Be Like Mom


For Mother’s Day I thought I would share this message I gave a few years ago on Mother’s Day. I posted it back then in parts, here it is presented in full.

To all you mothers out there (especially mine) have a wonderful Mother’s Day!

Grace,

Dan

Paul the Mother

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory (1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12, NIV).

Introduction

Mothers…

You can’t come into this world without one (even Jesus couldn’t come into this world without a mother). They are necessary.

Mothers, whether they know it or not, are incredibly powerful, for the care they give or don’t give sets their child on a path of understanding what is true, who they are, and what value they have.

Mothering is not a day job. It is 24/7/365. There are no vacations. It is a fulltime commitment that makes any fulltime job seem trite.

Mothering is a long job. By that I mean it is not a short term project or commitment. It is not a sprint but a marathon that will not slow down for two decades or so.

Mothering takes patience…at times incredible unearthly patience because kids have none and seemingly live eternally in the “now.”

Mothering takes one way love. If you have been a mother for any length of time you know this is true. If you are hoping to be a mother you need to understand this is true! You need that one way love to endure the yelling, the screaming, the messes, the disrespect, and outright dumb and hateful things that you will hear. “I hate you!” “I wish you weren’t my mother!” “I am so done with you!” Many mothers have heard things like that. If your love is two-way love—a love that requires respect, friendship, and a quick return on investment in order for it to continue—then motherhood is going to be hard. One way love, grace, is necessary to be a good mother.

Mothering requires a lifestyle of giving. Giving time. Making time to give when there is no time. Giving care. Giving love. Giving help. Giving forgiveness. Giving provision and providing not only for physical needs, but social, mental, and spiritual needs. At times it requires giving in, at other times giving things up, and almost all the time it requires giving out this or that or the other thing. And sometimes it requires giving out when you don’t feel you are being given much back by anybody.

Yet mothers do all this without a second thought. They gladly do it, because they love their kids. It doesn’t seem to them a burden to be begrudged, but a privilege to be given such responsibility. This isn’t to say that mothers don’t ever feel overwhelmed, or confused, or taken advantage of or get angry or have days when they despair. They do. But the joy of motherhood outweighs the pain. And so they keep going.

Moms do this so well in fact that very often when their girls grow up they have a longing to be mothers themselves.

I know some women who just can’t wait for it.

I know others who would give all they had just to be one.

I know others who struggle with the pain of losing their child, and they feel that with that loss and the loss of motherhood part of them died too. They would give anything to get them back.

Exegesis

Our text this morning is an interesting one and a good one to think about on Mother’s Day. Paul was only in Thessalonica for a short time a two or three months at best. But notice how he describes who he and his fellow workers lived, worked, and related to them: Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you.

It is very interesting to me that Paul here uses the image of a nursing mother to describe his love and care for the Thessalonians. Paul often used the image of fatherhood to describe his leadership. In fact, just a few verses down in verse 11 he shifts his analogy to fatherhood. While Paul certainly knows he is not a woman and cannot be a mother, he was still led by the Spirit to use the analogy of motherhood in his description of how he related to the Thessalonians. The second half of verse 8 through verse 10 Paul explains what he means.

Verse 8b, Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Like a mother loves her child even before they are born, Paul loved the people of Thessalonica before they had been spiritually born. Love came first. Love was the motivation for going to them, for sharing the Gospel with them, and for sharing their lives with them. Love was not something that came later, or was given after there was proof that the gospel had been accepted but before.

Verse 9, Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. This is also very motherly isn’t it? Mothers work constantly day and night so that their children have all that they need and do not need to worry about caring for them. And as mothers work day and night to care for their children, Paul did the same for his spiritual children.

Verse 10, You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. A good mother shows by her example what is good and right by how she conducts herself in the truth and by how she responds in grace. In like fashion Paul and his companions did the same, not only teaching them the knowledge and idea of what it means to be holy, righteous, and blameless, but setting the example of it, showing them the practice of it, and mentoring them in the living of it.

Doctrine

The Church is called the family of God and the household of God. So it is no accident that the most often used picture to describe spiritual leadership, discipleship, and how we are supposed to relate to one another is that of family. What is the primary responsibility of mothers and fathers if not to nurture, mature, and equip their children so that they grow into adults who are able to do the same for their own children? So it should come as no surprise that motherhood and fatherhood were helpful analogies to understand how Christians are to nurture, mature, and equip one another.

