Squeezed, Part 2: You Want Me to Do What? (Philemon 1:10-21)

In Part 2 of our series, we put ourselves in the sandals of Philemon, the slave owner. As Paul’s letter unfolds, Philemon begins to get the point: “Your slave, Onesimus, who stole from you and ran away, is coming back. In fact, he’s standing outside the door right now.” And it’s obvious you’re being asked by the Apostle Paul to love him, forgive him, and reconcile with him—something totally unheard of in the first century. It’s Philemon’s turn now to be squeezed.

Philemon’s initial reaction would surely have been something like, “Paul, you want me to do what? If I go soft on Onesimus, my other slaves will be more inclined to run off now, too. I can’t allow that! And what about all the other slaves in Colossae? If I receive Onesimus back without any punishment, word will spread that Christianity turns you into a doormat that people can walk all over. The other Christian masters will despise me!”

“And what about gospel outreach? It’s tough enough trying to witness to Christ in this empire. After all, Romans despise love. To them it’s not a virtue; they mock it and sneer at it all the time.” Philemon has a lot to think about when he gets Paul’s letter. He knows firsthand that when Christians loved each other, the Romans thought they were crazy. We have ancient correspondence that says, “These Christians are so crazy, they love each other even before they’ve met.”

Into that atmosphere, you’re going to talk about a gospel of love and forgiveness? Even for slaves? That’s insanity! To the pagan world, slaves were just “living tools” or “breathing machines.” You don’t forgive your household tools; you simply use them and get rid of them whenever they stop working. So, it’s going to be tough for Philemon to try to explain to the other slave owners in Colossae why Onesimus isn’t getting branded, flogged, or punished in some other way.

The book of Philemon is for believers today, too. Indeed, the grace of God in Christ takes believers off one hook (i.e., the hook of eternal judgment) and places us on another hook (i.e., the hook of forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven). It was Jesus himself who taught his people to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In other words, to have been forgiven makes you a forgiverThat’s the consistent message throughout the New Testament. 

But how do we forgive others who’ve hurt us, wounded us, betrayed us, or offended us in some significant way? And how do we go beyond mere forgiveness into the realm of genuine reconciliation? It takes a miracle. It takes Jesus—the one who is infinite love himself and has shed abroad his love in our hearts (Romans 5:5).

Sermon Resources:

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Squeezed, Part 1: Get Me Out of Here (Philemon 1:1-16)

Ever since humanity “fell” in the garden back in Genesis 3, relationships have been difficult. Interactions with others can often be strained, awkward, and painful—sometimes even vicious or violent. But ever since Jesus died and rose again from the dead, relationships have been given new hope and a real potential for peace, sincerity, depth, and authenticity. It’s a long road back to the serenity of Eden, but it’s a road paved with the blood of Jesus Christ, so it’s a road worth traveling.

The Book of Philemon answers the broad question, “What does Christianity look like when it’s put into practice, especially as it pertains to relationships? What does our faith look like when it’s set in motion—not only in the Roman Empire of the first century, but also today—in the twenty-first century? Philemon gives us a partial answer, and it involves the spiritual practice of forgiveness. C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” He was right, and that’s why we sometimes feel squeezed in the Christian life. As recipients of forgiveness, we’re called to be distributors of it as well.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is only 355 words in the original Greek, but it carries a weight far beyond its length. Everyone here is being “squeezed.” Onesimus, the runaway slave is being squeezed. Philemon, the slave owner, is being squeezed. Even Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is being squeezed. Our focus in Part 1 is Onesimus, who shows us that the more we try to run from God and his ways, the more he puts the squeeze on us, pulling us back to himself. Moreover, Onesimus shows us that so often we run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes.

The good news is that God does his squeezing with the gentle hands of love so his people will be conformed to the image of his Son. But the shaping can make us uncomfortable. We come to see that a change in circumstance doesn’t change who we are on the inside. Indeed, we discover that we can run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes. Thankfully, the gospel of Jesus Christ re-humanizes us so we can flourish in this life, regardless of our circumstances. That’s because freedom is a mentality more than a locality. 

The book of Philemon shows us that sometimes God doesn’t want our situation to change; he wants us to change in the situation. Such change is possible with the help of Jesus Christ, the one who died by crucifixion—a slave’s death—though he himself was completely innocent of all wrongdoing. Running to him is the only way to find a true and lasting freedom.

