Jesus the Healer

One of the most appealing things about Christ, no matter whom or what one considers Him to be, was His ability to heal people of afflictions that even the latest in modern medical science can’t cure.  A man born blind will stay that way throughout his life.  A woman born with autism will remain handicapped.  I could go on and on but the fact is there was never a physical defect or neurological condition Jesus couldn’t repair.  That astounding ability alone sets Him apart from every human being who’s ever trod terra firma.  And few will deem His miraculous healings fictional because they’re so thoroughly documented in the Gospel accounts.  To dismiss them is to dismiss the entire New Testament narrative as a made-up fantasy and that opinion is ridiculous in and of itself.  Therefore examining Christ as the supernatural physician He was is advantageous for any of His followers who desire to gain a fuller grasp of His divine personality.  Fredrick Buechner said, “Ever since the time of Jesus, healing has been part of the Christian tradition.  In this century, it has usually been associated with religious quackery or the lunatic fringe; but as the psychosomatic dimension of disease has come to be taken more and more seriously by medical science, it has regained some of its former respectability.  How nice for God to have this support at last!”  (I love that author’s wry wit.)

 

Since healing was obviously of great importance to Jesus and something He didn’t shy away from doing we must assume it was yet another integral reason for His leaving heaven to come here.  To consider His ability to heal nothing more than an unavoidable-but-useful bonus talent stemming from His actually being God is to downplay its crucial function in the grand design of His earthly mission.  James S. Stewart wrote, “The healing miracles were no mere incidental works of pity, but the fruit of Jesus’ strong conviction that He’d come into the world to redeem our human personality in all its aspects, physical as well as spiritual, and to offer unto God His Father whole men.”  That makes perfect sense to Christians because Christ taught us our souls and our bodies are indivisibly entwined down here and that both exert a substantial effect on the other.  Therefore it’s not surprising to read when Jesus sent His disciples out to spread the Good News in area villages He told them, Heal the sick in that town and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come upon you!’ (Luke 10:9).  Thus we can’t summarily dismiss any healing episode we feel we should move into the “strange incident” bin because we think it might be too far-fetched for the average non-believer to accept.  Supernatural, impossible-to-explain healings were part of what confirms to us that Christ was, indeed, Emmanuel; the regal name translated means “God with us.”  Otherwise we’re presenting Him as a wise, charismatic teacher/philosopher only.  Stewart wrote, “…Eliminate the supernatural from your thoughts of Jesus and you may still have something that you find valuable left; you have certainly not the Christ of the Gospels left, but a different being altogether.”  Jesus is the “real deal” in every way and we should present Him accordingly to those who don’t know Him.  Why hide the liberating truth?

 

So we know for certain Christ healed people.  What does that tell us about Him?  The country He was brought up in had a plethora of serious spiritual issues that needed addressing so what motivated Jesus to take the time to make sick folks well?  Some will surmise His healings were intended to not only attract attention but to bolster His Godly status while lending credibility to His message.  Others say since skeptics will trust only what they can see, hear and/or touch, healing miracles were necessary for providing verifiable proof of His holiness.  Yet those theories fail to hold water.  The Gospels poke big holes in them.  The Scriptures tell us our Savior was in no way a self-aggrandizing publicity glutton; that He repeatedly requested the recipients of His healing keep their miracle discreet.  Now, anyone aiming to become a celebrity would do the opposite.  This indicates the whole concept of adding to His flock via marvelous, inexplicable feats was not a central part of Christ’s plan.  If it was, He would’ve taken the devil up on his tempting offer to let invisible angels catch Him in midair after He took a swan-dive off the temple roof!  Jesus knew better.

 

Philip Yancey commented, “Yes, Jesus performed miracles – around three dozen, depending on how you count them – but the Gospels actually downplay them.  Often Jesus asked those who’d seen a miracle not to tell anyone else.  Some miracles, such as the Transfiguration or the raising of a twelve-year-old girl, He let only His closest disciples watch, with strict orders to keep things quiet.  Though He never denied someone who asked for physical healing, He always turned down requests for a demonstration to amaze the crowds and impress important people.  Jesus recognized early on that the excitement generated by miracles did not readily convert into life-changing faith.”  Another angle to ponder is this: if Jesus was just a clever, persuasive, mind-over-matter guru with a God complex, wouldn’t He have made sure His power to heal remained exclusively His own?  On the contrary, He deliberately bestowed that powerful talent upon His disciples and they, to a great extent, were able to wield its extraordinary power themselves on many occasions.

 

Christ intuitively knew all too well that, in general, miraculous acts rarely instill long-lasting belief.  The “What have you done for me lately?” mindset was as prevalent then as it is now.  In His parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus our Master said, “…If they do not respond to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16:31) and it’s hard to miss the irony in His statement.  Few are those who permanently surrender their heart to Jesus solely because they’ve witnessed something they can’t explain.  Most who decide to dedicate their lives to living for Christ do so due to the leading of the Holy Spirit to discover the truth.  It’s only then Jesus’ miraculous powers become downright logical.  So spotlight-hogging as His motivation gets tossed out the window.  Then what we’re left with is our Lord’s undeniable compassion for those who suffer.  He wasn’t “showing off” when He dared to touch the lepers’ oozing sores.  Probably lots of folks got so freaked out by His doing things like that they vowed to have nothing further to do with Him.  We must conclude Jesus couldn’t help Himself; that His overwhelming love for the oppressed always took precedence over whatever the public’s biased perceptions of His actions would be.  “Compassion” is actually a compound of two Latin words meaning “suffering with.”  That’s what Christ does for us all.  He suffers with the cancer patient.  He suffers with the abused wife.  He suffers with the anxiety-ridden, grieving father.  He suffers with the disaster victim.  And He bore all our pain, all our disappointments, all our heartaches upon the cross where He suffered the intense agony of them all.  As the Bible says, In this way what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘He took our weaknesses and carried our diseases’ (Matthew 8:17).

 

Jesus had another motive for healing.  To Him disease was an unwelcome intruder into what God had intended to be a beautiful paradise.  Like the scourge of sin, it was never the Father’s will that diseases would even exist.  But because of the iniquity of Adam & Eve it’d become a horrendous, widespread reality and Christ was determined to eradicate it wherever He came across the devastating consequences of its presence.  Our Savior didn’t patronize those who were tormented by it, either.  He never intimated the Heavenly Father wanted them to suffer nor did He say they’d brought their illness upon themselves.  He also never sighed, “Well, that’s just the way it goes.”  Not on your life.  Christ was the sworn enemy of disease, ready to do all He could to fight it tooth and nail.  When the opportunity presented itself He used healing to dispel any notions that the Prince of this World, Satan, was invincible.  In those days the popular consensus was that all afflictions were caused by the devil, including, of course, terrifying cases of demonic possession.  So whenever Jesus or one of His followers healed someone who’d been written off as “incurable” it demonstrated in spectacular fashion that Satan’s kingdom was starting to tear apart at the seams.  There was a “new sheriff in town”, so to speak.  Christ said, “…If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you (Luke 11:20).  When His 70 evangelists returned with tales of spectacular healings our Lord rejoiced and mocked His adversary, exclaiming, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven! (Luke 10:18) and there was nothing Ol’ Scratch could do about it.

 

So now we know why our Savior healed.  It’s time to investigate how He was able to.  No magic was involved.  Nothing hidden up His sleeve.  Thus it makes sense to deduce His being sinless and morally perfect had everything to do with it.  Any man or woman on the street can tell you what’s possible for a regular person to accomplish and what’s not.  But Jesus was no regular person.  He may’ve looked regular but that’s where any similarity ended.  He was God incarnate and sin couldn’t impose any limitations on Him.  He was absolute purity in a realm utterly void of purity and the uniqueness of that situation afforded Him the power to do anything He desired to do.  In 21st century terms, Christ was the “X Factor” this world had never known so it should come as no surprise He could instantly “heal the unhealable.”  That’s why, to those who’d gotten to know Him intimately, belief in His Resurrection wasn’t too tall a hurdle to clear.  They’d seen disease and even death submit to His authority so His walking out of the tomb was actually par for the course.  “…God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:24).  Simply put, there’s never been anyone like Jesus.

 

We should also never overlook the power unleashed by the dynamic strength of our Redeemer’s faith in His Father.  It was solid, unassailable.  One time the disciples were befuddled by their failure to exorcise a particularly stubborn demon while their Master drove the vile imp out with a single command.  Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why couldn’t we cast it out?’  He told them, ‘It was because of your little faith’ (Matthew 17:19-20).  They’d been bold, alright, but in the back of their minds they’d harbored just enough doubt to prevent them from being successful.  With Christ, however, there was no lack of confidence and the demon knew he had to vamoose.  Jesus told us “…If you have faith and do not doubt …even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.  And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive(Matthew 21:21-22).  Our Lord definitely “walked the walk”, showing us what unrestrained faith is and what it can do.

 

But one may ask, “How then were the followers of Christ able to heal the sick at all?”  Easy.  It was because they had unwavering faith in Jesus and, through Him, in the Heavenly Father.  By the same token, the unbelief exhibited by groups of people who refused to accept Christ as the promised Messiah kept them from receiving His miracle healings.  In Nazareth our Lord was thwarted from doing much good.  The crowd grumbled, ’Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?  Isn’t his mother named Mary?  …Where did he get all this?’  And so they took offense at him.  But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own house.’  And he did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:55-58).  Yancey wrote, “Jesus never met a disease He couldn’t cure, a birth defect He couldn’t reverse, a demon He couldn’t exorcise.  But He did meet skeptics He couldn’t convince and sinners He couldn’t convert.”

