Young people are leaving the church in droves and despite our many attempts to keep them, they continue to fall away. Growing up, my church had more than a hundred kids and teens running through its corridors, but today few of them remain in the church. For some time, many concerned Christians have sought to understand the reasons why young people leave the church. I believe that the answer is simple. They leave because they find no relevance in Christianity and most importantly, they have not fallen in love with God.
Christianity lacks relevance for many young people.To them, being a Christian involves nothing more than following senseless rules and participating in church services that are disconnected from their reality. Ask any teen in church about how they perceive Christianity and nine out of ten will most likely describe to you three things: the church service, good behavior, and telling others about Jesus. While none of these things are wrong, in and of themselves they have no relevance. Teens today are faced with multiple obstacles such as drugs, alcohol, pregnancy, self-mutilation, rising divorce rates, promiscuity, homosexuality and abortion among many other things. So the question is, How does the church service empower them to deal with this? What exactly is good behavior? Is it what the Pastor says? Or is it what society accepts? And why tell others about Jesus when our post-modern culture embraces the philosophy that there is no such thing as truth? When Christianity fails to answer these questions and fails to provide direction and practicality to everyday life, teens begin to see it as unessential to life. This sets the stage for disregarding God altogether and embracing the godless culture of the day. “What’s wrong with godless?” They might subconsciously ask, “God was never that important anyways.”
A friend of mine recently told me a story that I believe illustrates this point very well. He had just returned from a mission trip to Malaysia. During the trip he and several other students had preached to the local people. Among the sermons where many interesting topics, but for one student, as interesting as they were, something was missing. In her attempt to express how she felt she asked the question, “What does this have to do with the price of rice?” This question, silly as it may be, underscores the foundational flaw in our Christianity – irrelevance. In order to keep our teens in church we must demonstrate to them that Christianity is applicable to everyday life and that is has the solution to the problems of our lives.
While many teens leave church because they think it is not important, the greatest reason for falling away is that many have simply never fallen in love with God. In the Bible, the apostle John writes, “We love Him because He first loved us.” The idea is simple, Gods love for us awakens in us a love for Him. That love motivates us to have a relationship with Him. However, in the church we often seem more concerned in teaching our young people how to be good church members instead of helping them fall in love with God. For many, upholding the standards of the church is more important than leading young people to experience the love of God. The end result of this model is catastrophic because it fosters a spirit of division between the old and young generations. The old generation assumes the role of “good behavior police” while the young are left to feel incapable of ever living up to the standards imposed on them.
I once knew a pastor who would never speak to the youth. He had no relationship with them whatsoever and the only time he would speak to them was when he was correcting them for dressing inappropriately in church, and in my experience, having hair that was too long. This is a perfect example of trying to force teens in church to look and act like good church members while avoiding relationships with them that help them to experience the love of God.
Without the two foundational principles of relevance and love, young people are set up to fail in the Christian life. As Christians, leading the youth into a love experience with God and demonstrating to them the relevance of Christianity in our world must be our top priorities.
Pastor Marcos is a millennial Adventist pastor with a passion for Jesus, the narrative of Adventism and the relevancy of the local Adventist church. He pastors in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram. He also blogs weekly at pomopastor.com
The story is told of a man who desperately wanted to share his faith but he was afraid. So he began praying a special prayer to God. "Lord, I'm too scared to tell people about Jesus but if you give me a clear sign that you want me to witness for you, I will! So give me a sign Lord. Amen."
The man felt really good after this prayer. He had just thrown the ball in God's court so from here on out it was up to God to make things happen. So he grabbed his things and jumped on the bus to head to work. That morning the bus was surprisingly empty. At about the third stop a woman dressed in a suit walked in. There were many seats empty, but for some weird reason she sat down right next to where the man of our story was sitting. There was a troubled look on her face, but the man just ignored her. Then suddenly the woman pulled out a Bible and began to read frantically from one side to another as if she had no idea where to even begin. Then, to top it all off she slammed the book shut and yelled at the top of her lungs, "Oh, what must I do to be saved?"
At this the man of our story timidly looked up to heaven and prayed, "Lord, is this a sign that you want me to witness?"
I'm not sure how much more evidence this wise-guy was waiting for, but one thing is clear - witnessing freaked him out to the point that he was still looking for a way out even when it was staring him in the face. And truth be told, this is the primary reason why many Christians never share their faith - or at least struggle to do so. It's awkward, scary, and a bit confronting. And for those who are introverts the struggle can be even worse! But have no fear, below I share with you what I have found to be the introverts awesome guide to sharing your faith. (note: the guide is not just for introverts. Works for everyone.)
Pray for the person you want to share your faith with for a specified period of time. It can be for two weeks, a month, or even longer. Just don't drag it out for too long.
Mingle with the person during that time in non-religious ways. Use this time to either strengthen or to build a trusting relationship. The best way to often do this is to find innocent activities they enjoy and ask them to teach you (note: innocent. Don't ask them to teach you how to puff-puff-pass if that's what they are into).
Serve the person during that time by finding small or perhaps large ways in which you can meet a need of theirs. It could be something as simple as helping them with an assignment or something as big as walking them through relationship drama. And remember, you are simply there to "serve" not "resolve". Stick to the former. The latter could land you in a mess you don't want to be in.
When your specified period of time is up, share your faith with the person by using the following approach:
Tell the person you have been praying for them. That's it. Its that simple. And in my experience I have never had anyone, even the most non-religious, get angry or defensive about this. I'm not saying it can't happen, but it would be really rare. At this point all you are doing is saying something like "Hey, I just wanted you to know that I try to pray often and recently I have been praying for you." Once you have said this just gauge their reaction. If they are thankful or open then go on to the next step. If they seem weirded out or standoffish then back off and set a new time limit to pray for them. When the new time limit ends, remind them you have been praying for them and then go on to the next step.
Ask them if there is anything specific they would like you to pray for. You can do this simply by saying, "I love praying for other people. Is there anything specific I could ask for when I pray for you?" Note: Don't say "Let me know if there is anything I can pray for..." Most people will take this as a rain check and never actually tell you anything.
Follow up on their requests. Sincerely pray for their request and follow up from time to time. Don't be annoying! Just be natural and sincere. Ask God to reveal himself to them via their request and then ask them how its going.
Invite them to a non-churchy church event. Once you have been doing this for some time you will be able to gauge if the person is spiritually keen or not. Either way, plan a non-churchy event with friends from church and invite them. This could be a barbecue, a day at the beach, or a movie night. Whatever it is, make sure whoever attends this event knows to avoid discussions and topics that could scare a visitor away from ever coming to church.
Ask them about their faith journey. This next step doesn't have to come before or after the previous one, but ask it when it seems natural to do so. Simply ask them about their faith journey. Don't ask them to debate or argue. Just ask them to truly hear and learn. Show sincere interest in them and be understanding.
Share your own. Once they have shared their faith journey with you, kindly ask them if you could share your own. Then simply tell them your story and why Jesus means so much to you. Don't try and convert them, just share with them why Jesus means so much to you. Use this as an opportunity to gently challenge their worldview, but don't allow the discussion to turn into an argument or all is lost. Depending on their reaction you could even take a step forward and invite them to a visitor-friendly event at your church.
That's it guys! Pretty simple hey? Give it a shot and see how you go. Remember that you are praying through this entire process and never forget that its not your job to convert anyone. Even if you never get any response keep loving. Love is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. So don't be loving because you want a conversion. Be loving just because. Let the Holy Spirit worry about the rest. Note: This post was originally published at: livingstonsda.church/livo-blog
Pastor Marcos is a millennial Adventist pastor with a passion for Jesus, the narrative of Adventism and the relevancy of the local Adventist church. He pastors in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram. He also blogs weekly at pomopastor.com
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." - 1 Cor. 11:1
I have often felt as though, in our attempts at humility, we try and minimize the role we play in the lives of others. Preachers can often be heard asking Jesus to "hide" them "beneath the shadow of the cross" or saying “it wasn't me, it was Christ.” I have no problem with this outlook. It certainly is commendable in that it seeks to glorify God and not man. However, I think we often run the danger of being “hyper-humble” by pretending that we have absolutely no role whatsoever in the work of the gospel. The reality is that no matter how much we ask God to hide us beneath the shadow of the cross we will still be visible and no matter how much we give the credit to God people will remember our faces. Paul did not seem to shy away from that. He did not say, “don’t look at me, it’s all about Jesus” instead he said, “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Paul recognized that it was not about him, and yet he was there. He could not ignore the fact that others saw him and that he mattered in the work of the gospel. Had Paul been hyper-humble as some are today, rather than honor God, he would have damaged his witness. Likewise, I believe Christians should not be afraid to be seen, heard, and recognized. It is through our personalities, characters, and stories that Jesus is lifted up. Jesus is not glorified in spite of us as though we were just an unfortunate tool he had to use. He is glorified because of us and he finds great joy in partnering with us and using our individuality for his glory. When we attempt to hide our individual worth and value under the guise of humility, we are not really honoring God. Instead, we are allowing our insecurities to prevent Gods work in and through us from shining forth. I once heard of a church that had a huge cross in front of the pulpit so that when the preacher spoke all that was seen was the cross and not the speaker. As noble as this may sound it missed the real beauty of the gospel. The beauty of the gospel is not simply in the cross but in what the cross has done and continues to do, and that can only be seen in people. It is through our stories, testimonies, and personalities that the power of the cross and of the savior is fully recognized. So let’s be humble and always be careful to lift Jesus up and give him all the praise. But let’s also be careful to not go to extremes by acting as though we don’t matter. God didn’t commission angels to preach the gospel, neither does he do it alone. He commissioned women and men to do so because he recognized that it was through their lives, personalities, characters, stories and smiles that he would reach the world.
Have you ever been so angry that you did something dumb? I got so angry once that I punched the steering wheel on my car and broke the horn. From that day on the horn would honk on its own whenever it wanted to. It didn't matter if I was at a stop light, in a parking lot, or driving down the university campus on a clam Sunday morning. The car would honk and honk and honk until I got so fed up I pulled the fuse and was left utterly hornless. The car died soon after, so no, I never got it fixed.
As I think about this moment of ridiculous anger I am reminded of Jesus in Matthews biography, chapter 21. Here Matthew recounts the time that Jesus went into the Jewish temple and the following took place:
Jesus came to the temple. He drove out all those who were buying and selling. He upended the money-changers’ tables and the dove-sellers’ benches (12).
We don't often think of Jesus as an angry guy and with good reason. It's hard to imagine him with a whip, flipping tables and chasing people around. And yet here he is. Jesus is angry. To be more precise he is furious. Some may even say Jesus has lost his cool. There is a fire in his stomach, a rage that boiled over and is now spilling out onto the onlookers. Gone is that gentle, pensive face. A frown adorns his brow, his breath is heavy, his heart is thumping, his thoughts are racing. Instinct takes over and Jesus, our gentle Jesus, appears to have lost control.
But he hasn't lost control. Had Jesus lost control he would have destroyed that entire temple and everyone in it. In his fury and power he could have split open the ground to swallow the entire place. No, he hasn't lost control. He knows what he is doing. He is perfectly in control.
And yet, he is beyond furious. Why? How is it that the one whom the OT describes as "slow to anger" now suddenly appears very quick to it? How is it that the one whom the prophecies have described as the "prince of peace" is now waging war with the salesmen in the temple courtyard? How is it that the Jesus who would someday patiently endure abuse, mockery, and torture at the hands of Roman and Jewish leaders is on this day seemingly impatient? How is it that the one of who it is said, "as a lamb he was led to the slaughter... and he opened not his mouth" now shouts at the top of his lungs "get out!" You can try to wiggle out of this one all you want but here is the truth. Jesus got angry. And there is no interpretive gymnastics that can get us out of that conclusion.
In other words, Jesus is not the teddy bear many of us have made him out to be. There is a side to Jesus that is shocking. There is a side to Jesus that doesn't come with a smile, a gentle word, or a cool and collected vibe. Instead, Matthew introduces us to a side to Jesus many of us would rather pretend is not there - an angry side.
What are we to make of this? Is Jesus bipolar? Is he perhaps mildly schizophrenic? Did his biographers get confused and introduce a contradiction into the story? Or was Jesus a really good actor - able to put on a facade of gentleness and self control, only to show his true colors on this random day? Or maybe, just maybe, there is nothing wrong with Jesus mental health, his biographers were not inconsistent, and Jesus himself lived authentically. If this is the case then the problem shifts to me. Maybe I am the one who has misunderstood Jesus. And by misunderstanding him I have presented a cheesy and unrealistic picture of a complex and emotional being. Maybe the problem is I have only accepted the parts of the Jesus-story that I am comfortable with and conveniently left the other parts out. But whatever the case, I can't get away from the conclusion. Jesus got angry.
Now that I have come to terms with that reality, I am left with another question. Why was he so angry? Was Jesus short-tempered like me? Was his ego so offended that he reacted in a fit of anger that puts my broken car horn episode to shame? I have already concluded that he did not lose control as I did. So the answer must lie elsewhere. If Jesus anger was not fueled by his ego, then what was it fueled by?
