Jesus’ Resurrection Changes Everything

520114756_6fca07c5e7_bI love reading through the Gospels because every time I do, I am reminded that Jesus changes everything. He changes our expectations of who God can use by having a family tree that would make most mobsters blush. He changes how we look at power and ethics and responsibility. He heals, he cleanses, he teaches. The people who should love him, the religious people, hate him. The people who should hate him, the sinners, love him. He’s a King who serves, and a servant who rules. He challenges everything and changes everything and promises the restoration of everything. And we killed him for it. Seriously sin-sick, demon-ridden, weak-hearted, foolish humanity killed him. And if that was the end of the story, I wouldn’t enjoy reading it, because there would be nothing ultimately worth reading about. But it’s not the end. Consider Matthew’s gospel: Matthew doesn’t stop writing at chapter 27. He carries on to chapter 28. Jesus’ death is merely a prelude to the greatest miracle of all time: The Resurrection. And the resurrection changes everything!

Jesus’ Resurrection Changes Everything

I cannot overstate the importance of the Resurrection. As theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said:

“If the resurrection of Jesus is not true, then nothing in life really matters.  However, if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then nothing else in life really matters.”

It should be no surprise then that establishing the truth of the resurrection is vital for those who follow Christ. It should also be no surprise that those who wish to deny Christ have focused a significant amount of attention on debunking the resurrection. In fact, in Matthew 28, we see both testimony to the truth of the resurrection and the first attempt by opponents to deny it. But Matthew 28 also reveals to us how we ought to respond to the Resurrection.

The Truth of the Resurrection – Matthew 28:1-10

The Truth of the Resurrection is established not just by Matthew, but by Mark, Luke, and John as well. One of the most amazing evidences for the truth of the account to me is that women are recorded as being the first to see Jesus alive. Women weren’t even allowed to testify in court because they were assumed to be unreliable witnesses. Surely, if the story were being made up, the writers could have had more culturally-acceptable witnesses be the first to see Jesus alive! Nonetheless, here it is. The women see him first and carry the good news to the disciples. And all the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead for the rest of their lives, all of them were transformed by that belief, and everything changed because of the resurrection.

Well, not everything: there were still those who rejected Jesus and thus had to come up with something to explain the evidence that didn’t involve him rising from the dead. Because if Jesus rose from the dead, everything he said and did was vindicated and they couldn’t stand the thought. So they invented a tale, a story to tell everyone:

The Tale of the Opposition – Matthew 28:11-15

They said that the disciples stole the body. Ok. Let’s go with this for a second: the disciples did it. The same disciples who were so afraid on the night of his betrayal that they all abandoned Jesus in front of an amateur Jewish mob, admittedly intimidating, but no Roman soldiers, the most advanced military force the world had ever known. The one disciple who had enough nerve to fight back on the night of betrayal later couldn’t find the courage to admit to a servant girl that he was Jesus’ disciple. But yeah, it’s totally probable that this sniveling bunch of cowards would have been daring enough to risk taking on the first century equivalent of Seal Team Six because it’s totally probable that trained soldiers serving under a strict honor code and penalty of even death would have forgotten to set a guard and instead all fallen asleep at the same time. And then, these same soldiers would have totally probably slept through the disciples moving a multi-ton rock away from the entrance of the tomb because the disciples were totally probably ninjas with crazy, silent, rock-moving skills. And then, when they were threatened with death if they didn’t admit that Jesus wasn’t God’s Resurrected Son, the Savior Messiah, every single one of them stuck with the lie. Ok. Consider this from Chuck Colson:

“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

Chuck Colson gets it and so should we: saying the disciples stole the body doesn’t explain the evidence in the least.

Other opponents of the gospel have realized this throughout history. So, many other theories have been proposed to explain it away. For example:

Jesus wasn’t really dead: Ok. A guy is so apparently dead that the soldiers attending his crucifixion, who had probably done this many times before and had also probably fought in battle many times and seen dead people there, they are convinced he is dead. Convinced enough to report “Mission Accomplished” to their commander. Then, Jesus stays unconscious long enough for himself to be wrapped in grave clothes and barricaded in the tomb. Somehow, the cool air of the tomb revives Jesus, who’d just been brutally beaten, nailed to a cross, suffered intense pain, lost a ton of blood, half-drowned by the effects of crucifixion, and been stabbed in the side for good measure, and he just shimmies out of his grave clothes, rolls the giant boulder away from his tomb from the inside, which makes the earth shake, strolls outside, terrifies the guards who fall down unconscious, and is recognized by these women who throw themselves at his feet and grab them, and Jesus manages to not cry out in pain and tells them to go quickly and tell the disciples he would meet them in Galilee. OK.

The disciples were just hallucinating: In this theory, the disciples didn’t really see Jesus alive. They just wanted him to be back with them so bad they all hallucinated that he was and, being convinced, they proceeded to die for this wish-fulfillment vision that they’d had. Trouble is hallucination is an individual thing. And yet we are introduced to large numbers of eyewitnesses who all saw Jesus in various places, settings, and times. And their reports are all in significant agreement regarding what they say. That’s not how hallucinations work. Then there’s the problem of the empty tomb. The hallucination theory can’t account for the fact that everyone living at the time agreed that the tomb was empty. The Jews, the Romans, and the disciples all said, “The tomb’s empty.” Hallucination is one thing, teleportation is entirely different.

Someone just impersonated Jesus: Because don’t we all rush to impersonate the last guy who was crucified for criminal rebellion? But assume the premise for a moment and we see that this theory falls flat as well. Again, we have the problem of the empty tomb: if someone was just claiming to be the resurrected Jesus, all the Jewish leaders had to do was produce the body of the real Jesus and all the trouble goes away. But beyond that, consider that whoever was acting the part would have had to have matching wounds, wounds realistic enough to fool disciples who were invited to touch them. The guy would have had to have been almost killed to approximate Jesus’ condition. See the problems with the “Jesus didn’t really die” theory above. Then there’s the issue of the locked room appearance. The disciples, still terrified of being identified with Jesus, are hiding in a locked room when, all of a sudden, there’s Jesus! Unless the imposter knew which room to hide in before the disciples got there, he couldn’t just pop through the wall with no trace. But a resurrected Jesus, whose body was no longer bound by the same laws as ours, could have. Finally, the disciples knew Jesus. Yes, they were occasionally prevented from recognizing him after his resurrection, but every time that prevention was lifted, there was no doubt in their minds that this was the guy that they had spent three years with.

The Wrong Tomb: “Where’s the tomb?”

“Which tomb?”

“Jesus’ tomb.”

“Oh, that’s the one with the rock sealed to the outside and a Roman guard standing in front of it, right? See, that’s going to be a problem: there are hundreds of those. Not sure I can point you in the right direction”

No. For the following reasons:

  1. It’s Joseph of Arimathea’s personal tomb, he’s not going to lose it.
  2. The Romans knew where it was, they set a guard up in front of it.
  3. The Jewish leaders knew where it was: Joseph of Arimathea was one of them, and you can bet that since they were concerned about the disciples stealing the body, they were keeping a close eye on the tomb in addition to asking for the Roman guard.
  4. The disciples knew where it was. This was their Messiah, their friend, their teacher. They may have been scared, but they still loved Jesus. They knew where he was buried. Note that the women going to the tomb on Easter morning didn’t need to stop and ask for directions.