Sermon Resources:

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Our Father, Who Art Incredible (Genesis 28:16-17 and Selected Verses)

Who is God? What is he like? How do we conceive him to be? Years ago, a man was trapped in a railroad car all night. It was a refrigeration car, and he was horrified. He was desperate to get out, but he couldn’t. With a sharp object he found in the car, he scratched out a message on the wooden floor: “If I don’t get out of here, I’ll freeze to death.” The next morning, he was found dead. That was doubly tragic because the refrigeration unit wasn’t on that night. It never went below 55 degrees on the thermometer the whole time he was trapped inside.

Mental constructs are vitally important, and what we believe about certain things is no small issue. So, consider the question once again, “Who is God?” Christians are well trained to respond by saying, “He’s the God of the Bible!” But which God of the Bible? Not that there’s more than one presented in Scripture, but there are certainly many portrayals of him. The biblical God has many attributes and many ways of engaging with people as he travels from page to page, scene to scene.

The book of Genesis, for example, shows us a God who appears in many different disguises, playing many different roles, and wearing many different “hats.” He’s highly interactive with his creation—changing faces and changing forms without notice. What’s that all about? It means, in part, that Genesis is a “photo album of the traveling God.” It’s a collage of “God sightings,” and we need to read it with our eye on him. What do we learn about God and his ways from watching him in action?

If God is truly infinite, then all our ideas and understandings about him will be incomplete. Not necessarily wrong but incomplete. That’s why Peter instructs believers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). Likewise, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Phil 3:10). Paul already knew Christ, but he wanted to know him more. He needed to know him more.

One of the greatest enemies to truth is thinking we have it all. That mindset causes us to stop looking, stop seeking, stop listening, and ultimately stop thinking. Religious people with deep convictions often fall into this trap. Indeed, it was a highly religious crowd that killed Jesus—the “God-with-us” Emmanuel. Their concept of God—which they thought was biblical—was radically wrong. It was also wrong-headed. But no one could tell them that. Not even Jesus.

If we’re not dynamically growing in our understanding of God—going deeper into the Infinite whose surface we have barely scratched—we might wind up crucifying the truth, too. It’s not enough for believers to be doctrinally right about God, we have to be dynamically relating to God on the journey of life lest we get spiritually stale and obnoxiously blind. So, join us for this flyover of Genesis. You might discover a bigger, more adventuresome God than you’ve ever known. You might even start praying to “our Father, who art incredible.”

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God of the Impossible (1 Kings 17:17-24)

A Few Good Men is ranked as one of top 100 movies of all time. It’s a military courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. One of the memorable lines of the movie comes from Lieutenant Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. He’s the lead defense attorney, and his case against the colonel isn’t going well. After a series of deep frustrations with his co-counsel, Lieutenant Galloway, played by Demi Moore, Kaffee blurts out, “And the hits just keep on coming!” It’s an expression that basically means, “Here we go again!” or “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”

By the time we meet up with Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24, it’s hard not to think of this line, “And the hist just keep on coming!” He’s already had a hard and adventuresome life as a prophet, but we’re just getting started. After several miracles and death-defying adventures, the son of the widow he just rescued becomes deathly ill. Elijah watches his little friend go through the dying process. A few months ago, he saw the brook dry up, and now he sees a young boy’s life dry up, too. Now what? Surprisingly, the widow blames the prophet for her son’s death. For Elijah, the hits just keep on coming.

How do we respond when we get a tongue lashing we don’t deserve? Step into lawyer mode? Defense mode? Return the verbal garbage with garbage of our own? Hurt people tend to hurt people, and Elijah gets wounded here. But he doesn’t seek to wound back. He offers no argument, no rebuke, and no explanation. He does speak, but not to the woman’s tortured logic and agonized questions. Rather, he offers her gentle service and simple burden sharing. Then he gets alone with God and cries out to him for help (1 Kings 17:20), offering up an impossible prayer: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (1 Kings 17:21b).

