Tag Archives: salvation

What’s a Christ Disciple?

One of the last things Jesus said before His ascension was “…go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) so it makes sense we define what one is.  To me it’s a person who does their daily best to pattern every aspect of their life after Christ.  It’s a man or woman who finds no cause to hide their allegiance to the King of kings because it denotes who they are; who possess an unshakable surety of what their purpose for being on earth is; who won’t let anything or anybody steal the inner joy that springs from knowing their Savior has gone to “…make a place…” for them (John 14:2) in the Heavenly Father’s magnificent mansions; who trust fully that their final exhale in this fallen realm will be followed immediately by their first inhale of paradise air.  I could go on but you get the point.  A Christ disciple is one who can’t even fathom apprenticing under anyone other than Jesus and considers the designation of “Jesus Freak” a high honor.  I reckon that makes me one, too.

 

I must mention there are some denominations that cast doubt on one’s ability to know if they’re even saved.  That’s because in the New Testament one can find multiple allusions to “the elect” and those “chosen” by God before time began.  If the subject intrigues you there are hundreds of scholarly books available that delve deeply into predestination and you’ll discover many contradicting opinions about it.  (Norman Geisler’s Chosen but Free is a fine one for starters.)  As for me I’m content to rely on what Paul and Silas told their trembling jailer: Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved (Acts 16:31).  Jesus didn’t endure the agony of the cross to make salvation more complicated.  But I don’t want to digress.  The aim of this essay is to define what identifies one as a disciple.  I think most will agree you can be a Christian without being a disciple.  In other words, if somebody asked me the name of one writer I’d love to be as proficient as I wouldn’t hesitate to answer.  It doesn’t mean I strive in every area of my life to imitate everything about them.  There’s a lotta folks in this world who truly believe in the Lord Jesus but they’d be the first to tell you they’re not disciples.  They’re definitely saved but far from committed.  This isn’t to imply that those of us who want with all their heart to be dedicated apprentices of Christ are superior in any way, shape or form to anyone else.  Perfection is a goal, not an attainable human condition.  Paul made it clear: For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24).

 

To be a disciple of someone is to aspire to be as good at something as they are.  So what was Jesus “good at”?  Dallas Willard wrote, “The answer is found in the Gospels: He lives in the kingdom of God, and He applies that kingdom for the good of others and even makes it possible for them to enter it for themselves.”  As the apostle Peter explained it to the Roman centurion Cornelius: “…With respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power.  He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him (Acts 10:38).  Who among us wouldn’t want to be known as someone who went around “doing good”?  I certainly wouldn’t protest having that carved on my tombstone.  So as a follower of Christ I consciously attempt to learn every day how to better live in the kingdom of God as He did.  That means whatever task I undertake during my waking hours I’ll endeavor to do it to the best of my ability like Jesus did.

 

However, being a Christ disciple is far different from learning a profession, trade or craft.  It involves a complete transformation of one’s mind and heart and it takes more than a lifetime to complete.  It’s a matter of becoming what God intended me to be, not what I set out to be when I entered adulthood long ago.  And discipleship has very little to do with “getting religious.”  Hey, the Pharisees and Sadducees who coerced Pilate into sentencing our Lord to a gruesome execution were as religious as they come.  For that matter, radical Islamic jihadists are extremely religious.  They make sure they pray to Allah five times a day and then plot to murder all the infidels they can.  What this confused planet so desperately needs is more Jesus, not more religion.  And, as followers of Christ, it’s never been about what we do as much as how we do it.  Look, our Heavenly Father wants us to be the unique individuals He created.  Thus He’s not interested in us turning ourselves into some kind of “cookie cutter Christian” indistinguishable from any other believer.  Not at all.  God gave each of us particular talents, aptitudes and personality traits that make us who we are.  We therefore have a specific function in His master plan that no one else can fulfill as well and there’s a quite a bit of dignity to be found in that fact. You’re not a fluke of nature.  You’re not a mistake.  Your life is yours to live.  But only by following the leadings of the Son of God can any of us unleash our true potential.

 

The great thing is this: the teachings of Jesus that instruct us on how to live the life God wants us to live/experience have been faithfully preserved throughout the centuries.  We have what we need.  Now it’s up to us to do what He told us to do.  Think of how different modern civilization would be if more folks adhered to what Christ laid out in His Sermon on the Mount alone!  It ain’t rocket science, either.  Jesus spoke about sinful things we either do ourselves, encounter or hear about every day – injustice and hatred, anger and contempt, lusting and coveting, rejection and mistreatment by others, etc.  He didn’t preach about lofty philosophical concepts only intellectuals could grasp, He talked about stuff we can all relate to, especially those who opt to be numbered among His disciples.  A Christ disciple sees beyond devoting most of their energy towards not doing or contemplating sinful things and more towards staying focused primarily on performing unselfish acts that benefit the most people as well as magnifying God’s glory.  They take to heart what their Savior commanded them to do to others as if it was He Himself they were ministering to.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me(Matthew 25:35-36).

 

One thing about being a disciple of Jesus is that you don’t have to necessarily go somewhere other than where you are or do something other than what you’re doing to be of valuable use to Christ.  Chances are you already have a job or a career so it’s probable you’re right where God wants you to be.  You don’t need a theology degree to make a difference.  That’s encouraging news for simple folks like me because, “…God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).  Consider it this way: you’ll likely spend at least a third (if not more) of your workweek days earning a paycheck.  True, you may not stand in a pulpit or be a church elder or a monk chanting in a monastery but you are in a position to be perhaps the only Bible your coworkers and/or associates will ever read.  Your “calling” may have little if anything to do with “religious activities” and a lot to do with reflecting God’s light onto others who don’t know how marvelous and gracious He is.  You can be an influential Christ disciple in an office cubicle just as effectively as you can teaching a Sunday school class.  Bear in mind many folks will still consider you an oddball fanatic because they won’t understand how a person can be indwelt and led by God the Holy Spirit.  That’s okay.  There are worse things to be labeled.

 

Turning our place of employment into a platform from which we can demonstrate Christian brotherly and sisterly love will take some effort and tact, to be sure.  Nobody will become intrigued to know more about Jesus if we start being the resident holier-than-thou goody two shoes, the un-appointed rule-maker of what’s to be deemed “politically correct” behavior and the final determiner of moral ethics for the whole crew.  If Jesus had given off any hint of that unpleasant vibe no one would’ve given Him a second thought, much less a moment of their time.  There’s not a trace of uppity self-righteousness in any of His teachings.  Willard opined, “A gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong, together with a sensitive, non-officious, nonintrusive, non-obsequious service to others, should be our usual overt manner.”  That’s excellent practical advice right there.

 

To be or not to be a disciple.  That’s a choice every Christian makes.  Does one have to be a disciple to enter the Pearly Gates?  I don’t think so.  As the aforementioned verse in Acts 16 confirms, belief in Jesus is the sole requirement in order to be saved.  However, our Lord taught that there are rewards in heaven for the good we accomplish down here and Paul clarified it.  He wrote, If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward.  If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss.  He himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:14-15).  Now there are a slew of Bible experts out there who know a lot more than I do regarding what Paul was getting at but I’ll tell you what I think, anyway.  If at some point in your life you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior you automatically became an accepted member of His “herd”.  Jesus said, My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one (John 10:27-30).  It’s true that no one gains salvation through their works.  Nobody earns heaven.  We’re saved by grace.  Period.  Therefore there’ll be some in heaven who got there not because they were devoted disciples but simply because they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior while alive on earth.  But, as Paul said, they’ll be akin to someone who narrowly escaped a burning building.  Personally, I don’t want to be one who gains access to paradise on a technicality.

 

Can someone lose their salvation?  That’s another controversial subject but I have to believe that if a saved person deliberately goes out of their way to sin on a regular basis, never repents and never gives God the time of day they’re severely testing our Creator’s tolerance and that has to be dangerous.  Furthermore, if a man or woman publicly disavows/denounces their faith in Jesus and calls their conversion a sham, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be standing in their shoes come Judgment Day.  Nobody pulls a fast one on God.  He knows if we’re being sincere when we surrender our hearts to Christ or if we’re only taking out fire insurance.  It’s doubtful the thief on the cross next to our Savior ever performed a charitable deed in his whole wretched life.  Yet when he recognized Jesus as the Messiah he asked Him for mercy.  Christ responded with, I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).  Obviously the thief wasn’t a disciple, only a last minute believer, but he got saved nonetheless.  Some, including a couple of my close relatives, think his was a “special case” and that all the “rules of justification” changed after the Resurrection but I have yet to find that expressed in the Scriptures.  To be sure, many things did change when Jesus walked out of His tomb but not HimJesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever! (Hebrews 13:8).  Thus a heartfelt deathbed surrender to Christ’s care and forgiveness of all sins most certainly does count.

 

It’s hard for me to imagine someone becoming absolved of all penalties for their iniquitous trespasses and not wanting to demonstrate to their gracious Redeemer gratitude by doing all they can to do what He commanded.  But that’s exactly what I did for decades.  Yes, I was a selfish ingrate.  While I know there’ll be no tears in heaven I suspect I’ll have at least a few regrets about how unthankful I was for my salvation for so long.  Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 illustrates that those who wisely invest their God-given gifts to further His kingdom will be rewarded with many more gifts while those who took their gift for granted (like me) will have divine repercussions to deal with.  Needless to say, my overriding ambition nowadays is to make up for all the time I wasted pursuing my own plans instead of God’s.  Note that in the 6th chapter of Matthew, right in the middle of His famous sermon, Jesus teaches about giving, praying and fasting being evidences of one’s faithfulness to God and He ends each segment with these same words, And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”

 

Therefore it seems there’s an advantage to being the best Christ disciple we can be.  Not only do we receive blessings in the here and now due to imitating the impeccable, perfect life Jesus lived for 33 years in Israel but we’ll be very glad we did in the next phase of our immortal soul’s existence.  However, we should never make heavenly rewards the sole reason for living like Christ.  Brennan Manning wrote, “Christianity consists primarily not in what we do for God but in what God does for us – the great, wondrous things that God dreamed up and achieved for us in Christ Jesus.  When God comes streaming into our lives in the power of His Word, all He asks is that we be stunned and surprised, let our mouths hang open, and begin to breathe deeply.”

