The Great Travesty

Once Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested in Gethsemane things got uglier.  Our Savior was subjected to suffering through not one but two trials within the span of a few hours.  To call them trials is laughable, though.  They were more vindictive inquisitions than fair hearings and the resulting sentence was nothing less than court-sanctioned murder.  Without a doubt there’s never been a more egregious travesty of justice in history.  First, Christ was dragged before the Jewish Sanhedrin to endure what can only loosely be termed an ecclesiastical trial and later hauled before a very annoyed Roman prefect for a civil trial.  Because Jesus was being charged (falsely) with a capital offense the evil-minded Sanhedrin cadre couldn’t condemn Him to death by themselves.  That required an official ruling from Pontius Pilate.  You see, Rome granted to all the nations they’d conquered a modicum of self-government.  The Caesars were ruthless but not dumb.  They’d learned the hard way that letting folks pretend they had some say in the management of their local affairs kept things relatively peaceful/orderly, especially in the remotest of their territories.  Yet when it came to lethal executions Rome insisted on having the final word.  That’s why our Lord was so unceremoniously and roughly escorted from one locale to another across Jerusalem that Thursday night and Friday morning.  Keep in mind that typically when two or more people witness or hear about an event the timeline will contain slight variations.  This episode is no exception but the core facts of what happened are undisputed.

 

All the men involved in the case were “professionals” yet their behavior was so self-serving as to be appropriately labelled uncivilized if not downright barbaric.  And of the two entities the Sanhedrin was unquestionably the worst.  The story goes that following His apprehension by the Temple’s secret police goons Jesus was brought before Annas.  This must’ve been a routine courtesy because, while Annas held no official position, he was nonetheless a very powerful dude.  It’d been two decades since he’d held the revered title of high priest and since then five of his sons had occupied the #1 spot so Annas kinda ruled the roost by proxy, so to speak.  It was probably Annas who’d instituted and was still overseeing the disgraceful “pay-for-penance” scheme in the Temple courtyards that’d made him rich and made Jesus so incensed.  Therefore it’s not illogical to identify Annas as being the principal mastermind behind the plot to eliminate the troublesome Nazarene who was costing him money.

 

Old as Annas was, he likely danced with delight to see his main adversary bound in chains.  Annas erroneously figured he’d throw a few loaded questions at Jesus and within no time He’d say something inflammatory that’d prove He was a dangerous enemy of Rome. “…The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.  Jesus replied, ‘I have spoken publicly to the world.  I always taught in the synagogues and in the temple courts, where all the Jewish people assemble together.  I have said nothing in secret.  Why do you ask me?  Ask those who heard what I said.  They know what I said.’  When Jesus had said this, one of the high priest’s officers who stood nearby struck him on the face and said, ‘Is that the way you answer the high priest?’  Jesus replied, ‘If I have said something wrong, confirm what is wrong.  But if I spoke correctly, why strike me?’ His prisoner was making too much sense so Annas quickly realized this wasn’t going to be easy-peasy after all.  As the saying goes, “When in doubt, delegate” and that’s just what he did.  Then Annas sent him, still tied up, to Caiaphas the high priest (John 18:19-24).

 

Now, the reigning high priest was to the Jews what the Pope is to the Catholic Church.  There was no higher-level human authority.  He was the God of Abraham’s personal representative on earth.  Caiaphas was also the interpreter of Jewish law and the only one who could annually enter the “Holy of Holies” on behalf of the chosen race and manage to walk out alive.  Yet despite being the king of the Jewish hill in Israel it was Caiaphas who condemned the Jews’ long-promised Messiah to death!  Obviously being a spiritual icon doesn’t mean one is necessarily wise or even fully aware of what’s really going on.  James S. Stewart opined, “It’s disconcerting but true that it was precisely those who were loudest in religious profession who, on encountering Jesus, were loudest in censure and protest.”

 

Even though it was the dead of night, news of Christ’s capture spread like juicy gossip among the members of the Sanhedrin and they all scurried to Caiaphas’ headquarters within minutes.  The fact they couldn’t legally convene before sunrise was conveniently overlooked because their pressing need to take care of the “Jesus problem” took precedence over observing protocol.  In essence, the lawmakers didn’t mind breaking their own laws when they felt those laws warranted being broken.  The witnesses that testified to having heard Jesus’ “conspiratorial” sermons only succeeded in contradicting each other so a very perturbed, impatient Caiaphas cut to the chase.  He approached our Lord and asked, ’Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’  ‘I am,’ said Jesus, ‘and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Mark 14:61-62).  This bold (but oh so true) statement sent the room into an uproar.  Caiaphas had gotten what he’d hoped to get – an open confession of intentional blasphemy from the mouth of the defendant.  Caiaphas could work with that.  He planned to spin it into something a lot more sinister before Pilate.

 

Everything about this farce of a “trial” is so very wrong.  Thus it behooves us to dissect and closely examine it as the epitome of human connivance it is.  Suffice it to say mankind has never stooped lower.  How many times did the Sanhedrin blatantly defy their strict, hallowed statutes?  Let us count the ways!  First, the court itself had been an accomplice in Jesus’ betrayal.  The two-faced bigwigs in charge had paid the traitorous Judas to reveal his Master’s whereabouts and now they had the gall to sit in judgment of Christ.  Hardly an impartial jury!  Second, Jewish law demanded a definite charge be issued against any defendant before a tribunal was convened.  The Scriptures reveal they really didn’t have a legitimate charge at all.  They just collectively despised Jesus, His disciples and His revolutionary teachings.  When all that Christ’s accusers accomplished was muddying up the proceedings Caiaphas should’ve stopped the circus right then and declared a mistrial.  But he wouldn’t dare.  He let it continue in clear violation of the law they’d all vowed to dutifully abide by.  Third, the head judge, Caiaphas, was also the lead prosecutor!  Now, if that ain’t a rigged game I don’t know what is.  Why, it was none other than Caiaphas who’d earlier said to a gathering of chief priests concerning Christ, You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish (John 11:49-50).  Therefore it’s no surprise that when the star witnesses turned out to be useless Caiaphas the judge took on the role of interrogator.  Unbiased?  Yeah, right.

 

Fourth, Jesus had no legal representation whatsoever.  He wasn’t even allowed to call any witnesses for His defense so it was literally “Christ versus the world” in that noisy room.  Last but not least was the hurry the whole dubious shebang was conducted in.  I mean, who holds a trial at two in the morning, only minutes after the culprit’s been taken into custody?  Especially when the “esteemed membership” of the Sanhedrin knows full well what they’re doing is blatantly unlawful!  It was also common knowledge a death sentence could only be pronounced 24 hours after a trial ended but they didn’t care.  On top of that they knew the Law expressly forbid their even hearing a case the day before a Sabbath or a religious festival.  None of this bothered anybody, it appears.  They’d become an unruly, vengeance-seeking lynch mob bent on killing an innocent man and to hell with any technicalities that got in their way.  They were out for blood.  Period.

 

The Sanhedrin’s kangaroo court adjourned.  Their unanimous verdict, guilty; the punishment, death by crucifixion.  Yes, they’d done their dirty deed illegally but come sunrise they’d simply rubber-stamp their overnight decision, declare it all copacetic and no one would suspect any improper shenanigans had occurred.  Who’d risk objecting?  After the “righteous elite” and their brutal team of licensed thugs perpetrated unspeakable acts of sadistic violence upon the gentle Lamb of God they rushed Him off to Pilate.  He’d been the Roman procurator of Judea for six long years and it’d been anything but a smooth ride.  The Emperor Tiberias had stationed him there to ride herd over the stiff-necked Israelis who resented his iron-fisted way of governing them.  Pilate had grown to loathe his job and his Jewish subjects who did nothing but complain.  He didn’t give a flip about their sacred traditions but he had to let them “do their thing” else he’d land in hot water with his boss back home.  And now, in the wee hours before dawn, a bunch of them came knocking on his palace door demanding drive-thru justice.  Though aggravated, he knew he had to keep his cool and hear the hypocrites out.  Stewart wrote, “Neither the Sanhedrin nor the mass of common people had much love for Pilate; but the spur of necessity works wonders, and it was now the main hope of Caiaphas and the rest to make a good impression on their governor and win him to their side, and so secure the death of Jesus.”  Still, the Sanhedrin jerks stayed outside so as not to become defiled by association.  Oh, the irony!

 

Pilate understood his role but he wasn’t a pushover by any means.  He demanded to know the main charge against Jesus.  Somewhat snarkily the Jewish reps barked back, If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you! (John 18:30).  In other words, don’t fret over details, just do your duty, Hoss!  Pilate, probably nursing a hangover, was in no mood for sarcasm and instructed them to take care of their own business.  But get this.  Suddenly obeying the Law was important to them!  They griped, We cannot legally put anyone to death (John 18:31).  The nerve!  Next they resorted to lying, telling Pilate they’d found Jesus guilty, not of blasphemy, but of treason against Rome; that He was systematically poisoning the impressionable minds of the uneducated masses; that He’d urged them to not pay taxes and that He’d crowned Himself king of the realm.  They were shameless.  Pilate opted to have a private chat with the badly-beaten prisoner.

 

I’ve always been fascinated by this particular meeting.  While Pilate’s judging the bloodied and bruised stranger Jesus is still intent on saving the man’s soul.  It didn’t take long before Pilate recognized there was something astonishingly different about the defendant.  Despite the cruel abuse that’d been foisted upon His flesh, Jesus was remarkably composed and dignified standing tall before him.  Pilate’s curiosity piqued, he conversed with Christ for a while before exclaiming ’So you are a king!’  Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am a king.  For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world – to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’  Sensing he was way out of his league with Christ, Pilate could only mumble, What is truth?’ (John 18:37-38).  Too bad he didn’t wait around to receive Jesus’ answer to that profound query.  Pilate was eager to be done with the whole sordid affair so he told the restless mob he’d found Christ “not guilty”.  Well, they weren’t buying any of that so Pilate decided this mess was Herod’s problem, not his, so off his soldiers went, Christ in tow.  Herod took one look at Jesus and sent Him back pronto with the message, “Thanks, but no thanks.  I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of your well-deserved privileges of authority, my man.  Good luck.”

