God’s Saving Love (John 3:14-21)

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There is a renovation show on Australian television called The Block where contestants move into properties that are run-down and derelict. Over the following few months, the contestants turn these properties into million-dollar residences. It is quite amazing to see houses, motels and even warehouses, which have been condemned as unfit for people to live in, saved from demolition and made new through hard work, sacrifice and a bucket load of money.

People I know have different opinions about whether The Block is good TV or not, but thinking about this text from John 3:17, what happens on The Block is kind of what Jesus does for the world.

Last year when Australia was debating whether or not to legalise same-sex marriage, one thing that stood out to me in many of the voices I heard from outside the church was that people in our society perceive Christians as being largely judgemental and condemning. I often come across the same sentiment when I perform weddings or funerals. At least one person will often joke that the roof will fall in when they walk into the church. These two examples reflect an attitude which is probably held by most Australians that Christians are judgemental and condemning of others.

The Apostle John says exactly the opposite should be true. He writes that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (v17). We can often hear the word ‘condemn’ as a legal term. When a person is convicted of a crime, the judge will condemn the prisoner to a prison sentence, or, either historically or in some parts of the world, to death. However, another way we can think of being ‘condemned’ and ‘saved’ is like those properties on The Block. When our world was run-down and derelict because of sin, when it was broken and falling apart because of neglect and abuse, God made it his home in the person of Jesus. Then this carpenter’s son began the work of saving the world from being condemned by restoring it to its original beauty. In The Message, Eugene Petersen paraphrases John 1:14 as, ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.’ When God entered the world in the person of Jesus, he came to save the world from being condemned, not to tear it down, demolish or destroy it.

As people who live in this world which has been saved from being condemned, we can live as people who are free from condemnation. At one time or another in our lives, in one way or another, we can all suffer from condemnation. We can all see ourselves or feel like those run-down, derelict, neglected houses that are falling apart. The good news of Jesus, however, is that we have been saved from being condemned. Jesus has taken our condemnation on himself and has died as a condemned sinner so we can live free from any and all condemnation. That is why Jesus said to the woman who had been caught in adultery that he didn’t condemn her for her actions (John 8:1-11). That is also why the Apostle Paul wrote that ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Because Jesus was condemned in our place, we can live free from condemnation every day of our lives through faith in him. When those voices from either within us or from outside us start to judge or condemn us, tell them to be quiet because Jesus was condemned in our place to save us from condemnation. The saving word of Jesus is stronger than the voices that whisper condemnation to us, so shut them up with the promise that Jesus was born, died and is raised again to save you, not to condemn you!

In a world that is quick to judge and condemn others for a whole lot of reasons, this is good news for everyone! The challenge that we face as the church is how to help our society understand that, as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, we are here to save people from the condemnation they experience, not to add to it.

This is the fundamental mission of the church: to join with Jesus is saving a broken world from being condemned, no matter what the cost!

So how do we do that? It starts with each of us living in ways that are free from condemnation. I talk with too many children of God who suffer from feeling judged and condemned for a range of reasons. We need to be pursuing the saving love of God in Jesus that frees us from condemnation and living in that freedom every day of our lives. It might sound simple, and often it isn’t, but this is the foundational purpose of Christian community – to give people a place where they can find freedom from condemnation through the saving love of Christ.

Which leads us to the second way we can bring the good news of Jesus’ saving love to the world: we need to stop condemning each other. When we are speaking well of each other and speaking grace to each other, we give life to each other as members together of the body of Christ. To often we judge or criticise others in the church because we don’t like what they are doing or the way they do things, and too often this results in condemnation. We need to be speaking words of grace and love, hope and joy, peace and blessing to each other in the church. Yes, there might be times when we need to speak ‘the truth in love’ to each other, but we need to be doing it to build each other up in love, not tearing each other down (Ephesians 4:15,16).

The third way we can change our culture’s view of Christians is to speak these same words of grace and love to the people we meet every day of our lives. Each and every day we are with people who suffer from feeling condemned in lots of different ways. Instead of criticising others who think or behave differently to the way we think they should, what if we loved them as people who are part of the world that Jesus came to restore? We might not be able to change the perspective of our society as a whole, but if we can show Jesus’ saving love to one person today, and tomorrow, and the next day, then we are doing our part to work with Jesus in restoring a broken and condemned world.

I don’t think I’ll watch The Block the same way again. I used to see it as people who were desperately trying to make fast money by pushing themselves to the physical and emotional limit. Next time I’m watching it, though, I’m going to see these contestants as people who are willing to do whatever it takes to save a condemned house and make it new again, no matter what the cost.