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Are Christians “Too Pushy”?

Confronting others in a judgmental way rarely reaps positive results.  That’s why Jesus warned us about it in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5).  He then proceeded to issue another alert: Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces (7:6).  We should conclude the two are related.  Seems our Lord was cautioning against “pushing” our faith on those who don’t want to hear anything about it.  I surmise there are many reading this essay that’ve experienced firsthand utter rejection of our “pearls of wisdom” from folks we were simply trying to share the Good News with.  Why would a person not want to be informed of the path to everlasting life?  Don’t they understand we’re doing them the biggest favor of all?  Yet they all too frequently stonewall us in midsentence.  Few things are as frustrating as “talking to the hand.”

 

But if we’re not careful we can misinterpret what Jesus said and take it to mean it’s okay for us to judge whether or not a person is worthy of hearing the Gospel.  Taken literally, we might be tempted to label them filthy mongrels and write them off as a lost cause.  But if we’re in possession of a transformed “kingdom heart” that strives to emulate our Savior’s it’ll be impossible to imagine anything more diametrically opposed to what He taught us.  After all, was He not the precious Pearl of God, sent to be callously trampled on by human swine while His all-consuming love for mankind continued unabated?  Therefore to think Christ was suggesting certain of our neighbors should be deemed worthless pigs is absurd.  He also wasn’t recommending we should spread the Gospel message only to those we feel will accept it with gratitude.  No way.  Jesus said, “…Do good, and lend, expecting nothing back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:35-36).  Therefore we must dig deeper into His statement to find the truth of the matter.  Worthiness isn’t the issue; our ability to be helpful is.  No animal can digest pearls so if you keep putting them in their trough they’ll eventually get hungry enough to start considering you edible.  It’s pointless to keep serving up savory spiritual nuggets they can’t swallow no matter how delicious they may taste to us.  Our good intentions won’t make any difference at all and usually our efforts will just make them avoid us in the future.  We must conclude it’s not the “pearl” that’s wasted but our opportunity to assist a prodigal soul in finding their way back home.

 

One of the big reasons I and many other baby boomers abandoned the churches we were raised in when we became adults was because the legalistic “dos and don’ts” of the Christian religion had been shoved down our throats our whole lives.  Furthermore if we dared challenge the official doctrine in any way we were threatened with, you guessed it, condemnation – the very thing Jesus warned His followers about employing.  But is the 21st century church any less guilty?  Not that much, I’m afraid.  Believers frequently deliver their “pearls of wisdom” with a holier-than-thou attitude and a heavy dose of self-righteousness that’s downright repellant.  Nobody likes to be lectured by an uppity know-it-all.  Little wonder so many in the younger generations dismiss the Body of Christ’s Good News as being totally irrelevant to their needs.  The underlying conundrum is that those of us who’ve learned how life-enhancing that Pearl truly is can’t fathom the idea that others wouldn’t respond to it with gleeful enthusiasm.  The fact we’re offering it to them at all must qualify as solid evidence our hearts are in the right place, no?  Well, not necessarily.  The proof’s in the pudding and we know the batch we create doesn’t always look appetizing.

 

Dallas Willard wrote, “What we’re actually doing with our proper condemnations and our wonderful solutions, more often than not, is taking others out of their own responsibility and out of God’s hands and trying to bring them under our control.”  Ouch!  Ain’t it the truth, though?  I have two grown offspring and neither of them has accepted Christ.  It breaks my heart but I have to shoulder a lot of the blame.  Since I didn’t raise them to respect the Bible as I should’ve I’m tempted to think it’s my job to save their souls when I know good and well only God can do that.  Our Heavenly Father allowed His only begotten Son to be tortured to death on a rugged cross just so my daughter and son would have a decision to make of their own free will.  As unbelievable as it may seem to me, God loves them even more than I do so who am I to think I can have nearly as much influence on them as He does?  God wants heaven to be populated exclusively by souls who chose to spend eternity in His kingdom so He’ll no doubt reveal Himself to each person when the timing is perfect.  I can’t coerce or harass anybody into believing in Jesus.  It’s up to them.  Does this mean I’m not to bring Jesus up at all?  Am I to hide my light from those wandering in the darkness of this fallen world?  We all know better than that.  If we love others as much as we love ourselves we must, as Saint Augustine opined, “…endeavor to get our neighbor to love God.”  And nothing impresses a non-believer more than putting our money where our mouth is and imitating as faithfully as possible the exquisite lifestyle of our Lord.  We have to remember our basic role – we’re merely seed-sowers.  The Bible confirms it: “So neither the one who plants counts for anything, nor the one who waters, but God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).

 

So are we to deem ourselves relatively useless and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things?  As we read further into Jesus’ sublime sermon we find that’s not the case at all.  We mustn’t discount the “power of petition”.  Christ preached, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).  Jesus is telling us our requests for God to touch and soften the hearts of those who don’t know Him carry a lot of spiritual weight.  Willard wrote, “Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in cooperation with God and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual.”  In other words, God hears our concerns and our vote most definitely counts.

 

The more in tune our hearts are with the character of Christ the more effective our prayers will be.  What do I mean by that?  Well, our love for others must be genuine, that’s for sure.  We can’t love God and harbor disdain for people simultaneously.  The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8).  If anyone says ‘I love God’ and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).  Forgiveness and unconditional love go hand in hand.  Recall what our Lord said earlier in His sermon: For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).  Therefore we aren’t in a position to pick and choose who we’re to love and who we’re to despise because in doing that we promote ourselves into a position where we’re qualified to judge others.  That’ll never be our privilege.  We must surrender that presumptive false notion at the foot of the cross if we’re to make any spiritual headway at all.

 

A demand divides whereas a request unites.  When we ask someone to consider the Gospel message we’re granting that person the option to reject it and that can make an enormous difference as to how receptive they’ll be to hearing/contemplating the truth that’ll set them free.  If our sincerest desire is for someone we encounter to get their name entered into the Book of Life then it’s only natural we should let that desire be known to our generous Father God.  Jesus used common sense to convey what the result of that heartfelt plea will be.  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 telling us the answer to the question of how we can best go about getting those who are lost to acquire salvation is to tap into the awesome power of prayer – asking God to intervene.  We must trust He’ll do everything short of overriding that individual’s free will to bring them into His glorious kingdom’s fold.  We surely wouldn’t want anybody to want less than that for us, would we?  This sentiment sets us up to comprehend Jesus’ infallible Golden Rule: In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).  Alas, if only all human beings would obey that simple exhortation this world would be a peaceful garden.

 

What Jesus was teaching us to do (regarding getting others to accept the Good News He later commanded His disciples to spread across the globe) – requesting God’s help – is also applicable to everything we attempt to do as Christians.  It should be our core aim in life that God’s perfect will be done in lieu of our own.  Jesus, with His horrible crucifixion looming, prayed on the Mount of Olives, Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.  Yet not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42).  As James S. Stewart preached, “The praying Christ is the supreme argument for prayer.”  Jesus didn’t hesitate to show us what real, uncompromised submission looks like.  Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “…Prayer is getting more of God rather than getting more from God.”  When our covetous, self-centered urges get in the way of God’s grace problems are certain to arise and flourish.  Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from?  Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you?  You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight.  You do not have because you do not ask; you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal that we must realize; it’s rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”  In other words, if Jesus isn’t at the center of all our interactions with and hopes for our neighbors then we’re settling for much, much less than what we might otherwise gain if He were our only focal point.

 

In this segment of His Sermon on the Mount Christ Jesus didn’t just say, “Don’t be pushy.”  He continued on to tell us to always rely on the Holy Spirit when we witness to others about Him.  Also, our contentment and joy should be easy to detect.  And projecting a humble, open-minded countenance always goes a long way toward putting others at ease.  Yet we should be wary of people who’ll try to paint us into a corner via blunt questions like, “So you believe if I don’t accept Christ then I’m going to roast in hell forever.  Isn’t that right?”  Neither a yes or no response will adequately address the complex issues contained in their query and will most likely doom the conversation to stalemate status.  Instead it’s more productive to first ask them about their views.  Like “What do you think about Jesus?” or “What’s your theory concerning the resurrection?” or “What do you guess comes after death?”  As Christians it’s our duty to be prepared to defend our faith logically and in a confident, non-confrontational manner.  As Saint Peter wrote, But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess (1 Peter 3:15).  When others speak we should listen intently, treating them with the respect they deserve while silently requesting spiritual guidance for when it’s our turn to respond.  We have divine assurance we’ll say the right thing.  “…Do not worry about how to speak or what to say, for what you should say will be given to you at that time.  For it is not you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you (Matthew 10:19-20).  Thus the pressure’s off.  What a relief!

 

In the final analysis it may turn out that the hardest battle we Christians have to fight while on planet Earth is the struggle against widespread unbelief.  Frederick Buechner said it well: “In the great war of liberation, it’s imperative to keep in touch always with the only one who can liberate.  We must speak to Him however hard it may be in the thick of the fight, however irrelevant it may sometimes seem, however dried up and without faith we may feel.  And we must not worry too much about the other war, the war of conquest.  Of course to some extent we must worry about it, and it’s necessary and right that we should.  But in the war for a place in the sun, we must never mistake conquest for final victory, and above all, we must never mistake failure for final defeat.”  God runs the table in the end.  His kingdom house wins.  How precarious things may sometimes look in the meantime doesn’t matter one iota.  We have a particular job to do in God’s master plan that no one else can do as well.  There are some people in this world that’ll turn a deaf ear to any and all talk of the kingdom of God, with the exception being how we present it to them in our unique manner.  If we’re patient and our heart’s in the right place, they just might listen.