 

Pilate switched to plan B.  He went outside and broached the Passover custom of releasing a Jewish criminal (a gesture of Roman mercy), suggesting Jesus should be the lucky Joe that year.  No go.  They preferred the hooligan Barabbas, instead.  Pilate was stumped so he had our Lord flogged to within an inch of His life and then brought Him back outside for viewing.  Surely the surly gang would be satisfied with vicious mutilation.  Nope.  They screamed, Away with him!  Crucify him! (John 19:15).  Pilate still hesitated to hand Jesus over until they threatened to report him for insubordination.  They shouted, If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar!  Everyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar! (John 19:12).  That’s when panic gripped Pilate’s stony heart.  He scrubbed his hands clean and told the Sanhedrin to do whatever they wanted with Christ.  Pilate succumbed to what amounted to political blackmail, tucked tail and chickened out.  So much for a Roman “fair trial.”  J. I. Packer wrote, “Pilate, having symbolically washed his hands of the matter – the goofiest gesture, perhaps, of all time – gave the green light for judicial murder, directing that Jesus, though guiltless, should die all the same to keep people happy.  Pilate saw this as shrewd government; how cynical can you get?”

 

Things aren’t always what they appear surface-wise.  Stewart wrote, “Everyone who studies the narratives has the strange feeling that the tables are being turned before their very eyes and that what they’re seeing isn’t Jesus on trial before Caiaphas or Pilate or Herod; what they’re seeing is Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod on trial before Jesus.  Face to face each of them stood with the Son of Man for a brief hour; and His searchlight played upon their souls, revealing their inmost nature and showing them up for all the world and for all time to see.”  Their names will live in infamy.  Not for being upstanding, brave men but for exemplifying the very worst in people whose pride won’t let them surrender their heart to the miraculous, life-changing healing Christ offers.  Annas was jealous of Jesus’ popularity.  Caiaphas would do anything to maintain his prestige.  Herod was completely self-absorbed.  And Pilate was a coward, no bones about it.  The truth is that those “judges” were the ones being judged by the ultimate judge of all mankind.  There’ll be a judgment day for each of us, too, so we must all ask, not only ourselves but of everyone we encounter, “What’ll you do with Christ?”  Our eternal destination rides on the answer we give.

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Then There Was Judas

Following His amazing Transfiguration on Mt. Hermon Jesus set His sights on Jerusalem.  He traveled through Samaria and Judea, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and healing the sick as usual.  It’s worth noting Christ didn’t sit cross-legged in an ornate shrine somewhere, waiting for people to come pay homage.  On the contrary, He and His entourage stayed on the move, taking the Gospel message directly to where folks who needed it most lived.  They’d been to Jerusalem at least twice before.  We know they visited the previous year for October’s Feast of Tabernacles and December’s Feast of Dedication.  But this time they’d be there for Passover, the holiest day of the Jewish religion.  It’s of particular significance the place was teeming with pilgrims hailing from rural regions like Galilee where Jesus’ sermons had affected the locals tremendously.  This explains why on that Sunday morning crowds of excited people shouting hosannas lined the road Jesus took to enter the city.  Any questions of whether folks considered Him to be the promised Messiah were answered by the clamor they made over His arrival and Jesus did nothing to persuade them otherwise.  While many bandwagoners had lost faith in Him there were still thousands who hadn’t because He’d healed them (or someone they were close to) or He’d turned their spiritual lives around 180 degrees from despair to hopefulness.  And now here He was, fearlessly daring the Jewish hierarchy who hated Him to try and stop Him.  To them Christ was the hero of the common man.

 

This time Jesus didn’t attempt to hide His true identity.  The hour had come to fulfill all the ancient prophesies.  What Zechariah had predicted centuries earlier was happening right before the nation’s eyes in real time: Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion!  Shout, daughter of Jerusalem!  Look!  Your king is coming to you: he is legitimate and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey – on a young donkey, the foal of a female donkey (Zechariah 9:9).  Nonverbally Christ was announcing to the elated throng, “Your King is here!”  Did Jesus know what He was doing?  Of course!  Riding into town on a donkey was one unmistakable sign of Messiahship all Jews would recognize as authentic without explanation.  He also knew the members of the Sanhedrin wouldn’t miss the visual symbolism, either.  It was a defining moment in world history.  Christ was forcing their hand and the ball was now literally in their court.  James S. Stewart wrote of the situation, “Let the powers of evil do their worst; [Jesus] knew His power.  He was the Lord’s anointed.  He was riding to the throne which God had given Him.  He was ready for the last campaign.”  Arriving on the back of a donkey also efficiently dispelled any pipedreams some might’ve had that He’d suddenly turn into a war-mongering liberator who’d take on Rome’s might.  What they witnessed instead was Jesus expressing His deep sorrow for Jerusalem.  Now when Jesus approached and saw the city, he wept over it, saying ‘If you had only known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes (Luke 19:41-42).  He knew what the future held for Jerusalem and it wasn’t pretty.  Before long nothing would be left standing.  So after the parade He didn’t climb up on a stage and deliver a rousing victory speech.  Rather He returned to the quiet suburb of Bethany.  For His disappointed fans the show was over.

 

Yet it was no retreat.  Christ boldly reentered the city on Monday and Tuesday (sans donkey) and proceeded to make His presence and His displeasure known.  Then Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves (Matthew 21:12).  Hitting the religious authorities in their wallets definitely got their strict attention.  They proceeded to pull out all the stops, pelting Him with a flurry of “gotcha” questions designed to paint Him into an ideological corner.  Jesus responded with one stinging parable after another, pointing out the blatant hypocrisies of the Pharisees and Sadducees, telling them in no uncertain terms they were speeding down the highway to Hades.  This was no occasion for niceties.  He said to them, You snakes, you offspring of vipers!  How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:33).  The big wigs couldn’t handle being publicly slammed so they hastily convened an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin whereupon they agreed Jesus had to be put down ASAP.  But the how, when and where His arrest could take place without causing a riot was a monkey wrench in their plan.  If they weren’t careful their whole plot to silence Christ could blow up in their face.  Enter Judas Iscariot.  Problem solved.  The disciple knew where His Master would be at night and he was willing to sell out his friend for a handful of coins.  The Pharisees and Sadducees eagerly paid up and Jesus’ fate was sealed.

 

On Thursday Christ came in from Bethany again, this time to observe the Paschal feast with His eleven trustworthy associates and one turncoat.  This gathering turned out to be the most memorable supper ever recorded because it was in the secluded “upper room” where the revered Christian Sacraments were instituted by the Son of God; where He told of the Father’s multi-roomed, eternal mansion that awaits all His adopted children; where He issued the promise of the Comforter who’d arrive after His return to heaven.  Stewart wrote, “…Small wonder this upper room has been a dearer place to Christendom than all the great cathedrals raised by subsequent ages to Jesus’ honor.”  Indeed, it was in this same room the terrified apostles laid low following their mentor’s apprehension.  It was in this same upper room Christ visited them after His resurrection and it’s likely the place where the Holy Spirit enveloped them collectively with the empowering glory of Pentecost.  Most importantly, though, it’s where the first communion service was held.  This simple but profound rite involving bread and wine has remained sacred and unchanged for nearly 2,000 years.  It’s a ritual all Christians agree is irreplaceable.  Jesus instructed the disciples to drink the wine and eat the bread and then asked them to Do this in remembrance of me (Luke 22:19).  Words will always fail to convey the sublime.  Art will always fall short of capturing the divine.  Only the language of action can come close to expressing the inexpressible emotions that rise up in the heart of a man or woman who’s experienced the soul-saving touch of Christ.  I can only speak for myself but when I partake of the Lord’s Supper I feel my Savior’s presence and I’m comforted knowing without a doubt He is near.

 

Supper done, Jesus then led His faithful eleven to the garden of Gethsemane where He endured long, lonely hours of acute, gut-wrenching anxiety.  We’ve all been there, too, but we must acknowledge that our angst over what we were going to go through pales in comparison to what Christ was anticipating that night.  To think we can fully relate is preposterous for Jesus was preparing to shoulder the cumulative sins of the world.  Some speculate our Savior’s plea to the Father from the Cross was due to His fear of death.  Nope.  Stewart wrote, “It wasn’t death that made Him cry to God; it was sin.  It was the shame of all the world, the burden of all the sons of men, which in that dread hour He was taking upon His own sinless heart.  It was the sudden sense of sin’s sheer horror, loathsomeness and Godforsakenness.”  We’ll never know everything that transpired in the spiritual realm that woeful afternoon but we do know this: Jesus’ trust in His Father’s will never faltered.  But I digress.  The scene is Gethsemane.  Christ is fervently praying while even His most loyal disciples snooze away.  It was Jesus who first spotted the flickering lights of the torches as the troop of soldiers entered the garden.  Yet He didn’t freak out.  He remained calm and in complete control of the situation to insure only He would be taken into custody.  Before His pals knew it He’d been led away.  The Bible simply says, Then all the disciples left him and fled (Matthew 26:56).  The eleven ran like rabbits.  Not a flattering depiction.

 

But then there was Judas.  As a Christian it’s difficult to be objective about him or his disgraceful deed.  It’s hard to fathom that someone who’d hung out with our precious Lord from the beginning of His ministry could sink so low as to betray Him with a shameful kiss.  It’s caused many to opine Judas must’ve been none other than Satan disguised as a man.  Well, it’s not that cut & dried.  Truth is Judas’ treachery is all too human for comfort so we must dig deep to gain even a modicum of understanding.  We can assume he started out like the rest of the disciples, leaving everything and everyone behind in order to follow Jesus.  What he’d found in Christ’s teachings and countenance was unlike anything he’d ever encountered before.  He couldn’t imagine anybody being wiser or more charismatic than the Nazarene.  His selection by Jesus to be one of His closest confidants was the best thing to ever happen to him.  He didn’t hesitate to go wherever He’d take him.  We who adore our Savior know what that feels like.