 

One of the keys to a person’s getting healed of various hurts, hang-ups and habits by way of Celebrate Recovery is the level of belief they have in Christ’s ability.  The ministry’s leaders try to encourage all potential overcomers by exposing them to CR’s helpful lessons and true-to-life, heartfelt testimonies delivered by other recoverees while their sponsors will constantly fertilize their mustard seed-sized faith that Jesus can do what nothing and no one else has been able to do – heal them.  Our Lord was always on the lookout for folks who had the courage to trust in Him.  When a centurion of the Roman army sent for Christ to come and heal his ailing slave (a risky career move, no doubt) our Savior went.  Declaring he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus enter his house, the centurion requested only that Christ “say the word” and then his servant would be good as new.  When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him.  He turned and said to the crowd that followed him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith!’” (Luke 7:9).

 

The bottom line is this: In Christ the omnipotent power of God was literally present here on our planet.  Jesus has no human equivalent in all of history because He came from heaven.  The one who comes from above is superior to all.  The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things.  The one who comes from heaven is superior to all (John 3:31).  Jesus came from above.  That’s a fact.  Else He would’ve never been able to heal a single individual, much less hundreds.  All Christians must embrace that fundamental truth as tightly as we can if we’re to make a difference in this mixed-up, fallen world.  Yancey said, “To put it mildly, God is no more satisfied with this earth than we are; Jesus’ miracles offer a hint of what God intends to do about it.”  Stewart summed it up succinctly.  He wrote, “The story of Jesus, who went about continually doing good to men, is the story of immeasurable energy in contact with measurable need.  Here the eternal love of heaven was meeting the transient tragedies of earth.  Nothing else could have happened on that battlefield but what did happen: need and tragedy had to own themselves defeated, and love and life were victors.  For the work of Jesus was the work of the everlasting God.”

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Our Worst Enemy

Gotta be Satan, right?  Nope.  According to Jesus it’s sin.  The devil’s prominent on the list of enemy combatants but the champion destroyer of souls is our own iniquity.  What makes it the worst of enemies is so often we invite it into our lives, our families and our workplace as if it’s harmless.  We forget sin’s the main reason the Heavenly Father sent His Son to die for us.  The Scriptures confirm it: “…You will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins(Matthew 1:21).  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).  “…This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28).  Sin had ravaged the planet so completely the story of the Garden of Eden had attained fairy tale status.  While Satan is no doubt a formidable foe to be dealt with our biggest problem is the sin that dwells in every human heart.  Thus Christ had to address it boldly as He went about establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.  I’m talking about my sins.  Your sins, too.  All our sins combined.  That’s why Jesus usually referred to sin in the plurality.  He never wasted time explaining where sin came from or why God allows it to flourish.  His focus was always on guiding His Father’s lost children back to the loving home sin had led them to leave behind.  Jesus came to free us from its tyranny.  In this essay I’ll be highlighting not only what Christ had to say regarding sin but what He did about it.

 

Every Jew knew sin was the breaking of any Mosaic commandment.  But “the Law” in general was viewed as something “outside” a person.  Jesus reversed that thinking, exposing the true “inwardness” of sin.  Throughout His Sermon on the Mount Christ revealed the truth that our thoughts and attitudes can be every bit as sinful as our observable acts.  Up till then folks, including the priests and rabbis, considered their mental activities to be wholly private and therefore not subject to God’s rules of righteous behavior.  Jesus cleared up that misconception pronto.  He implied everything about us is inherently sinful and only God’s grace can release us from its oppression.  He said we all have a heart problem.  “…The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person.  For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:18-19).  Our Lord went even further.  He said our sin’s not only an affront to our Heavenly Father, our habitual embrace of it breaks His heart.

 

James S. Stewart wrote, “The deepest shadow in the story of the prodigal isn’t the sufferings of the sinful son; it’s the sorrow of the lonely father.”  We must comprehend every sin we commit is another rusty nail driven into the tortured body of our crucified Christ.  Sin’s the most repulsive thing about us.  That’s why Jesus never downplayed the abject seriousness of sin.  The Pharisees misconstrued His mingling among those they deemed to be the dregs of society, citing it proof He condoned their sins but that was never the case.  Christ didn’t hate sinners.  He hated the sin that had crippled them and ruined their lives.  We’re not the object of His animosity; sin is.  It’s because of sin He repeatedly characterized people as being “lost” or “perishing.”  If anyone has doubts as to how serious sin is in the eyes of God they need only take in the grotesque spectacle of the cross.

 

We humans are also slow to savvy that all our sins have consequences.  Jesus talked about that.  First of all they bring about literal penalties.  Our sins wreak havoc on our health and well-being.  Our sins ruin our families, marriages, friendships and reputation.  Most people come to Celebrate Recovery meetings because sin’s moved in, taken over and devastated their lives.  This universe is the creation of the great I AM and it’s fundamentally a moral one so when we think or behave immorally we bring hardships on ourselves.  Christ once told a man He’d recently healed, Look, you have become well.  Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you (John 5:14).  His miraculous healing didn’t render the man immune from the effects of future sins.  The thing sin attacks most covertly is our conscience.  It wasn’t just self-loathing eating at the prodigal in the pig sty, it was guilt.  He planned to confess to his dad, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son (Luke 15:21).  And it was their convicting consciences that made the bent-on-vengeance mob drop their rocks when Jesus asked for the sinless among them to hurl the first stone in John 8.  It was shame that set Peter to weeping bitterly after denying his Master in Matthew 26 and caused the traitor Judas to take his own life in Matthew 27.  When Christ said He was here “…to proclaim release to the captives(Luke 4:18) He was informing us sin’s strong enough to enslave us.  When some objected to that statement He said to them, “…I tell you the solemn truth, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin (John 8:34).  Those of us who’ve battled an addiction of one kind or another know all too well the vice-like grip sin can attain over one’s will.  And sin can make you feel powerless to fight it.

 

In time sin can turn a heart into a granite block, impervious to the Gospel truth.  Stewart wrote, “It’s not that God predestines any soul to destruction.  It’s not that God shuts any man out into the darkness.  But a man may shut himself out.  He may go on in sin until he loses the very power of recognizing goodness when he sees it.  It’s the nemesis of sin that it impairs the judgment, blinds the vision and hardens the heart until even the glory of God on the face of Jesus may mean nothing.”  Yet it’s the eternal ramifications of the unrepentant life that so concerned Christ.  Namely, permanent alienation from the Father.  To enjoy forever the inexpressible blessings that pour forth from nurturing and fortifying a personal relationship with their creator is God’s greatest gift to men and women.  Sin’s the only thing that can make that gift impossible to receive while belief in Jesus is the only thing that can make it a reality.  Christ also taught the consequences of sin aren’t limited to affecting only the sinner.  Sin’s wicked tentacles poke into the lives of those around us.  As Tennyson stated poetically, “Our echoes roll from soul to soul.”  Jesus was sinless yet He bore the full brunt of sins He didn’t commit; sins He had nothing to do with whatsoever.  The price of sin will be paid and too frequently it’s others who have to pony up.

 

Speaking of which, Christ didn’t shy away from confirming that judgment awaits us all.  There are those who refuse to believe judgment even exists but the Bible’s clear on the subject.  Jesus spoke about it frankly and extensively in Matthew 25 and Luke 12 if you want to check it out.  Norman Geisler wrote, “God’s justice demands that sin be punished, but His love compels Him to save sinners.  So by Christ’s death for us His justice is satisfied and His love released.  Thus there’s no contradiction between absolute justice and unconditional love.”  So, yes, everybody will be held accountable for their sins.  The difference-maker is dying to your self and becoming born again in the Spirit.  Otherwise you’re on your own, kid.  I can’t help you.  It’s quite understandable if the idea of being judged by your Father frightens you but hope is available; glorious, liberating hope!  Christ is the fail-safe, surefire remedy for sin.  The antidote for the terminal disease of sin is the forgiveness He bought for us with His own shed blood.  His love for us overwhelms sin.  He’s the debt-canceling reconciler, the relationship restorer and the ultimate cure for what bedevils us and steals our joy.  Now, don’t misunderstand.  Our past sins will still take their toll.  Jesus forgave the thief on Calvary but nonetheless the man still died.  Salvation took care of his eternal soul but this fallen world still demanded its pound of flesh.  Even Christians get the blues.  But we should never overlook what forgiveness can do for the heart of a sinner.  Knowing we’re now “right with God” can provide us with a new perspective on our former sins that lightens our load going forward.  How’s that possible?  It’s easy.  Sin’s simply no match for the grace of forgiveness.

 

Tragically, too many people today don’t know what God’s grace is capable of fixing.  They think they’re “too far gone” to be redeemed.  Sin’s hold on them is too tight.  All their bridges burned and there’s no going back.  They feel they’ve been irreversibly damned by their sins.  Jesus addressed that defeated point of view in what most think is His greatest parable.  The prodigal had squandered everything.  Even his bloated pride had skedaddled.  Out of options, he crawled home feeling he’d no right to even be considered a family member.  If he was lucky he might get hired on as a ditch digger.  I’ve met many who felt similarly ashamed and beat down until, just like the prodigal, they spotted their Heavenly Father running down the road to welcome them home.  They barely got the words “I’m sorry” out before they found themselves enveloped in the everlasting arms.  There was no probationary period.  Forgiveness was instant.  In the Kingdom of God paupers turn into princes every day.  All it takes is turning for home.  There all, and I mean all, is forgiven.  We serve a generous God who doesn’t know what holding a grudge means.  That’s what Christ was dying to tell us.  Hope abounds.  Brennan Manning wrote, “It remains a startling story to those who never understand that the men and women who are truly filled with light are those who’ve gazed deeply into the darkness of their own imperfection.”

