First Then I Met Him

“When did you start preaching about the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

I have been asked this question many times by members of the congregation. My answer is generally, “Oh, many years ago.” The reply I usually get is, “Strange, I never heard this message in your sermons until recently.”

One woman who asked me this question had recently had a spiritual awakening, and Christ had spoken to her through his Word in a very personal way.

These experiences remind me of the words that came from the lips of the people from a village in Samaria: “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

Many of you know this story recorded in John 4. Let’s review it.

Jesus and his disciples were passing through Samaria on their way from Judea to Galilee. It was about noon, and the disciples went to town for food, but Jesus sat down to rest. Jacob’s well was there.

Soon a woman came for water, and Jesus asked, “Would you give me a drink?” The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (Jews did not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father, Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

When Jesus told her that whoever drinks the water that He gave them would never thirst, the woman got interested. “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Now Jesus gets more personal and says, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

This was a touchy subject. The woman replied, “I have no husband.” Jesus then made it terribly uncomfortable when he said, “You are telling the truth. You have had five husbands and you are cohabitating with a man who is not your husband.”

Quite confrontational, wouldn’t you say?

At this point, the woman was anxious to change the subject when she says, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews insist that the right place to worship is in Jerusalem.”

Now listen to Jesus speak words that should be taken seriously by people of every generation: “Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

I believe these words speak to us in the Church today.

Perhaps Jesus is saying to us, Listen, where you worship should not have top priority. Rather, you should ask yourself, “Am I clearly hearing the Gospel Ð that God loves me and in Christ I am his? Am I being challenged to live a life that is a witness to the Lord who made me his?” Christ’s worshipers must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Back to our story. The woman made quick exit and went back to her town. She said to the people, “Come and see. I just met a man who told me everything that I ever did. Could he be the Christ? He says he is.”

The people went out to meet Jesus and asked him to spend some time with them. He accepted their invitation and was in their town for two days. The Bible tells us, “Many of the Samaritans from the town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” However, when Jesus had left their town, the people said to the Samaritan woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” They had a personal experience with Jesus, and that is what can happen when you spend time with Jesus.

Somewhere along life’s way you learn about Jesus. You know about him, but where did you meet him? St. Paul learned about Jesus as he listened to the early followers witness to what the Lord had done for them. He first met Jesus and claimed him as his Savior on the road to Damascus and later in Arabia. Luther learned about Jesus in his home and parish church. However, he first met Christ in his study at the University of Wittenberg, when he heard Jesus speak through Romans 1:17 – “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ÔThe righteous will live by faith.'”

We meet Christ in His Word. Whoever has your time is shaping your life. Why not give Christ a few days this year in some kind of a retreat. Let Him have thirty minutes of your time each day. He will make great changes in your life. That is His promise.

Born Again

Bishop J. C. Ryle is an English biblical scholar who died in 1900, and is highly respected in evangelical churches today. He has written, “A person may be ignorant of many things in religion and yet be saved, but to be ignorant of the matters written in this chapter (John 3) is to be in the broad way that leads to destruction.” Bishop Ryle makes special reference to Jesus’ words, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

I was introduced to Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels by my father-in-law, Dr. N. C. Carlsen, who himself was a strong evangelical preacher. He told me that Ryle’s commentaries on the Gospels were some of the most important books in his library. I also consider them to be of great value and seldom preach on a text from the Gospels without reading what Ryle has to say.

Listen to these important, precious, inspired words of our Lord: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. . . . I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3, 5).

Our text introduces us to Nicodemus. Like many people today, he was a religious man, but was still searching for the truth. His soul was restless. He was a Pharisee, a group of never more than 6,000. They spent their lives observing every detail of the law of God. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin, a group that numbered seventy and served as the Supreme Court of the Jews.

He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Nicodemus was perplexed. “What does it mean to be Ôborn again?'” he asked. Since that day, millions of people have asked the same question. Let us see if this sermon can help some person understand this important part of the Bible.

When God created us, he created us with a body and a soul. We were physically born. We have a birthday and are so many years old. We had nothing to do with our physical birth; it was God who created us. This body is wonderfully made. The more medical science discovers about the body, the more we see how marvelous it is. However, as humans, we are sinful beings and can have no relationship with our creator, for God can have nothing to do with sin. So what should He do?