 

Therefore we must ask the question of “Why in blazes did Jesus pick Judas?”  Since Christ was an expert at seeing through people’s facades and gauging the true intent of their heart we have to conclude that, at the time at least, Judas was as good a candidate for sainthood as any of the others.  Judas didn’t fool our Lord because his motives for following Him were wholly sincere.  Now, some scholars believe Jesus chose Judas despite his ugly character defects because He needed a villain in order to insure God’s predestined plans came to fruition.  However, that notion turns predestination into fatalism, a concept that runs counter to God’s granting everyone, including Judas, unconditional free will.  So, was it demonic possession?  Oh, I know John 13:27 says Satan entered Judas but 13:2 reads, “…the devil had already put into the heart of Judas… that he should betray Jesus.”  Doesn’t he put sinful urges into our hearts, too?  Sounds like plain ol’ temptation to me.  Look, all the disciples had flaws.  Not one was perfect.  All the apostles had to overcome their inner conflicts and selfish desires.  Eleven of them did.  Judas didn’t.  I’m certainly not making excuses for the jerk but odds are high that out of any dozen men or women one’s bound to be a bad apple.  Think about it.

 

Judas began well but eventually his dysfunctions got the best of him.  In time he became resentful that guys like Peter got to sit closer to the Master.  He likely grew paranoid, imagining his peers were giggling behind his back.  Surely Christ noticed a gradual change in Judas’ attitude and went out of His way to reassure him how special and important he was though Judas probably felt his mentor was patronizing him.  At Celebrate Recovery meetings I’ve heard hundreds of testimonies from folks who’ve watched their personal neuroses and hang-ups steer them down a similar dark path.  In Judas’ case they led to him becoming extremely frustrated and disappointed over Jesus’ refusal to instigate a forceful revolution against the Romans he hated.  At the height of his Master’s popularity Judas felt Jesus should’ve inspired the oppressed Israelites to unite behind Him, rise up and forcibly reclaim what God had promised was theirs.  But Christ didn’t.  Soon Judas’ impatience turned into bitterness and later into seeking vengeance.

 

Still it seems a stretch to conclude a “troubled” man like Judas would deliberately stab even a casual acquaintance in the back.  Most who lose faith in a person simply throw up their hands and walk away.  So what pushed Judas over the edge?  Love of money is always a prime candidate.  The Scriptures hint Judas had a streak of covetousness in him as well as a tendency to pilfer cash from the collection plate.  Shoot, in John 12:6 he’s called a thief!  But if financial gain was his core motive wouldn’t he have demanded more moolah from the Sanhedrin honchos for Jesus’ head?  30 silver pieces hardly made him wealthy so scratch greed.  What about jealousy?  After all, he was the only Judean on a team of Galileans.  They may’ve marginalized him or made him the butt of their jokes.  We do know he wasn’t part of Christ’s “inner circle” but neither were eight of the others so it doesn’t figure jealousy alone triggered his treason.  Was it fear?  It can manifest itself in many despicable ways so was that the central impetus?  Perhaps Judas believed what his Master was telling them concerning what was going to happen and he decided he’d rather not sink with the ship.  Maybe he became a wire-wearing informant to avoid being indicted as an accessory when they rounded up Jesus’ co-conspirators.  Yet while self-preservation isn’t far-fetched it still doesn’t add up.  Why go to all that trouble when you could just split the scene?

 

One popular theory is Judas was simply calling Christ’s bluff; that by putting Him in harm’s way Jesus would have to do something miraculous and dramatic to prevent His own demise; that once He unleashed His unlimited powers to thwart the murderous scheme cooked up by the Sanhedrin snobs (and put Pilate in his place) Jesus would garner the overwhelming support of the people to assume His rightful kingship.  Then God’s glorious Kingdom would come by default.  Stewart wrote, “It’s an ingenious theory; and, if accepted, would go far to rehabilitate the worst reputation in history.  But it won’t hold water.  It represents Jesus as an irresolute, procrastinating Hamlet.”  It also implies Judas was a well-intentioned dude who simply used poor judgment.  But if that’s all it was then why didn’t Christ mercifully pardon Judas instead of condemning him post-resurrection?  Doesn’t quite jell.

 

What we’re left with is this: Judas, over time, nurtured his revengeful spirit.  He hated that Jesus saw right through his mask and perceived what he was contemplating.  For that invasion of privacy he’d show the Messiah what real power was!  What’s scary about that conclusion is recognizing that all humans have the potential to let what Jeremiah called our deceitful heart take over our consciousness if we don’t let the love of Christ rule over it.  Judas’ sorry life demonstrated that un-repented sin will destroy anybody, even someone blessed to walk and talk with the Son of God Himself.  To those who claim a man or woman can’t lose their salvation I present as evidence what became of Judas Iscariot.

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When Wolves Stalked Our Shepherd

Jesus lived with a target on His back.  From the very start there were men who didn’t want Him here.  Our Lord also lived knowing what awaited Him at the end of His sojourn.  The wolves would kill to be rid of Him.  But nothing could deter Him from seeing His mission through.  When He walked away from Satan’s temptations in the wilderness where He defiantly rejected taking short cuts His destiny was sealed.  However, the future was no mystery to Him.  During the 30 years that led up to the day of His baptism He studied the Scriptures and no doubt recognized Himself as being the Suffering Servant whom Isaiah had predicted would come.  And, as James S. Stewart wrote, “…The thought must have possessed Him that to render a perfect obedience to God, to make a full life surrender, was certain in a world which denied God and stoned the prophets to lead to suffering and ultimately to death.  The shadow of the Cross was there from the first.”

 

Yet no other human on the planet had an inkling of what was in store for Jesus down the line on Golgotha.  Even after His admission in Caesarea Philippi of His Messiahship when He began to openly reveal His impending demise to His disciples not one of them took Him seriously.  They thought surely their Master was speaking metaphorically; that such a thing could never actually happen.  But Jesus was resolute.  The Bible tells us, From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: ‘God forbid, Lord!  This must not happen to you!’  But he turned and said to Peter, ‘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 16:21-23).  Christ wasn’t having any of Peter’s “I’ll protect you” talk.  Still, despite being repeatedly forewarned of what loomed ahead, the apostles were soon to act like they never saw the crucifixion coming.  Only the Son of God saw the gruesome specter of the Cross for what it was and, without hesitation, went forward to meet it.

 

So who were the wolves who stalked our Savior?  There were plenty but we may as well start with the Pharisees.  The irony of their particular situation is stunning.  The men who were acknowledged as the most religious in Israel turned out to be determined ringleaders of the movement to silence (by whatever means necessary) the Savior of mankind.  Understand these guys were in charge of keeping the sacred Jewish traditions and tenets from becoming contaminated or watered down while the nation struggled under the thumb of Rome and they’d done an admirable job.  They’d promoted righteousness, steadfast recognition of the one true God and obeying His laws faithfully.  They’d managed to keep the light of faith burning through the darkest of hours.  Yet they vehemently rejected all Christ preached and stood for.  We must ask why for they, of all people, should’ve known better.

 

First and foremost, they considered Him bogus because He didn’t rise up through their ranks.  He was a poor carpenter from Hicksville, for Pete’s sake!  He knew next to nothing about their sophisticated culture and ecclesiastical customs so the idea He could possibly be the Messiah was not only absurd but downright offensive.  And then there was the ragtag bunch of misfit losers He called friends and associates.  For example one of His crew, Matthew, was, of all things, a traitorous tax collector!  The fact that Jesus would rather spend time fraternizing with the riffraff instead of courting favor with them, the superior elite, displayed complete disrespect for His all-wise elders.  Furthermore, He had the audacity to publicly call them hypocrites.  Didn’t He know they’d earned the right to be judgmental and holier-than-thou?  What the conceited Pharisees failed to realize is their prideful self-righteousness had blinded them.  They were unable to conceive God might dare to incarnate in a manner different from the one they’d envisioned in all their sagacity.  No way could they be wrong about Jesus.  Therefore this “Messiah” was an imposter who deserved the capital punishment He insisted on bringing upon Himself.

 

A second serious problem the Pharisees had with Jesus was His cavalier attitude toward the Mosaic Laws and Jewish orthodoxy.  To them the goal of perfectly observing the 613 commandments wasn’t a suggestion, it was a mandate.  So for this penniless Nazarene to not only claim He was the fulfillment of those sacred laws and that He’d come to reveal new truths as well as a more accurate characterization of what the Heavenly Father’s like was unforgivable blasphemy, plain and simple.  Stewart wrote, “[Jesus] came challenging men to rethink God, but that, to the tightly shut mind of a Pharisee, was preposterous and intolerable.”  As George Meredith opined, “An unteachable spirit is one of the most tragic things in life.”  Everything about Christ’s teachings encourages us to develop an open, curious mind that welcomes revelations of truth with gladness.  But, like so many men and women, fear of entertaining fresh thoughts and concepts and how doing so might cause them to feel uncomfortable scared the dickens out of the Pharisees.  They were positive their understanding of everything pertaining to the spiritual realm was on a par with the great I AM’s.  Jesus was systematically undermining that notion by saying outrageous things like I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  Thus He had to go.

 

Thirdly, He was advocating universalism.  He was telling folks uncircumcised Gentiles would be allowed to walk the golden streets of heaven, too.  Say what?  It was too much to stomach.  Why, the very name “Pharisee” meant “separated” so who was He to barge in and rewrite the well-established rules for gaining eternal life?  Judaism was the only religion that counted and they didn’t want to play nice and share.  The “chosen race” was an exclusive club.  Everybody knew that, right?  Yet, evidently, this “Son of Man” didn’t get the memo.  He said God loved everyone, even despicable Samaritans and pagan Roman centurions.  Where did He get off spouting such nonsense?  To their jaded ears what Jesus preached everywhere He went wasn’t just annoying, it was dangerous to the stability of the country.  He’d rendered Himself expendable.

