Yesterday we learned about the three levels of life. Today our focus will be on the fleshly man. Sadly, many Christians are stuck on this plane of existence. They try to obey the Lord, but the old “flesh” keeps emerging. Life is a roller coaster of spiritual ups and downs.
Sometimes this condition is due to ignorance. There are many people who fail to realize that 1) this lifestyle is not meant to be the norm for believers, and 2) the Lord has given us everything we need to live a godly life (2 Peter 1:3-4).
However, the primary reason believers live fleshly lives is because they have not yet made up their minds who will be in control. There is something they are unwilling to surrender to God—it could be a desire, habit, or source of security or pleasure. Another possibility is that they have sensed His call on their lives but are running from Him in fear or rebellion.
The consequences of living this way are devastating. Without the Spirit’s governing control, the carnal Christian is spiritually immature and ruled by his own desires, rights, and expectations. Because he has not applied previously learned biblical truths (milk), he cannot understand the deeper things of Scripture (meat). The result is stunted spiritual growth.
If you find yourself described here, take courage. You do not have to remain in this condition. What are you holding onto? Letting go can be very difficult, but the power of almighty God resides within you through His Spirit. Relax your grip, surrender to Him, and rely on His strength.
Living accommodations vary widely in the physical world, ranging from mansions to crude shelters. In the same way, the spiritual realm also has different levels.
In our passage today, the Lord reveals three ranks of spiritual life:
1. The Natural Man—Everyone who has not accepted Christ as his Savior is in this category. Many in this group are capable of good deeds, but since their sins remain unforgiven, they are separated from the Lord. Because the Holy Spirit does not dwell within them, they cannot understand the things of God.
2. The Spiritual Man—This group is composed of Christians who are filled with the Spirit and surrendered to His control. Though they’re not perfect, they are quick to recognize transgression, confess sin, and genuinely repent by turning back to God. Because the Holy Spirit is ruling in their lives, He is able to guide them by offering wisdom and insight into spiritual things.
3. The Fleshly Man—This designation describes believers who are trying to live in two different worlds. At salvation, all Christians are given a new nature, but the old “flesh” patterns aren’t removed. By allowing residual sinful tendencies to dominate their lives, these people are quenching the Spirit within them.
You are in one of these three categories. Take some time to evaluate your life by asking, Where am I now? Where would I like to be? The Lord will help those who want to move closer to Him. Ask Him to work in your life to bring you to the place of the spiritual man.
The Lord wants to give each of us a “heart of flesh” so that we will be pliable and responsive to Him. When touched by the finger of God, a tender heart yields to the pressure and assumes the form He desires, much like a lump of clay that allows the potter to determine the shape of the vessel.
To aid in this process, God has sent the Holy Spirit to indwell each believer and awaken responsiveness in him or her. By yielding to the Spirit’s promptings with ready obedience, the heart becomes increasingly tender and sensitive to His leading. The Lord is able to impart greater understanding of His Word to a soft heart because it has faithfully accepted and obeyed previous teachings.
Any resistance to God will result in hardening. But those who are accustomed to intimacy with Christ—which is the result of submission to Him—will be quick to deal with sin and return to the place of obedience and blessing.
People with tender hearts stay closely connected to the body of Christ, seeking to build up and encourage others in their walk of faith. Such individuals are not only receptive to what God wants to tell them; they are also teachable, in that they are willing to listen and be corrected by others.
This week when you read your Bible and pray, let your heart be soft toward the words of God. As He pokes His finger into each hard area, listen to His instructions, and rely on the Spirit’s power to help you yield and obey. Let Him shape you into a beautiful and useful vessel.
God repeatedly calls to His children, but the condition of each heart determines the result. Those with soft and tender hearts hear His voice and yield to Him in obedience, but those with hard hearts resist His warnings and instructions. Surprisingly, upon hearing the same voice, some believers are motivated to a deeper and more obedient relationship with the Lord, while others reject and refuse Him.
