Tag Archives: trust

The Desert and the Devil

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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When Jesus Made His Move

All Christians celebrate our Savior’s birth and resurrection annually.  I reckon if we knew the date He realized the time had arrived to begin His ministry it’d be an occasion to commemorate, too.  For some thirty years or so Jesus had lived a rather unremarkable life in and about the small town of Nazareth.  Other than the infamous “temple episode” that happened when He was a pre-teen we know zip about His youth and early adult years.  There are things we can assume, however.  His stepdad taught Him the craft of carpentry.  After Joseph’s death Jesus took over all the responsibilities that come along with being the male head of household.  He became the primary breadwinner.  He took on the role of father figure for His younger brothers and sisters.  In other words, He had to grow up fast.  We can gather He responsibly and skillfully plied His trade for many years, making a reputable name for Himself as a proficient, reliable worker.  He probably had His own little shop near the family home.  Not a bad life, all things considered.  Yet, we can only wonder how His ever-increasing awareness of His divinity and His ordained-by-God mission must have affected Him.  All we know for sure is that when He knew His hour had come He got His affairs in order and stepped away from the workbench to bring a new covenant into the world and drastically alter history forevermore.  It’s certainly worth our while to investigate the circumstances surrounding His finally “making His move.”

 

The fact that all four Gospel accounts bring up John the Baptist in conjunction with Christ’s emergence from obscurity elevates him to Bible VIP status.  Thus he deserves our focused attention.  Never forget that the archangel Gabriel announced he’d be born to his way-too-old-to-be-having-a-kid parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, months before he appeared before Mary.  That alone designates John as an irreplaceable part of God’s master plan to redeem mankind.  As is the case with Jesus, we know nothing about John’s childhood but it’s fair to surmise he wasn’t anything like his peers.  To say he was “different” as an adult is an understatement.  He stuck out like a sore thumb.  The Scriptures say John lived in the wild and that he “… wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6).  Not your typical cosmopolitan Jew!  Yet there was something about him that compelled folks to stop and listen to what he had to say.  Perhaps they were attracted by his total lack of pretense or his magnetic, spell-binding oratory acumen.  He possessed undeniable charisma and exuded an unshakable conviction of purpose.  He was no phony, no mere “…reed shaken by the wind (Matthew 11:7).  He cared nothing for popularity or acclaim and he had no fear of the religious or political “authorities” whatsoever.  “…When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You offspring of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.”  For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!  Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matthew 3:7-10).  The Jerusalem supermarket tabloids had to have a field day with his quotes!  John didn’t even hold his accusatory tongue from lambasting King Herod to his fat face when he knew it’d likely spell his doom.  No doubt his defiant attitude earned him a lot of “street cred.”

 

Moreover, it was obvious to all that John was a genuine Man of God.  When I was growing up mom insisted I watch Billy Graham with her every time his crusades came on TV.  I was always impressed that thousands would crowd into stadiums and arenas just to hear him preach.  People knew the “real deal” when they saw it and Reverend Graham definitely was.  The same was true of John the Baptist.  Thomas Carlyle wrote, “To teach religion, the first thing needful and the last, and indeed the only thing, is to find a man who has religion.”  John had “it” and folks flocked into the desert just to hear “it”.  Imagine how refreshing it was for everyday Israelites to discover there was a holy man who was dispensing with all the stuffy subtleties and confusing sophistries the persnickety Jewish leaders specialized in spouting and getting right down to the nitty gritty!  John spoke their lingo, using terms they readily understood.  But most of all, the Baptist had a clear message to deliver: “The Messiah is making His move!  Y’all need to ready yourselves ASAP!”  John said, I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire (Matthew 3:11-12).  Few were able to resist his urgent, impassioned pleas and, as a result, throngs got baptized.

 

Who were these people who trekked into the boonies to hear this strange dude?  Was it just the ne’er-do-wells of society with nothing better to do?  Not on your life.  The crowds that showed up encompassed the entire strata of types and classes.  There were beggars, soldiers, doctors, housewives, young, elderly, healthy, sick, and purple-robed priests in attendance.  Suffice it to say that not all of them were there to seek profound revelations of truth.  No doubt many came simply to quench their burning curiosity.  The Baptist was causing a sensation and they didn’t want to miss out on the hoopla.  Others came for political reasons.  The nation hadn’t heard a word from Jehovah in four centuries and suddenly there’s what appeared to be a bona fide prophet preaching fire and brimstone down by the river.  They thought maybe John was an omen that God was finally going to run the racist, pagan Romans out of town for good and restore Israel’s sovereignty!  He was worth checking out, regardless.  However, it’s safe to say many came because they harbored deep guilt over ignoring God’s laws for so long.  They had sins to confess but no one to confess them to.  They were looking for a ray of hope in what was otherwise a hopeless situation.  Here was one of “the anointed” telling them there was something they could do to instigate a dramatic change in their life.  He took them as they were, dunked them under the water and then brought them up into a new beginning.  In this way John the Baptist paved the way for the one who would not only instruct them on but demonstrate for them how to become righteous in the sight of their Heavenly Father.

 

It’s no stretch to think the news of what John was doing reached Nazareth and the ear of Jesus.  He could’ve reacted in a variety of ways.  He could’ve treated it as a passing fad that had nothing to do with Him.  Or He could’ve harshly criticized the Baptist, deeming his sermons too negative overall, too lacking in compassion and the love of God.  He could’ve rejected John as a misguided fear monger using threats of damnation like sharp weapons to prod men and women into repenting of their evil ways.  (While later on Christ didn’t hesitate to warn His listeners of the eternal consequences of living a sin-filled life, He did so in a tactful and tender manner that matched His gracious character.)  No, the fact of the matter is Jesus reacted in a way nobody would expect – God Incarnate walked to where John was for baptism.  Picture the scene in your mind.  John, busy at work immersing folks in the muddy waters of the Jordan, glances up to find himself staring into two piercing eyes radiating a divine light he’d never encountered before.  He knew in that instant he was standing in the presence of the Son of God.  The Bible describes it splendidly: Then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.  But John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?’  So Jesus replied to him, ‘Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then John yielded to him.  After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight’ (Matthew 3:13-17).  I can’t fathom what the angels, much less John, must’ve thought.

 

On the surface the whole idea of the perfect Son of God submitting to baptism seems absurd and wholly unnecessary.  Therefore we must search for the reason behind it.  One theory is that Christ did it to honor John for his self-sacrificing efforts to get folks prepared to receive His earth-shaking Good News that would transform the world.  Before John began stirring things up the population had gotten jaded regarding their relationship with Yahweh.  But now there was a palpable religious awakening coursing through the countryside because of him.  Now folks craved spiritual guidance.  Now they yearned for something more than hollow subsistence.  Now they cried out for the light of God to shine into their depressed souls.  James S. Stewart wrote, “…We may well believe that when Jesus offered himself for baptism, He did it partly, at least, from a sense of the debt He owed to His great predecessor and from a recognition that this revival which had been sweeping the land was a real movement of the Spirit of God.”

 

Another theory is that Christ subjected Himself to baptism in order to identify with common sinners; that He did it to prove He wasn’t some kind of untouchable or unapproachable “being from beyond” whom no ordinary man or woman would ever be able to relate to.  No, Jesus was Emmanuel, or “God with us”; a man shunned by the elite as being, “…a friend of tax collectors and sinners! (Matthew 11:19).  After all, He mingled among society’s riff-raff, outlaws and outcasts.  Through the act of baptism Christ took on our shame as His shame, our miseries as His miseries, our heartaches as His heartaches and our burdens as His burdens.  Our Savior maintained that selfless countenance all the way to Calvary.  Stewart opined, “Hence the baptism of Jesus points up the fact that the only love which can ever possess redeeming power is a love that goes all the way and identifies itself with others.”  Recall that Moses was willing to personally take on God’s punishment for his people’s rebellious iniquities.  He pleaded for God to have mercy on them and then said, “…but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written (Exodus 32:32).  In a similar vein Paul proclaimed, For I could wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ – for the sake of my people (Romans 9:3).