We need to reach out to and share our faith with a mothers love. Mothers don’t wait to see their children grow up before they love them. Paul compared his initial coming to them as that of a nursing mother. Love comes first. It is not earned. It does not have to be asked for. It is just given. His nurturing of them started before there were believers and continued after. You cannot nurture a person without first loving them. We see this over and over in how Jesus related to people. He was very gentle with them. He was very compassionate. He healed them. Ate with them. Freed them from demons. He feed them. His doing so showed that He loved them and cared for them and drew them in to hear who He was and why He was here. He showed them He was the Messiah as He told them He was the Messiah. If we attempt to teach about Christ or witness to Christ without showing them Christ’s love and care we will have little fruit to show for our efforts. I have never witnessed anyone sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with a person who had any success who did not love them first. Especially with people we are witnessing to and to new Christians we need to be like nursing mothers caring for their children.

That motherly love that Paul had for the Thessalonians drove him to give himself completely to their needs. A mother’s day is not really organized around her needs so much as it is around the needs of her children. In the same way, Paul ministered in such a way that the new believers saw that they were his first priority. We see the same in Jesus’ relating to the crowds. For instance in Matthew 14:13-14 we are told that when Jesus was given the news that His cousin had been executed by Herod He took the disciples away so they could be by themselves and rest and grieve. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick (13b-14). This was the same crowd of 5000 that Jesus fed with a few loaves and fish. He wanted to get away. He wanted to have time alone with His disciples. But His instead He met their needs. The work of nurturing, maturing, and equipping one another works best when we do it with that same attitude.

That leads right to the third truth this passage illustrates for us: that believers, especially new believers need spiritual mothering no less than children do in the home. Love and grace are understood in experience before they are fully understood in thought. So like a mother Paul shared his life with the Thessalonians. You’ve heard the saying, “seeing is believing.” If the people we share our faith with don’t see and experience the love of Christ why should they believe what we are saying is true? The only way that is going to happen is if we share our life with them.

Application

You can learn a lot from a good mother. And it is not only helpful for being a mother or for understanding mothers, it is helpful for understanding the kind of work it takes to nurture, mature, and equip one another in the church. I want to try and show this by taking that description of mothers I began with and putting it in the context of discipleship.

Christians…

You can’t come into the kingdom of God without one sharing the Gospel with you. They are necessary. The agents through whom God brings people into the new life of His kingdom.

Christians, whether they know it or not, are incredibly powerful, for the care they give or don’t give sets their spiritual children on a path of understanding what is true, who they are, and what value they have.

Discipleship is not a day job. It is 24/7/365. There are no vacations. It is a fulltime commitment that can make any fulltime job seem trite.

Discipleship is a long job. By that I mean it is not a short term project or commitment. It is not a sprint but a marathon.

Discipleship takes patience…at times incredible unearthly patience because believers are tempted to understand heavenly realities through their present circumstances instead of the other way around, they often live in the “now.”

Discipleship takes one way love. If you have been a discipler for any length of time you know this is true. If you are hoping to be a discipler you need to understand this is true! You need that one way love to endure the yelling, the screaming, the messes, the disrespect, and outright dumb and hateful things that you will hear. “I hate God!” “I wish God would just stop!” “I am so done with God!” Many disciplers have heard things like that. If your love is two-way love—a love that requires respect, friendship, and a quick return on investment in order for it to continue—then discipleship is going to be hard. One way love, grace, is necessary to be a good discipler.

Discipleship requires a lifestyle of giving. Giving time. Making time to give when there is no time. Giving care. Giving love. Giving help. Giving forgiveness. Giving provision and providing not only for spiritual needs, but physical, social, and even mental needs. At times it requires giving in, at other times giving things up, and almost all the time it requires giving out this or that or the other thing. And sometimes it requires giving out when you don’t feel you are being given much back by anybody.

Yet in Christ, through Christ Christians do all this without a second thought. They gladly do it, because they love their spiritual sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. It doesn’t seem to them a burden to be begrudged, but a privilege to be given such responsibility. This isn’t to say that Christians don’t ever feel overwhelmed, or confused, or taken advantage of or get angry or have days when they despair. They do. But the joy of discipleship outweighs the pain. And so they keep discipling.

Do you see what I mean? Now I am not at all saying that this describes all Christians, or even most Christians. I’m not even saying that it describes me! But it should, shouldn’t it?