Since hardening is a slow process that’s often accompanied by rationalizations and excuses, the danger signs may not be readily recognized. How do you respond when the Lord speaks to you through His Word, your conscience, or messages based on Scripture? Carefully consider the following characteristics of a hardening heart:
– Insensitivity or resistance to what God says
– Refusal to put yourself under His authority
– Disobedience to what you know the Lord is instructing you to do
– Justification of sinful conduct
– Resistance to the reproof of others
– Preoccupation with the things of this world (career, relationships, possessions)
– Little interest in spiritual matters
– Absence of private devotion (Bible reading and prayer)
– Avoidance of public worship (gathering with other believers)
A hard heart does not have to stay in that condition. If you have discovered any of the above traits in your life, begin today to return to the Lord. Ask Him to give you a new heart to know Him (Jer. 24:7). Remember, He specializes in making all things new (2 Cor. 5:17).
Some people believe that good works are like a “get out of hell free” card. What these folks do not realize is that an individual isn’t condemned by the Lord because of the things he does. He is condemned because of what he is—a person with a spirit bent away from God. We choose to sin because it is our nature to do so.
To find proof that mankind does not naturally obey, all one has to do is observe any two-year-old child. Why does a toddler tug on the lamp cord after his mom says, “Don’t touch!”? His impulse to do what he wants is greater than his desire to please Mother.
Complying with authority is a choice that we learn to make. In the meantime, we all have a rebellious nature. Not one single person is good enough or wise enough to remain sinless and pleasing before the Lord. Therefore, we have all sinned and are under a death sentence (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).
The Word of God says that until the moment of salvation, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). This means that although the body has not yet undergone physical death, the spirit is lifeless apart from the Lord. We are helpless to save ourselves.
We are a people in need of rescue. The instant we receive the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, our spirit is brought to life and our heart undergoes transformation. In the moment that God saves you, He makes you into a new creature—one with a nature surrendered to Him and His will.
In our world of electronic banking and charge cards, it’s easy to ignore what things cost. The same is true with sin. Our culture enjoys temporary pleasures while disregarding what God says is the price of transgression (Rom. 6:23a).
The Bible tells us what it cost Jesus to pay for our sin. For our sake, He suffered . . .
Physical pain. In the hours leading to His crucifixion, Jesus was mocked, beaten, and humiliated. In His weakened state, He was forced to carry the instrument of His death—the cross. Then He was nailed to it and hoisted up to die an excruciating death.
Man’s sin. Jesus lived a perfect life on earth and never knew the disgrace of sin or the bitterness of regret. But at the cross, the Father placed all of mankind’s sins upon the Savior (2 Cor. 5:21). There, Christ experienced the fullness of our transgressions, guilt, and shame.
Abandonment. In the final hours, Jesus was separated from His Father (Mark 15:34), their fellowship broken for the only time since eternity past. Our sin became the barrier that kept them apart until Christ’s work of atonement was finished (John 19:30).
Divine judgment. God’s wrath was poured out upon our Lord because of man’s sin. Christ experienced the condemnation that we deserved.
Our Savior suffered greatly on our behalf. He gave His life so we might become part of God’s family (John 1:12). He calls us to a life of sacrificial service—doing the Father’s work and living to please Him. In light of what our salvation cost, how can we do anything less?
Mankind has a debt problem. In the physical world, our desire for a higher standard of living and more “stuff” has led to burdensome credit card balances and unwieldy mortgage payments. The weight of what we owe can cause restless nights and the feeling that we’re trapped. We long for someone to rescue us from the mess we have made.
However, material indebtedness isn’t our biggest problem. Our sin-debt is. All of us were born with a “flesh” nature that prompts us to rebel against the Lord. Our rebelliousness is an affront to His holy nature, incurring a debt that we owe to Him. Until this penalty is paid, we are under God’s righteous judgment and remain spiritually separated from Him (Eph. 2:1-2). The trouble is, we are unable to pay what’s due. No amount of good works, self-sacrifice, or religious devotion will lessen what we owe.
So God, in His great mercy, sent His Son to rescue us. Jesus Christ left heaven and all of its glory so He could come to earth to live and die for us (Phil. 2:6-7). Although the cost to our Savior was enormous, He willingly paid the price we owed. He took our sins upon Himself, bore them to the cross, and discharged our debt in full. Hallelujah!
When we receive Jesus as our Savior, His atoning work is credited to our account. We become children of God and co-heirs with Christ—we’re changed from debtors to inheritors (1 Peter 1:3-4). Let the knowledge of His sacrifice on the cross permeate your thinking, attitude, and choices.