The answer is found in the narrative of the temple. In his book "It's Not What You Think: Why Christianity is about More than Going to Heaven when you Die" Jefferson Bethke points out that in the Old Testament the temple was considered the place where heaven and earth met. In other words, Bethke explains, it was the place where the human dimension and the heavenly dimension collided. If we could imagine two circles with one representing the human realm and another the heavenly, and then we overlapped those circles (below) the point of overlap, says Bethke, is the temple.
But what was the point of this overlap? What was the point of this collision? God himself answers that question when he said, "Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them" (Exodus 25:8). The temple in Israel was not just a place of worship, it was a theater of sorts. All of its services and rituals were like scenes in a movie. It told a story. That story was simple: God wants to live with people. He wants to be close to us.
So when people came to the temple, they didn't come for mindless rituals. They came to connect with a God who wanted to be with them. They came to speak to a God who wanted to be close to them, to bless them, and to heal them. They came to discover and rediscover his beauty and his love.
And then Jesus, the eternal God in human flesh, shows up. He who spoke the words, "Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them" is now there, in person. And when he walks into the temple, when he enters the place where heaven and earth collided and where his story, and his glory, and his love where meant to be experienced and celebrated this is what he found:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money (John 2:13-14).
So Matthew tells us that Jesus "drove out all those who were buying and selling. He upended the money-changers’ tables and the dove-sellers’ benches." But then something amazing happens. Something that single handedly makes sense of all of this. Matthew adds,
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them (14).
So Jesus cleanses the temple, but no sooner had he done so than blind people, and paralyzed people show up at the same temple. But here is the question Matthew dangles before us. Why weren't these people already there? The answer is obvious. They were being excluded and kept away by the money makers. In other words, God was trying to tell the world about himself, his love, his plan, his grace. And his own people were getting in the way.
The Jewish temple no longer exists. But Jefferson Bethke brings an interesting conclusion out of all this. He says that according to the New Testament we are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. Us. Believers. Individually and collectively, we are now the temple. In other words, we are the place where heaven and earth collide. You are a walking temple. You are a living and breathing temple and in you and in me the human realm and the heavenly realm meet. And in the same way that God wanted to communicate his love to the world through a physical building in the OT, he continues to do so now through us, individually and collectively, via the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. We are the place where people can see the beauty of God.
And yet the story of Jesus cleansing the temple brings to mind a sobering question: If we are the temple, if we are as believers the place where heaven and earth meet and the lives through which people can come into contact with Gods story of love then we must ask ourselves, What things are there in our lives and in our church that keep people from seeing the love of God? In what ways are you, and I, like the money makers, getting in God's way?
I can't pretend to have the answer. There are many answers in fact. Sometimes our traditions get in the way. Sometimes our self-confidence gets in the way. Sometimes our attitudes get in the way. Sometimes our structures, agendas, and hypocrisy get in the way. And Matthews story is clear. When we get in the way you had best believe that God gets angry. This is not light matter. The one time Jesus demonstrated his wrath as a human being was when his own people got in the way of his salvation story. Are we getting in the way? If we are, I think perhaps its time we repented.
Today I would like to invite you to consider Jesus moment of rage as a call to introspection: How are you getting in the way? I want to invite you to think about the ways in which you are contributing, whether largely or microscopically, to getting in the way of others seeing the story of the love of God that they should see in you, in me, and in us. But here is the beautiful thing. Once you discover it you don't have to be afraid. Because according to Matthew Jesus is not only a cleanser he is also a healer. Let him cleanse you of the stuff that gets in the way, and let him heal you. Come to him poor, blind, and naked. Come to him paralyzed with guilt and shame. Come to him as you are with all your broken mess. With your pride. With your selfishness. With your divisiveness. Come to him with your lack of faith and with your hidden sins and struggles. Let him cleanse you, let him heal you, and then let him fill you so that others may find in you a place where heaven and earth collide.
Mo is a pretty cool dude. I don't say super cool because, after all, he is my brother and so pretty cool will have to do. (I'm sure such a "theorem" would be reciprocated by a hearty "my sentiments exactly" on his part.) Anyhow, the point is he's pretty cool. Now Candice, my special lady, is awesome. This awesome lady of mine was clever enough to plot a secret reunion between my pretty cool brother and my pretty cool self. She said it was a surprise to celebrate my recent liberation from the tyranny of biblical languages (I just recently finished my last ancient Greek class), but I'm sure having my mother in town for a visit had more to do with it. Now onto my main point. Mo and I were raised Seventh-day Adventists all of our life. At the age of 17 I decided to follow Jesus. Mo went a different direction and has stuck to it ever since. For many years I have wondered why he walked away from the faith of his youth. Being highly intelligent, scientific, and analytical would have been a challenge for him especially when my father rejected his scientific explanation of where the wind came from and instead insisted, very dogmatically of course, that God had a room in heaven with wind trapped inside. Whenever he wanted the wind to blow he would open the door. Whenever he wanted it to not blow he would shut it. Though I have no proof of this, I wonder if Mo's brilliant mind wrestled with such an irrational concept thus planting the seed for a growing discontent with Christianity. Regardless of what reason (or perhaps reasons) led Mo out of the church one thing is certain: his experience was, to be quite generous, bitter. You see, Mo and I share a craving for authenticity that we acquired from our culture. We want answers, not cliches. We want truth, not opinion. We want a faith that is logical and rational - free from fanaticism, phobias, and unreasonable superstitions. We want Bible not dogma and traditions. We want relationship not religion. And most of all, we want honest and open dialogue not absurd, irrelevant, and simpleminded solutions. Authenticity. That is what we crave. And that is what the church failed to give. You see, Mo grew up in a church culture that told him it was bad to go to the movie theater even though we could go to the elders house and watch mindless killing and gore. It was OK, was the message, so long as it is in a house. But don't go to the theater! Your angel wont follow you in there and if you die there you will go to hell. Irrational anyone? Mo grew up in a church that told his lady friends it was bad to wear pants to church, or anything too revealing for that matter, even though every Saturday night half of the members were glued to the infamous Sabado Gigante game-show with half naked women parading their curves on the TV screen for all the choir singers, elders, and deacons to enjoy. Hypocritical anyone? Mo grew up in a church where the leaders were only concerned with whether or not you were a good church member. Do you cry yourself to sleep at night because you are lonely and depressed? We don't care. Just make sure you don't let your hair grow too long and you have a tie on when you show up on Sabbath. Absurd anyone? Yes, Mo grew up in a church where the leaders spoke to you when you were in trouble and ignored you the rest of the time. A church that wanted to erase him from membership because he joined the Army even though not a single one of those involved in this proposition had ever sent him a letter of encouragement or called him to offer a prayer. A church where lack of biblical knowledge prompted an "Ellen White said" that was supposed to settle the issue once and for all. A church steeped in simple-mindedness, irrationality, and flat out extremism at times. For a mind craving authenticity, I conclude that the phonyness was simply too much to bear and the highways and by ways of the world, complete with their own set of phonyness, somehow seemed more fulfilling than the dictatorial corridors of his childhood faith. This, I believe, is how the church failed Mo. This, I believe, is how it fails so many of its youth. It is not because it lacks entertainment. It is because it lacks authenticity. It is not because it lacks programs. It is because it lacks relationships. It is not because it lacks answers. It is because it lacks questions and somehow marginalizes those who seem to have many of them. Yet over the years I have come to shed many of the absurd and nonsensical standards of my upbringing and have come to discover a simpler yet infinitely more complex relationship with God. With all of the cultural baggage that my traditional Hispanic culture brought to Christianity gone I can now see Jesus and his love much clearer than ever before. I no longer believe that a true Christian is only the one who fits into my brand of Christianity. I have met wonderful Christians who are covered in tattoos, who enjoy the bouncy feel of dread locks, and who go to church without a tie on. I have experienced Hawaiians who worship God in Hula shirts and flip-flops. I have experienced theologians who enjoy sporting a fro-hawk. I have experienced Jesus among the real, the genuine, and the broken. I have experienced doubts and wrestled with them. I have come to realize that God, the multiplex deity of the cosmos, is paradoxically simple. He invites me to have a relationship with him and to let my life be an outflow of that relationship. As Jesus once said,
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." - Matthew 22: 37-39.
And as my friend Amir Davis once said, "Do the Ten. Love God. Love Men. Take care of your body. And live your life. That's all God requires of you." It really is that simple. I wonder where Mo wouldbe today if the church had focused on Jesus' words more than they focused on their own traditional discomforts? What if they had loved the culture instead of demonized it? What if they had shown us a God who cannot be caged, the wild lion of the heavens who cannot be controlled, and taught us to live on the edge with him? What if they had embraced questions? What if they had let go of the pretensions and gone on the journey of doubt, struggle, and pain? What if they stopped misusing Ellen White? What if they had forgotten the opinions of men and taught us to live by the Bible only? What if they had looked past the long haired guys, the braids, the jeans, and the baggy t-shirts and shown us the love of Jesus? And I don't mean shown it to us in a Bible study. I mean shown it to us with a life. I pray I wont have to keep wondering. I pray the era of the Mo's will come to an end. I pray we learn our lesson. But that is not the only point of this article. I also want to take the opportunity to appeal to the Mo's of today. While the church has failed you, it is still within your reach to recognize that Christianity is extraterrestrial and as such it cannot be defined, contained, or limited by human culture. We may have messed it up, but you can look past our faults in the same way we should have looked past yours. While we may look at the church and find much to criticize we can find neither spot nor wrinkle in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, I leave you with a challenge from Christian apologist Dr. Ravi Zacharias and it is this: "Look at Jesus and ask yourself the question, Can I find anything wrong with him?" The answer may just revolutionize your life.
Before reading the article, give this short video a watch and hang on to what you see. It gets revisited toward the end. Enjoy!
I saw an article this week on the 10 most popular books of the Bible and James wasn't on there. So I got worried because I am currently going through a sermon series on James at my local church. My church members, I thought, are not going to love me and they are going to email the boss-man, and then I'm going to get fired and then my family wont have any food (grin). So to calm my anxiety I googled the 10 least popular books of the Bible. I figured, so long as James isn't on that list then I am safe. And thankfully James wasn't there either! So I think its safe to say James is neither loved nor hated.
James isn't always an easy book to chew on.
Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case. Martin Luther, the champion of the reformation, thought very little of the book of James. He referred to it as the "straw epistle". Luther's concern is that James seemed to focus on works too much and not enough on grace. And listen I get it. James isn't always an easy book to chew on. Some of the stuff he says seems pretty harsh. In fact, I would go as far as to say that James is almost impossible to appreciate without a proper understanding of grace. Now I'm not going to get into that today. That's a future post. But suffice to say, for now at least, that James is not talking about salvation by works. He's talking about authenticity. He's talking about sincerity.
You see James had this crazy belief that we are saved, not by faith and works but by a faith that works. James was one of these weirdos who honestly believed that faith changes lives. It's not just some idea you believe in because it sounds intellectually appealing. It's a living thing that reaches down into your heart and changes you entirely.
Has your faith changed you? Better yet, allow me to frame the question in an illustration. Suppose I was late to an appointment with you and told you that the reason I was late was because on my way to see you my cars licence plate fell off so I had to pull over and run through traffic into the middle of the road and by the time I got there a semi truck travelling at 80 km hit me and I got dragged under the truck for a few hundred yards until I finally got free, jumped in my car, and made it to you. What would you say to that story? Chances are you would think either I was crazy or I was a liar. Because there is no way I could come into contact with a semi truck going 80 km and not be changed from a 3 dimensional being into a 2 dimensional pancake. But here's the thing guys: God is bigger than a semi-truck. If its not possible to get hit by a semi without being "changed" it is even less possible to encounter the living God and stay the same. And for James, the servant of Jesus, faith either changed you or it wasn't really faith. Call it philosophy, ethics, creed or worldview. In fact, go ahead and call it theology. But if it hasn't changed you then don't call it faith.
For James... faith either changed you or it wasn't really faith.
That brings us to our first verse:
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. (Jam. 1:26)
In other words, if your religion isn’t reaching deep and changing you as a person - not overnight but at least over time - then you need a new religion because, James declares, the one you have is worthless. Now I have to be really, really careful here because James is not trying to add extra pressure to someone who is new in the faith or going through a dark valley. Instead, James is pointing out something relevant - that there is a kind of Christianity that believes in the 10 commandments, the gospel, justification and sanctification, the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and Jesus and in his return and yet it is worthless.
But it gets worse.
The word that we translate as "worthless" is an interesting one. Its the Greek word mataios. It means "1) devoid of force, truth, success, result 2) useless, of no purpose." So James is saying that there is a kind of Christianity that is devoid of force, proclaims empty truth, has no success and consequently nothing results from it. It's useless. It serves no purpose.
But it gets worse.
This Greek word mataios is also used in the New Testament in reference to idolatry and idol worship (Acts 14:15). So James is saying - don't miss this - that there is a kind of Christianity that is as worthless as idolatry.
You see, for James it's not about what you believe in your head. It's about how you allow that belief to redefine who you are. So what does that look like? James explains it:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (27)
In the latter part of the verse James insinuates the importance of doctrine when he warns us to not be polluted by the world. In scripture the world often alludes to thought. So James calls us to not be polluted by the worlds thought patterns. But that's not all James points out. Doctrine is certainly important, but James is emphasizing something bigger here. He is saying that if your doctrine doesn’t translate to mercy, and empathy, and acts of kindness for those less fortunate than you then your religion with all of its knowledge, ideology and philosophy is worthless. James doesn't care how pure you think your doctrine is. If it doesn't translate to active and practical love then it simply isn't pure. But if your religion leads to a life that is characterized by holiness revealed in visible hands-on love for others then that religion God accepts.