What if it did? What if we could all say,

In Christ, through Christ I do all this without a second thought. I gladly do it, because I love my spiritual sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. It doesn’t seem to me a burden to be begrudged, but a privilege to be given such responsibility. This isn’t to say that I don’t ever feel overwhelmed, or confused, or taken advantage of or get angry or have days when I despair. I do. But the joy of discipleship outweighs the pain. And so I keep discipling.

What effects would that have?

How would things change?

How would I see things differently? How would I see people differently? How would it effect how I see myself?

Might I see God differently?

What impact would that have on the kingdom of God?

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to find out. What do you say?

The More Things Change…


I have been struck—again—by the truth of the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We have cars instead of horses, instant messaging instead of message curriers, we meet in blogs and chat rooms instead of gathering at the city gates, but the problems, temptations, and challenges remain the same. Let me just mention two.

We are tempted to put our faith and trust in the things of God instead of in God. In 1 Samuel 4:1-3, we read about Israel reacting to losing a battle to the Philistines.

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

Instead of asking the Lord why He did not give them victory over an enemy He had promised victory over, they go get the ark. They assumed that they left God behind because they left His ark behind. While Israel was galvanized and encouraged by the presence of the ark, God was not more with them then without it, and they were defeated again. Instead of looking to God, they looked to his ark, “Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

How often we see the same thinking today! We do not have an ark, but we do the same thing with what we do have. Instead of asking God why the church’s numbers are dropping, finances are dwindling, and our influence is waning, we go looking for the latest program, book, strategy, conference, or retreat to fix the problem….as if we are just not working hard enough to figure it out. God does not need our best. When we give God our best, He isn’t getting much is He? We need to put our faith in Him, not in the things He has given us.

We are pre-occupied with how we look to others instead of being concerned with how we look to God. Israel asked for a king, not because they needed a leader when Samuel was gone (which they did), not because God had promised them a king (which He did in Deuteronomy 17:14-15), but because they wanted to look like everyone else. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5, NIV ). Instead of waiting for God to give them a king in His time, they forced the issue. The result was 42 years of Saul, which was a disaster because He was not a man after God’s own heart. Instead of acting out of faith in God and waiting for His timing, they acted out of anxiety and attempted to solve the problem themselves.

We are just as fixated on the need for a “leader” today. Like the Israelites we want a leader who will do the thinking and fighting for us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles (1 Samuel 8:19-20, NIV ). Today the “king” has been replaced with the “professional.” The prevailing attitude in the land seems to be, “If you can do it better, I would rather you do it.”

This thinking is very common in the church today. Families look to the church for teaching, discipleship, and passing the faith to their kids. Many people believe this is what the church is for. “After all they are the experts, they have the degrees. That’s what we’re paying them for,” they say.

This is also the thinking of many pastors and leaders in the church today. They expect families to support them in their programs, and see themselves and their ministry as the place to go for help, discipleship, and teaching. Families are generally very willing to give them what they want, and in many cases, expect that this is the case. Churches are often picked based on the perceived repute of the pastor and how well the programs being offered meet the needs and desires of the family that is doing the looking.

But this thinking is not biblical. Not only that, it doesn’t work does it? All you need to do is look around at the church today. The average layperson feels ill-equipped to do Bible study on their own let alone teach the bible to their kids, their spouse, or their friends. The latest study from Barna found that more than 60% of youth who grow up in the church leave the Christian faith by the time they get out of college.

Those who stay in the church have no great witness to the world either. God seems remarkably impotent to bring about the change the gospel claims to promise. We divorce as much, have affairs as much, become addicted to drugs and alcohol as much, even abuse our wives and kids as much as non-Christians. There is no statistical difference between evangelical Christians in these areas and everyone else.

Albert Einstein said, “The height of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” I think we need to admit that the way the church has been doing things does not work. The way we have been thinking about Church does not work. Jesus said that the world would know that we are His disciples if we love one another as He loves us. The facts tell us that we are not succeeding at this.

Deeper


It’s throw back Thursday. Here’s an oldie but goodie from October, 2012.

The Psalmist wrote in Psalm 19:1-2 (NIV)

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

Paul makes clear in Romans 1:19-20 (NIV) what creation speaks and what knowledge it imparts.

What may be known about God has been made plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

But God was not satisfied with just allowing us to see His signature on creation. He went deeper in revealing Himself through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He went deeper in revealing Himself to His servant Moses, and revealed His love and faithfulness by bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the Promised Land. Through miracles, signs, and wonders, Hew revealed His power, might, righteousness, grace, mercy, and a singular commitment to keep His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He wrote the Ten Commandments and gave them to Moses and revealed His character through the giving of His Law.

