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Be An Encourager

June 4, 2018

Therefore, do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

Original sin began with Adam and Eve: “And he [God] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’ The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’” Genesis 3: 11-13.[1] Eve was tempted and involved Adam in her sin.   Adam then blamed Eve who blamed the serpent. Their sin was compounded when they failed to take responsibility for their misdeeds, and pointed the finger at each other. As is often the case, the cover-up was worse than admitting the truth and taking responsibility.

In an article posted on Psychology Today, the author describes the blame game as “One of the most destructive human pastimes . . . It has been responsible for mass casualties of war, regrettable acts of road rage, and on a broad interpersonal level (social, familial, and work-related), a considerable amount of human frustration and unhappiness.”[2]

We can break this destructive cycle by taking responsibility for our mistakes, and by encouraging others who have made mistakes to move forward. Alexander Pope said “To err is human, to forgive divine.” [3] Everyone makes mistakes. God forgives our transgressions. When we forgive we are acting according to God’s will.

One wonders what would have happened if Adam and Eve had taken responsibility for disobeying God, instead of playing the blame game.  It is not enough to say “the devil made me do it.” Adam and Eve needed to take responsibility for their actions.  But what if Adam had gone even further and encouraged Eve to confess her mistake to God instead of compounding the error? What if he had been an encourager instead of a co-conspirator/enabler?

Jesus encourages us to help one another, and to encourage each other—to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ as our own flesh and blood: “Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3: 34-34). We are all human, and we all make mistakes. In a family where the members love and support each other, they admit their mistakes to each other, are forgiven, and are encouraged to move on. That is how we should interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ and with others. Be an encourager.

The psalmist notes that God is forgiving, and erases the record of our sins when we approach him humbly and ask for forgiveness: “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope ” (Psalm 130: 3-5). God encourages us to move on from our mistakes and to have hope in our future as we continue our walk through life with him.

Paul encourages the members of the church at Corinth in his second letter to them: ”Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4: 16). Paul knew first-hand that we continue to sin and are constantly in need of God’s forgiveness: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience? Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then act another, doing things I absolutely despise.  So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it become obvious that God’s command is necessary” (Romans 7: 15, The Message).

Stop playing the blame game. Stop blaming others for all of your woes. Take responsibility for your own shortcomings, forgive others, and ask God to forgive you as you have forgiven others. But go even further–be an encourager. Encourage your sisters and brothers in Christ. Encourage those who are seeking to fill the God-shaped hole in their hearts. Encourage those who have fallen. Encourage those who have strayed from the path. Encourage them to return to God—the source of life itself. Encourage them to go to the Lord with their anxieties, their fears, their troubles, their failures, their needs, and their joys.

Stand with the discouraged, the anxious, the grieving, and others who have lost hope. Share their burdens. Be an encourager.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Psalm 130, Genesis 3: 8-15; 2 Corinthians 4: 13-5:1; Mark 3: 20-35.

[2] Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D, “Stop Playing the Blame Game,” Psychology Today, July 29, 2012.

[3] Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism.”

Don’t Major in Minors

May 28, 2018

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2: 27-28

In a Madam Secretary episode that aired a few weeks ago (“Phase Two”), Henry McCord returned to the War College to teach and learned that his proposal to establish an Ethics Department had been accepted. Henry competed with another qualified candidate for the Department Head position and won. The final scene of the episode is the Department’s first meeting. Henry’s agenda included some significant matters relating to the work of the Department, but the meeting immediately devolved into an argument about who is going to get the parking space that just opened up! It rang true for me because I work for an agency where parking spaces in the building are highly coveted.   Arguing over parking spaces and office size is majoring in minor issues.

The law Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai includes the Third Commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, and its corollary prohibition not to work on the Sabbath: “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Deuteronomy 5:12-14a).[1]   Jesus points out in the gospel lesson that arguing over what constitutes “work” is pointless—it is majoring in minor issues.