It’s one thing to pray for the weather, as Elijah has recently done. It’s another thing to pray for the restoration of life to a dead body. That’s something new. But not only does Elijah pray the impossible prayer, he’s willing to be ceremonially “unclean” in the process by stretching himself out on the boy three times (1 Kings 17:21a). It was a form of sacrificial intercession in the face of a desperate situation. Happily, the Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him (1 Kings 17:22). It’s the first resurrection of Scripture. Thankfully, it’s not the last.

How do we face an impossible situation today? Like Elijah, we can get alone with God. We can pour out our problems to the Lord. We can strive for patient endurance and calm assurance amid the hits. And we can wait for God to act, receiving his deliverance in due course. Like Elijah, we can be fully persuaded that hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives. Patient endurance, then, is well founded. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun who lived in the 1500s. She wrote a verse that John Michael Talbot made into a song in our day:

Let nothing trouble you.
Let nothing frighten you.
For everything passes but God will never change.
Patient endurance will obtain everything
Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.
God alone is enough. God alone is enough.
Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.

One day the hits will stop coming. Jesus made sure of that. On the cross, he was willing to become truly “unclean” for us, dying for our sin. But on the third day, he rose again from the dead, having told his followers, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Today he puts his infinite resources at the disposal of those who, like Elijah, pray in righteousness and faith. That’s how we hit back at the hits.

Sermon Resources:

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Digesting Life (Psalm 57:1-11)

Have you ever had a cow on your plate? Probably, but it was broken down into a hamburger first, which you then had to chew. Your body broke it down even further through digestion into proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients that could be absorbed into your bloodstream and used as fuel for life. Inside that cow, then, was energy for life—but it had to be broken down again and again to be of any value to you.

How do we handle the pressures of life in a broken world—especially if we believe that God is for us not against us (Rom 8:31)? How do we reconcile the goodness of God and the aches and pains of this world he calls us to endure? David’s relationship with God as revealed in Psalm 57 gives us a clue. 

One day King Saul tried to shish kabob David to the wall with a spear while he was playing his harp. When that failed, Saul dispatched his soldiers to capture him, but that didn’t work, either. In fact, every attempt by Saul to lay a hand on him was frustrated. Eventually, David escaped to the cave of Adullam as a fugitive. According to Psalm 57:6, David’s spirit during those days was “bowed down in distress.”

Despite the pressure he was feeling, 1 Samuel 22:1 tells us that when David’s family found out where he was hiding, they met up with him there, including “all those who were in distress…and he became their leader.” That’s a noteworthy rendezvous. Four hundred people who are stressed out seek after David, who himself is stressed out. They want to be with him. They recognize that God is still with him in a unique way. Moreover, they want him to be their leader even though he’s on the run.

How many people do we know whom we can honestly say we want to be around when they’re stressed out? Most of us aren’t so sure we like being around ourselves when we’re stressed out! But David handled the pressures of life in such a way that people wanted to be around him even when he himself was under pressure. Why? David tells us he ultimately took refuge in God (Ps 57:1), not the cave. Indeed, he recognized that despite his many challenges in life, God was still fulfilling his purpose for him (Ps 57:2).

This sermon looks at the great “why” behind our distress, a word, incidentally, that means “to pull you apart slowly; to stretch you or draw you tight.” It’s an image that comes from the ancient rack torture. In other words, distress is when life is ripping you apart, tearing at your soul, and causing you grief or pain. The good news is that God’s people don’t go through distress only to come out the other side with nothing but a scar. No, for the child of God, every trial we face is Father-filtered. There’s a “divine why” behind it and a supreme good coming out of it, even if we don’t know at the time what that may be. 

We do know that the testing of our faith leads to spiritual growth (Jas 1:2-4; 1 Pet 1:6-7), and growth requires eating. Not only eating but digesting what we’ve eaten. Digestion, of course, is a process of breaking down the food we eat into a form our bodies can use. It’s a process that’ essential to life itself. Now, we can read a book about digestion, and even become a gastrointestinal doctor, but unless we actually eat, we will starve to death. 

Likewise, believers can read our Bibles until we’ve memorized them, but unless we “digest” life as it unfolds, activating our faith in the process, we will spiritually starve. David’s trust in God while under pressure is a reminder for all of us to digest life with faith in order to truly live. Anything less would be IN-digestion. So, by all means, have a cow. But eat it in faith. Energy for life awaits you.

