My Sunday sermons given at Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR, for those who missed church or just want to see what we're up to. You can also listen to these sermons if you prefer. Just go to our church website and click the "Online Church" tab. Here's the link:

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Why All the Fuss About Easter?" - (04/24/11)

(Easter Message)
April 24, 2011

            Two thousand years ago, in a little postage stamp size country in the Middle East, an event occurred that permanently changed the course of our world.  Because of that event, history was split into two parts—Before Christ, and After Christ.  In fact, every time you write a date, you are acknowledging the historical impact of Jesus of Nazareth and using His life as the focal point.  The imprint that Jesus has had on human history is beautifully summed up in a story by Dr. James Allen Francis, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles.  It was first given as part of a sermon delivered way back on July 11, 1926 at a national youth convention.  Perhaps you’ve heard it before.  It is entitled, “One Solitary Life.
Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman.  He grew up in another obscure village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.  He never wrote a book.  He never held an office.  He never owned a home.  He never had a family.  He never went to college.  He never put his foot inside a big city.  He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where He was born.  He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.  He had no credentials but Himself.  He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of His Divine Manhood.  While still a young man, the tide of public opinion turned against Him.  His friends ran away.  One of them denied Him.  He was turned over to His enemies.  He went through the mockery of a trial.  He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.  His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth while He was dying—and that was his coat.  When he was dead He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.  Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today He is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress.  I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.

            People often ask, “But what’s so important about Easter?  What’s all the fuss about?”  Well, it is important because it proved that Jesus was who He claimed to be.  He was God in the flesh, the God-Man, and He came to earth to save us.  In His own words, recorded in Luke 19:10, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”  Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and the only Way to Heaven.  He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  Easter validates the truth of those claims.  The bodily resurrection of Jesus and His subsequent appearance to hundreds of people proves that He was telling the truth.  His resurrection and victory over death vindicates, validates, and verifies everything else He ever said, about any subject.
            Three events occurred in a dramatic succession on that Easter weekend: the trials of Jesus, then the crucifixion of Jesus, and finally the resurrection of Jesus.  Let’s take a look at each of those events and their implications.

The trials of Jesus
            I say “trials” because Jesus actually went through six trials, not just one.  In the hours between approximately 11 PM on Thursday night until about 8 AM on Friday morning, he was brought before…
  • Annas (the former high priest),
  • Caiaphas (the reigning high priest),
  • The Sanhedrin (the religious Supreme Court of the Jews),
  • Pontius Pilatus (the 5th Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from A.D. 26-36),
  • Herod Antipas, AKA “Herod the Tetrarch” (the Jewish puppet-governor of Galilee),
  • And then back again to Pilate for final sentencing.

            At the end of those six trials, what did they find to accuse Jesus of?  Nothing of any substance!  That’s because He had done nothing wrong—He had committed no sin, or crime of any sort.  They brought in lying witnesses to make up phony charges, but those didn’t stick.  Finally they convicted Him on one count: claiming to be the Son of God.  That’s the sole reason Jesus went to the cross.  They didn’t like that claim.  But then again, people today still don’t like that claim!  It makes people nervous.  Why?  Well, what if He’s right?  What if He’s telling the truth?  In that case, He can no longer be ignored, and dismissed as just another irrelevant religious wacko.
            Everyone who has ever been presented with Jesus has already made some kind of decision about who they think He is.  You either believe He’s a liar, or you believe He’s a lunatic, or you believe He’s who He claimed to be, the Lord of all.  You can’t just ride the fence and say: “I believe he was a good man and a great moral teacher.”  He could not be just a good moral teacher, because a good teacher would not say, “I am God, and I am the only way to Heaven.”  Yet that is exactly what Jesus claimed!  A good, ethical person would not say such a thing, unless it was the truth.  This argument has been widely cited since the nineteenth century.  It was used by the American preacher Mark Hopkins in his book Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1846).  Another early use of this approach was by the Scottish preacher, John Duncan, around 1859-60.  He said:
“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma.  It is inexorable [inescapable].”

