Fit for the Kingdom

Eight letters – two words – the singular call of Jesus Christ to us all is a simple one: Follow me. What that following actually means, the price required to accomplish it – now that is another story entirely.

Luke 9 ends with a unique story of Jesus’ interaction with a few would-be followers. As he and the disciples traveled from one village to another, a man approached the group and volunteered for service. “Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.” Instead of a “come along and let’s have a good time!” response – Jesus pretty abruptly said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”

To another Jesus issued the invitation, “Follow me.” This time, the unexpected answer came from the would-be recruit: “Let me go first go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their dead, but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” 

Then there was another volunteer, “Lord, I will follow thee…only let me go say goodbye to the people who are at home at my house.” To him, Jesus said, “No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, conveyed Luke’s story this way:

On the road someone asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said. 

Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.” 

Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” 

He said, “Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father’s funeral.”

Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!”

Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.”

Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.”

These men wanted to be a part of Jesus’ kingdom. We don’t know the final chapter of any of their stories. We do know that with each of them Jesus shared a key to spiritual fitness. Just as the human body requires food, water, rest, and exercise – there are certain daily requirements for spiritual fitness. 

To the first one when he said, “Foxes have holes…birds have nests…” He was making clear that there are no guarantees of physical comfort in following Him. Cross-carrying can be back-breaking and heart-rending. You cannot be Kingdom-minded if your mind is set on self-preservation. The commitment to follow Jesus is a commitment to forsake the comfortable in favor of the Comforter.

To the second he said, “Let the dead bury the dead” – but went on to say, “Go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” The message here is not the seemingly heartless command of “Let the dead bury the dead” but the importance of preaching the kingdom. It’s an instruction to not spend your time and energy on things that cannot be changed. 

To the third He shared the importance of the future and power of a forgiven past. Fitness for the kingdom comes by putting your hand to the plough – and going to work in the harvest field of God. 

In the writings of Paul to Timothy we find first the instruction to “Fight the good fight of faith…” Then, as Paul’s life was nearing its end, he summarized his days by saying, “I have found a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith…” Take the gh out of fight and you have fit. Take the “a” and “h” out of faith and it is fit – And only the fit finish.

Jesus’ reference, according to Luke, was to a man having placed his hand – not his heart – to the plough. Sometimes sheer determination makes us hold on to the plough when our heart isn’t there. Hold on! Before you finish the course – your heart will always follow your hand. Just stay fit! 

Molded by God

“The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels.” (Jeremiah 18:1-3)

The story is told in Jeremiah. The Lord instructed the prophet to go to the potter’s house and observe the potter at work. An interesting phrase is used in Jeremiah’s account of the reason God gave the instruction: “…I will cause thee to hear my words.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances of life that cause us to intensely listen for the voice of God. Intentionally and intently we allow the other voices and noises of life to fade and wait to hear from Him. There are other times that the noise of the circumstance drowns out everything else and God must “cause” us to listen.

Sometimes He must give us illustrated lessons, such as He did here with Jeremiah. When God wants to teach you faithfulness, He will take you through something to give you the opportunity to learn its definition. There is a vast difference between knowing something and learning it. You can know something in your head, but it is only when you “learn your lesson” that it becomes a part of your heart. When you bring knowing to learning, you bring the lesson into the living level of your personal experience. God doesn’t want us just to know; He wants us to learn.

God takes us through life experiences that turn words into lessons learned. The word of the Lord to Jeremiah was to go to the potter’s house. When Jeremiah got there, he saw something. What he saw became a word from the Lord to Him. Often it depends on what you are looking for whether you will hear the word of the Lord.

“Then I went down to the Potter’s house and behold he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.”

At first glance, this probably seemed quite ordinary to the old prophet. I have personally visited in the mid-east and have watched potters working the clay in the old-time way. I’ve seen them carefully form a vase then perceive some flaw with their fingertips that I as a casual observer could not detect. The next thing I knew the clay was crushed on the wheel, and the potter began again his painstaking work. 

The prophet was lamenting about Israel and their situation. Arise, Jeremiah, and go face reality. God said, “Let me show you the root of the problem” and took him to watch again something he had no doubt been seeing since he was just a boy. It was something so basic and primary. A potter. A wheel. Clay.