Just like Jesus did to save a condemned world…

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Saving Water (1 Peter 3:18-22)

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Over the years I have had a number of friends who belonged to churches from different Christian denominations. As we discussed the differences and similarities in our faith, at some stage we would begin to talk about baptism. No matter how much we had in common, one key difference we had was our understandings of baptism.

The difficulty was usually around the question of whether baptism saves a person or not. My friends argued that baptism doesn’t save people because lots of people who have been baptised don’t live in ways that are consistent with believing in Jesus. For my friends, salvation comes through a decision we make for Christ, and then baptism gives a public testimony to that salvation. That could be why the New Living Translation describes baptism as ‘a response to God from a clean conscience’ (v21). The belief behind this translation of the text is that people’s consciences are made clean when they are saved and baptism is their response to that salvation.

However, Peter clearly says that baptism saves us (v21). To illustrate this salvation, he points to Noah and his family who were saved from a world that ‘had become corrupt’ and ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11 NLT) through the flood. Peter argues that this becomes an illustration of how the water of baptism saves us by washing us clean of everything that makes us unacceptable to God and giving us new and clean consciences through, as the English Standard Version puts it, ‘an appeal to God.’

The problem we face is that the Greek word for ‘response’ (NLT), ‘pledge’ (NIV) or ‘appeal’ (ESV) is very difficult to translate, so we naturally prefer the interpretation which fits better with how we understand baptism. When we look at other texts in the New Testament, however, a strong case can be made that God saves people through baptism.

For example, Peter goes on to say that baptism saves because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (v21). This is consistent with what Paul writes in Romans 6:4, that

we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (NIV)

For both Paul and Peter, in baptism people are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why we can have a clear conscience: Jesus made himself one with us, putting all of our sin and brokenness to death by taking it to the cross, and then raised us up with himself to a new life as God’s children.

We find this idea of adoption into God’s family through baptism in Galatians 3:26,27 where Paul writes,

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (NIV)

For Paul, we are given a new relationship with God through baptism as his children when we were washed clean and given the family clothes of Christ. This isn’t something we do for ourselves or a decision that we make. Instead, it is the saving action of God in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit who is at work through the water of baptism and the word of God that is spoken with it.

The danger with identifying baptism as something we do for God is that it removes God from being the one who saves and places ourselves, along with our words, actions or decisions, in God’s place. If we are to trust in the God who saves that we meet in the person of Jesus, then we need to allow him to save us by whatever means he decides, including the water of baptism, just like he saved Noah and his family through the waters of the flood.

This can sound very theological and theoretical, and some may wonder how it makes a difference in our lives. How we understand baptism is important because if our consciences accuse us of things we have done wrong, or if we begin to doubt our salvation because of a guilty conscience, we can remember that Jesus has taken our sin, our wrongs and our brokenness from us. Our baptism is God’s pledge to us that we are forgiven for the sake of Jesus and we can live every day with a guilt-free conscience. This grace isn’t something to be misused or abused, but instead is a gift from God so we can stop worrying about our own salvation and start loving the people around us the way he wants us to.

It is also important to remember that baptism is the start of a new life as God’s children, not a free entry, ‘access all areas’ pass into heaven which we can ignore during our lives and then pull out when we die. If we think about baptism as an adoption, it gives us a new identity into which we grow as we learn more and more about who God has called us to be as Jesus’ disciples. We can also think about baptism in terms of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. God doesn’t want us to connect with him and leave it at that. Instead, he connects with us through baptism in order to grow us as his children, to equip us for the work he is calling us to do, and to send us into the world to work with him in his mission to restore, redeem and renew all of creation.

Ultimately, the question of whether baptism saves or not comes down to whether we see baptism as something we do for God, or something God does for us. I understand the reasons why people have difficulty with the idea of baptism saving us, but it seems to me that the problem is not so much with God’s work in baptism, but our own misuse and abuse of the grace God gives us. Noah and his family didn’t live perfect lives after God saved them through the flood, and one of them was cursed as the result (see Genesis 9:20-25). After the Israelites followed Moses into freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, all but two failed to enter into the Promised Land because of their lack of faith (Number 14:39,40). In a similar way, what we do with the new life God gives us through baptism doesn’t mean his saving work in baptism is invalid. Baptism saves us because it gives us clean consciences and incorporates us into the resurrected life of Jesus.

As people who have been saved through the waters of baptism, then, what are we doing with the new life Jesus has given us?