 

There were bloodthirsty wolves in the Sadducee community, too.  Whatever centuries-old differences existed between that ensemble and the Pharisees had been bridged by their commonly-held disdain for Christ.  The Sadducees were populated by members of the aristocratic nobility.  They were the “in-control” political party of the day and the solidly-entrenched priesthood that ruled over the powerful Sanhedrin conclave.  But despite all their snooty “airs” they were actually secularists who favored worldliness and amassing material possessions.  So religion didn’t mean nearly as much to them as maintaining the status quo of peaceful coexistence within Caesar’s empire did.  The here and now was the only timeframe that mattered because there was no hope of life after death.  Heck, they didn’t even believe a Messiah was in the cards so this whole “Jesus fad” was a nuisance to be swatted like a pesky mosquito.  He’d continue to be a threat only as long as He was permitted to breathe.  No telling what the unwashed masses groveling beneath them might be talked into doing.  As time went on they sensed Jesus’ words were sharp as a knife, slashing through their showy exhibitions of faux piety and tissue-thin compassion.  Christ was being too naive.  His sermons were spirit-enlivening, soul-energizing, life-altering and, most alarming of all, revolutionary.  He had to be stopped.

 

While both the Pharisees and Sadducees were wolfish enough on their own, it was the fickle Israeli crowds that really turned the tide against Jesus.  Free meal miracles and unexplainable healings had stirred up a ton of excitement in the early stages of His ministry.  He was, at that juncture, a genuine “superstar.”  But eventually that inappropriate tag wore thin when He didn’t measure up to their great expectations.  Any person possessing that kind of supernatural power could easily run the Romans off the reservation.  So what, exactly, was the hold up?  What use did they have of His “good news” Gospel if He was going to let the tyrannical occupation continue unabated?  We also shouldn’t discount the “fake news” that was being disseminated throughout the land by the religious authorities.  Pharisee-backed spies and troublemakers went everywhere Christ and His followers went, spreading false rumors and demeaning gossip right and left.  History shows sensational propaganda works pretty effectively and it certainly did in this case.  However, the thing that dampened the initial hoopla about Jesus most was what He actually preached and the demands His lessons imposed on the individual.  Take the famous Sermon on the Mount.  It makes folks squirm because what the Lord asks of us goes against every animalistic instinct we harbor.  Forgive our enemies?  Turn the other cheek?  Don’t judge others?  Love our neighbor as ourselves?  Who’s He kidding?  That stuff won’t get us anywhere.  You’re a dreamer, bub, so dream on.  The public withdrew their support and then turned on Him.

 

Now, any average man or woman cornered by wolves would seek an avenue of escape and run like the wind.  Not Jesus, though.  He boldly marched forward into their very backyard.  Stewart wrote, “There in the city of God the final revelation [had to] be given, the decisive blow struck at the powers of darkness, and the uttermost sacrifice of redeeming love accepted.”  Luke 9:51 reads, Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem.”  Christ fearlessly entered the wolf den.  While it’s no sin to emphasize the tender, gracious and merciful characteristics of our Lord we should never forget that His unmatched bravery and unwavering trust in the Heavenly Father’s will are indelible hallmarks of the Christian walk.  Why, even His disciples were taken aback by His heroism.  They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem.  Jesus was going ahead of them, and they were amazed, but those who followed were afraid (Mark 10:32).  If the religious honchos figured Christ would turn tail and head for the hills they’d figured wrong.  They’d have to face the Son of God in person.

 

It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the transfiguration in Jesus’ story because that miraculous episode strengthened Him for what was about to go down in Jerusalem.  In Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Luke 9 we’re told our Lord, accompanied by Peter, James and John, hiked up Mt. Hermon where one of the most extraordinary, never-to-be-repeated events in world history took place.  We’re informed that Christ, standing in the company of Moses and Elijah, underwent a temporary transformation of a stupendous sort.  Not surprisingly, the trio of disciples were unable to put into words what they witnessed but it’s reasonable to surmise they were allowed by God to visually peer into the unseen spiritual realm and behold the divine Jesus, the third person of the Holy Trinity, in all His glory – plus hear the voice of the Father announce, This is my one dear Son.  Listen to him! (Mark 9:7).  All this obviously dramatically affected the three apostles while for Christ it served to confirm that He was in total compliance with His Father’s will.  And it was on that mountain top Jesus consummated His decision to go “all in” and be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

 

Now, it’d be a foolish error to think our Savior looked forward to dying on the cross (and perhaps giving, even momentarily, the slightest impression the wolves had won).  He didn’t.  The apostle declared of Christ, In him was life…” (John 1:4) and all indications are He passionately loved living in the physical universe He created eons ago alongside the souls He came to save.  What occurred on Calvary Hill was horrible and ugly and Christ didn’t accept it as being the only way casually.  Because death was one of the powers He’d come to eliminate, it’s fair to say He hated death.  Yet He knew it was God’s will the world get reconciled and if that required His own blood be shed to accomplish it – so be it!  In Gethsemane Jesus prayed earnestly to His Father, “…Not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42) and the issue was settled.  He was prepared to endure whatever torture human beings had devised in their depravity because He knew He was safely held in the arms of His Father and that all the agonizing pain, all His suffering would demonstrate forevermore the limitlessness of God’s love and mercy toward mankind.  Yes, Christ treasured life dearly but He treasured doing the will of God far more.  We should all be immensely humbled by and grateful for what Jesus did on our behalf.  No one will ever do more.

 

Now, lest any of us mount our high horse and start thinking we’re better or in some way above engaging in wolfish behavior we’d best reconsider.  The hard truth is that all of us have a little Pharisee, Sadducee and mob-rule mentality residing in our own hearts that we must constantly pray for the Holy Spirit to confront and conquer.  Some scholars have opined that if Jesus came today as He did 2,000 years ago we’d crucify Him all over again.  Considering the sinful state the world’s in currently that’s not as far-fetched as it may sound.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “…The cross stands for the inevitable dereliction and defeat of the best and the worst indiscriminately.”  But Christians know the packs of unbelieving wolves would still be unable to silence the “Word made flesh” and His message that assures us, “But to all who have received him – those who believe in his name – he has given the right to become God’s children – children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God (John 1:12-13).  The wolves had the good shepherd surrounded but they did not vanquish Him.  He rose from the dead and now reigns over all creation at the right hand of the Father.  So what can we glean from this triumphant tale of courage beyond measure?  Stewart said, “The one thing for which we have been created is doing the will of God.  Obedience to that will may mean sacrifice and self-negation and the hard road of the Cross, but there alone can joy be found and peace and a life made radiant and shining like the sun.  The road of self-consecration is the King’s highway, and we’re lost if we’re not traveling there.”

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Citizen Jesus

Jesus was God in a human body.  That means He was a unique divine being and a citizen of Israel.  With His citizenship in mind it behooves us to look into Christ’s attitude concerning the social issues not only of His day but those of our current era, as well.  There are two popular yet separate schools of thought.  Some hold He steadfastly stayed away from addressing social issues while the opposing view considers Him the greatest social reformer the world’s ever known.  In other words, He was either like Mother Theresa or more akin to Martin Luther King.

 

The former view insists He intentionally focused solely on the state of people’s souls; that He wasn’t here to redesign earthly regimes but to transform individual hearts; that He urged folks not to be overly concerned with the problems of civilization but to concentrate more on their spiritual health.  While to an extent that’s accurate the down side of this assessment is that in many cases and in many ages it’s caused the Church to adamantly refuse to own up to having any social responsibilities.  This has often led non-believers to opine the body of Christ is ambivalent towards combating tyranny and injustice; that it doesn’t care about reform and actually advocates not “rocking the boat.”  I’ve even heard secularists claim the Bible favors slavery!  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The facts reveal Jesus constantly preaching about a kingdom.  Since a kingdom has inhabitants it means social issues will be involved.  His ground-breaking Sermon on the Mount is all about ethical behavior.  He healed people because He wanted to help them on the physical and spiritual level.  The large number of poor and downtrodden He found in every town troubled Him greatly.  He was a realist.  While Jesus did confirm Man does not live by bread alone…” (Matthew 4:4), He never said bread was unnecessary.  Asking God for our “daily bread” is part of the prayer He taught us to model our prayers after.  Thus we’re to acknowledge and tend to our basic needs as well as to those of our neighbors.

 

What all Christians must understand is Jesus intends for His grace-filled outlook on life to invade and saturate every aspect of our earthly existence and every aspect of our public and private life.  The Holy Spirit should thoroughly dominate our thoughts and actions 24/7.  We can’t allow a line of demarcation to be drawn in our worldview that marks a point where God’s will ends and ours takes over.  James S. Stewart wrote, “For there cannot ultimately be two kinds of truth; there’s only one.  Either Jesus must be king everywhere or He has no place at all.  The only alternatives are to apply His religion to every single one of life’s relationships or else drop that religion altogether; there is no third option.  This is the whole trend of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels.”

 

To label Jesus as primarily a social reformer is also a mistake because doing so implies He taught the human condition can’t be improved until our entire social order gets overhauled; that the Holy Spirit can’t do anything until the global community first fixes what’s wrong down here; that once we figure out how to eradicate poverty and oppression, then and only then can we combat and defeat the scourge of sin.  What Jesus told us in no uncertain terms is, I am the vine; you are the branches… apart from me you can accomplish nothing (John 15:5) and no matter how it’s translated, nothing in this context means not one solitary thing gets accomplished without Christ, my friends.  The kingdom of God on terra firma won’t be constructed by human hands.  God’s in control of that massive project, not mankind.  We can’t even begin to right the myriad of wrongs civilization suffers from until all hearts are put right with our Heavenly Father.  Positive thoughts and good intentions alone won’t repair this fallen world.  What we need’s a Savior.  And that Savior is Jesus Christ.