Evidence Isn’t Enough.

But all the refutation of the theories against the resurrection, all the evidence, everything I just covered above, isn’t ultimately enough because evidence isn’t enough. Because we can argue until we are blue in the face about did or didn’t. And the evidence points, quite clearly, to the empty tomb being explained by resurrection. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it:

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

All the proposed explanations are impossible to square with the evidence, except for resurrection. But the evidence isn’t ultimate: what matters most is how we respond to it.

If we refuse to believe the evidence for the resurrection, we aren’t just rejecting a set of bare facts: we are rejecting Christ. What he taught, what he did, who he was. And in that rejection we will miss out on the greatest privilege of all time: eternal life alongside the author of life. We will gain autonomy in this life. We will get to call your own shots, chart our own course, be accountable to no one. But we will be called to account when this life ends. Are we willing to stake eternity on a shaky denial of the resurrection in the face of evidence? Are you?

But many people do claim to believe in the resurrection. Maybe you do. But that belief hasn’t changed one thing about your life. Let’s just call that what it is: crazy. The resurrection literally means that, for those who believe and follow Jesus, death is no longer anything but a minor annoyance on the path to immortality. It means that every word Jesus spoke and every deed he did, and every statement in this Bible are true and, more than true, are important for your life today. If you say you believe in the resurrection and you really do believe it, you will be transformed by that belief. You will live to let others know Jesus is alive, you will submit your decisions and desires to him, and you will seek to obey him. Because possibly the greatest evidence for the resurrection is the transformation of those who truly believe it.

The Transformation of Jesus’ Followers – Matthew 28:16-20

This is key. Jesus rises from the dead and he says, “Because I’m alive, here’s how you’re going to live: you’re going to go everywhere you go and tell people about me. Those who believe your message, you’re going to baptize them and teach them to obey everything I commanded just like you are doing. And those who do this, those who don’t just give lip service to my resurrection, my kingdom, my gospel, I’m going to be with those people until my plan for the world is completely finished.”

It’s not enough to acknowledge the intellectual evidence for the resurrection if it doesn’t change anything about how we live. Because Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. Jesus changes everything. Jesus can change us. Jesus can change you. Paul, someone who persecuted those who believed in Jesus until he himself met the resurrected Lord and was transformed by the encounter, he told us how the resurrection can change us in his letter to the Roman Christians:

“If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And if you are saved, you will be changed. Because the resurrection of Jesus changes everything!

Sit and Savor the Word of God

I have spent the past week sitting in a classroom studying the book of Philippians. 

Five days. 

9-5 each day.

Listening to lectures.

Honestly, I didn’t want to take the class.

Not because I hate school or because I hate Philippians or because I’m unaware of what a privilege it is to study, but because I was busy. My blood family is getting ready to close on a house and I am preparing to lead my church family through a season of vision-casting. That’s in addition to the daily, weekly, ongoing process of loving and leading a them both, building relationships in the community, and serving wider, kingdom-focused ministries and purposes as well. 

I didn’t want to take the class because I was busy. I didn’t want to take the time “off” from “real ministry” to go sit in class, struggle to recall Greek parsing and syntax rules, and “waste” a week away from the field. 

But I was wrong. So wrong.

Far from being a waste of time, the class was a time of rejoicing in the Word and being spiritually refreshed. I am exceedingly grateful for the time spent in Philippians, for a congregation that gave me the time to come, fellow leaders who covered my responsibilities, and a family who sacrifices so I can continue my education. To borrow from Paul, I am rejoicing, and even again, I rejoice! 

And to think I didn’t want to go!

Sometimes I think I am too American to be a good Christ-follower. Time and time again, I fall into the trap of equating frenetic activity with kingdom productivity. I measure my worth by the amount of widgets I produce in a given day. I assess ministry by applying measures of productivity borrowed from the heartlessly corporate culture of my country instead of the relationally-focused commands of Christ. 

By my culturally default measures, this class came at the worst time. By productivity assessment, I’ve wasted my week. By leadership principles, I’ve squandered the build-up to an important, culture-setting opportunity. By social standards, I’ve unduly stressed my family during a transitional time. 

And I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong. Wrong about my feelings before the class, wrong in my cultural evaluation, wrong even about my general approach to ministry. 

I have always been a passionate advocate for the centrality of scripture in Christian ministry, but this week I have been reminded of why: because nothing else can ignite the flame of Christian imagination like the fire of God’s Word applied to the Christian mind and heart with joy. I was unaware that in the busyness of life, I had let my fire die down. It wasn’t out, but it was smoldering. I paid lip service to it, structured my sermons with it in mind, but the heat and light were fading. 

But this week I have seen again the fire that burned a bush but didn’t consume it, the fire that fell and did consume, not just the bull but the stones and the water as well,  fire that flashes in the eyes of a King on a white horse. My petty efforts to produce a spark have been revealed for what they are: infinitesimally small and utterly inadequate. 

I didn’t need to be busy: I needed to sit, silently, unproductively, before the Word. I don’t need to be in control: I need to pledge allegiance again and again to Christ, submitting myself to his revelation. I won’t need to worry: I will need to worship the Lord who holds past, present, and future simultaneously.

I didn’t want to come to class before, but afterwards I couldn’t wait to leave. Not because I am ready to get back to being busy, but because now I remember what I should never have forgot: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” I am not called to complete tasks, I am called to be completed by the Word. I am not called to perfect disciples, but to point them to the perfect Word. Leaving class, going back to the real world, is not an opportunity for me to get back to doing stuff, but for me to see again that the Word is doing stuff, in me, in my family, in my church. 

I don’t want to ever see time spent digging into the Word as wasted again. 

To sit and savor the Scriptures, to dive into its depths and drink deep, to go with God through this incredible revelation of grace…this is not a waste of time. This is the only means by which the dry twigs of my efforts can be ignited into a flame that welcomes all, family, friend, and enemy, to come and be warmed. My effectiveness in ministry, my productivity, are not tied to time-management, but to this alchemical process by which the base metals of my thoughts and emotions are transformed into wealth immeasurable by the Word of God. Only what is transformed by the Word will be worth anything towards transforming the world.

Fellow pastor, fellow Christian, let us not waste time on busyness! Instead, let us learn to sit and eat and savor the Word of God! 

3 Ways to Keep Christ in Christmas

pexels-photoAbout two weeks ago it started happening. First one, then another, then a flood. Article after article, listicle after listicle, all written to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Christian leaders, click-baitey bloggers, and Facebook aficionados all lamenting the paganization of the Christmas season.

Seven Scriptures to Read at Christmas

Five Gifts that Remind Your Kids about The Reason for the Season

10 Ways to Share the Good News of Jesus with Your Pagan, Santa-Worshipping, Heathen Neighbors

WHY DO PEOPLE SAY XMAS INSTEAD OF CHRISTMAS!!!!!!! DONT THEY KNOW THATS SATANIC? THEYRE TAKING CHRIST OUT OF CHRISTMAS!!!!!! 

And on and on. And, with the exception of the offensive wording in the third and the linguistic ignorance of the fourth (X is the Greek letter chi, the first letter in Christ. It’s shorthand, not satanism. Oh, but all caps IS satanic: seriously, quit it), these would probably all be great, helpful articles.