            However, British writer and Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, was probably the best exponent of this argument, which has come to be known as “The Great Trilemma.”  Lewis was an Oxford medieval historian, popular writer, and Christian apologist.  He first popularized this argument in a series of BBC radio talks, later published as the book Mere Christianity.  Here is a famous quote from that book, which beautifully lays out the argument:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.”  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was, and is, God.”

            Jesus claimed to be the Savior of the world.  In John 12:47, He is recorded as saying: “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.”  During His earthly ministry He held out a message of hope, of forgiveness of sins, of peace with God, and a home in Heaven.  He came “to save the world.”  But make no mistake, one day He will come back and that is when He will come “to judge the world.”  And woe to any who are not numbered among His friends on that day!
            Jesus allowed himself to be put on trial so there would be no doubt about who He was.  His death, burial, and resurrection shone a great light on His claims and showed them all to be true, and showed that He was indeed the promised Messiah, the Savior of the world, just as He had said.  He had the power and authority to have stopped the process at any moment.  He knew all along that He would be found guilty and nailed to the cross -- but He allowed it to happen.  Why?  Because it was all part of the plan—the redemption plan, to provide a perfect sacrifice for your sins, and mine.

The death of Jesus
            After a night of beatings and mocking, after being deprived of food, water, and sleep, after being crowned with painful thorns pounded into His head, after being dragged from one kangaroo-court to another, at approximately 9 AM on Friday Jesus was crucified, along with two convicted felons.  Now crucifixion is one of the most brutal and torturous death penalties ever devised by man.  The term crucifixion comes from the Latin word, crucifixus, which is the past participle passive form of the verb meaning “to fix to a cross.”  Crucifixion was usually intended to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful, gruesome, humiliating, and public.  In fact, the English word excruciating, comes from the practice of crucifixion.  It literally means “from, or out from crucifying, i.e. as a result of crucifixion.”  In other words, the pain caused by crucifixion has become the standard by which all other pain is measured.
            To give you a brief summary, first the convicted man was stripped completely naked.  Then his arms were stretched out wide against the upper cross member, or transom (patibulum in Latin).  Then huge 5-7 inch iron spikes were driven, not through the hand itself, but either through the two bones in each wrist (radius and ulna), or driven in on an angle, entering in the palm in the crease that delineates the bulky region at the base of the thumb, and exiting in the wrist, passing through the carpal tunnel.  [Show the spike]  Sometimes more than one spike was used.  In either case, as the spikes went through this part of the flesh, they would strike the median nerve causing excruciating pain. The beam was then lifted in place at the top of the upright post (the stipes) and the titulus, the sign board proclaiming the crime of the accused, was nailed in place.  The titulus over Jesus’ head read, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” in three languages.
            Now if you hung this way for any period of time, the muscles around your chest cavity began to be paralyzed.  You could breathe in but you couldn’t breathe out.  Death on a cross would have been a simple matter of suffocation—except the Romans didn’t want to make it that easy.  They would take a person’s knees and bend them a little bit and then nail the feet to the sides of the cross.  So a man would hang there in absolute agony until the pain in his chest felt like he was about to explode—and then he would lift himself up on his nailed feet to grab a breath.  When the pain in his feet grew unbearable, he’d let himself back down again—until the pain in his lungs became unbearable.  Up and down, over and over again, for hours without end.  It was an incredibly torturous way to die, sometimes taking 2 or 3 days.  However, in Jesus’ case they wanted to hurry up the process because of the start of the Jewish Passover.  To hasten the deaths of Jesus and the two criminals, the soldiers eventually came along to break their legs using an iron club called a crurifragium.  This was a technique designed to hasten death by asphyxiation because they could no longer raise themselves up to take the pressure off their diaphragms.  Death would usually come very quickly.
            The Roman soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals, but when they got to Jesus they didn’t need to break His legs, because He had already died.  But just to make sure that He was really dead and not just passed out, the legionnaire drove his lance upward through the fifth interspace between the ribs, through the pericardium and into the heart.  Immediately there came out blood and serum showing that the blood had already started to separate.  We, therefore, have rather conclusive post-mortem evidence that our Lord died, not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.
            That was the immediate physical, forensic cause of death, but why did Jesus have to die?  Because He alone was able to pay for our sins.  Without Him there would be no salvation for us.  An old hymn sums it up: “Jesus paid it all; all to Him I owe.  Sin had left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow.”  You deserved punishment, but Jesus paid the penalty for you.  Only someone who was sin-less could die for someone who is sin-full.  And that’s what we all are— sin-full.  The Bible says: All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”  It goes on to say: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  I Peter 3:18 puts it this way: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the Just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”

