connecting theology and life in gospel-centred ways to the glory of God and our joy in Him
We’re here again! This time at the Brisbane School of Theology – which means the comfort of my own bed and coffee machine! As per last year, I’ll be live blogging my way through the talks and select workshops. This year our morning speaker is BST Principal Richard Gibson. Our evening speaker is Pastor Steve Nation.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23)
Warning: your heart at risk
The dangers of smoking are pretty obvious now on cigarette packets, thanks to the graphic warnings you can see on them. Especially the warnings about smoking’s risks on your heart.
By exploring what the bible says about the heart we are exposing ourselves to risk. There is going to be an uneasy sense of being watched as we search the bible and what it says about the heart – as though there is someone watching us as we do so. There is also the firm words of the heart that are confronting, and they are unrelenting – just like the warnings on cigarette packages.
The first risk is that you will be cut to the heart this week. The very first sermon in the book of Acts left people cut to the heart. When Peter spoke in Acts 2 the response reported was that people heard and were cut to the heart. It’s a graphic picture of a painful experience – they were stabbed, pierced in the deepest parts of their hearts, to picture their remorse and regret at having done something terrible and messed up badly. The terrible realisation you get when you realise you have been completely wrong. As Peter spoke they realised they shared the guilt of the execution of Jesus – God’s Lord and King.
Today when we read the bible we expose ourselves to that same risk – the risk of being cut to the heart in the same way as Peter’s hearers. Of realising we’ve messed up and not only missed opportunities to honour God but also to flee from doing so. We read of a God who does not regard this fleeing as a trifling matter – but as a matter of life and death.
But we are better to take this risk rather than the alternative…
The way to avoid the piercing, stabbing remorseful recognition of our wrong is by desensitizing our heart. We’re very capable of doing this. Our refusal might be gradual and incremental before it becomes a pattern. After a while our hearts harden so that when the bible seeks to cut our heart we can dodge it.
The risk this week is to fall to the temptation to be impervious to responding to God’s Word. The right response is wholehearted devotion and love.
When the crowd responded to Peter his first response was ‘Repent and be baptised…’ Getting cut to the heart opens up the possibility of repentance and forgiveness – there is a way forward. No matter what sewage we find in our heart, if we allow God to cut our hearts there is an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. If we harden our hearts then we will miss the chance for change.
The bible generally doesn’t have positive words about the state and health of our heart. From Proverbs to Jeremiah to Jesus himself.
The bible speaks of the chaos of the way that we are constituted. There are many terms that overlap and make this a tricky topic to wade through. What function does the heart have – and how it differs from the mind, how it correlates to the soul, the role of the bowels/kidneys, where I think and experience emotion, where I plan and do things, receive a whole range of different answers – and the heart plays a very big role.
The bible’s teaching on this topic doesn’t give us a precision that we would like. What we discover is what a flexible organ that it is. The essence and core of us as human beings.
It is both the place where evil thoughts come from; where we consider and perceive the message of the kingdom; where evil overflows from and forms destructive words; where people speak to themselves and have an internal dialogue; where a man commits adultery; where we forgive people from; where we love God from; where we keep our treasured possessions – and all of this just from the Gospel of Matthew!
Strikingly there is no correlation between the ‘heart’ and romantic affections! In our culture the heart is all about feelings and romance – not so in the bible. There is also no strong correlation between emotions and the heart – and while emotions are located in the heart, they are also located in the mind as well.
Holism of the heart
The heart becomes a way of describing our wholeness – our totality. The bible expresses the heart as something of our essential selves, our core. The bible doesn’t drive a strong wedge between our body and our heart – between the internal world and our external presence. The heart is a way of picturing and capturing the inner reality – and therefore resists the compartmentalism of modern scientific approaches. We are a complex product of a whole range of functions, unified as an individual person. This is how God has made us, addresses us, and how he calls us to respond to him.