But God was not content to stop revealing Himself by revealing His Law. He continued to go deeper in His self-revelation by sending prophets, priests, and kings whom He used to speak His Word to Israel, to be their representatives to Him, and to lead His people in life and work.

But even this was not deep enough. God wanted to reveal not only His mind, and heart, but His very Self. He wanted us to see not only His works and miracles; He wanted us to see Him with our eyes. And so He sent His Son, Jesus Christ.

Through Him we saw more than we ever wanted or hoped to see:

We saw the glory of a life lived fully in God’s grace and truth.

We saw Him live a life that God called us all to live in His Law, but because of our sin, never could and never would.

We saw just how lost and dark we are.

Left to ourselves He was detestable to us. His light seemed to us to be darkness. And even though we had no reason, we tried Him, condemned Him, abused Him, and murdered Him in the most brutal way we knew.

And yet God used our sin to bring about His will. 700 years prior, so that there would be no doubt or question, Isaiah 53:10 (NIV) declared,

Yet it was the Lord ‘s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

But even sin is no match for God. Where we showed we deserved nothing but death, God brought divine wrath, justice, mercy, and grace together making forgiveness of sins a reality. God supernaturally opens our eyes to this truth: that, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

Now God is not known from the outside, but is known from within, because His Spirit lives in His people, uniting them to Him. This union reveals Him even more deeply and intimately than ever before. It is not only content to reveal more of God to us, but it draws us nearer to Him, changing and transforming us from the inside out so that our love, our character, our actions are driven by an ever growing passion for His glory.

And now we know that even all The Father has done up to this point was not enough. He plans to go deeper still. Soon and very soon He will bring His kingdom to completion and we will see the Father, the Son, and the Spirit even more clearly, hold Him more dearly, and know Him more completely, so that our love for the Triune God will be pure, spotless, and perfectly in harmony with His love for us.

And I am sure that even then, He will find a way to go deeper in His revelation to us.

I for one, look forward to that.

I hope you do to.

47


Well my friends, God has seen fit to see me through another year. It has been a real interesting one to say the least. Kind of an extended unplanned sabbatical from pastoral ministry. It is in some ways quite a change going from settled pastor to being a tobacconist and podcast host for the world’s largest privately owned cigar retailer. That said, ministry and discipleship doesn’t stop because you don’t have your name on the marque of a church; nor does it stop because you work at a cigar shop. In fact I am more convinced than ever that we need to be learning to be looking to see where God is working outside of the church instead of wondering how to get people to come into the church. We need to be learning to be like Jesus out of the church when we are at home, at work, and out and about in our everyday life. Worshipping Jesus in church should be a priority for us, but if we are not living like Jesus when we walk out the church doors, we perhaps need to think about the sincerity of our worship. Such at least is one of the things I have been learning in my 47th year.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:5-10, NIV).

 

Get Peace


If you have been walking this earth for any length of time you have probably been learning that people sometimes to dumb things. The one thing people never need to be taught is how to fail, hurt, let down, disappoint, and betray one another. There is no need for self help books on how make dumb decisions, or hurt the people we love, or on how to better misunderstand people.

Disagreements, disappointments, and disillusionment are part of life. They are common place. What is not common is love, kindness, grace, and peace. I think this fact is one of the reasons that Paul wrote these verses in Romans 12.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:18-21, NIV).

The distinguishing mark of the Christian is, I submit, not that he or she doesn’t sin or sins less (at least compared to some), but rather how the Christian responds when they sin and how they respond when others hurt them. Christians are to be peacemakers. Peace does not just happen. It does not just magically appear. It must be made. Anything that is made takes work, it takes effort, it takes intentionality. Look at how Paul puts it:

If it is possible. If there is a way to make peace, we are to take it. If it is at all possible, we need to be pursuing peace with one another.

As far as it depends on you. Paul knows that making peace is not a one way street. Sometimes the other person or party is not willing to go there or do the work. But as far as it depends on you, you are to do it. We need to do everything that is possible to make peace with people, whether the other person or party is doing everything they can do or not. This isn’t quid pro quo.