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Jesus Is Better

Although He did it almost 2,000 years ago on a cross outside Jerusalem, Jesus established a new way to salvation when He announced It is finished (John 19:30).  In that moment the fruitless old way was history.  Despite a plethora of miracles/wonders, God’s chosen hadn’t fulfilled their part of the original bargain.  Not one of them came close to passing the test.  Over the centuries God had sent prophets to urge His people to get their collective act together and obey His commandments like their ancestors promised they would but their entreaties and warnings went unheeded.  They pleaded, “Listen, you deaf ones!  Take notice, you blind ones!  My servant is truly blind, my messenger is truly deaf.  My covenant partner, the servant of the LORD, is truly blind.  You see many things, but don’t comprehend; their ears are open, but do not hear (Isaiah 42:18-20).  Nothing worked.  The Israelites kept sinning like there was no tomorrow.  Finally God backed off, stopped lecturing and let them stew in their own juices for 400 years.  He never abandoned them but He did leave them alone.  When the Messiah arrived to usher in the new way they rejected Him because He didn’t bring paradise and guns with Him.  What He brought was forgiveness, mercy and redemption for all the inhabitants of earth but that wasn’t enough for them.  They wanted their will to be done, not God’s.

 

The marvel that is Christianity survived their rejection.  The new way of believing in the Good News is the “real deal” is still evangelized.  But vestiges of the old way linger.  The fact that the old way failed miserably (and was replaced by something a zillion times better) doesn’t prevent folks from putting stock in it.  The health-and-wealth, “prosperity gospel” continues to be preached in spite of its falseness.  Truth is, doing A doesn’t always lead to B.  Tragic events and horrible sufferings occur whether we pray or not.  Reading the Scriptures daily doesn’t prevent us growing older and weaker.  Bible-based churches led by loyal servants of God are often only a quarter full on Sunday mornings.  Individuals who’ve put all their faith in Christ get depressed because the hurts, hang-ups and habits they laid at the foot of the cross continue to bedevil them.  It’s not that we’re stupid sheep.  Most have learned to avoid the trap of picturing God as a supernatural vending machine but when we read passages like Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do (Deuteronomy 29:9) we’re tempted to think maybe God’ll give us what we desire if we straighten up and fly right.  The problem is, deep down, we want the Good Life more than we want to know our Heavenly Father and subconsciously we reinforce the belief that, if we live godly lives and pray a lot, we’ll receive great blessings from our generous God.  The Catch-22 is that we’d have to behave perfectly for that to work and nobody on the planet is perfect.  The Israelites couldn’t do it and neither can we so we must be wary of what we wish for.  The impossible-to-comply-with old way carried serious consequences.  God said, “…If you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish! (Deuteronomy 30:17-18).  All things considered, the old way is anything but Good News.  Personally, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

Imagine if the United States crowned a king/queen and they had surveillance devices installed in every room inside your home, as well as in your vehicle and workplace.  Imagine they enacted a list of restrictive laws every citizen had to comply with.  As long as we did as instructed the monarch would see to it we had our every need met but if we were observed making just one mistake we’d be arrested, tortured and imprisoned.  The unending pressure fueled by the fear of messing up would be unbearable and it’d take all the joy out of living.  Now imagine some wonderful, unique person came along who abolished that oppressive system and provided a new way that made it possible for us to live, not just as subjects, but as royal heirs.  A way that didn’t demand we dot every “i” and cross every “t.”  A way that didn’t have a toll booth.  To say we’d be grateful is an understatement.  In fact, we’d all yearn to draw nearer to and learn everything we could about our amazing liberator.  Well, the story isn’t fictional.  It’s true.  That’s exactly what happened.  The former way of doing things, a system of commandments that never worked out the way it was supposed to, was set aside; the law brought nothing to maturity.  Another way – Jesus! – a way that does work, that brings us right into the presence of God, is put in its place (Hebrews 7:18-19).  While the old way was, at least technically speaking, fair, it was also impossible for human beings to obey.  Because of Christ we’ve been freed from that unrelenting pressure forevermore.

 

It doesn’t mean God’s moral laws no longer apply.  We know purity in our thoughts and actions still matters and nurturing a righteousness mindset should be one of our core goals.  Christians can still influence this world.  I.E., it’s a wise parent who teaches their kids to love God and respect His Word even though it’s no guarantee they won’t wander astray when they grow up.  But it goes without saying children brought up in a Christian environment do have a better chance of staying out of trouble than those brought up by cruel, narcissistic or uninvolved parents.  What has changed because of the new way, though, is we have incentive to live a life pleasing to God.  Using common sense, if someone donates a kidney that adds years to your life you’ll most likely do everything possible to express your gratitude for their sacrifice as long as you live.  Jesus figuratively did the same for us except in His death and subsequent resurrection He’s enabled us to anticipate a sublime eternal life.  Therefore each and every moment allotted to us should be dedicated not only to loving God but to loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Larry Crabb wrote, “The blood of Jesus has opened a New and Living Way, a different direction to take, whether life is working well or falling apart, whether we’re more aware of our kindness or our self-centeredness.  In the New Way, the pressure’s off.  Living better might or might not improve our life circumstances.  But now our appetite is different.  We want something more than the Better Life of Blessings.”

 

However, for some people this new way presents some disconcerting difficulties.  One is it requires we give up harboring all illusions of control and to trust in God’s plan completely.  Steve Maraboli wrote, “You must learn to let go.  Release the stress.  You were never in control anyway.”  Another is coming to the realization it’s harder to enjoy God than it is His blessings.  Crabb opined, “Only the mature value the blessing of presence over the blessing of presents.”  It all comes down to the basic fact that we, by nature, want everything on our terms.  Not anybody else’s terms.  And especially not God’s.  That stubbornness is what kept the Apostle Paul up at night.  In verses 3 & 9 of Galatians 4 he first points out to his readers they used to be helplessly enslaved by the old way.  Next he reminds them that, because of Jesus, they’ve now been set free to develop and delight in an authentic, one-on-one relationship with the Creator of the universe.  And then he chastises them (and rightly so) for wanting to go back to being shackled and imprisoned by the old way that didn’t work!

 

Now, before we start looking down our noses at the congregation in Galatia, we must admit we do the very same thing.  Subconsciously we’re sure if we do A correctly, B will result.  Well, sometimes it does.  Sometimes it don’t.  The only thing we can depend on 100% is that God’s master plan is perfect but too many of us act like that won’t cut it.  Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll find great books by gifted writers.  Alas, you’ll also find tomes like “Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day” and “God Wants You to be Rich: How and Why Everyone Can Enjoy Material and Spiritual Wealth in Our Abundant World.”  I don’t get it.  Why do we insist on studying ways to get what we’ve already been given?  God improves our life constantly by living inside us.  And wealth?  Fuggitaboudit.  The Bible says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

 

Modern-day Christians have a bad habit of talking the new way while walking the old way.  Those two don’t jive.  We need to get our walk aligned with our talk.  That’s why ministries like Celebrate Recovery have helped so many.  They provide much-needed direction by steering disoriented folks toward Christ.  In CR’s small groups believers safely open up and share their concerns, their doubts and their struggles without worry of being judged.  And, by being accepted by their peers as they are, they begin to see that God accepts them as they are, too.  They realize they don’t have to prove themselves worthy of God’s love and that the new way of Jesus is a much less-strenuous road to travel.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (James 5:16).  The “each other” part of that verse is vital.  We’re not meant to go it alone.  We need brothers and/or sisters in Christ to hold us accountable when we start veering off-course and to remind us we have a built-in spiritual compass (The Holy Spirit) we should consult regularly.  Thomas Merton wrote, “The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a man’s life to get behind the conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his soul.”  At CR meetings I’ve witnessed many times palpable relief engulfing someone’s countenance when they finally comprehend they’ve discovered a place where they can take off their mask, be real and “open up the vault.”  It’s a sight to behold.

 

Once that breakthrough occurs it’s time to grab a shovel and start digging through the layers of denial to reach the divine stream of living water that flows within.  Shallow wells run dry fast so we have to dig deep in order to dislodge the old way that has no power to change our hearts and minds.  We must embrace the new way.  Crabb wrote, “With our almost unlimited capacity to deceive ourselves, it’s possible (and the possibility has been realized to epidemic proportions) for people to sincerely believe they’re living the Christian life when in fact they’re following a highly Christianized version of the Old Way.”  Take me, for instance.  I’m guilty as they come.  Due to my being a leader at CR many mistakenly think I’ve successfully overcome all my character defects.  They observe I’m more than willing to encourage others, offer suggestions on how they can strengthen their faith and help them get over the rough patches of relapse that’ll tempt them to give up.  So, from a distance, it looks like I’ve “got it all together.”  But I don’t.  I still struggle with sin.  I want to be a “finished product” but I’m not.  I’m a “work in progress.”  That’s what all of us who follow Jesus are.  We still have areas of our character the Holy Spirit still has “under reconstruction.”  Although I’ve never been so transparent in my life there are still things I keep hidden because I’m afraid to expose my shameful hypocrisy.  I still think if folks knew the “despicable me” I really am they’d label me a deplorable phony and avoid me like the plague.  Therefore I deliberately choose my “level of vulnerability” with care.  My fundamental problem is I’m more concerned about how I feel about myself than how I feel about Christ and how He feels about me.

 

I can empathize with Dr. Crabb when he wrote, “Who am I?  Am I the moral weakling I so often know myself to be, full of pride and fear?  Or am I the man of God I long to be, centered in the Person of Christ and empowered by the Spirit to reveal His glory through my life?  I’m a mystery to myself.  Sometimes the Spirit flows freely within me, and I’m full of joy and spiritual power.  Other times, another source of energy takes over, and I’m out of sorts, occasionally to the point of absurd pouting and faithless despair.  It’s then I’m more easily tempted to find pleasure wherever I can.”  Sound kinda schizophrenic?  Well, that’s a great description of my own walk with the Lord all too often.

