Set Free

In Genesis 1:26 we have one of the most important verses in the Bible telling us who we are. Listen: “Then God said, ÔLet us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

What does this mean to be created in the image of God?

God does not have a body. Jesus said, “God is a spirit and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

I remember one of our Sunday school lessons had God depicted as a large man with a book and a pen in his hands. The lesson taught that God was righteous. Every time we sinned, God marked it down in his book. One day we would have to give an account for this sin. The depiction of God in human form was wrong, and yet so often this picture colors my view of God.

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

That phrase, after our likeness, tells us a lot. We have some of the similarities of God.

1. God has a mind Ð we have a mind. We can think. Our minds are very small and very limited. Think about the mysteries of life, and we learn how little we know. However, we do have a mind.

2. God has a will Ð we have a will. What is the will? It is a mental power with the ability to choose. W e can even say no to God. Adam and Eve did, and so do we on a regular basis.

3. God is eternal Ð we are eternal. God has told us that we are different from any other part of his creation in that we have a soul which is eternal.

All is well. Humankind was created. They lived in a personal relationship with their Creator until they decided to exercise their will, and one day they said to God, No we are going our own way.

You remember the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. God had told them they could eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge, and if they ate of it, they would die. Along comes the tempter and assures our first parents that this was not true. The temptation was so appealing. Why not eat the fruit?

From that time on, all of us have been enslaved to sin. We are born in sin and live in a fallen world with all of its imperfections. Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men because all sinned. . . . For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:12, 19). This is spiritual enslavement.

Look around in our world, and you will see what it means to be enslaved to sin. We are captured by our fears.

The human being makes many attempts to escape this slavery. The Israelites in Jesus’ day refuted his teaching that they were slaves: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we will be set free?”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? We are Americans and are free. Politically we are free, thank God. And yet everyone of us are spiritual slaves.

We can acquire wealth, purchase insurance policies, buy good medical care and all of the real estate and social amenities, but still there is a spiritual enslavement. Paul describes this helpless feeling when he writes, “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).

How can I be set free? This is our question, and Jesus gives us the answer. If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

First, we have to be in a personal relationship with Christ. He has died for our sins, and through receiving him in faith as our Savior and Lord, we are forgiven from our sin. The relationship that was broken in the garden has been restored through a blood-stained cross and an empty tomb.

Second, we hold to His teachings. We read God’s Word faithfully, where we receive the answers to being set free from our enslavement and the power to make these teachings living truths in our lives.

How does it all work?

I visited with two women in our coffee shop one morning. Both women had lost their husbands and were acquainted with all of the complications that accompany widowhood. One was convalescing from major heart surgery. Over the coffee cup I asked, “How do you deal with these difficult times in your life? Do you worry? Do you have fears for the future?”

The woman recovering from heart surgery told me she left it all in God’s hands. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). “Come unto me all you who labor, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

She had been set free from her enslavement of worry. Christ had said he would take care of it. Isn’t that enough? Or shall we walk through life enslaved because we are not adequate to deal with all of our sins?

This does not mean that we can live irresponsibly and expect God to take care of it all. I like what one man said, “If your car has a flat tire and you pray about it, but make no effort to fix it or have it fixed, the tire will be flat in the morning.”

Freedom, what a blessing! To lose your freedom is one of the greatest losses that can come to a person. If you doubt that statement, ask a person who has been in prison. One day, while talking with a person who operates a very successful retirement center, he told me that the secret to the success of the center is to give the guest as much freedom as possible. Limit the rules.

Because it is so easy to fall back into spiritual enslavement, I need this word from our Lord in my spiritual computer: “If you abide in my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

A Squabble Among the Brethren

Biblical characters, with the exception of Jesus, are sinful people who acted then like we do today. When we understand who these people were, the Bible becomes more real for us. We see ourselves on the pages of the Scriptures.

Let’s take a look at two mature Christians who had a squabble.

Barnabas and Paul were close friends. Right after Paul’s conversion to Christianity, there were many believers who were suspicious of him, thinking he was a spy for the Jews who wanted all the Christians killed. But Barnabas, a Jewish Christian, stood by Paul and pleaded with the brethren to accept him as one of them, who was committed to Christ. The two of them became good friends and had a lot to share with each other.

It was Barnabas that Paul took with him on his first missionary journey planting new churches. When they returned from this journey, they were excited to tell the leaders in the church in Antioch how many Gentiles had received Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. But there were those who insisted that a Gentile could not be saved without being circumcised. Paul and Barnabas stood together on the Biblical teaching that salvation was by grace through faith in Christ. Circumcision was not necessary. There was no agreement on the answer to this question, so Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to present their case before the leaders of the church. There, these two men could relate their experience of how they had seen the Holy Spirit work in the hearts of people as they came to faith in Christ, until they were given the hand of fellowship, and the leadership said that it was not necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised to be a part of the Kingdom of God. All of this is to show that they were really close brothers in Christ.