Years ago I lived in Fruitland, North Carolina. It was apple country, and several of my parishioners were growers. When I stopped by to visit one of them, his wife told me that he was in the orchard. So I walked out back to find him mercilessly cutting branches from one of the trees. Without thinking, I said, “You’re going to kill that tree!” He turned around and said, “You stick to preaching, and leave the pruning to me.”
This gentleman and I became friends, and it was from him that I learned about the pruning process. In order to produce an abundant crop of the best fruit, he had to cut as he did. It might look as if the tree was going to die, but new growth would spring from the wounds. Our conversations helped me to understand why the Lord sometimes acts as a pruning force in people’s lives.
To get a plentiful crop of spiritual fruit, our heavenly Father must remove anything that distracts or deters us from serving Him. The process is often painful. I know I’ve cried out, “More, Lord?” when He has taken the “knife” to me. But the result is always satisfying—I am a better, more accurate reflection of Jesus Christ after God cuts away a fleshly habit or worldly attitude.
Being loved by God does not mean we will be coddled—our comfort is not His primary interest. A grower must prune an apple tree to get a bountiful harvest. In the same way, God must sometimes let us feel pain so He can bring forth greater growth and more spiritual fruit.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus was packed with symbolism. He compared salvation to a second birth and likened the Holy Spirit’s work to the wind. But then the Lord used an Old Testament illustration that might seem odd to modern readers—He said the Son of Man must be lifted up, just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent (Num. 21:1-9).
Nicodemus would have been familiar with the story: En route to the Promised Land, the Israelites once complained about going the long way around enemy territory. God responded by sending poisonous snakes into their midst. A bite victim would die unless he or she looked at the bronze serpent hanging from a pole in the camp. The statue was a symbolic representation of God’s presence among the Israelites as well as a reminder that He was their deliverer.
While we might not mix spiritual birth and a snake on a pole in one testimony, Jesus did so for a good reason. These metaphors describe related events. The Messiah was explaining that He must be lifted onto the cross as a sacrifice for all of mankind’s wrongs. A new birth is impossible unless somebody pays the price for our sinful condition. Those who look to Jesus and believe will be forgiven, saved, and born again.
Jesus’ message to Nicodemus becomes clear when we understand how the pieces fit together. The Savior is saying that He must die on the cross so that sinful human beings can be born again. Have you looked to Jesus Christ for salvation? He is the only way to new life.
Nicodemus would probably be welcome at any church today. He seems an ideal member—principled, knowledgeable, morally upstanding, courteous, and humble. However, Nicodemus had two big problems despite all of that outward religious appeal. He was blind to the truth and spiritually dead.
The man was lost. That is, he did not have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus adhered to strict Jewish codes and laws, so he was certainly religious. But the problem of the lost person is not attitudes, conduct, or even character. We can change and control those through sheer determination, and many folks do. What people really need is a change of condition. We come into this world with a sinful nature that is bent away from God.
Jesus explained to the observant rabbi that all his outward goodness couldn’t erase, replace, or change his nature. Instead, every person who desires to serve God must be born again. The Lord promised that if Nicodemus received Him as Savior, then he would enter into a brand-new life. His old sinful nature would be transformed so that he could have a real relationship with God. Instead of appearing to be a religious man, Nicodemus would be a true believer.
No one gets into heaven on the strength of good works and kind behavior. When we stand before God, only our condition will matter. In place of our old, dead “flesh” nature, we want to show Him the living spirit we received when Jesus Christ came into our life.
When God’s people humbly call upon His name, He releases awesome power. The Bible is packed with stories of His mighty intervention on behalf of those who cry out to Him.
Take Jehoshaphat, for instance. Today’s passage tells of the king’s faithfulness and reliance upon the Lord in a time of adversity: he received word that the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites were joining forces to wage war against his kingdom.
Jehoshaphat admitted his fear but quickly reminded himself of God’s faithfulness to other believers in the past (v. 7). Confessing total dependence on the Lord, he gathered all of the Israelites to cry out to their Father. Through the prophet Jahaziel, God reminded them this was His battle, so they were not to fear (vv. 14-15). The people praised the Lord for His encouragement. And, amazingly, when they “came to the lookout of the wilderness, they looked toward the multitude, and . . . no one had escaped” (v. 24). All their enemies lay dead.
God worked in a more miraculous way than anyone could imagine—and He still exceeds our expectations today. Through such means as prayer, praise, song, and fasting, we can ask Him to reveal Himself. He is ready to respond when we bring heavy hearts and deep concerns to Him.