 

I don’t think I’ve yet to grasp how much God loves me.  I can’t figure out why He would.  J. I. Packer wrote, “It’s staggering that God should love sinners; yet it’s true.  God loves creatures who have become unlovely and (one would have thought) unlovable.  There was nothing whatever in the objects of His love to call it forth; nothing in us could attract or prompt it.  Love among persons is awakened by something in the beloved, but the love of God is free, spontaneous, unevoked, uncaused.  God loves people because He’s chosen to love them and no reason for His love can be given except His own sovereign good pleasure.  Thus God saves, not only for His glory, but also for His gladness.”  One of the things I try to remind someone who’s having a hard time forgiving themselves for an ugly sin in their past is when they accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior their sin was forgiven.  Therefore, to not forgive themselves is to place their opinion above God’s.  Recently it occurred to me that the same principle applies to the problem I have with loving myself.  How can I possibly rationalize not loving myself when the God of the universe who created me loves me more than I can fathom?  Who am I to do that?  Only by loving myself as an adored child of God will I possess the ability to do what Jesus commanded – to faithfully and sincerely love others as I love myself.

 

I can’t help notice that in the Ten Commandments the word “love” only appears once (in the clarification of #2) and it refers to the manner in which we’re to worship God instead of dumb idols.  According to the old way, loving everybody, even one’s enemies, wasn’t a priority.  Evidently the more essential “ground rules” had to be set in stone first.  In contrast, the new way is almost exclusively about love.  Love for God.  Love for His Son.  Love for the Holy Spirit.  Love for yourself who’s been fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) by the Great I AM.  Love for all people near and far.  The old way focused on what we did.  The new way is focused on how we love.  Paul wrote, 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 (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).  I’m convinced that if I ever comprehend how much God loves me then only His kind of love will radiate from me.  Brennan Manning elaborated on God’s love in his inspiring book, “The Furious Longing of God.”  He wrote, “…The shattering truth of the transcendent God seeking intimacy with us is not well served by gauzy sentimentality, schmaltz, or a naked appeal to emotion, but rather in the boiling bouillabaisse of shock bordering on disbelief, wonder akin to incredulity, and affectionate awe tinged by doubt.”  In other words, the fact that God loves us as much as He loves His only begotten Son should be the most outrageous, fantastic thing we’ve ever heard.  It should make us want to change everything about us.  Jesus showed us what pure, undiluted love looks like.  The old way never did work right.  Jesus, the new way, is better.

3

Is there any Hope for this Wicked World?

The answer hasn’t changed. Although it often doesn’t appear so, there’s never been a day when hope wasn’t readily available to every person on earth. One glance at any news source will lead many to believe that if God exists at all He’s busy somewhere else in the universe and we’re on our own. Not true. He’s never abandoned us. Frederick Buechner wrote, “God keeps re-entering the world. He keeps offering himself to the world by grace, keeps somehow blessing the world, making possible a kind of life which we all, in our deepest being, hunger for.” Yet even those of us who’ve surrendered to Christ and listen intently to the Holy Spirit within us, trying to glorify God in all we do can’t help but shake our head in disappointment over the worsening state of civilization. The 20th century’s “wars to end all wars” didn’t and mankind learned little from them. As a matter of fact, we stupidly dragged all our bile and biases with us into the third millennium. If the definition of insanity is doing the same things repeatedly while expecting a different result each time then we’re collectively as bonkers as Wile E. Coyote. One need only review this half year alone to discover undeniable evidence. Religious lunatics brutally torturing and beheading people to please the bloodthirsty God they worship. Disillusioned teens committing suicide at an alarming rate. Malevolent rioters taking advantage of controversial incidents to loot and burn down the businesses that serve the community they live in. The Supreme Court deeming marriage to be something any two folks who get a hankering to say “I do” can legally enter into. Middle East tensions continue to boil. You get the picture.

Small wonder frustration reigns. Most people think something radical needs to be done but the relentlessness of malicious evil is overwhelming. We see technology improving by leaps and bounds while human kindness digresses. We can send a spacecraft on a decade-long journey that successfully takes intricate pictures of tiny Pluto but we don’t feel comfortable letting our kids out of our sight for a second. We have reams of information about everything imaginable available on our smartphones but millions of high school graduates can’t read, write or speak coherently. Popular music is less about love and harmony and more about entitlement, gratification and materialism. The Beatles sang long ago, “It’s all too much,” and nothing’s rendered their complaint irrelevant. The hope my generation bragged about fostering in the 60s went up in smoke and we soon realized ours wasn’t any nobler than those that came before. Nothing we tried to instigate, no matter how altruistic, perceptibly slowed avarice down. Advanced studies in anthropology, psychology and sociology only reinforced what we knew already – something’s wrong with us. Scientists opine we’re all shaped and greatly influenced by our inherited DNA. Thus if we can figure out a way to manipulate our genes we can cure the ills of the world. In other words, it’s not our fault we’re so screwed up, it’s either God’s or Mother Nature’s doing. But Christians know better. At least they should. Sin is the culprit.

In Matthew West’s tune, “Do Something,” he sings of being disgusted by all the hate and injustice he sees. He asks God to act. God answers, “I already did – I created you.” Followers of Jesus are supposed to be an indefatigable army of righteous souls who lift up the downtrodden, the broken, the underprivileged, the weak, the sick and the poor in spirit. Yet, unlike conventional armies, we’re never to employ force or coercion because the peace they produce doesn’t last. As our Lord made clear, this world can only be changed by a complete transformation of the human heart. It’s up to the body of Christ to show unbelievers the love, patience and understanding it takes to overcome the constant temptation to handle things man’s way instead of God’s. One of our ways is to ingest chemicals. Feelin’ blue? Need a boost? Overweight? Take a pill. But if drugs were the answer we’d all be happy as clams by now. Scratch that. Scientists now say head transplants are almost feasible and might help some. But wouldn’t that just be putting someone’s sinful nature atop a different torso? Scratch that. Communism doesn’t work. Fascism doesn’t work. Even Democracy isn’t a cure-all because even the freest of men and women can’t fix the mess we’re in if God’s left out of the solution. Billy Graham wrote, “When God is ignored, the problem-solvers themselves participate in the problems.” We must acknowledge the formidable legions we’re up against. Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:12, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” That last part informs us the devil and his demons aren’t “down below” somewhere but next to, in front of, behind and above us. Thus the only hope we have to defeat evil is Jesus Christ.

Jesus didn’t say we could escape Satan’s clutches or avoid paying the penalty for our sins by being super nice guys. In John 3:7 He said, You must all be born again.” It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a command. It’s worth noting He announced this to a devout religious leader, Nicodemus, who probably thought he knew everything there was to know about God. After all, he fasted two days a week, spent hours every day praying at the temple and tithed faithfully. He was a respected professor of theology at the local seminary. Most likely he was a decent, trustworthy, moral chap well-liked by his peers and neighbors. You couldn’t ask for more. Yet Jesus told him all his piety and goodness wasn’t nearly enough to get him inside heaven’s gates. Christ looked him in the eye and said he had to be “born again.” It’s obvious Nicodemus saw something in Jesus or heard something in His teachings that piqued his interest or he wouldn’t have bothered to track Him down. To him Christ represented a potential ray of light at a time when it was scarce in Israel and he wanted to know more about what He was offering. Still, I’m sure he was shocked by what Jesus said. He certainly didn’t expect to be told unless one is born again they won’t catch even a passing glance of God’s glorious kingdom in the hereafter. Jesus was trying to get across to Nicodemus that he didn’t have to be a more upstanding citizen or earn more doctorate degrees. What he needed was to receive a new quality of life – eternal life – that begins in this world and carries us into the one that follows.

As expected, Nicodemus, using logic, thought being “born again” would have to be something very difficult to do – if not downright impossible. The Jewish religion required one to partake in painstakingly detailed, rigorous rites in order to atone for one’s sins and thereby qualify to enjoy a pleasant afterlife. He couldn’t imagine salvation being something as simple as believing Jesus was the Son of God and that He had the authority to forgive sins on the spot. But God is so compassionate and kind He chose to reveal Himself to us through childlike faith rather than the intellect. Therefore redemption is available to preschoolers as well as the mentally-challenged and those who’ve suffered brain damage. No one can claim Christ made it hard to get saved. It’s the same for the illiterate as it is for the genius. “…The disciples came to Jesus saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, had him stand among them, and said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven(Matthew 18:1-4). John Hunter wrote, “The gospel message doesn’t have to be understood by the seeking soul, only to be received in simple faith. It isn’t fully understanding the gospel that gives me the blessing, but simply believing and receiving it.” Sometimes I’m guilty of trying to explain too much when I’m witnessing to a non-believer about Jesus when I need only tell them what He’s done in my own life. The proof’s in the pudding, as they say. Lynn Anderson wisely quipped, “Christianity isn’t true because it works; it works because it’s true.”

Shamefully, many people who regularly attend church services have never heard the term “born again.” Too often gospel ministers emphasize charitable works, social programs, political correctness or government legislation while neglecting to preach the one thing the world needs to hear most – only Christ can fix what’s wrong with us. Jefferson Bethke correctly said the modern church has cultivated a “religion of moralism dressed in Christian clothes.” That situation won’t get the job done. Graham wrote, “Man’s basic problem is first spiritual, then social. He needs a complete change from inside out.” The change he refers to is the same one Jesus told Nicodemus about. We must be born again. This transformation is mentioned frequently in the Bible. God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, said, I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you(Ezekiel 36:26). In Acts Peter said it was the result of repenting and being converted. In Romans 6:13 Paul described believers as “…those who are alive from the dead…” and in Colossians 3:9-10 as those who’ve put off the old man with its practices and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one who created it.” In Titus 3:5 he called it “…the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit…” In 2 Peter 1:4 it’s referred to as our becoming “…partakers of the divine nature…” I ask you, how can that not be the best news you’ve ever heard? There’s absolutely no downside to surrendering one’s life to Christ and being born again. Folks should be lined up around the block to get in on it. But they’re not. Why’s that?