This issue is illustrated by the current-day use of Shabbat elevators in Israel and in other areas with large Jewish populations. A Shabbat elevator automatically stops at every floor on the Sabbath to let people in and out without having to press any buttons. Pressing an elevator button is considered work prohibited by the Third Commandment. Some observant Jews argue that even using an elevator without pushing buttons violates Jewish law because when an elevator descends the person’s weight helps move the elevator down; ergo, the person is performing “work.” Other Jewish scholars argue that the automatic turning on and off of the lights in some elevators violates the Biblical prohibition against lighting a fire on the Sabbath—an exercise in majoring in minors.

These arguments make Jesus’ point: That the purpose of the commandment is not to argue over the definition of work: “One Sabbath day he was walking through a field of ripe grain. As his disciples made a path, they pulled off heads of grain. The Pharisees told on them to Jesus: ‘Look, your disciples are breaking Sabbath rules!’ Jesus said, ‘Really? Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was hungry, along with those who were with him? How he entered the sanctuary and ate fresh bread off the altar, with the Chief Priest Abiathar right there watching—holy bread that no one but priests were allowed to eat—and handed it out to his companions?’ Then Jesus said, ‘The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 23-27; The Message)

The purpose of the commandment is to ensure that we set aside a day to worship God and to rest. It is important that we set aside time for God—to meditate on him and to give our bodies and souls a rest. It is for our benefit, not God’s. Our physical and spiritual reserves are replenished when we take time to rest and to concentrate on God. But we have to eat, receive necessary medical attention and other emergency services on the Sabbath, so someone has to lift a finger! Someone needs to provide services in emergency rooms, hospitals, police stations, and fire stations.

Mark recounts another instance when Jesus warned not to get so tied up in the minutiae of rules that you forget the purpose of the rule: “Then he went back in the meeting place where he found a man with a crippled hand. The Pharisees had their eyes on Jesus to see if he would heal him, hoping to catch him in a Sabbath infraction. He said to the man with the crippled hand, ‘Stand here where we can see you.’ Then he spoke to the people: ‘What kind of action suits the Sabbath best? Doing good or doing evil? Helping people or leaving them helpless?’ No one said a word. He looked them in the eye, one after another, angry now, furious at their hard-nosed religion. He said to the man, ‘Hold out your hand.’ He held it out—it was as good as new! The Pharisees got out as fast as they could, sputtering about how they would join forces with Herod’s followers and ruin him” Mark 3:1-6.

The Pharisees’ objections weren’t about offending God. They were only trying to protect their own turf. They were jealous of Jesus’ abilities and were worried that he would take their power away from them.

It is important to remember what is important. As one preacher put it—to keep the main thing, the main thing. What is the main thing? In writing to the church in Corinth, which had largely forgotten what is important, Paul explained, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4: 5-6). The main point of the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is to put your work aside and spend time with God at least once a week. Work on your relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguing over whether pushing an elevator button in an elevator, or even taking an elevator on the Sabbath, is not the main thing.

Are you so wound up in man-made rules and regulations that you are forgetting what is important? If so, you are missing out on a relationship with the God of the universe. Have you become so embittered or unforgiving that there is no room in your soul for the Spirit? Have you so busied yourself with work, hobbies, activities, social engagements, vacations, recreation, and the pursuit of material things that you don’t have time to spend in the Word or in quiet meditation? If so, it is time to slow down and take stock of what is important in your life right now, and forever.   The late theologian R.C. Sproul had a column for years called “Right Now Counts Forever.” What you do today, tomorrow, and the next day counts for something to God.

Don’t major in minors. Start letting go of the negative habits and inconsequential matters in your life, and take time to communicate with God. He is listening.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for next Sunday are Deuteronomy 5: 12-15; Psalm 81: 1-10; 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12; Mark 2:23-28; Mark 3: 1-6.