See, James isn't talking about gaining God's grace or love by working. He's not talking about going to heaven by trying. And hes not trying to put pressure on people who are struggling. He's talking about being genuine. Are you genuine? Is your religion genuine? Or is it worthless? Notice what God said to the nation of Israel through the prophet Isaiah:
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinfuland false. I want no more of your pious meetings.
I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!
When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. (Isa. 1:13-17)
Notice the descriptive words God uses: meaningless, sinful, false, pious. And notice the emotive words he uses: disgust, hate, burden. He even calls the Sabbath sinful and false and says he wants no more! These descriptive and emotive words are synonymous with James' use of the word worthless. God isn't interested in worthless religion. In fact, he's not as into Sabbath keeping and church going as we like to think he is. So stop wasting your time! God doesn't want our religious pretense. He wants genuine faith which is revealed in lives that are forsaking sin to pursue goodness, justice, helping, defending, and fighting for those who are weak.
But here is the magical question. What exactly is it that separates worthless religion from genuine faith? We saw that both of them have the same belief system. So its not data that separates them. Then what does? How does a person go down one path or the other? Is there a practical instruction that can lead us, if obeyed, in the direction of genuine faith? And is there a decision which, if made, can lead us in the direction of worthless faith? How do we avoid the one and embrace the other?
James answers that question a few verses before,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (22)
Do what it says. That's it. Nothing else. You see, when James refers to worthless religion he describes its practitioners as self-deceived people. And here in verse 22 he tells us how to avoid being self-deceived people with a worthless religion. Its very simple. "Do what [God] says."
I don't know why we complicate the Christian life so much. Francis Chan once said it like this: Imagine I asked my daughter to clean her room and she comes back an hour later. I ask her, "have you done what I asked?" and she replies, "No dad. But guess what? I memorized what you said. I can even say it in Greek!" Would that work? Of course not. The Christian life is very simple. Do what God says.
I have concluded that sometimes we just need to stop talking and get out there and do something. We are here Sabbath after Sabbath listening and soaking in sermon after sermon and we love it. Our libraries are loaded with books and DVD's and we got our satellite dish so we can get some extra 3ABN or Hope or whatever. But when it comes time to do something for the community, to reach out, to bless and to serve all of a sudden most of us are tired. All of a sudden we have no time. All of a sudden we back off. Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal?
When I was in New Jersey I attended a Jamaican church with Candice. One Sabbath I accidentally locked the keys in the car. So after the service a group of the guys came to help me break into the car and get my keys out. There was about six of them standing around and they all began coming up with a plan on how they would get inside. One guy said this, the other guy said that. The debate continued for a few minutes until one of the elders arrived. He looked at the group and literally said, "You know what your problem is? Ya'll got too many theories!" And with that he popped a crowbar into the door latch, used a wire clothes hanger to reach in, and in less than one minute he had opened the car.
Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal?
"Too many theories." That was his critique. But what he was really saying is that all their talk was worthless. And without any talk he got to work. So I ask again. Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal? A religion that revolves around too many theories and too much lip movement but has little to no effect in the world around us? We show up every Sabbath and we listen to sermon after sermon and then what? We do Bible study after Bible study and then what? Is it possible that our greatest sin is we talk too much and we do too little. And the ones who do stick their necks out to do something barely ever get any support.
Guys, the difference between a Christianity that is as worthless as idolatry and a Christianity that is genuine is that one merely listens to the word and the other listens and does what it says. That’s it. That is the separating factor.
Narayanan Krishnan, born in 1981, is an Indian chef turned social worker. He quit his career as a leading chef and began supplying meals to the homeless in India, beginning in 2002. Krishnan was an award-winning chef and was short-listed for an elite job in Switzerland. During a visit to his family, before heading to Europe, he said, "I saw a very old man, literally eating his own human waste out of hunger. I went to the nearby hotel and asked them what was available then I bought and gave to the old man. Believe me, I had never seen a person eating so fast, ever. As he ate the food, his eyes were filled with tears. Those were the tears of happiness."
Krishnan founded his nonprofit Akshaya Trust in 2003. Every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m., cooks a simple hot meal and then, along with his team, loads it in a van and travels about 125 miles (201 km) feeding the homeless and mentally-disabled in his region. He serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to 400 indigent and elderly people in Madurai. He carries a comb, scissors and razor and is trained in eight haircut styles that, along with a fresh shave, provide extra dignity to those he serves.*
But do you know what the weird part is? Krishnan is a Brahmin and he says that "Brahmans are not supposed to touch these people". And yet he does. In other words, Krishnan is doing something that goes contrary to his own religious tradition. In order for him to be true to his heart he has to contradict his own faith. And despite this, he is still doing it. Somehow, this man whose faith is miles apart from ours has discovered the heart of God in a way many of us have not. As Christians its not our faith we have to contradict. Its our selfishness. Its our worthless religion. But if we look intently into the heart of God we will see this love that changes lives there. We must accept that love, and then do what it commands.
There have been men in every generation who have claimed to be the sons of God... and yet who led a godless life, for they neglected the weightier matters of the law—mercy, justice, and the love of God. There are today many who are in a similar deception; for while bearing an appearance of great sanctity, they are not doers of the Word of God.... If Christ is in the heart, He will appear in the home, in the workshop, in the marketplace, in the church.... He who is transformed by the truth will shed a light upon the world (Ellen White, FW p.116)
Now some of you might be thinking I don't have the time to start a nonprofit, or to go feed the poor etc. But please understand, that's not the point. God isn't after dramatic things. Hes after the small things. He wants us to do something. Whether its helping out a ministry at church or donating some time (not just money - that's too easy) to the local charity God is calling you and me to be, not just hearers of the word, but doers.
On September 1st, William G. Johnson published an article on Spectrum Magazine titled, "the One Project: Why I'm Mad" in which he expressed his frustrations over all the controversy surrounding the One Project. After expressing his appreciation for the Christ-centered ministry Johnson wrote, "[O]ne thing bothers me: Will someone, anyone, please enlighten me as to what is the problem with the One Project? ... I've inquired of many people including some at church headquarters in Silver Spring, but all I get back get back is smoke—rumor, suspicion, hearsay, allegations of conspiracy, what others are saying, what they read in some book or viewed on a website, DVD, and so on." Johnson noted how the One Project team have been the objects of bullying, scorn, and gossip by church members who have bought into all the baseless propaganda floating around. "Even the children of the organizers have been targeted and vilified on Facebook", he added. After reading this article, I quickly shared it on my Facebook page and expressed my solidarity with Johnson's thoughts. In my estimation, the vitriol surrounding a movement whose only agenda is to celebrate the supremacy of Jesus in the Adventist church is a repeat of the 1888 crisis in which rumors, suspicions, and conspiracy theories surrounded the presentation of a Christ-centered message. Even Ellen White was mistreated and shunned by many for supporting nothing other than the uplifting of our crucified and risen Savior. Later that day I decided it was time to fight back. Two years earlier fellow pastor Nathaniel Tan and myself had co-authored a defense of the One Project after attending a gathering in Western Australia. The article, "The One Project: Danger or Blessing?" received a warm reception among ministers who were looking for some sort of resource to counter the rumors and accusations being leveled against the movement. However, there was one problem with the article. Because neither Nat nor I were members of the One Project the best we could do was offer a non-conclusive argument. Using all the evidence available to us we argued against the critics with the goal of establishing a foundation of trust from which we could more intelligently evaluate the movement. But at the end of the day we could not conclusively acquit the One Project of all the charges labeled against it. And while that article was a great start and resource for those seeking to defend the One Project I felt the time had come to make a stronger case. With this in mind I sent a personal message to one of the lead One Project organizers in which I offered to publish an updated version of our initial article with a more conclusive tone. There were only two things I needed. First, their official endorsement of our article and second, a clearer rebuttal of the charges labeled against them - particularly the ecumenical and emergent church agenda charges. In my mind, such an article was desperately needed as I and other ministers tried desperately to diffuse the nonsense that has been floating around. In less then a day I received a reply which led to one of the most life altering conversations I have ever had. It was after this conversation that I officially decided I would no longer defend the One Project. The reply stated.
Hey brother....we have prayed hard about this and chosen to take the high road. To focus on Jesus and to ignore every accusation. We have also agreed to answer any direct question directly....not questions about opinions but about facts. So for now it is a lonely path.... Truth is that the One project could shut down tomorrow and we would not weep. It is not about TOP but about Jesus. How we celebrate all He is and how He is expressed through our tribe Adventism [Note: ellipsis included in the original message. No content has been removed for the purpose of this quotation.].
I wrote back intending to share my point of view. "We need a resource" I replied, "something we pastors on the ground can use to defend you guys. Something that will enable us to convince our church members to attend". While I commended the decision they had made in my reply I still wanted to fight back. All I needed was an endorsement to make a conclusive argument and we could republish with more strength than before. So I wrote back and tried once more to get this One Project leader to agree. That's when the following reply came through,
Thanks bro for reaching out. I understand your struggle. Honestly, I think the focus should be on Jesus and not the One project
And then it hit me. Up to that moment I had been focused on defending the One Project, but suddenly, as the words on my Facebook messenger sunk into my head a light bulb turned on and I realized that I, and all my colleagues, had been going about this whole thing the wrong way. We had gotten so caught up in defending the One Project that we had missed the point: Its not about the One Project. Its about Jesus. We talked some more and just when I thought the conversation couldn't get any more Spirit-led, the following message came through,
Talk of the Jesus you have come to know and share is more powerful than anything. Honestly people ask me all the time how did we make the One project so successful was it the round tables was the great speakers etc. and for those moments the human nature is yes...of course my A style driven attention to detail makes it amazing.....but that is 1% 99% is that the vision is beyond anything we could ever capture. You can't contain Jesus. That is what is attractive. That is what is water that quenches all thirst. That is Jesus. All.
The words in that message where the slam dunk the Holy Spirit was trying to bring to my attention and the attention of our entire church. We have missed the point. I realized then and there that the One Project team doesn't really care about the One Project. They don't really care about their names being out there, about hosting interesting gatherings, or about having a place in SDA history. The One Project team really doesn't care about the One Project all that much. What they care about is Jesus. What they want is to lift him up. What they want is to bring Jesus so close to the heart of Adventist culture that the One Project wont even be needed anymore. In many ways their existence is bitter sweet. Sweet because its Christ-centered. Bitter because we have come to a place in our culture where we actually need to be reminded that its Jesus. All. And for the One Project, their greatest success is not more numbers, more funding, or more fame. Their greatest success would be to shut down because their ministry is no longer needed. Their greatest success would be to inspire the Adventist church to such intimacy with Jesus that they no longer have to host another gathering to remind us that Jesus is what its all about. Shortly after this, our conversation ended. And I decided then and there that I was done defending the One Project. Sure, I'll answer questions if people have them and the One Project team is happy to do likewise. I'll also continue to support them and attend their gatherings as much as possible. But I wont spend anymore time trying to argue against the critics or attempting to gather resources like bullets to shoot back. Instead, I want to begin working in such a way that I make the One Project unnecessary. I want to bring Jesus into everything I do and everywhere I go and I want to invite the entire SDA church to join me. This isn't about our theology. It's already Christ-centered. This is about our culture which so easily forgets that Jesus is everything. Join me in making Jesus all. Join me in creating the kind of culture in Adventism that forces the One Project to shut down, not because we attacked them and their families, not because we published books and DVD's with conspiracy theories and baseless accusations, but because we became so focused on Jesus that the One Project literally became redundant. But some may ask "What about the critics? Should we just allow them to continue unchecked? Aren't we, by our silence, letting them win?" To be honest, that is the main question I struggled with. But after my dialogue with this One Project leader I realized that making Jesus the center, not only at One Project gatherings, but in everything we do in Adventism would not only make the One Project redundant but it would also take away the power the critics have. By fighting we only encourage more division and more "choosing sides". By electing to focus on Jesus instead we are refusing to throw fuel in the fire of strife and division. Eventually the criticisms will expose themselves and will die off. We don't need to contribute to that. It will take care of itself. As for me and for us, lets forget about the critics and the One Project. Let's refuse to be distracted, out flanked, and sidelined by lesser things. Let's lift Jesus up more than ever before. If we do we will reignite a fire in our church that we desperately need - a fire that can only be ignited by intimacy with Jesus. In closing I would like to say one more thing. When I first attended the One Project I felt a sense of hope for our church I had not felt in a long time. I have chatted with Alex Bryan, Lisa Diller, and Japhet De Oliveira about this. To me the One Project, imperfect as it may be, represented all I longed to see in Adventism. And I erroneously placed my hope in it. This is why I was so ready to fight for the movement. But then I was reminded by the very One Project leader who impacted my life forever, that the One Project is not the hope of our church. The hope of our church is what it has always been - not an event, a gathering, or a conference but the Christ-centered local church. So when I invite you all to make Jesus the center of Adventism I am not inviting you all to start more conferences, organize more retreats, and publish more books. I, and the one Project, are inviting you to make Jesus the center of your local church. Make him the heartbeat of your Sabbath School, your worship service, your gatherings, your board meetings, your elders meetings, your budget committee, your small groups, and your children's ministry. Let him define how you treat one another and how you interact with the broken community that surrounds you. Re-evaluate everything from the ground up leaving no stone un-turned. Demand of every facet of your local church's existence a deeper and more humble submission to the person of Jesus Christ. If we do this we are promised, the whole world will be drawn. Not because of how cool, hip, or organized we are but because he has promised "When I am lifted up I will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32). So there you have it. I'm done defending the One Project. Today, I choose Jesus. All. Join me.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish” (John 21:4-5)?