 

Jesus taught another astounding trait of the Heavenly Father is His ambition to pursue us despite our sinful nature.  He doesn’t wait for us to muster up the gumption to seek reconciliation with Him.  Everything comes from God, even our desire to know Him.  If it was left to us we’d conceitedly think we could earn our way into Graceland.  Foolishness!  We could never be that good.  Christ’s parable of the laborers in Matthew 20 emphasizes that very point.  Salvation isn’t a matter of merit but exclusively a byproduct of amazing, freely-bestowed grace.  And our Savior was adamant about His being “…the way, and the truth, and the lifeand that No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  No ambiguity exists when it comes to what Jesus claimed to be.  He’s the provider of all justification.  He’s the embodiment of absolute forgiveness.  He’s the gateway to heaven.  Sans believing in Him, “you can’t get there from here.”  Encountering the authentic holiness of the Son of God is a life-altering experience.  It isn’t unlike peering into a mirror that allows you to see yourself as you really are.  When Peter met Jesus for the first time he fell to his knees and said, Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man! (Luke 5:8).  After a brief conversation with the Messiah the Samaritan woman raced back to her village exclaiming, Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did…” (John 4:29).  Immediately upon coming into contact with Christ Zacchaeus finally saw himself as the despicable money-grubber he’d been and vowed to make amends to those he’d cheated ASAP.  Stewart wrote, “Men felt, when they encountered Jesus, that here was one who believed in them, even when they had ceased to believe in themselves…  Jesus, by His very attitude to them, made the fact of forgiveness credible, for they felt, dimly no doubt at first, but always with growing clearness, that the love which had followed them down to the depths and now stood by them in their shame was the love of God Himself.”

 

The Bible also avers unequivocally it was Christ’s death that made it possible for our sins to be forgiven.  His unspeakably ghastly murder exposed sin’s hideousness for all to see and to remember while His glorious resurrection revealed the exquisite heart of God that never stops responding to hatred with love.  Never forget that Jesus went to the cross willingly in obedience to His Father’s will.  Therefore His agonizing sacrifice is beyond anything a sinner will ever be able to fully fathom.  No one can or ever will do for us what our Lord did to save our souls from the death penalty of sin.  Paul wrote, “…In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19).  And that message includes the positive outcome that springs from becoming forgiven.  He told us we’d at last know genuine, undiluted love.  When the woman of ill repute poured alabaster perfume on Jesus’ feet (to the chagrin of the Pharisees in the room) the Master pointed out to the host that she was merely displaying her joy over finally receiving a love she’d never known before and never thought she’d be worthy of.  He explained, “…Her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little loves little (Luke 7:47).  Forgiveness had drastically changed her life.  Another result is that those forgiven become energized with a burning desire to do good.  When Christ didn’t hesitate to forgive Peter for his cowardly betrayal it inspired the apostle to become the charismatic leader the Church would need.  And history is filled with stories of people who, having been forgiven for all their bad deeds, dedicated the rest of their life to improving the lives of others.

 

It’s vital we understand that forgiveness doesn’t equate into “what you did’s okay.”  God abhors sin and it’ll never be “okay” with Him.  Paul addressed the issue better than I ever will.  He wrote, What shall we say then?  Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?  Absolutely not!  How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2).  I’ll close with a poignant quote from Stewart: “To know oneself forgiven, and forgiven at so great a cost, is always a moral dynamic of the first order.  It’s a mainspring of the dedicated life.  It creates character.  It works righteousness.  It brings honor back to the throne.  It makes the forgiven sinner Christ’s man, body and soul, forever.”

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Father Knows Best

Ever notice that not once in the New Testament do we hear of Jesus arguing the existence of God?  Obviously He knew to engage in a debate about it would waste precious time because truth and logic mean nothing to a committed atheist.  We frequently say in Celebrate Recovery that the hardest thing to open is a closed mind and theirs is shut tighter than a submarine’s front door.  They’ll refuse to be swayed from their unmoving opinion as they spout tautological nonsense like, “There’s no God because there is no God.”  They’ll even turn their back on the scientific method that states unequivocally, “nothing can come from nothing.”  Therefore most contests with atheists over the existence of God end up in a stalemate.  They aren’t beyond redemption (no one is) but they do squander lots of energy chasing their tail.  Agnostics?  They’re a different breed altogether.  They don’t know and, furthermore, don’t care enough to seek the truth.  As I see it, a person either has a conviction regarding their Creator or they don’t.  James S. Stewart wrote, “A living conviction is bred by two things, each of them higher and deeper than argument, namely, the direct action of God upon the soul – which is revelation – and the response of the soul to that divine initiative – which is faith.”  Suitable adjectives for God evade me.  Frederick Buechner quipped, “All-wise.  All-powerful.  All-loving.  All-knowing.  We bore to death both God and ourselves with our chatter.  God cannot be expressed but only experienced.”  The Bible, the soundest and sanest book ever, doesn’t start off with “Here’s proof God exists.”  Rather it firmly avers without apology, In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1).  Jesus considered God’s existence obvious.  Thus it was a non-issue in His teachings.  His central intent was to reveal to mankind who God is.

 

Two thousand years ago belief in some kind of God (or an assortment of odd Gods) was the norm amongst all peoples.  Christ was a Jew, as were His hearers, so it only made sense for Him to go on the assumption His audience members believed in the singular God of Abraham – Jehovah.  The Torah posits explicitly, Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The “Is there a God?” thing being settled, Jesus was determined to fill in the blanks concerning what He’s like.  His abbreviated description of God always came down to something along the lines of “Visualize the best Father in your grandest dreams you can imagine having.  That’s God in a nutshell.”  In the Gospel accounts alone the word “Father” occurs over 150 times.  It’s in Christ’s first recorded utterance when He told His frazzled parents, Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49), and in His last dying cry on the cross of Father, into your hands I commit my spirit! (Luke 23:46).  Thus for any Christian to think of God being anything other than a Father is to leave out His most important and endearing trait.

 

Understand Jesus wasn’t the first to refer to God that way.  It’s there in the Old Testament scriptures where God’s often called the Father of His chosen race.  The I AM instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh, Israel is my son, my firstborn…” (Exodus 4:22).  In the later writings we detect a deeper, more intimate characterization taking shape.  David expressed, He is a father to the fatherless…” (Psalm 68:5) and As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on his faithful followers (Psalm 103:13).  Yet it was Jesus who brought the “Father” aspect of God to the forefront.  Until He arrived on the scene there were a lot of “potter & clay” and “creator & creation” and “ruler & underlings” connotations getting tossed around but none of those allegories were penetrating into the heart of the matter.  By placing our relationship to God in a familial scenario Christ was figuratively turning religious orthodoxy upside down.  The idea that God loves us more than we can possibly love Him was downright revolutionary and the implications were immense.

 

So what does Jesus mean by proclaiming God our Heavenly Father?  For one thing it indicates God’s extremely interested in what we decide to do with our lives; that, like a good parent, He’s concerned that we have sufficient food and shelter; that we’ll experience joy and contentment; that we’ll discover our purpose/reason for breathing oxygen.  He wants us to have it all!  Christ said, Is there anyone among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?  (Matthew 7:9-11).  Jesus was urging us to trust God without reservation like He consistently did.  Check out the remarkable incident in Mark 4.  The Master and His crew were crossing the Galilean Lake in a boat when a terrific storm blew in that freaked out even the most seasoned sailors aboard.  Panic set in and they grew fearful they’d drown.  But Christ?  He would’ve slept through the whole event if they hadn’t shook Him awake.  How was that possible?  It’s because Jesus had unshakeable faith in His Father.  Why?  As Stewart wrote, “Because it was God’s sea, and the waves and the wind and the dark were in His Father’s hand, and underneath were the everlasting arms.”  Christ never asks us to believe in a Father He doesn’t believe in Himself.  That kind of trust leads to a Christian developing a sense of peace, poise and steadfastness no threatening situation can disrupt.

 

According to Jesus, God not only cares for humanity and is constantly concerned about its well-being, He knows and loves each individual soul.  A conscientious father doesn’t love his family only as a communal group, he loves each of his offspring in particular.  That’s how God feels about every one of us.  While the oft-cited phrase, For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16), rings as true as ever, it’s but one side of the coin.  Christ assured us that “…there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents(Luke 15:10).  No one’s a “nobody” to God.  We see it in many of Jesus’ teachings.  The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep behind in order to find and retrieve the lost one that wandered away.  Our Lord enjoyed the crowds that gathered around Him but He was ever on the lookout for the lonely man or woman on the periphery.  In John 5 we read that, even though hundreds ringed the pool at Bethsaida, Jesus spotted and zeroed in on the one weakest, most desperately sick man who’d been waiting 38 years for a miracle healing.  When Christ went into Nain accompanied by a large gaggle of followers in Luke 7 it was the one mother grieving for her recently-deceased son who caught His attention and garnered his life-restoring compassion.  In Mark 5 we’re told that, despite a contingent of folks jostling to get near Him, the Master nonetheless noticed the one ailing woman who had the faith to somehow reach in and touch His robe.  Some of the most encouraging words Jesus ever uttered were spoken directly to one lonely, disillusioned Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  And even though the paranoid Pharisee Nicodemus showed up late at night to talk with Christ our Savior took time to counsel him one-on-one.  Saint Augustine got it right when he said, “God loves us every one as though there were but one of us to love.”

 

Since God’s our spiritual Father we don’t have to speculate about what our relationship to Him is.  It’s to be viewed as being wholly informal.  For centuries religions had been overladen with needless pomp and ceremony but Jesus came to put an end to all that vapid, mechanical posturing.  Sincere reverence is one thing, mindlessly going through a rote pattern of prescribed motions another thing entirely.  After Christ committed His spirit to His Father on Calvary the densely-woven curtain that hung in front of the “Holy of Holies” split apart from top to bottom, signifying that all people now have free, unrestricted access to God sans any structured formality being involved.  Via prayer alone we can approach the great I AM like we would our Daddy.  Jesus said, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you (Matthew 7:7).  To reiterate, if your Poppa wasn’t at all like that, then simply imagine what it would’ve been like if he’d been the most generous Dad in history.  That’s the Father you do have.