Sermon Resources:

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As Secure as You Can Make It (Matthew 27:62-28:15)

Matthew’s account of Jesus’s resurrection is filled with sarcasm, culminating in the order Pontius Pilate gave: “Take a guard. Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how” (Matt 27:65). How did that work out for you, governor? Jesus rose from the dead, and the guards had no power to stop it.

But Pilate’s order represents what most people are trying to accomplish these days—making things as secure as they can. We lock our doors, buckle our seatbelts, password-protect our computers, wear helmets while biking, go through TSA stations at the airport, and purchase all kinds of warranties and insurance policies. But the resurrection account reminds us that real security is found in the risen Savior.

That’s the point of Matthew’s sarcasm. Sarcasm in this context means a holy defiance against the lies and pretense of this world, and humanity’s vain attempts to destroy the work of God. It’s a sacred sneering at all the obstacles and injustice in our society that keep people from flourishing as God wants them to flourish. It’s an attitude that faces the difficulties and challenges of life and says, “Bring it on.”

Why? Because the empty tomb means believers can’t lose in the end. Indeed, our own impending resurrection gives us a holy defiance against our fears and final enemy, death itself. Therefore, we can have a healthy suspicion of all our own attempts to keep ourselves secure, and a bold embrace of God’s incredible adventure for our lives—whatever that may entail. Make the tomb as secure as you can? You might as well try to kill an elephant with spitballs. Jesus Christ—risen from the dead—is Lord of all.

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The Weeping King (Luke 19:28-44)

Leaders try hard not to cry in public. Instead, they seek to project a measure of strength and courage in difficult situations. They usually want to send a message that everything is under control. Crying just unnerves the people who have to watch it. Therefore, politicians and public figures try to stuff their tears and stifle their emotions. If, for some reason, they do ever cry in public, they strive to “leak a little,” not gush. 

As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he cried openly in front of the masses. Luke 19:41 says he wept over the city, and the word for “wept” in the original means to sob or to wail. It was a great lament, not a little sniffle. But why was Jesus so upset? His answer was both bold and blunt: “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:44). God came to his people in the person of Christ, but they did not recognize him and submit to his authority. Rather, they tried to leverage that authority for their own ends.

Luke’s account of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a spiritually challenging passage—one that ultimately reminds us that to receive Jesus is to receive God, and to reject Jesus is to reject God. Knowing that some people would reject him at great cost to their own eternal well-being, Jesus wept for their souls. Indeed, his tears were an ominous sign that the week ahead would be a long and difficult one for him.

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The Gospel Unchained, Part 12: Hope in the Midst of Hardship (2 Timothy 4:9-22)

What would you like your final words to be? When it comes time for you to leave this life and enter the next, what would you wish to say to those who remain behind? The Apostle Paul’s last words to the church can be found in 2 Timothy 4:9-22. 

In this passage he chronicles the kinds of earthly hardships he endured throughout his ministry (i.e., the pain of seclusion, desertion, deprivation, opposition, and isolation). But he also sets forth the kind of support he received—and believers can expect—from God, even as they follow in his footsteps. To paraphrase, Paul reminds the church, “God will supply you, God will strengthen you, and God will save you.” 

In short, Paul instructs the church to overcome earthly hardship with heavenly hope. He reminds his readers that the earth cannot take them when God is keeping them, and the earth cannot keep them when God is taking them. He is sovereign over the lives of his people and the unfolding history of the world.

Paul then bids farewell with a blessing: “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Timothy 4:22). After this, we hear nothing else he says. After this, we read nothing else he writes. After this, we learn nothing else he thinks. His martyrdom is imminent, so these are the final words of Paul to the church. What does he want believers to remember as he signs off? What does he want ringing in their ears until Jesus comes back? 

Paul wants the church to remember the presence of God (“The Lord be with your spirit”) and the powerof God (“Grace be with you”). Grace, of course, is the unmerited favor of God that can captivate a terrorist like Paul. It’s also the unlimited power of God that can convert a terrorist like Paul and use him to change the world in Jesus’s name. What could the grace of God do through you?