The resurrection of Jesus
            After Jesus died, a small group of His disciples took His body down from the cross and laid Him in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and to seal the door of the burial chamber they set in place a giant round stone, like a millstone.  The Jewish religious leaders who were worried that Jesus’ body might be stolen by His followers asked Pontius Pilate for a detail of Roman guards to be posted in front of the tomb.  They didn’t want Him coming out!  But of course, He did anyway.  And then He walked all around, showing Himself repeatedly to individuals and to groups of people.  The Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 15:5-8 tells us that after the Resurrection… “He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve.  6After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now…  7then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8and last of all… He appeared to me also.”  For those forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus, He taught His disciples, ate with them, walked with them, let them put their fingers in the nail prints in His hands and side.  HE WAS ALIVE!
            You’ve all heard this story before.  But it’s important to remember that Easter is not just some memorial to a nice religious teacher who lived 2,000 years ago.  It is our celebration of the fact that Jesus Christ is alive today, and He is still saving sinners and changing lives!  I am living proof, and so are the approximately 1 billion Christians around the world who are celebrating Easter this weekend.
            In Romans 1:4 Paul say that Jesus “…was shown to be the Son of God when He was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He is Jesus Christ our Lord!”  That’s why we are here today.  That’s what all the fuss is about!  Easter is the good news about God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who came as a human baby, born into King David’s royal family line, who “…died for our sins according to the Scriptures… was buried, and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  Can you imagine witnessing His death and then seeing Him walking around Jerusalem three days later?  What an amazing thing!  When Jesus was hanging on the cross, the skeptics and scoffers mocked Him and said, “If you’re really the Son of God, why don’t you just take yourself down from that cross?  Why don’t you just come down and show us that you’re really God?”  But Jesus had something even more spectacular planned.  He said, “I’m going to let you kill Me and bury Me for three days, then I will come back to life to prove that I am what I say I am!”

            So what does all this mean to us today?  In one sense, Jesus Christ is still on trial.  He’s on trial in the heart and mind of every person who has not yet acknowledged Him as the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
            So what is your verdict?  You see, Easter really boils down to only two issues.  One, is Jesus who He claims to be?  Is he God?  Or is He a lunatic or a liar?  And two, if He really is who he claims to be, when are you going to start following what he says to do with your life, starting with placing your faith and trust in Him to save you from you sins?
            Today, you sit in judgment of Jesus Christ.  Just as Pontius Pilate asked, “What shall I do then with Jesus who is called the Christ?” you also must decide whether He was who He said, or not.
            My question to you today: Are you willing to gamble your life that Jesus was wrong, that He was either a demented lunatic, or a liar?

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Impediments in the Road" - (04/17/11)

Matthew 21:1-11
April 17, 2011 (Palm Sunday)

            We’ve all seen speed bumps.  In fact, there are some of them right out here on Spokane Street.  The City of Portland, in its great wisdom, has put in speed bumps all over town to annoy car drivers and appease bicyclists.  Of course, the idea is to slow down the flow of traffic, to act as an impediment.  People don’t like the feeling of suddenly being slammed into the roof of their car so they tend to slow down just a little bit before they hit the bump.  At least, that’s the theory.
            England is covered with speed bumps and humps of all kinds, and they have caused no end of public controversy because most people hate them and claim that they do very little good and a whole lot of harm.  The Internet is filled with British websites that delve into every aspect of speed bumps.
            However, the Brits don’t know what real speed bumps look like.  You have to go to South America to find the really interesting ones.  Now those people know how to get you to slow down!  In fact, if you don’t slow down to a near stop you will tear out the whole undercarriage of your vehicle.  In nearly every small town and village in Brazil you will encounter what they call “tartarugas.”  The Portuguese word literally means turtle shells, but “cannonballs” would be a better word for them.  They are usually about the size of basketballs, made of steel, and buried all the way across the asphalt spaced about 6 in. apart.  They are hemispherical, so they look exactly like half-buried cannonballs.  They also use another type of speed bump there called a “lombada.”  That just consists of a 12 in. diameter steel pipe lying about half-buried in the road.  They always put up a warning sign, but sometimes the sign is so close to the speed bump that it doesn’t give you enough time to slow down.  I’ve hit them more than once and it’s not fun.  They function very well as an impediment in the road.  One way or another, they will slow you down!

