Food For Thought
The theme for this week is seeing the invisible God by faith.
In Psalm 50, the psalmist sees God in the beauty of creation.
- Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 The Mighty One, God the Lord, Has spoken and called the earth From the rising of the sun to its going down. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God will shine forth. 3 Our God shall come, and shall not keep silent; A fire shall devour before Him, And it shall be very tempestuous all around Him. 4 He shall call to the heavens from above, And to the earth, that He may judge His people: 5 “Gather My saints together to Me, Those who have [a]made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” 6 Let the heavens declare His righteousness, For God Himself is Judge. Selah 7 “Hear, O My people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you; I am God, your God! 8 I will not [b]rebuke you for your sacrifices Or your burnt offerings, Which are continually before Me . . . 22 “Now consider this, you who forget God, Lest I tear you in pieces, And there be none to deliver: 23 Whoever offers praise glorifies Me; And to him who orders his conduct aright I will show the salvation of God.”
Isaiah warns us that God “hides himself” from those who practice empty religion. This means that those who put religion over God will have a difficult time building a relationship with him. To see God, his followers must care for others, especially those in need, and be obedient to him.
- Isaiah 1:1,10-20 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah . . . 10 Hear the word of the Lord, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the law of our God, You people of Gomorrah: 11 “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats. 12 “When you come to appear before Me, Who has required this from your hand, To trample My courts? 13 Bring no more futile[a] sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies — I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. 14 Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you [b]spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of [c]blood. 16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, 17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke [d]the oppressor; [e]Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow. 18 “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of the land; 20 But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured by the sword”; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The author of Hebrews, in defining faith, cites Abraham’s belief in God’s promises as a model of faith.
- Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Now faith is the [a]substance of things hoped for, the [b]evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. 3 By faith we understand that the [c]worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible . . . 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; 10 for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she[a] bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off [b]were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
In Luke, Jesus exhorts believers to seek heavenly treasures (invisible) over earthly possessions (visible). We are also encouraged to follow Christ as if his return were imminent. Christians should be alert and prepared because his comings and goings sometimes appear to be hidden from us.
- Luke 12:32-40 32 “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; 36 and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them. 38 And if he should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would [a]have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. 40 Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
The Blessings of an “Invisible” God
Not long ago, there was an internet trend where parents tempted their young children with candy. The mom or dad sat their child down and placed the kid’s favorite candy in front of him or her. They would make up an excuse to leave the room for five minutes and tell their child not to eat the treat. Of course, a camera would be secretly recording the child’s moral crisis. In most videos, the child is fine for the first minute or so, then you see their willpower slowly crumble. In most cases, the parent returns to see that some or all of the candy has mysteriously disappeared. While the parent was in the room, the child was able to be strong. Once the parent left the room, the child’s ability to stay the course evaporated.
Now, I am not saying anything negative about those children because adults do the same thing. Have you ever gone out to a restaurant with a group of friends, and everyone gets served except one person? Now, etiquette suggests that if the party is less than seven, you are supposed to wait for everyone to be served before you eat. However, humans get hungry and hot food gets cold! In many cases, there is this awkward moment where everyone’s self-control is tested. People start glancing between their delicious, untouched plate and the one who is still waiting. Deep down, everyone secretly wants someone to start eating, but no one wants to be that person because they are somewhat convinced it may be rude. Things stay awkward until the unserved friend says, “Listen, you guys go ahead and eat. I insist.” Of course, the others are obliged to say, “Are you sure?” However, everyone knows that it is just theater. In the end, the diners are thankful that the one without food is a true friend and made a sacrifice for the sake of the many.
These stories are amusing, but they illustrate a more serious point: humans typically have a hard time following the rules when there is no one in sight to enforce them. Whether it is driving over the speed limit, sneaking food into the movies, or having too many items in the express lane at the supermarket, we have all struggled to follow the rules when we could easily get away with doing our own thing. Now, I am not saying this to condemn anyone, but to point out a human tendency we all share. We are often tempted to test our boundaries. Even when we successfully resist, the temptation is there.