 

Another thing to contemplate is that if God’s our ultimate Father figure then any discomfort we encounter has a purpose.  For eons primitive men and women (including some Old Testament characters) thought most suffering was an outcropping of God’s wrath brought on by their disallowed or disrespectful behaviors.  While God’s administering to us “corrective measures” isn’t out of the question, it certainly ain’t His usual M.O.  Christ insisted that God loves us and, as a wise father knows is beneficial to those He loves, there are times His kids’ll need to learn some lessons the hard way.  Face it, genuine love requires doling out a modicum of discipline every so often.  Paul wrote, “…He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things? (Romans 8:32).  Stewart wrote, “Why was He not spared?  Because God had a purpose for Him, a great and glorious world-redeeming purpose; and the suffering was the road to it.”  Pain always gets our attention and sometimes it’s the only thing that can.  Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there that a father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12:7).  I know broaching the subject of pain opens up a huge can of worms and I’ll deal with its slippery contents down the line.  But for now it’s sufficient to say that since God’s our Father He takes no pleasure in seeing us contend with suffering.  The parental expression, “This hurts me more than it hurts you” is no hollow cliché.  In all their affliction he was afflicted (Isaiah 63:9).  Remember, when Jesus cried, it was God who was crying.  He’s no stranger to pain.

 

Since God’s our Father the problem of sin and our need to be forgiven gets put in a different light.  Sin becomes a more serious offense.  If the power running the universe is merely a mighty-but-impersonal force we’re only guilty of breaking some kind of static law with our transgressions.  But Christ taught that when we commit a sin we’re shooting piercing arrows into God’s loving heart – a divine heart desiring, more than anything else, to save us.  Who among us wants to intentionally hurt or disappoint our earthly father when what we crave is his love-soaked admiration, acceptance and affection?  As Jesus illustrated in His mind-blowing parable of the prodigal son, our Heavenly Father anxiously awaits our return to Him.  Of that story Timothy Keller wrote, “In short, Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God.  He’s redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved.”  Because of the cross all our sins are forgiven if we’ll only turn away from pride’s leading and go back home.  I’m a proud father of a grown daughter and son.  They’ve made some mistakes.  They’ve brought tears to my eyes.  They’ve hurt my feelings.  However, there’s nothing they could do that I wouldn’t be willing to forgive them for doing.  I’ll always take them back.  Keller added, “The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home.  The parable of the prodigal son is about every one of us.  …Jesus came to bring the human race home.”  It’s important to clarify that it’s only through belief in Christ we become eligible for adoption by our Father.  That term may sound derogatory but it isn’t.  J.I. Packer wrote, “Adoption, by its very nature, is an art of free kindness to the person adopted.  If you become a father by adopting a son or daughter, you do so because you choose to, not because you are bound to.”  It’s worth pondering.

 

The concept of God being our Heavenly Father is fine and dandy with most folks but some don’t like its implication – that, in a fashion, we’re all connected down here.  Those who harbor in their hearts racism, discrimination, judgement and mean-spirited bias against others spend lots of hours looking for a loophole that’ll let them continue to hate.  It doesn’t exist.  As we Boomers sang in Sunday school, “Red and yellow, black and white/we’re all precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  God’s not just the Creator Father of some.  He’s Creator Father to us all.  We exist solely because of Him and He’s no respecter of persons.  Thus we’re not siblings of only those we opt to like and/or get along with.  In a sense everybody is a sibling whether we agree with that common sense conclusion or not.  When Christ implanted the “Father in heaven” idea in our collective psyche He was granting us a righteous and distinctively pure motive for becoming better people who yearn to live in a better world.  It’s much more difficult to think badly of or become belligerent with say, a tired cashier at the grocery store, if you stop and acknowledge they’re a special creation of the same Heavenly Father who sent His only begotten Son to die for your sins.  It’s harder to lash out if you remind yourself in your trigger-happy moment of frustration or impatience they’re truly your brother or sister.

 

If we honestly believe to our core what Jesus told us is true then we’ll never be able to put up with for a nanosecond any thought or notion we’re in any way, shape or form superior to another person.  Any person.  That’s why developing a heart, mind and outlook patterned after Christ’s is the only hope this angry, violence-addicted planet has of achieving harmony and peace among its inhabitants.  Secularists always try to convince everyone who’ll listen they have all the answers; that God (whoever or whatever He, She or It is) is of no practical use.  Yet civilization keeps sinking deeper into the quicksand of its own sinful nature.  It’s time we come to the stark realization that mankind’s way doesn’t work worth a hoot.  Our Heavenly Father knows best and we need to listen to Him.  We are all His children, after all.

4

Jesus the Teacher

People can pursue a number of noble professions.  But those who’ve opted to be school teachers rank high on my list of those most underappreciated and underpaid.  My sister and several of her children are teachers and they should be rewarded for their service to society as a whole.  All teachers have something in common.  They have Jesus for inspiration because He’s forever the finest teacher of all.  The religious honchos of His time despised almost everything about Him yet even they had to concede His teaching genius was undeniable.  Nicodemus, representing the Jewish ruling council, once approached Christ saying, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” (John 3:2).  James S. Stewart wrote, “The teaching of Jesus, even though great multitudes throughout the world are still outside its sphere, even though many of His own followers have never cared or never dared to put it fully into practice, has had a power and an effect with which the influence of no other teacher can even for a moment be compared.  He stands alone – the great Teacher.”  While Jesus’ supernatural miracles are truly admirable, it’s His timeless teachings that’ve had the most significant impact on civilization.  Thus it’s worth our while to examine His teaching methods in order to learn how He presented His lessons, how He was able to connect with His audiences and how His message has managed to produce life-changing results in the lives of those exposed to His words.  However the real blessing that comes from such a study is that we Christians are able to discern even more about our Savior.

 

Clarifications are in order right off the bat.  I used the word “methods” but don’t take that to mean Christ relied on meticulously-prescribed formulas.  What characterized Jesus’ teachings most of all was their unscripted spontaneity.  He saw every incident as a golden opportunity to impart wisdom.  I’m also attaching the term “teacher” to our Lord when I hope all my readers understand that He was much, much more than a superb educator of truth.  He was, indeed, the absolute embodiment of truth.  It’s not His sermons that can save this fallen world and the lost souls in it.  Only wholehearted belief in His atoning death and resurrection can do that.  It’s not the teachings of Christ that redeem us.  Rather, it’s the glorious Christ who did the teaching that does.  One preacher quipped, “Jesus came not so much to preach the gospel but that there might be a gospel to preach.”

 

Christ didn’t hand out textbooks.  All His teachings were conveyed solely by spoken word.  That means preserving what Jesus taught depended on the memory capacities of a group of somewhat plain, everyday people.  That seems risky, to put it mildly.  But not when the Son of God is in charge because the seeds He asked His apostles to sow were good seeds.  As Paul wrote, So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).  Therefore Jesus had no worries about whether or not His teachings would flourish throughout the ages.  He knew there was power in The Word He brought to humanity.  A power that couldn’t possibly lose a single erg of its energy over time because He IS The WordIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God.  The Word was with God in the beginning.  All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.  In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind (John 1:1-4).  There was never a chance in hell that Christ’s teachings wouldn’t endure.

 

Another aspect of our Lord’s teachings is that quite a bit of it sprung from unplanned yet not uncommon events that went down in His presence.  Check out His chance encounter with a paralyzed man in Matthew 12.  Or the casual conversation He had with the young aristocrat in Matthew 19.  Then there’s the wisdom Jesus imparted to his disciples when He caught them arguing in Luke 9.  And who can forget how he answered the “gotcha” question posed to Him concerning the payment of taxes in Matthew 22.  Christ saw every situation, favorable or not, as a teaching opportunity.  At first glance one would surmise this “localized” brand of teaching could never have lasting relevance but that’s proven not to be the case because Jesus directly addressed the central heart of the matter at hand.  All human beings can, at some point in their own life, identify with the circumstances that prompted our Savior to teach a relevant, eternally valid lesson in that exact moment.  His statements have no expiration date.

 

Plus Christ possessed the divine ability to know His audience and where they were at in their lives.  That enabled Him to teach from their perspective.  They knew the Mosaic Law well so He often started from there and then shined a new, truth-revealing light on it.  They yearned for the kingdom of Israel to be restored so He gently introduced them to the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of God.  He did this by using uncomplicated, simple-to-savvy phrases and concepts.  He never spoke down to them but adroitly avoided feeding them more data than they could intellectually digest.  And He was always incredibly patient, especially with the apostles.  He once told them, I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now (John 16:12).  This has modern-day connotations.  Jesus doesn’t expect any believer to know everything from the get-go.  He can use even a born again neophyte to spread the Good News to those desperately needing to hear it.  Advanced spiritual knowledge is acquired step-by-step through prayer, by heeding God’s promptings and by diligently studying the Bible.  However all Christians can be of service to the Lord immediately.  In the very next verse Jesus told His anxious disciples, But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.  For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come.  He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you (John 16:16-14).  That edict is still in effect for everyone who surrenders their life to Christ.  Trust the Holy Spirit to continue to lead you forward.  Jesus was also very aware of the immense value of metaphors and the indelible impression they make on the hearer.  He painted figurative pictures that were literally unforgettable.  I often marvel at the creative artistry Christ injected into each parable and paradox He presented to His hungry-for-hope crowds.  Pictures so vivid that even the illiterate (as many of them were) could comprehend the profound “moral of the story” without painstaking explanations.  It’s fair to say in this way Jesus really did “open the eyes of the blind.”

 

When examining the exemplary teaching style of Christ it’s helpful to pull back and view the fundamental principles at work, as well.  We can’t allow ourselves to overlook the fact that Christ taught as one who knew precisely what He was talking about.  Folks could sense that about Him.  When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law (Matthew 7:28-29).  A.W. Tozer wrote, “Jesus never uttered opinions.  He never guessed; He knew, and He knows.  His words are not as Solomon’s were, the sum of keen observation.  He spoke out of the fullness of His Godhead, and His words are the very Truth itself.  He’s the only one who could say ‘blessed’ with complete authority, for He’s the Blessed One come from the world above to confer blessedness upon mankind.”  Of course, being God Incarnate, confidence wasn’t something Christ lacked.  There’s no evidence in any of the Scriptures He ever said anything like “maybe”, “I suppose” or “I could be wrong.”  What He did utter with frequency was “verily”, the modern translation being, I tell you the solemn truth…” (John 5:24).  This marked a radical change from the Jewish priests who’d never offered up an original thought in their lives.  All the Israelites were getting from them was a second-hand religion heavily steeped in tradition.  Suddenly there appeared a fresh voice out of the Galilean outback saying You have heard that it was said  But I say to you…” (Matthew 5:27-28).  This wasn’t just a load of rehashed dogma they were hearing, Jesus was boldly updating the gist of the sacred Ten Commandments!  Stewart commented that the people, “…were left gasping at the sheer daring of it, amazed and overwhelmed by the marvelous assurance of it, but also feeling with a great thrill of the heart that here was the real thing at last, here was a man who’d seen what he was talking about and knew it and had a right to speak, a man straight from God!”  Little wonder the Sanhedrin fat cats didn’t know what on earth to do with the charismatic Nazarene.

 

Another feature of Jesus’ teaching was that it was never heavy-handed or delivered with an arrogant countenance.  He never at any time employed His divine powers to compel or coerce anyone to believe what He was saying.  He never violated anyone’s free will nor did He ever intrude upon the sanctity of their individuality.  He trusted His followers had common sense.  Thus He didn’t think it a gamble to send the apostles out preaching relatively early on in their soul-saving crusade.  Christ knew practical experience is the most thorough teacher of all and therefore they’d see firsthand the spectacular results of spreading the gospel message on their own.  Plus there was always a benevolent tone to Jesus’ teaching.  People felt a kinship to Him.  Even though our Lord is superior to all, He never acted that way.  He told His disciples, I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing.  But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father (John 15:15).  By informing them He didn’t want folks to consider themselves His slaves, it proves Christ desired that men and women think things through for themselves.

 

J.P. Moreland wrote, “Trust and hope in God help build confidence that truth is a valuable thing to have because it is ultimately good.  A confident mind is a mind free to follow the truth wherever it leads, without the distracting fear and anxiety that comes from the attitude that maybe we’re better off not knowing the truth.  This is one reason why Christians need not fear the honest examination of their faith.”  Christ was interested in stimulating intellects more so than merely answering questions.  For instance, when an “expert in the Law” sarcastically asked Him, Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29), He replied by relating the inspiring story of the Good Samaritan.  In fact, many of Jesus’ timeless parables were a quick response to a questioner.  He wanted His hearers to use their noggins for more than a hat rack.  The world had more than enough conceited know-it-alls perched atop a pile of ready-made answers to bestow upon their uneducated underlings, dazzling them with their awesome sagacity.  However, Christ was never an uppity legislator of rules.  Not on your life.  What He brought to mankind was a liberating, attitude-improving spirit that’d enable men and women to not only face their difficulties bravely but to eventually achieve victory over them.

 

Yet the most impressive thing about our Savior is that He didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk.  He put His money where His mouth was and it was obvious to all who followed Him.  Unflagging faith in our Heavenly Father was paramount in His message so He drove that lesson home by displaying it via His own respectful behavior and humble demeanor.  Teaching us to love our enemies was another core goal.  Therefore He demonstrated His willingness to do that very thing by repeatedly forgiving those whose aim in life was to destroy Him.  Nurturing our intimate contact with God was also of supreme importance to Jesus so He accentuated that lesson by praying and spending time with His Father every single day.  Being a servant to others could’ve been purely rhetorical but Christ was no hypocrite.  He grabbed a towel and basin and proceeded to wash the apostles’ dirty feet in the upper room.  He didn’t just orate about the brotherhood of man; He strolled among, sat beside and broke bread with those whom society labeled lazy scumbags and worse.  He always led by example.

 

Last, but absolutely not least, Jesus’ teachings always streamed out of His mercy-saturated, grace-laden, unconditional love for all people.  If there’s a secret to the effectiveness of His teaching both then and now it’s His unfiltered affection that’s impossible to miss as we read the words He spoke to us straight from His spotless, righteous heart.  What He brought us was not yet another roster of burdensome chores to take on but a joy-filled release from the crippling strife and stress of constantly trying to be “good enough” to earn God’s favor.  We can’t always do everything right.  His closest associates often screwed up miserably, misunderstanding the lessons He taught.  Still His love for them never wavered.  He never ceased to encourage them to keep plowing forward no matter what.  Their weaknesses were no match for His empowering strength.  Stewart wrote, “And a day came (it was after Calvary and Pentecost) when at long last they had their lesson – the great central message of redemption – perfect and complete and without any flaw at all, and went forth to proclaim it to the earth.”

 

All of this begs the crucial questions of “What am I doing with the wisdom and knowledge I’ve gleaned from the lessons my Lord has granted me access to?” and “How best do I go about honoring, praising and worshiping the smartest teacher this mixed-up, crazy world has ever been privileged to know?”  These are questions all Christians would do well to ask themselves.  We should attentively sit at the feet of Jesus and train ourselves to learn all we can from our amazing teacher so we can be of use to Him not only in this life but in the exciting one to follow.  As Moreland wrote, “If we cannot be His students, we have no way to learn to exist always and everywhere within the riches and power of His Word.  We can only flounder along as if we were on our own so far as the actual details of our lives are concerned.  That is where the multitudes of well-meaning believers find themselves today.”  Oh, Lord, teach us!

1

The Bravest Men Ever

In my humble opinion they’re the twelve disciples.  That’s not to denigrate any of the courageous soldiers and dedicated law officers who’ve given their all.  They should be duly honored.  But the dozen who deliberately chose to follow Jesus wherever He led them, knowing full well they’d be incurring the wrath of their country’s powerful religious leaders (not to mention the ire of the ruling Roman authorities), top my list of heroes.  What they accomplished by seeing to it the Good News seeds of Christ’s Gospel were sown in fertile soil far and wide as instructed by their Master was an amazing feat.  Today Christianity is the world’s largest religion with its 2.4 billion adherents accounting for a third of the earth’s entire population.  Thus it’s only right I present a reasonable case for designating them the most loyal, stouthearted group of men ever.

 

First of all it needs to be mentioned they weren’t a bunch of old geezers who had nothing better to do in their golden years.  We often overlook the fact that Christianity began as a young people’s movement.  The disciples, according to most biblical scholars, were still in their twenties when they joined up with Jesus.  It’s only fair to surmise the majority of men and women they attracted to the movement were relatively young, as well.  (And we all know how unfavorably parents and grandparents look upon “whippersnappers” who buck tradition and endeavor to initiate radical changes in the way things are.)  Paul, writing decades down the line about the 500 folks who saw the risen Christ, reported “…most of [them] are still alive…” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  This clearly implies a younger demographic being involved from the get go.  We also find evidences in the forms of address our Savior employed when He spoke to His audiences.  The Greek word tekna translates to mean “children.”  In addition, sometimes the affectionate term teknia or paidia shows up in the texts.  Both connote the English equivalent of “my dear children.”  Even at the age of 30 it’s not out of place to say that Jesus Himself still possessed “…the dew of [His] youth…” that Psalm 110:3 prophesized would “…belong to [Him].”  This is highly significant.  James S. Stewart wrote, “…No one has ever understood the heart of youth in its gaiety, gallantry, generosity and hope, its sudden loneliness, haunting dreams, hidden conflicts and strong temptations …nearly so well as Jesus.”

 

So the devoted band of twelve struck out into the expansive unknown together, not knowing where they’d lay their heads at night or where their next meal would come from.  They really didn’t even know all that much about their mentor other than His being totally unlike anyone they’d met before.  To a man they were willing to endure ridicule, deprivation, serious threats and their own nagging doubts about the mission they’d taken on just to be associated with Jesus.  As it is with those of us who’ve surrendered our life to our blessed Redeemer, they were fascinated by His grace, His merciful countenance and His irresistible personality.  They wanted more than anything to be just like Him.  So do I.

 

In a world where unity and harmony are rare conditions, it’s worthwhile to note the twelve disciples were a remarkably diversified bunch.  Taken at face value, they should’ve constantly been at each other’s throats.  Simon was a nationalistic zealot.  Matthew was a reviled tax-collector.  Peter was an impetuous firebrand.  John was a moody introvert.  Andrew displayed unwavering faith and optimism.  Thomas was a born skeptic who tended to get discouraged.  It’s a testament to their fervent allegiance to Christ that they stayed together as long as they did.  Our Lord accepted each of them as they were – warts and all.  He was the glue that held them together.  No other explanation makes sense.  By placing their fidelity to Jesus above all other matters they can be accurately considered a microcosm of what the body of Christ should be.  Our Savior said, And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (John 12:32).  How He must grieve over the nonsensical racism that so bedevils modern society!  Jesus is the great reconciler of humanity.  He’s been doing it for two millennia.  His ability to bring folks together has no equal, no expiration date.  The only hope mankind has for ending all discrimination and bias is found in Christ alone.  The proof positive is clearly on display for all to contemplate in the cooperative collective known as the twelve disciples.