Live at peace with everyone. The original Greek for “everyone” is everyone! Paul is not just talking about pursuing peace with Christian brothers and sisters. No one is exempt from this. If there is a breakdown in relationship (be it our fault or their fault) the thing God wants us to do as His sons and daughters is to do everything that is humanly possible to live at peace with one another.

We aren’t to rub people’s faces in it. We aren’t to seek revenge. We aren’t to respond in kind when we are hurt. We are to leave that to God. That’s what it means to “leave room for God’s wrath.” He knows best how to judge. We need to leave that to him. Not only is He the only one with the right and authority to do so, but He is the only one who can convict and judge and discipline with a perfect loving respect to the offender. When we judge someone–not judge an action but judge a person–we will inevitably hurt them. Whenever we try that, not only will we fail at helping the other person, we end up committing a serious sin ourselves by taking God’s place as judge. Ours is not to be God’s hammer, our job is to love others as He loves us.

And if you think about How Jesus lived this out for us, you will see how inconsistent it is when we justify our not needing to repent, or when we rationalize our giving up on peace. Jesus found the one way possible to make peace between us and His Father. He had to leave His Father’s side, become a man, and live a perfect life and be willing to be hated, misunderstood, lied about, betrayed by His friends, and murdered by His enemies. It all depended on Him, so He did it. And just in case you missed it, I was His enemy… and so are you. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8, NIV). That was how far He went to pursue peace with you and me. And I don’t know about you, but I know no one has ever hurt me as much as I hurt my Jesus every single day. Yet He does not give up on me. What right do I have to give up on others?

Friends, pursue peace. Life comes with enough consequences for our actions. God sees to that. Let Him determine what blessings or discipline a person has. If He decides to be gracious who are we to argue with Him? Let us do whatever we can, give what ever grace we can, give all the patience we can, suffer as long as we can, and be as kind as we can so that we can say that as far as it depended on us we lived at peace with everyone.

Maturity Comes from Loving One Another


Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians upon hearing that they were being heavily influenced by a group of people claiming that salvation was not solely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but also required merit in submitting to the Jewish Law—including circumcision.

Paul does not hold back in his critique of these false teachers he refers to in 2:12 as “the circumcision group.” As soon as Paul dispenses with the customary greeting the first thing he says is I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6, NIV).

The reason the legalism of the circumcision group was so tempting is the same reason any kind of legalism is tempting—it offered to its adherents a standard for discerning visible proof of one’s salvation and the level of one’s devotion and maturity. Paul points out two fatal flaws in the message of the circumcision group: first and foremost, was that one’s position before God hinged on what we do, not on what Christ did. The gospel Paul and the Apostles preached was that salvation was by faith in Christ alone. That’s it. Nothing else. It is all of grace. It is a gift to be accepted not a prize to be awarded.

The second fatal flaw was that this false teachers completely misunderstood the purpose of the Law. The purpose of the Law was not to show what to do to get into God’s good graces. The point of the Law was to show that we are unable to get into God’s good graces. Living by the Law dooms you to failure and judgment because our selfish, self-centered, self-driven nature keep us from wanting to obey it.

In Galatians 5:13-26 (NIV) Paul makes application of his argument to the Galatians’ situation. There is nothing we need to do to earn or keep our salvation, we are free from that burden of the Law. We are nonetheless, supposed to be living the Law in our freedom. You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What God was looking for in the lives of the Galatians was not a religious adherence to the Law such as circumcision, but a relational adherence: loving your neighbor as yourself. Love was the proof of God’s grace and the fruit that the Galatians should be looking for.

This chapter gets at what is the heart of discipleship, or as we have been calling it, spiritual parenting. It is central because Paul is asserting that the main focus of the Christian life is to be serving one another in love. At its essence, that is what discipleship is: serving one another in love. Just a few verses before our text, Paul states in 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Paul is saying that all the outward works, trappings, and traditions of religion, however good or helpful they may seem, mean nothing. The only thing that counts, the only thing that matters, is faith expressing itself through love. This is where the Christian’s growth and maturity is to be measured: by their love for one another.

The focus of the disciple is to make new disciples wherever they are throughout the world, teaching them to obey everything Christ commanded. What are “all of Jesus’ commands?” Jesus answered that question in two places. The first was in Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV), where He said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. The second place was in John 13:34-35 (NIV) where He said to His disciples, A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. This command was really a clarification of the first. The Great Commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. In this command to His disciples, He is telling them that they now have a model for that command: Himself.