More to think about:
I know from first-hand experience that discussing baptism can be a very emotive & potentially divisive exercise. My hope in offering these questions for discussion is that we might be able to learn to listen to each other’s perspectives, understand the different points of view we have as sisters and brothers in Christ, and ultimately point to the God who saves lost & broken people in Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • Do you tend to understand baptism as something through which God saves people or more something people do as a response to being saved? Or is there another way you think of baptism? Can you explain why you view baptism that way?
  • We can usually think of Noah’s ark saving his family from the flood more than the waters of the flood saving them. Why do you think Peter may have interpreted Noah’s story in this way?
  • Peter has previously written that ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 3:18 NIV). How might Jesus use baptism to bring us to God?
  • Do you think it is possible for a baptised person to lose their salvation? If we think of baptism as adoption into God’s family, is there hope for sisters or brothers who have fallen away from the family? (maybe the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 can help us)
  • Why is it important for us to be living as God’s adopted children in the world?

What God Wants (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

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Have you ever wondered what God’s will is for your life?

When we talk about God’s will for us, or what he wants for us in our lives, it is important that we start with what God has told us he wants in his Word. We can look for his will in other ways, but it helps if it grows out of what God has already told us about what he wants for us and what he wants from us. The more we are familiar with what God has already told us about his will in the Bible, the easier we can find what he wants for us personally.
In this text from 1 Timothy, Paul tell us what God wants for us and for all of humanity: God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Talking about truth in a post-modern society which often makes truth relative can be difficult. However, Paul goes straight on to tell us what the truth is that he is talking about here: that there is one God, that Jesus bring us into a new relationship with God as our mediator with him, and this is achieved through the ransom he paid by dying on the cross (vv5,6). If we understand that this it God’s truth for us, then the main purpose of the church is to make this truth known so people can be saved through faith in this message.
While we may know that, the big question that confronts us is how do we achieve that? Over the decades there have been programs and campaigns and other things produced by the church to try to help people bring this good news to the world and fulfill what God wants for us. At times it seems like their success has been limited, so we are still confronted with the questions of how do we effectively do what God wants?

The first step is to align what we want with what God wants. We need to constantly be asking the Holy Spirit to align our wills with the will of the Father so that his desire to see all people saved and come to know the truth becomes our desire as well. Part of the idea behind Simple Church that I’m starting to talk about is to imagine what our congregation could be like if we cut back on our busyness in order to focus more on what God wants for us, specifically discipling people to live in the way of Jesus so that all can be saved and grow in his truth.

In the opening verses of 1 Timothy 2 Paul links God’s will that all people be saved and come to know the truth with prayer. He encourages us to be people of prayer, as individuals but also when we come together in worship. We have time in our services dedicated to praying together is largely because of this verse. We need to be praying for all people to come to know the truth of Jesus, but also for our governments. In Australian we are quick to criticize or make fun of our political leaders, but when was the last time you prayed for our Premier, Prime Minister, or the members of our state and federal parliaments? When we look at the political situations of other countries, such as the USA, Syria, Great Britain, and South Sudan for example, these are people and nations who need our prayers so that people of every nation can live in peace and come to know the truth of Jesus.

Paul then talks about being people who ‘live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity’ (v2 NLT). The mission strategy of the New Testament is that when we are living ‘peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity’ in the way Jesus taught, his kingdom comes into the world through us and his will is done in us as we connect his grace with the people around us. Ultimately, people do not come to know the truth about Jesus through programs or campaigns. People encounter the living truth about Jesus by encountering Jesus and his love in us, through our words, our actions, our relationships. Program and campaigns can help those relationships grow, but the most powerful place where people meet the truth of Jesus in us.

We had an example of how to live ‘peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity’ a few weeks ago in the concluding instructions from the letter to the Hebrews (13:1-8,15,16):

  • Love each other as brothers & sisters
  • Show hospitality to strangers
  • Remember those in prison or being mistreated
  • Honour & remain faithful in marriage
  • Be satisfied with what you have
  • Remember those who taught you the Word & follow their example
  • Offer a continual sacrifice of praise
  • Do good & share with those in need

What becomes important is that we are living faithfully as Jesus’ followers, always ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Jesus for anyone who asks us (1 Peter 3:15).

It is important for us to be continually looking for God’s will in our lives. A good starting point is what God has already told us about what he wants for us in the Bible. In 1 Timothy 2:3 & 4 God is clearly telling us that wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth of Jesus. It is good for us to keep this in focus so that everything we do as individuals and as community grows out of this understanding of God’s will for us. As we pray ‘Your will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying that all people are saved and come to know the truth of Jesus. We are also praying that God’s will is done in and through us.