Holy, Holy, Holy

May 18, 2018

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filed the temple. Above him were seraphs, . . . And they were calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah 6: 1-3

On Sunday, May 27th, churches all over Christendom will be resounding with Reginald Heber’s classic Trinity Sunday hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy”: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, early in the morning our song shall rise to thee; Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty, God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.”[1]

The seraphim that Isaiah saw in his vision sang out “holy” three times. There is no other attribute of God referenced in sacred Scripture that is repeated three times—God is not called love, love, love, or just, just, just. But their description of God as holy, holy, holy was elevated to the superlative degree. This tells us that the holiness of God is an attribute that exceeds all other attributes. Above all, we worship a holy God.

And unlike the God of the other major religions of the world, we worship a Trinitarian God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– which is emphasized in Heber’s hymn based on Isaiah 6:[2]In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filed the temple. Above him were seraphs, . . . And they were calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah 6: 1-3

You can get a headache trying to figure out the Trinity. Our human minds cannot totally grasp the meaning of the Trinity, but because we are made in God’s image, we can at least accept its Scripture-based truth. For more information on the Trinity, see last year’s June 5, 2017 blog, “The Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” https://dianereagan.com/2017/06/05/the-trinity-father-son-and-holy-spirit/

A few weeks ago we discussed the fact that God loves us so much that he calls us his children (see “The Author of Life”). This week’s gospel reaffirms God’s great love for us: “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).   Don Kistler points out that the three divine persons of the Godhead work in perfect unity out of love for each other and for us: “The whole process of saving sinners begins with the love of the Father. He thought up the plan. He put the plan in motion . . . the Son steps forward to carry out the Father’s will [Hebrews 10:7] . . . The Holy Spirit takes what the Son has done and applies it to sinners, making us righteous in God’s sight. And all of this is to praise the glory of His grace.”[3]

When Scripture refers to God, or Lord (without reference to a specific person of the Trinity), the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are included. David’s song of praise to the Lord in Sunday’s text refers to the Lord, and to God, and includes the whole Godhead: “The voice of the lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic” (Psalm 29: 3-4). There are three persons, but one God. Tozer explains, “So when I’m talking about God, I’m talking about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—not confusing the persons, for there are three persons. But everything that is true of the Father is true of the Son and the Holy Spirit. And everything that is true of the Son and the Holy Spirit is true of the Father.”[4]

Peter refers to the three persons of the Godhead in his Pentecost sermon to the crowd. Peter, who had denied that he knew Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested, was emboldened by the Holy Spirit and became a dynamic speaker of truth: “God has raised this Jesus to life, an we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear . . . Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2: 32-34, 36).

God knows that we cannot completely understand the Trinity—but it is a key difference between Christianity and other faiths. We worship three separate persons of the Godhead–God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—as one God. While we cannot completely understand it, we can rely on sacred Scripture for the truth. In addition to multiple references to the plurality of the Godhead in Scripture, all three persons of the Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, which was witnessed and recorded.

We can rely on and rejoice in all three persons of the Godhead, who help us on a daily basis. We are grateful for the Father, who is always there for us. We are grateful for the Son, who sacrificed his life to save us from our sinful selves, and is our advocate. And we are grateful for the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, who brings us gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, gentleness, and joy, so that we may enjoy and appreciate each other and work toward greater obedience to God throughout our lives.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] “Holy, Holy, Holy” was written by Anglican priest Reginald Heber (1783-1826).

[2] The Scripture texts for Holy Trinity Sunday are Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Acts 2: 14a, 22-36; John 3: 1-17.

[3] Don Kistler, “Divine Architect”, Tabletalk, April 2006, p. 18.

[4] A.W. Tozer, Meditations on the Trinity (2017) Moody Publishers, pp. 256-257

Are You Ready?

May 15, 2018

But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13

When you speak to a baby he or she will babble back at you, even from a very young age. Within a few short months, the baby is ready to start forming syllables, then words. But if you give the baby a book, he or she will most likely try to tear out the pages or chew on it. Babies aren’t ready to read. That’s why baby “books” consist of symbols and shapes and are made of indestructible, non-toxic materials.