Well, He chose to send into this world his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ lived on this earth for thirty-three years without sin. The last three years of his life he spent ministering to people telling them that he was sent by God. At the end of his ministry, Jesus suffered and died at the cross taking the sins of the world upon himself and atoning for our transgressions. On the third day, he was raised from the dead. Forty days after his resurrection, he ascended into heaven promising that he would return. He offers to all who will receive him the complete forgiveness of their sins and brings them into a personal and eternal relationship with God.

We have nothing to do with our spiritual birth; Christ has done it all. He empowers us to believe in him and to receive him. When his gift is received and Jesus lives in us, we are born again.

When we are born again, Jesus moves from our heads to our hearts. Our inward man is thoroughly cleansed, and our spirit is renewed. We live in a personal relationship with him. He walks through life with us. Our lives are changed, and we are a new creation.

Bishop Ryle writes, “We have new habits, tastes, desires, appetites, judgments, hopes, and fears. We live with the assurance of our salvation. There is a place awaiting us in heaven.”

But we have one more big question: How does this new birth take place in a person’s life? Millions of people struggle with whether or not to trust Christ as their Savior and Lord. I have had many tell me that they would love to believe in Christ, but they simply cannot. Of our own will, we cannot, but if we will live in His Word, he will create faith in our hearts and we will be converted Ð born again.

Nicodemus was one of the millions who struggled with Jesus Christ. He did not leave that first meeting with Jesus as a believer. So it is true that many struggle today. They come to church; they might even read their Bibles and know the Gospel story. However, they do not really trust Christ. If that is you, take heart! It was also Nicodemus’ experience. The Holy Spirit was working in the life of this religious man.

In John 7:51, we read that the Sanhedrin was meeting one day, and Jesus was the recipient of their condemnation. What was Nicodemus going to do? Many of us would remain silent realizing that we would be in the minority if we said anything. But he could not keep silent. Suddenly he heard himself saying, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”

No more is reported on what was happening in Nicodemus’ spiritual life until Jesus was being buried. Then Nicodemus made his confession of faith. He came forth and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in burying the body, anointing it with costly ointment. That was the day Nicodemus gave witness that he had been born anew. Jesus lived in his life, and Nicodemus was His forever!

Others came to faith in a different way. The robber on the cross cried out in repentance and faith, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” He was born again. It was an instantaneous conversion. Today we talk about deathbed conversions. The day of grace is not over until our last breath has been taken. Sometimes it takes tough experiences to understand how much we need a Savior.

Some churches teach that the new birth takes place in baptism. This they believe and teach what Jesus meant when he said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

Born into a Lutheran home and educated in a Lutheran college and seminary, I believe that in baptism God entered into a covenant relationship with me. After my baptism, my parents were instructed to introduce me to Jesus. This they did. Faithfully we studied the Word of God in our home and prayed. Each Sunday morning and evening we attended worship in our church. I grew up always trusting Jesus. This is what we call living in your baptismal covenant. This means that we did not leave Christ, but as we grew older, we became conscious that he was our Savior and Lord, and our lives were committed to him. This is the spiritual awakening. If we walked away from Christ, we were lost even though we had been baptized. We needed to be converted, turned around, and brought back to Him if we were to be saved.

One thing must be said. There is more to the “born-again experience” than simply being baptized, and then you are saved no matter what you believe. One Sunday I preached in my home congregation. A member of our confirmation class was in the congregation. After the service, we visited and he told me that he was not a believer in Christ as Savior. He seldom went to church and never read the Bible. His life was lived apart from Christ. As I recall, his parents had their son baptized because it was the traditional thing to do. When he was twelve years old, they enrolled him in our confirmation class. At age fourteen, he was confirmed and never came back to the church after that day.

It is serious when the congregation teaches or gives the impression that because you have been baptized, you are saved. Sad to say, on the basis of what the scriptures teach, there will be many baptized people in hell. It is bothersome for me to hear a sermon where the preacher assumes that everyone in his audience is saved, and when challenged about this, he replies, “Well, they are baptized, aren’t they?” Maybe so, but baptism alone will not save them.

Let the debate on baptism and the new birth go on. One day through faith in Christ Jesus, we will have a good discussion about this teaching in our heavenly home.

I close with this beautiful illustration. One evening, a group of people were visiting with one of the young ladies who works in our retirement center. One of the people said, “You are confronted with many temptations in our world.” Without blinking an eye, the young lady replied, “This I know, I am a born again Christian and Christ is with me.”