Sermon Resources:

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The Gospel Unchained, Part 11: Fight to the Finish (2 Timothy 4:1-8)

The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War. Nearly 7,800 people were killed, 27,000 were wounded, and 11,000 were captured or went missing. The North defeated the South in that 3-day battle. Had they not done so, it’s likely that today the United States would not be united. In fact, most historians regard Gettysburg as the turning point of the war. 

One of the heroes to come out of that battle was Joshua Chamberlain, a professor of theology and rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Maine. On July 2, 1863, the second day of battle Col. Chamberlain defended the left flank of the Union on a hill called Little Round Top. Had he failed to hold that position, the Union line would have collapsed, the battle would have been lost, and the Confederates would have marched on Washington and overtaken the White House. 

But Chamberlain and his men from the 20th Maine held firm. With great courage and tenacity, they repelled wave after wave of attack late into the afternoon. Even after his men ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain refused to retreat. Instead, he ordered that famous bayonet charge down the hill, which put the Confederates to flight and ended their plans to penetrate the Union line.

What’s not so famous, however, is a crisis that Chamberlain faced just two days before the Little Round Top incident. Chamberlain inherited 120 insurgents from the 2nd Maine. That regiment had folded because there were so many casualties in it. Naturally, the survivors assumed that when their unit ended, their term of service had ended, too. But not so, according to the military brass. They had to be re-assigned. Understandably, the men of the 2nd Maine were furious, so they dropped their muskets, and they refused to fight. 

They had seen enough war. They had seen enough death. And some of them were wounded themselves. They were emotionally drained; and they just wanted to go home. But they were rounded up like cattle and marched at gunpoint over to the 20th Maine. Now, put yourself in Col. Chamberlain’s boots for a moment. You’re preparing for your next campaign just north of where you are now, when suddenly, 120 grumpy, burned-out insurrectionists are dropped into your lap. What are you going to do with them? How are you going to get them on board? 

How do you motivate a group of wounded and weary soldiers to keep fighting the good fight? Chamberlain gets them on board with a speech—a stirring exhortation that is almost as powerful as the Gettysburg Address itself. After promising not to shoot the insurgents—which he had every right to do—Chamberlain talks to them with respect. In short, He reminded them that their purpose far outweighed their pain, and their prize far outweighed their price.

When it comes to Christian service, that’s a message believers need to be reminded of on a regular basis because ministry can be hard. Kingdom work is exhausting. Volunteer ministry can sometimes be discouraging, dispiriting, or disillusioning. Certainly, there are moments of great joy and celebration, but Christian service has a way of wringing us out like a wet dish rag. Paul’s burden in 2 Timothy is to light a fire under his young protégé to fight like a good soldier and keep fighting, even when the battle gets fierce. To that end, Paul tells Timothy—and he tells believers today—to press on in view of both the pain and the payoff. In short, he says fight to the finish, and receive your crown from Christ.

Paul, the old war horse, now in chains, sitting in the shadow of execution, just weeks away from martyrdom—what’s he concerned about? What’s foremost on his mind? The continued sharing of the gospel after he’s gone. It’s no time to go AWOL on the gospel, says Paul. He tells God’s people to fight well as a service to Christ (4:1-5), and finish well as a sacrifice to Christ (4:6-8). Just as he did.

Sermon Resources:

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The Gospel Unchained, Part 10: Navigate the Last Days (2 Timothy 3:10-17)

Here’s a black and white photo that doesn’t look like much, but it tells an amazing story:

It’s an SAR—a Synthetic Aperture Radar— image of Hurricane Ike as it approached the coast of Texas in September 2008. Ike was the seventh costliest Atlantic storm in history, leaving about $38 billion worth of damage in its wake.

If we look at the picture carefully, we can see within the well-defined eye, near the right side toward the bottom, a tiny white dot. That dot is the 584-foot Cyprus bulk freighter Antalina, which got caught in the storm when its engines failed. 

There were 22 souls aboard the vessel when the storm hit. The wind was so severe, the Coast Guard had to call off its rescue attempt. The ship and the crew were forced to ride it out—inside the fury of the storm—hoping against hope that they wouldn’t be swamped or capsize. The satellite image shows the ship still safely afloat as the eye passes over them, giving them a brief respite until the southeastern wall pummeled them again.