Before he was crucified, Jesus told his disciples that he would be sending the Holy Spirit: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you must also testify, for you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27)[1]. Jesus was preparing them for their work with the Holy Spirit. In these verses the Holy Spirit is called both a Counselor or Advocate, and the Spirit of truth. As Counselor, the Holy Spirit would help and encourage them. As the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit would teach and illuminate the gospel message so that they were empowered to preach.

In the same way that babies aren’t ready to read before they learn to speak, most of the early Christians weren’t spiritually ready to receive the Holy Spirit immediately after the resurrection. But the disciples were. When Jesus appeared to the disciples the third day after he was crucified, they “were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20: 20). Jesus said “’Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said,Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20: 21). The disciples received the Holy Spirit privately, so that Jesus could begin his 40-day “How to be Apostles” course covering the substance of their work over the coming months and years. The Holy Spirit convicted them of the truth of the resurrection, and helped them understand Jesus’ teachings in the ensuing days. They were ready to receive the Holy Spirit. They were committed to working to spread the word. They were ready.

The first Pentecost of the Christian church occurred 50 days after the resurrection–10 days after the ascension of Jesus. By then Jesus had appeared to more than 500 people, and there were about 120 followers of Jesus. That day the Holy Spirit made a very public appearance to a group of Jewish believers from around the world who had made the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost—the Spirit was given to everyone that Pentecost: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each one of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit, . . .” (Acts 2: 1-4a).

Pentecost is a traditional Jewish festival that remembers Moses receiving the law from God on Mount Sinai. (See last year’s blog, Empowered by the Holy Spirit at https://dianereagan.com/2017/05/29/empowered-by-the-holy-spirit/)

In God’s perfect timing, the Holy Spirit appeared publicly for the first time when the early believers were ready to receive the Spirit. Many of those gathered had seen Jesus since the resurrection. In fact, whether Jesus was raised from the dead was not even an issue in the first century church because there were so many living eyewitnesses who saw Jesus alive after he was crucified and died. That day–when the Holy Spirit appeared publicly–was the day that the Christian church under grace was born. Peter preached to the crowd, and “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2: 41). Thereafter, the fledgling church grew exponentially.

These Scriptures raise the question, “Are you ready to receive the Holy Spirit?” In his little book of sermons on the Holy Spirit entitled How to be Filled with the Holy Spirit,[2] A. W. Tozer posits that not everyone is ready to receive the Holy Spirit. He notes that you are not ready if “you are more influenced by the world than you are by the New Testament . . . But there are some of you who are prepared. They are those who have made the grand, sweet committal.” For those who are prepared he counsels that the Holy Spirit will make himself known to you when you put the time and effort into working on your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Are you ready? Are you ready to move past just showing up at church on Sunday for social or other reasons? Are you ready to stop just going through the motions? Are you ready to get serious about your faith? Are you ready to spend time in the Word—not just in a group study, but in private? Are you ready to meditate in private on the Word? Are you ready to get to know this Jesus who died for your sins? Are you ready to be gripped by the Spirit? Because that is what will happen once you really commit yourself to Jesus. Are you willing to put in the time and effort? It is an all or nothing endeavor. You won’t receive the Spirit if your faith is lukewarm or superficial. You need to be ready to follow where he leads. You need to be obedient and faithful. That can be scary.

Are you ready?

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for Pentecost are Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 139: 1-16; Acts 2: 1-21; John 15: 26-27; John 16: 4-15.

[2] A.W. Tozer, How to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit (1952) Moody Publishers, p.54-57)

How to Pray With Confidence

May 7, 2018

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” 1 John 5: 14

Mothers are counted among the most faithful prayer warriors.  We prayed for our children before they were born, and we continue to pray for them throughout their lives. This Mother’s Day, know that you can pray with confidence that God hears your prayers, that he is faithful, and that he will give you the answers you need. Whether God hears and answers our prayers was also the subject of my July 20, 2016 blog, Yes, Virginia, God Answers Prayer, https://dianereagan.com/2016/07/20/yes-virginia-god-answers-prayer/.