She has no theological training beyond her home and church, but Christ lives in her heart. That is what it means to be born again.

What Place Does Emotion Have in Building Christ’s Church?

What place does emotion have in the building of Christ’s Church? Christ helps us answer this question in our text today.

Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. Word had gotten around that he was someone to watch. This man had performed miracles like changing water into wine, healing a paralytic, and feeding five thousand people from five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus announced that he was the Messiah. All of this made him a very popular person. The people’s emotions were running high, and they believed that he could be the One who would deliver them from the Romans, under whose jurisdiction they were living.

In every generation, Christianity has touched the emotions of many people. Listening to the preaching of God’s Word, many have been convicted of their sinfulness. When Christ offered them the forgiveness of their sins, there was new joy in their hearts. Just sing some of our hymns and we feel that emotion. “Just as I am Without One Plea” expresses the person’s sinfulness. “Amazing grace; how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” expresses the joy of a forgiven sinner.

Emotion plays an important role in building Christ’s Church, but Christ does not build his Church on emotion. Listen to this verse in our text: “Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.”

Jesus knows what is in the hearts of people. As long as He performs his miracles and says what they want him to say, they would stay with him. Yet, when he begins to talk to them about service and taking up their cross and following him, they would be gone.

William Barclay writes, “Jesus did not want followers unless they knew and clearly accepted that which was involved in following him. He refused to cash in on a moment’s popularity. Jesus was a leader who refused to ask people to accept him until they knew what accepting meant. He insisted that people should know what they were doing. He knew people could be swept away in emotion and then back out when they discovered what the decision meant. He knows how humans hunger for sensation. He wanted not a crowd of cheering people who knew not what, but a small company who knew what they were doing and were prepared to follow to the end.”

Serving Jesus is a fruit of our faith. Salvation is not accomplished by our works, assuming that since we have done so many good deeds, Jesus will bow to our us in gratitude. Salvation is not His Kingdom on our terms.

Jesus’ question – Who do you say that I am? – was answered by Peter. He replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” To this response Jesus said to Peter, “Upon your confession I will build my church” (Matthew 16:13-30). The Church is built on Christ. The Holy Spirit uses people who are not swept away by emotion in building His Church. He uses those stand firm on this confession. Though Peter fell into sin and could be very emotional, he had a faith that was built on the rock – Jesus Christ. Peter was a man whom Jesus could use.

We have a temptation to find a church and a preacher who says what we want to hear, whether it is biblical or not. Church shopping is popular in our day. We are tempted to find a church that fits all our wants from the time the service is scheduled, to the music that is sung, to the way we are treated by the preacher or other members of the congregation. The big questions receive secondary consideration. Questions such as,

. Was God’s Word proclaimed?

. Was the way of salvation made clear?

. Was the appeal made to the lost to come to Christ?

. Was the believer fed with spiritual food?

This disease of satisfying our own spiritual likes is found in every denomination, and it affects most congregations. Roger Fredrikson says this: “We are surrounded by subtle pressures to settle for our kind of Messiah. The religious star system calls for agents and contracts and an amazing variety of advanced publicity. The narcissistic gospel promises to solve all my hangups and problems. It’s almost like a cocaine fix. Spectacular religious tv specials make all our local church affairs seem drab by contrast. And the show must get bigger and more dazzling al the time.”

What place does emotion have in the building of Christ’s Church?

Emotions are not the foundation. Christ is the foundation. Emotions such as joy, peace, and love are fruits of living in Christ’s Kingdom, in whom we have our salvation. Amen.

Must There Be an Ongoing Cleansing of the Temple?

Do we need an ongoing cleansing of the Church? If so, what would be the criterion for our judgments? In post-modern society where Scripture is no longer considered the authority, could we agree on what is right or wrong in the Church? Dare we even ask such questions without causing division in the Church? Is unity in the Church not our number one priority? How does God’s Word answer these questions?

In today’s scripture text, Jesus’ ministry had begun. He was busy making himself known. At his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus declared that he was not just the man at the carpenter shop Ð he was the Messiah. This angered the people, and they threw him out of town.

At Cana of Galilee, Jesus changed the water into wine thereby letting people know that He was divine as well as human. They were astonished!

In this text, Jesus is now in Jerusalem where it is estimated that two million Jews had gathered to celebrate the Passover. This was the festival commemorating the day when God led His people out of Egypt (Exodus 12). God did not want the Jews to forget his love for them and how he had spared them from the Egyptians. So He told them, “This is the day you are to commemorate for generations to come. It will be celebrated as a festival to the Lord, a lasting ordinance” (Exodus 12:14). To this day, our Jewish neighbors faithfully celebrate the Passover.

Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover expecting to receive a spiritual blessing, but what he saw was the people had turned the Temple into a marketplace. What had begun as a beautiful festival bringing blessings to the participants, had become a corrupted money-raising event.

People living nearby raised and sold sheep to those who had traveled long distances and needed a lamb for the Passover sacrifice. In addition, the money changers were busy making a healthy profit on the exchange of money people needed to pay the temple tax. (Only Jewish coins could be used for this purpose; foreign money was declared unclean.)

Observing all of this, Jesus was angry. The Bible says: “He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves, he said, ÔGet these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!'” (John 2:15, 16).

The Jews then demanded a sign to prove his authority. They acknowledged that Jesus was making claims to be the Messiah. Now he should give his credentials.

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” This was a prophecy of his resurrection. However, they understood him to say that he would construct a new temple in three days.

The point in this sermon is that Jesus had cleansed the Temple. Related to this incident in the ministry of our Lord, might we be so bold as to ask, Should there be an ongoing cleansing of the Church? History tells us that human leadership through the years has contaminated the Church with false teachings and corrupt practices. Turn to the the history books and learn what was happening in the Church during the sixteenth century. The basic teaching of the Gospel, which is so clear and simple, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The Roman Church had blessed the selling of indulgences, which promised freedom from purgatory. Salvation was not being taught coming by grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone. Instead, man’s works also contributed to his salvation. The Church needed a cleansing. That was the purpose of the Reformation.

We need not talk about the errors of days gone by, but about now. What would Jesus say if he came to our churches today as once he came to the Temple in Jerusalem? If he attended a worship service, might he ask something like this: Why do you preach as if everyone present is saved? The worship service is not just for those who trust me as their Savior and Lord. I came to seek and to save those who are lost. The lost in the congregation need to hear the way of salvation clearly. Yet I did not hear one word about that truth. Are you willing to let them live and die in their unsaved state?

Would you dare to say, “Well, Lord, these people are all baptized, and based on that sacrament, we believe they are all saved.”

Do you not believe Jesus might say, “To bring a child to the baptismal font is a blessed event if the parents introduce him to Jesus, and he grows up trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord. What if the child never receives this instruction and yet belongs to the congregation, though he or she has no personal relationship with me? What if at the age of 25 this person rejects the Lord who entered a covenant relationship with him at the font as a baby? Are you still treating this person as my child?” These are questions we should have the courage to ask and then act accordingly for the spiritual welfare of the person.

I believe in the power of God to work through baptism. He did this in my own life. However, I also believe in the power of the human will to reject Christ although that person is baptized. This is not discrediting baptism. However, it is not making baptism more than the Lord intended it to be. We have taught that baptism is to the New Testament what circumcision was to the Old Testament people. Jesus was quick to say that the circumcised were lost because they rejected him as the Messiah.

From my own experience, I have worked with many baptized people who told me very bluntly that they were not Christians. Then why should we treat them as if they were? When this is the case, I believe the Scriptures would direct us to clean house of this misuse of the sacrament of baptism.

Is it time to have a cleansing of the Church when we have busied ourselves with many activities at the expense of a strong evangelism program that trains people how to share their faith with unbelievers?

Is it time to have a cleansing of the Church when we do not have a goal of feeding the poor, of helping the addict, of working with those whose marriages are broken?

Is it time to have a cleansing of the Church when we refuse to share the teachings of the Gospel with those who practice homosexuality and welcome them into our midst? Is it not also time to cleanse the church when some of its leadership teach that we should accept the practice of homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle? Is it not time for new leadership in the Church when, after the Body has rejected the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, they try to reverse the voice of the Church down the road at another convention? Is it not time to cleanse the Church of those bishops who allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals when the Church has said that it is not acceptable? Is it not time to do some Church cleaning when a prominent leader in the Church says that unity is more important than being faithful to what the Bible teaches regarding the practice of homosexuality?

God’s word speaks clearly of what his will is for the Church. Is it easy for us to set this program aside and adopt one of our own that is often directed more by culture than by the Word?

Must there be an ongoing cleansing of the Church? We know that the answer is yes. Then let the cleansing begin, for the eternal souls of people are at stake.