            As a motorcycle rider I am always very alert to any kind of impediment on the road that might cause me to lose control and fail to reach my destination.  Sometimes there are pieces of tires on the road from trucks that have had a blowout.  Coming back from Salem a while back I had to swerve to avoid hitting some wooden drawers that had fallen out of a chest-of-drawers from some people that were apparently moving.  Riding up the Washington side of the Gorge on Hwy. 14 a few weeks ago I came around a corner and there were a bunch of rocks in the roadway that had fallen down from a steep hillside.  I had to swerve to miss them because they could have easily caused me to crash.  I do everything possible to avoid these kinds of impediments because I want to reach my destination.  I don’t want to get wrecked, or injured, or sidetracked.  I want to reach my goal with my bike and my body in one piece.
            From the moment Jesus arrived on earth He had a destination.  He knew where He going and He knew the path to get there.  He was also aware that there were forces at work to throw roadblocks in His way.  He came to accomplish the will of the Father, but Satan wanted to do everything possible to stop Him from going to the cross to become our Savior.
            The Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, what we call Palm Sunday, is recorded in all four of the Gospel accounts.  It occurred five days before the crucifixion and exactly one week before Easter Sunday.  This morning we are going to revisit those events through the account of an eyewitness, Matthew.  Turn in your Bibles to Matthew 21:1-11.

Verses 1-3: 1When they had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me.  3”If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” 
  • Jesus and His disciples were coming to Jerusalem from Galilee by way of Jericho.  They were accompanied by a large group of Jesus’ followers who were traveling along with Him, heading up to the Passover Feast in Jerusalem (cf. 20:29).  The law was that every adult male Jew who lived within twenty miles of Jerusalem must come to the Passover; but not only the Jews of Palestine, but Jews from every corner of he world made their way to this, the greatest of their national festivals.  Jesus could not have chosen a more dramatic moment to reveal His identity as their Messiah.
  • Bethphage is believed to have been a village situated about halfway between Bethany and Jerusalem (i.e. ±2 mi. from Jerusalem).  In that last week of Jesus’ life He and the disciples were spending their nights in Bethany and walking back and forth to Jerusalem each day.  The Mount of Olives lay to the east of the city and gave travelers their first glimpse of Jerusalem.
  • Jesus gave very clear instructions about the ass and the colt to the two disciples that He sent into town.  This shows the significance of the event, though the disciples themselves were unaware of the importance of what was about to happen.  On other occasions Jesus had always walked into the city.  This time, though the distance was not more than about two miles, He insisted on riding on the colt of a donkey.  Why?  Matthew tells us in the next two verses.

Verses 4-5: 4This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 5”SAY TO THE DAUGHTER OF ZION, ‘BEHOLD YOUR KING IS COMING TO YOU, GENTLE, AND MOUNTED ON A DONKEY, EVEN ON A COLT, THE FOAL OF A BEAST OF BURDEN.’” 
  • Here Matthew tells us that these events were in direct fulfillment of prophecy and to prove it he quotes Zechariah 9:9, which foretold this with amazing exactitude.  Moreover, this was a passage that the Jews themselves regarded to be Messianic in nature.  Jesus knew the prophecy and was careful to fulfill it to the letter.
  • I marvel again and again that every detail of this story was orchestrated by God Himself.  Nothing was left to chance.  Nothing just happened by luck or by accident.  Bible scholars have argued for years about this event.  Some claim that it was miraculous in nature, a product of Jesus’ foreknowledge and sovereignty.  Others claim that it was the result of very careful planning on Jesus’ part.  They say that he must have known the owner of the donkeys and made arrangements with him beforehand.  Personally I believe this was all supernaturally orchestrated by the Lord Himself.  It’s too hard to explain otherwise.  And besides, we see something very similar happening just a few days later when Jesus sent a couple of His disciples to book a place for them to celebrate Passover (read Mark 14:12-16).