It is dangerous to get away from the basics of God, to forget in the froth and foam of life, what is real. The real issues of life are not on the peripheral edges of things.Sometimes it is necessary for God to take us back to the basics. What Jeremiah was about to learn was that sometimes God works in circles.

Have you ever gotten caught in one of God’s eddies? Israel marched around the same mountain for forty years until they learned what God wanted them to learn. It was a difference between knowing and learning. Once it was learned God released them – once the old Egyptian flesh died and was buried, He set them free from their trek around the mountain. Have you ever felt like you were marching round and round your own mountain? I could give guided tours!

It’s monotonous. And it is very, very dangerous. It is easy to get disillusioned with the routine, the sameness of it, and try to make something happen. Spiritual vertigo can be destructive. Most of our walking with God is routine. It is not spectacular. It is not fireworks and awe-inspiring displays. It is the slow steady burn of a single flame. The power of routine is what saved Daniel. He prayed every day. He didn’t pray more in crisis; he didn’t pray less in ease. His prayer neither sped up nor slowed down the process. 

In a strikingly familiar passage, the Prophet wrote, “They that wait upon the Lord…” (Isaiah 40:31)…shall do what? Notice the “progression” in that passage is reverse of what we ordinarily think. He said “mount up with wings as eagles” then “run and not be weary” then “walk and not faint.” We want to start walking, then accelerate to a run, then take wing and fly. God says, “No, that’s not My way. You may start off flying, then you’ll come down to running, but most of the time you’ll be walking.” It’s consecrated plodding. One foot in front of the other. That’s not to say there will not be those high-flying, ecstatic experiences. It is just that they are the exception not the rule. Where you finally end up is in the very basic skill of walking with God.

Each generation must experience God for themselves. God has no grandchildren. Our children can inherit our organizations, our finances, our buildings. They cannot inherit our experience with God. The foundational structure of the Kingdom remains firm and must be learned by each succeeding generation, as they embark upon building a structure for their generation.

God started out as a potter in the Garden of Eden. He formed man out of clay. He knows more about the pottery business and the pottery process than anyone. He commanded Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house for the purpose of learning a lesson. So Jeremiah went. He watched the potter put the clay on the wheel. He watched as the potter molded it and shaped it into some type of vessel. Then he watched as the vessel was marred and the potter had to start the process over again. 

The wheel was willing. The potter was willing. But the power to become was in whether or not the clay would yield to what the master potter had in mind. When the vessel was marred, it was not the fault of the wheel. It was doing what it was supposed to be doing. We cannot blame the potter. The potter is experienced and highly skilled. He knows what he is doing. The power was in the clay.

The difference between mud and a vase is the clay. From mud ball to vessel of usefulness, the power is in the clay whether to yield to the design that is in the Master’s mind. In Jeremiah 29:11, the Lord said, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you…to give you an expected end.” One translation says, “…a bright future and hope…” 
God did not just fling you out in the nebulous of life and forget you. He has a plan for you. He has a will for your life. He doesn’t play divine games of hide-and-seek. We are not pawns on some cosmic sacred chess board.

Too often we think the will of God is an elusive thing. I personally believe that He wants to make His will known to us sometimes even more desperately than we claim to be seeking to know His will. 

God will always give you the best if you leave the choice to Him. What we must do is bring our human mind and its frailties into submission to the mind of God. The divine mind and the human mind bring the flesh, the clay, under control. “Not my will, but thine be done” is the prayer of a surrendered mind, heart, and will. It is the cry of moldable clay. It is the power cry of human surrender to divine intervention.

Integrity

The American Heritage Dictionary lists the following entry for integrity:

in-teg-ri-ty (¹n-te-g“r¹-t¶) n. 1. Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code. See Synonyms at honesty. 2. The state of being unimpaired; soundness. 3. The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.

The synonyms for the word include other words like honesty, honor, honorableness, incorruptability, uprightness, moral soundness, virtue, purity, morality.

It’s a disappearing art in our world, I’m afraid. Where are the men and women of Christian integrity? A study of the scriptures will remind us all of the importance of this very important trait. 