Jesus was alive. The disciples were back together. Life seemed good. Although they still had lots of questions they knew that everything would be alright. After all, Jesus had conquered death, so why worry about anything else?
It was evening time. Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James and John, and others were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, "'We’ll go with you.' So they went out and got into the boat..." (3).
I can only imagine what that night would have been like. They must have talked about all kinds of things, but one thing must have kept popping up - Jesus. He was alive. How crazy is that? How do you stop talking about that? I don't think you can. Perhaps they were a bit too caught up in conversation because according to the story, "that night they caught nothing" (3).
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish (4-6).
Jesus then did something that I totally love. Jesus, who is creator God, said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” The picture that paints of God is to me absolutely stunning. He's relatable. Down to earth. Humble. He likes broiled fish. And he likes to eat breakfast with sinners. How amazing Thomas must have felt. He had doubted Jesus, but Jesus didn't hold it against him. He came near to him and together they ate breakfast. But the joy of his immediate presence would not last forever. "He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). Then, on the final day he said to them, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (8).
As Jesus spoke these final words, the story says he rose up into the air and "was taken up before their very eyes" (9). What was Thomas thinking at this time? I don't know. But I can imagine him longing for Jesus to stay. Thomas had come so close to Jesus that to see him go would have been almost unbearable. The skeptical, sarcastic, self-interested doubter had fallen in love with Jesus. But Jesus had to go and soon "a cloud hid him from their sight" (9) and they didn't see him again.
But Jesus didn't leave them with nothing to do. He gave them a mission. "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." In other words, their lives were to be poured out into one simple purpose: To tell the story of Jesus to the entire world. There was nowhere they wouldn't go, no land they wouldn't travel to, no tribe they wouldn't seek out. They had experienced the wonder and the beauty that is Jesus. They had discovered the way to heaven. Not a hopeless and futile list of duties but a friend who loved them and wanted them despite all of their flaws. This Jesus had given his life to cleanse humanity from sin and all that was left was to tell the story and let the earth be filled with the story of the sin-bearing God. However, there was more to the story than what Jesus had done.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (10-11).
The story the disciples were to tell was bigger than what Jesus had done. It was also about what Jesus was soon to do! He was gone yes, but he would return someday to establish his kingdom and the disciples knew their mission in life was to prepare the world for his soon return.
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (12-14).
This is the very last time Thomas is mentioned in the Bible. He never shows up again. So whatever happened to Thomas?
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:1-4).
Thomas was there with the other disciples when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them. From that day forward they were filled with power to do what Jesus had told them to do: Tell the world! And that's exactly what the disciples did. They told the world, and they told the story so loud and with so much passion that the story of Jesus spread everywhere. And everywhere it spread the people there would join the disciples in spreading the story as well. Jesus saves and he's coming back again! And they were so good at it that their enemies dragged them before city officials and said, "These [are the] men who have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).
They weren't exaggerating. The disciples really did turn the world upside down. And what of Thomas?
Traditionally, he is said to have travelled outside the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel, travelling as far as Tamilakam in present-day India. According to tradition, the Apostle reached... India in AD 52 and baptized several people, founding what today are known as Saint Thomas Christians or Nasranis. He is believed by the St Thomas Christian tradition to have established... Seven and Half Churches....
An ancient Assyrian and song writer who lived during the time of AD 300 wrote a song about Thomas which captures it all perfectly:
It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India's painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India.
Today doubting Thomas is remembered by a moment of failure. But his life gives evidence to something more than just a doubter. He is known as the Apostle to India, is said to have worked miracles there, and established seven churches. According to tradition, Thomas was eventually killed in India by a man with a spear. Today the site of his death is known as St. Thomas Mount where the "ancient Syrian Christian community of India trace the origin of their church to St. Thomas the Apostle".
How do we experience God? I think if we asked Thomas he would tell us: Don't doubt him. He can do amazing things with your life you would never have imagined. Even when you don't see him trust him anyways. He wants you, he calls you, he accepts you, he guides you, he reveals himself to you, and he leads you along life's way. And you can be guaranteed one thing that so long as you follow him you will make it safely to the fathers house.
Episode four begins. The sun has set. A cool breeze adorns the night. As we look we spot Jesus kneeling. He is sweating drops of blood. His body is shaking. His fingers clutch the ground beneath him. He is praying. Talking to God about what is about to happen and visibly terrified. It seems as though whatever he is going through it is literally killing him. "Take this cup from me" (36) he prays, while simultaneously embracing his fathers will. In moments he is on his feet and approaches his disciples. They are all fast asleep on the ground. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour" (37)?
Jesus goes back to the place where he was praying. The struggle begins again. His body shudders under the weight of mans sin. Jesus is about to go to the cross. He is about to give his life for all of mankind. And at this moment, the weight and the guilt of our sin begins to create a gulf between he and God. The experience is so overwhelming it crushes him. Once again, he gets up to see if his disciples are awake and praying for him but again they are all asleep. Peter is snoring. Andrew is slobbering. And Thomas is talking in his sleep. Jesus goes back to pray for a third time. The battle ensues. When he is done he returns again to find Thomas still zonking along with everyone else. "Rise! Let us go" (42)! Jesus says.
Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders (43).
What happens from here on out is nothing short of mayhem. An angel knocks all the soldiers to the ground but Jesus stands him down. Then Peter decides to take off where the angel left off and cuts off a soldiers ear. Jesus tells him to stand down as well. The mob rushes at Jesus. Thomas and the rest of the disciples flash back to the Feast of Dedication in the temple and fear grips them. For a moment they freeze not knowing what to do, then their instinct takes over - "everyone deserted him and fled" (50).
A day later Jesus had been condemned to death. He was given a cross to carry after he had been beaten with whips and insulted by the Roman soldiers who pulled his beard, spit on him, and mocked him (Mark 15: 16-20). The beating was so severe that Jesus had no strength left. He collapsed carrying the cross and barely made it to the site of execution. He was dehydrated, exhausted, and crushed by the weight of sin now resting fully upon him. Six hours later, much to everyone's surprise, Jesus hung dead on the cross and the hopes of thousands were shattered. "We thought he was the hero" some said. But now they were sure that Jesus had been just another of the many phony hero's who had met his end at the hands of the Roman state.
With the exception of John, the disciples were nowhere to be seen. They each fled and were now hiding - afraid that the Romans would come looking for them next. Thomas was not with the rest of them, but he was hiding as well. A thousand thoughts sored through his mind. To think that I was ready to die for him? I was really convinced he was the hero, but now? I guess I got tricked along with lots of other people. He was a fake just like the other ones.
The sun set just like every other night. During the hours of darkness the enemies of Jesus celebrated their victory and the friends of Jesus wept. Their lives were over. How could they ever go back into society? They would be ridiculed to no end. Their hopes, dreams, and desires had been crushed. Jesus was gone, and with him went the last three years of their lives. What a waste.
Night two came and went. Thomas got no sleep that night either. He spent his time thinking, imagining, trying to put the pieces back together. But with every passing moment he only got more confused, more angry, and more disillusioned.
It was a Sunday afternoon and Thomas was walking through a field. His mind still racing. A knot in his stomach. And a million questions without end. As he walked he heard voices shouting, but he didn't respond. Then suddenly, a hand grasped his shoulder. He turned to Peter, James, Andrew, and the rest of the disciples standing there. "We have seen Jesus!" They exclaimed. "He is alive. He appeared to Mary first and then to us. You have to come Thomas. He rose from the dead just like Lazarus!"
But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25).
I. Will. Not. Believe.
Those four words are the most painful words a loving God can ever hear. After all God has done to save us and bring us back to himself there are still people in life who respond to his love by saying "I will not believe." How heart breaking this must be for God! Others respond to God by saying "I will not believe right now" and still others respond by saying "I will not believe unless." Which of those responses best describes you? Are you rejecting God today? Are you putting him off to some distant future? If you are, then I challenge you to pause. Stop the rush of life and just pause. What in the world are you rejecting him for? Is there seriously anything in this world better than God? And if you are not rejecting, then what are you waiting for? What could seriously be holding you back right now? Just go for it. He has given everything for you and hes asking for nothing in return except your love. And if you are putting the ball in Gods court and saying "Ill do it if" or "I wont do it unless" then my question to you is, what more can God do? He gave his only son to die for our sins, what else do you expect from him before you can embrace his love? Get rid of the "not". Get rid of the "not right now", and get rid of the "unless." Just say yes. Thomas refused to believe. Instead, he wanted proof that Jesus was alive. He had been hurt too deep and he would not be taken for a fool. If he was going to follow Jesus he wanted evidence. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe" (26-28).
Wow. Isn't Jesus amazing? He met Thomas right where he was. He met Thomas in his doubt. He met Thomas in his unbelief. He met Thomas in his weakness. And he will do the same for you. And his invitation to Thomas remains to this day, "Stop doubting and believe."
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (29).
Why did Jesus say that? He happily gave evidence to both Thomas and the disciples as well. Why did he say, "blessed are those who have not seen yet believe"? Could it be that when it comes to experiencing God physical sight isn't as important as we think it is? Could it be that experiencing God is something deeper and stronger than a sense experience?
I believe so. And the truth is some of the most important things in life are things we can't actually see. Oxygen is something we cant see with the naked eye, and yet without we would die. Gravity is also something we can't see and yet if you ignore it by jumping out of a window, you can end up dead. And of course, we can't see love. Its not something that is visible to the eye. But without love life is meaningless. Now true, we can see and feel the results of oxygen, gravity and love but we can't actually see them - only their results. But what is also true is seeing each of those things will do nothing to increase our belief or appreciation of them. If I could actually see the particles that make up oxygen and gravity or the essence that makes up love it would do nothing to impact my experience with each of them. My experience with them is stronger than sight, and because of this sight would add nothing.
In the same way, experiencing God is not necessarily about seeing him. Its about experiencing him in such a way that we know he is there, we can see and feel the results of his presence even though we can't see it. And this is super important to experiencing God. Because if we embrace false expectations of what experiencing God is we will miss him even though he is there. So what are those false expectations? They differ but more often than not people are expecting some sort of transcendent or ethereal encounter, a vision or a vivid dream, an emotional high, or some dramatic miraculous event. But those are not the ways by which we experience God. Rather God is experienced by the conviction that we are loved and desired by him, by the sense that he is calling you, by the experience of seeing him active in the world and changing peoples lives, by our life-long walk with him, and by observing in ourselves and others how trustworthy walking according to his way is.
We don't have to see God with the naked eye to know he is real. We can know he is real, we can believe that he lives, and we can have a personal encounter with him without ever actually seeing him. But how? And here is the main point that I want to bring out today. Without this you can rest assured that you will never experience God. But with it, we can be confident that God can be known, experienced, and encountered. When Jesus rose from the dead, no one was looking for him. The only people who came to the tomb were Mary and Martha who were only there to anoint his dead body, not to see him. Truth is, no one was looking for him. The disciples were all hiding like cowards in a room and Thomas was off somewhere else hiding as well. But they all experienced Jesus because even though they weren't looking for Jesus, Jesus was looking for them. It was Jesus who revealed himself to the disciples and it is because of this that we know that Jesus is a self-disclosing God. He is not interested in hiding or in lurking in the shadows. He wants to be known. He wants to be met. He wants to be encountered. So here is the main point for today, you are not the only one wanting to experience God. God wants to reveal himself to you and even when you are far away, hiding, and confused he is approximating himself to you in order to give you an encounter with himself. You don't have to carry the burden of discovering or experiencing God. It is God who is revealing himself to you. All you have to do is "stop doubting and believe."
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3).
I had a love hate relationship with the Army. There were things about it I couldn't stand one bit. And there were things about it I loved to no end. Among them was that being a soldier to me felt like a privilege. I could defend something that I believed in. All of the training and preparation was geared at one simple task - defending freedom. Sounds cheesy yes, but I loved it. However, it didn't take long for me to realize something that tore me up inside. No matter how much I fought and sacrificed everything I stood for would eventually be gone. Nothing in this world lasts forever. Nations come and go. Political philosophies rise and fall. And soldiers live and die. In my heart I felt I needed to dedicate my life to something that would last beyond a Hollywood flick or a history book. I needed to fight for something that would last forever. John chapter 14 begins with a promise. Jesus calls it "My Father's house". He speaks of mansions, rooms, preparation, a place. He talks about coming back and he talks about relationship - "I will come back and take you to be with me". It doesn't take a scholar to recognize that Jesus is using heaven language here. He is talking about that eternal home we call the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, and eternity. And it is in response to this amazing promise of Jesus that we once again bump into the elusive Thomas.
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way” (5)?
