Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

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.”

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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.

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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.”

3

Jesus the Healer

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

1

Our Worst Enemy

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

3

Father Knows Best

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

4

Jesus the Teacher

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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