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Independence Day

John Trumbull's painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress.

A More Perfect Union

On our Independence Day, as we celebrate our great heritage as a nation, let us compare our nation with another great nation. In biblical times, this nation was given a great promise and covenant from God. This is the nation of Israel. Today, both of these nations are in a great struggle.

The founding fathers of these two nations had at least one thing in common, they trusted in and relied upon God for their formation and mission. One nation was to be a great missionary nation. The other was commissioned by God to be a holy nation and royal priesthood.

Let us look at America first. The delegates, who signed the Declaration of Independence, took on great personal risk. They were fighting for what they thought was a higher cause, greater than any personal gain they might achieve. As written in the Declaration, they affirmed:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As part of this Declaration, they made a pledge:

we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

They did so, realizing the danger this pledge might bring to them personally. Nevertheless, they did not look back. They fully gave themselves to the cause.

The cost was steep. Five signers of the Declaration were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Nine of them fought and died from wounds or hardships from the war.

Perhaps, without realizing it, they were following the example of Abraham and his descendants. Abraham entered into a covenant with God. When he did so he entered into unknown territory. The Book of Hebrews tells us:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.   (Hebrews 11:8-10)

Abraham did not look back. He endured hardship not only for the promise which God had made to him personally. He did so for the benefit of all the generations who would follow him. Those who followed endured great hardships as well. From Hebrews we read:

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.   (Hebrews 11:13-16)

The hardships were for a reason. God had chosen Israel for a divine purpose. At Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses concerning their mission: 

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”   (Exodus 19:4-6)

Over the years, God had been shaping Israel. It has not yet become a holy nation or a royal priesthood.  Nonetheless, what is impossible for humankind is possible with God. Nonetheless, we are indebted to Israel for our faith which leads to salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

After the terrible battle of Gettysburg, which cost so many lives, Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in his famous address:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We have not fulfilled these words. Despite our efforts, we have fallen short of the dream that our forefathers had for America. We are not yet that one nation under God, which provides freedom and liberty to all its citizens. Nor or we the great missionary nation which God has called us to be. This does not mean that we should stop striving. Without God the dream would not even be possible.

Our nation is now under attack, both from without and from within. There are people and forces who wish to destroy America as we know it in order to build their Utopia. While they strive to tear down our institutions, erase our history, and work to destroy the family, they tell us to put our trust in them. They will save us, promising peace without the Prince of Peace. The Apostle Paul write:

When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!   (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

In today’s Old Testament lesson we read:

You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.   (Deuteronomy 10:20-21)

Moses was reminding the people of the true architect of the nation of Israel. Perhaps we need the same reminder?

God is calling us to perfection, but we must be willing to follow him. He is our perfection. In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about perfection:

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”   (Matthew 5:43-48)

How will we ever achieve this perfection? We certainly cannot do it on our own. We need divine help. The hope for perfection is fulfilled by faith in Jesus Christ alone. It will take the Millennial Reign of Jesus on the Earth before that perfection fully comes.

Israel will one day be a holy nation. Since we are the ingrafted branches, the American dream and experiment will also be consummated as Christians believers the world over join the new Jerusalem. In the meantime, we must press on. God is for us and with us. He has extended his grace once more for the purpose of a last great revival to usher in lost souls. Are we with him?

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
The people He has chosen as His own inheritance.   (Psalm 33:12)

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Fifth Sunday of Easter

Greater Works Ministry

Today we read about the first martyr of the Christian faith:

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.   (Acts 7:55-60)

Why were the people so agitated at Stephen? Stephen had been appointed as a Deacon or servant of the Church, to assist the Apostles in the ministry so that they would have more time to devote themselves to the study of God’s word. But Stephen was no ordinary believer:

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.  (Acts 6:8-12)

“Spirit-filled” Christians are often considered controversial, even in today’s Church. Stephen spoke with a certain spiritual authority that may have been off putting to some. People were not able to argue with him successfully. On top of that, he performed signs and wonders which were only supposed to be done by apostles, prophets, and, perhaps, some elders.
Perhaps signs and wonders are still misunderstood to this day. Are we supposed to do them? What did Jesus say about them? We read in today’s appointed Gospel that:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”   (John 14:8-14)

There are counterfeit signs and wonders. Satan is able to produce them. They seem very strange and disconnected from any apostolic teaching of the faith. The people who perform them are clearly not grounded in the scriptures. Stephen.was firmly grounded to the point that no one could successfully argue against what he was teaching.

Have we been chosen by God to do the “greater works” ministry. The Apostle Peter quoted the Old Testament prophecy:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.   (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Yes, we are chosen. But there is a secret in doing this ministry. We do not do it. Stephen did not do it. Jesus did not do it. We cannot do it. It is God the Father who does the signs and wonders. Our task is simply to believe in Jesus, and listen intently and do as the Father directs us. God in us does this ministry if we are gifted by him.

How did the skeptic Philip end up doing the ministry that Jesus prophesied to him. When the words of Jesus sank in this same Philip became a great evangelist. He began performing the “greater works” which Jesus promised. The signs and wonders he performed made a great impact on the people of Samaria when he preached the word there:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.   (Acts 8:4-8)

Are we ready to step into the “greater works” ministry? We must first step into Jesus and the Father by faith. Then we must receive the promise from the Father which is the Holy Spirit. If a skeptic like Philip could answer the call then why should we remain a skeptic when there is an exciting ministry ahead. But let us remember to never take credit for such a ministry. All the praise and glory belongs to God.

Stephen stood out because of the works that he did by the Spirit. Nonetheless, perhaps his greatest achievement is that he forgave those who were stoning him. We need to grow into the character of Jesus just as much, if not more, as the ministry of Jesus.

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