This human tendency can complicate our relationship with a God we cannot perceive with our earthly senses. The Bible has numerous stories of people hearing the voice of God or seeing a physical manifestation of his presence; however, these occurrences are rare. Most of us will not hear God’s voice or physically interact with him in this life, yet, as Christians, we are supposed to follow Jesus and obey God’s commands. Unfortunately, an invisible God can make it easy to ignore a lot of what Jesus taught. Of course, there are laws that help us avoid some of the more damaging sins. However, if we resist participation in missional work in our neighborhood, we do not get zapped. As far as we can tell, we are not immediately punished for not being good neighbors. We cannot be arrested for self-righteousness or conceit. God does not manifest himself to enforce these commands, so we can easily ignore them like a child forbidden to eat candy by an absent parent.
God understands this about us, which is why Jesus did a lot of teaching about preparedness. He knew we would struggle in our relationships with an invisible God, so Jesus addressed our natural tendencies. In our text for the day, we read these words from Jesus:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.
“But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Luke 12:32-40)
In the passage, Jesus addressed two temptations of followers of unseen leaders: the temptation to follow another leader and the temptation to ignore the leader’s commands.
In Luke 12:32-34, Jesus warns against making monetary gain our god. Money is easy to worship because it can seemingly do incredible things. With enough money, you can build a spaceship and orbit the earth. With enough money, you could buy a pharmaceutical company that makes life-saving drugs. With enough money, you can purchase your own island and rule over it as you see fit. It seems that money can accomplish god-like feats. Compared to an invisible God, money’s tangible and immediate power can be alluring.
Jesus exposed the truth about money: its power is fading and temporary. The things money gives can be lost or taken, and the things it builds will one day be destroyed. Worst of all, money does not always accomplish what it sets out to do. Despite all the money that has gone into things like cancer research, climate change prevention, and homelessness services, these and other problems are still with us. We have all likely encountered problems money could not fix, so this god, at some point, will let us down. Jesus warns us not to exchange true riches for fool’s gold. He wants us to understand that it pleases the Father to give us the best of what he has to give. He is the great King, and his desire is to share his kingdom with us. In that way, we are already rich. Those who follow Christ are already provisioned in ways we cannot fully comprehend. Jesus wants believers to be givers instead of accumulators. We should look at money as a ministry tool instead of a source of security.
The riches we have in God do not fade and are eternal. A new pair of sneakers is not as good as everlasting joy. A diamond ring is nothing compared to freedom from guilt and shame. A 60-inch television cannot hold a candle to unconditional love. It pleases the Father to lavish us with these priceless and eternal gifts. If we see ourselves as already blessed and focus on cultivating the riches of God, we will never be lacking. We will be content in all situations and see the reality of our blessedness in all conditions. However, if our god is money, we will never be filled. We will always want more and never be satisfied.
If you think about it, the invisible things of God are truly more real than the visible things money can give us. The things of God are consistent, constant, and unending. They are forever good and forever true, while the things money can buy will pass away. Jesus wants us to see the limits of our senses. We equate the tangible with the real. However, the intangible things of God are the truly real things.
In Luke 12:35-40, Jesus teaches us to avoid another mistake made by followers of unseen leaders: ignoring their duties. If you went to school in the U.S., you know that few things cause more pandemonium in a classroom than a substitute teacher. It is as if when the substitute enters the room, the class forgets how to be students. I salute all substitute teachers for your dedication to educating our children despite all the spitballs, disrespect, note passing, and incessant talking. We even have sayings to describe this phenomenon, like, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play!” There’s an edgier saying that conveys the same sentiment: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!” So, there seems to be something about us that is comfortable doing what we know is wrong if we can get away with it, or if no one will find out.