 

Going by the Gospel narratives there are things we can be certain of.  When Jesus came up out of the water He received two unmistakable affirmations from His Heavenly Father – a voice and a vision.  (1) He audibly heard words spoken directly to Him by the great I AM and (2) He saw the softly-descending dove, a supernatural representation of His receiving the energizing, life-affirming Holy Spirit into His physical body.  Any doubts His mortal, material brain (or the devil, for that matter) may have tried to plant and fertilize in His intellect were swept away like dust particles when our precious Lord heard His Father say, This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight.”  We may never know this side of heaven what other stupendous confirmations Christ heard during the unique moment of unadulterated bliss He experienced while standing by the stunned John the Baptist.  But we can venture to surmise the cosmos at large was never the same.  One thing we do know is Jesus then left to follow the Holy Spirit into the treacherous wastelands where He’d be severely tempted by the extremely agitated Satan.  Considering what Christ had just witnessed in the Jordan the devil never had a chance in hell of succeeding.

 

We all know Jesus went on to perform miracles and wonders that still thrill and inspire His disciples all over the globe.  On the other hand John the Baptist, in an admirably humble fashion, accepted his fate graciously.  He knew he’d done God’s will without a hitch and that it was now time for him to acquiesce to his (and our) higher power, Jesus Christ.  I love to read what John had to say to one of his devoted followers: “…No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but rather, ‘I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  The friend of the bridegroom, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.  This then is my joy, and it is complete.  He must become more important while I become less important.  The one who comes from above is superior to all.  The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things.  The one who comes from heaven is superior to all.  He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.  The one who has accepted his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful.  For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly.  The Father loves the Son and has placed all things under his authority.  The one who believes in the Son has eternal life.  The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him (John 3:27-36).  How eloquent!  One can only guess what John felt that day as he watched the Messiah he’d waited his whole life to meet walked away toward His date with destiny when He’d shoulder the weight of all mankind’s sins and throw open the gates to salvation.  If any human ever had a flood of mixed emotions engulf their whole being, it had to be John the Baptist after Jesus “made His move”.  He’s a hero.

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What We Don’t Know About Jesus

Two weeks ago I wrote about the four Gospels and how they present a complete picture of Christ’s ministry on earth.  Everything necessary for an individual to make an informed decision as to who Jesus was and why He came here is contained in the fascinating books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  But when it comes to the years of His adolescence, teens and 20s we’re told next to nothing.  However there are things we can gather intuitively, like with the world at large being too distracted to notice His long-awaited arrival.  Right off this tells us a lot.  Start with Bethlehem’s local hotel manager callously banishing His weary parents to the barn out back.  What a lousy welcome for the Messiah!  His mother “…gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).  I’m sure the innkeeper had his reasons.  Because of Caesar’s mandated census his place was packed and it was obvious (from their dusty attire) Joseph and his very pregnant wife had no money to bribe him with.  James S. Stewart wrote, “At any rate, it’s worth noticing that the same motives still operate to close the door on Christ.  Men are too busy; or they know that if Christ came in, certain other things would have to go; or they set their hearts on something different from one who was poor and lowly and despised and rejected, whose symbol was a cross.”  How ironic that so many people missed the miracle they’d been praying for.  He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:11).

 

Still, there were a few who did recognize that something astounding was happening in Bethlehem that night, not the least of whom was His mother, of course.  While women in that era were deemed second-class citizens by society in general, motherhood was nonetheless revered in Jewish culture.  (Yet, evidently, it wasn’t on this historic occasion.)  Fittingly, the hotelier’s name got swept away in the winds of time while Christianity’s respect for Mary is topped only by that granted Jesus.  God rewarded her for her dedicated devoutness by choosing her to be the one to raise His only begotten Son in a character-building environment.  All believers love her for the dignity with which she shouldered the lifelong burden of having been given hints of the sorrows that lay in store for her and her son.  Not to mention the faith-filled response she gave the archangel Gabriel when he delivered the incredible news of the pending virgin birth, Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word (Luke 1:38).  Mary may be the strongest, most resolute female who ever lived.  Little wonder she’s so adored.

 

The delightfully prosaic Frederick Buechner, in his book The Magnificent Defeat, wrote this about Mary’s encounter with the angel: “She hears him say, ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name.…’  But she knows His name before Gabriel says it, just as we also know His name, because the child who is going to be born is our child as He is her child.  He is that which all the world’s history and all of our own inner histories have been laboring to bring forth.  And it will be no ordinary birth but a virgin birth because the birth of righteousness and love in this stern world is always a virgin birth.  It is never men nor the nations of men nor all the power and wisdom of men that bring it forth but always God, and that is why the angel says, ‘The child to be born will be called the Son of God.’”  J.I. Packer argued for Christ’s unique birth thusly: “Virgin-born, He did not inherit the guilty twist called original sin: His manhood was untainted, and His acts, attitudes, motives and desires were consequently faultless.  …Being sinless He could not be held by death once His sacrifice was done.”  Belief in the Immaculate Conception is as essential as belief in the Resurrection.  Both carry the same message – Jesus came from God and He returned to God.

 

The shepherds deserve their due, too.  The “angel of the Lord” didn’t appear before the wealthy merchants or the conceited religious leaders in town to announce the birth of the Messiah.  Rather, the glorious news got broadcast to a handful of poor sheep-tenders who lived their impoverished lives out under the sun and stars, exposed to the elements.  How symbolic!  In ancient Israel the thought was that a shepherd’s job was closely affiliated with what God did for His chosen people, as in the oft-quoted phrase, The Lord is my shepherd…” (Psalm 23:1).  Notably, Jesus repeatedly alluded to His being humanity’s ultimate sheepherder throughout His astounding dressing-down of the jealous, skeptical Pharisees that’s recorded in John 10:1-18.  We must never overlook the fact that despite the shepherds tending their flocks in the field being uneducated, illiterate men they reacted to the angel’s news with admirable childlike trust.  They didn’t hesitate to drop everything to go witness a genuine miracle.  So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:16).  They’re to be commended.

 

Now, not all learned men of that day were uppity hypocrites.  Some were truly “wise” as were the Magi who came to visit the King of kings.  Scholars believe that one of them hailed from Africa while the other two were from separate regions of Mesopotamia.  They represent the fact that the birth of the Savior wasn’t just a “Jewish thing”; that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19).  What the fearless trio of noblemen had in common with the shepherds is their undaunted faith.  They weren’t afraid to embark on a long, risky trek to wherever the celestial signs they’d been observing took them.  More Christians should aim to emulate those three.  Jesus encourages all men and women to be brave, inquisitive adventurers who aren’t timid about using their God-given intellects; especially for confronting closed-minded secularists with the pure logic of Christianity.  There’s so much wisdom to be gained by studying the Bible and by reading the insightful literary offerings of giants like C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Ravi Zacharias and so many other reputable Christian authors.  Don’t remain uninformed simply because watching television is so much easier.  Open a book already!  Expand your mental horizons!  Become wise.

 

And then there were Simeon and Anna.  While they didn’t travel to visit the infant Messiah, they definitely welcomed Jesus graciously when His parents brought Him to the temple.  In the Hebrew world it was righteous, devout folks like Simeon and Anna who’d kept the hope for a savior alive, “…looking for the restoration of Israel (Luke 2:25).  Simeon wasn’t a Pharisee whose faith was just skin deep.  He wasn’t an overly-serious Scribe who’d let the fire of the spirit go out in his heart.  He wasn’t a jaded Sadducee who didn’t trust in anything he couldn’t see or touch.  Neither was he a Zealot who craved only revenge for the Roman occupation.  No, Simeon was merely one of the few patient, prayerful members of the chosen race whom God had blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit who’d revealed to him… that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26).  Not surprisingly, when Simeon took the baby Jesus in his aging arms he knew his dreams had become a reality.  He told Mary, Listen carefully; This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected.  Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well! (Luke 2:34-25).  Simeon’s ominous statement provides further evidence of the heavy burden Mary would have to bear.  The prophetess Anna was a temple regular who openly rejoiced at the sight of the infant, unashamedly identifying Him as the Messiah.  The child’s purification rites completed, Joseph and Mary took their boy home to Nazareth where He “…grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).

 

The next three decades of our Lord’s life is a blank – save for one memorable incident.  When Jesus was around the age of 12 He, like other Jewish boys, became a “Son of the Law.”  This designation made Him eligible to attend the various religious festivals.  In Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration/feast, the young Christ got so caught up asking questions of and discussing profound matters with the teachers in the temple courts He lost all track of time.  His parents, who’d mistakenly assumed their boy was traveling back home with friends, rushed back to the city and issued an Amber Alert.  After three frantic days they located Jesus in the temple and they let Him have an earful over His anxiety-causing stunt.  His calm reply was, Why were you looking for me?  Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business? (Luke 2:49).  These are the first words of Christ we’re made privy to in the Bible but they’re crucial because, in a sense, they sum up His whole life in a soundbite.  Yet we’re informed his parents didn’t really “get it”, thus marking the onset of Jesus’ frequent failures to be clearly understood by those closest to Him.  Still, it’s remarkable He’d already become aware of who His real Father was so Joseph and Mary certainly deserve a lot of credit for raising Him right.  As Stewart quipped, “Adolescence is God’s best chance with the soul.”  What’s frustrating about this anecdote is that it’s the last we hear of our Savior for the next 18 years.

 

Again, there are things we can determine about Christ based solely on circumstantial evidence.  For instance, we know He must’ve been influenced by His growing up in close proximity to nature because His teachings belie His pride concerning and love for what He’d created for all humans to enjoy.  He mentioned blooming plants: Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! (Matthew 6:28-29).  He brought up the wonders of agriculture: By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head (Mark 4:28).  He referenced animals: Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4).  Never forget that Jesus was a country boy at heart, having spent countless hours exploring the undefiled beauty that surrounded Him on all sides in rural Nazareth.  Another kind of nature He became familiar with was human nature.  We can deduce it from reports of His being anything but naïve or gullible in His dealings with people of all persuasions.  John 2:25 confirms it succinctly: He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.”  What’s amazing is that, even though He was well aware of the inherent wickedness of the human heart that showed its ugly colors all too often, He still loved all people as only a merciful, forgiving God could.

 

It’s also no stretch of the imagination to opine that Jesus knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards.  While all good Jewish males were schooled to be, at a minimum, familiar with what was contained in the 39 canonical books of the sacred Hebrew texts, Jesus was, as one would expect, a bona fide genius.  Therefore He was able to immediately counter Satan’s wilderness temptations using the undiluted power of God’s Holy Word despite being physically drained from lack of food and water.  The New Testament figuratively overflows with His references to the utterings and writings of the prophets that He knew like the back of His hands.  Thus, as every prophecy about Him unfolded and came to fruition, He was never caught off-guard, even as the day of His farce of a trial and His unconscionable murder grew nearer.  His resolve to see His mission through to the bitter end by remaining obedient to His Father’s will didn’t waver for a moment.  In addition we can safely surmise Jesus knew what hard work was all about.  He was a skilled carpenter, a profession that requires strength and paying strict attention to details.  Joseph had taught his boy the value of a job well done, the satisfaction that comes from taking the time to do each task right and the resulting personal integrity that comes with it.  Stewart wrote, “Hence toil has been hallowed forever.  The distinction between secular and sacred avocations vanishes.  Hard work – whether manual labor or the duty of the businessman – is sacred when it’s done as under the eyes of God.”

 

Finally, we can see in the ministry of Jesus His placing immense importance on the home, reflecting the fact He was raised in a large, close-knit family.  It’s implied that Joseph died at a relatively early age so it figures that Jesus, as the eldest male in the household, became the father figure for his many brothers and sisters.  Those who speculate that Christ, having never married or siring offspring, doesn’t have a clue as to what being a “dad” entails couldn’t be more wrong.  He was the family’s main breadwinner.  To His siblings He became the rule-enforcer and the punishment-applier as well as their gentle counselor, dispute-settler and sage advice-giver.  It goes without saying that we Christians have a “high priest” who knows firsthand how difficult and rewarding parenting can be.  And one finds home references popping up in many of our Savior’s parables.  A woman turns a room upside down looking for a coin hiding under some furniture.  He speaks of carefully measuring flour and leaven when baking bread.  An unexpected guest causes the head of the household to pester his neighbor for decent snacks in the middle of the night.  The lighting of candles at dusk.  He urged compassion for children despite their immature desires and demands.  All these point back to the modest but loving home environment our Lord grew up in.  He most definitely had learned what it’s like to exist on the edge of poverty but He’d also learned that the Heavenly Father will provide, that unconditional love can cure the most difficult and taxing of ills, and that God is forever in complete control whether we human beings realize it or not.

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Right Place, Right Time

Back in the 70s I made a fun but meager living as a professional singer/songwriter/guitarist.  In ’77 I happened to be in a very talented rock & roll band with loads of quality original material in its portfolio.  Wisely, the group relocated to the west coast to pursue a record contract.  We knew there’d be stiff competition out there but we were supremely confident in our abilities.  We worked our shaggy tails off in L.A. for over two years.  Alas, we failed to land a deal.  What we came to realize was that it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d been the most talented group of musicians ever to pound the pavement of southern California.  The fact was we never were in the right place at the right time.  Our brand of music, regardless of how good it was, just wasn’t what was “happening.”  Many of the more tactful record company honchos told us we were simply five years too late arriving on the scene and there was nothing we or they could do about it.  The public’s taste in music had changed.  Our timing?  Lousy.  Looking back, that experience makes me appreciate God’s perfect plan for rescuing souls even more.  The Heavenly Father arranged for His only begotten Son to be born in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.  And it made all the difference.

 

Inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher there’s a special location designated as being “the center of the world.”  While that’s questionable in the literal sense, it’s certainly not questionable if one considers the claim a figurative one because the whole region where that church sits is a strong candidate for being the geographical center of the planet.  On a globe it’s easy to identify the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.  Right in the middle of them, where they merge, there’s a slender land bridge on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  It’s Israel.  If one was to initiate a movement with the intent of spreading it via word of mouth to all corners of the earth in a relatively short period one couldn’t pick a better spot.  Thus it’s no stretch to deem the Holy Land and its surrounding territories as truly being the 1st century nucleus of civilization.  God, in His omniscient wisdom (and before time began), made Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary Hill be the cradle of the Christian faith.  No other area of the planet was more suited to His purpose.  Therefore we can all agree the place was right.  Yet even more importantly, the same was true about the timeBut when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights (Galatians 4:4).  When all relevant factors are taken into account it’s obvious that particular timeframe was ideal for God to personally and dramatically intervene in the affairs of mankind.  From every standpoint – in politics, in economics, in moral standards as well as the realm of religious thought – earth was ripe for a new era to dawn.

 

Let’s delve into some of those crucial factors.  Politically and socially speaking, God’s timing was immaculate.  The civilized world was more united than ever before because of Caesar’s Roman Empire.  Frontiers previously closed for ages had been opened.  Bordering countries that had constantly been at war with each other were cooperating.  From the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, from Brittan to Egypt and from the Rhine River to the Euphrates, millions of people lived and worked in relative stability.  Brutal as they frequently were in maintaining it, the Romans had nevertheless ushered in an epoch of calm.  It was into this rare period of peace that Jesus was born.  Had He entered history a century earlier His gospel of hope would’ve been severely restricted from being disseminated abroad due to the presence of heavily-guarded, hard-to-penetrate national borders all over the place.  A hundred years later His life-enhancing teachings would’ve had to contend with the ever-increasing threat posed by the barbarian hordes that were invading from northern Europe.  No, Christ came to the right place at the right time when amity was widespread and regular folks could afford the luxury of listening to, absorbing and contemplating the unflinching truth our Lord taught.  One can’t discount the vital part the Empire’s impressive network of roads played, as well.  While Rome thought they were building highways to develop new and profitable trade routes, God was planning on using them to more efficiently and quickly disseminate the Good News.  Because of those thoroughfares the early evangelists of the church were able to travel about freely to preach to tens of thousands about the resurrected King of kings who offered eternal life.

 

Then there’s the proliferation of Greek as the universally-accepted language.  Not since the Tower of Babel had communication obstacles been easier to overcome.  While each region and race continued to retain their own vernacular, the vast majority had acquired a fundamental understanding of the Roman tongue.  I can’t overstate the huge role a common language played in the spread of Christianity.  This has modern connotations, too.  When His disciples peppered Him for signs that’d herald His second coming and the tumultuous end of the current age Jesus listed several for them, including First the gospel must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10).  When one considers the extensive cultural saturation achieved by television and radio broadcasts, internet access and cellular phones these days it gets more difficult to imagine a sector of terra firma Christ’s message has yet to penetrate.  Is the end near?  I don’t know but what I do know is this: we’re nudging closer to it with each passing hour.  As Curtis Mayfield sang, “People get ready, there’s a train a’ comin’.”

 

We must also take into consideration the unstable and grossly unfair economic conditions of that era.  While the gaudy opulence of the Roman elite’s lifestyles and the ornate buildings they’d constructed for themselves were hard to miss, abject poverty and festering dissatisfaction among the underprivileged masses was forming poisonous gas bubbles under the glossy surface of society.  Two out of every three people were slaves and they resented the hell out of it.  And, in the far-flung provinces (Israel, for example) unrelenting economic oppression was steadily choking the life out of the populace.  The violent takeover and occupation by the cruel Roman army, the demeaning extravagances Herod the Great indulged in while his overtaxed subjects starved in the streets and the unchecked population explosion that was gradually depleting the country’s limited food supply were creating desperate conditions for the Jewish people in particular.  They’d lost hope that better days lay ahead.  Their stiff-necked religion and its out-of-touch leaders had let them down.  James S. Stewart wrote, “It was then at the blackest hour that a Voice of Hope rang out in Galilee; and men’s hearts leapt up and listened, for the fullness of the time had come.”  I ask you, was there ever an audience that would be more receptive to receiving Jesus’ wonderful Beatitudes?  Doubtful.

 

Then there’s the moral angle.  Some are adamant that the ancient world under the rule of Roman domination was characterized for the most part by an atmosphere of general contentment, innocence and artistic freedom that uninterrupted peace had provided on a wide scale.  It’s an unsubstantiated myth, though.  It’s a lie.  For a more authentic description you need only read Paul’s unflinching observations found in Romans 1:18-32.  He doesn’t paint a pretty picture.  The ethical tide had turned and runaway immorality was taking its ugly toll.  The Nobel-winning 19th century Roman historian Christian Mommsen commented, “The world was growing old and not even Caesar could make it young again.”  When a nation loses its way, foolishly adopts the slogan of “anything goes” in the name of progressiveness and systematically removes the word “sacred” from its vocabulary, moral decline results.  It was true back then and it’s true today.  Yet this situation made the teachings of Christ appear radically refreshing in contrast.  I’ll quote Stewart again. “When the experiment of slackening morality and tampering with codes of honor has been carried to a certain point, inevitably there comes a reaction.  Inevitably that something of God which lurks beneath the surface of men’s hearts stands up and records its protest.  The glamor of the sensationalist creed and the lure of the modern gospel of un-control have the living Christ to reckon with.  Men will not be satisfied with the ethics of the dust always.”  Jesus introduced a new way of living to the thoroughly-disgusted common folk who longed for decency to be restored.

 

Religion is yet another arena to look into.  In Rome the persnickety, dysfunctional gods previously on the A-list were either deceased or on their death bed.  The younger generations had tried two solutions to replace them.  The first was importing a collection of exotic gods from the Far East but they proved to be even more immature and outlandish in nature than Zeus’ neurotic clan ever was.  The second idea was to instigate the worship of Caesar, elevating him to being the unrivaled head of the “god chain.”  As expected, that silly notion collapsed under the weight of its own preposterousness.  None of those false deities could comfort them when they grieved, embrace them when their hearts were breaking or forgive them when their sins smashed their life to pieces.  Nothing permanently quenched their thirst for meaning or sated their hunger to possess a clear conscience.  In other words, it wasn’t just the Hebrews who were aching for a Messiah, a deliverer, a redeemer who’d present an inviting spiritual alternative to what was being offered.  Gentiles ached, too.  The God-shaped hole in their gut was an affliction all human beings were bothered by.  However, because of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Jewish race was more anxious for divine relief than any other.  Thus when someone like John the Baptist showed up even vaguely resembling what the prophet had forecast when he wrote, A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness clear a way for the LORD; construct in the desert a road for our God (Isaiah 40:3), he stirred up a palpable air of hope that permeated the entire region.  But this time that hope wasn’t a wispy pipe dream.  The time was right for the Savior of the world to stroll forward onto the world’s stage and change everything.

 

I have a feeling something miraculous yet disruptive is going to happen soon.  Now, I’m no “chicken little” who thinks every news item’s a genuine portent of the apocalypse.  It’s my opinion “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  In the political, economic and moral realms uncertainty and lack of direction is running amok.  However, it’s in the sphere of religious thought and trends where the waters seem murkiest.  As it did in the Roman culture, the intense interest in Eastern religion (that so entranced and influenced baby boomers for decades) has ebbed to almost nothing.  Not only that but the inaccurate view of the great I AM as a vindictive score-keeper is on the wane.  Even the phony gods of materialism and secularism are slipping out of favor.  On the other hand, even though it appears it’s flying beneath society’s radar, there’s a healthy Jesus-praising youth movement under way as evidenced by the expanding Hillsong Church out of Australia that has satellite congregations springing up all over the planet.  Christianity continues to grow exponentially in countries where it’s still either discouraged or even outlawed by the government because the people’s craving to know the liberating truth about the real Creator of the Universe is stronger than their fear of persecution.  Mao Zedong, the cruel atheist dictator of China who brutally murdered his own people over three decades, once promised to eliminate all traces of Christianity from the land.  Despite his immense power and iron-fisted tyrannical control he failed miserably.  Even conservative polls estimate the number of born again followers of Jesus in China is currently over 18 million and climbing steadily.  Mao?  He’s dead as a doornail while God Almighty is most assuredly alive and “on the move” in the world today.

 

It’s impossible to disprove with any credibility that the incarnation of the Son of God occurred on earth in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time.  All Christians know He’s coming back again when the perfect place and time arrives once more.  Is it just around the corner?  Perhaps.  I wouldn’t bet against it.  In 1978 the respected British journalist/satirist Malcom Muggeridge adroitly said, “The world’s way of responding to intimations of decay is to engage equally in idiot hopes and idiot despair.  On the one hand some new policy or discovery is confidently expected to put everything to rights: a new fuel, a new drug, détente, world government.  On the other, some disaster is as confidently expected to prove our undoing.  Capitalism will break down.  Fuel will run out.  Plutonium will lay us low.  Atomic waste will kill us off.  Overpopulation will suffocate us, or alternatively, a declining birth rate will put us more surely at the mercy of our enemies.  In Christian terms, such hopes and fears are equally beside the point.  As Christians we know that here we have no continuing city, that crowns roll in the dust and every earthly kingdom must sometime flounder, whereas we acknowledge a king men did not crown and cannot dethrone, as we are citizens of a city of God they did not build and cannot destroy.  Thus the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, living in a society as depraved and dissolute as ours.  Their games, like our television, specialized in spectacles of violence and eroticism.  Paul exhorted them to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in God’s work, to concern themselves with the things that are unseen, for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal.”  I agree.  We must always revert back to and rely solely on our faith.

 

Stewart summed up this subject succinctly when he wrote, “So the redeemer came.  Somewhere in the mind and heart of God from the very foundation of the earth the Christ had been waiting, hidden in the counsels of eternity until the great bell of the ages should strike; and when at last everything in the world and in the souls of men was ready and prepared, He came, the Word of God made flesh, not a moment early and not a moment late, but exactly on the stroke of the hour.  It was the Day of the Lord.  It is still the Day of the Lord, whenever another soul enthrones Him.  ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’”  I’m ready to meet Christ.  Are you?  There’s no better time for preparing than now.

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The Fascinating Gospels

Over the foreseeable weeks I’ll be writing about my favorite person ever – Jesus Christ.  He’s my Precious Redeemer, my Magnificent Savior.  I’ll spend eternity attempting to pay Him back for what He’s done for me.  Since the day I finally let Him take the wheel He’s been at my side through thick and thin.  When I look back over the decades I recognize I’ve been prone to obsessing over and indulging in various things and activities that always failed to sate my hunger for meaning.  Then, when my fragile world came crashing down on my head, I turned to my Lord for rescue.  He didn’t hesitate to grab my hand and gently pull me out of the rubble.  I felt the least I could do to show my gratitude was to learn all I could about Him and that impetus led me to read the Bible for the first time.  In the Old Testament I discovered everything that happened back then on this fallen planet was a preamble to the coming of the Messiah who’d turn the world upside down.  But it was in the Gospel accounts I encountered the living Christ at last and the joy and contentment He’s instilled in my heart and mind is impossible to put into words so I won’t even try.  I can tell you this, though, His divine influence has seeped into every aspect of my life and He’s planted and nurtured a peace and assuredness in my soul I never thought I’d possess.  I only wish everyone on earth knew what I’m talking about; that they’d have what I know is mine because of Jesus.  If what I write encourages even one person to further investigate the King of Kings then I’m blessed beyond measure.

 

Jesus didn’t compose or dictate an autobiography.  He had bigger fish to multiply.  He let those who were closest to him tackle that important task after He’d ascended to the right hand of the Father.  He knew they’d faithfully convey what needed to be conveyed because their new companion, the indwelling Holy Spirit, would guide them every step of the way.  What the resulting four Gospels accomplished is remarkable in that, relatively short as they are, they’ve proven to be more than sufficient for introducing the immaculate, chain-breaking Christ to every race, creed and color around the globe.  Now, to label the Gospels “biographies” is a misnomer.  For example, we still know next to nothing about the first thirty years of His life.  It’s just as well because we’re told, There are many other things that Jesus did.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).  What we do have is a quartet of interrelated memoirs; four selected historical reminiscences, if you will.  Their fundamental purpose and function can’t be denied.  But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).  As a bonus, because the books are so personal, we’re able to derive four distinct portraits of what our Lord was like.

 

One of the core arguments against the Gospels’ veracity and reliability is that they weren’t written until long after Jesus had “left the building.”  Most scholars agree that Mark’s was the earliest, probably transcribed about 35 to 40 years after the fact.  While skeptics are eager to hang their secular hat on that delay, they make the mistake of ignoring several crucial factors.  For one thing, Jesus had instructed the Apostles to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).  Since the printing press wouldn’t be invented until 1440, immediately taking time out of their busy evangelizing schedules to write books wasn’t a priority.  But it is logical they jotted down notes here and there about what Christ had done and said, knowing they’d come in handy down the line.  It’s also worth mentioning the majority of Christians expected “the end” Jesus had forecast would come at any moment.  Thus writing detailed tomes about the Messiah seemed unnecessary in the short run.  As the decades passed, though, preserving information about the life and teachings of Christ became more expedient.  (The first four verses of Luke 1 explain the reasons better than I ever will.  Check ‘em out.)

 

Don’t forget the Gospels came into existence according to God’s plan and timeline, not ours.  He has His ways.  James S. Stewart wrote, “Inspiration was not God magically transcending human minds and faculties; it was God expressing His will through the dedication of human minds and faculties.  It does not supersede the sacred writer’s own personality and make him God’s machine; it reinforces his personality and makes him God’s living witness.”  In other words, when the time was right the Holy Spirit led the most qualified men to ensure Jesus’ story would be preserved for future generations.  Not only that but thousands of pagan Gentiles were converting to Christianity constantly and it was crucial they become educated about the origination of sacraments like communion and what they signified.  They needed access to eyewitness testimonies concerning what Jesus did and what led to His cruel crucifixion as well as accurate accounts regarding his post-resurrection appearances.  Misconceptions, heresies and wild speculations were a danger to the stability of the early church and those growth-choking weeds needed to be nipped in the bud, as it were.  Thus recording precisely what Jesus had taught was imperative.

 

As I noted, the Gospel according to Mark is generally believed to be the oldest.  Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, was one of the first Christian writers to verify the identity of the authors of the Gospels.  He documented that, “Mark became the interpreter of Peter” and he “wrote down accurately everything that he remembered” from Peter’s galvanizing sermons.  The implication is young John Mark was a close associate of Saint Peter who accompanied the great apostle on his preaching tours and was therefore a witness to the earth-shaking effect his mentor’s orations had on the lost souls who heard him.  He was no doubt carefully schooled by Peter on how to answer the many questions folks would need answered after the sermons were concluded.  Over the years Mark had amassed a figurative storehouse of stories/anecdotes about Jesus that he was able to compile into a cohesive book after Peter’s murder.  Just knowing Peter (one of the Master’s dearest friends) is the source of Mark’s information makes it difficult to dispute its authenticity.  It’s noteworthy that the title of “The Gospel According to Mark” wasn’t added until later so the author obviously wasn’t out to make a name for himself in literary circles.  This book, in every respect, is Peter’s.  Yet even Peter doesn’t try to overstate the part he played in the saga.  On the contrary, he includes self-deprecating events like Jesus’ sharply-pointed rebuke and his denying even knowing his Master on the night of the Lord’s arrest.  The integrity of this Gospel, like the other three, is beyond reproach.

 

Matthew’s Gospel is different from Mark’s.  Whereas Mark concentrated on what occurred in Jesus’ life, Matthew focused on what He taught.  Papias had this to say about Matthew: “He wrote down the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew, and each interpreted these as best he could.”  What Papias inferred by that comment was that Hebrew had ceased to be a commonly-spoken vernacular, having been displaced by Aramaic centuries earlier.  However, it still served as the official liturgical and literary language of Judaism.  Thus its principal audience was made up of Jewish Christians as evidenced by the frequent references to Old Testament quotations, the prominence of the Mosaic law, the high importance Matthew assigns to the Jewish messianic hopes and, as you’d expect, an extensive explanation of how Jesus was the fulfillment of all the prophecies pertaining to the long-promised deliverer.  Like Mark, Matthew downplays his own importance, only mentioning himself once: As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow me’ he said to him.  And he got up and followed him(Matthew 9:9).  He doesn’t attempt to hide the fact he was a despised, socially-ostracized taxman before Christ gave him a new identity, a new life.  In his own way Matthew was testifying to the amazing truth that no one’s a lost cause; that absolutely nobody is beyond the reach of Jesus’ saving grace!

 

Then there’s Luke’s Gospel.  It, too, is different in that Luke wasn’t a Jew.  While it appears that Luke generously drew upon both Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts, he still managed to introduce a unique and fresh perspective to the story of Jesus.  The fact that by being born a Gentile he wasn’t an “insider” bestows upon his Gospel a missionary aspect.  What I’m saying is he presents Christ as the Savior of the entire human race, not just the Israelites.  In chapter 1 verse 3 he dedicates the book to Theophilus, a high-ranking figure in the Roman government who had yet to convert to Christianity.  That speaks volumes right there.  And the fact he traces Jesus’ family tree back to Adam (Matthew only takes it back to Abraham) connects Christ to worldwide events, not just to the history of the Hebrew race.  This accounts for his inclusion of parables like that of the good Samaritan and poignant statements such as Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their place at the banquet table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).  The famous parable of the prodigal is universal in scope and it’s no stretch to understand that, symbolically, the repentant younger son represented the Gentile world while his snooty older brother represented the Jewish hierarchy.  Luke’s being a physician also explains why Jesus’ miraculous healings are emphasized throughout.

 

Last (but certainly not least) we have John’s Gospel.  While the similarities found in the first three earn them the moniker of “the synoptics”, this one stands alone.  Clement of Alexandria commented, “John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been set forth in the other Gospels, composed a spiritual Gospel.”  Written about 60 years after the resurrection, his book belies decades of contemplation and meditation on what he knew, heard, read and absorbed about Jesus.  Being one of the original dozen disciples (identifying himself as the “one whom Jesus loved”) he had the opportunity to rectify any misinformation or errors that might’ve appeared in the other three Gospels but, evidently, corrections weren’t called for.  This in itself lends additional credence to their genuineness.  Many things separate John’s Gospel from the others.  For one thing, it contains no parables at all and it concentrates much more on the Judean ministry of Christ rather than on His Galilean ministry.  He also lets us eavesdrop on private conversations Jesus had with individuals like Nathaniel, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman He encountered at Jacob’s well.  While the other Gospels have a lot to say about the human side of Christ, John highlights the divine aspects of His person and His actions, exemplified by his opening verse: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God (John 1:1).  It’s probable that John, getting well up in his years by then, had enlisted some help in compiling his Gospel from what he’d maintained all along as a journal of sorts.  This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24).  However, this doesn’t diminish its immense value one iota.  In conjunction with the other three, it grants us a perfect and complete picture of our Lord and Savior.

 

As a born again Christ-follower I have no reservations whatsoever in trusting that the four Gospels contain everything the Heavenly Father has determined I need know about Jesus’ sojourn on this planet.  Nothing has been left out nor gotten lost in the shuffle of advancing civilization.  They give us a firm and reliable history that’s been upheld repeatedly by firm, substantiated facts.  Moreover, they give us revelation in that, as we peruse/study them, we obtain an unflappable sense it’s the literal voice of God we hear.  But what they give us more than anything else is a challenge to answer serious questions like “Who do I really think Jesus was?” and, more importantly, “What place does He have in my life?”  I find it hard to imagine that any intelligent person could read the Gospels and not be remarkably influenced by its compelling argument for Christ being the promised Messiah who showed Himself to be “…the way, the truth and the lifewho boldly claimed No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you have known me, you will know my Father too.  And from now on you do know him and have seen him (John 14:6-7).  I believe with all my heart that if a person gets exposed to the absolute truth they will be affected.

 

In his intriguing book, The Case for Christ, author Lee Strobel interviewed Dr. Craig Blomberg, an unimpeachable expert on the four Gospels.  Blomberg’s summation was revealing.  He said, “The Bible considers it praiseworthy to have a faith that doesn’t require evidence.  Remember how Jesus replied to doubting Thomas: ‘You believe because you see; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’  And I know evidence can never compel or coerce faith.  We can’t supplant the role of the Holy Spirit, which is often a concern of Christians when they hear discussions of this kind.  But I’ll tell you this: there are plenty of stories of scholars in the New Testament field who have not been Christians, yet through their study of these very issues have come to faith in Christ.  And there have been countless more scholars, already believers, whose faith has been made stronger, more solid, more grounded, because of the evidence – and that’s the category I fall into.”  I can identify with the respected professor’s testimony.  While I’ll never be mistaken for a degreed Biblical scholar, by spending time every day in the Holy Word of God my faith and trust has increased by leaps and bounds.  I have yet to come across a single verse of Scripture that’s caused me to think it’s all just an ancient, superstition-fueled fable manufactured to pacify human curiosities regarding “what this life’s all about.”  I believe in it with every molecule of my being.  Because of it I’ve come to know, on an intimate level, precisely who my Savior is.  I agree 100% with Timothy Keller’s opinion.  He wrote, “…An authoritative Bible isn’t the enemy of a personal relationship with God.  It’s the precondition for it.”

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What Awaits Us in Heaven?

Thankfully the Bible isn’t silent about this subject.  Things will be different, for sure.  Paul says, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.  …For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will know fully, just as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 9-10, 12).  Thus it appears when I die I’ll figuratively step out of a fog into the brightest morning I can possibly imagine.  The best mirrors in Paul’s day were polished and buffed brass so one was better off gazing into a pond’s surface.  Still, neither reflected one’s true image very accurately.  Heaven’s truly beyond words but obviously it’ll be a case of night instantly turning to day.  Our entire perception of reality will change.  Dallas Willard wrote, “When we pass through what we call death, we do not lose the world.  Indeed, we see it for the first time as it really is.”  What we consider normal is in fact a gross distortion of what God intended to be normal.  When Jesus cried out from the cross, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing (Luke 23:34), He was referring to all of us.  Our vision’s severely limited because of the curse brought upon mankind by Adam & Eve’s sin.

 

So what’s Paul getting at with the “fully known” stuff?  Well, evidently many spiritual entities (“a great cloud of witnesses”, we’re told) know all about us as individuals.  Hebrews 12:22-24 hints at who they are: But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.”  That’s a very impressive list of persons who see everything as it really is; who know at this moment what all God’s adopted children will one day know.  In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul intimates God blessed him with a brief glimpse of heaven; that he was allowed to stand in the visible presence of those beings whereupon he gathered they fully knew him.  God blessed Paul with an insight into the next world so we could find comfort in what he dutifully reported.  For one thing, we have no secrets.  “…No creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Hebrews 4:13).  In other words, the transparency we all should strive for will be ours in heaven.  We won’t drift around in some kind of hazy dreamlike state, either.  We’ll be more “awake” than ever before.  We’ll be anything but asleep.  What we will be is mind-blowing to ponder.  Jesus said of souls in heaven, In fact, they can no longer die, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection (Luke 20:36).

 

According to Jesus those who belong to God have nothing whatsoever to fear about death.  He taught, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).  Christ also said I tell you the solemn truth, if anyone obeys my teaching, he will never see death (John 8:51).  And, as He informed the distraught Martha before calling forth the deceased Lazarus out of his tomb, “…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 (John 11:25-26).  (I suspect Jesus wept that day because He knew Lazarus’ loved ones would eventually have to suffer through the painful grieving process all over again down the line.)  Our Savior’s attitude towards His own death tells us much, too.  While He certainly didn’t relish the ghastly torture He’d be forced to endure beforehand, He viewed finally taking His last earth-bound breath as a liberating event.  He told His disciples on the day of His arrest, Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’  If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I am (John 14:27-29).  Those aren’t the words of a man who’s petrified of death!

 

Don’t forget that in the midst of slowly suffocating and bleeding to death our Lord still had the grace to tell one of the thieves dying next to Him, “…I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).  Now, do you know any human being who’d take the time to tell a convicted criminal a bald-faced lie while writhing in excruciating agony?  I don’t.  What Christ told that thief is something all believers can take to the bank.  Paradise is our destination!  The truth of the matter is the New Testament teaches us repeatedly that, in the grand scheme of things, all Christians will be much better off when they’re dead!  Paul wrote, For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (Philippians 1:21) and “…I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…” (Philippians 1:23).  Please don’t misunderstand what Paul’s saying.  He’s not advocating suicide or intentionally putting oneself in harm’s way.  He explained in a letter to his associate that Jesus “…has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel!  For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher.  Because of this, in fact, I suffer as I do.  But I am not ashamed, because I know the one in whom my faith is set and I am convinced that he is able to protect what has been entrusted to me until that day (2 Timothy 1:10-12).  As royal ambassadors of our Lord and heralds of the Good News our continued existence on this planet has a purpose.  We’re important.  Ducking out early of our own accord isn’t an option.  We’re to leave when God says it’s our time to go home.

 

Back to the question I posed initially: “What awaits us in heaven?”  It’s definitely worth asking.  As I’ve aged it’s become blatantly obvious that, little by little, my body’s wearing out.  I used to be able to work outside right through a Texas summer.  Now just being in the heat for an hour saps all my energy.  I know in time parts of my body will let me down.  However, I won’t have to lug those deteriorating limbs and organs into heaven.  Willard wrote, “When we pass through the stage normally called ‘death,’ we’ll not lose anything but the limitations and powers that specifically correspond to our present mastery over our body, and to our availability and vulnerability to and through it  We’ll no longer be able to act and be acted upon by means of it.”  What will remain intact is our personality, our non-material core identity.  Plus we’ll retain our knowledge of (and relationships with) other souls who’ve been a part of our earthly life.  Will I miss family members and friends who never accepted Christ?  Will I be devastated if my two grown, unsaved children don’t join me?  My heart says I will.  God says otherwise.  In heaven “He will wipe away every tear from their [my] eyes, and death will not exist anymore – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist (Revelation 21:4).  Therefore I must trust God will grant me a level of understanding I can’t fathom at this juncture.  I have more faith in my Heavenly Father than I do in my emotions.  As Abraham said to God, Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right? (Genesis 18:25).  God did what was right back then and He’ll always do what’s right.  Therefore I’m content to leave the whole issue up to Him.