Verses 6-7: 6The disciples went and did just as Jesus had instructed them, 7and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats. 
  • The disciples were basically clueless.  They did not know what was happening.  They were just following orders.  I’m not convinced that they were capable of connecting up the dots to see just how momentous this occasion really was.  Only afterwards did it become clear to them what had taken place.  We know this from John 12:16, “These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified [i.e. after the Resurrection], then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.”
  • They brought both animals to Jesus, but Jesus was only really interested in the colt, and all four of the Gospel writers testify that Jesus rode the colt, in fulfillment of the prophecy.  The mother donkey was needed to quiet the previously unridden colt.
  • It seems strange to us that Jesus would choose to enter Jerusalem on the back of a lowly beast like a donkey, rather than a powerful stallion.  And the ass was considered a lowly animal even in Jesus’ time; just a beast of burden.  Moreover, no Jewish king since Solomon had ridden upon one officially, in public.  But Zechariah’s description of the Messiah portrayed Him as meek and lowly.
  • Matthew remembers that he and the other disciples laid their cloaks on the backs of the animals and made a comfortable place for Jesus to sit on the back of the colt.  This would have been a big help.  I’ve ridden a donkey and I can testify that they can be bony creatures and uncomfortable to ride.

Verse 8: 8Most of the crowd spread their coats in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in the road. 
  • A few minutes ago I talked about various kinds of road impediments.  Here we see another kind of impediment in the road but these were altogether different in nature and purpose.  Out of respect, out of love, the crowd that was with Jesus along with some of the people from Jerusalem who had come to believe in Jesus as their true Messiah honored Him by laying their garments in the road.  The crowd received Jesus like a king.  As a sign of homage to Him whom they now acclaimed as King of the Jews (cf. II Kings 9:13 when Jehu was proclaimed king) some of the multitude spread their cloaks on the path for His colt to walk over.  Others laid palm branches on the road to decorate the roadway and make it more beautiful (John 12:13).  That was the same thing the Jews did when Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem after one of his most notable victories against Antiochus Epiphanes (cf. I Maccabees 13:51).  Note Bene: Their intention was not to stop Jesus from entering the city.  They were not trying to deter Him from what He had come to do.  They were not acting out of hatred but out of deep love.  This was their way of showing their respect and their submission to Him.  They were not putting up roadblocks to stop Him from accomplishing what He came to do.

Verse 9: 9The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David; BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Hosanna in the highest!” 
  • “Hosanna!”  This is a Hebrew expression meaning, “Save now!”  The people were taking this from Psalm 118:25-26 and were using these words to clearly proclaim their hopes for Jesus as Messiah.  Essentially it is the people’s cry to their Messiah for deliverance and for help in the day of their trouble; it is an oppressed people’s cry to their Savior and their King.
  • “Son of David” likewise is a Messianic title.  It refers to the fact that the Messiah would come from the house and lineage of King David.  These people believed rightly that Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy.  Until now Jesus had been careful to shun all such public displays announcing His Messiahship.  He had revealed it to individuals (John 4:26; Matthew 16:16-20) but not to the multitudes, not to the nation.  But now all of that had changed.  He was ready to reveal Himself as the true King of the Jews, the long-awaited Messiah.