Happily, the Antalina made it safely through the storm, and a tugboat pulled it safely to port after it was all over. All 22 crewmen survived, and the ship was undamaged. Quite significantly, the crew always knew where they were. Even though their engines had failed, they had a map and a compass to navigate the adventure. Better yet, the Coast Guard never lost sight of them. They were always on the radar, and officials always knew exactly where they were. It’s disorienting to be in a storm, but the tools of navigation have a way of keeping crew members tethered to reality—even when they’re getting pummeled by a hurricane. 

Can you imagine what kind of storms will visit us in the last days? Can you imagine how disorienting it will be when all hell breaks loose and unleashes its fury one last time prior to the return of Christ? We have hints and glimpses in Scripture of what those days will be like, but the intense depravity and deception will swirl around God’s people like never before. Jesus said it would be so bad, he put the question like this: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). In other words, the hurricane of depravity and deception will be severe. 

On another occasion, Jesus described these days like this: At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:10-13).

But how do we stand firm to the end? How can we be saved in the storm? Paul tells us in this passage to navigate the last days by the map of God’s word, the compass of God’s workers, and the North Star of Jesus Christ. It’s not a specific battle plan, but a general one, and believers do well to implement it now. We can do so by emulating God’s faithful workers (vv. 10-14) and examining God’s faultless word (vv. 15-17).

Indeed, the launching point for believers is always the inspired, God-breathed Scriptures because: (1) they are the sacred writings; (2) they are the source of saving truth; and (3) they are the spoken word of God. Thankfully, God has not left his people without a map and compass to navigate the storms of life. As Vance Havner once said, “A Bible that’s falling apart is usually owned by somebody who isn’t.” Best of all, God never loses sight of his people. They’re always on his radar.

Sermon Resources:

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The Gospel Unchained, Part 9: Mark the Menace (2 Timothy 3:1-9)

Hedviga Golik was born in Croatia in 1924. One night she made herself a cup of tea, sat down in her favorite armchair in front of the black and white television, and then watched her favorite programs. There she stayed—for the next 40 years! True story. Her lifeless remains were found sitting in front of the same TV four decades after she was reported missing.

Croatian police said she was last seen by neighbors in 1966, when she would have been 42 years old. The neighbors all thought Hedviga had moved away, but she was found by police who finally broken into her apartment. Fortunately for their noses, the windows had been slightly open all those years.

A police spokesperson said: “So far, we have no idea how it’s possible that someone reported as missing so long ago was not found before this, in the same apartment she used to live in.”

When the officers got there, they said it was like stepping into a place frozen in time. There was tea still in cup. There was moldy popcorn still in the bowl. Nothing was disturbed. There were just lots of cobwebs everywhere.

Neighbors were shocked by the discovery. Jadranka Markic was just 9 years old when Hedviga vanished. She said: “I still remember her. She was a quiet woman who kept to herself but was polite. We all thought that she had just moved out and gone to live with relatives.”

There was much soul searching in the community over this discovery. The recurring question was, “How did we miss this? Have we been so inwardly focused, so self-absorbed, so inattentive that didn’t even know she died in our midst? How could we have been so selfish not to see this?” Keith Green—who was something of a musical prophet from the early 1980s—had a captivating line from one of his songs: “It’s so hard to see when my eyes are on me.”

A major characteristic of the last days is selfishness. In fact, Paul’s message here is this: The last days are filled with people who are filled with self. And here we are in the “selfie” generation. Our culture features a magazine called Self. And we’re all living on this side of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—the highest of which is “self-actualization.” Indeed, it really is “hard to see when my eyes are on me.”

This message looks at the ways and the wiles of the proto-gnostics Timothy encountered in Ephesus in the first century, drawing parallels to the similar ideologies in our day. “Last days” people enthrone the sinful self, he says, and they aren’t bothered by it. It leads to a distortion of the gospel called “antinomianism.”

Archbishop Trench once said the selfish person is like a hedgehog which, “rolling itself up in a ball, presents only sharp spines to those without, keeping at the same time all the soft and warm wool for itself within.” Ultimately, the question raised in this message is not, “Who are the people I know who fit the description of a selfish person?” The question raised is, “To what extent do I fit the description of a selfish person?”