In our last post we saw that the resurrection of Lazarus was a cataclysmic event in Thomas' spiritual journey. And here, just a few chapters later, we start to see a change in Thomas. We no longer see the sarcastic disciple. Now we see someone who is really interested in what Jesus has to say. And he asks one of the most profound questions known to man - "how can we know the way?" And today, if we pause and ask this question we will find a whole slew of answers none of which seem to be satisfying. The atheist would respond by saying that there is no heaven. The pagan would agree but would go on to argue that we must create our own heaven here on earth by striving to make the world a better place. The religions of the east would also deny the existence of heaven opting instead of a "oneness" or non-relational "reunification" with the divine. In other parts they may refer to their final destination as an escape from desire, nirvana, or "the end" - all of which are achieved through the excersize of the will in the performance of strict religious duties. If Thomas had asked his religious leaders that question he would have gotten two different responses as well. Some would have said that heaven was not real, and others would have said that in order to reach heaven you have to work really hard at keeping the law of God. But no matter which way you turn, it seems like the answer is terrible. Either heaven is not real, or it is real but way out of reach to the average Joe. But suppose you took the second option. Suppose you decided to try and work your way into heaven. Would you succeed? Not a chance. Even if you managed to do everything perfectly, you can never undo or outweigh the sins you have committed. If you are going to get into heaven, a different way must be made available or else you simply have no hope. But what is that way? That's what Thomas wanted to know. Jesus, how can we know the way? Is it going to church every week? Is it reading my Bible every day? Is it praying three times a day? Is it doing everything really good? What is the way? And here comes Jesus response:
Jesus answered, "I am the way... No one comes to the Father except through me" (6).
How weird is that? The way to heaven is not a series of behaviors. Its not a set of beliefs. Its not a way of life. Its not even a religion. The way to heaven is a person and his name is Jesus. He is the door to heaven. He is the path to heaven. He is the entrance to heaven. A person. Not a concept. Not a philosophy. Not an exam. Not a church program. A person. Entering the kingdom of heaven is not about what you do, its about who you know. Do you know Jesus? Or do you only know about him? Do you talk to Jesus? Or do you only talk about him? Do you walk with Jesus? Or do you only talk about walking with him? Do you know him? Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that you earn heaven by achieving level bff with Jesus. This isn't about measuring whether we know him a lot or a little. This is simply about asking if our faith in Jesus is based on a real relationship or if its nothing more than information in your head. Because the way to heaven is not information. Its Jesus himself. He wants you and he is calling you to go from being a Christian by default, to entering into a real relationship with him. In this series we have been asking, How can I experience God? We have looked at some answers from the life of doubting Thomas. The first step toward experiencing God for real in your life to is realize that he wants you despite your flaws. The second step is to answer his call over your life. The third is to follow him even if you don't know why. When you do, God places you in circumstances that lead you to experience him more and more. But now comes the fourth step and perhaps the most important one - to actively seek to build a relationship with him by realizing that following Jesus is not about religion, its about relationship.
I often get the question "How can I truly know God?" The answer is found all over scripture, but this morning I ran into a verse that really spoke to this question beautifully. The verse is Hosea 6:3 which says:
"Oh, that we might know the Lord! Let us press on to know him. He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn or the coming of rains in early spring."
Three basic points stand out in this passage:
1) We are called to know God and God would never call us to do something impossible. The call itself is evidence that he can be known.
2) We need to press on to know him. Elsewhere God says, "You will find me when you seek me and search for me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13). Knowing God doesn't just happen. We need to press on and pursue it the same way we pursue our earthly desires. If you are not willing to press on to know God and to continue the search no matter how hard, you will never know him. Will it take 1 day? 30? 60?A lifetime? Who knows? Press on.
3) And lastly the verse says that "He will respond". When we seek to know God we must do so with the expectation and faith that he will respond. If you have already convinced yourself that he wont respond then you will miss his response when it happens. This is why Paul said, "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb 11:6). So when you seek God, seek him with expectation because He will respond "as surely as the arrival of dawn or the coming of rains in early spring". And if that isn't enough evidence that he will respond, in verse 6 of this same chapter in Hosea God says, "I want to show you love.... I want you to know me."
Could it be any clearer? He wants to know you and be known by you. He doesn't hide. He doesn't play mind games with us or tease us with an unreachable ideal. David Asscherick got it right when he said, "People are at different levels of finding [God] because people are at different levels of seeking [him]" (see video below). So today I invite you, regardless of what stage of seeking you are in, to press on to know him, and press on with expectation.
In the previous post in this series I explored the concept of knowing God through the experience of the rich young ruler. In the end, this young man traded a true experience with God for the temporary pleasures of this world. And we may look at him and think this guy is dumb. But as we point the finger at him, 3 fingers point back to us. Because this is what we do. This is humanity. We spend our lives trading the eternal presence of God for temporary nonsense. A romantic escapade. A bottle of alcohol. A mind altering chemical. A job. A career. Money without worth. Fragile power. Lonely fame. These are the things that we trade Jesus for. And the madness continues as we run back and forth desperately seeking satisfaction and purpose and all the while, there he is. Jesus, is what you desire most.
In Philippians 3:8, Paul - a once respected and powerful man who had given up everything to follow Jesus - said this:
Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.
The rich rung ruler had so much, but he wouldn't give it up. Paul also had a lot and yet he traded all of it just to know Jesus. What is your excuse?
In the Greek the word to know is ginosko. It means knowledge, understanding. But in Hebrew the word means something more. In Hebrew the word to know is yada. And it is used when referring to sexual intimacy. Because in the marriage bed you come to know your loved one in a way that transcends mere head knowledge. Yada means experience. Pleasure. Joy. Intensity. It is used to define the most sacred act between two human beings. And thats how God wants to know you. And thats how he wants you to know him. Yada. Not just ginosko. But yada.
A faith that transcends mere information and enters the sphere of experience. Here it is in plain Hebrew guys: Jesus wants Yada.
Last year I met up with a friend at a Thai restaurant in Vic Park. We sat down to eat and talk and when it was time to order I went straight for the greatest meal a human being could ever ask for: curry. And what I experienced over the next 20 minutes - as this Thai curry came into contact with my gustatory system, which then used a form of chemoreception that allowed my body to interpret the curry substance as the most delicious thing I had ever eaten - was amazing.* According to Boundless.com "[t]here are five main types of taste sensation: bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and savory."** And on this day, it was the savory sensation, also known as umami, that was going crazy. So when this curry substance came into contact with my taste buds they began to dance with each other. And I was like, woah. This is good.
The next day I was back in the area with Candice and suggested we visit this same restaurant so that she could try this Thai curry. And I went on and on about how good it was and we were like all excited to go back. But then I checked my budget and was like, "dude, were broke. Not going to happen." And the sadness of the situation hit me.
My wife will never know what this Thai curry is like even if she has all the knowledge of it. I could talk about it until she can parrot me. She may even recommend the Thai curry to others. But it isn't until she fills her spoon with this curry, and places it in her mouth, it isn't until her gustatory system is activated and begins the process of chemoreception, it isn’t until the liquid and spices enter into yada with her taste buds and they begin to dance together and in a poetic experience of pleasure and joy and intensity that she can truly say "This curry is good."
And that’s what our relationship with God should be like. David, in a burst of passion and desire cries out "Oh taste and see that the Lord, he is good" (Psalm 34:8). God is calling us to more than just knowing all about him. He wants us to be honest with ourselves. Admit our brokenness. Trade it for Jesus. And allow him to have our entire being. Then and only then, can we yada the eternal one.
In the previous post I asked a heart searching question: Do I know so much about God that I have convinced myself that I actually know him even though I don't?
This question is super relevant. I mean, Jesus says that when he returns there will be all kinds of people who thought they knew him but didn't really. The parable of the 10 virgins and the parable of the sheep and the goats are two of the primary examples. In both cases there are people who think they know Jesus, and yet Jesus says to them "I never knew you". So this question, far from being a useless exploration, is relevant to everyone who claims to be a God-follower.
In today's post, I would like to explore this question more by hanging out in Mark 10:17-22.
As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him.
Every story has a back story. In other words, every story begins way before it begins. When you lose your temper, that's not the start of the story. That's just the continuation. When you jump for joy because you got a new job, that's not the beginning of the story. Its a new chapter yes - but there is a back story to it. And while the Bible doesn't tell us anything about this man we can safely guess what his back story could have been. Whoever he was, to the human eye he was eager to discover Jesus. He wanted to meet him. He wanted to meet him so bad that he was running. There was something on his mind and he was really itching to get to Jesus.
[So he] knelt down, and asked, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Notice what this guy says. "Good teacher." "Eternal life". "What must I do?" He wanted to "inherit" eternity. That's pretty impressive. I mean, he's using all the right words. To the naked eye this guy is nothing more than a sincere God seeker who is thirsting after truth. But there's more. Matthew calls him a young man, Luke calls him a ruler, and later on we discover that he was both religious and wealthy. It seems as though this guy had it all made. Youth. Wealth. Morals. Power. Religious and national identity. What more could you ask for? But he wasn't satisfied. He was still seeking. Somehow none of what he had gave him peace. He felt somehow that despite his excellent life something was missing. So he came to Jesus seeking an answer to his anxiety. He wanted assurance of eternal life. To a pastor, the baptismal sign would cha-ching on our eyeballs. But Jesus sees something no one else sees.
"Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked.
Jesus spots the phonyness. He calls the guy out. He knows the difference between living faith, an parrot faith. And this guy is parroting. He's saying the right words in the right way. But what he's not doing is being honest.
"Only God is truly good." [Jesus adds]
It's as if Jesus is drawing the guy to himself. Trying to help him see his own pretension. Because the worst kind of hypocrite is the sincere hypocrite. And while it sounds like an oxy-moron its true. There are hypocritical people who recognize their hypocrisy. But then there are those who sincerely think they are on the right path. Everyone else sees their phoniness, but they can't see it. Jesus continues:
"[T]o answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother."
I have to admit. This is weird. Jesus' answer to his question is actually kind of annoying. I mean, it was just common sense for the day. Everyone believed that in order to gain eternal life you just had to live a good life. And this guy would have known that so he came seeking a deeper answer. But Jesus didn't give him one. Instead he gave him the same thing everyone else would. Why?
"Teacher," the man replied, "I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young."
I can sense the frustration in his voice. He is looking for something deeper! But he isn't getting it. So he challenges Jesus to give him something deeper. But Jesus doesn't.
Why? Because the young man was not the only one looking for something deeper. Jesus was looking for something deeper as well. He was looking for the young mans honesty. He was craving authenticity. He was longing for true connection. But the young man could not give it. While he knew something was missing in his walk with God he was unwilling to admit that the missing piece was himself. And until he admitted that he was insufficient, until he admitted that he had not kept the law and in fact never could keep the law, until he admitted that his problem was not out there but in his own heart Jesus could never help him.
In a sense, those of us raised in church are in a bit of danger. In order to make us immune to the flu virus doctors and pharmacists will inject us with a small portion of the virus that strengthens our immune system and make us - ideally - immune to that strand of flu. In other words, they give us just enough of the flu to make us immune to the real thing. And most of us have just enough God to make us immune to truly knowing him. And that was the problem with this man. He had just enough God to make him immune to truly experiencing God. By quoting the commandments Jesus' wasn't telling the young man that he could go to heaven by being really good. He was trying to help him realize that he could never be good enough. If the ruler was honest he would have cried out to Jesus "I can't do what you ask! I'm too sinful and selfish." But instead of being honest, he decided to play holier-than-thou and said "I've done all this since I was a kid".
The first step to a true relationship with Jesus is transparency. Come to God thinking you are all that and a bag of chips and you will never experience him. You may learn and learn and learn about him and become the greatest Christian philosopher of the 21st century. But you will miss out on knowing him. Because in order to know God you have to let go of your pretensions, your masks, and your self-adulation and come before him naked, with your heart bleeding and broken, with your life falling to pieces, with your doubts and fears, with your frustrations and failures, and with your sin and shame.
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. "There is still one thing you haven’t done," he told him. "Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
Jesus is trying here. He's trying to help the young man realize that he hasn't kept the law. Because God's law is a law of love and this young man is selfish! So while he may keep the law externally, his heart is still out of harmony with God. His real god is money, success, wealth. And he used his religious knowledge and his pretentious philosophical questions as a way to cover the fact that he did not love God. He loved himself. And Jesus saw right though it. Because Jesus always sees right through us. You think you are all that? You think you are holy and without sin? You think you are sinless and godly? We'll let me put you to the test to find out if its really true. Take your god of money, and wealth, and success and give it away. Take all your worldly possessions and sell them, then give the money to those who are suffering, hungry, and destitute - give it to them.
Then come and follow me.At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Now the truth emerges. he said the right words, performed the right motions, and could even boast that he had done the right things but he was a fake. in his heart, he didn't truly want God. Was Jesus suggesting you can go to heaven by being good enough? No. Jesus was trying to help the guy see he could never be good enough. He was trying to get this guy to admit his insufficiency, because until he admitted it he would never be able to truly experience God. But he didn't get it. Instead, he walked away from Jesus choosing to trade a real relationship with God for a fake, wanna-be religion that left him selfish, indifferent, and empty.
Some of us have not truly surrendered to Jesus. we just say the right things, and do the right things, and act the right ways, and post the right Facebook statuses, and sing the right songs, and quote the right verses, and pray the right prayer and all the while Jesus is standing by saying, I want something deeper! But you can never give him something deeper unless you give him all that you are and allow him to take it all.