‘The hidden person of the heart’ 1 Peter 3:4
Lips vs heart
Peter focusing in 1 Peter 3 on the adornment of women – rather than focus on the external beauty, focus on the internal beauty of godliness. Focusing in on the expression ‘your inner self’ (NIV) – lit: the hidden person of the heart (ESV translation FTW!)
God looks upon the heart – this is where God esteems a person. This is the reality that we need to be cultivating and focusing upon.
This tension between external and internal is littered throughout the bible. The image of ‘Lips’ often focuses on the external – how you present yourself. The ‘heart’ is often focused on the internal. eg – Jesus speaking of the Pharisees who give ‘lip service’ to God, but their ‘hearts’ are far from me (ie. God). This is confronting stuff – it’s possible to mouth orthodox theology, lead people in public prayer, lead in public praise, go through the posture of deep worship, and yet have hearts that are a million miles away.
The bible keeps pushing us to consider this gulf that can appear between our ‘lips’ and our ‘hearts’.
External vs internal
Mark 7 – the Pharisees had an emphasis on external washing and what they ate. Jesus’ response was that it was not what went into a person that made them unclean – it’s not your physically dirty hands that contaminate your relationship with God, it’s what comes out of your heart that contaminates you.
Superficial vs deep
Psalm 64 – the wicked search out injustice, saying they have accomplished a diligent search – but have failed to look at the deep inward heart of men.
‘He who set his heart…’ Deuteronomy 10:12-16
God sets his heart – there is a mutuality here. That God sets his heart means that his people must render their hearts to Him in obedience and devotion.
‘… requires of his people’ Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27
Jesus emphasises this also when he calls on people to love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul. The God who has redeemed us will not settle for half-hearted commitment. He will not settle for less. You were made for a relationship for Him – of lips, heart, and every aspect of your being.
‘He who searches the heart’
God is known as one who searches the heart – it’s one of his names.
Searches – Jeremiah 17:10; Romans 8:27; Revelation 2:23
Tests – Psalm 7:9; Proverbs 24:12; Jeremiah 11:20
Knows – 1 Kings 8:39; Acts 1:24, 15:8; Luke 16:15
When Solomon speaks of God ‘knowing’ us it qualifies him to judge our hearts. People will get what they deserve at the Judgement because he knows all that is in their hearts.
Exposed in order to enter life – Psalm 139
This intimate knowledge of God is an invitation to know Him and to be known by Him. An invitation to live in his presence fully aware that he knows me better than I know myself.
This is the great challenge of human existence – the recognition that we are an open book before God. We are like cockroaches – when the light hits we run off into the dark. But in God’s light there is no refuge from His light. You are an open book.
When you’re playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with a child under 2 they will think that covering their eyes means you can’t see them – since they can’t see you. It’s an out of touch absurd reality – but understandable for 2 year olds. But adults keep playing this absurd game with God. We think we can bury things in our hearts that God cannot see. Even if there is a gulf between how we are acting and what we are thinking we think we can get away with it – as long as other people don’t know we’re fine.
Psalm 139 gives us a model response to God knowing us.
Extraordinary knowledge, beyond me (1-6)
David, the author, had some terrible dirty secrets. But he came to term with the reality that God knows him intimately and lived in response to that light. Knowing that God is his creator that God is entitled to know all these intimate details. Rather than being terrified and intimidated by being known like this he embraces it.
Nowhere to hide (7-12)
There is nowhere to flee from the presence of God. There is no dark enough place to hide you from God. David is someone who has given up the childish game of hide and seek – he embraces the knowingness of God as a wonderful truth.
Fearfully and wonderfully made (13-18)
David acknowledges that because God built him cell by cell, and remains sovereign over his existence, and the more David reflects on this the more precious God becomes to him. It is a wonder that God knows him so intimately.
Your enemies are mine (19-22)
David’s identification with God means he hates what God hates.
Expose my offence to me (23-24)
Make these verses our encouragement this week – the prayer we bring to God as we reflect on the nature of our heart and our relationship with him. David wants to be known, and wants to know and experience real life in all its depth – and real life in all its depth is lived in relationship with God where we recognise and acknowledge that there is nothing hidden from him in every aspect of us as people.