Well, there are those who don’t want the responsibility faith brings with it. Others believe they’re so corrupt God can’t possibly forgive what they’ve done. But I suspect the vast majority basically don’t want to give up their vices, their self-centered lifestyle or whatever it is they idolize more than God. The entire book of 3 John stresses the new birth as something God does for us when we’re willing to yield to Him. It’s underscored we’re all dead in our sins and that the seed of the new life we need must be planted by God Himself. Far too many “quasi-Christians” don’t know this. Oswald Chambers wrote, “Our part as workers for God is to open men’s eyes that they may turn themselves from darkness to light; but that’s not salvation, that’s conversion – the effort of a roused human being. I do not think it too sweeping to say the majority of nominal Christians are of this order; their eyes are opened, but they’ve received nothing… When a man is born again, he knows it’s because he’s received something as a gift from Almighty God and not because of his own decision.” In the Celebrate Recovery ministry we talk a lot about “turning” because it’s a recurring theme of the Bible. God won’t do much to help us with our hurts, hang-ups and habits if we don’t focus our eyes and our attention solely on Him. In Ezekiel 14:6 the Lord tells Israel, Turn from your idols, and turn your faces away from your abominations.” In Isaiah 45:22 He says, Turn to me so you can be delivered…

When you become born again God doesn’t just slap a fresh coat of paint on you and say “done.” Rather, He demands you die to yourself and tear the old place down so He can build a new creation from the ground up; a new creation totally committed to serving Him and doing His perfect will. Romans 12:1 states, Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service.” The Lord wants all of you. And the change you’ll experience will be amazing. Your lust will turn to holiness. Your darkness to light. Your death to resurrection. You’ll no longer be a stranger to the kingdom of God but one of its permanent citizens. Your will, your affections, your aspirations, your disposition and your purpose for living will all change. God will be driving your bus and no matter how pitiful this world gets, you’ll know your future’s so bright you’ll need sunglasses to cut down the glare.

God uses His children as proof of His unlimited ability to reach down and pull anyone out of the misery, suffering or malaise this world can inflict upon their soul. We’re walking, talking testimonies of His glory and nothing’s more effective in convincing an unbeliever of His power. It’s nothing new. The New Testament’s filled with stories of lives changed after encountering Jesus Christ. For example, consider the Samaritan prostitute, an outcast in the area where she lived and worked. To avoid the verbal abuse she no doubt got from the locals the woman would go to the town’s well during the hottest part of the afternoon. One day a man was there who saw and treated her as a person who’d made some terrible career decisions, not a pariah. That man was Jesus. Her short conversation with Him changed her forever. In fact, she became an instant missionary, telling anyone within earshot her sins had been forgiven by none other than the promised Messiah. John 4:39 reads, Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the report of the woman who testified, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’” The Apostle Andrew was just a regular Joe but when Jesus asked him to follow Him he didn’t hesitate. Somewhat of a shy introvert most of his life, Andrew came alive in His Master’s presence and became one of the most enthusiastic of the twelve disciples. Some scholars think it was he who recruited his brother, the skeptical Simon Peter. Andrew was later instrumental in spreading the good news of the gospel to the regions of the Ukraine, Russia and Romania.

If you think the Samaritan woman of ill repute was shunned, imagine what the villagers thought of Zacchaeus. He callously collected the ridiculously high taxes imposed by the Romans and was as dishonest and crooked as they come, to boot. But after meeting Jesus he did a 180-degree turnaround. He repented and wanted to make amends for all the harm he’d caused. In Luke 19:8 he announced, “…Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!However, nobody’s life got changed more drastically than the Apostle Paul’s. When he was still Saul of Tarsus, the vicious hunter of Christians, he met Christ face-to-face and was never the same again. He never wearied of telling about his dramatic conversion. To this day we speak of having a “Damascus Road experience” because of what happened to him. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 people were born again en masse. Each one of them started the day lost, searching for a reason to carry on. Many in attendance were dejected because Jesus, a glimmer of hope in their otherwise mundane lives, had been killed and some feared retribution for even being associated with Him. But by the end of the day all their worries had evaporated. They’d all become new creations with a clean slate and no baggage to lug. Jesus said in John 5:24, I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.”

No Jesus – no chance. Reinhold Niebuhr said without Christ, “…the human existence remains a problem to itself, being unable to escape by any effort of its own from the contradictions of a sinful existence.” What the world needs now is Jesus, sweet Jesus. Nothing will get better until every knee bows and every heart accepts Him as Lord. If you haven’t done that yet then you’re part of the problem. Surrender to Christ. Don’t wait. 2 Corinthians 6:2 says, “…Now is the acceptable timeNow is the day of salvation!

10

The Resurrection is Everything

Last time I talked about why the sacrifice of Jesus’ life on the cross was necessary. Timothy Keller offers a simple analogy: A friend borrows your car. He backs it through your fence, ruins your hedge and your home insurance won’t cover it. One of two things will result. You’ll either demand your buddy pay for all or some of the mess his poor driving caused or you’ll pay it yourself. Keller wrote, “Notice that in every option the cost of the damage must be borne by someone. Either you or he absorbs the cost for the mishap, but the debt does not somehow vanish into thin air. Forgiveness, in this illustration, means bearing the cost for his misdeed yourself.” His conclusion was that God could demand we pay for our sins out of our own pockets (which are woefully empty) or He could forgive us by refusing to make us pay for what we’ve done. He paid the debt He knew we could never cover – by dying on Calvary Hill.

But the blood-stained cross wasn’t the end of the story. Jesus Christ is alive. The Resurrection isn’t a myth. It happened and it means everything. In John 11:25-26 Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? Well, that’s the million-dollar question, ain’t it? Because if there’s no Resurrection, there’s no Christianity. Period. Karl Barth said, “Without the physical resurrection of Christ there is no salvation.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. …And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17). I know for sure that if my sins aren’t forgiven I might as well pack it in right now. There’s no hope for me. Or any of us, for that matter. But thank God that’s not the case. Jesus told us, “…Because I live, you will live too (John 14:19). He lives. God’s Word speaks of the Resurrection as something verifiable by the physical senses. The remaining eleven disciples not only touched Him but heard His voice, walked beside Him, engaged in conversations with Him and even broke bread with Him. He appeared to individuals as well as to a crowd of 500 as a man, not some wispy, translucent ghost. It was no hallucination those people saw, it was the same Jesus they positively knew had suffered a horrible death only days before. Here’s the bottom line: The basis for a Christian’s belief in the bodily resurrection of our Lord has more evidence to support it than for any other event of that era, secular or religious.

Most of the world’s religions are anchored by some kind of philosophical reasoning with the exceptions being Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Those four are based on personalities. But only Christianity claims its founder is still alive. Abraham passed away about 3,900 years ago. Buddha died around 500 B.C. Muhammad left this mortal coil in 632. Not one of those three rose again. Jesus not only predicted He would, but did. Since someone returning to life after being pronounced dead as a doornail defies a fundamental law of nature, skeptics are prone to doubt Christ was truly deceased when He was entombed. Some think He was merely unconscious. But that’s preposterous. The soldiers (highly skilled experts at killing) didn’t bother to shatter Jesus’ legs because they could tell it was unnecessary. Remember, it was His enemies that pronounced Him dead, not His followers. Still, just to make sure, they stuck a spear through His heart. It’s all documented. One scholar commented, “We know more about the details of the hours immediately before, and the actual death of Jesus, in and near Jerusalem, than we know about the death of any other one man in all the ancient world.”

So we know for a fact Christ literally died. We also know for certain He was buried. Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy Jew who admired Jesus greatly. After boldly asking Pilate for the body he removed Him from the cross and respectfully wrapped Him in a linen sheet. One of the remorse-filled religious leaders, Nicodemus, provided an expensive mixture of myrrh and aloes, as well. Then Christ’s lifeless corpse was placed inside Joseph’s private tomb. A huge stone completely covered the opening and the application of Pilate’s seal designated the site officially “off limits.” Still, lingering concerns that covert shenanigans might be in the works convinced the authorities that ordering a unit of burly, no-nonsense Roman soldiers to stand guard would be a good idea. Those guys would rather fall on their swords than fail in their duty. Nothing on earth could get within fifty yards of Jesus’ body on their watch. And nothing on earth did. The rest of Friday went without incident and Saturday was uneventful. However, Sunday morning was anything but. The ground shook and the sky opened as an angel of God descended and rolled away the heavy stone like it was a cheap stage prop. Saying the hardened Roman goon squad was terrified is an understatement. The Bible says they turned pale as death itself. It’s implied they didn’t stick around to see what happened next, either. They ran like rabbits. When Peter and John showed up to check out what Mary Magdalene had witnessed firsthand at the empty tomb there was nobody around – including Jesus. He was out and about His Father’s business. He’d been resurrected, a fact later attested to by hundreds of eyewitnesses. The Scriptures record 13 different appearances of Christ occurring in a variety of circumstances.

However, Jesus was no longer exactly the same. A normal person’s body can’t pass through locked doors or disappear like vapor. Christ was part physical and part spiritual now. Don’t try to figure out what that looked like because His resurrected body was as unique as He is and we won’t see the likes of it this side of the Pearly Gates. Luke, a physician, didn’t even try to explain it. He simply wrote in Acts 1:3, “…after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs.” C.S. Lewis commented on those “convincing proofs” when he wrote, “The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection. If they had died without making anyone else believe this ‘gospel’ no gospels would ever have been written.” Thus Jesus’ coming back to life is essential. The very core of the truth Christ taught and exemplified implodes and dissipates if we omit His resurrection. Paul said in so many words, “Without it, we got nothin’.” But Paul’s faith never faltered. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 he confidently wrote, Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…”

Keller preached, “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead. That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew if it was true it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want. It also meant we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything.” If you’re the kind of person who relies solely on logic you’re still on solid ground concerning the Resurrection. Why would the disciples subject themselves to incarceration and inhuman persecution in defense of what they knew was a lie? In the first century other “messiahs” came and went with regularity but nowadays they’re all insignificant historical footnotes because they died and stayed dead. N.T. Wright wrote, “In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead. They knew better. Resurrection was not a private event. Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was.” The point Wright makes is that Jesus’ disciples would never have come to the conclusion their Master’s crucifixion was a triumph instead of a defeat unless they’d seen Him risen from the dead with their own eyes.