More to think about:

  • When you think about what God’s will for your life is, how often do you start with what God has told us about his will in the Bible? How might that help you find what God wants for you in other areas of your life?
  • What do you think of when you pray ‘Your will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer? How might this text help you when you pray this prayer?
  • How often do you pray for others? How often do you pray for our political leaders or the leaders of other countries? Try spending some time each day praying through what you might read in the newspaper, online news reports or even during the TV news (remember: being a disciple involves discipline).
  • How might your life be different if the starting point for your understanding of God’s will for you is that he wants all people to be saved and come to know the truth of Jesus? How might this faith shape your relationships with others?
  • How might the faith that God wants all people to be saved and come to know the truth of Jesus shape the purpose, character and activity of your congregation? Spend time asking God how his will might be done in your church.

A Trustworthy Saying (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

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I haven’t met too many people over the years who like to be told they are sinners. In fact, talking about sin in our culture is something that is largely avoided because we tend to believe that people are essentially good. We might make mistakes from time to time, but the starting point for any discussion about the nature of human beings in our Western society is that we are basically good.

However, when I read the Bible, look at the state of the world in which we live, or examine my own life it seems clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with our human nature. No matter how much we try to do the right thing, too often we end up saying and doing what is wrong. This indicates to me that there is something wrong within us which we can’t fix ourselves. While we can think of sinners as being morally bad people, we can also think of ‘sinners’ as people who need to be saved because we find it impossible to get things right, no matter how hard we try.

I’m not saying this to make people feel bad about ourselves. Over the centuries, the church has done wrong by using language like this to burden people with guilt. However, we still need to be honest with ourselves about the reality of who we are. The trustworthy saying Paul passes on to Timothy, and to us, is that Jesus came to save sinners. If we do not identify as sinners, then how can we be saved? The writers of the Gospels wrote that Jesus often talked with sinners and even ate with them, something for which Jesus was criticized by the religious leaders of his day (see Luke 15:1,2). If we are not willing to sit with the sinners, then how can we be sitting with Jesus?

Recognizing that we are sinners can help us find freedom to be ourselves. When we acknowledge that we get things wrong, we can be honest with ourselves and with others about our flaws and failures. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are, and we can more easily seek grace and forgiveness from each other. It also means that when other people do wrong, we can extend grace to them more easily. We can be more compassionate and understanding towards others because they get things wrong just like we do.

Paul’s intention in passing on this ‘trustworthy saying’ about Jesus coming to save sinners is to bring us good news. He continues,

… God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:16 NLT)

Paul is using his own life as an example to show us that if God can save him, then he can surely save us too. Paul had done some really bad things before he became a Christian. As he explains briefly in verse 13, he had blasphemed against God by trying to stop the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he had persecuted Jesus’ followers and had even been involved in some of their murders (see Acts 7:54-8:1; 9:1,2). Paul is arguing that if God can show mercy and patience to him after all the terrible thing he had done, then he will also show us mercy and patience. Paul wants us to understand that we get things wrong, but Christ Jesus came into the world to save us. Jesus’ death on the cross for us means that we can be forgiven, no matter what we might have done. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead gives us new life as children of God whom he loves and who bring our heavenly Father great joy (see Luke 3:22). If Paul can find grace and new life in Jesus after what he had done, then we can also find grace and new life in the love God show us through Christ.

This means that we can never be simplistic about our experience of Christian the life. One the one hand, we are sinners who need to be saved. However, we are also God’s saved children whom he loves and who bring him great joy. One of the great gifts Martin Luther gave to the church is the idea that we are both sinner and saint at the same time. There will be times in our lives when our sin will weigh us down and we will need to hear the liberating words of grace and forgiveness. There will also be times when we will need to be reminded that we get things wrong and we need Jesus to save us.

The main purpose of these words from Paul are to point us to Jesus. We all get it wrong in different ways and at different times in our lives because there is something wrong with us. We constantly need to be reminded that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This becomes good news for us, though, because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and to give us new life as God’s children whom he loves and who bring him great joy.

More to think about:

  •  What are some of your experiences, positive or negative, of talking about sin in the church? Do we talk about sin too much? Not enough?
  • What are some ways in which 1 Timothy 1:15 can be heard as a threat by people? How might people hear these same words as a promise?
  • Do you tend to hear these words more as a threat or a promise? Can you explain why you hear them that way?
  • When you hear or read about some of the things Paul did before he became a Christian, would you say you are as bad as he was? How can his self-description as ‘the worst of sinners’ help you find God’s grace in Jesus?
  • How might Paul’s words that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ help you in your relationships with other people when they do wrong to you?