 

Truth is our Lord was a mixture of both views.  Jesus did include nurturing a Spirit-led social conscience in His message of salvation but the foundation of that vital message wasn’t predominantly social.  Stewart concluded, “Christ’s influence upon world conditions has been a consequence of His revelation of God.”  Jesus never headed up an organized protest march but His liberating teachings freed men and women the world over from having to hopelessly buckle under to manmade oppression.  It was His merciful spirit that caused the gruesome gladiatorial spectacles held in Rome’s colosseum to be halted.  It was His spirit of equality that energized the anti-slavery movement.  It was His spirit of inclusion that propelled women’s rights into the forefront of early 20th century culture.  And it’s His spirit of compassion that caused the vast majority of hospitals to get financed and built in order to improve the lives of all who’re sick.  (I have yet to find a multi-million dollar Buddhist hospital in my area.  Just sayin’.)  What I’m trying to say is that the people whom Christ has transformed are the ones most responsible for instigating major changes in society and who’ve improved social conditions most.  Furthermore it’s the Body of Christ, when it stands united together upon the everlasting rock of truth, that’s always the strongest, most influential force for social reform on the planet.  It’s been proven time and time again.

 

One area Jesus shed a bright light on was the crucial importance of family.  Experts concur a stable home life is essential to maintaining a stable society.  The Jews considered the family institution more sacrosanct than any other group of people ever had before and Christ was raised in that beneficial atmosphere.  The family unit formed the basis of their entire nation’s religion while their divinely-ordained Mosaic laws guided it.  Respect for family is instrumental in preventing the digression into wholesale disregard for moral values that’s invariably brought down every conglomerate of humans in world history.  Yet as vital as the family concept was in the Jewish community Jesus supplemented it by bestowing upon it an even more profound sanctity.  It’s notable that for the initial 30 years of His life He was content to remain at home with His mother, four brothers and two sisters.  That says a lot right there.  He also employed the family unit to illustrate the intimacy of God’s kingdom, characterized most obviously by His frequent references to God as the ultimate Father figure.  His well-known parable of the prodigal is predicated on the complicated politics of a typical dad-and-offspring relationship wherein Jesus drove home His controversial point that God’s capacity to forgive is limitless.

 

But what most distinguishes Christ’s contribution to the importance of family is how He was able to so significantly elevate the status of women and children.  The way our Savior regarded females in particular did more to emancipate them from the restrictive bonds of chauvinistic traditions than mere suggestions ever could have.  For example when He announced Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (Mark 10:9) He effectively made taboo the practice of husbands divorcing their wives on a whim.  Later Paul carried Christ’s discrimination-banning teachings into the world at large by writing and disseminating statements like There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).  What may be the most disturbing feature of Jewish culture 2,000 years ago is how badly they treated youngsters in general.  Hard as it is to fathom, they didn’t think much of the kiddos at all.  With that in mind Jesus’ unreserved acceptance and love for them is remarkable.  When His disciples asked who’d be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven He invited (to their chagrin, no doubt) an innocent child into their midst and said, I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!  Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me (Matthew 18:3-5).  It may not seem very radical nowadays but Christ’s declaration was nothing less than outrageously earth-shaking in its implications.

 

Still, Jesus was careful not to call dedication to the family more important than dedication to God.  On the contrary, in His own life He didn’t hesitate to leave His comfy pastoral home behind when His Heavenly Father informed Him the time had come to start His ministry.  And He certainly didn’t mince His words when He boldly asserted, I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be members of his household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:35-37).  Family is, indeed, important but following and obeying Jesus takes precedence over anything/anyone we might possibly cherish on this earth.  To quote from none other than the apostles themselves, This is a hard teaching! (John 6:60).  You bet your boots it is!  Yet our Lord’s shocking command can’t be ignored or rationalized away as a misprint.  When a person surrenders their life to Christ it’s an all-or-nothing proposition requiring a willingness to abandon even one’s allegiance to family for the sake of serving Jesus in this fallen world.

 

Another area of societal problems we should explore is our attitude towards money.  Face it, it’s something we all think or worry about and societies are built fundamentally upon economics.  That’s why Christ brought it up often, warning us all not to get too attached to our money.  His parable of the rich farmer in Luke 12 highlighted the selfishness abundance can foster in a person’s heart.  In Luke 16 He told the story of the wealthy man who died and then languished in hell while the starving beggar Lazarus (whom he paid no attention to while alive) soared with the angels in paradise.  Money has a place in many of Jesus’ parables.  It’s the hidden treasure in Matthew 13.  It corrupts the ungrateful servant in Matthew 18.  It distinguishes the two debtors in Luke 7.  It also appears in the Gospels’ biographical accounts.  Love of money discouraged the rich young ruler from becoming a disciple in Matthew 19 whereas, after encountering Christ in Luke 19, the despised tax-collector Zacchaeus was more than happy to rid himself of over half his possessions.  Why this emphasis on cash?  Because Jesus was pragmatic and He was aware we all rely on money too much.  (I’m as guilty as they come, by the way.)  Now, like the previously mentioned “bread thing”, Christ never said earning, having and saving money is intrinsically evil.  Many of our Lord’s converts were well off.  He also never indicated living in poverty is desirable.  What He encouraged us to achieve is contentment with what God blesses us with and in developing a willingness to share whatever we can with those who don’t have enough.  What Christ taught in Luke 19 is this: We should regard all our possessions, money included, as gifts God’s entrusted us with.  We must remain ever wary of letting money come between us and our core purpose.  Jesus said, For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life? (Mark 8:36).  Wealth is extremely alluring and extremely dangerous at the same time because it can cause us to foolishly forget God.  And, as our Master indicated with His camel and eye-of-a-needle allegory, it’s nearly impossible to overcome money’s lure.

 

Our country’s current fixation with the state of our union and on which side of the political fence one sits on begs the question of what Jesus would tell His followers to do right now.  Well, as the saying goes, “It’s in the Book.”  When the conniving Pharisees attempted to pull a “gotcha” trick on Christ with their Caesar vs. God query our Savior provided us with our answer.  Everybody in Israel hated the Romans (as much as some Christians disgracefully hate the POTUS) so the religious honchos figured if they gave Jesus enough rope He’d figuratively hang Himself in the court of public opinion.  First they tried to butter Him up, telling Him how wise and impartial they thought He was.  Then they sprung their trap, asking Him, Tell us then, what do you think?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? (Matthew 22:17).  They were sure He couldn’t wiggle out of their loaded question.  If He agreed His adoring crowd would drop Him like a hot potato.  If He disagreed they’d run tell Pilate He was a seditionist and then his Roman thugs would silence Him for good.  If He said nothing or requested time to think it over folks would assume He was too cowardly to respond.  They thought they had the Messiah cornered.  Wrong.  Jesus called them the hypocrites they were and then asked to borrow a Roman coin.  He then inquired, Whose image is this, and whose inscription?  They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’  He said to them, ‘Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:20-21).  The Scriptures tell us the Pharisees were “stunned.”  I guess so.  They’d been outwitted to the max.

 

This amazing story always makes me grin but I also realize it’s given rise to conflicting interpretations.  So let’s focus on the obvious.  Notice Christ refrained from issuing an overly-simple answer to a highly-complex question.  Remember, His mission wasn’t to give us explicit instructions on how to govern each other.  It was to give us guiding principles on how to best love each other.  Stewart wrote, “He came to impart to men a spirit by the power of which they’d settle their own debates and work out their own programs.  For the Christian this of course implies involvement on the political and economic levels.”  In other words, the privilege of being alive on Earth carries with it a certain amount of obligation.  There are frustrating things we have to deal with and solve collectively down here.  We either will or we won’t.  It’s up to us.  Ravi Zacharias says he wishes the Pharisees would’ve hung around long enough to ask Jesus, “And what belongs to God?”  He thinks Jesus would’ve responded, “Whose image is on you?”  That’s a question all Jews knew the answer to from reading Genesis 1:27.  Christ didn’t come here to give us civics lessons or to broker peace agreements between nations.  Today, as it was then, His aim is to save lost souls.  Only if we let Christ live through us can we hope to make any difference at all.

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For the Love of Christ

The word “love” gets tossed around casually these days but it rarely conveys the kind of love Jesus exhibited.  For example, contemplate the implications of what He taught in Matthew 5:43-45; You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…”  What Christ asks of us is as hard today as it was back then because that kind of love doesn’t occur naturally in humans.  But Jesus repeatedly stressed that developing a loving spirit takes precedence over every other aspect of our faith.  It’s our love, not our piety, which identifies us as Disciples of Christ.  There’s no substitute.  “…Let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God.  The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8).  When I gripe more than I love I figuratively paint myself into a corner of unhappiness and discontent.  James S. Stewart wrote, “Every man comes ultimately to inhabit the kind of world he makes for himself, and it is only the man who lives by love who can taste the gladness of God.”  Or, to borrow from the Beatles’ memorable coda, “…The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

 

Dallas Willard wrote, “We don’t attack people in the love of God.  We don’t withdraw from them.  We accept them.  Loving our neighbor is part of what goes into loving God.  You can’t love God and not love your neighbor.  They don’t fit together because God actually does love your neighbor.  It seems very unlikely to many as they look at their neighbor, but God loves them.  He loves the neighbor who is your enemy, so He very naturally says, ‘Love your enemies.’  To love your enemies means to seek what’s good for them, in dependence on God.  Of course, the best thing that could happen to your enemies is that they’d come to know God.  To love our neighbors is not to help them do the bad things they want to do to us.  It doesn’t mean to help them get their way, because very often the worst thing for human beings is to get their way.  So we need to know how to stand in the world under God with our neighbor in an attitude of love.”

 

Obviously our Lord wasn’t talking about love in the sense of “I love coffee.”  He never advocated adopting a shallow, “flowers-in-our-hair”, chemically-influenced countenance that’ll wear off by tomorrow morning.  Nor did He ever advise us to benignly tolerate sin in others.  In other words, the love Jesus advocated ain’t as simple as it sounds.  It involves never holding a grudge or being resentful.  It encourages us to always look for the diamond in everyone’s pig sty  – even when it’s nearly impossible to locate.  It means being profoundly forgiving and patient because at times we’ve been difficult to forgive and be patient with, too.  By the same token, when Christ taught, Do not judge so that you will not be judged (Matthew 7:1) He wasn’t suggesting we toss our common sense and our Holy Spirit-guided reasoning faculty overboard.  The Scriptures insist, You who love the LORD, hate evil! (Psalm 97:10).  It’s a bit of a greased tightrope to navigate but I think Jesus was telling us if we’re going to do any judging down here it should first be directed inwardly.  St. Augustine wryly commented, “To my God, a heart of flame; to my fellow man, a heart of love; to myself, a heart of steel.”