Paul insisted one’s personal salvation experience is directly related to an unyielding belief in the Resurrection. Romans 10:9-10 reads, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation.” What’s disturbing is that some Christian denominations have tried to water the whole deal down to some kind of mystical, disembodied thing that occurred. They want to remove the physical aspect of the Resurrection from the equation but that’s not Biblical. Billy Graham wrote, “Within the short span of three days both events, the death and resurrection, took place bodily and not symbolically – tangibly, not spiritually – watched by men of flesh and blood, not fabricated by hallucination.” He then added, “The resurrection was also the pledge and the promise of our own resurrection.” Jesus’ rising from the dead had immense implications for all of us. The Bible teaches death affects both personality and body. It also informs us there are three dimensions of death – physical, spiritual and eternal. Christ demonstrated that the body, too, must be rescued from condemnation so His conquest of death had to include His body to be complete. As Jesus rose from the grave, so will those who belong to Him. Like Him, we definitely will be changed but remain recognizable as a unique creation. Christ still bore the scars this world inflicted upon Him and so will we but we’ll no longer be of this earth. How fantastic is that! 1 Thessalonians 4:14 states, For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians.”

Some a lot smarter than I will beg to disagree but I think death is akin to sleep in that I won’t be aware of time elapsing. When I die my soul and everything that makes me “me” will be in the secure care of God’s angels until Christ returns. At that juncture I’ll “awaken” at precisely the same time as all my Christian brothers and sisters. Why do I think that?   In the very next statement (v.15) Paul says, “…we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep.” The implication is that believers who’ve passed away are still peacefully asleep in the everlasting arms. Of course, God is God and He can take whomever He likes directly into His kingdom if He wants to. I got no beef with that. No matter how much time (as it’s gauged on terra firma) passes between my last breath here and my first one in heaven it’ll be as quick as a blink to me so I’ll leave all the in-between stuff to my gracious Lord’s discretion. I’ll be home at last without a care.

Because Jesus lives He actually dwells in the heart of every believer in the form of the Holy Spirit. Technically, they’re one and the same. He promised never to abandon us. He said, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age(Matthew 28:20). Because of the Resurrection, life has new meaning for everyone. Those closest to Christ despaired over His tortured death. In their minds all was lost. When the risen Lord asked the two men trudging home to Emmaus why they were in such a funk they told Him about Jesus and said, “…we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel(Luke 24:21). They were crestfallen. Life ahead looked bleak until the very-much-alive Christ they’d been talking to revealed Himself to them as the God He claimed to be. In that instant their lives had purpose again and they excitedly raced back to Jerusalem to let the disciples in on the incredible news. All Christians should be just as elated. Romans 8:34 reads, Christ is the one who died (and more than that, he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who also is interceding for us.” If that doesn’t kick-start your faith nothing will. Graham wrote, “We don’t have to think our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. The living Christ is sitting at the right hand of God the Father. God the Son retains the same humanity He took to save us, and is now living in a body that still has nail prints in its hands. He is our great High Priest, interceding for us with God the Father.”

Because Jesus lives we have the power to live out our lives for our Savior courageously. In John 14:12 Christ states, I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father.” Imagine that! As we serve God throughout eternity we’ll be able to do things in His name far beyond our ability to comprehend right now. He ain’t done with us yet! Pains, injuries, afflictions and character defects will no longer hold us back. We’ll have new, perfect bodies that’ll never wear out or get flabby. Gravity will no longer pull us down. Lewis got it right when he wrote, “If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Philippians 3:20-21 promises, But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.”

Every nanosecond that goes by brings us closer to the Second Coming of Christ and it’s been that way ever since He ascended into heaven almost two millennia ago. All prophesies about the end times are coming to fruition. Yet what we see happening around us is probably just the tip of the Armageddon iceberg. It’s gonna get worse, folks. Followers of Christ will be ostracized from society and persecuted mercilessly for obeying God’s laws instead of man’s. “It’s in The Book.” If it weren’t for the Resurrection, if our Lord didn’t walk out of that musty mausoleum then there’s no future kingdom awaiting us and no King of kings to take us there. But that’s not the case. After the disciples watched Jesus dramatically return to the Heavenly Father, angels addressed the slack-jawed group, saying, Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven (Acts 1:11). Christ is not only alive, He’s coming back. No Christian should harbor a single doubt of that. By trusting in your resurrected Savior He’ll abide in you for the rest of this life, through your death experience and then forevermore in the spectacular place He’s preparing just for you. Your job (and mine) is to inform those who haven’t quite grasped the huge significance of the Resurrection yet that it’s everything. They may belittle you, accuse you of being brain-washed and plead with you to shut up already. Don’t be deterred. Jesus is the only chance they’ve got. They’ll either listen or someday they’ll wish they had.

10

Without God’s antidote sin disease is fatal

A house can look ideal from the street. But sometimes a closer examination reveals cracks in the foundation. There’s roof damage from a hail storm. An infestation of termites has compromised the wood beams. Roots have clogged the water and sewage lines. If these serious problems aren’t addressed and fixed it’s only a matter of time before the home will be beyond repair. That’s what sin does to human beings. It erodes the integrity of the heart, mind and soul a little each day. Often before a person realizes what sin’s onslaught is doing to them it achieves its objective and their lives disintegrate. I’m not referring only to ruthless renegades rampaging out on the fringe of society; I’m talking about everyday folks. Especially those of us who were raised in godly homes but went astray. We were taught to obey God’s laws and to imitate Christ but when we got into the real world we yielded to Satan’s temptations one after another until we found ourselves in free fall without a net. Like getting caught in a strong riptide, we didn’t grasp how far we’d drifted from the shore until it dawned on us we were in too deep. Terror seized us as it became obvious we needed immediate help to keep from succumbing to exhaustion and drowning. Everyone, including Christians, must pay attention to the warnings God has issued about the danger sin poses in our lives or we’ll find ourselves going under. Those warnings are readily available in the pages of the Bible.

Sin first infects the mind and spreads downward. It doesn’t matter how intelligent one is, either. Some of the smartest people in the world are dunces when it comes to spiritual matters. God’s Word teaches our minds are veiled. The veil must be removed before we can recognize Jesus as the lone Savior of mankind. Otherwise we’ll remain blind as bats. That condition is what causes otherwise exceptionally astute people to declare Jesus a hoax, the Bible an outdated relic full of myths and contradictions and label Christ followers stupid sheep. What those smart Alecks can’t savvy is this: they can’t comprehend spiritual truths because their minds are clouded and confused by sin disease. Sin is no respecter of a man or woman’s I.Q. level. It’s an equal-opportunity epidemic. It affects everyone and the only cure is Christ’s healing power. Billy Graham wrote, “The Bible teaches sin affects the mind, whether that mind is superior or average. A person may be intellectually brilliant, but spiritually ignorant.” In 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 Paul said, The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one.” But try telling a know-it-all he/she doesn’t know what they haven’t been shown yet and they’ll just roll their eyes at you. They can’t fathom such a thing possible.

Here’s the miracle, though. No individual, no matter how corrupted they’ve become, is beyond sanctification. The devil’s arms are long, indeed, but God’s arms are infinitely longer and can reach into the darkest of black holes. As a leader in the Celebrate Recovery ministry I’m blessed every other week to hear a live testimony from somebody whose life was forever changed by Christ’s amazing grace. One woman, raised by Satan-worshiping parents, told of being subjected to unspeakable acts as a youngster. She grew up thinking she was worthless and incapable of being loved. But once she surrendered her horrible past to Jesus He healed her and gave her a new life. One man confessed he’d indulged in buying and viewing child pornography for years. He’d gotten arrested, convicted and was about to start a long stint in federal lockup for his heinous crime. Out of desperation he’d turned to Christ for help and had become born again. His plan was serve his sentence witnessing for the Lord inside the prison walls. Another was once a brutal henchman for a drug dealer, meting out punishment to those who didn’t pay their debts on time. He’d stopped because he was tired of seeing so many of his friends get gunned down but the guilt over the pain he’d inflicted was eating him alive. The blood of Jesus washed him clean and gave him a fresh start. Others relate stories of how alcohol, drugs, anger, bigotry, grief, codependency or any number of hurts, habits and hang-ups wrecked their lives. At some point they all hit rock bottom. Out of desperation they decided to place all their heavy baggage on God’s shoulders. And because He’s merciful, forgiving, understanding, tender and loving He not only took their burdens but gave them a new life. God is the cure for sin.

The sin virus also attacks the will with intent to own it. In John 8:34 Jesus said, I tell you the solemn truth, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin.” While many of us are blessed to live in a country that promotes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, millions of citizens still live under the tyranny of conceited pride, jealousy, hateful prejudices and such. And, while their conscience tells them those evils are wrong and destructive, they feel powerless to escape their clutches. After a while they may begin to believe they possess some kind of hereditary defect or are psychologically impaired in some way. Dr. William Wilson, a former Professor of Psychiatry at Duke opined, “One of the greatest causes of mental illness is unresolved guilt. Feelings of shame, inadequacy, missing the mark, not measuring up, are some sources of guilt feelings. The answer to guilt is grace and the new birth. The new birth leads to the forgiveness of sin.” Forgiveness is very hard for some to accept. They can’t believe God would grant them something they’ll never be worthy of. To them forgiveness would be nothing less than a genuine miracle. And they’re right. Of all the miracles recorded in the Bible none are as incredible as the fact that, by faith in Christ alone, we sinners are completely forgiven. By atoning for all our past, present and future sins on the cross Jesus has made total exoneration freely available to all simply by trusting He’s empowered to forgive sin by God the Father. When the suicidal, panic-stricken jailer asked Paul and Silas, “’Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…’” (Acts 16:30-31). I imagine the jailer reacted with a look of skepticism. He probably uttered the equivalent of “Really?” to which Paul and Silas smiled, nodded and responded with the equivalent of “Yep!” Giving your life to Christ may be the least complicated thing you’ll ever do but it’s undoubtedly the most important thing you’ll ever do, as well. You’ll be healed.