But I think there’s still more to be said. Because keeping Christ in Christmas is about much more than a token reading from Luke before the wrapping paper starts to fly. It’s more than attempting to rein in your kids’ unbridled consumerism. It’s more than Jesus-juking your neighbors. And it sure isn’t flying off the handle when a clerk wishes you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.

No. Keeping Christ in Christmas is about much more than these things.

The best way to keep Christ in Christmas is to live like he did.

Seriously.

Hear me out on this. The Incarnation, celebrated at Christmas, is the primary miracle of the Christian faith. The miracle of Creation belongs to everyone. The miracle of the Exodus belongs to Israel. And while, as created beings and as those who have been grafted into Israel, Christians share in those miracles, the Incarnation is where Christianity as a new reality begins.

Creation provides the whole world with its form and its ideal state.

The Exodus provides Israel with its nationhood and its legal system.

The Incarnation gives Christianity its inauguration, its savior, and its marching orders.

By becoming human, Jesus modeled the kingdom values he would later preach. When Jesus preached that the meek will inherit the earth, it’s hard to imagine more meekness than that required for the Creator of all things to be born as a weak and helpless baby. When Jesus declares that greatness is visible only in humble service, it’s hard not to think about Paul’s words in Philippians describing the reality behind Jesus’ birth: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And when Jesus calls his disciples to radical self-sacrifice, that too has its echoes in the Incarnation: being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Do you want to keep Christ in Christmas, Christian? Let me suggest three ways:

1. Be meek

Don’t look at Christmas as your holiday. Don’t try to take it back. And, for heaven’s sake, quit correcting the “Happy Holidays” you receive with a harumph and a loud “Merry Christmas!” Instead, let your neighbors enjoy their Santa balloons. Post cheerful things on social media. Attend the holiday party your neighbors are throwing even if – *gasp* -there’s alcohol in the punch. Letting the light of the gospel shine through your life and your words at Christmas doesn’t require you being a wet blanket smothering other people’s holiday fires. Trust God to work through your meekness and you may find more openness when you start talking about the true reason for the season.

2. Be humble

Recognize that your “Christian” traditions at the holiday aren’t the “right” way to celebrate. This may come as a shock to some, but Jesus’ Christmas tree didn’t have an angel on top of it. Santa isn’t an intentional word-jumble for Satan. Don’t confuse your traditions with the gospel. The gospel is incredibly adaptive, not in its message which is constant, but in its forms of celebration. That’s as true at Christmas as at any other time. Decide ahead of time that you won’t be offended this Christmas season, because being offended is often just a mask for wounded pride. Let others have their traditions even as you enjoy yours. Don’t let pride stand in the way of a genuine, “Merry Christmas to all!” Instead, let humility flavor your declaration of Christ in Christmas.

3. Be self-sacrificing

Perhaps more than any other, this last example from the Incarnation is the most important: be willing to die to yourself. Jesus didn’t stay “sweet baby Jesus” forever. He grew up, was beaten, and died on a cross. And if that sounds like bad news, don’t forget what happened next: he rose again! And that’s the gospel – that Jesus lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, died the painful death we should have died, and rises again, inviting us to join him by faith. Anyone who truly believes that glorious truth will have no trouble setting aside their family traditions to invite an immigrant neighbor in on Christmas morning. Someone who has died with Christ is free to live without a turkey dinner to enjoy serving at the soup kitchen Christmas Day. The person who has already committed themselves to self-denial will gladly go to church and declare the supremacy of God in all things even if Christmas is on a Sunday this year. News of a self-sacrificing Savior is better received from a self-sacrificing neighbor than a self-righteous Christmas snob.

Want to keep Christ in Christmas this year? Let Christ shine through how you live.

 

Matthew 18: Humility, Forgiveness, and the Church

sheep_in_norwegian_mountainJesus spent a lot of his time on earth highlighting the differences between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the earth. In Matthew 17 & 18, Jesus gives us a foretaste, a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven will look like after he ascends and the Holy Spirit comes. In other words, Jesus tells us what life in the church will look like.

From Jesus, we know that the kingdom of heaven looks nothing like the kingdoms of the earth, we know that ethics in the kingdom are simultaneously simpler and harder than any other code of ethics in the world. We know that it’s not a geographic kingdom, we know that it not just waiting for you to die, we know that it’s not about harps and clouds, but about loving God and loving others.

And, frankly, none of that even raises an eyebrow in Christian circles. Why? Because we are used to assuming that the kingdom of heaven is primarily about us, how we respond to the gospel, how we live out the good news, where we go when we die. Our understanding of the kingdom centers around ourselves.

So did the disciples’.

Jesus has to show them, and us, that’s not how it works…

In earthly kingdoms, having connections means freedom from responsibility. In the kingdom of heaven, having connections means humble submission.

17:24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” [25] He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” [26] And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. [27] However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

This statement isn’t saying the same thing as the “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” passage, although there is a similar premise. In order to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to ask exactly what the two-drachma tax was.

It wasn’t a Roman tax, but a Jewish one. This fact is important. These tax collectors were fellow Jews, like Matthew. They were tax-collectors, like Matthew. But unlike Matthew, they were collecting for the temple, not the enemy Romans. The tax here was for temple maintenance, supplies, etc. Those asking whether or not Jesus paid it are likely testing, not Jesus’ submission to Roman rule, but his support for Jewish religious observance.

Jesus’ answer is instructive. In political kingdoms, the king’s family and close friends could be exempted from taxation. In religious kingdoms, priests and temple servant could be exempted from taxation. So when Jesus says, “the sons are free”, he is implying that true Jews, true sons of Abraham, would be exempt from paying the temple tax. And he is further implying that he and Peter, by that logic, should be exempt from paying.

But this is a Jewish tax! Wouldn’t Jesus’ argument here mean that none of the Jews should be taxed? Not at all! He’s saying that those outside the family should bear the burden of temple support. On one hand, Jesus could be arguing that Gentiles are the only ones who should have to pay this tax. But Jesus knows that this tax is only leveraged against Jews. So he’s saying that even among the Jews, some are true sons of Abraham and some are not.

I believe that Jesus is pointing us towards the same truth that the Old Testament prophets hinted at, that the division of the nation into two kingdoms (Judah and Israel) foreshadowed, that Paul would later address in his letter to the Romans:

Romans 9:6-8

 [6] But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [8] This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

What Jesus is saying is good news for us! You don’t have to have impressive ancestry, know the right people, or be a toady to get into the kingdom of heaven. You just have to follow Jesus. Jesus, and what you do with him, provides the identity for those who are truly sons. Faith in him marks the boundaries of the kingdom of heaven. There’s no entrance fee, no special rites, just faith. It’s not like the kingdoms of this earth where privileges are for those who can pay! Everyone is invited into the kingdom. You just have to understand that once you are in, you aren’t freed from responsibility, but freed for selfless service. You are free to submit to Christ by serving others.

And the church should be where that truth is seen and lived out. The church is meant to be a picture of the kingdom, a foretaste of the goodness of God in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Do we live life together, do we function as a church for selfish reasons or do we gather together to lay aside our ambitions and our pride to serve one another and our community? What kind of kingdom are we bearing witness to?