 

Yet logic begs the question, “What was Jesus thinking by selecting these surprisingly common men?”  The Scriptures provide the answer: He appointed twelve (whom he named apostles), so that they would be with him and he could send them to preach and to have authority to cast out demons (Mark 3:14-15).  Evidently, Christ saw something in every one of them they couldn’t see in themselves.  But what should stick out most from those two verses is that Jesus cherished authentic human relationships.  He knew, being the Son of God and all, there’d be trying times ahead to endure.  Times when no one would understand His message and when even priests would brand Him nothing more than an ego-driven charlatan.  Remember, not everybody cottoned to what our Savior was preaching.  Knowing that at the end of the day He’d be able to relax, enjoy a few laughs and share pleasant memories with trusted friends as they gathered around a campfire must’ve been an immense source of comfort to Him.  He commended them near the end of His journey with, You are the ones who have remained with me in my trials (Luke 22:28).  It wasn’t until I got involved with the Celebrate Recovery ministry over 8 years ago that I realized something huge had been missing in my life.  That something was genuine fellowship with folks who don’t judge me, who don’t try to “fix” me, who like me for who I am – an adopted Child of God.  I knew I needed Jesus.  What I didn’t know for too long was I needed all the friends I could get.  Facebook’s fine but we all require Christ-centered loving and personal interactions with other believers to grow in our faith.  I only wish I’d learned that earlier on.

 

When we read the Gospel accounts it’s easy to assume each of the twelve joined the clan the second they met Jesus.  But that’s not necessarily so.  There’s no substantial reason to think some didn’t get to know Him at least a little before they made their life-altering decision to follow Him.  They probably hung out with Him on occasion at gatherings of like-minded associates.  After they agreed to accompany Him on His preaching tours they no doubt took care to responsibly put their family and business affairs in order.  Finally the hour came when it was now or never and they purposefully embarked upon their “adventure of a lifetime.”  (The word “apostle” means “one who is sent forth” and that’s a title they all gladly accepted.)  Some critics point out what they label discrepancies in how the disciples were enlisted into the Lord’s service.  For example, Peter’s “calling” as described in John is different from how it’s reported in both Mark and Luke.  But what’s likely afoot is the story of Peter’s gradual recruitment into the group as he first becomes acquainted with Jesus and then, in time, becomes convinced it’s his destiny to get fully involved in “the cause.”  It only makes sense to view his conversion as a natural progression from friendship to conviction to a full surrender to the call of apostleship.

 

What does the Bible tell us about these brave men?  With some we’re given loads of information.  With some nary a tidbit.  This isn’t weird.  One may know all about the quarterback, running back and wide receivers on a championship football club but not know the name of a single lineman.  Yet without those talented blockers they’d never win a game.  The same’s true of the twelve disciples in that each man was an essential, irreplaceable part of the overall strategy.  Andrew’s one of the crew we know a lot about.  His name in Greek means “manly” and that provides us with an image of strength right there.  However, he’s frequently described as being “Simon Peter’s brother.”   It’s never easy to stand in the shadow of a charismatic sibling so we can assume a boastful spotlight-hogger he wasn’t.  But it was Andrew who introduced Peter to Jesus so if not for Andrew the Church might not have had the powerful leadership of Peter to initiate its establishment.  We also know Andrew was one of the young men who’d been drawn to John the Baptist’s crusade.  After John had identified Christ by proclaiming Behold the Lamb of God! (John 1:36), it was Andrew and an unidentified friend who followed Jesus to where He was staying and then spent hours picking His brain.  To say their conversation made an impact on Andrew is an understatement.  From then on, whenever Andrew gets mentioned, he’s usually introducing someone else to his Master.  It was also Andrew who found the boy with the fish and loaves Christ miraculously multiplied to feed the 5,000.  When some Greek strangers asked Philip if they could meet Jesus he led them to Andrew first.  So perhaps Andrew acted as a kind of bodyguard.  Andrew epitomizes what all Christians should aim to do foremost in this life – lead those who seek peace, healing and truth to Christ.

 

If the apostles had a spokesperson, it was Peter.  When the fickle crowds were starting to thin out Jesus turned to the apostles and asked, You don’t want to go away too, do you? Peter responded with Lord, to whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God! (John 6:67-69).  None of the twelve disagreed.  It was Peter who uttered the definitive Christian confirmation of our Lord’s divinity in his statement, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).  Obviously, Peter was a gifted leader of men, indispensable to Jesus’ ministry.  At the same time he had character defects.  He was susceptible to feeling insecure.  After his Master rebuked him with Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s (Matthew 16:23), he later responded with the whiny, selfish complaint of Look, we have left everything to follow you!  What then will there be for us? (Matthew 19:27).  And who can forget it was Peter who disavowed even knowing Christ right after our Savior’s arrest?  It appears Peter was a mixed bag of admirable and dubious traits – just like all of us are.  But Jesus made no mistake in changing Simon’s name to Peter (meaning “the rock”) because He knew what Peter’s heart was made of and that he’d develop into the firm foundation the future Church would need.

 

The apostle John was special, indeed.  Some have compared him to Jonathan, the close confidant and trusted pal of David in the Old Testament.  That’s what John was to Jesus.  He was the only one of the twelve who had the intestinal fortitude to attend the Crucifixion.  He was the one to whom Christ entrusted the care of Mary with the statement, Look, here is your mother! (John 19:27) and who’ll forever be known as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23).  Yet he, too, had his down side.  He was quick to judge the unknown healer’s motives in Mark 9:38.  In a fit of righteous indignation he wanted to incinerate a Samaritan town in Luke 9:54.  He demanded to be appointed to a prestigious post in the coming Kingdom in Mark 10:35.  Thus he was far from perfect.  Of his twin brother, James Zebedee, we have nothing to go on but we do know James was the first of the twelve to be martyred (as recorded in Acts 12:2).  If there’s one who’s gotten a bad rap it’s Thomas.  Yes, he harbored doubts, but not all the time.  It was Thomas that, when the others balked at going up to Jerusalem with Jesus, said, Let us go too, so that we may die with him (John 11:16).  While he may have been prone to fits of melancholy, he was no coward.  And it was Thomas who spoke the infamous words of recognition when he realized Christ had literally conquered the grave with, My Lord and my God! (John 20:28).  Matthew was an overcomer, as well.  Despised by his fellow Jews for colluding with the Roman occupiers, he at least clearly discerned that Jesus was the “real deal” and immediately reprioritized everything in his life accordingly.  He even hosted a “come one, come all” feast in his home to celebrate his new beginning, to announce publicly his belief that Christ was the promised deliverer, and to give his friends and acquaintances the opportunity to meet the Son of God.  Along with Paul, Matthew will forever be an ideal example of how absolutely no one is beyond redemption.

 

Like James Zebedee, there’s not much data offered in the Bible concerning five of the remaining six disciples.  (The exception being Judas Iscariot, the troubled man I’ll get to in a few weeks).  We can gather Philip was always curious about everything and that Simon “the Cananian” was a brash patriot.  That leaves Bartholomew, Thaddaeus and James the Younger filling out the roster.  To use the football illustration again, those five were on the “special teams” squad.  Just because they weren’t renown “stars” doesn’t mean they weren’t vital to the team’s ability to achieve their goals.

 

I know there’s been plenty of other brave souls who’ve come and gone.  So why call the apostles the bravest ever?  For one thing they weren’t chosen for their bravery at all.  They weren’t highly-trained Navy Seals, you know.  They were just twelve regular guys who answered the call to go above and beyond where they’d previously only dreamed of going with their lives.  Christ knew what He was doing.  “…God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks is weak to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in his presence (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).  Having witnessed what “the establishment” had done to Jesus and to the defenseless Stephen they knew they were risking horrible deaths.  Yet they fearlessly went about fulfilling the great commission – to make disciples of all the nations – and what they managed to instigate has never been matched by any group of individuals throughout history.  They’re the bravest men ever.

1

Jesus and The Kingdom of God

All new ideas/movements benefit immensely from developing a short, easy-to-savvy catchphrase that embodies its core message or purpose.  We see it most frequently in advertising whether it’s fast food (“We do chicken right”) or beer (“Stay thirsty, my friend”).  They’re the obvious ones but religion and politics use them, too.  Islam has a catchphrase (“God is God, and Mohammed is his prophet”) as did the French Revolution (“Liberty, equality, fraternity”) and America’s burgeoning democratic institution (“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”).  It’s a simple ploy, really.  Have something folks can focus on so the “thing” can quickly accumulate recruits (or consumers) and get the popularity ball rolling.  History has shown that the greatest innovation this planet has ever encountered is the Christian idea.  It also has a catchphrase, one that fosters in the mind something magnificent, something wonderful, something extraordinarily regal and something fervently to be desired – “The Kingdom of God.”

 

All leaders know the importance of coming up with and implementing one all-encompassing thought.  One that figuratively gets permanently tattooed on the brain.  Socrates’ thing was the immortality of the soul.  Buddha peddled the renunciation of life.  Luther pushed the freedom of the individual.  Hitler’s deal was no secret, either.  He wanted to conquer nations, exterminate all those he didn’t like and then rule over everybody that was left.  Every leader who ever made a name for him/herself has done so by employing one central motto that cut through the clutter and set them apart from the herd.  Of course, the most influential leader of all time is Jesus Christ and He was no fool.  He championed a sublime ideal that has yet to lose one bit of its hope-filled significance over the centuries – “The Kingdom of God.”  That thrilling catchphrase is found over a hundred times in the Gospels alone.  Jesus used it right off the bat: Now after John was imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God.  He said, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the gospel!’ (Mark 1:14-15).  He referred to it in His final discourses, as well.  To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs.  He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).  Jesus’ entire ministry was based on the Kingdom theme.  Consider for a moment how many of His unique parables begin with “The kingdom of God is like…”  And recall Christ’s commission to His disciples: Whenever you enter a town and the people welcome you, eat what is set before you.  Heal the sick in that town and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come upon you!’ (Luke 10:8-9).  But do we really know what that phrase means?  As with anything having to do with the Bible, we must avoid interpreting it to mean what we want it to mean instead of deciphering what God intends it to mean.