When Paul calls us to live by the Spirit and to keep in step with the Spirit, he means to live a life of love that is summarized in the Great Commandment, and exemplified by Jesus Christ.

To live a life of love means two things: finding and uprooting the thoughts and behaviors that run counter to the Spirit, and discerning and promoting the thoughts and behaviors that the Spirit moves us to produce.

The acts of the sinful nature and the fruits of the Spirit are contrary to each other in just about every way, but they do share something in common—they are all shown and grown in and through personal relationships. I believe I can take that one step further: they are both the result of discipleship. As my mentor and spiritual father Charlie Jones said, “Hang around thinkers and you’ll be a better thinker, hang around givers and you will be a better giver, hang around lovers and you’ll be a better lover, hang around a bunch of thumb-sucking-complaining-griping-boneheads, and you’ll be a better thumb-sucking-complaining-griping-bonehead!”

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The measure of the Christian life is gauged by the possession and growth of these fruits. If we want to be growing and maturing in our walk with Christ, then we need to be discipling one another so that we are in greater possession of these fruits and less and less in possession of the acts of the sinful nature.

Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the commands of loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself. Paul said that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, and that the entire Law is summed up in the single command: love your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, I believe Jonathan Edwards was right in defining theology as the doctrine of living to God by Christ. The goal of the Christian life is love—love for God and love for others. Everything we do needs to be moving us to cultivate that life of love.

In light of that, let me give an exhortation. Beware of legalism. It has many forms. Some are easier to see than others. It may be very easy to see the legalism of the circumcision group, but trust me when I say legalism is still a favorite tool in the devil’s tool box. Whenever we gauge our own salvation or devotion to God on what we do or don’t do we are engaged in legalism. When we judge ourselves or others on church attendance, on the kind of church we attend, on our involvement in it, on our knowledge of the Bible, or on our giving we are engaging in legalism. When we judge ourselves or others’ spiritual maturity—or lack of maturity—on issues like praise music vs. traditional hymns, or political party, or involvement in a particular cause (however good and honorable that cause may be) we are being legalistic. We need to remember 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIV), If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Legalism is counter to the gospel, counter to love, and counter to Christ. We need to avoid it, fight it, and condemn it in all its forms.

Beware of getting caught up in learning at the expense of doing. This is another way that the devil likes to attack the church, and it is very insidious because it has the appearance of personal piety. It is very easy to get focused so much on learning that it can become an idol. If all of our time is spent in attending church services, listening to Christian radio and podcasts, reading Christian books, blogs, and magazines we are missing the point. The aim of the knowledge of Scripture is to love God and our neighbor. If we are not practicing what we know with one another, we are not helping ourselves. I encourage you to take to heart what my spiritual father Fenelon said,

We can listen to endless sermons about Christian growth, and become perfectly familiar with the language, and yet be as far from its attainment as ever….Although being a know-it-all makes us feel important, what is really needed to strengthen Christian character is love. So don’t be satisfied with anything less than love. You certainly don’t think it possible that the love of God and the dethroning of self can only be reached through the acquisition of knowledge. You already have more knowledge than you can use. You would do better to put into practice what you already know. Oh how we deceive ourselves when we suppose that we are growing in grace because our vain curiosity is being gratified by the enlightenment of our intellect!

The goal is not knowledge but love. Love requires knowledge, but knowledge is not love.

Let me give you an example. I love preaching. I look forward to every opportunity God gives me to come up here and share God’s Word with you. I believe that preaching is one of the regular tools God uses to teach, encourage, and admonish His people. Not only do I love preaching, I love listening to good preaching. When I am not up here I love listening to Pastor Boylan. He is always stretching me and helping me more and more to understand God’s word and what God wants from me. We both have been called to preach, and we both see the sermon as the centerpiece of the worship service.

I will not pretend to speak for other pastors, but to me, the real excitement and work of ministry is not preaching, it comes after the service. Love does not happen in the pulpit. Don’t get me wrong, a preacher needs to be motivated by love, his sermon needs to be born from his love for God and for the people he is addressing. But the real transforming work of the Spirit that builds the fruits of the Spirit in the life of the believer happens after the service in our relationships with one another. Love happens one on one. It happens through discipleship. That, I believe, is why all Christians are called to disciple. If preaching was where it was at, then the Great Commission would have been a call to make preachers from all nations. Maturity is not gauged by preaching, knowledge, spiritual gifts, or whatever else there might be. Maturity is gauged by love. And love comes by discipleship.