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Thursday, August 28, 2014

New Wednesday Night Study: Colossians!

September 3 will mark the return of our Wednesday night AWANA and adult Bible study series.  If your children have not been involved with AWANA before, it is a great opportunity to reinforce the basic truths of the faith and to cultivate in them love for the Scriptures.  They will be blessed to participate.
Our adult Bible study for the Fall semester will be an inductive study of Colossians.  Numerous people have requested a study on this book and others have commented that it is their favorite book of the Bible.  It is no wonder that people are drawn to this book - it is filled with rich truths about the Savior and about our position in Him.  For those who desire to fan the flame of their affection for Christ, there may be no better book to study than Colossians.
Our main objective will be to understand and apply the message of this epistle.  A secondary objective will be to become more familiar with the discipline of studying the bible.  The more we study the Bible together in this setting, the more comfortable we will all be using this study method on our own.  
Each week, in each passage we study, we will have four objectives:
1.     Observe the text.  “What does the text say?”
2.     Interpret the text.  “What does the text mean by what it says?”
3.     Apply the text.  “What does the text require of me?”
4.     Obey the text.  “What practical steps do I need to take to be obedient to the text?”
Our first order of business in the series will be to do a thorough overview of Colossians.  The overview is the most important component of studying the Bible, and yet, it is often neglected.  It is natural to want to start digging into the first verse right way.  However, when we do that without getting a feel for the book as a whole, we can make serious errors in interpretation.
Context is vitally important to biblical interpretation, so we must understand the context before we look closely at individual sections, paragraphs, and verses.  If you have been with us for long in our Sunday morning study of Matthew, you know that we often take a step back from our weekly text to be reminded of the larger context.  Without doing that, we are in danger of completely misunderstanding the message of any given passage.  For that reason, we’ll spend several weeks gaining an overall familiarity with the message of Colossians. 
The first step in doing an overview is to simply read the book in its entirety repetitively.  There are only 4 chapters in Colossians, which most of us could find time to read in one sitting (or two).  If you are interested in joining us for this study, you would find it beneficial to try to read through the book several times between now and the beginning of the series on September 3.  If you are not able, you will not be behind—we are going to take this a step at a time together on Wednesday nights.
The main things we want to discover when we do an overview are:
1. Author – What can we learn about the author?  Of course, we know that Paul wrote the book, but does he say anything about himself? (Look for 1st person pronouns – I, me, my.)  Can we glean anything from the text about his circumstances or why he is writing the book?
2. Recipients – Who are they?  Where are they?  What are their circumstances?  The circumstances of the author and recipients of an epistle will be valuable clues to the purpose and themes of the book.  What do you learn about them?
3. Occasion – What is the issue or situation that has prompted the writing of the book? Paul is writing for a reason.  He is addressing a specific need or issue.  We call that issue or situation “the occasion.” Finding the occasion is like listening to one side of a phone conversation.  By paying attention to what Paul writes, we need to try to determine what is being said on the other line, so to speak.  Why is Paul writing what he is writing?
3. Key words – After reading the text a few times, you will start to notice words that are used repeatedly in the book.  Many people note that Colossians and Ephesians are very similar.  That is true, but just in a few readings of Colossians I have noted several key words that are not prominent in Ephesians.  Those key words will help us to identify the main themes unique to Colossians.   
4. Themes – What seems to be the key content in the book?  What issues are addressed?  What exhortations are made?  What rebukes?   
Our goal at the end of the overview is to be able to answer in one short sentence what the book is about.  It is time-consuming work, but what a treasure to become more familiar with the text of God’s Word and to be changed by it.  If you were to ask anyone who has participated in our past inductive studies (1 Peter, 2 Peter, Titus), most of them would still be able to tell you the specifics of those books because of the overview that we did.  Colossians may be an enigma to you now, but imagine the blessing of gaining a deep familiarity with it in just a few short months.  Imagine further how its application could change your life!
May the Lord bless the fruit of this our study together.  Again, the new study begins Wednesday, September 3 at 6:30 next door at Partners in Prime.  I hope to see you there!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Psalm 84 - Joy in the Hope of Glory

It is difficult to read the news recently without being overwhelmed by the suffering all around us.  Some of us are enduring great difficulties that perhaps no one knows about.  It is quite obvious that we live in a fallen world, and times like these can leave us desperate for eternity in glory.  While a desire for heaven is a good thing, we must be careful that ours is not a “get me out of here” desire, but rather a present joy for the future joy that awaits us.  We need to be mindful of the temptation to allow the distress of present difficulties to drown out the joy that is ours in the hope of Christ, which is meant to sustain us as we wait for Him.

We find in Psalm 84, a soul longing for the courts of the LORD, delighting to be on the journey there.  The psalm contains one scant reference to the difficulty of the way.  This one reference is overwhelmed by line after line of joy and hope in the prospects of enjoying the Lord’s presence.

  1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!

 2 My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.

 3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.

 4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah

These first verses indicate a recognition of the splendor that awaits in the Lord’s dwelling place.  The psalmist is not there, yet – My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD – he has not entered those courts, and yet he is not waiting to arrive before singing in worship to the living God.  He is enjoying God and worshiping in the journey.