Searched in order to be known – 1 Corinthians 2:9-13
The deep places of God
God’s Spirit searches the living God – searches His deepest places, and then reveals to us what we need to know about the Living God in order to be in relationship with Him. It’s what makes scripture so wondrous – as it gives us everything we need to be known by God and in relationship with Him!
The searching Spirit
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
‘And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’ Romans 8:27
David counted as infinitely precious to be intimately known by God, and that God in his great purposes revealed himself to be known by David. God pierced David’s heart in order to do this. And this will be the challenge fo this week – in the storehouse of our heart we must bring out our most treasured idols and repent of them: because we want to know the living God with all of our being – head, heart and soul.
[Steven: What a ripping start to the conference – setting the tone of everything to follow this week: to know God and be known by Him requires a naked openness – are we willing?]
Gary is giving some book plugs (Steven: on my behalf – thanks Gary!), and in plugging ‘The Valley of Vision’ he makes a salient comment: we need to read books like Valley of Vision because we need voices from the past to reveal blind spots in our present. Each generation has blind spots in their faith, and a previous generation’s voice can reveal them much clearer. (Steven: there are two copies available for $15, and a couple of CD’s of the songs for $10!)
What does God ask for us?
He wants us to be Christlike, godly, wise, mature, strong (in weakness). These are all big categories, global categories, that the NT uses. And they all roughly talk about the same thing: the basic thing that God wants for all of us.
Holiness is like these big categories – summing up what God wants for his people.
Be holy, for I am holy.
Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, 20:26, 21:8
God saying to his people, ‘Here is what it means to be my people.’ This phrase, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ is basically a summary of the whole book of Leviticus. God paints a picture of holiness – though it’s a word picture very unfamiliar and strange to us.
Tip: for reading through Leviticus keep taking in the big picture – stand back and look at the effect of what is being said rather than get bogged down in the meaning of the details. The big picture: this is what it looks like to follow a holy God.
Problem: God says you can live with me if you are holy… but we can’t pull that off!
What does this picture of holiness look like?
To be pure and His.
God demands that we are holy.
When the NT writers come to this command in Leviticus they basically repeat it. In the NT God is still committed to the idea of his people being holy. Both Paul and Peter naturally operate with this idea that holiness is what God asks of us – the end goal of God’s work in our lives.
Ephesians 1:4, 2:21, 5:27 – Paul alludes to Leviticus and holiness a fair bit in these passages
1 Peter 1:15, 2:5 – Peter is more obvious, he just quotes Leviticus directly.
This is not rocket science, it’s unavoidable.
Big Question: how can we pull this off?
In Leviticus God calls his people to holiness – but through the OT they fail and mess it up heaps. So when Paul and Peter repeat these commands they can do so because something radical has changed in God’s people. What is the radical change? It is not effort – for that ends in legalism. It’s not through ditching the commands in general (ie antinomianism). The key is thinking through what God asks of us and what resources he gives us to do it.
If I say I can keep God’s laws properly I’m deluded and I forsake what God has done to forgive me and make possible to follow him. If I say that it’s far too hard and not even try to do that – I’m selling God short by saying he is not going to provide us with the resources to do it. Whether we are rule keepers or breakers the basic problem is the same: we don’t take God at his word, and we don’t need the gospel.
How do we think biblically about holiness?
It is union with Christ that makes us ‘positionally’ (or ‘definitively’) holy. This is why Paul routinely addresses Christians as saints. So we can say definitively that we are ‘holy’ – even though that is not a description we would normally use of ourselves because of the guilt of our sins. But, because we are ‘in Christ’ we are holy.
In a lot of ways our churches (or at least our church circles) don’t talk too much about faith. Possibly because the prosperity gospel has pushed the idea of ‘faith’ too far, so we’re afraid to be associated with this. But the bible speaks of faith as all conquering – 1 John 5:4 – And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. That’s a verse in our bibles!