I don't know who or where you are, but whatever the case I invite you today. Come to the cross. Come broken. Come weak. Come humiliated. Come phony. Come selfish. Come lustful. Come ashamed. Come confused. Come tired. Come weary. Come lonely. Take off your mask. Remove the robe of pretension. Throw off the shackles of phoniness. And come to Jesus. And when you do that I promise you, you will not walk away with information. You will walk away with an experience. You will taste the heart of God full of forgiveness, and grace, and power, and cleansing, and joy, and freedom, and rebirth. You will never be the same again.
In Isaiah 29:13 it is written:
And so the Lord says, "These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote."
Sounds like the rich young ruler. But lets not stop there. Ask yourself, does this describe you as well. Jesus is longing for a deeper relationship with you. And you can have it today. Stop playing church. Stop acting the religious part. Just be real. Give him your heart as it is. Do it today. Do it again tomorrow. Do it the day after. Do it every day for the rest of your life and you will see that your faith will no longer be a theoretical concoction of philosophically plausible suppositions. Instead it will be a living, breathing, active, life-altering experience.
A few years ago I was sitting in a church history class at SAU listening to the professor when he said something crazy cool. At the moment, I didn't realize how cool it was. In fact, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that it finally hit me. As the lecture progressed the professor shared a personal experience with us. During his years as a historian he had performed a detailed study of an Adventist pioneer by the name of EJ Waggoner. But this was no ordinary study. Our professor had literally poured through the life of Waggoner. He read everything and anything that had to do with him from personal letters to sermon manuscripts, articles, and books. He read what others had to say about him and about the experiences that his contemporaries had with him. In short, my professor skipped nothing that was even remotely related to Waggoner. He poured through his life with as much precision as humanly possible. Waggoner was his study.
And then came the crazy cool line. "I have spent so much time studying Waggoner that I feel as though I know him personally."
Only, at the moment I didn't think anything of it. It wasn't until a few weeks ago as I pondered my relationship with God that it finally hit me. My professor may have known everything there was to know about Waggoner - his beliefs, his activities, his hobbies, his imperfections, his family, friends, and legacy but there was one thing that was undeniable: Although my professor felt as though he personally knew Waggoner the fact remained that he did not. He had never sat down with him. He had never heard his voice. He had never laughed with him while sharing a dinner or travelling on a buggy. He had never experienced life with the living and breathing Waggoner. At best, all my professor could say was that he knew more about Waggoner than anyone else. But he didn't actually know Waggoner. Waggoner lived and died long before my professor and with his body resting in the grave the best my professor could do was know about him and try, as best as possible, to identify himself with the legacy and memory of this man. But try as he may, he could never actually know him.
What this means is that a person cannot simply be known based on details, data, and facts. A person can only be known when life is shared. That is truly the only way.
But here comes the hard part. How many of us, like my professor, know so much about God that we "feel" as though we know him but we really don't? How many of us have honestly fooled ourselves into thinking we truly know him when in reality all we have are details, data, and facts. We have never done life with him.
So, do you truly know God? Or do you know so much about him that you have convinced yourself that you know him? Are you settling for the shallow waters of information while avoiding the ocean of God's presence?
Let me put this in a different way. I often hear Christians talk about how they want something deeper but what if Jesus is the one looking for something deeper? Could we be demanding the very thing we refuse to give?
What if our Christianity is fake? What if our Christianity is the product of information without experience? Is it possible that we have constructed a graven image of God using ideas instead of stones? A God who we can keep happy so long as we say the right things at the right times and pray the right prayers and sing the right songs and shout the right words and quote the right verses?
I don't know about you, but that sounds kind of lame to me. Something tells me Jesus is longing for something deeper not just us. In the next post I'll begin to explore what that looks like though the life of a man Jesus spoke with. Stay tuned.
Christmas is here! Aren't you excited? I hope so, because this is seriously "the most wonderful time of the year". And as we all enter our celebration modes, I would like to take a moment to share a devotional article to help keep your gaze on Jesus during this festive season. Sadly, the Bible doesn't tell us what Jesus first words as a baby were. I would love to know, but something tells me none of the biographers thought it was that important. However, the first recorded words of Jesus give us a lot to think about as we celebrate his birth.
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” – Luke 2:49
The Passover Chronologically speaking, these are the first words Jesus ever spoke recorded in scripture. At this time, Jesus was only twelve years old. His parents Mary and Joseph had taken a trip from their home town in Galilee up to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. Now what was the Passover? It was one of the many festivals that the Jews celebrated throughout the year. The Passover began when they were slaves in Egypt. The story goes that the nation of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for about 300 years. Then one day, the Egyptian Pharaoh decided to kill of the male Hebrew newborns because he wanted to control the Israelite population. However, one mother hid her son in a basket and placed the basket in the Nile River. That sons name was Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter ended up finding Moses and he became her son. God used Moses to deliver Israel from Egyptian slavery. Moses became Gods ambassador to Pharaoh and requested that Pharaoh set the people free but Pharaoh refused. Every time Pharaoh refused God sent a plague on Egypt. First, all of the water in Egypt turned to blood. Then swarms of frogs invaded the country. After that the dust in Egypt became gnats and tormented the people. This was followed by swarms of flies, diseases on the livestock, boils, thunder and hail, locusts and darkness. After all of this Pharaoh still refused to let Israel go so God had to resort to something He never wanted to do: Death. God instructed the people that He would come and all of the first born in Egypt would die irrespective of persons. The only way to avoid this was to take the blood of a lamb and paint the door posts of the house with it. When the Lord came through and saw the blood on the door posts He would pass over that house and nobody would die. If He didn’t see the blood the first born would die. Moses then told Israel, “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.” Shortly after this final plague Pharaoh let Israel go. The Lamb Over a thousand years had passed and the Israelites still celebrated the Passover. It was a reminder of Gods power to save. However, it was also a reminder of something more profound. God didn’t show up to kill the firstborns of the Egyptians. No. Anyone who had the blood on the doorposts of their house was passed over. If an Egyptian believed this and put blood on the door posts of their house God would pass over them. If an Israelite didn’t believe this and refused to put blood on the door posts of their house their first born would die. In other words, God didn’t choose who to bless and who to curse based on their race or nationality. No. God chose who to bless and who to curse based on who had the blood. In reality, it’s more accurate to say that God didn’t do the choosing. The people did. Those who chose to accept the blood chose life. Those who chose to reject the blood chose death. God simply carried out the result of the choice. However, the message remains the same: the only hope was the blood. But not any old blood. It had to be the blood of a lamb. According to the Bible, that lamb in Egypt represented Jesus. And in the same way, as God judges this world He doesn’t do so based on race or ethnicity. He does so based on the blood. If you have accepted Jesus as your savior the blood He spilled on the cross covers you like the blood covered the door posts. When God judges you, you don’t have to be afraid because of the blood. However, there was one more thing. It wasn’t just about putting the blood on the door posts. It was about eating the flesh of the lamb as well. While the angel of death was searching in Egypt, those who had put the blood on their door posts were also instructed to cook the lamb and eat it. So what does this mean for you and me? We can’t use the blood of Jesus as “magic” to escape judgment. When we claim the blood of Jesus we automatically claim his flesh as well. Now what in the world does that mean? I’m going to use an old word to explain it. The word is “partake.” To partake means “to be active in. [To] have, give, or receive a share of.” When we accept the blood of Jesus over our life we automatically chose to partake of him as well. He is the lamb that was slain so that others could live. He is the God who gave his life so that I could have it and have it forever. When I choose Jesus, I don’t just choose a ticket to heaven. I chose an experience. I partake of him. I walk with him, talk with him, share with him, grow in my relationship with him, and become the kind of person he created me to be. A lot of people want the blood to cover them but they don't want to eat the lamb. In other words, they want Jesus to forgive their sins but they don't want Jesus to live inside of them. But it doesn't work that way. You cant have the blood without the flesh. You can't have the forgiveness without the experience of Jesus within, This is salvation. It’s God covering me with his own blood and then coming inside of me and changing my life for his glory. Back to the Story The time for the Passover had come. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate as they did every year. However, something was different this year: Jesus was now twelve years old. For a Jew, this is a really big deal because at the end of the twelfth year they pass from childhood to youth and are given more responsibility. So Jesus is now on the verge of a new experience. With that in mind, the family goes to Jerusalem and celebrates the Passover with countless other Jews. When the festival is over they head back home. On the way home however, Mary and Joseph are shocked to discover that Jesus is not with them. Now allow me to clarify. It’s not that Mary and Joseph were blind. When they went to Jerusalem for the Passover they didn’t just go in the family minivan. No. They walked there with their families which probably numbered high in the double digits. Joseph most likely walked with the men and Mary with the women. All the uncles, aunts, and cousins were there along with many other relatives like Joseph’s other sons. Under such circumstances it would have been easy to leave Jesus behind. Mary could have assumed he was with Joseph, and Joseph could have assumed he was with Mary. Or perhaps they both figured he was with his cousins or half-siblings. Whatever the case, when they had gone a day’s journey they found out he wasn’t with them at all. Immediately mom and dad did a 180 and high-tailed it back to Jerusalem. The story says that they looked for him for three days. I can’t imagine what those three days would have been like. The stress. The anxiety. The sleepless nights. Then finally on the third day they found him in the temple sitting with some of the religious leaders listening to them and asking them questions. The Bible says that, “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Can you imagine? A group of seasoned religious scholars and theologians who were amazed at what a twelve year old boy, who was the son of a carpenter and lived in a small town, had to say. This isn’t because Jesus was God though. When Jesus (who is God the son) came to this world and became a man he emptied himself of all the power and knowledge he had beforehand. He never stopped being God, but all the advantages available to him as God were put aside. Jesus mother Mary had to teach him the Bible and tell him who he was and what his mission was. Therefore, Jesus' astonishing answers in the temple that day were partly due to how Mary had raised him. But now we come to the climax of this story. Here is Jesus at his first Passover. The Lamb represents Him. The blood represents his blood. The entire feast is a celebration of his future death for the sins of mankind. He is the son of God, the spotless lamb that takes away the sin of the world. Now I don’t know how. Maybe Mary told him. Maybe the Holy Spirit revealed it to him. Maybe he discovered it by studying the Bible for himself. Or perhaps it’s a combination of all three, but somehow at twelve years old Jesus got it. He figured it out. He was the lamb. All throughout the festival Jesus watched as the lamb was killed. He pondered as they ate the flesh of the lamb. He stayed up at night staring at the stars and talking to God. It all made sense now. People in town said he was an illegitimate child. They said Joseph wasn’t really his father. They made fun of Mary’s so called “angel” story. But Jesus knew her. He knew she wouldn’t lie. Joseph wasn’t really his dad. So who was? Now as he lay in Jerusalem during the Passover festival it finally made sense. His father was God – not in a literal sense because He was God too – but in a temporary sense. The Holy Spirit had miraculously implanted God the son into the womb of a human woman. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. Jesus probably didn’t know either. But he believed it by faith. Just as you and I have to accept that he is Gods son by faith, he also had to accept that he was Gods son by faith. Once Jesus had this epiphany he couldn’t wait to go and talk to the religious leaders. He probably wanted to know how much they knew about the prophecies and types concerning the savior. He also remembered that in the Bible it said that Gods presence was in the temple. In his twelve year old mind he probably figured, maybe I can find my father if I go to the temple. He was so enthused by this he didn’t even notice his family leave. God was his father. He wanted to be in his Father’s house. He wanted to meet him. Jesus was probably disappointed to find that Gods presence wasn’t in the temple as it had been in the old days. Wanting to know why he approached the religious leaders and asked. From there the conversation progressed. I don’t know where Jesus slept that night. Most likely he slept somewhere around the temple grounds, but he hung around the temple for at least five days. Why five? Well, he was there during Joseph and Mary’s journey back. They had gone for a whole day when they noticed he wasn’t with them. Then, they came back which would have been another whole day. Then it took them three days to find him which adds up to five. When they finally found him Mary said, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Jesus turned. He smiled. Immediately after, his very first words recorded in the Bible are spoken. I bet he said them with confidence. With joy. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Why Should I Care? These are the very first words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament and they say something powerful about Jesus: That he was the son of God. Deity. God made man. He was and is and will forever be God. How amazing that God would make himself a man, empty himself of all his power, and live with humankind in order to win them back to him. What other god is like that? What other god has ever gone so far to save mankind? What other god has ever gone so far to save me? The words of Jesus also show us something else. When Mary asks him why he had gone missing, Jesus’ reply was, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” In other words: “It shouldn’t have been hard to find me. You know this is the only place I would be.” Why? Why was Jesus so fascinated with the temple? Because in Jewish times the temple wasn’t a place to go sing songs and hear a sermon. The Jewish temple was specifically designed to reveal to the world the entire plan of salvation. The Jewish temple announced the foundational reality of salvation and it’s this: “You can’t save yourself. I will do it. So I’ll come down. Become a man. Live a perfect life. Die a sinner’s death. And by doing so, I will make salvation available to everyone who believes." This was the message of the Jewish temple. And Jesus was its fulfillment. The lamb came down and gave his life for mankind. Before sin even entered the world God had a plan to save humanity. Jesus was that plan. He was “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” So as you celebrate Christmas this year, keep in mind the little baby boy, born to live, to conquer, to suffer, to die, and to rise again - the perfect sacrifice that makes our eternal salvation secure. Merry Christmas! ___________  Rhymezone.com. http://rhymezone.com/r/d=partake_in  SDA Bible Commentary  Luke 2:47  Rev. 13:8
I have often wondered what in
the world convinces a Muslim to follow Jesus. In many Muslim countries, the
moment you convert to Christianity your wife will leave you, your husband will
abandon you, and your friends will betray you. You can lose your job, your
house, and everything you have ever worked for. Worst of all you can end up
rotting away in a prison or killed for your faith.