Verses 10-11: 10When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?”  11And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.” 
  • The crowd’s acclamation of Jesus as Messiah prompted this question from many who were standing by, watching and listening.  “Who is this?”  Though most people don’t realize it, that is the most important question of all time, because the way you answer it will determine where you spend eternity.  Your answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” will determine whether He ends up being your Savior or your Judge.  To believe on Him and accept Him as your Savior will take you to Heaven.  To reject or ignore Him will lead you straight to hell.  It’s just that simple, that black and white.  I John 5:12 says, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”
  • People in the crowd with Jesus were filling the others in, saying, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Galilee.”  Many of the people were undoubtedly seeing Jesus for the first time, though nearly everyone in Israel had heard about Him by this time, because His followers were everywhere.
  • Jesus’ public ministry lasted approximately 3½ years.  During that time He traveled the length and breadth of Israel many times.  He visited nearly every town and village.  He preached and performed miracles in nearly every hamlet.  Thousands had seen and heard Him, and many had come to believe in Him.  However, there were still many who knew little of Him.  That Palm Sunday must have been a shocker for some, as they heard their countrymen declaring this rag-tag rabbi to be their promised Savior.
  • Many had put their complete faith in Jesus.  However, many had also come to hate Him and His message.  Most of the religious leaders said that He was a blasphemer and a false prophet.  Their unbelief caused them to do everything in their power to block His pathway with impediments.
  • They tried to use their ecclesiastical authority to turn the people against Him.
  • They threatened Him many times.
  • They tried several times to kill Him.
  • They paid false witnesses to lie about Him.
  • They bribed one of His own disciples to turn traitor against Him.
  • They accused Him of sedition and used their political influence with the Romans to get Him executed.
  • They closed their minds and refused to listen to His message.
  • They hardened their hearts and refused to believe in Him.

            Jesus came here on a mission.  He described it in Luke 19:10 – “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.”  In other words, He left Heaven to come looking for lost people like you and me to save us from eternal damnation.  He came into our world through a miraculous birth.  He lived a sinless life.  He healed the sick, raised the dead, and preached the message of God’s salvation plan.  He died according to the Scriptures, was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures.
            On the long road to the cross the devil and his crowd did everything they could to put roadblocks and impediments in Jesus’ way.  The cross was Satan’s worst nightmare, because it was the culmination of God’s plan to save poor lost sinners.  Moreover, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did anything they could to put impediments in the road, to keep Him from being heard and believed in by the people in Israel.  They slandered Him, called Him a liar, accused Him falsely of all sorts of things, and even tried to have Him killed.
            So how about you?  What kind of impediments are you laying down before Jesus today?  Are you laying your garments in the road, to welcome Him into your heart as your Messiah?  Are you lining His way into with palm branches to welcome Him into your life as your King and Savior?  Or are you laying down a barrage of unbelief, criticism, and self-righteous excuses to try and head Him off?  The one kind of impediment will win you His praise and a place in Heaven.  The other kind will guarantee His sentence of condemnation and your place in the Lake of Fire.  Your choice.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Better Off Dead?" - (04/10/11)