Therefore, Jesus used the metaphor of a prepared servant to show how his followers should live. We should live as though Christ’s second coming is imminent. That is not to say, Christ’s second coming is imminent, however, we should live as if it is. The common reaction for many who read this passage is fear and trepidation. If God is so good and loving, why are so many Christians a little afraid of Christ’s return? I think part of the answer is that we have a fallen image of God, and we associate him with cold, stern judgment. We think that somehow when Christ returns he will no longer be loving, patient, and full of grace. I think the other issue may be that we carry the guilt of knowing that we are consciously ignoring some of God’s commands. This can be tricky. Some of us carry guilt because of lack of initiative when it comes to the things of God. Some of us carry guilt because we have a harsh view of God that separates him from his grace. This causes us to think that nothing is good enough for God. In both cases the remedy is the same: spend time with God. For those who lack initiative, spending time with God gives us an opportunity to see who he is. He is so wonderful that knowledge of his goodness triggers the desire to respond. We have to do something in the face of such overwhelming grace. For those who are falsely motivated by an imagined, ungracious God, spending time with God will show you the depths of his love, mercy, and humility. Our “doing” with God should flow from our “being” with God. Following the will of the Spirit will bless us to feel accepted even when we do not do things perfectly.
We should not be afraid of Christ or his return. Christ’s return should evoke joy in the hearts of those who love him. If we take a closer look at the passage, it tells us that we should be afraid of wasted time and missed opportunities. When Christ returns, there will be no more chances to follow him in this life. We, therefore, should be afraid to miss opportunities to serve our Lord and Savior not because we fear his punishment (although there are unpleasant consequences to continually ignoring the Spirit), but because there is a blessing in store for us when we open the door to his knocking. Jesus gives an astounding image of a master serving his servants because they were ready when the master knocked. In the story, Christ is the master, and we are the servants. This type of humility by a human master would be unheard of in Jesus’ time, and to speak of God this way would be blasphemy to some. Yet, Jesus says that God will bless us for participating in the work of Jesus Christ, and we should be afraid to miss out on something so wonderful.
We miss the point of Jesus’ teaching if we think he is only talking about his second coming. Every time the Spirit prompts us to help a friend, say a kind word to a neighbor, or serve in ministry, it is as if Jesus is knocking at our door. Being prepared, in this case, is doing the spiritual practices that will make us ready to respond when God speaks. We have to practice opening that door, because our natural tendency is to ignore it. What intimacy with God are we missing by not responding to that knocking? What treasures do we forgo when we ignore the commands of our invisible Lord? When the Spirit prompts us to serve him, he is also promising deeper communion with himself. This is why we can never deplete ourselves when we follow the Spirit. We can become depleted in doing things in our own strength; however, the Spirit’s leadership will cause us to be filled by Christ, and he fills us to overflowing.
We do not know when we will be called upon to be a blessing to someone else, so we have to practice the spiritual disciplines to stay in a state of readiness. Praying, listening to Christian podcasts, enjoying praise and worship music, fasting, journaling, engaging in missional work, reading Christian books, practicing silence and solitude, participating in table fellowship, and other spiritual practices are ways in which we prepare for Jesus knocking on our door. As we engage in these life-giving activities, God becomes less invisible. We begin to see evidence of him everywhere. We see him moving in our lives. We see him moving in our families. We see him moving in our churches. We see him moving in our neighborhoods. We see him in every place we look. We will not be the mouse who plays when the cat is away because God is so very present.
Jesus is the Creator of all things. Everything was created by him and for him — both the things we see and the things we cannot see. He holds everything together. He may be invisible to our earthly senses, but he is reality itself. I pray that we would prepare ourselves to receive the blessings of living in that reality.
Here are some GCI articles on the topic of THE GOSPEL:
- Believing the Gospel
- Here’s Good News for Everyone (a gospel tract)
- The Gospel Really is Good News
- Good News for Ordinary People
- The Kingdom of God
But the gospel is not a new and improved religion. The gospel is an affront to religion. It is the end of religion, the end of all systems of works designed to make us acceptable to God. The gospel, by contrast, tells us that God himself has already, through Jesus Christ, made us acceptable. The gospel is good news; religion is bad news; and the gospel wins. Christ is victorious. Sin is vanquished.
We are overcomers only in Christ, not in our overcoming anything. We are sinners, always have been and will continue to be to the day we die. Whatever we may have overcome is like removing a spoonful of sand from the beach. Unless and until we are found in Christ, we remain dead in our sins. And we are found in Christ only by trusting him to be for us who he says he is and to do for us what he says he does. Only when we trust him will we accept his gift of mercy and life, and only when we wake up to our sinfulness will we trust him.