So what do you say to someone in these countries in order to convince them that
they should follow Jesus? In the west we would go on and on about how wonderful
Jesus can make your life. We would talk about how he can bless your finances
and give you an abundant life and make you happy and fill you with blessings.
We will tell you how much God loves us and wants us to have the best in life
and we would invite you to the best church in town with an awesome worship
band, comfortable seats, and a super cool preacher. The deacons would work hard
to make sure the building is clean and the air conditioning is just right
because we don’t want to give anyone an excuse for not accepting Jesus.
Now, I'm not knocking any of this but do
you realize that in Iraq there is no cool worship band and there is no trendy
preacher or air conditioned, cushion chair, church? Do you realize that in many
of these countries saying yes to Jesus means accepting the fact that you could
lose everything including your family and your life? I ask again, what in the
world convinces these people that they should follow Jesus? There’s nothing in
it for them. And I look at my own life and I wonder, do I follow Jesus because
I want to get something out of him? Or would I follow him even if I lost it
Well, I’m not the only person to ever have
followed Jesus in order to gain something for myself. Peter struggled with this
same exact concept. For many years Peter followed Jesus not out of love but because
he wanted something out of Jesus. Have you ever met someone like that? They
only call when they want something. They only come around when they need
something. And when you have something they need or want they are all over you
but when they get what they were looking for they are gone. I suppose we are
all guilty of that and so was Peter.
In Matthew 16: 21-24 we read the following
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must
go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief
priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the
third day be raised to life.
Matthew begins this story with the words “from
that time on” indicating that something significant had just happened. When we
look back we see that Jesus was with his disciples and asked them who people said
he was. The disciples gave all kinds of answers and then finally Jesus asked
them who they thought he was. Peter stood up and confessed “You are the
messiah.” And “from that time on” Matthew says, Jesus began to explain his destiny.
had finally come to the place where he knew Jesus was the messiah but he still
didn’t know what that meant. You see, the Israelites had been under oppression
for hundreds of years. First the Babylonians, then the Medo-Persians, then the
Greeks, and now the Romans. They were treated with cruelty, abused, exploited,
and dictated by the governing power of Rome. The Jews wanted freedom and they
wanted a messiah who would deliver them from Rome and establish them as the
most powerful nation on the earth. And this is what Peter wanted. To Peter,
Jesus was a ticket to success and not much more. So Jesus began explaining to
them what his messiahship meant, that he would suffer and be killed. Then Peter
took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall
never happen to you!” Jesus turned and
said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do
not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
For Peter Jesus' messiahship was about the
earthly kingdom. Peter wanted to be a part of that earthly kingdom. In many
ways, Peter and the other disciples were following Jesus, not because of what
they could give but what they could get. They followed Jesus mainly because
they believed that through him they would get political power and prestige. And
when Jesus said he would suffer and die Peter said, “This shall never happen to
you!” but what he really meant to say was “this shall never happen to me.” And
Jesus rebukes Peter saying, “You don’t have in mind the concerns of God, but
merely human concerns.” I like how the Voice Bible translates it. It says, “You
are not thinking about Gods story.”
To the limited eye it appears that Peter
was trying to protect Jesus, but the reality is he was merely protecting his
own ambitions. He didn’t want Jesus to die because if he did, what would become
of his own story? Peter didn’t really care about Gods story. He only cared
about his own story. And Jesus was the key to make his own story better. In
modern terms, Jesus was nothing more than a product Peter could use to improve
his quality of life. For Peter following Jesus was about “What’s in it for me?”
And the church today is filled with people who show up asking “What’s in it for
me?” And what is the end result of this self-centered Christianity? The life of
Peter answers the question, for when Jesus was taken prisoner Peter denied ever
having known him.
Why are you following Jesus? Why are the Christians in Iraq
following Jesus? What of those who have been hung, imprisoned, or shot? If
someone points a gun at your face and tells you “deny him or die” what will you
The sad reality is that today myriads of
people are following Jesus, not because of their love for Him, but because they
see Him as a product that can improve their quality of life. Jesus has been
objectified into a philosophical commodity that makes us “happy.” Christianity
has denigrated into a “what’s-in-it-for-me” religion. And church has
depreciated into a “what-can-I-get-out-of-it” performance. If that is our view
of Christianity, I wonder, what will we do when we are asked to “deny him or
die” with the cold barrel of a rifle pressed violently against our throats?
Like Peter many of us are living a Christianity that does not have in mind Gods
story, but merely our story—human concerns. And this is why Peter freaked out.
His story was too important to him and the moment he heard the words suffering
and death he was like, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I am here for! I want
to be prime minister." And there was no room in Peters Christianity for
suffering and death.
Is there room in your Christianity for suffering and
Jesus doesn’t give us much of an option.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny
themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”
In Jesus’ day the cross was
not jewelry or a t-shirt. It was an instrument of execution. To carry your
cross means that you die to yourself and your own ambitions and live for him
and his glory. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what it means to
commit your life to him: Suffering and death.
As a church we have got to stop
trying to sell Jesus. He is not for sale. We do not bring people to Christ by
telling them that if they follow him they will get everything they want. We do
not make Jesus more attractive by turning him into our personal genie. We do
not lead anyone to Christ by offering them a shallow, cheesy, and easy faith.
In his article “Are You Ready? (Thoughts on Iraq’s Christian Genocide)” Pastor
Gabriel Johnson says,
“as I listen to the messages being
preached by many of the world’s most renowned religious leaders I can’t help
but wonder if we are missing the point. Don’t get me wrong I want the big
house; nice car and enormous bank account just like the next guy. And I do
believe that the promises of God can open amazing doors in every area of life.
But when much of what I hear is how God wants to bless my business while
children are losing their lives it causes me to question our religion. Will the
belief in the promise of success sustain me when they’re trying to kill my
family or take my wife? What are we being prepared for in our churches?”
It is not our
responsibility to try and make Jesus attractive by presenting only the promises
and the blessings while ignoring his radical teachings such as “if you want to
follow me, it involves a cross.” Because following Jesus is wonderful. Because
following Jesus is the most rewarding thing you will ever do. But it involves a
cross. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing some of your closest
friends? When my wife became a Christian she lost many of her friends. Are you
willing to follow Jesus if it means alienation from your family? I have a
friend in New Jersey who got kicked out of his house when he became an
Adventist. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your job? Are you
willing to follow Jesus if it means you will miss out on all the wild things
your friends are doing? Allow me to make this a little more painful for each of
us. Are you willing to follow Jesus when people in church criticize you? Are
you willing to follow Jesus when people in church judge you? To the youth: Are
you willing to follow Jesus when the old folk in your church reject, criticize,
and insult everything you are trying to do? To the elders: Are you willing to
follow Jesus when your church is making changes you don’t like? We can’t choose
to follow Jesus based on how pleasant it is. We must carry the cross. We must
die to self. We must live for his story, not our own—even if it costs us our life.
You know, I am
heart broken when I hear about people who became Christians and then they left
the church because someone said something mean or did something wrong. Don’t
get me wrong, as a church we need to bend over backwards to make sure our youth
and new converts feel safe and welcome. But at the same time, who told you no
one will ever insult you in church? Who told you there wouldn’t be hypocrites?
Who told you there wouldn’t be hard times? Jesus sure didn’t say that. And when
we are concerned with our own story we walk away when something unpleasant
happens. But when we are concerned with Gods story we can’t walk away because
we know it’s all about him.
Some of you
are probably asking right now: This is all good and everything Marcos, but if
following Jesus involves so much suffering then why follow him? I have enough
problems in my life at the moment. Why should I commit myself to something that
is going to bring more problems? First of all allow me to say that God does
bless his children. I am not saying that he doesn’t. There are many benefits to
following Jesus and I am not denying any of those. Jesus does bring peace and
comfort and joy to our lives. He does heal the brokenness of our families and
he does forgive our sin and transform our lives. But I find it interesting that
of the 22 times that Jesus said “follow me” in the New Testament not once did
he say "you should follow me because if you do you’ll get this." Twice he
mentioned a benefit of following him such as, “whoever follows me
will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” But not once did he
say, “I am Jesus. Follow Me and you will receive all of these benefits.”
the most part, Jesus invitation of follow me is not preceded or followed by any
sales pitch. He doesn’t market himself like a new refrigerator. He doesn’t promote all
the benefits of having a Jesus-membership.
To Peter and Andrew he said “follow
me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Peter and Andrew had no idea what he was
talking about. But they followed him. Why?
To an unknown man Jesus said,
“follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.” To the rich young ruler Jesus
said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the
poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The rich
young ruler decided “you ask for too much.”
And then we come back to our story.
Peter didn’t want to suffer and die. So in the end he denied Christ. But that
wasn’t the end. Jesus came back to life. He found Peter and their conversation
is recorded in John 21.
Look at what was said,
When they had
finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love
he said, “you know that I love you.”
said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
The third time
he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt
because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you
know all things; you know that I love you.”
And look at
what Jesus says next. Pay close attention. Here it is:
And to Peter
he said, “when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted;
but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will
dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would
glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow
No benefit. No
discounts or coupons. Death. "Peter, you will be killed because of me. Now,
follow me." And years later Peter was indeed crucified upside down in Rome. What
changed? Why did Peter choose to follow Jesus when the cost was so high?
Because Peter now understood what it was all about. It wasn’t about his story.
It was about Gods story. Peter got lost in Gods story and he discovered it is a
romantic and breath taking love story. “Peter, do you love me?” Yes, I do Lord.
I love you. And that love was so strong he was willing to carry any cross,
suffer any loss, and give his very life so that God’s love story could be told.
Peter experienced Jesus. Peter tasted the love of Jesus. And Peter loved Jesus.
I have discovered that this love is the only reason why anyone should follow Jesus. This is the only
reason why a Muslim who stands to lose it all would be willing to follow Jesus.
Because they saw him. Because they tasted his love and like Paul they cry out,
“everything is trash compared to him!” I don’t want what he has to offer as
though he was some sort of philosophical commodity or some kind of product off
of the shelves in a super market. I just want Him! Love for Jesus. Live for
Jesus. Die for Jesus. No matter the cost. No matter the cross. Follow him.
Being a Christian is difficult, especially when you are surrounded by anti-Christian hostility. Sometimes, the hostility is due to misconceptions of who and what Christians are. Other times, the hostility is due, not to misconceptions, but to truth. So how can we be faithful Christians in a culture that grows increasingly intolerant of who we are? Below are some points to get you thinking in the right direction.
Recognize Your Identity
The Bible says that those who have accepted Jesus as their King belong to a new family. God adopts us as his own children. This means that the moment you accept Christ you are no longer a member of earth-family, but a member of heaven-family. Your identity is no longer attached to this planet. Your identity is now in heaven. This means that you will live forever with all those who love God. But it means something more. It means that that "forever" has already begun. So when you encounter intolerance and bigotry because of your faith, remember you are a traveler in this world. You do not belong. So don't expect to always be treated as though you do.
Because of your new identity life does change. Your life will now be in harmony with your identity. This means that you will no longer fit in to the status-quo of earth culture. You will swim against the current. You will go against the wind. You will walk opposite the crowd. You are an anti-conformist: one who refuses to conform to the norm. Embrace it. And if you really think about it, its pretty cool. The most memorable people in history were often anti-conformists. Moses who chose to side with slaves instead of empire, Daniel who refused to pray to a King, John the baptist who was not afraid to challenge authority, Jesus who stood against everything the religious powers of his day lived for and you. You who belong to a family of wayfarers. Sojourners at variance with popular culture. Your heritage is steeped in non-conformers. Brave men and women "who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and... who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated - the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground" (Hebrews 11:33-38). This is your heritage. These are your ancestors. Anti-conformity.
Live with Fearlessness
Being an anti-conformist is not easy. Jesus lived a counter-cultural life and if we follow him we too will be counter-cultural. This doesn't mean we reject or demonize culture, but it does mean that we influence it in a different direction. Where the culture is intolerant, we embrace. Where the culture is exclusive, we include. Where the culture is indifferent, we stand up. Where the culture objectifies, we uplift. Where the culture is sinful, we are holy. This kind of life requires courage. And God has promised all of his children that he will give them a spirit of "fearlessness". So live with fearlessness. Its a gift from God.
Love, not Religion
There is only one Biblical reason to be faithful to God - love. God doesn't accept obedience based on fear, or self-preservation. Only the service of love is acceptable to him. Living as a Christian in a secular world is hard. You can get bullied. You can be ostracized. You can experience moments of intense loneliness. Its not easy. But you'll do it anyhow because of your love for God. That love-relationship far outweighs anything this world has to offer. This is something those who don't know God will never understand. It's like a guy falling in love. All his friends think he's suddenly gone all weird. He stops hanging out with them as often. He sings silly songs. He spends all his time thinking about and talking to this girl. Her photograph is his cell-phones wallpaper and he might even get a tattoo of her name (bad idea!). None of his friends get him. But it doesn't matter. He's in love. This is what Christianity should be like. Love, not religion. It is that love - and that love alone - which will give you the drive to sacrifice anything and everything for God.