So sin infiltrates both mind and will. It also invades the conscience. Because of worldly distractions we can be slow to detect sin’s covert approach. One example is telling a little white lie to cover your tracks. The first time you tell it you’ll likely feel a pinch of remorse. But if you persist in perpetuating it the voice of your conscience will steadily weaken until you start buying into your own lie! You’ll eventually become desensitized to your God-installed gauge of what’s right and what’s wrong. It happened to King David. Once he ogled Bathsheba he proceeded to let lust run roughshod over his conscience. What followed was a chain of events that went from adultery to deceit to an arranged homicide in short order. Because he repented David was forgiven his despicable iniquities but it didn’t cancel out the earthly consequences of his sins. He lost his son and the rest of his reign over Israel was a complicated mess. We’re no different. When we ignore our conscience we’re headed for a fall. Thank God He’s patient with His children! 2 Peter 3:9 states, The Lord is not slow concerning his promise… but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Bear in mind that, while He’s graciously patient with us, He’s also never unjust. If an individual intentionally hardens their heart they’ll remain deaf to His beckoning voice. Sadly, a day will come when He stops calling. In Genesis 6:3 God says, My Spirit shall not always strive with man.” In other words, some people adamantly refuse God’s mercy and for them There is a sin resulting in death (1 John 5:16). That sin is blasphemy – rejecting the Holy Spirit whose sole function is to glorify Christ and reveal God’s plan of salvation to all.

When someone shuts off their conscience they’ll employ any excuse to justify their behavior. They’ll blame their family, their coworkers or an unforeseen streak of bad luck. They’ll cut corners on their taxes because the IRS is “staffed with crooks.” They’ll have an illicit affair because their spouse isn’t adequately “meeting their needs.” Good and bad will dissolve into an indistinct gray area where every act can be rationalized as being fair and warranted. But in the kingdom of God only pristine righteousness and holiness are acceptable. Sins are ultimately crimes against God. When Nathan made David aware of the despicable things he’d done in order to have Bathsheba all to himself the king cried aloud, I have sinned against the Lord! (2 Samuel 12:13). Sin, like crime, carries a stiff penalty that must be paid. Romans 6:23 states, For the wages of sin is death.” Not the verdict we want to hear but wishing it weren’t so won’t make it be rescinded.

We don’t like the word “death” because it’s so… final. But, other than birth, death is the one thing all humans have in common. The Bible references three kinds of death starting with physical death. By the way, Christians should never give the concept of reincarnation a second thought because in Hebrews 9:27 it’s made clear that “…people are appointed to die once and then to face judgment…” This ain’t a carousel we’re on. We’re afforded but one single go ‘round on terra firma. Thus we’re taught to prepare to meet God (Amos 4:12) because none of us know when we’ll find ourselves in His presence. It can happen in the blink of an eye. Compared to eternity our life here is remarkably short and to take any day for granted is foolish. This world is full of mortal dangers. When we walk out the door to drive to Walmart it could be the last time we see our loved ones.   Job 14:5 reads, Since man’s days are determined, the number of his months is under your [God’s] control; you have set his limit and he cannot pass it.” We must be ready to give an accounting for what we did with the life God gave us. Yet we need not fear death. Doctors and nurses who see people die almost daily will tell you there’s a big difference in how an unbeliever faces death and how a Christian does. I wasn’t present when my parents passed away but my sister was at their bedside both times. She said there wasn’t a trace of fear in either’s face because they knew without a doubt they were about to meet their precious Savior in person. I can’t imagine knocking on death’s door not knowing what’s on the other side.

Secondly, the Bible speaks of spiritual death. Billions of folks around the world are healthy and hale in the physical sense but are spiritual zombies. When God opens our eyes and ears to the truth we start seeing their hopelessness and hear their anguished cries. Their lives have lost meaning and purpose because they’re separated from the love of the Father in heaven. Without Jesus they don’t know what it’s like to be truly alive because He is the life. Stop and think a second. As bad as things are, what would this planet be like without Christ? The suicide rate is astronomically high but I suspect it’d be a thousand times higher if there was absolutely no hope for salvation. No other religion in existence acknowledges God’s grace as the only way to be forgiven of sins. All others insist a soul must work hard to earn its way into paradise and, because we know ourselves too well, that task is impossible. And when a person comes up against something unachievable they quickly lose all hope and suicide begins looking like a reasonable way out. But Christ is the embodiment of hope. He’s the bright future they yearn to anticipate. Therefore we must do whatever we can to inform them they can become adopted sons and daughters of the great I AM by simply laying all their fears, anxieties and worries at the foot of the cross where Jesus made a way for them to be holy and righteous in the eyes of the Heavenly Father. Otherwise, even though they’re walking around breathing air and perhaps even thinking everything’s hunky dory, they’ll stay like the woman described in 1 Timothy 5:6, “…dead even while she lives.”

Yet it’s the third dimension of death that terrifies most – eternal death. Yes, I’m talking about hell. It’s so ghastly a subject most preachers avoid bringing it up. The phrase “hell on earth” gets tossed around often, especially after some devastating natural disaster occurs, but there’s a hell not only worse but certain. If hell was some kind of fairy tale concocted to keep kids in line Jesus would’ve never given it credence. Instead, He warned us about hell every chance He got. In Matthew 25:46 He said of the selfishly unrepentant, And these will depart into eternal punishment…” In chapter 13:41-42 He told the disciples, The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom everything that causes sins as well as all lawbreakers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Graham wrote, “The Scripture teaches we’ll be in hell alone and bearing pain alone. There’s no fellowship in hell except fellowship with darkness.” Barry Bailey used to preach on the perils of living a selfish existence. He’d say, “I can’t envision a hell more torturous than having to spend eternity with no one but yourself for company!” Timothy Keller wrote, “Hell… is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.” To me hell is being stripped of all stimuli and sensations, being “aware” but utterly alone, constantly stagnating in a dark, silent universe where there’s no detectable light whatsoever. Not even fire. Nothing but the anguish of loneliness.   Like being in a coffin. Frederick Buechner wrote, “People are free in this world to live for themselves alone if they want to and let the rest go hang, and they’re free to live out the dismal consequences as long as they can stand it. The doctrine of Hell proclaims they retain this same freedom in whatever world comes next. Thus the possibility of making damned fools of ourselves would appear to be limitless.” It’s imperative Christians inform unsaved souls of what awaits them after death if they don’t accept God’s free gift of salvation. They must be told they have a choice of where they’ll spend forever.

Some contend a loving God wouldn’t allow hell to exist, much less let souls dwell there. But Satan built hell, not the Lord. Because God’s created beings have free will a place like hell is logical and inevitable. People must savvy that ever since Adam and Eve sinned mankind is in a fallen state, alienated from God. God refused to step in and stop those two from disobeying Him. What God could do and did was to provide a way for us to overcome and defeat the evil that’s surrounded us ever since Eden. God descended from heaven and became one of us. His name is Jesus Christ and through the power of His shed blood believers in Him are redeemed. Revelation 1:5-6 proclaims Him as the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. …the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father…” Everyone needs to be told that without becoming washed in the blood of Christ sin is an incurable disease that kills. It’s our job to tell them before their time on earth runs out.

10

What’s the matter?

Anyone with half a brain can check out the world we live in and quickly conclude that something is wrong with us. We’re a mess. All our attempts over the millenniums to establish a harmonious, cooperative civilization have fallen short. Recently it was noted the Hubble Telescope has been in orbit for a quarter of a century. It’s an remarkable symbol of ingenuity we can be proud of but the spectacular pictures of the universe it’s taken have only served to make us more keenly aware of how much we don’t know. Any hopes that it’d provide us a better understanding of the cosmos and thereby improve the human condition have been diminished substantially. Guess what. The answers aren’t “out there” somewhere. A host of people have always insisted the real culprit behind our inability to get it together is lack of communication. Yet just in my lifetime we’ve gone from speaking into bulky, stationary contraptions on a shared party line to watch-sized smart phones that can put us in touch with most anyone with a verbal request. Still rarely do we truly understand one another’s point of view because we have no common ground. We’re all so dang different. Plus there’s the elephant in the room so many tiptoe around. That being the issue of why we’re here in the first place. It’s no secret that for as long as men and women have trod terra firma we’ve searched for answers to the profound moral and spiritual questions that refuse to go away. That’s why our sordid history is bookmarked by the musings of philosophers, psychologists and theologians. A significant portion of the folks in today’s world keep straining to achieve the ultimate in wisdom and fulfillment sans acknowledging there’s an omniscient, all-powerful God behind it all. But, as the Hubble photos have shown us repeatedly, we’ve been staring Him right in the face the whole time. So what the heck’s the matter with us?