 

When I’m asked how a merciful God could allow a single soul to languish forever in oblivion my answer is heaven would be hellish for those who never desired to go there in the first place.  In other words, it’s not God’s fault they won’t be with Him in paradise.  Those who aren’t saved don’t think they need saving.  The Holy Word tells us“…He [God] does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).  But many folks abhor the very idea of being under anybody, even God Almighty.  Because they possess the autonomy of free will, God lets them exercise it without Him interfering.  Love can’t work coercively, only persuasively.  Forced love is a contradiction in terms.  If a person despised God before death they’ll most likely hate Him even more afterwards but they’ll be where they chose to be.  As C.S. Lewis opined, “The door of hell is locked on the inside.”

 

As usual, we can learn from Jesus.  In all His post-resurrection appearances He had a body and it was not only publicly observable but interacted with physical realities.  His body was significantly different from before, though, because it wasn’t restricted by time or space.  Walls and doors were no barriers to Christ because His was now a spiritual body.  Paul wrote, If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44).  Jesus proved that in God’s universe matter is subservient to mind/spirit.  I believe one of the many reasons He lingered on earth after He strolled out of His tomb was to give us a preview of what awaits us on the other side of death.  Christians should derive great comfort from that.  This truly is not where we belong.  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 (Philippians 3:20-21).  In heaven we’ll have bodies impervious to illness or injury.  We’ll be able to run like gazelles and never grow tired.  No aches.  No pains.  Nothing to hold us back.  Now, that’s what I call “Good News!”

 

Our Lord modeled for us the “new and improved” body we’ll have in the next life.  And we’ll have lots of things to do.  Laziness will be a thing of the past because we’ll be preoccupied with learning due to there being so much to learn.  The transformation that began when the Holy Spirit came to dwell within us when we got saved will continue in God’s kingdom.  We’ll be in the very presence of our Savior and our goal will be to become more and more like Him in every respect.  While aging down here is a matter of losing abilities, up there it’ll be a matter of constantly accumulating them.  We’ll never cease to grow in knowledge, wisdom and holiness.  Some fear they’ll be confused, discombobulated or even scared when they inhale their first breath of heavenly air.  But their anxiety is unfounded.  Nothing in Scripture indicates we’ll have any cause to be frightened or unsettled.  We won’t be left in the dark.  As Willard wrote, “You wouldn’t do that, if you could help it, to anyone you loved.  And neither will God.”  When the beggar Lazarus died Jesus said he “…was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side (Luke 16:22).  Thus we can expect the same gentle, reassuring treatment.  The many “near-death experiences” that’ve been documented imply our personal identity will continue on sans interruption.  Those who rejected Christ will continue on, too, but they’ll do so without the God they denied.  The Lord will let them have it “their way.”  They’ll be their own God at last.  Yet too late they’ll become cognizant of just how woefully impotent they actually are.

 

Eventually those who belong to Him will be enabled to efficiently and righteously reign with Christ.  Any worries about there not being enough room for us is foolishness.  Astronomers estimate there are ten thousand million galaxies in our section of the universe alone with each harboring billions of planets.  Perhaps we’ll be charged with overseeing/observing some of them.  As Jesus’ parable of the talents reveals, once we’ve demonstrated we can be trusted to take care of a few valuable things we’ll be entrusted with taking care of many valuable things.  Now, I can’t imagine I’m anywhere near capable of being placed in charge of what goes on in a small village, much less an entire planet!  I suspect I’ll first need to gather tons of education and practical experience under my belt before that day arrives.  Yet I must remind myself of the awesome, glorious environment I’ll be living in while I learn.  The greatest joys I’ve known in my life usually happen when I’m being creative.  In heaven I’ll eternally be an apprentice of the ultimate Creator!  Because of what the Bible tells me about Christ, I can surmise with surety that He and I will create amazing, incredible things together.  And I’ll never be abandoned to fend for myself.  The greatest advisor/counselor of all will be close at hand.  The last thing our Savior told us before He ascended to the right hand of the Father was, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  He’s with me now.  He’ll be with me then, too.

 

What we should all look forward to experiencing in God’s kingdom is perfect peace.  Peace of any sort on terra firma is rare and fleeting, indeed, so the promise of existing in a place where there’s no strife, no anger, no hostility and no heartbreaking tragedies to disrupt our serenity is an immensely encouraging one.  J.I. Packer wrote, “Christians inherit in fact the destiny which fairy tales envisage in fancy: we (yes, you and I, the silly saved sinners) live, and live happily, and by God’s endless mercy will live happily ever after.”  But nothing beats what our Lord had to say concerning this intriguing subject: Those who overcome will be welcomed to sit with me on my throne, as I too overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.  Those capable of hearing should listen to what the Spirit is saying to my people (Revelation 3:21-22).  All adopted children of God should not only listen to but believe His words.  For it’s in the hope His words provide that our comfort and contentment lie.

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What’s the Point?

To be clear, the point of everything now and forevermore is Jesus Christ.  In Peterson’s modern translation of the Bible, The Message, he interprets God’s prophetic description of His Son thusly: Take a good look at my servant.  I’m backing him to the hilt.  He’s the one I chose, and I couldn’t be more pleased with him.  I’ve bathed him with my spirit, my life.  He’ll set everything right among the nations.  He won’t call attention to what he does with loud speeches or gaudy parades.  He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant, but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.  He won’t tire out and quit.  He won’t be stopped until he’s finished his work – to set things right on earth.  …Take note: The earlier predictions of judgment have been fulfilled.  I’m announcing the new salvation work.  Before it bursts on the scene, I’m telling you all about it (from Isaiah 42).  Anyone can read the New Testament for themselves to find out what God meant by “the new salvation work” ushered in by Jesus.  The main thing to notice is that the redemption Christ provided wasn’t limited to the members of God’s chosen race.  Because of Jesus no particular group of people has an exclusive corner on God’s blessings.  While the nation of Israel played a pivotal and unique role in God’s plan for thousands of years, once the Messiah arrived on the scene humanity as a whole became God’s focus in this planet’s history.  Remember, God gave His only begotten Son to the world because of His unfathomably deep love for the world.  And His gracious, merciful love is the immovable foundation of our hope.

 

However, when one honestly assesses the sorry shape mankind has gotten itself in these days it’s difficult to imagine how God can possibly turn our sour lemons into sweet lemonade.  The Bible tells us we have a glorious future to look forward to but things do appear pretty bleak right now so how’s God going to pull the proverbial rabbit out of this filthy hat?  For believers the answer’s quite simple.  Nothing is impossible for our God to accomplish.  We must never underestimate His ability.  We’re taught via the Scriptures that the Triune Godhead oversees and controls all of the grand Creation it brought into being.  Not only that, but each and every one of us is treasured beyond measure by our Heavenly Father.  He’s not a kind of God and He’s not some sort of indescribable force.  He’s a person whom we can know and enjoy developing an intimate relationship with.  If someone wants to learn what God’s really like they need look no further than Jesus.  He is Emmanuel, a name that literally means “God with us”.  As our Lord told His disciple Philip, The person who has seen me has seen the Father! (John 14:9).  The death and resurrection of our Savior changed everything.  Dallas Willard wrote, “Human history is then no longer a human affair.  It’s Someone Else’s project.  Similarly for the individual human life: we’re not puppets, either on the group or the individual level.  But what’s really going on is not, after all, what we are doing.  …Instead of being the main show, we are of significance only as a – very important – part of an immense struggle between immense forces of good and evil.”  In other words, a new era dawned in the universe almost 2,000 years ago and it’s still unfolding regardless of how aware we are of it.

 

How easy it is to regard terra firma and what goes on here as being all that’s relevant to our lives!  We get seduced by our own scientific discoveries and breakthroughs into thinking we’ve got it all figured out.  Take quantum physics, for example.  Once we detected the existence of quarks we assumed we’d found the building block of all matter.  Maybe so.  Yet nothing about a quark indicates it’s dependent only upon itself.  It’s not sentient.  It doesn’t make decisions.  It doesn’t govern, it’s governed and that governor will forever be God.  There’s no alternative.  God is the sole instigator.  Einstein spent most of his life pursuing what he called a “unified field theory” in vain because there likely isn’t one to be discovered.  Somewhat akin to what I said about quarks, the laws of science can’t thoroughly explain anything in and of itself because those laws don’t have a rock solid “starting point” from which they can move forward.  Physical laws don’t explain the raw basics of what motivates matter.  Much less what existence actually is.  Therefore existence is essentially the fat rhino in the kitchen, so to speak.  It won’t budge so secular scientists have to do their best to work around it.  It makes for close quarters.

 

Here’s a related quotation from Geisler and Turek’s thought-provoking book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist:  “…While the age of the universe is certainly an interesting theological question, the more important point isn’t when the universe was created but that it was created.  …The universe exploded into being out of nothing, and it’s been precisely tweaked to support life on earth.  Since this universe had a beginning – including the entire time-space continuum – it required a Beginner no matter how long ago that beginning was.  Likewise, since this universe is designed, it required a Designer no matter how long ago it was designed.  We can debate how long the days in Genesis were but when we do, we must be sure not to obscure the larger point that this creation requires a Creator.”  While most intelligent people concede that behind every effect there has to be a cause, some refuse to apply that indisputable fact to the origin of the universe.

 

Belief in a Trinitarian-run universe answers a lot of questions because it contains the requisite logic needed.  The conclusion that everything was conceived and created by a coordinated, cooperative trio of divine persons isn’t only sensible but entirely sane.  And to accept that God is also personal isn’t too much of a stretch because we’re made in His image and we’re obviously personal beings.  We see in the Bible that God repeatedly revealed Himself to humankind by personally approaching various men and women and getting involved in their lives.  It’s right there in black and white for all to read but some folks just flat out refuse to do that.  They’ll bow down to and worship almost anything except the God of Abraham and go so far as to revere their fake idols (money, prestige, etc.) as the ultimate reference points for their lives and actions.  Little wonder hope’s in such short supply within their ranks.  In fact, they feel emboldened to label Christians as the ones who are most hopeless of all because they opine we trust in nothing more than an elaborate fairy tale.  But Paul addressed our situation exactly as it is.  He wrote, For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.  For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.  For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now (Romans 8:18-22).  Christ-followers aren’t a bunch of starry-eyed, “let’s pretend everything’s hunky dory” dreamers.  What we are is a spiritual collective that believes God’s plan will prevail simply because He is, in every aspect, the one true God.  There is no other.

 

Willard once made a remarkable statement.  He said God is really knowable only through the redeemed community.  And what better way is there for the unified body of Christ to present our Father God to the world than by our maintaining a steadfast, unwavering belief that He is unfailingly good all the time and that what He pronounces good He’ll bring to pass?  Few things are as vital for the church to do as to honestly display God’s eternal goodness to the world.  The sanctuary doors are open to all who seek refuge from this cruel world.  Listen to what Paul explained to the Gentiles (the folks the snooty Jewish religious leaders considered “deplorables”): So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).  Nobody is barred from entering God’s kingdom!  God’s intent seems to be to bring out of the mass of humankind a sanctified community of souls that were formerly viewed by high society as being of no consequence; as just a bunch of “run-of-the-mill Joes and Janes.”  An atheist will ask “Okay, but why?  What’s the point?”  At that juncture a Christian can only answer with “Because God loves us.  We’re what He desires most.”  It’s doubtful that response will satisfy them but nevertheless it’s the unavoidable truth of the matter.  And God’s immeasurable love was made manifest when He “…gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

 

For much of my life I was constantly engaged in a futile search for meaning.  (I’m positive I wasn’t alone in that quest.  Lots of us “boomers” did the same.)  Fact is, if we find meaning at all it’s after particular happenings have taken place, not necessarily while we’re in the midst of going through them.  This is true not only in our own life but, on a much larger scale, with events that significantly affect the whole wide world.  Needless to say I was somewhat frustrated most of the time.  But then eight years ago I rededicated my life to Jesus and He provided me with the ultimate point – God and His glorious kingdom – both of which give meaning not only to our lives but the entire history of our planet which we are an irreplaceable part of.  Willard wrote, “We’re greatly strengthened for life in the kingdom now by an understanding of what our future holds, and especially of how that future relates to our present experience.  For only then do we really understand what our current life is and are we able to make choices that agree with reality.”  Sadly and somewhat inexplicably I rarely, if ever, hear sermons about how individual Christians fit into the present and coming kingdom of God and what our function/role is and will be in it.  But, thanks to God’s Holy Word, I’ve gained some insights.

 

First, it’s evident our souls survive their mortal phase.  John Hick wrote, “If we trust what Jesus said out of His own direct consciousness of God, we’ll share His belief in the future life.  This belief is supported by the reasoning that a God of infinite love wouldn’t create finite persons and then drop them out of existence when the potentialities of their nature, including their awareness of Himself, have only just begun to be realized.”  We’re also informed we’re of undeniable, intrinsic worth to God.  He’s invested eons of time and energy in seeing to it mankind doesn’t render itself extinct so He obviously thinks we’re “to die for.”  As I stated earlier, we’ll continue to exist because it pleases God we do so.  Our souls are much more than simply a random conglomeration of matter.  We’ll outlast the universe.  By the way, God isn’t dependent on matter.  Matter depends on Him.  He was the great I AM before there was a physical universe.  He is spirit.  Thus God doesn’t need a brain for He’s the absolute epitome of unimpeded, omniscient consciousness.  So, since we’re formed in His image, we’ll continue to exist sans body and brain.  We’ll be spiritual beings, freed from the restraints of the flesh.

 

Those who summarily dismiss even the idea of an afterlife are to be pitied.  Some of them claim they think that way because they don’t want to be disappointed but that’s pure foolishness.  If they fail to survive mortal death they surely won’t be disappointed.  They’ll be gone with the wind.  However, if they do survive they’ll find themselves totally unprepared.  Thus the only way they could possibly feel disappointment is if they do awaken on “the other side.”  In other words, if death’s comparable to a lightbulb burning out they won’t know anything anyway.  I hesitate to say it but that’s the coward’s way of thinking.  It takes courage to live with eternity in mind.  The most depressing thing I can imagine is to think that all of this amounts to nothing whatsoever; that our planet and its inhabitants are no more than a cosmic anomaly.  On the contrary, the Bible stresses that each one of us will never cease to exist and that our timelessness is beyond our ability to do anything about.  I suspect many weary souls ache for what the poet Swinburne called “the sleep eternal in eternal night”.  Sadly, they’re destined to find unconscious sleep won’t come no matter how many sheep they count.  I shudder at the thought of a soul discovering they’re separated from the source of all that’s good, all that’s lovely, all that’s wondrous – God – forevermore.  Me?  I yearn to be in His presence.  I look forward to heaven.

 

So the answer to the question of “What’s the point?” always directs us like a compass needle to Jesus.  He is the answer.  Hick wrote, “Jesus used symbols pointing to eternal life as limitlessly enhanced life, as a state of being more intensely alive in an existence which is both perfect fulfillment and yet also endless activity and newness.  If death leads eventually to that, then although we’ll still think of it with trembling awe and apprehension, it will not evoke terror or despair; for beyond death we will not be less alive but more alive than we are now.”  Christ never gave any indication otherwise.  He implied those who believe in Him in this life won’t find their eternal existence in the heavenly kingdom of God to be anything short of absolutely amazing.  To envision it’ll be anything less than spectacular, invigorating and enjoyable is to limit our Father’s unconditional love for us, the love Jesus gave His own life to make known to all.  When it comes to what eternity’s going to be like, no other religion comes close to what Christianity says is ours for the taking.  All we have to do is believe in Jesus.  He’s the point.

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