The disciples got some of what Jesus was saying to Peter, something clicked: ah, Jesus is saying that this community of disciples is the kingdom of heaven, this gathering is where the kingdom is seen.

But they don’t understand everything. They still don’t get that…

In earthly kingdoms, greatness is measured by self-serving power. In the kingdom of heaven, greatness is measured by self-denying obedience.

            [1] At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” [2] And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them [3] and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [4] Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [5] “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, [6] but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

The disciples, on their best days, were following Jesus because they thought he would make the world better. On their worst days, they were following Jesus because they thought that he would make their lot in life better.

One of the recurring debates amongst the disciples was who was the greatest in the kingdom. They were already looking ahead to the time when Jesus was on the throne and they were his trusted assistants, not equal with Jesus, but certainly his right-hand men. They were jockeying for position in every comment and question and action. A couple weeks ago, we looked at them being unable to cast out a demon. They weren’t concerned for the boy but wanted to know what they had missed. They wanted to impress Jesus with their abilities and instead he showed them up.

Why did they want to impress Jesus? For the same reason that employees kiss up to bosses, soldiers flatter CO’s, and students bring presents to their teachers – to gain personal freedom or advancement.

So Jesus interrupts their prideful ambitions. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” Jesus beckons a child to come over. He doesn’t explain anything, he doesn’t give the kid ten reasons why he should come over, he doesn’t have to: the child just obeys. And that’s what Jesus needed his disciples, needs us to see: the kingdom of heaven doesn’t measure greatness in your ability to command respect, or your powerful presence, or your ability to get what you want. No, the kingdom of heaven measures greatness by how willing you are to obey the king.

The disciples aren’t told to become like little children because children are innocent, perfect little angels: if you think that, I’ll let you hang out with mine for a day. They’re great, I love my kids, but let’s just say I didn’t have to teach them how to sin. They figured it out all on their own.

The disciples aren’t told to become like little children because children are weak. Children can be the exceedingly strong-willed.

No, the disciples are told to be like little children because, like the child Jesus called, obedience to the king is the passport of a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

Remember, Jesus is teaching us about ourselves, but he’s also teaching us about the church. So, how are we doing in this regard? Do we view church as a place to exercise self-serving power or do we view it as a place to practice self-denying service?

Are we willing to obey the king, without question, without demanding a reason, but simply to obey? To say, “Yes, Lord” no matter what Jesus says to do?

That is hard. It requires something of us. It requires us to ignore our natural desires for power and place and submit those desires to an ultimate desire to please our king, Jesus…

In earthly kingdoms, you are expected to satisfy your desires. In the kingdom of heaven, you are expected to submit your desires to Christ’s authority.

            [7] “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! [8] And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. [9] And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

This has to be one of the most-ignored passages in the New Testament. And for good reason – sin, temptation, self-mutilation: this isn’t the kind of stuff that fills buildings and sells books! But this is important.

It’s also important to recognize that Jesus isn’t literally advocating cutting off limbs or gouging out eyes. One of the church fathers, I believe it was Origen, took this literally. His struggle with lust led him to castrate himself in response to these verses.

That’s not what I am advocating this morning!

But let’s not run from what Jesus’ hyperbole is pointing to, though. Too often, we take sin lightly in the American church. Remember, this section of Scripture is Jesus telling us what life in community, what life in the kingdom, what life in the church looks like. If we didn’t know before, we know now that God takes sin seriously.

And we should too.

In our personal life, what desires are we allowing to rule over us and cause us to sin? Jesus says we should submit those desires so fully to him, obeying his commands to purity and wholeness, that we’d be willing to lose a limb rather than offend the Lord who has offered us salvation.

In our corporate life, we need to recognize the imagery of Scripture here. The body is a frequent metaphor for the church. Different gifts, different people, different parts, and yet, unified. Jesus is saying that if a part of the body, the church, is causing the rest of the body to suffer, we should be willing to see that part cut off rather than the whole church go down in flames. The mission of the church is too great for us to allow it to be compromised by a single, selfish, sinning, member.

Personally and corporately, we have to take sin seriously. We have to fight it, we have to hate it, and we have to work together to make sure it has no place among us. Why? So that we can be free to obey the Lord’s commands.

That requires a mindset shift…

In earthly kingdoms, you protect what you have. In the kingdom of heaven, you focus on seeking and saving what is lost.

            [10] “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. [12] What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? [13] And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. [14] So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

I’m not a shepherd, but this seems like terrible advice. If it read, “leaves the 99 in the sheepfold” it’d make sense. “Walls, protection, now I’ll go looking for the lost one.”

But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says the 99 are still on the mountain. The mountain where lions and tigers and bears (oh my) could come and destroy them. The mountain where more could wander off and get lost. The mountain where nights are cold and winds are strong.

Again, I’ve never been a shepherd, but I don’t think Jesus is giving shepherding advice.

He’s giving church advice.

There is a natural tendency for the church, for the Christian for that matter, to turn inward over time. To shift from bolding charging the gates of hell to passively sitting still for another Bible study. To shift from offense to defense. To let the pressures of this world drive us from the public square and into our whitewashed fortresses. To protect and preserve our traditions and expectations of what church should be instead of mobilizing everything that we have and everything that we are to engage a lost and dying world with the gospel.

Jesus says “Quit it.” Stop focusing on protecting what you have and start seeking and saving what is lost. The church doesn’t exist so that we can get together and sing Kumbaya around the warm glow of our smug, self-satisfied, self-serving, Sunday morning traditions. The church exists to glorify God by loving him, loving others, and making disciples.

We do those things inside these walls, undoubtedly, but we dare not stop there. It is too easy for our focus to turn inward. It is too easy for us to focus on what we already have. We need to go in our making of disciples.

Shame on us, church, shame on us, if we are more focused on keeping one another happy than on rescuing others who have wandered. Jesus says our task is to leave the 99, who aren’t wandering, to go seek the one who is wandering, who is lost. That’s our marching orders. It’s terrible advice for shepherding, but radically important advice for the church.

To focus on those who have wandered. To extend forgiveness to those who need it…

In earthly kingdoms, your brother should come to you for forgiveness. In the kingdom of heaven, you go to him offering it.

            [15] “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. [16] But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. [17] If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [18] Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [19] Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. [20] For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

This passage has been interpreted for years as a statement on “church discipline.” And while that’s there, we need to back up a little bit and understand that saying this is a passage on church discipline is like saying Moby Dick is a book about a boat: it’s there, but that’s certainly not the focus.

Consider what Jesus is saying. Remember, he just talked about the 99 and 1 sheep. He says seek and save what is lost. He says if your brother sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault.

And that’s where we get it twisted. Because Jesus isn’t just saying “go tell him what a horrible person he is.” No, in context, there’s something else. “Go, tell him his fault” and offer your forgiveness. When you make him aware of his sin, do so with a desire to forgive him for it. Give him the opportunity to repent and then you can forgive.

This would be better called church reconciliation than church discipline. It’s not a witch hunt, it’s an invitation to restored fellowship.

And it mirrors what God did for us. “We all like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, each one, to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We went astray, we turned, but God saved us by laying our sin on his Son. God sought us, not to punish us, but to offer us forgiveness.

Jesus says, be like God, be like me. Don’t wait for your brother to come to you. He probably doesn’t even know he sinned. Go to him, share with him, offer forgiveness if he will repent. That’s what God does for us.