How easy it is to lumber along the road of this life, wearily longing for glory, and traveling as if the joy that awaits cannot be experienced along the way.  We’ve talked many times about the “already/not yet.”  Here is another manifestation of it.  Though we are not yet in the fullness of God’s presence, the Spirit already dwells within us as a “down-payment” on glory (2 Cor 5:1-5).  As the psalmist notes, longing for the courts of the Lord does not preclude rejoicing in God along the road. 

As Paul wrote the book of Philippians, he was enduring hardship, and you can read in every section the longing in his heart to go home to Christ.  And yet, there are five references to his own rejoicing, and six exhortations to the recipients to rejoice.  Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say Rejoice (4:4).  Even in present suffering, as we long for the Lord’s eternal presence, we have just cause for rejoicing in Him, and we should do so.

  5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

 6 As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

 7 They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.

 8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah

 9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed!

Verses 5-9 show four ways that even in the absence of heaven, the presence of God may be experienced.  First, we can know the power of God.  Blessed are those whose strength is in you (v5).  Second, we can know the provision of God (v6).  The Valley of Baca, mentioned in v6, is thought to be a dry, barren place – an apt metaphor for the narrow path we travel.  It is hard and there is no adequate sustenance for our souls.  But for those who are longing for glory (“in whose hearts are the highways to Zion”), even the wasteland of this life is a place of springs and early rains due to the provision of the Lord.

Third, we can know the promise of God (v7).  For those whose strength is in the Lord, each one appears before God in Zion.  We can know that if we are in Christ, our hope is not a worldly brand of wishful thinking, but a confident assurance that our future in heaven is not an if but a when.  We will appear before God in Zion.

Fourth, we can know the protection of God (v8-9).  God is our shield.  When we call, He hears us.  There is no danger of ultimate peril on the way.  He will preserve us to the end.

  10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

 11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.

 12 O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you! 

Like bookends the first verses and last verses of the psalm sing about the unparalleled wonder of the presence of the Lord.  All the delights of the entire history of this temporal world cannot compare to a single day in the Lord’s house (v10).  That is cause for rejoicing.  It is the place where we will experience in full measure the power, provision, promise, and protection that we have only sampled on this earth (v11).   He is worthy to be trusted for that ultimate reward and blessed are those who do so (v12).

May the hope of glory overwhelm the difficulties and darkness surrounding you today.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Union and Communion with God

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)

How does sin affect our fellowship with the Lord?  Does it affect it at all since we are saved by grace and not by works?  To answer these questions and avoid thinking wrongly about our relationship with the Triune God, we need to understand the distinction between union and communion

Union refers to a believer’s state of being united with Christ in God by the Spirit.  Union is a unilateral act of God whereby dead sinners are made alive and are joined to the Lord Jesus in a relationship akin to marriage.  Just as a husband and wife become one flesh and share all things with one another, so also Christ and the church become one, and the church enjoys all the blessings that rightfully belong to Christ.  When we say that this union is unilateral, we mean that it is initiated by God alone.  The sinner does not approach God, for he can’t - he is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1).  God, because of His great love and mercy, not because of any merit in us, made us alive together with Christ and gave us all the blessings in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3-14; 2:4-6).  There is nothing that man can do to initiate this union or destroy it.  In our union with Christ, we are purely receptive, that is, we receive God’s gracious action.

Communion, on the other hand, is enjoyment of fellowship with God.  It is a result of our union with Him, but it is distinct from our union with Him.  It is essential that we understand the difference between the two.  While in our union with Christ, we merely receive, communion includes giving and receiving.  And while our union with Christ never changes, our experience of communion does have highs and lows. 

We can use the analogy of marriage again to understand this distinction.  The legal union of a husband and wife is not affected when they have a conflict.  When they are at odds with one another, they are just as married as when they are head-over-heels for one another.  Rises and falls in affection, communication, giving/receiving, and delight do nothing to affect their legal union.  On the other hand, rises and falls in these things do affect their experience of intimacy with one another (communion).  When a husband sins against his wife, the state of his legal connection (union) to her is unchanged, but his (and her) enjoyment of the relationship (communion) is changed until he seeks reconciliation by confessing, repenting, and asking to be forgiven. 

Similarly, there is nothing that the believer can do to jeopardize his union with Christ.  But when he sins, it will affect the intimacy of his communion with the Lord (Psa 51, 66:18; 1 Pet 3:7).  It is not that God’s love grows and wains according to the changing actions of His people; His love never changes.  He doesn’t move away from us; we move away from Him.  Our sin causes us to be distant from God, and it is this distance that affects our communion, that is, our enjoyment of fellowship with Him.  As soon as we repent and seek forgiveness, we are able to resume the enjoyment of the relationship.

So while we can’t do anything to affect our union with God, we can do things that affect our communion with God.  Prayer, time in the Word, fellowship with the saints, and participation in corporate worship all serve to build our sense of communion with the Lord.  Conversely, toleration of sin and neglect of personal devotions can cause us to feel distant from Him. 

Yet, our union with Him is never in danger.  And it is the certainty of our union with Him that should cause us to be quick to repent and return to the Father who is quick to forgive.  To say it another way, our communion with God flows from our union with God, not the other way around.

So when your communion (enjoyment of fellowship) with God is suffering, it does not mean that you are no longer saved or that God doesn’t love you the way He used to or that you need to do something to earn His favor again.  Simply repent of any sin you’ve tolerated in your life, seek His forgiveness, and once again begin to do those things that foster deep communion with Him (Rev 2:4-5).  And be thankful that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus!