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Waiting for the Verdict

Waiting for the Verdict

On my visit to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles a few months ago, I was drawn to a pair of 1859 paintings by the British artist Abraham Solomon because of the biblical implications I saw in them.

The first painting, Waiting for the Verdict, depicts a family waiting outside a courtroom while their loved one is being tried inside for a serious charge. By the expressions and body posture of the family, the wait is long, tiring, and reflects the seriousness of the charge, suggesting that a guilty verdict could be devastating to the family.

The other painting, Not Guilty, shows the relief of the family as they are united with their loved one who has been found innocent of the charges against him.

As I gazed at the paintings, my thoughts went to another court—the divine court that will take place upon the return of Jesus who declared, “I, the Son of Man, will come in the glory of my Father and with his angels and will judge all people according to their deeds.” (Matthew 16:27, NLT)

The Bible states that every person who has ever lived has sinned (Ecclesiastes 7:20), that the punishment for sin is death (Romans 6:23), that all our attempts at being good and righteous are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), and that every person will be judged for their sin.

But the Bible also shows that many people, despite being guilty, will be pardoned and declared “Not Guilty,” and they will be blessed with eternal life in God’s Kingdom.

The Apostle Paul explains it this way:

“For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us.” (Romans 3:23-25a, NLT)

In today’s culture in which the word “awesome” is used so freely and flippantly for almost everything, the implication of this passage is that God is truly awesome and amazing in his love, mercy, and kindness toward us!

He is awesome in that while most other religions require their followers to earn their god’s favor and acceptability, it is only what God has done for us through Jesus Christ that matters.

He is awesome in that even though we are all guilty of our sins, he declares us “not guilty” because of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He is awesome in that although all our good deeds could never measure up to his holiness, yet he makes it possible for us to have a right relationship with him simply through our faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:27-28).

The wonderful and powerful message of the Bible is that we no longer have to wait for the verdict on that great Judgment Day. God stands ready to pardon us now—if we are ready to trust Jesus to take away our sins and follow him as Lord.

So, dear reader, where are you today? Still waiting for the verdict? Or are you a “not guilty” believer who follows Jesus?

Not Guilty

Not Guilty

*****

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He was a king who united and ruled his nation effectively for forty years under difficult conditions, including numerous rebellions and attempts on his life.  He was a great poet, musician, composer, organizer, and military leader who inspired and motivated his fighting forces in repelling and conquering numerous invading foreign armies. And, as a man after God’s own heart, King David ruled his people justly.

Yet, his leadership in his family was weak and ineffective, and his secret sin of adultery and murder had disastrous consequences on his children and his household:

• His first marriage to Michal, Saul’s daughter, was bitter and childless. Though she loved David at first, he did not return her affection and later had her five nephews killed in retaliation for Saul and his family murdering the Gibeonites. (I Sam. 18:20-28; 19:10-18; 25:44; 2 Sam. 3:12-16; 6:20-23; 21:1-9)

• David had at least eight wives (1 Sam. 18:27; 25:42; 1 Chron. 3) and ten concubines (2 Sam. 15:16; 16:22; 20:3) with whom he had twenty known sons (2 Sam. 3:2-5; 1 Chron. 3:1-4; 14:4-7) and unknown number of daughters—an ideal recipe for explosive family conflicts.

• Because of his adultery with Bathsheba and her subsequent pregnancy, David had her husband killed in battle, after which he married her. (2 Sam. 11)

• The prophet Nathan confronted David about his sins of adultery and murder, and although David repented and was forgiven, God caused the newborn from that adulterous union to die after seven days. As a result of David’s sins, God declared that turmoil and rebellion would plague his household throughout his life. (2 Sam. 12:1-23)

• Amnon, David’s eldest son, raped his half-sister Tamar, but David did nothing to confront or discipline him. (2 Sam. 13:1-22)

• Absalom, third son of David and brother of Tamar, waited two years before he murdered Amnon in revenge for the rape. Absalom then fled and took refuge in his grandfather’s home for three years. David mourned Amnon’s death and pined for Absalom’s return, but did nothing to punish him. (2 Sam. 13:23-39)

• Absalom returned to Jerusalem, reconciled with David, but spent the next four years secretly planning to overthrow David. He finally led a rebellion against David, proclaimed himself king, and publicly raped David’s ten concubines to demonstrate his dominance over his father. (2 Sam 15 and 16)

• David escaped from Jerusalem with his household and some of his faithful warriors. He eventually took decisive action and ordered his commanders to attack Absalom’s army. Absalom was killed and the rebellion squashed. (2 Sam. 18:1-18)

• Absalom’s death so devastated David that he mourned inconsolably, weeping and crying, “O my son, Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I could have died instead of you! O my son Absalom, my son, my son.” (2 Sam. 18:24-33)

• David’s mourning stunned and insulted his troops who had risked their lives to save him and his kingship. His response turned their victory to shame and defeat. Joab, the commander who killed Absalom, sternly rebuked David and forced him out of his self-pity and back before his troops to publicly thank them for their support and victory. (2 Sam. 19:1-8)

• As David neared the end of his long life, his fourth son, Adonijah, tried to set himself up as king in an effort to beat his younger half-brother, Solomon, to the throne. But Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, fearing that Adonijah would kill her and Solomon if Adonijah became king, persuaded David to declare Solomon king. Despite Adonijah’ treachery, Solomon spared Adonijah’s life as long as David was alive. (I King 1)

• After David’s death, Adonijah, with the help of Joab, asked Bathsheba to influence Solomon to give him the virgin Abishag as his wife. Since Abishag was part of David’s harem, Solomon saw this as Adonijah’s attempt to claim the throne, so he ordered the execution of both Adonijah and Joab. (1 Kings 2:1-34)

• Solomon followed God and ruled wisely the united kingdom of Israel and Judah for most of his life. But because of the influences of his 700 wives and 300 concubines, he forsook God and increasingly worshiped their numerous false gods in later life. This allegiance to pagan gods by Solomon and succeeding kings led to the downfall of the kingdom.

Although David repented and received forgiveness from God (2 Sam. 12:13; Psa. 51), this did not change the consequences of his sins upon his family, for as God declared to Israel centuries before:

I am the Lord, I am the Lord, the merciful and gracious God. I am slow to anger and rich in unfailing love and faithfulness. I show this unfailing love to many thousands by forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. Even so I do not leave sin unpunished, but I punish the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generations.” (Ex. 34:6,7)

It’s a theme that is echoed in the New Testament where we are warned in Gal. 6:7,8:

Don’t be misled. Remember that you can’t ignore God and get away with it. You will always reap what you sow. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful desires will harvest the consequences of decay and death.

And even though 1 John 1:9 assures us that “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” this forgiveness may still involve consequences, including God’s discipline:

My child, don’t ignore it when the Lord disciplines you, and don’t be discouraged when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and punishes those he accepts as his children.” (Heb. 12:6,7)

However, there is good news—we don’t have to repeat the cycle of our parents’ sins! We can break the cycle by following the Lord, for we are assured that:

The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sin. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own goodness, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.” (Ezek. 18:20)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17, English Standard Version)

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death.” (Rom. 8:1, 2)

May we always earnestly confess our sins, seek God’s mercy and forgiveness, crave the restoration of the joy of God’s salvation, patiently accept God’s discipline, and live in the life-changing power, grace, and freedom of Jesus, our Lord.

****

Pictured above: A panel on the great bronze front door of La Madeleine Church, Paris, in which the prophet Nathan confronts David and Bathsheba over their adultery and David’s murder of her husband Uriah.

All Bible verses are from the New Living Translation, except those otherwise noted.

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The high price, of course, was the sacrificial death of Jesus who willingly gave his life to save us from sin’s destruction, and forgave our sins. (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23; Eph. 1:7)

Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—for it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

In light of such wonderful love, mercy, grace, and kindness, how should we then respond?

Gloria Gaither, one of the most prolific Christian composers today, answered that question when she wrote the inspiring lyrics in “I Then Shall Live,” and set it to the beautiful hymn tune, Finlandia.

Please listen and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you and bless you.

 

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A blogger, whose 16-year-old daughter recently lost a young friend to suicide, commented, “I asked God to help me understand why they [who take their lives] go to Hell. I am no one to question God, but I need an answer. I can’t find one—yet.”

Although the Bible doesn’t use the word “suicide,” it provides four incidents of individuals taking their lives—I Sam. 31:4-5; II Sam. 17:23; I Kings 16:18; and Matt. 27:5.

However, the Bible does not address the eternal future of those who commit suicide, nor does it specifically prohibit or condemn the act.

What the Bible provides are inferences regarding the high value of the human life. These include Acts 16: 27-28 where Paul stops his prison guard from killing himself, and such verses as:

Do not murder.” –Exodus 20:13

For we are not our own master when we live or when we die. While we live, we live to please the Lord. And when we die, we go to be with the Lord. So in life and in death, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and rose again for this very purpose, so that he might be Lord of those who are alive and of those who have died.” –Rom. 14:7-9

Or don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” –I Cor. 6:19-20

No one hates his own body but lovingly cares for it, just as Christ cares for his body, which is the church. And we are his body.” –Eph. 5:30

Along with the grief and emotional devastation experienced by family and friends when their loved one commits suicide, there is usually a variety of difficult and troubling questions, including the one about hell.

As someone who lost a family member to suicide, and knows of two Christian leaders who ended their own lives, I have found hope and encouragement about their eternal future from Scripture, though I am careful to not apply this to all suicides.

First, these were suicides that occurred while these individuals were suffering from chronic and debilitating bouts of sadness, pain, and depression. The causes ranged from life-shattering events, medication problems, illnesses, diseases, and severe mood disorders such as bipolar disorder. Such bouts sometimes lasted for years and were so severe that the individuals lost hope and finally gave up on life.

Second, I don’t believe that they were rational or in their right minds when they ended their lives. They were in mental, emotional, and spiritual breakdown and bankruptcy—totally crushed in their inner beings—and in such a state, Jesus’ pronouncement of blessings can be applied to them when he said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” –Matt. 5:3-4 (New International Version, NIV)

Based on these verses, I believe that the kingdom of God is a gift of grace, mercy, hope, and comfort to those who are destitute in spirit and who mourn from within the depths of their despair—even to those of his children who commit suicide.

Third, Scripture assures us that our salvation in Jesus Christ can never be broken or taken away from us:

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or are hungry or cold or in danger or threatened with death?

“No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Jesus Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high in the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Rom. 8: 35, 37-39

And what of those who never acknowledged or accepted God or Jesus Christ into their lives before their suicides? There is no such assurance of their place in his heavenly kingdom or that they will be comforted.

Still, there is the possibility that some of them might have cried out to God from within their death throes. Might God, in his compassion, grace, love, and mercy have forgiven them?

I believe he might have, for just as he expressed through Jesus his compassion, forgiveness, and healing for the sick, the crippled in body and mind, the tormented, and sinners—even the dying thief on the cross—so he might have had compassion and forgiveness for such ones who realized their need for him at the last moment.

And I believe that we might be surprised to see who will be—and who won’t be—in his kingdom on Judgment Day (Matt. 25:31-46).

*****

All Bible references are from the New Living Translation (NLT), except the noted NIV reference.

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Many people would agree with Frank Sinatra who confessed in his “My Way” signature song, “Regrets, I’ve had a few . . . ”

If we were honest, all of us would admit to having regrets. Even the Apostle Paul had some, for he testified:

“No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.” (Phil. 3:13-14, NLT)

Regrets were part of Paul’s reason to forget the past. He regretted:

• His self-righteous efforts to try to earn God’s approval by being the best and the most law-abiding Jew (Phil. 3:4-6)

• His role as an official witness at the killing of Stephen during which he held the coats of men as they stoned Stephen to death (Acts 7:57, 58)

• His rabid persecution of Christians (Phil. 3:6; Acts 9:1-9)

But once he received the forgiveness and the life-transforming grace and presence of Jesus Christ, he willingly left behind everything—the regrets, the guilt, the self-righteous achievements and traditions—in order to experience:

• “The priceless gain of knowing Christ” (Phil. 3: 8)

• “The mighty power that raised him from the dead” (Phil. 3:10)

• God’s heavenly prize—becoming one with Christ (Phil. 3:9,14)

We, too, must be willing to forget the past and leave behind our regrets, guilt, and failures that haunt and impede us. As a forgiven people, we are encouraged to strip off every encumbrance that slows us down and trips us up—even pride in our accomplishments—and run with endurance the race God has set before us. (Heb. 12:1b)

Our goal in running and finishing the race is to be all that Christ Jesus saved us for and wants us to be. (Phil. 3:12)

So while others like Frank Sinatra face their final curtain by proudly or defiantly proclaiming, “I did it my way,” those of us who follow Christ will joyfully say, “I did it Christ’s way.”

*****

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Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011, was exactly 34 years since I came back home to the Lord.

As a teenager in Jamaica, I had first committed my life to Jesus Christ in 1961, and later attended seminary to study for the ministry. After graduation, I married my high school sweetheart and served as a pastor of a circuit of churches before immigrating to New York with my wife and baby daughter in 1969.

But my marriage ended in divorce, and with our denomination unwilling to employ me as a divorced pastor, I found myself adrift in New York City far from the anchors of family, friends, and home church that I had left behind in Jamaica.

As a new single man in New York, and feeling rejected by church leaders, I found a new career and growing recognition in the publishing field—and the sudden availability of women. After being sheltered in the church during my teens and my twenties, I soon succumbed to the allure of New York City’s swinging singles culture and promiscuous lifestyle.

This continued for several years, even when I moved to Los Angeles to study and work in the film industry. During all this time I stopped going to church and my attitude towards God was one of aloofness in which I gave God the cold shoulder. And I nursed a lingering hurt and resentment towards the leaders of my former denomination.

Despite this, I found myself attending Easter service for the first time at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in 1977. The small chapel was packed with worshipers, choir, and musicians, and from the very start of the service I felt that something was different.

I don’t recall much of what the minister, Dr. Donn Moomaw, preached about, but I remember that soon after I took my seat I became aware of God’s powerful presence, love, and joy in that room.

In particular, I felt God’s love for me, and I had an overwhelming sense of his forgiveness for my cold attitude and rejection of him, my anger and resentment towards the church leaders, my promiscuity, and my attempts to seek and embrace the sinful allures of society. There was no feeling of condemnation from him, just his welcoming presence and invitation to come back home.

And that’s when my tears began to flow freely throughout the service and my hard heart and emotions softened and melted.

As I sat through that service of celebration for the risen Christ, unable to sing along with the congregation because of the inner emotions churning within me, I thought of past Easters in Jamaica and the intimacy of celebrating the sacraments on Maundy Thursday nights, especially the washing of feet, and I sensed the Lord saying to me, “You came to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune as a film director, but are you willing to be a lowly servant for me?”

I remembered the solemn Good Fridays in Jamaica, the holiest day of the year, when all commerce ceased on the island and many Christians contemplated the Stations of the Cross as we journeyed meditatively along the Via Delorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the route that Jesus took from his condemnation before Pilate to his crucifixion on the cross and his burial in a borrowed tomb. And with that remembrance, I suddenly felt the weight and guilt of my sins and backsliding, and sensed the Lord reminding me of how much he loved me enough to have suffered and died for my sins.

Amid my tears and remembrances, I began to tune into the theme and tone of the Easter service in the chapel that morning—celebrating the resurrected Jesus Christ. By the time the choir and congregation stood to sing the final hymn, the roof-raising celebratory “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” I could only stand and bow my head in submission and silent prayer to my heavenly Father, asking him to please accept me back from my prodigal ways. “Father,” I cried silently, “forgive me. I’m ready to come back home.”

I left the chapel that morning, clutching one of the Easter lilies that ushers had given out, and I returned to my apartment in Westwood. That afternoon, I called my friends and lovers and told them of my recommitment to following Jesus Christ and that my life had changed.

Much has changed in the intervening years. I remarried, and now have three grown children and four grandchildren, and have served God through a variety of careers. I continue to worship at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, which outgrew its small chapel and is now housed in a large sanctuary that serves several thousand members and visitors each week.

In fact, we have grown so much that for the past few years we have been celebrating Easter in the Hollywood Bowl where approximately seven to nine thousand people join us in worship.

So, it was with a grateful heart that over the past few days, this former prodigal son joined Christian brothers and sisters during Holy Week and participated in celebrating Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday in our sanctuary, then went over to the Hollywood Bowl where we raised our voices in praise to our Risen Christ.

It is my prayer and expectation that many other prodigals—sons and daughters—found their way home to our heavenly Father at Easter–wherever in the world they were.

*****

Clicky

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