The word integrity occurs in the scripture 16 times in 16 different verses. The word translated “integrity” in the old testament is one of two words, derived from the same origin: 

tom, tome – completeness; fig. prosperity; usually (mor.) innocence:–full, integrity, perfect (-ion), simplicity, upright (-ly, -ness), at a venture.

tamam, taw-mam’; a prim. root; to complete;in a good or a bad sense, lit. or fig.,trans.or intrans. (as follows): –accomplish, cease, be clean [pass-] ed, consume, have done, (come to an, make an) end, fail, come to the full, be all gone,
be all here, be (make) perfect, be spent, sum, be (shew self)
upright, be wasted, whole.

tummah, toom-maw’; innocence:–integrity.

It was first used in Genesis 20 with regard to Abimelech dealing with Abraham and Sarah. You remember the story – that Abraham and Sarah agreed to deceive Abimelech and tell him Sarah was Abraham’s sister rather than his wife. Abimelech said, “In the integrity of my heart and the innocency of my hands…” And the Lord said, “Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me:” (Genesis 20:5-6).

We need men and women like Abimilech of old who can keep integrity not just in their behavior but in their hearts. Integrity of heart kept his hands innocent. 

In I Kings 9 – the Lord promised Solomon, “And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel.”

Then when the Lord and Satan were discussing Job – in Job 2:3 – “And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.”

Again in Job, the word his wife used was integrity – “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.” Those closest to him – his wife and children – those who know him best, who love him most – even they would use the word integrity to describe him.

And at the end of Job’s saga – Job 27:5-6 – Job said, “God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live” and then in Job 31 – “Let me be weighed in an even balance that God may know mine integrity.”

Integrity was the cry of David’s heart in the Psalms:

Psalm 7:8 – “The LORD shall judge the people: judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness, and according to mine integrity that is in me.”

Psalm 25:21 – “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; for I wait on thee.”

Psalm 26:1 – “Judge me, O LORD; for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the LORD; therefore I shall not slide.”

Psalm 26:11 – “But as for me, I will walk in mine integrity: redeem me, and be merciful unto me.”

Psalm 41:12 – “And as for me, thou upholdest me in mine integrity, and settest me before thy face for ever.”

Psalm 78:72 – “So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.”

The Wise Man of Proverbs made three references to integrity:

Proverbs 11:3 – “The integrity of the upright shall guide them…”

Proverbs 19:1 – “Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity, than he that is perverse in his lips, and is a fool.”

Proverbs 20:7 – “The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him.”

Let us commit ourselves anew to being men and women of integrity. Let us walk in integrity, talk with integrity, and live life in such a way that like the Psalmist David we can say, “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me…” and like Solomon we can be guided by “the integrity of the upright.”

Emmanuel!

Perhaps one of the most profound messages of the Scripture is tucked away in a single verse in Matthew. At this time of the year, the Christmas message is adorned with ribbons and lights and candles and carols. Yet, the real message of Christmas is an eternal one. It is the story of a promise fulfilled in a baby boy on a Bethlehem night over 2000 years ago.

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

Have you ever really thought about that? God with us! God is not just standing near. He is not in a lofty heavenly place where even a split second is needed for Him to come to us. He is with us! An old song says it well, “He’s as close as the mention of His name.”

The message of Christmas is simple: We are not alone. You are not alone. I am not alone. He is with us. God Himself, robed in flesh, walked among men and women from an infant to full manhood. Three days after what looked to be a tragic end became a triumphant victory as He came forth from the grave alive forevermore. And what He purchased for us with His coming – with His death, His burial, and His resurrection – is the promise that we are not alone and never will be. He Himself said, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Some folks may assume the “amen” was for the end of the book – but maybe it was to make us realize that He is with us to the end of the world – and there is nothing after that we need to know. There are no “if, ands, or buts” about it. He is with us always – even unto the end – period. It finishes there.

As our country stands on the brink of war and there is an uneasiness in all of us as the threat of terrorists acts have been brought to home to American soil, we are not alone – He is Emmanuel, God with us. 

As the holidays come and in the midst of hustling and bustling days of parties and preparations and all sorts of activities, even then, we are not alone. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

In the quiet hospital room, the silence broken only by the steady beep of the various machines that our monitoring a life – there He is – Emmanuel, God with us.

In the classroom, full of boisterous children, anxiously anticipating the holiday vacation – the teacher looking forward to a few days of rest – He is there – Emmanuel, God with us.
Going about the business of the day, pushing a vacuum cleaner, dusting, cleaning, cooking – the solitary housewife may not always be aware of the Christmas gift she possesses all year long. She is not alone. He is there – Emmanuel, God with us.
In the hallowed halls of corporate America – from the mail room busy-ness to the corporation president’s plush office – and everywhere in between – we are not alone. He is there – Emmanuel, God with us.