As long as we think we are “doing OK,” or that we “aren’t all that bad” or that we are “making progress” or even that we will never be “good enough,” we will not trust him. All such thinking is trusting not him, but ourselves. It is thinking that his acceptance of us is based on how well we behave. It is thinking that if we do better, then he will accept us, or conversely, that he accepts us because we have been overcoming.
God accepts us because he wants to accept us, and not because we have measured up. God dealt with our sin by the blood of Christ, not by giving us a new and improved law code. We are justified because God justified us himself, personally, through his Son. God did for us in Christ what we could not do for ourselves, and he calls on us to trust Him to be our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
That means we do not have righteousness. It is not just a matter that we “have got some problems.” It is not just a matter that we have “a few things to overcome.” It is not even a matter of “putting sin out of our lives.” It is a matter of understanding that we are hopeless losers, sinners through and through, and that even our “good” deeds are thoroughly laced with selfish impurity. Until we see that, until we see ourselves for what we really are, we will not trust him who alone saves sinners.
Fear of the gospel
Many Christians are afraid of the gospel because it puts everybody on the same level — ”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means we, being sinners ourselves, have no ground to feel spiritually superior to people who do things that disgust and offend us. Others are afraid of the gospel because the gospel requires them to believe that God will save them in spite of their sins. We have a hard time trusting God to do exactly what he promised to do — forgive us our sins.
We want to prove to him we can “do it.” We want to show him we’ll be faithful, that we will be obedient, that we will be “good Christians.” But the truth is, we won’t be. We will sin, and we will sin again, and again. And until we believe the gospel, instead of some fairy tale about having to please God before he will accept us, we will not enter God’s rest. God saves us; changes in our behavior do not.
We can live in misery, struggling to be found worthy by perfect obedience and constantly failing and fearing that God is waiting to squash us like flies, or we can trust his Word. (Or even worse, we can live in appalling arrogance, actually believing that we are worthily obeying God and trusting him to accept us for our “holy deeds.”)
God is our salvation; our improved behavior is not. To repent is to turn to God and away from ourselves. It is to concede that we are sinners and that we need God’s mercy. It is to trust God to be faithful to his word of grace spoken in his Son before the world began. It is to remove our little homemade crown and hand it over to our Maker, the author of eternal salvation.
God is our righteousness; our illusion of good behavior is not. When we come to see our righteousness as filthy rags, as indeed it is, then we can begin to see our need for God’s grace and mercy. When we believe his word of salvation in his Son, then we can begin to trust him to forgive all our sins and save us.
Why is it so hard to trust God to forgive us and to make us his perfectly righteous children in Christ? Perhaps one reason is because we can’t stand to think of ourselves as, or to think that others might think of us as, bald-faced sinners. We prefer the façade of pretending to be good, decent folks. But we are not good, decent folks. Nobody is good, decent folks. At best, we are less destructive and wicked than we could be if we let ourselves go entirely.
Have you ever noticed that if you behave decently for a day or two, you begin to feel like you are a pretty good person after all? And conversely, if your natural self gets loose for few minutes and you behave like the ratbag you are, then you feel depressed, disappointed and frustrated that you are not as grand as you had been imagining?
But what is there to be disappointed about? Why, given what you are, were you expecting not to behave accordingly from time to time? Our disappointment ought to be in our failure to honor the God of our salvation, not in our failure to look impeccable to ourselves and others. If it were, then we would be free to see more clearly that in spite of our sin, we can rest in the atonement of Christ, for our sins are forgiven in him. The reason we need a Savior is because we need saving. The gospel declares that God has indeed saved us through Christ. In fact, Christ died for us ungodly people while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
Now please don’t tell me that we “were” sinners, but now we are not to be sinners anymore. Please drop the rhetoric. We are sinners. We do still sin after conversion. Every Christian who ever lived continues to sin after conversion. That doesn’t make sin OK. It doesn’t condone sin. It is simply a fact, and one we would all do much better to just admit and quit pretending that if we try hard enough we will become sinless.