So let’s walk this out:

Imagine two Christians: Fred and Frank

Frank comes over to Fred’s house to visit. As he’s leaving, he backs over Fred’s prize tulip bed. Fred sees it and yells at Frank that he’s a good-for-nothing so-and-so. When Frank jumps out, apologizes, and offers to do whatever it takes to clean up the mess, Fred tells him just to leave. Frank leaves. But the comments keep burrowing into his brain. So Frank goes to Fred and says, “Fred, I’m so sorry that I backed over your prize tulips and I beg you to forgive me. But, I also need to tell you that the language you used was very hurtful and not in keeping with our shared faith. I want to forgive you as well if you’ll let me.”

If Fred listens to Frank, he’ll say, “Frank, I accept your apology and forgive you for running over my prize tulip bed. And I feel terrible about what I said and for losing my temper like that. Will you forgive me?”

Done. Frank and Fred are reconciled, the gospel is demonstrated in their relationship.

But, Jesus knows this isn’t a perfect world. What if Fred had responded to Frank’s offer of forgiveness by refusing to apologize and cursing him out again?

Then Jesus says you pursue forgiveness again. “take one or two others with you.” This is for accountability to the gospel. Fred can cuss out Frank if he’s still hot enough, but two or three brothers in Christ? He’ll think twice. Hopefully.

Let’s say Frank goes back to Fred, this time with Fabio along too. Frank again says to Fred, “Fred, I’m so sorry that I backed over your prize tulips and I beg you to forgive me. But, I also need to tell you that the language you used was very hurtful and not in keeping with our shared faith. I want to forgive you as well if you’ll let me and I brought Fabio along to remind both of us of how important this is that we be reconciled.”

And Fabio says, “Fred, Frank told me what happened and told me that he has asked for and offered forgiveness to you. As a Christian, you should forgive Frank and the two of you be reconciled.”

If Fred listens, he’ll say, “Frank and Fabio, I am so sorry it’s taken me this long to see my sinful words and temper, but now I repent and ask you to forgive me.”

Done. Reconciliation has been accomplished.

But what if Fred won’t listen and won’t repent?

Jesus says, “take it to the church.” Tell the whole body what happened, the process that had been followed, and ask the church to beg Fred to repent and be reconciled.

And if he does, done deal. Reconciliation has happened!

But if he doesn’t, and this is the hard part, he can’t be a part of the church anymore. Why? Because the church is meant to be a picture of the kingdom of heaven. And citizens in the kingdom of heaven, are those who have repented and asked God for forgiveness. If they won’t repent and ask one another for forgiveness, they never really asked or understood God’s forgiveness. So to let such a person continue representing the church would be to tell a lie about the kingdom, to tell a lie about God.

That’s what the whole binding and loosing conversation is about. The church has authority to say, “This person exhibits the characteristics and is bearing testimony to the truth of the gospel. We accept their profession of faith as genuine.” But they also have the authority to say, “This person claims to know Christ, but by their lack of repentance for clear sin, they are not bearing testimony to the gospel. We reject their profession of faith as counterfeit.”

As harsh as that may sound, Jesus says he’s with us on it. “Wherever two or three are gathered” isn’t about worship, it’s about these hard decisions. It is more important for the body of Christ to bear witness to the truth of the gospel than for individual members to be comfortable. Remember the discussion of cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes? Jesus takes sin in his church seriously. But even if church reconciliation fails and church discipline ensues, there’s always the hope of repentance and reconciliation.

But Jesus isn’t just concerned with your brother’s repentance; he’s concerned with your forgiveness.

In earthly kingdoms, forgiveness has an expiration date. In the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness is always available.

            [21] Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” [22] Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Jesus is saying, “forgive others as many times as I forgive you – a whole bunch.” It’s not a tally card here. Jesus isn’t saying “77 times. But feel free to hold a grudge and not forgive the 78th time.”

If your brother sins and repents, even 78 times, forgive him.

People get the idea of forgiveness all wrong. Remember, God’s forgiveness is the model of forgiveness for us. God doesn’t unilaterally forgive all sin, does he? If he did, then everyone goes to heaven, Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler, and Stalin. No, God only forgives sin for those who repent and confess Jesus as Lord. Repentance is essential. I hear people all the time talk about needing to forgive someone who hasn’t repented and I think “how?” Forgiveness is a transactional term. Forgiveness requires repentance. This isn’t to say that you can carry a grudge against someone, you should always be ready to forgive, which means having a merciful heart. But forgiveness requires repentance.

If repentance is made, forgiveness is required.

            [23] “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. [24] When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. [25] And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. [26] So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ [27] And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. [28] But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ [29] So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ [30] He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. [31] When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. [32] Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. [33] And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ [34] And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. [35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Whatever sins your brother has committed against you pale in comparison to what you’ve committed against God. If God can forgive you, after you repent, you must forgive your brother after he repents. If you cannot, Scripture is quite clear.

Forgiveness is not optional in the church: it is essential and the consequences of withholding it are eternal. Why? Because the church bears witness, both to the holiness and the mercy of God. To refuse to repent is to lie about God’s holiness. To refuse to forgive is to lie about God’s mercy. Neither are options for the believer or for the church.

Be quick to repent and quick to forgive.

7 Key Practices of a Sending Church

person-hand-park-adventure-17605The list of those who have left home and hearth to represent Christ away from the land of their birth is long: William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, and many others.

The places that they served are etched in the evangelical memory as well: India, Burma, China, and all others.

The tradition is a great one. But we sometimes lose sight of the fact that those who go aren’t alone in the task.

For every one who is sent, there are those who send.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? Romans 10:14-15

Indeed! How can they preach unless they are sent?

But sending those who are called is much more than simply patting them on the back and shooing them out the door. We readily acknowledge that the call on the sent is a heavy one, full of joy, but still requiring sacrifice and steadfast obedience. But sometimes we forget that the call on the sent has a corresponding call on the senders, one that is also full of joy but also heavy with responsibility.

We have to regain a sense of this reciprocal, corporate calling if we are going to fully engage the mission to which God has called, not just the “super-spiritual” goers, but also the “everyday” senders (Those are sarcasm “” in case you missed it).

Fulfilling the Great Commission is a whole-church endeavor: some go, some send, but everyone is called.

When a commitment to missions was being rediscovered amongst 18th century British Baptists, a couple guys, William Carey and Andrew Fuller, were right at the center of the revival. They, along with other faithful men and women, formed the core of what would become the Baptist Missionary Society. Fuller recalled an early conversation amongst the society about the task of missions this way:

“Our undertaking to India really appeared to me, on its commencement, to be somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the important of penetrating into a deep mine, which had never before been explored. We had no one to guide us, and while we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said, ‘Well, I will go down if you will hold the rope. But before he went down, he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us, at the mouth of the pit, to this effect, that [we] while we lived, should never let go the ropeYou understand me. There was great responsibility attached to us who began this business.” 

(from The Life and Death of Andrew Fuller)

“Great responsibility” is attached to both those who “go” and to those who “hold the rope.” We need to regain a sense of the latter while not diminishing the former.