The Resurrection gives us confidence in our salvation. It shows us that Christ atoned for our sins and secured our salvation when he died on the cross. This is a confidence that we can take to the bank. It is a confidence that sees us through life. In John we read “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5: 12). But John also gives us confidence that God hears our prayers: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5: 14).[1]

The key to ensuring that God listens to our prayers is found in the prayers themselves. If we approach prayer as a discussion with God about his will for us, he listens and will answer our prayers. We can pray with confidence that God will show us the way to the path he wants us to follow if we pray “Thy will be done.” Father Robert Spitzer says that is the most important prayer of all: “If you cannot remember any other prayer, default to this one.”[2] The purpose of prayer is not to impose our will on God, but to determine what his will is for our lives and to intercede on behalf of others (1 John 5:16).

God is not a cosmic butler to be summoned to do our bidding– to further our own goals.   He only answers prayers that are within the gambit of his plan. A.Z. Tozer writes, “When we go to God with a request that He modify the existing situation for us, that is, that He answer prayer, there are two conditions that we must meet: (1) We must pray in the will of God. (2) We must be on what old-fashioned Christians often call ‘praying ground’; that is we must be living lives pleasing to God. It is futile to beg God to act contrary to His revealed purposes.”[3]

Please read that sentence again and really think about it: “It is futile to beg God to act contrary to His revealed purposes.” God wants to commune with us; he wants to answer our prayers, but we must meet those conditions.  The other Scripture texts for next Sunday give us examples of people praying on “praying ground” that God’s will be done.

Jesus himself provided many examples of prayer and instructed us how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer includes the key element, “Thy will be done.” We see Jesus praying for his disciples in the 17th Chapter of John. He prayed for their protection: “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so they they may be as one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me . . . My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one.” (Excerpts, John 17: 11-12; 15).

Luke recounts that after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, “[T]he apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying . . . They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. . . [I]t is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, . . . for one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Excerpts, Acts1:12-14; 21-22).   The disciples, now apostles, were feeling the great loss of Jesus when he ascended into heaven. But he had told them to stay in Jerusalem and promised to send the Spirit within a few days (Acts 1: 4).   They followed his instructions, and prayed for answers. When you are at a loss for what to do, you can still follow the guidelines set forth in Scripture, and pray that God’s will be done through you in your life.

A special word to mothers and grandmothers as we approach Mother’s Day next Sunday: remember that Monica prayed for years for her dissolute son—a son who would later become one of the great church fathers—St. Augustine of Hippo.  Have confidence that God will hear and answer your prayer that his will be done in your life and in the lives of those you love.  God wants only the best for you and for your loved ones.

When you follow Jesus and pray that his will be done, you can be confident that he is listening to you and that he will answer your prayers.  He will arrange for people, circumstances, and events to come together and to show you the way out of your challenges, despair, anxiety, and desperation.  He will point the way to the path that he wants you and your loved ones to follow.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Seventh Week of Easter are Acts 1: 12-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5: 9-15; John 17: 11-19.

[2] Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life (2008) Ignatius Press, p. 36

[3] A. Z. Tozer, compiled by W. L. Seaver Prayer: Communing with God in Everything (2016) Moody Publishers, p. 166.

Beyond a Preponderance of Evidence

April 30, 2018

“God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen–by those of us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.”  (Acts 10: 40-42)

Under California law a civil litigant must prove his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the trier of fact must conclude that a fact is more likely true than not true in order to find for the plaintiff. The Scripture texts[1] this week provide proofs for the fact that Jesus Christ died for our sins is more likely true than not true. These are by no means the only arguments for the credibility of the gospel, but they do provide enough evidence to show that it is more credible than not that Jesus was the Son of God.