Ecclesiastes 4 (Message #4 in Ecclesiastes Series)
April 10, 2011

            One of my favorite country singers is Mac Davis.  He’s written lots of great songs, many of them recorded by other more famous artists.  You may remember his #1 country hit, “Watchin’ Scotty Grow,” which was about his own son, Scott Davis.  Or you may remember his hit song, “In the Ghetto,” which was recorded by Elvis Presley and a few other singers.  But this morning I want to play another Mac Davis song that I think could be used as a soundtrack if anyone ever decides to do a movie version of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  It’s called, “Life Is Hard.” [Play the song.]
            This song more or less sums up the philosophy of Solomon for much of his life.  The Book of Ecclesiastes is in our Bibles because it shows how messed up a person can get if they try to live life without God in the equation.  Solomon had everything a human could want—power, money, fame, honor, women, gadgets, property, mansions, servants, etc.  However, for much of his adult life he chose to go his own rebellious, independent way and he ended up driving the bus into the ditch.  Finally, near the end of his life, after he had come back to God and had gotten straightened out, he wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Its purpose is to show the utter hopelessness and emptiness of human existence unless God is given His rightful place on the throne of our lives.
            Ecclesiastes is an autobiography.  In it Solomon gets honest with himself and with us.  One of the things that make the book amazing is the fact that Solomon would be so candid in telling us how screwed up his perspective was, and for so long.  But the book is not unique in that sense.  Jonah wrote the Book of Jonah, and in it he tells us very honestly about his D.R.A. (Dirty Rotten Attitude) toward the people of Nineveh.  He wanted God to zap them and kill every man, woman, and child.  Moreover, he got mad at God when He refused to slaughter them.  And a second example: Moses wrote the Pentateuch in which he reveals a lot of rotten and embarrassing facts about himself.  Solomon does the same thing in Ecclesiastes.
            Last Sunday we looked at Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes in which Solomon laments about how death overtakes everyone, both man and beast.  However, I ran out of time and we didn’t finish.  So before we move on into chapter 4, I want us to take a minute to look at what Solomon says about death in 3:18-21. 
18I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.”  19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same.  As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.  20All go to the same place [i.e. the ground].  All came from the dust and all return to the dust.    
a.       Here in verses 18-20 Solomon shares some observations about death, but like a lot of subjects here he sees the glass as half empty rather than half full.  For example, in verse 18 he says that God “tests” men just to prove to them that they are no better than beasts.  But is that true?  His father, David, certainly didn’t agree.  He wrote in Ps. 8:4-9, What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?  5Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty!  6You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, 7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas.  9O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”  
b.      I would point out that just viewing the death of the body is quite deceiving.  But I can tell you there is a big difference between holding a beloved pet in your arms while it dies, and holding a human being when they slip from this life into eternity.  I’ve done both, several times, and they are two very different experiences.  But Solomon is looking at death merely from a physical standpoint—the cessation of bodily functions leading to death, burial, and eventual total decomposition in the ground.  However, he’s not taking into account what happens to a human at the moment of death.  Our soul does not die.  Our spirit does not cease to exist.  That’s because we were made in the “likeness and image of God” and like God, we are eternal beings.
21Who knows that [i.e. whether] the breath [ruach, spirit] of man ascends upward and the breath [ruach, spirit] of the beast descends downward to the earth?
c.       In verse 21 Solomon expressed his doubts about whether man is an eternal soul, any different from a cow, a gorilla, or a wildebeest.  That is seriously messed up.  How depressed does a believer have to get to start talking “crazy talk”?  But Solomon was not looking at life through the eyes of God’s revelation.  Instead, he was trying to figure things out on his own.

Now, moving on into Chapter 4, Solomon looks at four perplexing problems that lead him to question whether life is worth the living.
·         Verses 1-3 = The Problem of Oppression
·         Verses 4-6 = The Uselessness of Toil
·         Verses 7-12 = The Sorrow of Friendlessness
·         Verses 13-16 = The Meaninglessness of Political Success

The Problem of Oppression
1Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. 
2And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. 
3But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.  [New Living Translation]
a.       All through history the poor have been victims of oppression.  They have no political capital, no power, and no leverage.  But sadder still, Solomon observes that they have no comforter.  That is sad to hear coming from him because God has always taken up the cause of the poor and needy and He has always been ready to comfort any who will turn to Him.
b.      In verse 2 Solomon says that because of this oppression and the fact that there is no comforter, people are really better off dead.
c.       In verse 3 he takes it a step further and says that the luckiest of all are those who have never been born.  I have actually heard people say that.  A few years ago I was called to the mental hospital that was located here in Sellwood to try and talk some sense into a man who had tried several times to commit suicide.  He told me that very thing several times—“I’m better off dead.  In fact, it would have been better if I had never even been born.”  It seems that in his deep depression and disappointment with life Solomon came to the same conclusion.
d.      But is that God’s perspective?  Is it the truth?  Of course not.  We are each one a unique being, created in the likeness and image of God.  The Imago Dei is stamped on our very soul, and God knows each of us by name, and loves us dearly.  That’s the Gospel truth!