Crying out to God and asking Him to work in our lives requires humility and persistence. Though we are unable to succeed on our own, we frequently try. By allowing us to bring our concerns and desires before Him, Jesus lovingly helps us realize our dependence.
God’s Word contains commands about many things, from frequency of prayer and expressions of worship to relationships with other people (1 Thess. 5:17; Deut. 6:5; John 13:34). Surprisingly, though, there is no place in the Scriptures where the believer is specifically instructed to fast.
Yet the words “when you fast” (Matt. 6:16, emphasis added) show Jesus’ expectation that His followers would practice this discipline. And there are many biblical examples of godly people who abstained from certain activities in order to draw close to God.
Before we go further, it is important to dispel a popular misunderstanding. Fasting doesn’t serve to change God’s mind, speed up His answer, or manipulate His will. Instead, it prepares us to hear from Him by temporarily laying aside something that vies for our attention or devotion—such as food, sleep, or a time of intimacy with a spouse.
Denying ourselves in this way makes us better able to focus on Christ and hear Him clearly. His Spirit often starts by bringing to mind sin that needs to be confessed. In so doing, He sanctifies our thoughts—then He can use this precious time to intensify our desire for Him, reveal His Will, and grant understanding and peace. In essence, fasting binds us to Him in such oneness that we won’t ever be the same again.
Do you want to see God move in awesome ways? By removing anything that hinders your focus, you can fix attention solely on the Creator and cry out to Him regarding your needs. As you gain understanding about your Father and yourself, you will grow closer to Him.
Though some people use the terms happiness and joy interchangeably, there is a vast difference in their meaning. Both cause a pleasant emotional response, but the former relies entirely upon circumstance. As soon as difficulty arises and pain intrudes, a person ceases to be happy. On the other hand, joy is a gift from God that enables believers to find hope and peace—even when life seemingly falls apart.
At times, however, even Christians live joylessly. Sinful behavior, of course, is one reason. But there can be other causes, too, including regret about past failures, fear of future mishaps, or a pattern of discontentment that’s ingrained in one’s personality.
If you are a follower of Jesus but lack gladness, take a moment to remember who Christ is—and who you are in Him. To begin with, you are saved eternally, and your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The love of almighty God is unconditional, and His indwelling Spirit will never abandon you. He understands everything that you face and promises to provide for your needs.
When you stop to consider the amazing blessings that are yours in Christ, gratitude will likely overwhelm you. Sadness concerning circumstances may still endure, but the joy of the Lord will carry you through even the deepest pain.
Amid the ups and downs of life, does God’s joy sustain you? Or do trials leave you hopeless and discontented? Our Father offers a higher way of living—not without pain but with strength to endure. Continually remember the vast treasure you have in Him and His promises.
Is your life exciting? Or do you, like so many people, find most days routine and tedious? Have dreams become disappointments? If so, you might feel tempted to give up hope. But God promises fulfillment that can’t be found anywhere else.
Joy is a gift from the Lord. It doesn’t depend upon circumstances but, rather, is found in Jesus’ unchanging character and promises. And that’s exactly where to find true strength and power to endure.
Years ago, I found myself being tested on this very point while working on a sermon about joy. A few days earlier, I had baptized a large number of people, and evidently, the repetitive motion had strained my back. There was no pain until midweek, when I tried to lift something heavy. Suddenly, I was dealing with severe backache. Almost immediately, the Lord brought to mind the message I was planning to present a few days later. Even though I complained and desperately wanted to be freed from the pain, I found I could be joyful in the Lord.
Philippians 4:4 tells us always to rejoice in Him. From this command, we know that even in the midst of hardship, we can purposefully choose to live with joy. This choice is possible for believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit and walking obediently (Gal. 5:22-23).
Consider your response to both good and bad times. Does a consistent joy in Christ give you strength? Or do you find emotional relief only in the midst of positive circumstances? Difficulty is inevitable, but God’s truth is able to sustain you. Rely on Him for emotional security.
God’s grace is revealed in His willingness to welcome anyone at anytime into His kingdom, even at the moment of death. The repentant thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus had absolutely nothing to offer the Lord—no good works, no faithful service. He couldn’t even be baptized. In his utterly helpless condition, the only thing he could do was believe. But that was all it took, because faith is the only way to be saved.