Here are seven ways that a sending church can “hold the rope” well:

1. Faithfully obey Christ in their local context

The Great Commission is not just about “over there.” We are told that Jesus’ followers would be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Taking those specific locales as a universal analogy, we see that the church that is serious about missions will be seriously engaged locally, regionally (amongst those like and unlike themselves), and globally. The church that sends globally without serving locally is setting themselves up for failure. And any missionary worth his or her salt will not be satisfied to be the obedience “token” for a church that has no intention of obeying the commands of Christ where they live, work, and play.

2. Intentionally fight against a natural “out of sight = out of mind” tendency

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is only true if there is a constant fight against the tendency to forget what we cannot see. A faithful sending church will keep the sent ones in mind through practical, intentional efforts. Thankfully, this task is easier than ever before in history. While certainly not true in every missionary context, there are a wealth of resources available to the missionary and the sending church to stay in contact through. Email, Facebook, blogs, Skype: you name it, and technology can pretty much do it. Have the missionary Skype in for a service once a month. Provide a Facebook Live service stream that they can watch the church’s worship service. Email updates to the church regularly. A blog with photos and journal entries for church members to keep up with the work. Whatever works in both contexts, use it! Make sure you stay in contact.

3. Pray continually for them

This isn’t optional. It isn’t Christian boilerplate. John Piper states that “missions exists because worship doesn’t.” True enough. But both worship and missions are dependent on prayer. Until our “faith is made sight,” prayer is the avenue through which every act of worship and obedience flows. The church that sends must be a church that prays. Again, utilize tools to do this. Have a schedule of prayer specifically for sent missionaries where people sign up for slots. Have someone administrate that schedule, sending reminders to those who are signed up. Set aside times in worship services and Bible study meetings to pray specifically for those who have been sent by the church. And let those who are sent know that you are praying. Invite them to join in the schedule so they can know who’s praying and perhaps pray for them in return! Involve the whole body of the church in the essential task of prayer.

4. Continue to provide financially for them

Pastors generally hate talking about money. But if you’re reading this and you’re a pastor, get over it. Sending missionaries takes money. And, frankly, there’s nothing better that your church can give towards than supporting the missionaries they have sent. If you’re a church member, consider what you can give up personally to free up more of your resources to go towards supporting your brothers and sisters in Christ. Corporately, reflect the commitment to financial provision in your budgeting. Many churches set their annual budget with local needs first and allocate whatever’s left to missions. Strike that. Reverse it. Sometimes holding the rope gives you rope burns. Deal with it. Don’t pass the pain on to the missionary if at all possible.

5. Send encouragement to them

Support your missionaries with more than just money. Cards and letters, if contextually appropriate, can be a wonderful blessing. Send them a copy of the book that the men’s group is studying on Friday mornings, send them a copy of the Bible study the women are going through together. Can’t ship books to them? You can still let them know you care by sending an Amazon gift code so they can purchase books on Kindle. Ask them what their favorite candy is and send them a bag. Send a care package with supplies for a family game night. Whatever works for the missionary and their context, find creative ways as a church to encourage them.

6. Send encouragers to them

One area of mission work that is neglected is the idea of sending short-term encouragement teams. We get the concept of career missions, we understand short-term evangelistic missions, construction missions, and orphanage missions, but we woefully neglect the opportunities for encouragement missions. But we see them in Scripture. Paul writes time and again of his gratefulness for some church or another sending so-and-so to visit him, he writes to Timothy to come see him and bring Mark and the cloak and his books, and he sends encouragement teams to churches. A sending church can faithfully hold the rope by coordinating encouragement mission trips: send two or three people to visit a missionary, fill luggage with gifts and necessary items to leave behind, spend time sharing, laughing, working together, and then bring a report back to the sending church. Once a year, twice a year, however often is practical and necessary. This strengthens the bonds between the sent and the senders and can be a great encouragement to those on the field.

7. Raise up and send out more missionaries after them

One of the best ways a sending church can demonstrate their faithfulness to those they’ve sent is to continue raising up and sending out others. The task of the Great Commission isn’t finished when a church sends one missionary. Rather, as the Lord leads, our goal should be a continual cycle of converting, discipling, and sending out workers for the harvest. A missionary who is sent doesn’t want their sending church to rest on their laurels, content to have sent one. Rather, the same heart that God set afire for taking the gospel out is the same heart that burns to see others with the same ignited passion. Keep in touch with the missionaries who have been sent, let them know of others  who are going so that they can join the church in prayer. Arrange conversations between those who are already on the mission field and those who will be. Let both parties see that the church is committed, beyond a single missionary, to the entire mission for which God has entrusted to his church.

When the Lord calls a missionary from a local church, he is not taking them away; he is inviting the entire church to participate in the joyous task of taking the gospel to the nations. Some go, some send, but everyone is called – let us answer well the call, whether we go or whether we hold the ropes!

Thy Kingdom Come: The Son of Man and the Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew 16:28: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

This verse has confused many a Christian, myself included, throughout the years. Jesus is speaking to his disciples immediately after Peter confesses him to be the Christ, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for telling him he didn’t need to go to the cross, and then Jesus basically says, if you want to follow me, you’ve got to die.

But he ends with the encouragement of verse 28: “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

That sounds good. Sounds great even, if you’re one of the ones he’s referring to who won’t be dead when the kingdom comes.

The difficulty in interpretation comes when we look around and say, “Wait a minute! The disciples are all dead and we don’t see the kingdom anywhere! Jesus lied to us!”

May I submit that the problem isn’t with Jesus, but with our reading. Because Jesus is simply setting up what’s coming next. In Chapter 17.

The chapter and verse division throw us off, but we need to remember those weren’t part of the original text. They were added later to make it easier to navigate the massive tome that is the Bible, but they can get in the way if we are not careful.

Because in Matthew 17, Jesus’ prophecy is fulfilled, at least in part, only six days later. Not all of the disciples see it, but three do and they’re not dead. Starting in verse 1 of chapter 17…

[1] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. [2] And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. [3] And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. [4] And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” [5] He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [6] When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. [7] But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” [8] And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

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Throughout the gospel of Matthew, we have seen references to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Sermon on the Mount described what life looked like in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus demonstrated the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, and now these three disciples see the Kingdom of Heaven come.

But it comes in a surprising way. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed not as an earthly kingdom with geographic boundaries, flags, and fortresses: it’s Jesus, finally fulfilling all God’s plans and prophecies. Jesus only!

The Kingdom of Heaven is Fulfilled in Jesus (1-8)

If we don’t see Jesus as Lord, we won’t understand him as the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven.

Our text points us to the need to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven:

Matthew 17:5b “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Listen to him. Why should we listen to Jesus? Why should we acknowledge him as Lord? Why is He the fulfillment of the kingdom?

Three reasons:

1. Jesus is the ultimate revelation from God

We are told in scripture that in the former times, God spoke in various ways and through various people, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his son.

Peter missed this. And I think that we do as well.

Peter wanted to build three tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He was essentially equating the three. He was honoring them, elevating them above him and James and John. But he was wrong. Jesus was not the equal of Moses and Elijah but was their Lord. He was not another prophet leader sent from God: he was the ultimate revelation from God.

[17] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17

Peter assumes that Moses and Elijah are equal to Jesus: Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, point to Jesus. We are to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven.