The Uselessness of Toil
4And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  5Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. 
6Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
a.       In verse 4 Solomon reveals a rather jaded view of hard labor.  He seems to think that it’s all about one-upping the neighbors.  But is that the only reason people work hard, to make their neighbors jealous?  I don’t think so.  Besides, I don’t think Solomon knew anything about hard work.  I doubt he ever put in a day’s work in his life.  He was a prince, raised in the palace.  He never got his hands dirty as far as we know.
b.      In verse 5 he takes aim at lazy people and says literally, that they consume their own flesh.  He’s not talking about cannibalism, of course.  This is a metaphor implying starvation (cf. Amos 4:6).  The person who won’t work uses up all his substance until he has nothing left but his own flesh upon which to feed.  He’s not willing to work to protect or provide for himself.  He wants somebody else to do it.  How interesting!  We have created a whole segment of our society that feels just like this.  They feel entitled to everything, but are not willing to work for anything. 
c.       On the other hand, in verse 6 Solomon seems to say that overworking is just and stupid.  Work brings some reward, but too much work, or a total preoccupation with work can destroy a person’s life too.  He concludes that it is better to have only a handful of money when it’s gained with a tranquil mind, than to have lots of money gained through worrisome toil.  I think most of us would agree.
The Sorrow of Friendlessness
7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: 8There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. 
There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. 
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” 
This too is meaningless—a miserable business!  9Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. 
But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 
11Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone? 
12Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. 
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
a.       Solomon starts out by telling a story about a man who was all alone, without siblings and without children of his own.  He worked very hard, yet grew disheartened when he observed that he had no one to pass it on to.  He began to question why he was putting out such effort for something he would not live to enjoy and had no one to give it too.  Solomon concluded that this kind of toil was empty and meaningless.
b.      Much wealth often turns men into misers.  When this happens they sometimes begin to isolate themselves out of fear that people will try to get their loot.  A lot of rich people are actually very lonely.
c.       This leads Solomon to talk about the importance of companionship.  A friend with you in business will double your profit.  A friend will help you up if you fall down.  A friend will keep you warm and keep you from freezing to death.  A friend will have your back when you are threatened by muggers.  That’s why we swim with the “buddy system.”  That’s why we partner up on hikes.  Woe to the person who does not have a friend.  And I believe that Solomon was just such a man.  Who was his good friend?  David had Jonathan, but who did Solomon have?  No one that we know of.  I believe that he was a very lonely man.  Kings often are.
d.      He makes a statement about a three-stranded cord.  A single strand rope can be easily broken, but if you braid three strands together their product will be stronger than the sum of their individual contributions.  I have often used this verse to describe Christian marriage, which is a union of three, not two, as most people believe.  Christian marriage only works when we invite God to be the third Person in the marriage.  Human math says 1+1+1=3, but God’s math says, 1+1+1 may equal 10 or more!

The Meaninglessness of Popularity or Political Success
13Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning.  14The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom.  15I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor.  16There was no end to all the people who were before them.  But those who came later were not pleased with the successor.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
a.       In these verses Solomon gives a hypothetical example of what sometimes happens in the rise of a man from poverty to the throne.  He says that a king who will no more allow himself to be admonished or to be given advice, was actually better off when he was just a poor kid.  Then, at least, he was open to learning, but now his years as a high-and-mighty have blinded him to his own weaknesses and his need to seek wise counsel from others.
b.      The point that he seems to be making in verses 15-16 is that no matter how high you rise on the scale of popularity, power, and fame, eventually others will come along and eclipse you.  You will one day be forgotten, just like the Roman Caesars.  We might recognize the names of one or two of them but we have no idea who they really were or what they accomplished.  Today’s hero may become tomorrow’s beggar.
c.       Solomon concludes that chasing after popularity or political success is a fool’s errand and “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”  That must have been a very sad realization for him.

            So what is the end of the matter?  In 4:1 Solomon speaks about those who have no comforter.  In 4:8 he talks about those who have no family, no heir, to whom they can leave all for which they have worked so hard.  In 4:4-6 he addresses those who have no rest.  In 4:10 he talks about those who have no friend.
            It strikes me that these were not just hypotheticals for Solomon, but were part of his own experience.  When he was out there living for himself and for the pleasures he could buy, he ended up being friendless, restless, and comfortless.  He had kids but they were all “stinkers” from the get-go.  In fact, after Solomon’s death his son, Rehoboam, ended up destroying Solomon’s kingdom, splitting it down the middle.

            Can you relate to being friendless, family-less, restless, or comfortless?  How has God filled in the gaps for you?  How has He made a difference in that area of your life?

About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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