Although both thieves began their crucifixion by hurling verbal abuse at Jesus (Matt. 27:44), as the torturous minutes passed, one of them had a change of heart. His railing against the Savior turned to rebuke of the other criminal, and then to defense of Jesus, admission of his own guilt, and a plea for a place in Christ’s kingdom (Luke 23:40-42).
What was it that turned this mocker into a believer? Even if he himself had little prior knowledge of Jesus, the crowd’s taunts supplied him with the information he needed to be saved. Scornful onlookers accused Jesus of being exactly who He was: the King of Israel, the Savior of others, and the Son of God (Matt. 27:42-43). As the condemned man watched and listened, he turned in faith to the only One who could save Him: the One dying for him.
On the hill that day, one man died in his sin, one Man died for sin, and the other was saved out of his sin. There are only two responses to the inevitability of death. We can either accept or reject Christ’s substitutionary payment for our sin. How will you respond?
The thought of dying frightens many people. But believers have no reason to fear. Jesus’ empty tomb proves that there is life after death!
Unbelievers who dread their demise have two different approaches to life. One group piles up wealth, good deeds, or worldly success in the hope of passing it on to their children or to charity. They expect to “live on” in the memories of those who benefit from their hard work. But it is the rare person who’s still remembered a few generations later. And none truly live on.
The other group chooses to laugh in the face of death. Their philosophy is “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). Their existence seems pleasurable from the outside, but can you imagine a more futile way to live? God does not intend for us to go through life with such meaninglessness.
Here’s the key to significance: fulfilling our unique, God-given, eternal purpose. In this life, we do not labor to leave a physical legacy or waste our days pursuing pleasure. Instead, we help those in need, influence our culture, and reach out to the lost. And when a believer enters the heavenly place Jesus has prepared, he or she keeps on working for Him.
For the believer, death is not a fearsome end. It is the doorway to a new life of serving the Lord in heaven. Our days on earth are just the beginning of our existence. This time will seem like only a few minutes compared to an eternity spent in His presence.
In ancient Israel, the priests were continually offering sacrifices to atone for the people’s sins. Specifically, the high priest annually entered the most sacred room in the temple to prepare a sacrifice that would absolve the whole nation of sin for that year. This room, the Holy of Holies, was where God’s Spirit dwelled in those days.
Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection changed the process. He became the High Priest, and the sacrifice was His own life—an offering powerful enough to pay the sin-debt of all mankind.
Through Jesus’ one offering, He made holy any person who trusts in Him as Savior. He does not have to die every year. And unlike the Jewish priests who could enter God’s presence only once annually, Jesus sat down at His Father’s right hand, to remain in His holy presence forever. There, Christ continues the work of a high priest by interceding on behalf of believers when Satan accuses them.
God recognized that in our humanity, we’d remain weak even after being born again (John 3:3), so His rescue plan extends beyond pardoning our sins. He also sends His Holy Spirit to indwell every Christian. That means the Helper is always present to guide us in making wise, righteous decisions.
The Father’s redemption plan meets all of mankind’s needs. Jesus Christ offered a perfect sacrifice to cover our every sin, and now He continues to intercede on our behalf. At the same time, the indwelling Holy Spirit molds us into holy creatures while helping us to avoid temptation.
A great many people believe falsely in purgatory—a miserable place where people supposedly go after death. In order to advance to heaven, a person supposedly must either suffer long enough to make restitution for his or her sins or be prayed out by loved ones still living. The doctrine is an unbiblical lie, because purgatory is a thinly veiled second chance for people to get into heaven.
There is not a single verse with which to defend the false theology of purgatory. In fact, the very idea of a second route to heaven runs counter to God’s redemptive plan. Jesus Christ was the substitute for you and me, and His death paid our sin-debt. He obtained our eternal redemption with His blood (Heb. 9:12). If there is a place where people can go to suffer for their own sins—in other words, pay their own penalty—then God sending His Son to die makes no sense.
In John 14:2, Jesus told the disciples that He was going away to prepare a place for His followers. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any mention of a detour into misery where we “earn” a pass into heaven. The Bible says that believers are either at home in the body, or absent from it and present with the Lord. There is simply no in-between stopover.
I respect the right to believe as one chooses. However, I have a responsibility to present biblical truth. Those who reject Christ get no second chance after death. They are eternally separated from God. But whoever receives salvation is completely forgiven of all sin and guaranteed an eternity with Him.
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