The evidence provided in this week’s Scripture texts breaks down into two broad categories: the actions of the parties and the testimony of credible witnesses—what they did and what the witnesses said. But after we experience the Spirit living and working in us, we move beyond the standard of more likely than not. We come to acknowledge the truth of the gospel message by the higher standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

A.  Actions

We know from historians, including the Jewish historian Josephus, of Jesus’ ministry and of his death on the cross, as well as his resurrection and ascension. That evidence, together with the acts of the apostles thereafter, provide ample proof of the truth of the gospel.

  1. Jesus’ Actions During His Ministry

Peter was with Jesus during his ministry and summarized those years in his address to the group at Cornelius’ house: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and . . . he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.“ Peter cited the well-known facts and actions of Jesus’ ministry as proof that Jesus was the Son of God.

  1. Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension

Peter was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death. He told those gathered that despite the fact that “They killed him [Jesus] by hanging him on a cross . . .God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by . . . us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10: 39-41). Peter and the other disciples not only witnessed his death, but were with him after his resurrection, and for 40 days before he ascended into heaven. The disciples also witnessed the ascension, which is further proof that Jesus was who he said he was.

  1. Peter’s Actions

Peter went to Cornelius’ house in Caesaria at a time when the Jewish-Gentile conflict was at its height. Many Jews believed that Jesus came only to save them, not Gentiles. It was scandalous for Jews to even think of associating with Gentiles. But God told Peter to take the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman. His action in taking the gospel to the Gentiles showed that the gospel was for everyone, not just for Jewish believers. While he was in Cornelius’ home, sharing the good news, “. . . the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised [Jewish] believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ“ (Acts 10: 44-48). Peter’s action in preaching to Gentiles was God-guided as evidenced by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

B.  Testimony

  1. Jesus’ Testimony

Jesus himself testified to those around him that his great love for them was the reason for his sacrifice for them: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love . . . Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15: 9, 10, 13,14).   Jesus testified elsewhere that he was the long-awaited Messiah.[2]

  1. The Spirit’s Testimony

John tells us that the Spirit, who lives within us, testifies to the truth of “. . . the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ . . . And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son” (1 John 5: 6-9). The Spirit was present at Jesus’ baptism (water) and transfiguration, and testified as to Jesus’ part of the Trinity. The blood that Jesus shed when he was crucified, and his subsequent resurrection were further evidence of his divinity. John Stott notes about these verses: “The Spirit, the water and the blood all testify to Christ, and the reason why they agree is that God himself is behind them. The three witnesses form, in fact, a single divine testimony to Jesus Christ, which God has given . . . It is God who testified to his Son in history, in the water and the blood, and it is God who testifies to him today through his Spirit in our hearts.”[3]

  1. The Apostles’ Testimony and Actions

The apostles not only all testified to the truth of the gospel, but they also all staked their lives on it. How many witnesses in court today would actually stake their lives on the testimony they give? Peter noted that they were “witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.” All of the apostles were martyred except John. After the crucifixion, they were all hiding in fear of the religious authorities—that they might suffer the same fate as Jesus. But just a few weeks later, they were boldly preaching the good news in the temple and throughout the surrounding countries. Convinced of Jesus’ divinity by his resurrection and his appearance among them after his death, and that he died for our sins, they continued preaching the gospel message for many years. Their actions and testimony resulted in the exponential growth of the new church in the first century, and is credible evidence that Jesus was who he said he was—the Son of God.

When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, his Spirit inhabits our souls and testifies to the truth of the gospel and to the love of Jesus. It is through the Spirit that we come to understand that the gospel is more likely true than not, and make a decision to follow Jesus. It is the Spirit who guides us through the shoals and eddies in our lives, and keeps us on track.

When we have experienced first-hand the in-dwelling of the Spirit within our own lives, and have witnessed the Spirit at work around us, our faith moves us past the preponderance of the evidence standard to beyond a reasonable doubt. When we come to a relationship with the living God that changes our lives dramatically, then we know beyond a reasonable doubt that God exists and that he is who he says he is.