 

We live in a world starved for love.  That’s what Christ found in His travels and nothing touched His compassionate heart as deeply.  He saw it reflected in the face of the despised Zacchaeus in Luke 19, in the weary mien worn by the Samaritan woman in John 4 and in the defeated disposition He couldn’t help but notice in the crowds that came to hear Him preach.  The reality was love had become as scarce as hope among God’s people.  Lovelessness was epidemic.  “Look out for #1” was the universal motto.  Selfishness had become respectable but Christ said selfishness was not only deplorable but the root cause of all mankind’s problems.  And “fake love” may be the worst sin folks can foist upon one another.  That’s what Jesus accused the Pharisees of practicing.  It didn’t even qualify to be called love at all because it was so insincere.  Furthermore, it didn’t help anybody because the recipients of their “love” could see right through the charade.  It would’ve been better if they’d ignored them altogether than to pretend to love them by doing “holy stuff” to impress them.  Most of us know what it feels like when someone’s love for us isn’t real.  It hurts.  Christ never puts on airs and He’s never condescending.  The Bible tells us “God is love.”  Jesus is God.  Therefore He loved all men and women because, for Him, to not love them was impossible.  He’s the embodiment of love.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.”

 

We all acknowledge that “All you need is love” but, at the same time, we also know how hard it is to always be a “loving person.”  We can all agree that love forms the bedrock of what Jesus identified as the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40) and that all Christians should endeavor to spread unconditional love wherever we go but to say it’s a struggle is a gross understatement.  Loving our enemies isn’t tough to do – as long as they keep their distance.  It’s a crow of a different color to love someone nearby who constantly disrespects us, calls us names, gossips about us, makes fun of our faith, etc.  Heck, even the apostles who adored their Master had trouble loving one another consistently.  What we fail to see is that we’re slaves to our human nature that insists we have a God-endowed right to “get even” with those who trespass against us.  Christ says that mindset’s a sign of weakness because it shows we lack the spiritual confidence to rise above our animal instincts and reciprocate hatred with love.  Yet we all struggle to follow our Savior’s advice because the secular world doesn’t give a flip about what Jesus said.  They think loving everyone is too risky.  Christ knew that for a fact.  We figure out early on that showering a person with Christ-like love carries no guarantee they’ll respond in kind.  Shoot, they may even despise us for it.  Yet Jesus asks us to love them anyway, to risk their rejection at all cost.  He never hesitated to love.  But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  Chew on that for a moment.  Before we even heard the name of Jesus as toddlers He deemed us worth dying for.  That’s love on a level I can’t comprehend but nevertheless I can testify it saved me from the hellishness of my own self-destructive habits.  Thus shouldn’t Christians stop thinking of it as a risk and more of an adventure?  A challenge to be met?  I mean, what do we have to fear?  Stewart wrote, “Love’s difficulty is love’s glory.”

 

How long we’re willing to continue to love when it’s not being returned in kind is the litmus test of its authenticity.  Jesus loved us all the way to the cross.  He refused to impose limits on love.  “…Peter came to him and said, ‘Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me?  As many as seven times?’  Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!’ (Matthew 18:21-22).  Look, if I strive to forgive someone 77 times there’s a good chance I’ll forget what their trespass was long before I reach that number.  I think that’s what Christ was getting at in His answer.  Forgive until you purge all your righteous indignation out of your system and then move on.  Only love can heal emotional wounds – so be patient.  Give it time.  For those who hold the opinion that Jesus asks too much of us; that His brand of love is humanly unfeasible I must point out that Christ would probably agree.  We can’t summon up a love bulletproof as that on our own.  Only the indwelling Holy Spirit can provide the strength and the courage to love that way.  Why will we need courage to love without reservation?  Because it will most likely be painful, that’s why.  Jesus told us all about that.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24).  Taking up one’s cross is no walk in the park, folks.

 

However, in Jesus we find good reasons to love.  One is that He opens our eyes to see the fundamental dignity and loveableness of human beings.  If we don’t take the time to peer through the disguises most people wear we’ll likely never see them as the potential adoptee of God they are.  Stewart wrote, “It does most mightily inspire love toward your fellow men when you can see, as Jesus saw, upon every face that passes you in the street something of the image of God.”  Christ’s willingness to sacrifice His life on behalf of every individual is another reason to love.  Whenever I meet a stranger, no matter how rudely they may act towards me, I try to remind myself that Jesus died for them, too.  If I call myself a Christian who am I to withhold my love from those who need it most?  If I don’t even make an effort to love them as Christ loves me aren’t I saying to them, in essence, that my Savior died for nothing?  Perish the thought!  Another reason to love is because Jesus Himself literally drenched people with love.  He didn’t just order us to love, He Himself loved like nobody’s business.  Peter couldn’t forgive 77 times but in Christ he could.  We all have somebody in our personal history we’d rather not love.  Or even pardon, for that matter.  But Christ already has and, because He lives in us, we can draw upon His love and do what we’re incapable of doing on our own.  The Holy Spirit, in His stead, teaches us how to love.

 

It was none other than Jesus who proved looks can deceive.  Love appears to be the most anemic of weaponry but in reality there’s nothing stronger on Earth.  Revenge is sweet at first but it soon turns sour.  Using one’s position to shame those who fall short of our expectations never yields positive results and the most powerful people are usually the most unsatisfied on the planet.  The same dichotomy goes for the smug who think their position makes them better than most.  Jesus spun a parable for them:  Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’  The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’  Christ added, I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).  Fess up, y’all.  There’s a little Pharisee in all of us.  We can do everything right and still miss the mark if we leave love out of our motivation.  As Paul eloquently expressed, If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).  Love is the most dynamic force there is and Christ possesses more of it than Earth’s oceans can hold.  It was His love that worked a miracle in me; that transformed my cold, cold heart into one filled with His light; that saved and redeemed my wicked soul.

 

But what, exactly, is the “benefit” Paul mentioned in the above verse?  The Bible indicates that love, in its purest form, asks for no reward.  All it desires is to be given away freely by those who, because of Christ, have learned what it is.  Love’s its own reward.  When Christians love we’re only doing what we’ve been instructed to do by our Master who told us, “…When you have done everything you were commanded to do say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what is our duty (Luke 17:10).  Nevertheless, the law of cause and effect rolls on unabated.  Those who never love will likely come to view the world as loveless.  And Jesus intimated in Matthew 6:15 that the unforgiving man or woman will themselves remain unforgiven because what they do is ultimately unforgivable.  Stewart wrote, “The loveless spirit is not excluded, it excludes itself from reconciliation and fellowship with God.”

 

Conversely, love does return the favor.  That’s part of what Jesus meant when he ended one of His parables with, I tell you that everyone who has will be given more, but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away(Luke 19:26).  Love begets more love, both in the giver and the receiver.  When we Christians draw living water from our inner fountain of faith and extend forgiving love with no strings attached to others, we’re imitating, as closely as we can, our Heavenly Father.  And our reward per se (it feels so inadequate to label the beautiful life God has in store for us a “reward”) will be the joy of spending eternity in the mind-blowing presence of Jesus Christ, the magnificent Son of God.  I’ll quote the late, great Stewart yet again: “The man who loves is creating the atmosphere in which the Spirit of God can dwell, and the Spirit comes and tabernacles in that human life and makes that soul His home.  So love is crowned.  The Lord is there.”

2

What’s Your Take on Jesus?

Keep in mind it’s not me who’s asking – it’s Jesus Himself.  I’m just one of His many ambassadors passing along the same question Christ posed to His disciples one day at Caesarea Philippi.  And what a pivotal day in His ministry that was!  You see, at that juncture His celebrity status that previously had folks itching to crown Him “king of the Jews” was fading fast.  His stock had plummeted.  The path He now walked led straight to Calvary.  A line had been crossed and there was no turning back.  Caesarea Philippi was somewhat remote, located in the far north region where the springs of the Jordan flow near Mount Hermon.  It was here, alone with the apostles, that He presented His question to them.  It was so important it appears in three of the four Gospels.  Thus it’s vital all Christians ask it of themselves.  Everything rides on how we respond.

 

One thing’s for sure.  Christ harbored no doubts about who He was.  He was the Messiah, the only begotten Son of God.  It’s made evident early on when the devil tempted Him in the wilderness because it’s nonsensical Satan would’ve even bothered if Jesus wasn’t his arch enemy.  It was also confirmed audibly by the Heavenly Father at His baptism.  Some think it was there that Christ was first made aware of His divinity but it seems more probable it’d been something slowly but surely solidifying since childhood.  James S. Stewart wrote, “…What happened in the hour of baptism was not a sudden awakening of Jesus to His own nature and function, but the receiving of power from on high.”  Our Savior knew who He was.  Yet, before the huddle at Caesarea Philippi, He’d deliberately chosen not to make a big deal out of it.  The men and women He’d healed were instructed to not “go viral” with their miracle.  He even commanded a demon that’d recognized Him to clam up.  “…There was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene!  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’  But Jesus rebuked him: ‘Silence!  Come out of him!’ (Mark 1:23-25).  One of the reasons Christ referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” was to keep His name out of the tabloids.  He knew the spiritually-minded would connect the dots to the prophesies in the Book of Daniel regarding that Messianic moniker but His critics wouldn’t.  Even on this momentous day when He openly affirmed His true identity, “…He instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (Matthew 16:20).