Returning to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas grew anxious to move on and spread the Gospel in other places. But then the squabble began. Barnabas wanted to take a young man, John Mark, with them. He was a cousin of Barnabas and had accompanied them on their first missionary journey. But Paul did not think it was wise to take him, because he had deserted them on their first journey and had not continued with them in their work. Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement, and they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and went to Syria.

It is interesting to note that Paul and Barnabas, both leaders in the Christian faith, could have a sharp disagreement. Neither was going to give in, and they ended up going their own way. Christians can have their weak moments.

The first days must have found them fuming at each other. Can’t you hear Paul telling Silas that John Mark was an immature kid and had no business with them on their mission? Barnabas was probably telling John Mark that Paul did not understand God’s forgiveness and grace, or he would have forgiven Mark for not continuing with them on their first journey.

Then the days went by and hot heads began to cool. I can hear Paul saying to Barnabas one evening, “I have always had a quick trigger. I probably was wrong not to let John Mark join us on the trip. He loves the Lord, but my temper gets in the way.” And miles away Barnabas was defending Paul to John Mark by saying, “Paul had so much on his mind. I should have given him a few more days to think it all over. It was a power struggle. I just wasn’t going to give in to Paul this time.”

How do we know these people who were once angry at each other reconciled? In II Timothy 4:11 Paul knew that his days on earth were numbered, and he was anxious to have some of his closest friends with him. It was then that Paul wrote to Timothy, “Come and bring John Mark with you because he is helpful in my ministry.” The man he did not have with him on his missionary journey was the one Paul now needed by his side when he was dying. Time and the grace of God are tremendous healers.

This is a lesson we have to learn. These squabbles and personality differences should not separate us. But this is where most of our battles are fought in the Christian community. Think of some of our big problems that divide us Ð types of music, how communion is served, guitar and drums or organ, the time worship services are held, and the list goes on. We have our convictions, and they should be heard and responded to, but how sad when such matters divide a group and hinder the proclamation of the Gospel.

“Well,” you might ask, “are there legitimate dividers among God’s people?”

“Yes, there are major differences that cannot be compromised.”

“But who decides what is basic?” you ask. The Bible and the Confessions of the Church teach clearly what are the basics of the Christian faith. Read through the Apostles’ Creed, which some of us confess each Sunday morning in our worship services. Therein, we find what the Church has considered the basics of Christianity since the first century.

The center of the message is our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This truth cannot be compromised. Jesus is the only way to heaven.

The healthy congregation is where believers are united in Christ. Here, different opinions can be held on the less important issues that are not mandated by the Word of God. We can have our squabbles and yet sense a oneness.

Is Anyone or Anything Stable?

Life has changed in the last sixty years.

Television has brought the world into our living room. During World War II, loved ones did not have any idea what was happening to their sons and daughters who were in the thick of battle. The letters could be days, if not weeks, apart. Today we sit and watch the battles, which are being fought in Iraq. The horrors of war are no longer secrets. It is quite a change.

Computers make it possible to play bridge with a partner sitting in his living room in London. Via e-mail, you can visit several times a day with your children who live 3,000 miles away. The world has grown smaller.

You used to be pretty safe from interruption when you were on the golf course. Not so today if you have a cell phone in your pocket. Right in the midst of a putt, you get a call that could well have waited for a couple of hours. Oh for the good old days when you could be left alone for a while.

We live in a fast-changing world. It is exciting, but it makes us wonder what is coming next. Life is exciting, but also scary. It makes us wonder if there is anyone or anything stable in our world today.

Thank God, we can turn to the Bible and read, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). These are words we need to put into our minds and souls so we can push the recall button when this changing world confuses us.

God has not changed. His Word has not changed, even though some theologians have taught that, unless God does change, the world is not going to listen to him. Culture, not God, is setting the policies for many people in the twenty-first century, they say. God’s Word must appease society or they will not listen to him. So we play the pick and choose game Ð picking and choosing passages we like to hear and filing away those that make us uncomfortable.

How foolish can we be? God is stable, and experience has taught us that we can count on this as we walk in an unstable world.

Let’s look a little further in God’s Word.

Maybe you are a person who feels God does not want a relationship with you. You have lived apart from him for too many years. That was the feeling of my friend whom I met for lunch a few days ago. As he walked into the coffee shop where I sitting, I asked him what was the matter. He began to tell me about his broken health.

He said that he had been given only a few months to live, and no one seemed to care. I reminded him that his heavenly Father cared for him and he said, “I wonder.” This poor man needed to be reminded of the prodigal son and how the father was waiting for him to come home. God is stable. He is still the waiting Father who wants his children to come home.

In Mark 8:38, we read these words: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” This is one of those passages that we could file away. It can make us uncomfortable, having our Savior being ashamed of us when we stand before God one day. Jesus is counting on us to bring this message of salvation to a generation that is not very interested in hearing what the Bible has to say on certain subjects, especially if they have conflicting thoughts. To be identified with this Savior can put us in the category of being behind the times. Yet Jesus says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:25). This statement has not changed, even though humans have become so academically sophisticated they will not succumb to anything their human minds cannot comprehend and must be received in faith.