John Stott has said, “If a man is proud, arrogant and swollen with conceit, of course he will never sacrifice himself to serve others. God’s order, as plainly declared in his moral law, is that we love him first (with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength), our neighbour next and our self last. If we reverse the order of the first and third, putting self first and God last, our neighbour in the middle is bound to suffer.” Just like Hedviga Golik.

Sermon Resources:

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The Gospel Unchained, Part 8: Be Useful to God (2 Timothy 2:20-26)

A man used to visit the old general store out in the country. The owner of the store had a clerk named Jake, who seemed to be the laziest man in the whole world. One day the man noticed Jake was gone, so he asked the owner, “Where’s Jake?” “Oh, he retired,” said the owner. “Retired? Then what are you going to do to fill the vacancy?” The owner replied, “Jake didn’t leave no vacancy.”

That may have been bad grammar, but it was an astute observation. Because Jake was incredibly lazy, he wasn’t very useful to the owner, and, therefore, he wouldn’t really be missed. We do well to ask ourselves the challenging question: “What kind of vacancy would there be in God’s kingdom if we left?” 

Scripture indicates wants all his people serving Christ in some way. In fact, he’s given gifts to each believer to be used in his service. And yet, for so many who claim to know Christ as their Savior, their faith is like football—an occasional Sunday spectator sport. They’re not serving Christ day by day. But those who truly know Christ can’t be happy sitting in the stands. We want to be in the game.

We may need to sit out from time to time to catch our breath. We may need to go to the trainer’s room once in a while if we’re hurt. We may even need to be on the injured-reserve list for a period of time, until we get healthy. But our desire is to get in the game and be of some use to our team and our coach.

The teaching in 2 Timothy 2:20-26 reveals the kind of person God loves to use. We might think God uses only people who have impressive gifts and abilities. Spiritual gifts certainly play a part, but they’re not the main feature in being used by God. Paul tells us in this passage God loves to use those who are cleansed, kind, and committed.

The apostle uses two more images or metaphors to make his point—the “vessel” (v. 20) and the “servant” (v. 24) The calling of the vessel is to be cleansed to be useful to the master. The calling of the servant is to be kind and committed so that some will be saved and delivered from their bondage. When it comes to God’s calling on our lives, believers are not to leave any vacancies.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Gospel Unchained, Part 7: Watch Out (2 Timothy 2:14-19)

Somebody once said, “The main thing in life is to keep the main thing the main thing.” That’s true in Christian theology, too. Jesus once spoke of “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23), meaning some things in the Torah are more important than others. Likewise, the Apostle Paul spoke of “disputable matters” (Roman 14:1), meaning some things in the Christian life require no ecclesiastical positions or pronouncements. The Early Church called such things adiaphora, meaning “matters of indifference.”

The fact is, certain aspects of the Christian faith are never worth disputing (2 Timothy 2:14, 16-18a), while certain aspects of the Christian faith are always worth defending (2 Timothy 2:18b). The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (along with his followers at the end of the age) is in this latter category. That’s always doctrinal hill to die on—so much so that Paul devotes an entire chapter to it in 1 Corinthians 15. Without the resurrection, he says, there is no Christianity.

Paul tells us in this passage that when it comes to haggling over WORDS, cut it out (2 Timothy 2:14, 16-18). However, when it comes to handling THE WORD, cut it straight (2 Timothy 2:15, 19). He instructs young Timothy—and he instructs Bible teachers today—“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). 

The image is rich with practical insights for today’s teachers. Our calling is to be faithful to what God has revealed in his Word, a task that requires hard work, courage, and living primarily for the approval of the One who inspired his Word to be written down for our instruction. 

Moreover, we should want the apostles and prophets of old—were they sitting in the front row of our classrooms or sanctuaries—to hear our sermons and lessons, and nod in agreement after we teach, saying, “Yes, that’s what I meant. You were faithful to the message I wrote down about God and his ways many years ago, and you demonstrated its relevance for God’s people in your day.”

In short, Paul’s message for us is: Watch out for Bible teachers who make much of what is little and little of what is much. What we need to make much of in our day is Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, and his gospel of salvation for all who believe.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Gospel Unchained, Part 6: Remember the Gospel (2 Timothy 2:8-13)

Adoniram Judson was the first overseas missionary sent out from America. In the early 19th century, he and his wife went to India. A short time later, he went to Burma, where he labored in gospel work for nearly four decades. After 14 years on the field, Judson had a handful of converts and had managed to write a Burmese grammar. 

