sincerity. They reject as repulsive the idea of a God who would condemn sincere adherents of any religion. They say, “I could never worship a God who would condemn such people!”

But the question is not: what you are willing or unwilling to believe. You are not the judge. You are not the authority.

The question is: Who is God? What has He revealed about Himself? Who are you? Where do you stand before Him? Is there any way you can be put right with Him?

In this passage, Peter gives one of Scriptures’ most powerful statements about the exclusive nature of salvation in Christ. There is one way of salvation, and one only. Salvation comes through believing in Jesus. That’s it. Those who don’t believe in Jesus are lost. But anyone may believe. And all who believe are saved. Read more

Sovereignty, Responsibility, and Boldness

March 2, 2009

(This sermon on Acts 4:23-31was preached 11/9/08. The audio is available here.)

Imagine that you are engaged in a personal ministry. You are confident that you are following God, and it seems that you are having some success. Then, suddenly, there’s a huge obstacle in your path,

  • It might be a failure on your part,
  • It might be a rejection or betrayal by former colleagues,
  • It might be a financial barrier,
  • It might be opposition, or threats from others.

How do you respond?

In Acts 4, that’s the situation Peter and John and all the apostles find themselves in.

Jesus was killed just a few months ago. That itself had seemed to be the end of their hopes. But God raised Him from dead. Jesus opened their eyes to Scripture and to His own prophecies to see that the crucifixion had to happen, to see the role of Christ’s suffering in God’s plan. The apostles now know that Jesus is living, active, still at work.

He then sent the Holy Spirit on them with power at Pentecost, baptizing them and filling them for their special task. These apostles saw three thousand saved that day – and they themselves baptized every one. They’ve seen more come to faith day by day.

Then God worked through Peter and John to heal a man who was lame from birth. A crowd gathered, and Peter preached; once again, thousands more were saved.

It would be understandable if, at this point, the apostles thought, “Wow! Look at God work! What success! Everything is just going to get better and better!”

But things didn’t get better and better.

As we saw last week, the Jewish authorities arrest Peter and John. They threaten them, warning them not to speak any more in the name of Jesus. Peter speaks boldly in their presence, saying there is no other name by which men must be saved, saying that they cannot but speak about what they have seen and heard, saying they must obey God rather than men. But the Jewish authorities just threaten all the more. They release Peter and John, but make their point absolutely clear: “If you continue to speak in the name of Jesus, watch out. We’re here. You know what happened to Jesus. If you love your families, if you want to see your children grow up, you had better keep quiet.”

This is the first serious challenge to the young church.

Put yourself in their shoes: These are not supermen. They have families, worries, and cares. If they are put to death, there are no food stamps, there is no welfare, there is no social security for their children. They must be facing a strong temptation to be quiet. Satan undoubtedly tempted them in these terms: “Think about how many are already saved! Let’s just teach them. Let’s just live together and enjoy each other, be family to each other. We can stop this proselytizing. For it’s this speaking in public that will get us in trouble. Indeed, maybe this is a sign from God –we’ve been spreading the Gospel, and we’ve had our success. Now maybe we’re supposed to stop and focus on deepening our joy in Christ.”

Imagine what would have happened if apostles had done that. That would have been the end of the church. Or, possibly, the church would have been a tiny enclave, a minor sect within Judaism. In other words, that would have been disastrous.

So how do the apostles fight this temptation? How can we, facing our own obstacles, fight the temptation to quit, to change, to adapt in ways that destroy our ministry?

Peter and John fight in four ways that are applicable to us:

  • Acknowledge your weakness
  • Know the truth
  • Trust the truth
  • Ask for God’s enabling Read more