On the construction site in a city – on the back forty acres of a rural farm – wherever humankind is – He is there – Emmanuel, God with us.

And, in the midst of the holiday madness that Christmas has become for some, He is there, too. He is Emmanuel, God with us. 

Several years ago, Max Lucado, a prolific Christian writer of our time, wrote the following about the Christmas story. I close this article with his words – to remind us – that He is God with us – and that He keeps His promises!

…In reality, that particular moment was like none other. For through that segment of time a spectacular thing occurred. God became a man. While the creatures of earth walked unaware, Divinity arrived. Heaven opened herself and placed her most precious one in a human womb.

The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl.

God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created.

God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother.

God had come near…
For thirty-three years he would feel everything you and I have ever felt. He felt weak. He grew weary. He was afraid of failure. He was susceptible to wooing women. He got colds, burped, and had body odor. His feelings got hurt. His feet got tired. And his head ached.

To think of Jesus in such a light is——well, it seems almost irreverent, doesn’t it? It’s not something we like to do; it’s uncomfortable. It is much easier to keep the humanity out of the incarnation. Clean the manure from around the manger. Wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Pretend he never snored or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer.

He’’s easier to stomach that way. There is something about keeping him divine that keeps him distant, packaged, predictable.

But don’t do it. For heaven’s sake, don’t. Let him be as human as he intended to be. Let him into the mire and muck of our world. For only if we let him in can he pull us out.

Listen to him.

“Love your neighbor” was spoken by a man whose neighbors tried to kill him.

The challenge to leave family for the gospel was issued by one who kissed his mother goodbye in the doorway.

“Pray for those who persecute you” came from the lips that would soon be begging God to forgive his murderers.

“I am with you always” are the words of a God who in one instant did the impossible to make it all possible for you and me.

It all happened in a moment. In one moment……a most remarkable moment. The Word became flesh.

There will be another. The world will see another instantaneous transformation. You see, in becoming man, God made it possible for man to see God. When Jesus went home he left the back door open. As a result, “we will all be changed——in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”

He is Emmanuel, God with us. And someday, perhaps sooner than any of us can imagine, we will be with Him!

Thanksgiving

The year was 1621. The season was fall. Winter was again approaching. It seemed that just a few months before the most terrible of winters had been endured. Scores of babies, children, young people, and adults had starved to death. Many of the Pilgrims were to the point that they were ready even to go to England. They climbed into a ship and were in that harbor heading back to England, ready to give up. Then it happened. They saw another ship coming their way. On that ship was a French man named Delaware. On that ship with Delaware were medical supplies, some food, and as one writer put it “enough hope to go back and try to live in the midst of their adverse sufferings.” These are the people who gathered for the first Thanksgiving. Dangers lurked everywhere. The weather was brutal. Their inexperience and lack of expertise in this strange new land was frustrating to say the least. Yet, nothing was allowed to obscure the blessings of God.

John Henry Jowett, a British preacher of an earlier generation said this about gratitude: “Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.” What did he mean? He meant that gratitude, like a vaccine can prevent the invasion of a disgruntled, discouraged spirit. Like an antitoxin, gratitude can prevent the affects of the poisons of cynicism, criticalness, and grumbling. Like an antiseptic, a spirit of gratitude can soothe and heal the most troubled spirit.

It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand. That forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of our dependence on God, is at least partially self-centered. We hope to gain something by our prayer. But the backward-looking act of thanksgiving is selfless. It is akin to love. All our love to God is in response to His love for us; it never starts on our side. I John 4 states clearly that we love because He loved us first. Gratitude is from the same root word as “grace,” which signifies the free and boundless mercy of God. Thanksgiving is from the same root word as “think” so to think is to thank.

Thankfulness – gratitude – is a skill that is developed. And, as with any other skill, “practice makes perfect.” The more grateful you are, the more things you will find for which to be grateful. Sometimes it is good for us to be thankful for losses. As one writer said, “Everyone of us is more blessed than we are hurt.”

The story is told of Matthew Henry, author of one of the foremost Biblical commentaries. He was attacked by thieves and robbed. He wrote in his diary: “Let me be thankful. First, I was never robbed before. Second, although they took my purse, they didn’t take my life. Third, although they took my all, it was not much. Fourth, let me be thankful because it was I who was robbed and not I who did the robbing.”