Diane Cieslikowksi Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Sixth Sunday of Easter are Acts 10: 34-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5: 1-8 [9]; John 15: 9-17.

[2] See John 4: 25-26; Matthew 16: 15-17; Luke 4: 18-21; John 10:36.

[3] John Stott, The Letters of John (1964) Inter-Varsity Press, p. 181.

Breathe on Me Breath of God

April 23, 2018

If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth . . . I will not leave you an orphan; I will come to you.” (Excerpts, John 14: 15-18)

When we sing the hymn “Breathe on Me Breath of God,”[1] we are asking the Spirit to breathe life into us—to fill each cell of our bodies with God’s truth and life-giving energy and direction. We are welcoming the Holy Spirit into our hearts and souls to guide us in our everyday lives—to help us, love us and direct us to do God’s will.  We ask these things  based on our own past experiences of the Spirit living within us and guiding us, and on the authority of Holy Scripture.

The Scripture texts this week[2] provide some examples of the Spirit’s role in our lives. The last verse of the book of Psalms reads “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).  God is praiseworthy by every living thing because he is there throughout our lives—guiding, comforting, loving, and caring for us. We owe our lives—the very air we breathe, to God, our Creator.

Jesus confirmed that he would remain with the faithful: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener . . . Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” (John 15: 1, 4). He clarified what he meant by his remaining in us in the 14th and 15th chapters of John, when he promised to send his Spirit to remain with us to help us, to guide us, to be our paraclete[3]—to live alongside us as we journey through life: “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth . . . I will not leave you an orphan; I will come to you” (Excerpts, John 14: 15-18).

Every believing Christian has experienced the guidance of the Holy Spirit in his or her life to some extent.  Sometimes it seems as if the Spirit leads us to places that we consider a demotion. That happened to Philip, when he was led away from his highly successful ministry in Samaria to a desert road.  While on the road he met Ethiopia’s Treasury Secretary sitting in his Mercedes by the side of the road. The Spirit led Philip to him, and they engaged in a conversation that gave Philip an opportunity to explain the gospel to him, which the man brought back to Ethiopia: “So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian . . an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it’ . . . The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8: 27-28, 34-35).

There are times when the Spirit leads us away from what we or the world considers success, to do something that fits our particular skill set at that time.  God is the master chess player who sees all of the players on the board; he knows exactly where and when to send each one.

But John warns us that we should “. . . test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4: 1). He explains that the Spirit who acknowledges Jesus Christ is from God, but those who do not, are not from God (1 John 4: 2-3). This is an important lesson. When you think that the Spirit is leading you in a given direction, test it against the teachings of Scripture to determine if it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus.  If you’re not sure, consult with trusted and authentic Christian teachers and friends in Christ.  Commit it to prayer and give it time.

John explained that the Spirit testified to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ: “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; these three are in agreement.” (1 John 5: 5-8).  John is explaining that the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ was confirmed at his baptism (by water) and by his crucifixion and resurrection (by blood), both of which were confirmed by the Spirit.  They all are proof of the authenticity of Jesus as the Messiah.

And don’t forget John’s other admonition that God sent Jesus into the world because of his deep love for us.  If we do not show that love to others, our professions of faith are empty words: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us; He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. . . since God loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (Excerpts, 1 John 4: 7-9, 11)

But above all, remember to call on God to inhabit your being– to guide, comfort, heal, hold, help, lead, love, and care for you—to usher you into his presence.  Michael Smith, a current day songwriter, says it this way: “This is the air I breathe, this is the air I breathe . . . Your holy presence . . . living in me . . . I’m lost without you. . . “

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] Edwin Hatch, 1835-1889

[2] The Scripture texts for the Fifth Sunday of Easter are Acts 8: 26-40; Psalm 150; 1 John 4: 1-11; 1 John 5.

[3] Paraclete means called to one’s side; it is from the Greek para (alongside) and kletos (to call).