 

Why?  Well, for one thing, He was acutely aware that what the nation of Israel expected the promised Messiah to be and what the genuine article was had little in common.  The Jews anticipated the arrival of a score-settling, war-mongering superhero who’d promptly restore the throne of David to its former glory.  Jesus knew full well that if He wasn’t careful the populace would demand things of Him He wasn’t here to deliver and His soul-saving message would get smothered.  Therefore it was crucial He first tactfully renovate their misguided concept of what the Messiah’s actual mission was.  He had to get them to discard the idea of their deliverer being a political Messiah and embrace that of His being a suffering one.  Obviously that was a tall order that required all His patience to fill but it was doable because of who He was.  Another reason is that He thoroughly understood, having designed it, human nature and that actions speak louder and make a more lasting impression than mere words ever will.  Once a bunch of Pharisees ganged up on Him and asked, How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Christ, tell us plainly (John 10:24).  But the Lord was cognizant of their ulterior motive and dealt with them accordingly.  The fact is “plain talk” will never be able to adequately convey lofty subjects like love, grace, beauty, etc.  Breathtaking sunrises leave us speechless.  Words fail when we try to describe the overpowering emotions we experience when one of our newborns takes their first breath.  So imagine how difficult it’d be to convince someone you’re God Incarnate using only language.  No, Jesus had to show us.  Ravi Zacharias noted, “…Jesus declared that wisdom reveals itself by what it produces.”

 

Which brings us back to the “elephant-in-the-room” question.  In light of what you’ve learned about Christ, who do you say He is?  That day in Caesarea Philippi, when his poll numbers had nosedived and the once-adoring crowds had thinned dramatically, Jesus knew it was time to come clean with the disciples who’d stuck beside Him throughout.  His reasoning becomes clear in the Gospels.  Christ was about to inform them of what was looming on the horizon for Him and He knew that His alarming update would test their confidence in Him severely.  The moment had arrived to tell them He was soon going to be executed.  He had to find out if their faith was strong enough to handle the raw truth.  After all, these were men, not puppets.  Like all of us, they had free will, meaning they weren’t compelled to hang in there when the worst occurred.  He began by asking them a somewhat innocuous question – Who do people say that the Son of Man is? (Matthew 16:13).  The general consensus was that there wasn’t a general consensus, save the fact that everybody agreed He was obviously someone special.  Some opined He was John the Baptist resurrected.  Others thought maybe He was Elijah or Jeremiah.  It’s no stretch to say little has changed in 2,000 years.  Too many earthlings still don’t know.  However, even atheists will admit Jesus is the most influential human being in history.  But the Lord knew it was essential He establish once and for all time to come that He wasn’t just another entry on a list of saints.  As Stewart commented, “Christ claimed to be something and someone unprecedented, unparalleled, unrivaled, unique.”  God didn’t anoint a clever guru to redeem mankind, He sent His one and only Son.

 

At Caesarea Philippi our Savior then followed up His initial question with a pointed one we all must answer – But who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15).  Notice how skillfully Jesus shifted from the impersonal to the personal in the discourse.  It was a familiar maneuver.  Recall His conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  He started by engaging her in small talk to put her at ease and then got right down to the real nitty gritty.  Later on He did the same with Pilate.  In the beginning of the interrogation Christ played it cool with the conceited Roman prefect but when Pilate asked Jesus if He claimed kingship over the Jews our Lord quickly took him down a notch, confronting him personally with, Are you saying this on your own initiative, or have others told you about me?  Pilate immediately went on the defensive, exclaiming, I am not a Jew, am I? (John 18:34-35).  Christ always wanted to know what the individual He was talking to thought, not what their peers reckoned.  That’s why His direct question of But who do you say I am? is one that’s troubled a lot of folks over the centuries.  No one can sidestep its implication.  History forces it on us.  Conquerors like Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler have made their mark but none put even the slightest of dents in Christ’s enduring legacy.  The Bible forces it on us.  How could a person born in a barn grow up to firmly declare, All things have been handed over to me by my Father (Matthew 11:27) and then back that statement up performing inexplicable miracles?  As Philip Yancey wrote, “The God who created matter took shape within it, as an artist might become a spot on a painting or a playwright a character within his own play.”  Why, even our conscience forces it on us.  Nobody can read His words and not hear a voice inside their heart gently whisper to them “Pay heed.  This is the truth!”  They can deny it till the cows come home but that doesn’t render that voice imaginary.

 

Picture the scenario in your mind.  Jesus poses the “big question.”  The stunned disciples look around at each other.  Their Master’s never asked them that.  Predictably it’s bold Simon Peter who raises his hand and answers, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).  Some have respectfully tagged Peter’s utterance “the great confession” and that’s spot-on.  To comprehend its significance we must release Peter’s revelation from the confines of Jewish orthodoxy and apply it to the world at large.  Note that Jesus said to him, You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! (Matthew 16:17).  In other words, religion didn’t open Peter’s eyes, God did.  And God’s no respecter of persons, races or countries of origin.  The Messiah is the hope this whole fallen planet yearns to be rescued by.  The Messiah is the fulfillment of every promise and the answer to every prayer.  The Messiah is the One who’ll fix what’s wrong down here and bring the kingdom of heaven to our planet.  Every news bulletin announces another horrible atrocity, another wave of terror or another threat of war.  Nothing our civilization does makes anything better because nothing will improve until every man and woman turns to Jesus and acknowledges, as Peter did, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

 

However, the outspoken apostle’s declaration was more than a clarifying admission.  It’s worth mentioning the other eleven didn’t challenge Peter’s assertion.  He simply verbalized what they’d each concluded on their own.  Stewart wrote, “They found now that, when they tried to think of God, it was Jesus’ face they saw…”  Yet recognition of something and dedication to it are two separate responses.  The Scriptures tell us only God can inspire a person to surrender their life to serving Him exclusively.  A steely conviction such as the apostles had can only result from living in the company of the Lord or, in our case, from experiencing His literal presence in our hearts.  It’s a conviction that begins with a faith miniscule as a mustard seed.  Up until then Christ may as well be a myth.  That’s why so many remain lost today.  They refuse to open the door Jesus knocks on and till that happens He won’t come in.  John Ortberg wrote, “Everybody has a little lock on the door of their heart, and nobody, not even God Himself, can force that open.”  Peter’s a fine example of someone who started with the tiniest speck of faith, wanting only to find out what this “Jesus dude” was into.  That’s all our Lord asks of anyone.  He doesn’t dictate what we’re to make of Him.  He doesn’t require we recite a pledge.  On the contrary, He accepts us as we are and where we are.  He knows if we give the Holy Spirit an inch He’ll take a mile.

 

But, as I mentioned earlier, Christ didn’t tell His disciples He was none other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He showed them.  Daily they heard him preach in a manner that exuded authority while they witnessed the profound effect His words had on even the most skeptical of people.  They saw firsthand how He consistently rose to every occasion.  They stood awestruck as He healed the unhealable and repaired the shattered lives of those who’d determined they were beyond help.  They perceived the wonderful, dramatic changes that were taking place in their own hearts just from being near Him.  And gradually they came to believe that the Holy man they’d opted to follow was qualified to forgive sins – something only God can do.  Therefore Peter’s heartfelt confession of You are the Christ, the Son of the living God was a set-in-stone belief they shared.  It’s also my belief and something I’d stake my life on.  And, like Peter, my certainty about who Jesus is didn’t come to fruition via logical deduction, brain-straining study or from my being “talked into it” by a slick evangelist.  My conviction isn’t man-made.  It’s God-given.  It’s beyond material proof.  It’s not something I can explain, nor do I feel a need to.  I just know.  Stewart quipped, “Only God can make us finally sure of God.”

 

It wouldn’t be right to omit the remainder of this New Testament episode, so I won’t.  After duly congratulating Peter for answering His question correctly, Jesus announced, And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven (Matthew 16:18-19).  No doubt the Master was expressing not only His gratitude but relief that the task of making sure the Good News got spread across the globe was in capable, trustworthy hands; that the persecution Jesus endured wasn’t going to amount to zip after all.  He knew the apostles would get the job done after He’d ascended to the right hand of His Father.  The tremendous honor He laid on Peter serves to illustrate the value of a person’s faith to our Creator.  Did Jesus mean Peter the man was to be “the rock” of His church; or did He mean Peter’s avowal of unadulterated faith would serve as its metaphorical foundation?  Most likely it’s a combination of both.  It was upon Peter, the fully-believing and thoroughly-convinced human being, that Christ’s church would be erected.  And we can see with our own eyes that the church has grown and has continued to expand mainly due to the unwavering faith its human members have invested in it all these years.  Dallas Willard wrote, “The objective of Jesus’ church-growth strategy was not to build a single, behemoth social institution with a limited set of ordained authorities.  Instead, His Spirit was to be poured out on all flesh to effect a widening, deepening base of influence within every nation, worldview, and social institution.”

 

So are we going to be the generation that, due to lack of conviction and faith and guts, stands idly by and watches Christ’s church collapse into rubble?  Or are we willing to stick our necks out, go against modern secular trends and courageously ask our floundering neighbors, “What’s your take on Jesus?”  How they answer that question will determine where they’ll spend eternity so we must be loving Christians educated sufficiently to successfully set them straight about precisely who Christ was and still is today.

1

 

Jesus’ Secret Weapon

Those familiar with the Gospels know it’s really no “secret.”  It was prayer.  To our Savior prayer was as essential for well-being as food and water and this didn’t go unnoticed by His followers.  They sought to acquire the ability He obviously possessed in abundance.  Now Jesus was praying  When he stopped, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’ (Luke 11:1).  Now, it’s not that they didn’t pray.  They’d been raised Jewish and praying was an integral part of their religion.  But through observation they saw there was something drastically better, more gratifying about the way our Lord prayed.  Therefore they yearned to do it like He did.  James S. Stewart wrote, “No doubt often before this they’d felt the difference between Jesus’ prayers and their own, His so sure and strong and real, theirs so weak and stammering and intermittent, His so comprehensive and God-inspired, theirs so erratic and spasmodic and unsatisfying.”  As a Christian I, too, want to communicate with my Heavenly Father as intimately as Christ did so I find the disciple’s appeal as valid today as it was then.  I’m constantly aware that my prayer life is altogether too puny.  Therefore this subject greatly interests me.  Perhaps you feel the same.  Larry Crabb once confessed, “All I knew about prayer was to ask for things in case God might give them to me and to thank Him when He did.  I grew up loosely committed to the ‘just-in-case’ prayers.  You know the kind – pray for something just in case it makes a difference.”  He found there’s a lot more to it than that.