The nature of change is really important to grapple with – what are we expecting? Holiness may feel like it operates like a ladder – ie really holy people were at the top of the ladder. But to think of it this way is really unhelpful. Holiness is realising we are in Christ and trusting in Christ, and constantly growing in our awareness of how much we need Christ.
This is a pattern throughout the NT.
We can expect to grow in holiness not because we are great but because Christ is. And we grow more in holiness the greater Christ grows in our lives. Holiness is essentially living in Christ – it’s just what we do. It’s the product of living by faith.
The Marks of Holiness
See Revelation 2-3 – Jesus speaking to the churches and calling them to repent.
So how should we live? As people who are holy in Christ who live holy lives by faith and are growing in holiness as the Spirit applies the gospel to our lives. The holy life is a matter of loving, proclaiming, repenting, suffering, delighting and hoping.
How does God do all this? Through the gospel as the Spirit works in us.
So what should we do?
We could grit our teeth and say, ‘I should be more holy…’ But that won’t work.
This is what it means to be holy. It’s not God saying, ‘Here is the spiritual ladder of superiority – climb it and wave to the plebs below.’ Holiness is no compartment of our lives – it’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be those who have been joined with Jesus by faith.
[Steven: I love Gary. He’s one of my favourite teachers, because he makes things so clear and helpful, and he points constantly to Jesus. If you can get a hold of the recording of this workshop please do so – it’s worth it. Some hard words, but strong encouragements that holiness can be striven for… and should be.]
“I want to guarantee that betrayal never, ever happens again”.
The words of a husband. A married woman who commits adultery, convicted of her sin, repents before God and confesses before her husband. After a short time of indecision they decide to rebuild their marriage – it’s hard, but they stick at at it and they persevere. After 8 months the husband is suspicious, the wife feels under surveillance – they are shocked by it. The husband is wondering what’s going on – he desires that the infidelity would not happen again, but that meant he would continually evaluate and judge his wife’s actions and behaviour, becoming controlling rather than loving.
Some things bring out the best in us, and some things bring out bad.
The big questions: Why do certain things bring out good or bad responses? If another person violates me, how will I respond?
James in his letter answers these sorts of questions.
James and Jesus
James had faithfully seen his brother’s ministry, and then he took on a massive role as ‘senior pastor’ of the Jerusalem church.
Consider trials pure joy! (James 1:1-2)
James is writing to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion – a group of believers who have been banished from their home lands. James knows the shame of being in the family of Jesus and the same of being a disciple of Jesus. He also knows the pressure of living for Jesus as his disciple.
He starts the letter with ‘Greetings’ which is more than ‘hello’ – it’s more like ‘Be glad!’ A big start to the letter.
He writes to brothers and sisters in Christ, bonded together in the family of God.
Then he writes something completely weird… he says, ‘Count it joy, rejoice, be glad and happy, when you go through trials of various kinds…’ What the?! No wonder some people think that the bible is nuts. We live to avoid trials – that’s why we diet, we exercise, we get insurance (so we get support when we get sick to pay the bills), that’s why our parents work hard to give us the life we have so we won’t have to go through the same. Whatever the trials are – exams, depression, exhaustion, every kinds of trial (a wide net cast so we can find our trials in here) – and when we experience them (not if, but when – for we cannot escape them) – we rejoice.
Why? Not because the trials are a fun thing to experience. Suffering and evil and trials are not inherently good in of themselves – we are not to be trial hunters. And there is always pain and grief in trials – James is not saying all trials are pure joy. But that joy should be an undercurrent of these trials. Why? Because it produces something else far better than the trial itself.
Perseverance is called for because the end goal is worth it. Perseverance is not generally something our world encourages – move, shift, get around something for your growth. But in scripture perseverance through the difficult is what will cause growth.
Verse 4 – the benefits of perseverance comes to believers who respond in the right way. If you respond with perseverance through trials then it has it’s full effect: a person moving towards perfection and completion, lacking in nothing.