Our Lord calls for a commitment today as He did when he walked on this earth. That has not changed. Is anything stable today? Yes, God’s Word is stable. We can rely on it.

What does this say to us? It says that we can live in a fast-moving world and appreciate those changes that make life more enjoyable, safe, and exciting. It does not mean that we should resist every change that comes our way, for many of them might be God pleasing. However, it also does not mean we should accept changes that come our way if they are not pleasing to God and are harmful to us.

Let me illustrate: Iowa is now allowing a number of cities to build a casino. It will bring millions of dollars to the state’s treasury and be financially beneficial to local governments. Many people say they enjoy an outing to the casino. They spend a limited amount of money. It is a social outing. This all sounds good until you see the other side of the picture.

For many people, gambling is addictive. Families go without the necessities of life, while dad or mom leave the weekly paycheck at the casino. Certainly a state has financial problems if they must rely on gambling to receive enough income to operate the state. Aren’t there better things to do with our time than to sit in front of a machine throwing one dollar after another away?

Sounds a little pious, you might say. I confess that I have gone on a few casino outings. I found them to be rather sad experiences. Many elderly people, women as well as men, sit at the slot with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths. They get so involved with what is happening that they are completely oblivious to anything or anyone around them.

Whether we go to the casino or not does not determine our salvation. But is it pleasing to God when so much harm for so many people comes from it? Well, politicians who made it legal will say it is a new day and we must adjust.

But remember this, your Heavenly Father, who wants the best for his children, does not change. He is the One who puts stability into our lives. Follow him.

Remember, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Put it into your list of passages that you recall on a regular basis.

Clean Me Up, God

Prayer is a necessary part of a Christian’s life. I assume that you pray. Then let me ask you, have you ever studied your prayers? What are you asking God to do in your life? Certainly it is natural for us to pray for our family’s protection and health. I assume you pray that God will make you a good husband, father, wife, mother, and an effective witness for him.

In our text, God is giving us an example of how David prayed for himself.

“Create in me a pure heart, O Lord

and renew a steadfast sprit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.”

This is part of David’s prayer of confession. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, murdered to cover up his sin. David confessed his sin, and God’s servant, Nathan, brought him the good new that God had forgiven him (II Samuel 12).

But all of this was not enough for David. He was thankful that his sin was forgiven, but he did not want to commit a sin like this again. He must have known the weakness of his flesh, and unless God strengthened him, David could envision his fall right back into the same lifestyle.

Somewhere I read a paragraph that I like and want to pass on to you. When people put their trust in Christ and receive eternal life, they get more than forgiveness. Otherwise, heaven would be populated with a bunch of forgiven sinners still running from God. God will not have that, so he changes them from within. Their heart and human spirit are made new. People long for him. They want to do what he says is good and let him be our instructor.

We need to pray this prayer: Lord, you convicted me of my sin, and then you forgave me. Now clean me up, Lord.

What are some of the evil spirits we would like to have changed?

Let me mention the sin of apathy. Does it shock you that I consider apathy a sin? Apathy is more likely to be considered a human weakness closely related to laziness. It is not as common as other wrongs such as hatred, jealousy, selfishness, dishonesty, a critical and judgmental spirit. Apathy is a sin that does nothing about correcting something that is wrong and, if not dealt with, can be spiritually disastrous.

We do not want to become involved. Why not? Because it could hurt our friendship with the people who are involved in the wrong. So we let it go. Let someone else take care of it. Who wants to be called a troublemaker? It isn’t any of our business. I have enough trouble taking care of my own life. This indifference is apathy.

Rolo May said, “Hate is not the opposite of love Ð apathy is.” How many lives have been ruined because of apathy on the part of other people. History tells us that in 1923 Adolph Hitler gained control of the Nazi party by one vote. Many knew he was a dangerous leader, but they did not want to become involved. So he rose to power. You and I know the rest of the story.

Think how dangerous apathy can be in the church. What if the Gospel is not ringing clearly from the pulpit every Sunday? What if your children are not being taught biblical truths in their Sunday school classes? What if fewer and fewer people are worshiping regularly on Sunday mornings? What if there is a poor spirit among members of the congregation that becomes divisive?

Do we just let these things go hoping they will correct themselves? If so, this is the sin of apathy.

Think about your family. You notice a change in your twelve-year-old child’s behavior. Once happy, your child has suddenly become quite unpleasant to be around. Once he had friends who were enjoyable to have in your home. Now his new friends do not have the same values your son once held. You try to help these people, but they do not want your help. So what do you do? Your turn your back and say someday he will grow up. Isn’t that being apathetic?

Yes, we pray for the forgiveness of our sins, but let’s not stop there. Let’s remember David’s prayer: Create in me a pure heart, O Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Do you suppose that David was asking God to forgive him for being so apathetic in raising his children and what a mess his family had become?

We don’t know all that David asked God to do in his life when he asked for a steadfast spirit. But we need to pray that God will forgive and help us from denying him because of my apathy.