“This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

We don’t believe that we should stone disobedient children, but that’s what the Law said. We don’t believe that anyone who dashes a Babylonian baby’s head against a rock is blessed, but that’s what the Psalms say. We don’t believe that we have to keep the Sabbath day, but that’s what the Prophets say.

We’ve got to be careful as Christians to not be so in love with our moral code, picked and chosen from passages of Scripture that we like and ignoring the ones we don’t, that we miss the truth of the kingdom: Jesus. We can’t love our system of morality more than we love the master of our souls.

Jesus is sent from God as the ultimate revelation of what God is like and how we ought to live and everything we think we know needs to be filtered through him.

But, that’s not the only reason we ought to see Jesus as Lord…

2. Jesus is the ultimate authority as God

When Jesus was transfigured, his face shone like the sun

This scene is, I believe, intentionally reminiscent of a scene on another mountain many years before. Mt. Sinai. As the children of Israel waited to receive the commandments of their God. Moses went up on the mountain and asked to see God and then his face shone for days afterward.

What is different about the scene in Matthew is that Jesus wasn’t reflecting an external light, but was revealed to be the source of the light. He was transfigured before them. He was and is and will be God.

“But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.’” Hebrews 1:8

The Son of God is God. Jesus is God. That’s remarkable. Peter thought that Jesus was like Moses and Elijah, but Jesus made Moses and Elijah.

And Jesus made you.

Believe it or not, Jesus has the authority to be Lord of your life, not because he was a good teacher, not because he was a righteous man, but because he created you. He molded you and formed you and knit you together in your mother’s womb. He does not have the right of ownership over you as if his authority was purchased: he has the right of creation of you.

Do you see what a shameful thing Peter did in talking of three equal shelters, albeit in ignorance? It’d be like you inviting me to thanksgiving dinner and then me thanking the turkey for the fine hospitality!

Jesus has the ultimate authority not just because he reveals God to us, but because he is God over us.

3. Jesus is the ultimate standard for His people

Every year, around Easter, I hear people who say, “I just can’t believe Christianity because how could a dead man raise to life?”

And Christians get bent out of shape when people question the resurrection.

I don’t. Because that’s not even the crazy part! What’s more amazing than the resurrection to me is the incarnation. That God, the creator of the universe, the sovereign Lord, took on flesh. That the second member of the trinity came to earth as a baby. He was a man. Because he was God he could pay the price for our sins. Because he was a man, Hebrews tells us, he could identify with us in our weaknesses. In those two facts, we have redemption.

And we also have a life plan. We have the example that we needed showing us, as frail humans, how to live before God.

“Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” 1 John 2:6

So many of us evaluate our spiritual growth by comparing ourselves to those around us: I’ll never be as good as her, at least I’m better than him. The trouble with comparative Christianity is it always misleads us because people are always changing. I can always find somebody that I’m better than if I want to feel good about myself. If I want to beat myself up, I can always find someone better than me. But what Jesus shows us is that we need to quit focusing on ourselves or comparing ourselves to those around us.

Only when we fix our eyes on Jesus will we have a sure guide for how we ought to live and a vision of what we ought to be.

Jesus is Lord. That means he tells and shows us how to live. Proclaiming Him Lord is not merely an intellectual exercise: it affects every single area of our lives: mind, soul, and body.

It’s not easy.

The scene on the mountain showed the three disciples the Kingdom, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But that wasn’t all they needed to see or hear or do to understand the kingdom…

The Kingdom of Heaven is Revealed in Suffering (9-13)

[9] And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” [10] And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” [11] He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. [12] But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” [13] Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

It is no accident that Jesus turns the conversation to suffering after the disciples had just glimpsed heaven

Elijah suffered.

John the Baptist suffered.

Jesus will suffer.

The implication is obvious: the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed in suffering.

All of Scripture recognizes this:

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:21

The hard truth of the kingdom is that people who are satisfied with the things of this world cannot appreciate the promise of heaven. People who are drunk on the wine of this world cannot appreciate the promise of new wine at the banquet of the lamb. People who’ve cultivated a self-centered vision of a personal heaven will find that they have no desire for a Christ-centered vision of a corporate heaven.

Suffering forces us to relinquish our reliance on this world, on self-fulfillment, on a privatized religion of mental appeasement.

Suffering wakes us up to the reality of the gospel. Suffering is the tool that God uses to wean us off this world in order to use us in inaugurating the kingdom of heaven.

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” CS Lewis The Problem of Pain

We shouldn’t seek suffering in this life, but when it comes, don’t lose heart. It’s not that God is picking on you; he’s preparing you for two things:

1. Living in the kingdom of heaven.

2. Demonstrating the good news of that kingdom to others.

A comfortable person speaking of a suffering savior will not be heard, but a suffering person speaking of a conquering savior will.

The Kingdom of Heaven is expressed by serving others in faith (14-20)

[14] And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, [15] said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. [16] And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” [17] And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” [18] And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. [19] Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” [20] He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew knew what he was doing by presenting the trio returning with Jesus and immediately coming face to face with suffering that they could do something about after having had a foretaste of heaven.

This passage has been used and abused for people to think that if they have enough faith they can get whatever they want for themselves. That is not at all what is in mind here.

The disciples were condemned for their lack of faith in God, “why couldn’t WE cast it out” – they thought they could attain the desired result apart from the power of God.

The faith that Jesus has in mind is never centered in what we get, what we do, or what we are recognized for. The faith he is speaking of here is the faith that God will work in spite of us, not because of us. That God will use our feeble efforts to accomplish healing and restoration in this broken world

When we serve in our own strength, we fail. When we serve for our own advancement, we fail. When we serve for our own gain, we fail. We fail to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven through efforts in our own strength.

But, when we serve through faith in God’s power, we succeed: the kingdom of heaven is made real. This theme resonates throughout the gospels: don’t seek power for yourself, but exercise the power of God for his glory and the good of others.

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:26-28

The reason faithful, selfless service is so important is because of what the Kingdom of Heaven costs, both Christ and us…

The Kingdom of Heaven is grounded in the agony of the cross and the victory of the resurrection (22-23)

[22] As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, [23] and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

The disciples hear of the coming cross and they are distressed. They freak out.

They couldn’t understand it then, but we understand it now: What the disciples heard as the worst news possible is actually the best news ever! Why? Because “he will be raised on the third day!”

We need to live as if the cross were actually good news. Not just good news for us because of Jesus but good news because the cross in our lives is good news.

To die to self is the goal of Christianity. To have no thought of personal gain or personal power, but to joyously own Jesus as Lord, to willingly suffer for his kingdom, to faithfully serve others, and to boldly die to self all because the Kingdom is seen in resurrection – and in the eternal life that flows from that resurrection.

The Apostle Paul got it: 

[8] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ [9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—[10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, [11] that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11 ESV)

He’s talking about the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus as the Lord of that Kingdom.

Jesus showed us, told us, reminded us, that the kingdom of heaven starts now. That means owning Jesus as Lord to the point that we are willing to suffer for him, to serve for him, to die for him.

And yet, in America, we’ve made our faith about managing the discomforts in the world as best we can so that one day, we can get to “heaven.” I’m not saying that’s not good, but it’s certainly not all we are supposed to be about.