 

The term “Kingdom of God” has been around for ages.  The Jews knew all about it because references to it pop up in the Old Testament frequently.  However, by the time Jesus appeared on the scene the Jews’ general attitude towards the Kingdom had changed somewhat.  For instance, due to the oppressive and wholly demeaning Roman occupation, the nation of Israel had only one collective wish – that God would intervene and make His Kingdom come now.  At the same time, though, they’d completely secularized the Kingdom idea.  They weren’t thinking of it as being spiritual at all.  Material wealth, political prestige and personal wellbeing had moved to the top of everyone’s “must have” list while Jehovah had taken a plunge in the ratings.  Even the apostles found it hard to readjust their priorities.  The Zebedee brothers James and John sought appointments from Jesus to high positions in the future Kingdom while immediately following the Resurrection all of them anticipated their Master would soon “go militant” and run the Romans out of the region.  So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6).  In many ways the “Kingdom of God” had become the code word for Jewish nationalism.  I don’t have to tell you how powerful the nationalist spirit can be.  On one hand it can be a positive force for good.  On the other it can morph into an evil, out-of-control menace to civilization as it did in Germany in the late 1930s.

 

Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that in Jesus’ era the Jewish race was as nationalistic in their outlook as any ever has been.  It was deep-seated nationalism that caused the Jews to so severely disrespect their next door neighbors, the Samaritans.  Why, you would’ve thought Christ had committed an unpardonable sin just for speaking with a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well!  The story’s relater even felt it prudent to add an explanatory footnote to the incident, putting in parentheses, For Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans (John 4:9).  And unrestrained nationalism had even invaded the sacred grounds of the Holy Temple.  The religious authorities erected a sign between the outer court of the Gentiles and the inner court of the Jews that read: “Let no foreigner enter within.  Whosoever is taken so doing will himself be the cause that death overtakes him.”  In other words, one wrong turn and you die, heathen.  And when it came to what they just knew the promised Messiah would be like, Superman would’ve paled in comparison.  He’d single-handedly restore to Israel the awesome splendor of Solomon.  James S. Stewart wrote, “Indeed, in the name ‘Kingdom of God’ nearly all the emphasis was being thrown upon ‘kingdom’ and very little of it upon ‘God.’  Only the name was there, awaiting the day when it would be reborn and baptized into Christ.”  One of the main reasons Jesus met with stiff, antagonistic opposition was because He brought into the conversation a much different perspective on “the Kingdom.”  He said it was actually about the sovereignty of God in the individual heart, as well as the sovereignty of God in the world.

 

When He made the “Kingdom of God” the cornerstone of His message Jesus went up against every accepted definition of that term.  He told His listeners it was a moral kingdom, not a nationalistic one.  He told them they’d completely misidentified who their true enemy was.  It wasn’t Caesar and his ruthless goon squad; it was the devil and his invisible legions of filthy imps.  He taught, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).  Christ never let up castigating Satan every chance He got and He also never quit trying to convince folks that His kingdom wasn’t an earthly one.  He remained consistent on that topic right up to the dreadful day He got grilled by Pilate.  He said to the perplexed governor, My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here (John 18:36).   Stewart wrote, “And it is one of history’s most curious anomalies that whereas Rome, acting in the person of Pilate, crucified Jesus ostensibly at least because she could not allow the setting up of any rival earthly kingdom, and it was represented that that was what Jesus was seeking to do, the Jews, on the other hand, crucified Jesus because they did not want passionately to see an earthly kingdom set up and knew now that that was the one thing Jesus was determined not to do.”  Christ’s rule has nothing to do with atoms and molecules.  It has everything to do with the moral condition of the human heart.

 

Israel had become material-minded.  That’s why Jesus’ admonition that the Kingdom of God was a spiritual kingdom was so foreign to them.  It’s also why Christ’s temptation in the desert to turn boulders into Wonder Bread was a tough one to ignore.  Satan said to Him, “Give the folks something they have to work like pack mules every day to procure for their family for free and then they’ll be ready to listen to you preach – while they eat.”  But our Savior turned that invitation down because He knew bread slices wouldn’t satisfy the masses for long.  The Kingdom is where righteousness, peace and contentment in the Holy Spirit flourish.  It’s not an all-you-can-eat buffet.  The same rationale applies to today’s societal problems.  A huge number of well-meaning people think we can build a Utopia via secular social reforms alone.  But humans can’t achieve heaven on earth as long as hearts stay unregenerate, as long as they remain unchanged and unredeemed.  This isn’t to say Christians shouldn’t participate in and support any and all productive programs/organizations.  Being charitable is one of our essential responsibilities.  Yet the world must become convinced that good intentions by themselves will never produce lasting peace.  What folks need to understand is that the Kingdom of God is available now if they’d only search beyond the physical realm.  Jesus said to the skeptical Pharisees, The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’  For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst (Luke 17:20-21).

 

So, while the Jews could only dream of the Kingdom; Christ was insisting it was here already.  He said it wasn’t something still to arrive but a very present reality because He’d brought it with Him!  He announced it early on in a Nazareth synagogue.  After He’d read from Isaiah about the coming Kingdom being one that’d deliver uplifting news to the poor, release the captives, heal the blind and emancipate the oppressed Jesus said, Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read (Luke 4:21).  Later He implied the same to His disciples: Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it (Luke 10:23-24).  Those who have yet to have their soul’s eyes opened ask, “Well, where’s this super-duper Kingdom when we so desperately need it?”  Stewart wrote, “It’s wherever a man or woman has made Christ the Lord of life and accepted the rule of God in the heart.  That is where the Kingdom is.  And that’s the real explanation of the sudden happiness that comes to anyone who makes the great decision; it’s the other world, the eternal Kingdom world, breaking through into time, coming above the surface in that person’s life.  The Kingdom of God is there.”

 

So we’ve learned the Kingdom is about God being made the sovereign ruler of one’s heart.  But it’s also about God becoming sovereign ruler of our world.  In that sense it is social, not individualistic.  It is, after all, a kingdom.  And kingdoms need many participants.  While the roots of the Kingdom are anchored in the soil of the solitary heart, the ultimate goal has always been to establish a united, loving family of enlightened sons and daughters of God on earth.  It was never Jesus’ intention to merely save some souls and leave it at that.  His gospel was always one of expansion, of evangelism, of going out and conquering the violence, hatred and ugly self-centeredness that so infects this fallen world.  Thus the Kingdom is universal, not local.  Christ told His disciples He was a basically a divine seed-sower and that The field is the world…” (Matthew 13:38).  Jesus never said the Kingdom would only be for Jews.  Not at all.  He made it clear all are welcome to become Kingdom citizens with all the rights and benefits that come along with that distinction.

 

But one need only take a gander at the evening news to see our planet looks nothing like a magnificent “Godly Kingdom.”  Notice that while Christ told us it’s here, He didn’t say it was complete.  Big difference.  In fact, He said it awaits a final consummation.  That’s one reason He’s coming back.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “Insofar as all the odd ways we do His will at this moment are at best half-baked and halfhearted, the Kingdom is still a long way off – a hell of a long way off, to be more precise and theological.”  Jesus taught, When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne (Matthew 25:31) and Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).  What does this mean?  Stewart wrote, “…When man has done everything that man can do to build the everlasting Kingdom, it is God, and God alone, who can make that Kingdom perfect; that somehow and somewhere, in ways beyond our present comprehension, God is going to come breaking in triumphantly…”  Wars will cease forevermore.  Racism, hypocrisy and injustice will be things of the past.  Satan and his demons won’t be around to stir up trouble any more.  That’s the promise Jesus left us with, an unbreakable guarantee He signed off on in His own precious blood, painfully shed on an old rugged cross for our sins.  The last book that closes God’s Holy Word is a divinely-inspired forecast of what lies ahead and the projected grand finale is the best, most thrilling I’ve come across in literature.  Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15).  Oh, what a fantastic day that’ll be!

 

The late, great Dallas Willard summed it up exquisitely.  He wrote, “To be sure, the kingdom has been here as long as we humans have been here, and longer.  But it has been available to us through simple confidence in Jesus, the Anointed, only from the time He became a public figure.  It is a kingdom that, in the person of Jesus, welcomes us just as we are, just where we are, and makes it possible for us to translate our ‘ordinary’ life into an eternal one.  It is so available that everyone who from the center of his or her being calls upon Jesus as Master of the Universe and Prince of Life will be heard and will be delivered into the eternal kind of life.”

1

The Desert and the Devil

Early in the Gospels we come across a most meaningful story.  Considering what Jesus had just experienced in the Jordan, what happened to Him next stands in stark, nearly mind-blowing contrast.  To recap, Christ began His public ministry by leaving His safety zone in Nazareth and traveling to where John was preaching in order to get baptized.  Despite His kinsman’s mild protest (John thought Jesus should baptize him, instead) our Savior allowed Himself to be submerged in the cool waters of the river just like everyone else was doing.  When He came back up He was greeted by none other than the voice of His Heavenly Father who announced, “…This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight (Matthew 3:17).  He couldn’t have gotten more convincing evidence of His true identity!  On top of that, the third person of the divine Trinity, the Holy Spirit, then descended upon Him “…like a dove.  Thus Jesus received all the confirmation for His mission on earth He’d ever need.  Yet whatever elation He felt was to be short-lived because immediately afterwards He was “…led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).  What followed is as widely-known, even to unbelievers, as the name of Jesus is.  Christ faced not only the rigors of the unforgiving desert climate but He also had to spar with the wily, poisonous snake called Satan.