Do we see suffering as something to be avoided, or something to convert you? Something to destroy you, or something to remake you?
Wisdom for trials (1:5-8)
Wisdom is a key theme in the book of James. Wisdom is clarity on how to live life well in God’s world. Wisdom is a life harmonised with reality. All of life – the joined-up life – joined-up with God, living to the glory of God the Father.
What should we do if we lack wisdom? Ask God – why? Because God is the God who gives generously without finding fault. Imagine a scenario: you are part of a company think tank, coming up with a plan to move the company forward. The company is Microsoft, and Bill Gates is there at each meeting. You meet together, you come up with ideas, but you fail to ask for his help and resources, and head off to do your thing to try and improve things. This makes no sense. And yet we do this often with our Father in heaven.
We do not have the skills on our own to do ministry and life. We need God.
The little brother of Jesus rewords what his big brother said, ‘Ask and it will be given you.’ But he also says to not doubt when asking. Not the occasional struggle or doubt – it’s a specific, dishonest, cowardly doubt. It’s the doubt that says God can’t do something, or I don’t need him to do something. To keep your mind perpetually closed to God. In the end this is foolishness.
This sort of person should not expect anything from the Lord.
The trials of blessing and curses (1:9-11)
We often have our eyes on externals, on the things outside of us. In trial we moan, whinge, seek sympathy, we get jealous and active to fix things. We have excuses when we go through trials: I would be a nicer person if you didn’t treat me like this; I act this way because I grew up in a dysfunctional family; I have gone through pain and have been abused by someone and so I act for myself; I had a hard day and you caught me at a low point; I have unmet needs, my dad didn’t love me when I grew up, so I need to find someone who can fill up what I need; I’m tired and didn’t sleep enough.
And yet James speaks of a perfection and wholeness that ripples through the whole of life. But we say, ‘But.. but… but…’ and instead of being joyful we find comfort in stuff, instead of being obedient we make up excuses.
The end of trials (James 1:12)
The heart and trials (James 1:13-15)
In verse 13 the word ‘temptation’ is the same as the word in v2 translated ‘trials’.
When we go through trials we often go to blame shifting – even blaming God for them. Verse 14 reminds us that it’s our own fault when these things happen. The imagery of fishing – of being baited and taking the hook is kinda what is going on here.
Why do certain things bring out certain responses? When you shake a bottle what comes out? Whatever is already in there. Our circumstances don’t make us who we are – our circumstances reveal who we are. Sin is not inserted by experience, suffering or the Devil – as though they are determinative. They are influential but not determinative.
How can we tell what our desires are? By our fruits. By our fruit we can see the root of our desires. They come forth and others will see and experience this fruit. Verse 15 – desire leads to sin. In any moment we will see what’s really in our hearts.
This passage is leading us to wholeness, wisdom, and perfection. And we get to wholeness, wisdom and perfection through trials.
Wisdom is the key here: where do we get it?
Trials of many kinds
We need a proper lens when we see trials. When you look at the cross with a narrow lens it is a horrific incident in history. When you look at the cross with a wide lens then you’ll see it’s saving beauty. This is what we will see often in our own lives. And if we have the proper God-sized and God-shaped-perspective lens it will make sense.
Trials show us what we lean on. They smoke out what we are living for. They bring us to the end of ourselves and show us who we really are.
I don’t want to say ‘bring it’ to trials… but I do because I know the end result… but I still don’t want to say it as well. In the end we need to say to God, ‘Whatever it takes…’ We hunger for control, love simple answers to questions – but trials help us long for something better.
How are we responding to the trials of this life? How do we respond to the passions and sins in our lives? Do we ask God to do whatever it takes to work in me, so that I will experience your joy and glory forevermore?
Trials as gifts of grace (John Newton)
[Steven: Our response to trials reveals what’s deep in our hearts. What a brilliant encouragement and challenge: are we willing to ask God to do whatever it takes to make us whole, expose our hearts, and bring us to Him?]
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