We may acknowledge our Divine Provider over the roast and mashed potatoes, but how often are we deliberately thankful for the water from our taps? The wood for our houses and our furniture? The paper for our books and napkins and note pads? The brick and metal and fabric and countless other materials we use and enjoy? God through nature made them all possible. We would do well to remember.

Author David Seamands shared the following story in a Christian periodical: Back in the very early thirties, William Stidger was seated one day with a group of friends in a restaurant. Everyone was talking about the depression: how terrible it was, the suffering people, rich people committing suicide, the jobless, the whole thing. The conversation became more and more miserable as it went on. A minister in the group suddenly broken in and said, “I don’t know what I”m going to do, because in two or three weeks I have to preach a sermon on Thanksgiving Day. I want to say something affirmative. What can I say that’s affirmative in a period of world depression like this?” As the minister spoke, Stidger said it was like the Spirit of God spoke to him: “Why don’t you give thanks to those people who have been a blessing in your life and affirm them during this terrible time?”

He began to think about that. The thought came to his mind of a schoolteacher very dear to him, a wonderful teacher of poetry and English literature from years ago who had gone out of her way to put a great love of literature and verse in him. It affected all his writings and his preaching. So he sat down and wrote a letter to this woman, now up in years. It was only a matter of days until he got a reply in the feeble scrawl of the aged. “My Dear Willy.” At that time he was about 50 years of age, bald – and no one had called him Willy for a long time, so just the opening sentence warmed his heart. Here’s the gist of the letter:

“My Dear Willy: I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of autumn lingering behind. You’ll be interested to know that I taught in school for more than fifty years, and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered me as nothing has done in many years.”

Stidger noted, “I’m not sentimental, but I found myself weeping over that note.” He then thought of a kindly bishop, now retired. He was an old man who had recently faced the death of his wife and was all alone. This bishop had taken a lot of time, given him advice and counsel and love when he first began his ministry. So he sat down and wrote the old bishop. In two days a reply came back.

“My Dear Will: Your letter was so beautiful, so real, that as I sat reading it in my study, tears fell from my eyes, tears of gratitude. Before I realized what I was doing, I rose from my chair and I called her name to share it with her, forgetting she was gone. You’ll never know how much your letter has warmed my spirit. I have been walking around in the glow of your letter all day long.”

So, here’s an idea for you for this holiday season. Set aside a special time to practice “an attitude of gratitude.” Make a list of things you are grateful for. Send someone a thank you note. Call a minister who has influenced your life and express your appreciation. Once you have developed the habit of being thankful you’ll discover more and more ways in which He has blessed and is blessing your life. Henri Nouwen said, “When we bless the fruits of the harvest, let us at least realize that blessed fruits need to be shared. Otherwise, the blessing turns into a curse.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Stories To Tell Your Kids

The scripture holds a serious commandment to parents in Psalms 78: “Tell the generations to come the praises of the Lord – Tell them of His strength and work.” It says don’t hide them from your children. There are things we want our children to know. The Psalmist went on to give some examples – how He opened the sea, how He delivered us from Egypt. Basically He is saying, “Tell the old Bible stories to your children.”
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Freedom in Surrender

To make the statement “There is freedom in surrender”may make some question your logic. The reality of life in Christ’s kingdom is that very often the “foolish things of the world confound the wise” and the weak confound the mighty. The way up is down. The way to live is to die. The way of freedom requires a cross. Surrender to the cross of Christ brings freedom that can only be described as abundant life in Christ.
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The Old Rugged Cross

Jesus never lured his disciples by false advertising. He said things like, “Deny thyself…” – “Take up thy cross….” He once looked at a multitude and said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple…” With terms like that, there was never a stampede to join Him then. There is not likely to be one now.
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Who Do You Love?

In I John 2:15-17, we read this instruction: “Love not the world , neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”
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In The World…Not OF the World

It may sound like a simple question of semantics – grammar – just plain English. Yet “in the world” and “of the world” are two very separate and opposite concepts changing much more than just the prepositions. How can a Christian be in the world – but not of the world? Is it possible to retain our Christian purity and godliness in the midst of this “wicked and perverse generation”?
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