There is one way, of course, in which we are not sinners. As believers we are in Christ, and as such we are not sinners … in the sense that God does not count our sins against us (Romans 4:8). In other words, when we do not pretend that we are not sinners, but instead put our trust in Jesus Christ who saves sinners, God does not count our sins against us (compare 1 Timothy 1:15).
What must we do about sin? We must trust God to forgive our sins. We must trust him! He is our only hope. We are sinners, and unless God forgives our sins, we come under the condemnation all sinners deserve. We are not going to stop being sinners. I’m sure you have tried, like I have, and discovered that despite occasional bouts of improvement, sin is still alive and well in your life. But God says that if we trust him he will take care of our sins and he will count us righteous in Christ who, for our sakes, became the perfect human.
The Bible is not a rulebook for new and improved religion. It is the Word of God, God’s chosen revelation of himself to us, declaring to us that in Jesus Christ he has dealt with the sins of the world so that whoever trusts him will be saved. That is good news. It is the gospel. It is not religion. Don’t be afraid of it.
I know. You’re still waiting for me to say something about the importance of behaving right. But I’m not going to. At least not in the way you are probably used to. We are overcomers in Christ alone; when it comes to godly overcoming, there is no other way to be an overcomer.
When you trust Christ to be your righteousness, your behavior will be set by the Holy Spirit on the road to improvement, regardless of whether you constantly set “overcoming goals” for yourself. But if you try to improve your behavior without trusting Christ to be your only righteousness, you may or may not be successful, and whether or not you are won’t make a hill of beans of difference in terms of your standing with God.
In other words, salvation is not based on what you do; it is based on what God has already done. When you trust God, you are in Christ, and when you are in Christ, God does not count your sins against you. If you do not trust God, you are still in your sins, because you are not in Christ.
Here’s a gospel tip: don’t make behaving better your main goal in life. If you do, you’ll always be frustrated, disappointed in yourself and miserable, not to mention a judgmental and obnoxious prig. You’re welcome to it if you want it, of course. But will-powering yourself into a better you is a no-win life goal. Will-power goodness is the root of religion; it has no place in the gospel.
Instead, make your main goal in life knowing and trusting in the Lord your God for absolutely everything, including your behavior. When you do that, your preoccupation with yourself and how good you are will fade, and your eyes will begin to open to the righteousness of God and the joy and peace of his kingdom. The Holy Spirit will reorder your priorities, and the pain your sins naturally cause in your life will more readily drive you to God for mercy and help to overcome.
Let me say it another way: Work on yourself and make every effort to change for the better — but not because you think it will make you less a sinner and get you in good with God. Take overcoming seriously. Do it because God wants you to, because Jesus Christ gave you a new life, because it is right, because everybody who loves you wants you to, and because it will make your life much more blessed, rewarding, peaceful and pleasant. But don’t do it because you think that’s how you will get into the kingdom of God. It isn’t.
Regardless of how much you improve (and you need a lot of improvement —I know you; you’re just like me), you are still a sinner, and the only hope of salvation you’ve got is the mercy of God along with his word that in Christ he extends it to you. Trust him, not your good life, when it comes to salvation. When it comes to salvation, trust the word of God that in Christ it is a fait accompli; when it comes to behavior, trust yourself to the supervision of the Holy Spirit and put your heart into overcoming.
Don’t think that good behavior results in salvation; but know that salvation results in good behavior. But don’t let that make you think that poor behavior equals unsaved and good behavior equals saved. It simply does not work that way; don’t forget that we all still sin. Sin involves not merely acts but attitudes, and God knows even the deepest secrets of our hearts.
Rest in this: God loves you; he’s proven it in Christ, and he will make you into what he wants you to be. You can trust him to do it. Get to know him. Spend time with him. Put your confidence in him. Make him the priority in your life, and you will begin to find his love influencing the way you live in the world and the way you interact with others.
Whether we experience hardship or ease, prosperity or poverty, bad times or good times (and Christians experience them all), our ability to cope with what comes our way will depend on our trust in God. But all the while, because we are in Christ, our salvation is not in question. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, and even our faith is God’s gracious gift to us.
Remember, the gospel is good news. It is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Therefore, as Hebrews 10:23 encourages us, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”
Author: J. Michael Feazell