 

To fully absorb this infamous scenario we have to pose a few pertinent questions.  First off, how did this true tale manage to end up in the pages of the Bible?  After all, only the Son of God, the devil and the observing angels were “on the scene” and the latter group ain’t talking.  (Of course, Satan would prefer the episode be forgotten altogether.)  It was basically our Lord out in the badlands all by Himself.  This was before the apostles were on board so no one even knew He was out there.  Nobody was even looking for Him.  The fact is Jesus was utterly alone in the middle of nowhere for 40 long days and nights.  Therefore we must conclude that the detailed story of what went down between Him and the devil in the wilderness came from Christ’s very own lips and then faithfully passed on by His disciples.  This begs a second question, though – Why did Jesus deem it important for the world to know exactly what occurred?  He wasn’t a braggart or a time-waster so the tale must serve a more profound function.  Else He would’ve never brought it up.  Common sense would indicate Christ revealed it for His followers to contemplate in order to help them deal with the inevitable temptations they’d encounter in their own lives.  In the Celebrate Recovery ministry those who’ve achieved victory over their hurts, hang-ups or habits are encouraged to share their testimony for the benefit of those new to the program.  There’s a bounty of comfort and reassurance in knowing someone else has defeated the same temptation they’re battling.  And it’s especially uplifting to discover the greatest overcomer in the Bible is the one and only Son of God.  It’s also likely that Jesus talked about His desert ordeal because it was a unique and wholly unforgettable personal experience He went through.  It no doubt affected Him immensely and for His disciples to know all about Him and His purpose was always crucial.  It was imperative they have it permanently stored in their minds so they could write it down for posterity later on.

 

It must be emphasized that Christ’s temptation was real and not some kind of metaphorical illustration.  Too many regard it as being such, rationalizing that because Jesus was God Incarnate He was never for a nanosecond in danger of succumbing to the devil’s enticing offers.  James S. Stewart wrote, “It may be glorifying Jesus to say He won His victory always without effort.  But surely it is glorifying Him far more to say He marched to it through an agony of sweat and blood.”  Our Savior can therefore identify completely with our own faith-straining ordeals.  For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  And we should refrain from imagining that Christ was confronted by a cartoonish Satan in a scarlet onesie, complete with horns, pointed tail and pitchfork.  That’s not how the devil approaches you or me with his lures so it’d be unrealistic to suppose he approached the Lord any differently.  Think about it.  Jesus, drained of stamina and strength (both physical and mental) stemming from a severe dearth of food and water for nearly six weeks, was at the nadir of His ability to put up a fight.  In a spiritual sense, I’ve been there and I suspect you have, too.  Jesus knows how that feels.  He can commiserate with us and give us courage.  For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:18).

 

Bear in mind that any doubts Satan had about Jesus’ being the promised Messiah had evaporated instantly when he heard God audibly give Him His official stamp of approval.  Perhaps the devil decided it’d be wise to test Christ’s devotion pronto, before He had a chance to fully digest the words He’d heard spoken to Him by His Heavenly Father.  Still, Satan deliberately waited until starvation became a serious threat before tempting Jesus to use His unlimited power in a self-serving manner.  (“Hey, dude, since you think you’re the ‘Golden Boy’ and all, why not prove it by turning these rocks into crescent rolls?”)  He tempted Christ by appealing to His sense of duty.  (“My man, if you die out here from lack of nourishment won’t you be thwarting God’s plan to save the world?  Eat already!  Your dad’ll surely approve.”)  He tempted Him by calling into question His love for all human beings, the hungry in particular.  (“If you won’t manufacture bread for yourself, at least do it for the poor, destitute masses! They’d crown you king in a heartbeat.  Think how grateful they’d be!”)  What if Jesus had caved in?  Well, for one thing, He would’ve lost credibility as being one who’s been tempted as we are and yet was able to emerge victorious.  Besides, Christ didn’t come to bribe souls but to win them.  His desire that the free will of all men and women remain inviolate was paramount.  He’d gladly lead folks to the well of living water but He’d never force (or bribe) them to drink thereof.  Jesus intended to meet the spiritual hunger that mere loaves of rye would never satisfy.  He told Satan, Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

 

The devil didn’t quit.  He simply retreated to devise another attack strategy.  He does the same to us, does he not?  Plan B was to tempt Christ into doing something spectacular that’d force even the most stubborn Pharisee to relent and acknowledge His divinity.  Consider that one of the main reasons Jesus wanted to go off by Himself was so He could map out how He was going to proceed with broadcasting the plan of salvation and the methods He’d use in presenting it to the common people.  Would they respond favorably to hearing the truth being preached?  Would it take more than that to grab their attention?  He knew for sure there were no guarantees when it came to human fickleness yet failure to establish a new covenant wasn’t an option.  So Satan whispered in His ear, “You do know there’s a surefire way, don’t you?  Folks always love supernatural extravaganzas so why not fling yourself off a tall building and let the invisible angels catch you in the nick of time?  The crowd would go bananas!  They’d be putty in your hands!”  This ploy didn’t work, either, for several reasons.  (A) Jesus trusted His Father’s plan completely so taking a short cut to notoriety was out of the question.  (B) Jesus knew that while a jaw-dropping stunt like that would produce short-term gains, in the long run it wouldn’t pay dividends.  Stewart wrote, “Men may acclaim something that stirs the imagination, but they can be saved only by something that touches the heart.” (C) Jesus refused to kowtow to the public’s “fascination with sensation” because He knew such things were utterly bereft of spiritual value.  And (D), as in the first temptation, Jesus would do nothing that’d unfairly influence an individual’s free will choice to – or not to – love and obey God.  Christ’s response left the devil frustrated once again.  Jesus said “…You are not to put the Lord your God to the test (Matthew 4:7).

 

Say what you will about the detestable Satan but he’s definitely a persistent little jerk because he wasn’t through baiting the thoroughly-fatigued Jesus just yet.  To say there was a lot at stake is a gross understatement.  This was a showdown with eternal ramifications.  Seeing that full capitulation wasn’t going to happen, the devil next enticed Christ to compromise.  He suggested Jesus could put a quick end to his tiresome hassling if only He’d back off His outrageous demands for full sovereignty over the planet that he, Satan, had been the prince of for eons.  “…The devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur.  And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me (Matthew 4:8-9).  Jesus didn’t budge.  Not one millimeter.  Now, the devil has thick skin but he can’t stand to hear the Word of God used against him.  Jesus said to him, ‘Go away, Satan!  For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’  Then the devil left him and angels came and began ministering to his needs (Matthew 4:10-11).  It’s worth noting the little nugget Luke adds to the story: So when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until a more opportune time (4:13).  We all should heed that ominous warning.

 

As it is with those who choose to surrender to Him, the Son of God wasn’t about to accept anything less than everything.  No compromising.  With God it’s all or nothing.  While our precious Redeemer’s early church was far from perfect it did get one thing right: It insisted no other god but Jesus be worshiped!  That’s why, out of all the novel religions that seeped into Rome from the East during the first few centuries A.D., Christianity was the only one that met with fierce, government-sanctioned persecution.  Osiris, Cybele and a host of others were okay but not the gentle rabbi from Nazareth.  No way.  This Jesus was a bona fide threat to the establishment because with Christians it was His way or the highway.  They deemed all other gods impotent imposters.  His followers actually believed Jesus hadn’t lied when He announced, I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  Furthermore, they had the audacity to proclaim that one day “…at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11)!  History shows that the brave Christians who remained steadfast in the faith usually paid a horrible price for their fidelity to the Father, as our Savior did on the cross.  Stewart wrote, “For the road which Jesus faced when He refused to compromise is the hard road, the long road, the sacrificial road; but it is the royal road to the Kingdom.”

 

There are two important aspects of the temptation story worth chewing on.  For one thing, it assures us that being tempted to sin is not the same as committing a sin.  The Bible (and the New Testament in particular) is sated with saints who openly admitted they had to wrestle with temptation so often they started wondering if they really “had what it takes” to faithfully and consistently serve God.  We can almost hear the angst in Paul’s voice when he groaned, For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! (Romans 7:18-19).  Yet it was for his sake and others just like him our Lord narrated the story of His personal defeat of temptation.  We know for certain that, since the sinless, perfect Son of God Himself was subjected to the most severe temptations under the worst conditions imaginable, being tempted is no sin.  Thus we can all take comfort in Paul’s honest conclusion: Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25).  Because of our blessed Savior, we have a future to look forward to when temptations will torment us no more.

 

The second aspect is found in the Scripture verse I cited earlier: For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:18).  John, Peter and the rest of the apostles knew for a certainty their beloved Master would stand by their side through thick and thin because they’d heard Him promise, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  When temptation reared its ugly head, whether it was to curse and despise their enemies or to harbor resentments towards folks for the inhuman way they were being treated, they knew they could depend on Christ to supply them with the strength to react with love instead of hate.  Via prayer and sincere worship they were able to maintain contact with Jesus’ radiant, dynamic personality and thereby conquer their volatile (and reliably sinful) human nature.  By ourselves we’re far too weak to withstand temptation.  Most of us have learned that lesson the hard way.  Only with the power of the Christ-bestowed Holy Spirit who lives in us guiding our steps can we avoid falling into the sinkholes of sin.  We must never forget the Son of God didn’t have to put up with the devil’s temptations, but He did – for us.  Philip Yancey wrote, “When I feel temptations rising within me, I return to the story of Jesus and Satan in the desert.  Jesus’ resistance against Satan’s temptations preserved for me the very freedom I exercise when I face my own temptations.  I pray for the same trust and patience that Jesus showed.”

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