 

A few things are noteworthy from the get-go.  It’s apparent Jesus never deemed it necessary to argue the validity of praying any more than He did the existence of God.  To Him the Heavenly Father was real and every individual’s freedom to commune with Him was real, as well.  Neither was up for debate.  Prayer is as natural an instinct for humans as breathing.  The impulse to pray is undeniable.  Even primitives seek a spiritual connection with their Creator.  That’s because God implanted in everyone’s heart a fundamental urge to pursue and establish a relationship with Him.  Christ considered that urge a given.  And for the disciples the proof of its benefit was unmistakable.  In their Master they could detect no uncertainty whatsoever pertaining to His bond with His Father.  Jesus was the greatest person they’d ever encountered so whatever He did was something they knew they oughta be doing, too.  We need to cop the same attitude.  Since our Master prayed its essential importance is beyond question.  Jesus talked a lot about prayer.  But it wasn’t hollow rhetoric for He put into practice everything He taught.  That’s why it’s vital we Christians learn everything we possibly can about prayer.

 

The Gospels confirm praying wasn’t just a feature of Christ’s faith – it was the foundational cornerstone of it.  It was foremost in His mind the moment He woke every day: “…Jesus got up early in the morning when it was still very dark, departed, and went out to a deserted place, and there he spent time in prayer (Mark 1:35).  After preaching to and miraculously providing lunch for over 5,000 hungry folks you’d think He’d stop for a nap but He didn’t.  He sent the apostles ahead and, After saying goodbye to them, he went to the mountain to pray (Mark 6:46).  Those are just two examples of many that firmly establish our Lord’s devotion to prayer.  It’s logical to assume if the Gospel writers had documented every instance of Christ’s stepping away to pray in private the Bible would be at least twice its size.  For to Jesus prayer was life itself and nothing took precedence over it.  And prayer wasn’t something contingent on what mood He was in.  This isn’t to imply Christ was some kind of Stoic, unaffected by gladness or sorrow, laughter or tears, elation or fatigue.  He felt the same things we feel.  Yet He always turned to prayer for sustenance.  And it wasn’t something He made Himself do out of obligation.  His greatest joy was to spend time with His Heavenly Father whom He loved passionately and without apology.  Crabb wrote, “He wanted nothing more than to let everyone see how wonderful His Father was, even if it cost Him His life.”  Thus when my rudimentary prayers don’t energize me I have to ask myself if it’s due to my lack of sincere affection for God, a self-posed accusation akin to poking my heart with a sharp stick.  Ouch.

 

The most common reason given for not praying is we’re too doggone busy to bother.  How incredibly lame is that?  Some of us will mount our theological high horse and claim that our work, because we perform it obediently, is an acceptable form of prayer in and of itself, making getting on our knees superfluous.  But that excuse falls flat when we look at Jesus.  He was arguably the busiest person who ever trod terra firma.  If you don’t believe it, peruse the first few chapters of Mark.  Every day and night there were sick folks, cripples and desperate-for-hope sinners flocking to Him for relief yet He never posted a “closed” sign.  Surely every healing took something out of Him until He experienced exhaustion.  However, Christ always managed to spend “alone time” with God daily.  He literally carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders but He never forgot to pray.  Yes, His work on earth was crucial but it was never a substitute for prayer.

 

Another thing that can interfere with our prayer life is impatience.  In modern society we’ve gotten used to getting what we desire “on demand” and that expectation has seeped into the spiritual realm.  But instant gratification is not a promise God ever made to us.  The great I AM isn’t a vending machine or a phone app.  Hebrews 5:7 tells us, During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications with loud cries and tears…”  In other words, Jesus understood prayer was sometimes a strenuous, emotional activity necessitating the undistracted focus of His mind, heart and soul.  In His curious parable of the obnoxious neighbor recorded in Mark 11 our Lord actually commends the pesky neighbor’s unrelenting persistence.  He’s saying if you don’t get what you need from God, keep asking!  God’s not insensitive to our wants and the squeaky wheel does have better odds of getting the grease.  Look, God’s no fool.  He perceives if our prayers are half-hearted/insincere and, when they are, they’re treated accordingly.  Once again Jesus serves as our ideal.  He responded mercifully to the Syrophoenician woman who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer in Mark 7.  Blind Bartimaeus, despite being told to shut up, continued to shout Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! (Mark 10:47) until Christ healed him.  On another occasion the friends of a paralyzed man went so far as to tear a hole in the roof over our Savior’s head in order to lower him to where he could receive complete restoration.  Jesus was teaching us the Heavenly Father has great respect for those who display true determination in their prayers.

 

An unconfessed sinful habit or one we haven’t yet repented of can also cause problems in our prayer life.  Christ taught, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).  We have to ask ourselves if we’re even trying to be pure in heart.  Sin’s the ultimate deal-breaker and blessing-blocker.  David wrote, If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18).  I dare say our own unacknowledged iniquities may be the biggest obstacles standing between us and God’s graces.  Jesus, of course, knew no sin.  His heart was pristine, pure.  Thus the communication link between Him and His Father was never interrupted for a nanosecond.  In other words, the more Christ-like we strive to be every single day of our lives the stronger our relationship with our Heavenly Father will be.  “…Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) isn’t so much an impossible-to-obey command as it is a worthy goal for all Christians to strive for.

 

So we know that for Jesus praying was an irreplaceable component of His 24/7 routine.  He also didn’t hesitate to turn to prayer whenever a situation called for it; i.e. when major career decisions needed to be made.  Before He chose His inner circle of apostles He “…went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).  He knew who was most capable of giving Him reliable guidance.  Jesus also depended on prayer to supply Him with extra strength when battling evil.  One day His disciples couldn’t exorcise a particularly nasty demon from a young man no matter how hard they tried.  After Christ drove it out they asked Him why they’d failed.  He answered them solemnly, This kind can come out only by prayer (Mark 9:29).  When the ominous clouds of temptation hovered over Gethsemane, enticing Him to stray from His Father’s will, He relied on prayer to keep Him faithful: “…In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).  And finally, when He was in the midst of His darkest hour upon the cross, having been tortured inhumanely for the crime of telling the truth, He prayed openly to His Father: Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ (Luke 23:46).  Fair to say that for our precious Redeemer prayer was a whole lot more than some symbolic gesture.  Therefore Christians should regard praying the wisest thing we can do in any situation – good or bad.

 

As we investigate Jesus’ “secret weapon” further we discover four different elements in His prayers.  First is the communion aspect.  What that means is Christ sometimes engaged in prayer simply for the sake of fellowshipping with God.  Luke 9:29 notes a significant change came over our Savior when He prayed.  It states,As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed…”  When we contemplate the prayer life of Jesus (and before we try to mimic it) we must concede it’s more than merely asking God for blessings.  Tact is respectful.  If we pester our best friend only for favors over and over again it won’t be long before they no longer wanna be our best friend.  Stewart wrote, “Jesus would have men go to God when there’s nothing to ask, go to Him not for His gifts but for Himself alone.”  The second aspect is that of expressing genuine gratitude.  We should offer our Heavenly Father thanks not only for the good stuff but the not-so-good stuff, too.  Nowhere in the Gospels is it recorded that our Lord went to God with a list of grievances/gripes.  Hard at times as it must’ve been, Christ was always grateful.  When He illustrated to the apostles in Luke 22 that His blood, represented by the wine, would soon be shed for the sake of the world He expressed thanks to His Father.  Likewise when He showed them, via tearing the bread apart, how His body would be cruelly broken.  Even with the heaviness of an impending agonizing execution hanging over His head Jesus still led them in offering God praises: After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives(Mark 14:26).

 

The third aspect is the controversial petitionary one.  While there are several admirable reasons for praying, asking for what we need/want shouldn’t be arbitrarily left out of the mix.  The popularity of the well-intentioned-but-woefully-misguided “prosperity Gospel” movement inadvertently caused a backlash effect that had many preachers sternly warning Christians against asking anything of God.  Students of Jesus know He was never skittish about petitioning His Father for blessings and, furthermore, that He encouraged His followers to do the same.  When He presented His disciples with what’s known as “The Lord’s Prayer” He started with When you pray, say: ‘Our Father…’” (Luke 11:2).  By using the familial term “Father” Christ was giving us divinely-granted permission to approach God with our sincere requests without trepidation.  Since Jesus told us we need not approach God like we’re scared because He loves us there’s no reason not to ask Him for blessings – as long as the qualifying plea of Thy will be done is included.  The worst that can happen is God’ll say “no” because He has a better idea.  As He taught us in Isaiah 55:8, Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds.”  We must develop sufficient trust to accept that “He who created the universe” knows exactly what He’s doing.  Yet that still shouldn’t discourage us from asking.  Stewart wrote, “…The tendency to disparage petitionary prayer argues chiefly a lack of faith.  Down at its roots is lurking the thought that God isn’t fully at liberty, but in some sense bound, in some degree a prisoner in His own universe.  And what Christ would have us realize is that God’s alive and God’s free, and that therefore true faith will always do as Jesus Himself did and carry its requests straight to the throne.”

 

The fourth aspect of Jesus’ prayers is requesting God’s intercession.  That means we’re to spend time unselfishly praying for others.  Our Savior prayed for poor little children.  He prayed for His lost sheep.  No doubt He prayed for Judas Iscariot because we know for a fact He prayed for His sworn enemies who wanted Him dead.  He prayed for His apostles: Simon, Simon, pay attention!  Satan has demanded to have you all, to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.  When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32).  Thus it’s only proper we pray fervently for those who are suffering from debilitating and often life-threatening illnesses to be made whole again; that we pray for those who don’t know the transforming love of Christ; that we pray for our discombobulated, fallen planet that so desperately needs to embrace the truth that can set it free from the chains of discord, hatred and divisiveness.  The Bible tells us God can be persuaded to intercede as long as it doesn’t defy His perfect will.  There’s an amazing amount of power in prayer.  Paul implored us to “go for it,” encouraging us to “…Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Civilization would benefit immensely if all people followed Paul’s sage advice.  We Christians should show them how it’s done.  Brennan Manning wrote, “…There’s only one thing God asks of us – that we be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is everything and for whom God is enough.  That is the root of peace.”

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