During that time, he suffered a horrible imprisonment for a year and a half, and he lost his wife and children to disease. A man who had been incarcerated with Mr. Judson described their prison conditions as he re-called them:

“The only articles of furniture the place contained were these…a gigantic row of stocks, similar in its construction to that formerly used in England…[only these were stocks for the feet, not the head and hands]. It was capable of accommodating more than a dozen occupants, and like a huge crocodile opened and shut its jaws with a loud snap upon its prey…. The prison had never been washed, nor even swept, since it was built… This gave a kind of…permanency to the odors… 

“As might have been expected from such a state of things, the place was teeming with creeping vermin to such an extent that…the greater portion of my dress was plundered. Surely it was enough for Mr. Judson to be shut up in the hot, stifling stench of a place like this without having his ankles and legs weighted with…irons, the scars from which he wore to his dying day. 

“He could say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ When Mr. Judson was subjected to these indignities and tortures, he was in the very prime of life—36 years old.”

There’s nothing like a good missionary biography to illustrate how small our sacrifice for Christ often is by comparison. Adoniram Judson suffered greatly for his Christian commitment. But, like the Apostle Paul, Judson considered his work for Christ to be infinitely more important than his own personal comfort. 

Where does that kind of inner strength come from? It comes from the grace standing behind what Paul writes to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:8-9). In other words, you can endure anything when you remember the gospel is everything.

Looking back on his life, Judson wrote these words: “If I had not felt certain that every trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated sufferings.” Like Paul, Judson believed that no suffering is too great if it brings about the salvation of those who place their trust in Jesus Christ—a trust that leads to “eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). Or, as Martin Luther put it:

Let goods and kindred go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still
His Kingdom is forever

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Gospel Unchained, Part 5: Endure Hardship (2 Timothy 2:1-7)

Early in the 20th century, there was an ad in a London newspaper that read as follows: “Men wanted for hazardous journey: small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, and constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” That’s not a very compelling invitation, is it? Except for the fact that it was signed by Sir Ernest Shackleton, which caused thousands of men to respond to the ad. 

That’s because Shackleton (1874–1922) was one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He was the great expeditionary hero who got closer to the South Pole than anyone else history up to that point. 

For that achievement, Shackleton was knighted by King Edward VII on his return home. No wonder thousands of men responded to his ad. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a great adventure with a proven leader on an expedition that had a great chance of succeeding?

The Christian Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe once said that if Jesus Christ had advertised for workers, the announcement might have read something like this: 

“Men and women wanted for difficult task of helping to build My church. You will often be misunderstood, even by those working with you. You will face constant attack from an invisible enemy. You may not see the results of your labor, and your full reward will not come till after all your work is completed. It may cost you your home, your ambitions, even your life.” Not a very compelling invitation, either, is it? Except for the fact that it’s signed by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords himself—Jesus of Nazareth.

Millions of people all over the world still respond to such an invitation. That’s because Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, who came right on time in fulfillment of scores of OT prophecies. He lived in the 1st century during the days of King Herod. He healed the sick, cast out demons, taught God’s Word, loved the outcast, revealed the Father, and died on a bloody cross. On the 3rd day, he rose again.

For that achievement, Jesus was declared both Lord and Christ of the universe on his return home to heaven. No wonder millions still respond to his call, difficult though it may be. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a great adventure with a proven leader—a resurrected leader—on a missional adventure that cannot ultimately fail? Yet, many people do resist that adventure, and it’s not hard to see why.

In this passage, the apostle Paul calls Timothy—and by extension, he calls all believers—to be willing to endure hardship for the gospel. That’s a tough sell in our comfort-driven culture, isn’t it? But that’s Paul’s message to the church: To be an effective, contagious Christian, suffer now for the sake of future gain. What a challenging message!

How many of us show the dedication of a soldier (v. 3-4)? How many of us show the discipline of an athlete (v. 5)? How many of us show the diligence of a farmer (v. 6)? These are the illustrations Paul uses to motivate Timothy—and his church—to ensure the gospel baton is passed to the next generation. Who’s ready to sign up?

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.