For one thing, we’re stubborn as mules. It’s our nature to crave independence. Our basic DNA urges us to seek out a way to make it on our own. We hold in high esteem anyone who’s risen from rags to riches even though the majority of them will admit they find it “lonely at the top” and they’re still yearning to acquire something elusive that’ll fill the empty cavern in their soul. In other words, they’re no different from anyone else in that the fundamental hunger and thirst for meaning and completeness we’re all born with can’t be found in anything molecular. Fact is, we’re spiritual beings that’ll go on existing long after we’re finished living in material bodies and something primal inside won’t let us ignore that intuition. We want to meet the God who made us. In one of the oldest books around we find Job crying out, O that I knew where I might find him, that I could come to his place of residence! (Job 23:3) Could it be we’re looking for a God of our liking instead of the real I AM? This search transcends race, age, economic status, sex and the level of education we’ve completed. Billy Graham wrote, “Either man began nowhere and is looking for some place to go, or he began somewhere and lost his way. In either case, he’s searching. None of us will ever find ‘total satisfaction’ until we find that our roots are in eternity.” The innate desire to discover, know and relate to our Creator is no respecter of persons. An illiterate has the same urge to find the answers to life as a Pulitzer Prize recipient does. The Father in heaven draws all human beings to Him like an irresistible magnet because He loves us. He’s where home is. He’s the answer to everything. As a leader in Celebrate Recovery I’ve met many people who’ve attended a meeting because they didn’t know where else to go to find spiritual relief from their hurts, hang-ups or habits. Once there we do our best to introduce them to the knowable God; the God who heals – Jesus Christ. Often we never see them again but we know for certain that just by saying His name something stirred inside them. A seed was sown.

While the adage “money can’t buy happiness” is as true today as it was in King Solomon’s time there are lots of people who still don’t buy it. They’re dying to get the chance to find out for themselves. Read the biographies of some of the wealthiest who ever lived and most of the time you’ll discover they never felt they had enough because money lies. When Satan tempted our Lord in the wilderness, daring Him to prove His deity by turning rocks into dinner rolls, Jesus calmly quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3. He told the devil, Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In Luke 12:15 Christ preached, “Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Sadly, many refuse to heed His warning. Therefore we frequently hear of celebrities in the rich and famous club admitting they’ve become, when all’s said and done, jaded and disillusioned. Some of them turn to bizarre cults like Scientology while others delve into eastern religions like Buddhism to find fulfillment. Yet the most basic questions remain: What is man? Where did we come from? Where are we headed? If there’s a God why is He invisible and why doesn’t He fix everything with a snap of His fingers?

Cash is just one of many items we place on a lofty pedestal. I like what Frederick Buechner expressed when he wrote, “Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth. Under certain circumstances, money, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family loyalty, physical beauty, social or intellectual preeminence, and so on are fine things to have around; but to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is sheerest folly. They just aren’t up to it.” And don’t be thinking religious types are immune. They can be among the worst offenders by making idols out of their church’s denomination, of holy images or sites, charismatic evangelists or even the Bible itself. It’s so important to God we understand nothing deserves being worshipped except Him that He put it at the very top of His list of do’s and don’ts. What He commanded in Exodus 20:3 left no room for misinterpretation: You will have no other gods before me.” There are those who’ll proclaim, “I do put God first but mine’s not the same as yours. I just can’t believe Jesus was God’s only begotten Son, sent to atone for our sins.” In so doing they deny the Holy Trinity the Scriptures tell us is the consolidation of the true nature of the living God. John 5:23 states unequivocally, “…The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” Jesus made it crystal clear: He and the Father are one and the same. Alistair Begg wrote, “It’s not arrogance that finds Christians making such declarations. Jesus is not simply a prophet standing on the same level as Muhammad. He is the incarnate God, and one day at the name of Jesus every knee, including that of Muhammad, will bow.”

Then there are those who don’t give a flip about money but are convinced their superior brain power will enable them to answer all mankind’s pesky metaphysical questions if they just keep at it long enough. They’d like to save their own souls without God becoming involved. Trouble is, their bulging pride barricades the path to wisdom. They’ve made an idol out of their own mind. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell who was no fan of the Scriptures still managed to efficiently describe those afflicted with the disease of intellectual snobbery when he wrote, “Every man would like to be God, if it were possible; but some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility.” Of course, such misguided aspirations are nothing new. Eons ago Lucifer boldly declared, I will climb up to the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High! (Isaiah 14:14). Today, thanks to the internet, a person can turn on their PC and gain access to more data than is contained in all the libraries combined yet those hard questions will still remain unanswered if they stubbornly insist on rejecting God’s Holy Word out of hand.

However, it’s quite possible to become so enraptured, if you will, with dissecting the Scriptures that a person can get conceited, adopt an offensive holier-than-thou countenance and perhaps even lose touch with reality if they’re not careful. Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “The gripping message of the Bible will never be fully heard in the library. When we value scholarly precision and doctrinal purity above a personally transforming encounter with the God who reveals himself in His Word, when we fail to see that an academic grasp of Scripture often leads to a proud appreciation of knowledge more than a humble and passionate appreciation of Christ, we develop an orthodoxy that crushes life. We miss the gospel that frees us to live. In order to catch the pulse of Scripture and hear the heartbeat of God, we must be actively grappling with the overwhelming reality of what life is like outside the Garden of Eden. If we numb our souls to the ongoing struggles with sin and disappointment that fallen people living in a fallen world experience, then our time in the Bible will yield puffy knowledge rather than liberating truth.”

See, the truth doesn’t belong to us. We’re not supposed to hoard it. While Jesus told us not to be of this world he insisted we be in it, nonetheless. And if we’re to be in it we must freely give away the truth He revealed to us because there’s a lot of nutty ideas about God swirling around out there creating havoc. H. R. Rookmaaker said, “Man, being human, tries again and again to evade the logic of his own position, and searches for his true self, his humanity, his freedom, even if he can only do so by means of sheer irrationality or completely unfounded mysticism.” I know folks who’d rather believe we’re the result of amoebas sent here on space ships from an alien world than to accept we were created by an omniscient God. And they say Christians have faith! Good grief. Strange as it is, though, it seems like the weirder the theory the more acceptable it becomes.

We search for peace but it’s impossible to find without God. Os Guinness once wrote, “For centuries there has been the search for the attainment of that ideal which the Greeks called ataraxia , the idea of quiet calm, of deep inner contentment, beyond the restlessness, frustrations, and tensions of normal living. Many searched for this via philosophy and religion, but always there has been the parallel search for short cuts.” In other words, too many want to avoid simply trusting, as would a child, that the Father in heaven has everything under control. They think if society just tries hard enough we can bypass relying on God, end all conflict and manufacture a Utopian paradise. That’s not gonna happen. Dr. Graham said, “Men desperately want peace, but the peace of God is not absence from tension or turmoil, but peace in the midst of tension and turmoil.” Because of Jesus we can have peace in our hearts that not only surpasses all understanding but all our misunderstandings, too. Yet one glance at the nightly news will tell you that acts of ruthless terrorism, destructive riots, heartbreaking suicides, senseless drug overdoses and widespread anguish continue to run rampant because billions of people across the globe refuse to surrender their life to Jesus. The Heavenly Father doesn’t ask us to accept the way things are on blind faith alone, He asks us to simply read what His Son, His Apostles and the prophets that preceded them said would transpire. When we do that the insanity going down all around us will cease to be a shock.

I’ve noticed whenever a serious problem develops on an airliner and all indications point to an imminent crash the passengers who get interviewed after the pilot miraculously gets the plane on the ground usually confess that even the non-believers on board were calling out to God for help when all seemed lost. It reminds me of the infamous saying among infantry soldiers, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When someone finds themselves at the bottom of a well all the wealth they’ve amassed is rendered useless at that moment. They don’t need psychoanalysis or a bunch of smug jerks saying “We told you this would happen.” The last thing they want is for some smart-alecky know-it-all to chart out and explain all the factors that came into play as they plummeted into the dark depths. No, they need a savior. Someone who can pull them up and out of their predicament.

A person’s mind doesn’t become enlightened until they’ve stopped closing it off to the truth of the Good News about Christ and become born again. In my previous essay I opened with the passage from John 3:1-3 wherein Jesus has a chat with Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Mensa society who was holding on to a very rigid philosophical and theological system based on the God whose Son he was conversing with. Jesus saw right through him and basically said, “I’m sorry I can’t explain it to you. What I preach bugs you no end because it doesn’t fit into your comfy little box but something tells you I’m right. Yet your set-in-stone assumptions block the truth from getting in. To you it just ain’t logical and you can’t accept there might be things about God’s plan you don’t know. And nothing’s gonna change until you surrender your pride and become spiritually born again.” As expected, Nicodemus didn’t “get it.” He actually asked Christ how a man could crawl back into his mother’s womb!

This brief encounter was written down for posterity because there will always be people who’ll scratch their noggins and ask, “How can a person be born twice?” That question will forever be an impasse for those of their ilk until they become willing to jettison all their preconceived notions and trust that genuine knowledge comes only by putting their faith in a God they can’t see. Only then will they grasp the possibility of what they previously thought to be impossible. Guinness wrote, “That’s also why only this uniquely ‘impossible’ faith – with a God who is, with an incarnation that is earthly and historical, with a salvation that’s at cross-purposes with human nature, with a resurrection that blasts apart the finality of death – is able to provide an alternative to the sifting, settling dust of death and, through a new birth, open the way to a new life.”

The story’s told of a man raised in an undeveloped rural region of the United States. He was quick to boast he could never get lost in the thick woods and rolling hills that surrounded his town. Yet while hunting deer alone one day he found himself in a place where nothing looked familiar. He forgot all about the game he was tracking and concentrated on getting his bearings but his confusion only intensified to the point where panic started to set in. Finally, to his relief, he came upon a cabin he’d never seen deep inside the forest. An old man lived there and he offered this advice: “When you find yourself lost in the wild never go down – always go up. Only from on top of a ridge can you see where you are and find your way back home.”

Life can be a jagged range of intimidating mountains and sometimes we get lost wandering through them. It’s then we’re presented with two options: we can either go down into the valley of drugs, depression, emptiness, resentment and hopelessness, or we can keep on climbing upward. We’re endowed with free will so the choice is ours. But understand that in the process of finding God we’ll find ourselves. All of us are on a personal quest for truth. All of us have questions about this life and what’s to follow. And God wants us to search for Him because, as Dr. Graham wrote, “…that search will propel us in the only true direction, in only one way, and we’ll be embarked on that journey when we’re born again.”

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