Thirst for God
Abraham is the father of anti-conformists. Why did he live his life this way? Paul says, "He was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10). For Abraham this world was nothing. He literally didn't desire it. He lived each day longing for another city, one not found in this world. He lived each day yearning to live in the very presence of God. The more we immerse ourselves in him and long for him the less we will care what other people think, say, or do to us. We thirst for God, not men, and that's how we live our lives.
John 15:18 If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.
John 15:20 Remember the word that I said to you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you...
2 Timothy 3:12 Yes, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
1 Peter 4:16 If any man suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God...
Matt 5:11-12 Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
One day Jesus was standing on the shore of Lake Gennesaret while the people pushed their way up to him to listen to the word of God. And He saw two boats pulled up on the beach; the fishermen had left them and were washing the nets. – Luke 5:1, 2
The disciples had been trying to fish all night and had caught nothing. They had struggled for hours but came up empty handed. I bet they were frustrated. Fishing was their livelihood and without fish how could they survive? Now, defeated, they stood by the shore washing their nets before they put them away. In other words, they had given up. It is terrible when all of your strength and talents get you nowhere. The fishermen were just that: fishermen; and yet despite their many years of experience they were powerless to do that which they were known to do best. Their pride was shot. It was a humbling experience, and with a look of defeat they returned to shore to wash their nets. As this happened, Jesus was being pressed by a huge multitude of people who had come to hear Him speak. Interestingly enough, this was happening by the lake of Gennesaret, that same place where the disciples were washing their nets. And just as the disciples were ending their day, Jesus was starting His. That’s because whenever we reach the end of our rope and are ready to quit, Jesus is just getting started. When we reach the point of defeat and feel as though we have nowhere left to go, no one to turn to, no hope for the future, and no way out; we don’t need to worry ourselves too much. There is one that sees our struggle. He knows our burden, and though He may seem far away He’s right there by the same lake of hardship and pain that we find ourselves in. He sees us! And not only that, He’s going to do something about it. Jesus isn’t some philosopher who speaks eloquently about the mysteries of life while sitting on a comfortable chair. He isn’t some politician who makes mesmerizing promises of change while building up his own prosperity. He isn’t some theologian who preaches poetic sermons about the power of God while avoiding the commitment it takes to receive that power. When Jesus sets out to fix something He intends to do what He sets out to do. For more devotional thoughts like this one subscribe to the weekly mailing list here. photo credit: Keith Chastain via photopincc
I am a Jesus-follower. My culture is koinonia. I was born and raised in church. This whole religion/ Jesus thing is not weird for me. I have been exposed to it all of my life. And one of the biggest mistakes I make when it comes to sharing Jesus is assuming that everyone else is as comfortable with him as I am. But just a half hour ago I got a taste of what it means to be on the other side of this spectrum. The doorbell rang. I thought it was Woollies delivering our groceries a little early but when I looked I saw two women - one old and one young - dressed in early 90's grandma fashion. It didn't take long for me to discover they were Jehovah's Witnesses. And while I smiled on the outside, on the inside I found myself extremely irritated. These ladies did not know me. They were uninvited to my home. And yet there they were confronting me with an extremely personal, sensitive, and emotional element of the human experience - religion. I didn't want them there, but there they were, and all I could think was how soon can this whole thing be over? They said they would come back to talk some more. I politely said "sure" mostly because I just wanted them to leave. But my mind said the opposite to my lips: I don't want you to come back and the next time this doorbell rings I am going to hide. Of course, with two super loud kids running around this house that will be impossible. This makes their future visit even more dreadful. And then it hit me. I am a Jesus-follower. My culture is koinonia. I was born and raised in church. This whole religion/ Jesus thing is not weird for me. I have been exposed to it all of my life. And if I find the aroma of uninvited religion irritating, how much more will those who do not share my back-ground? Those who hate religion. Those who are indifferent toward it. Or those who experience anxiety every time the topic is raised. What about those who have been hurt by it? Those who have been betrayed, bruised, and ostracized by other Christians? Will they not experience the same dreadful emotions I experienced? I think its safe to say, yes. Now don't get me twisted. Jesus confronts us. He is not comfortable. He is not safe. He is a lion. But we must never forget that he is also a lamb and harmless as a dove. He doesn't seek to devour, he seeks to redeem. As such, we must share Jesus in a way that does not automatically awaken dreadful emotions and the proverbial fight-or-flight mechanism. If Jesus alone is challenging enough then we should not add to the struggle by sharing him in unpalatable ways. Instead, we should bend over backwards to make sure we are not making the journey to him more difficult for those who don't share our "church culture".
When I was a soldier I met a guy named Kenny. He smoked, drank, slept with different women all the time and got kicked out of the Army for doing drugs. However, according to Kenny, he was saved because four years before he had prayed a prayer at a youth rally. He didn’t do anything to earn his salvation, and he certainly wasn’t doing anything to keep his salvation. But is this what it means to be saved? Kenny had bought into the popular gospel known as “once saved always saved.” The gospel which I have come to refer to as the “ticket version.” For him, Jesus was a ticket and nothing more. His salvation was simply a judge granting him irrevocable access to heaven regardless of how he continued to live his life. No faith was necessary. No trust or obedience. You said yes, and wallah! You are set for life. And why not? After all, we are saved apart from our works and we are preserved apart from our works as well. If works have nothing to do with our qualifying for heaven then why fuss over them? The Bible answers this question in the same passage we have been looking at. The NIV puts it this way:
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).
The Greek word for workmanship is “poiema” which literally means, “a work” but it also carries with it the connotation of an artist. In other words, we are Gods art-work. When you give your life to Jesus He begins to do a work of art within you. He begins to change you and transform you. The amazing thing is that when Paul used the word “poiema” it simply meant a work. But over time it became the root of our English word poem. A poet is someone who makes a poem. However, the poet works on the poem until it is exactly what he wants it to be. His first draft is rarely his last. Instead he returns to the poem and edits it. He fixes grammatical errors, changes words, clauses, and at times even entire sentences and paragraphs. He artfully molds the poem until it becomes exactly what he wants it to be. This is what God does with us. When we accept Christ we are saved, but God is not finished yet. He doesn’t leave us broken like He found us. He works in us and through us and for us and turns us into a beautiful poem. He then reads this poem before the universe, a demonstration of his artistic finesse, and shows both men and angels that his love is powerful enough to turn the ugly into the beautiful, the ogre into the prince, and the selfish into the loving. Thus, we are changed into his image, grow into holiness, metamorphose into Christ-likeness, and translate into his love-language not as the basis for our acceptance with God, but as the inevitable result of looking unto Jesus and being filled with his love. Works cannot save us and works cannot keep us, but anyone who claims to be saved and does not increasingly reflect the love of God is self-deceived at best. And there is a pervading ideology infecting our hearts that salvation is all about having a “ticket” for heaven. We churn at the thought of a God who demands. We roll our eyes at the word sanctification, as though it were a sour ingredient in the salvation dish. Perhaps, due to our legalistic backgrounds, we are so eager to experience the safety and joy of grace that we actually miss what grace is. And maybe, in some secret way, we envy those who believe in “once saved always saved” and try desperately to align our faith with theirs as much as possible. The end result is the “ticket” version of salvation. We talk about a relationship with Jesus, but we don’t even believe what we are saying because at the end of the day, a relationship demands a person not a ticket. And a personal relationship is either always growing, always ascending, always advancing or it becomes stagnant, cold, and dysfunctional. Billy Graham said it best when he stated,
It should not be surprising if people believe easily in a God who makes no demands, but this is not the God of the Bible. Satan has cleverly misled people by whispering that they can believe in Jesus Christ without being changed, but this is the Devil’s lie. To those who say you can have Christ without giving anything up, Satan is deceiving you.
God never leaves us the same. He never leaves us broken. He never leaves us enslaved. He never leaves us addicted. And while he doesn’t always deliver overnight, the promise of salvation is not only a new life in heaven but a new life here. A life that is characterized by radical love and other-centeredness. Andrew Farley, in his book The Naked Gospel, got it right he wrote that any gospel that fails to lead to a radical transformation of the life is “a half baked gospel.” And any person who says “I am saved by grace” while continuing to live in perpetual disharmony with the law of love demonstrates that he is still living in rebellion against God and has either never truly been saved, or thrown his salvation in the garbage bin either intentionally or through persistent neglect. A true understanding of the gospel comes when we embrace the paradoxical nature of grace and works. Such a paradox is very difficult to express in human language, and yet it is there. We are not saved by works or preserved by works, but nevertheless we are not once saved always saved. Salvation is a free gift but it must be enjoyed, not spurned. And when we enjoy our salvation, when we celebrate it and daily dance to its rhythm we will be changed, not as the basis for our salvation, but as the inevitable result of inhaling it’s fragrance. And herein lies the joy of obedience. The joy of works. The joy of sanctification. We don’t have to obey to be saved as if salvation was earned by obedience. We don’t have to work to stay saved as if grace only covered our past, leaving our present and future status dependent on our performance. But when we are saved we will obey because obedience, good works, and sanctification are the natural result of being saved. You can distinguish between grace and works, but you cannot separate them. They come together – one as the qualifier for heaven (justification) and the other as the inevitable result of that experience (sanctification) which fits us for heaven. I love the following illustration: Suppose you invited me to a meeting at Star Bucks and I arrived a half hour late. When I arrived I said, “Sorry for being late man. I was driving here and my car ran out of gas so I had to pull over. I then had to cross the street and when I did I was hit by a truck travelling 65 mph and it ran me over. And yeah, that’s why I’m late.” What would you think about my story? It would have to be one of three options. Either 1) I am joking, 2) I am lying, or 3) I am crazy. There is simply no way I am telling the truth because there is simply no way that I can come into contact with something as big as a truck and not be changed (i.e. splattered into a million tiny pieces). But isn’t God bigger than a truck? You cannot encounter Him and not be changed. It simply is not possible. We are saved by grace and preserved by grace, but make no mistake, grace is not just pardon – it is power. Power to change. Power to transform. Power to deliver. Power to transpose. Power to redeem. You cannot have it and remain unchanged for the natural result of receiving grace is an experientially life altering divine metamorphosis. And its beautiful. When I came to Christ I was broken because of my addictions and sinful habits. Controlled by my passions and tendencies. Corrupted by my DNA and corrupted even more by my own choices and misplaced allegiances. And I am so thankful today that Jesus didn’t just forgive me. I am thankful that he also changed me and set me free from the power of sin that was ruining my life. Am I still a sinner? Of course, but grace enables me to daily transcend my carnal self and live a life of integrity and purity before God and man. Am I perfect? Not by a long shot. But this I can say: When I look at my past I don’t like what I see. When I look at my present I don’t like what I see. But when I look at my future all I can see is the promise “that he who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Praise God! I am forgiven. I don’t have to continue a slave to the garbage that enslaved me. I am free from sins guilt and free from its power and I cannot wait until the day when I will be free of its presence – and that day is nearly here. So what is the best way to summarise the only gospel? Here it is: What Jesus did. Period. What Jesus does. Period. Or to shorten the formula: Jesus-only. He pardons. He transforms. He erases. He re-writes. He uproots. He plants anew. He demolishes. He rebuilds. He puts to death. He rebirths. He is the author of our faith and he is its finisher. He wrote the first word in your salvation story and he will write the last. And what is your role in all of this? Simple. Just dance. Dance with Jesus. Or to put it in plain English, enjoy your relationship with him. Grow into him. Abide in him. Lose yourself in his love. Allow your soul to be swept into his presence. Fall deeper in love with him. Is it easy? No. Is it passive? No. Is it intentional? Yes. Is it a battle? Yes. But it is always, at all times and in all circumstances, a response to his grace made possible by his grace. Nothing more. Nothing less. I began this series by saying that the book of Ephesians outlines Gods secret weapon to defeat evil. That weapon is the church – a community made up of evil, wicked, perverted, selfish people who have been redeemed. They are no longer evil, perverted, or selfish. Grace had pardoned. Grace had changed. Thus Paul could say,
As for you, don’t you remember how you used to just exist? Corpses, dead in life, buried by transgressions, wandering the course of this perverse world. You were the offspring of the prince of the power of air—oh, how he owned you, just as he still controls those living in disobedience. I’m not talking about the outsiders alone; we were all guilty of falling headlong for the persuasive passions of this world; we all have had our fill of indulging the flesh and mind, obeying impulses to follow perverse thoughts motivated by dark powers. As a result, our natural inclinations led us to be children of wrath, just like the rest of humankind.
But God, with the unfathomable richness of His love and mercy focused on us, united us with the Anointed One and infused our lifeless souls with life—even though we were buried under mountains of sin—and saved us by His grace. He raised us up with Him and seated us in the heavenly realms with our beloved Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King. He did this for a reason: so that for all eternity we will stand as a living testimony to the incredible riches of His grace and kindness that He freely gives to us by uniting us with Jesus the Anointed. For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing. For we are the product of His hand, heaven’s poetry etched on lives, created in the Anointed, Jesus, to accomplish the good works God arranged long ago.