I’m afraid that as I’ve walked through Matthew the past few months, I may have done a poor job of explaining what the kingdom of heaven is. When you hear heaven, don’t think about clouds, and harps, and wings. Put that out of your mind. Instead, when you hear heaven, think about Jesus, glorified on the mountain, think about his followers gladly suffering for him, think about serving tirelessly and thanklessly, think about death and resurrection. Take your hope of heaven off the shelf, put it on your feet, and go live it out now. Go befriend the person at work that everyone else makes fun of. Turn off the TV, make cookies with your kids, and take them to the widow next door. Quit bashing your neighbor’s theology and start demonstrating the love of Christ to them. Make gathering with fellow believers a priority, not something governed by your desires or whims. Don’t say how excited you are for heaven and then spend every dollar you make on yourself trying to create a little personal heaven on earth

When do we, church, when do we, Christian, begin to stand and fight, here and now, because of the glory that awaits? When do we cease to pretend that the gospel is good news because it eases my conscience and begin to see that the gospel is good news because it lays claim to my every breath, my every decision, my very life?

When do we stop seeing heaven as the reward for our useless spirituality and start seeing it for what it is: the joy of our Master into which we are called but into which we dare not come empty handed?

We don’t get whisked away to heaven immediately upon getting saved because God is purging us of selfishness! He is guiding us towards Christlikeness, not for our glory but for His, not for our benefit alone, but for those around us. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus Christ, changes everything.

 

The Cost of Confessing Christ

Everything about Jesus inspired curiosity. Everyone had questions:

“Where did he come from?”

“How can he teach like that?”

“How can he heal like that?”

“How can he talk to the Pharisees like that.”

The question that everyone wanted an answer for was, “Who is this guy?”

Jesus puts the question to his disciples in Matthew 16:13:

[13] Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” [14] And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

The disciples have answers, lots of them. People had no clue what to make of Jesus so they started comparing him to prophets, miracle workers, even his cousin, John the Baptist.

This question resonated with people and everyone had an opinion. But Jesus wasn’t stopping there. Asking “who do other people say that I am?” wasn’t his goal – he was setting up his next question:

[15] He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

This is a more pressing question. Jesus moves from general information to personal application. The difference between “Who do they say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” is the difference between information and salvation. And Jesus knows it.

The trouble is that people want to answer the question of “Who do you say that I am?” however they want. Consider the following examples from Adam Ford:

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The trouble is that none of those caricatures of Jesus work. There’s always an embarrassing passage to contradict an individual version of Jesus. Cool Dad Jesus really struggles with Christ Jesus saying to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. John Lennon Jesus is offended by Jesus saying that he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. Richard Simmons Jesus would pass out at what Christ Jesus says about the cost of discipleship.

All of these answers, all of the answers the people of Jesus’ day fell short. But Simon Peter gets it right:

[16] Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus isn’t who we want him to be: Jesus is who he is. We don’t get to pick and choose which version of Jesus we like best, expecting him to conform to our wishes. He picks and chooses us and then has the audacity to expect that we would conform to his wishes. That’s what all his talk about the kingdom of heaven is meant to help us understand. That’s why we have an Old Testament and a New Testament: because we need to be brought to the point that we see this life isn’t about us – it’s about Jesus being the Christ, the Son of the living God. Nothing else matters outside of that. Nations rise, nations fall, people are born, people die, but that – that confession, that Jesus is the Christ, is a rock we can cling to!

And we don’t get that answer on our own – God has to reveal it to us:

[17] And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

Christianity is not based on human logic. Note that I don’t mean it doesn’t make logical sense: it does. God is not a God of chaos but of order and we see that order in everything true. What I mean is that Christianity does not arise merely from human logic. In other words, if you sat down to create a logical religion, using human intellect, Christianity is not what would come out. People accuse Christians of making it up, of using religious logic to control people. They say that Jesus’ disciples invented this religion after Jesus was crucified in order to gain power over people.

Not so! But assume for just a second that it is true…

…If the disciples had made it up to gain power, let’s just conclude that they weren’t very good at it. What kind of power comes from asserting that when someone strikes you on one cheek, you turn to them the other as well? What kind of power comes from saying that the greatest among you must be the servant of all? This isn’t a religion of power, it’s a religion of weakness! And if that makes you cringe or repulses you, good! Because our human nature loves power and runs from weakness. The only way any of us would know the truth of the gospel, of Christianity, a religion of weakness, is if it was revealed to us not from our flesh and blood, but from God.

Some people take this reality of divine inspiration as a carte blanche that whatever they “feel” spiritually must be correct. Not so! The work of God’s Holy Spirit is not generic revelation but specific: he reveals the truth of salvation through the truth of the Father’s revealed Word and Son, Jesus Christ.

Several things happen when we recognize and make this confession that Jesus is the Christ:

1. Identity redefined and defined.

[18] And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock

This passage has been interpreted and misinterpreted throughout church history. Catholics claim that Jesus was saying that Peter was the rock and would be the first pope and that the succession of popes is the mark of the true church. Others say that Peter wasn’t the first pope, but that this instituted the bishopric and that without the bishopric, you don’t have a true church.

But there is a crucial distinction in the original Greek that is not so apparent in translation. Many know that Peter means rock and conclude that since Jesus says “on this rock” he is refering to the same person. But there are two different, though related words used here. Jesus says “And I tell you, you are Petros, and on this petra.” Petros was used to denote a chunk of rock hewn from a larger mass and petra was used to describe a mass of “living” rock, i.e. a mass of rock rising from inside the earth. In other words:

Petros: “You are Peter,” you are a piece of the living rock”

Petra: “on this rock,” on the confession of Christ that makes the scattered peoples of the earth into a mass of living rock, the confession that changes individuals from self-centered, self-seeking, self-deceived egos to God-loving, others-loving, disciple-making world-changers, no longer separate, but united.

The confession of Christ simultaneously redefines individual identity and defines the church.

And just like the confession is revealed not by flesh and blood, so this mass of living rock, the church, is being build not by flesh and blood, but by Christ…

2. It’s Jesus’ work, not ours.

I will build my church,

It’s Jesus’ church. It’s not my church, it’s not your church, it’s Jesus’ church. That means that our congregations aren’t something that we get to control, they’re something that Jesus is sovereignly in control of.

I recently presented a vision plan to the church that I pastor and it was affirmed by a nearly unanimous vote. But that “nearly” gave me pause. I shared with those gathered that, while I understood that the proposal passed by our constitutional rules, I recommended that while the Vision had been affirmed, we would wait to implement it until we had given more time to share and discuss it as a church. Many were shocked and saddened that we weren’t going to implement it straight away.

But I saw the hand of God in this vote because I had failed to communicate the vision adequately. I made the mistake of assuming that just because I had talked about it a lot that others would have heard it a lot. But the more I think about it, I realize that most of my conversations were with small groups within the church, not with the entire congregation. I didn’t give enough time for people to ask questions or seek clarity on it.

So taking some time before implementing the vision gives me and gives the church time to remember this: it’s Jesus’ church. He doesn’t need a cool logo, catchy name, or a vision plan. Those things are great as tools, but rotten as essentials. If the goal is simply to pass a vision, I shared with the church, we aren’t on the right track. Instead, the vision has to be subservient to the goal: Jesus using us to glorify God by expanding his kingdom through our loving efforts. I do think the vision is helpful and right, but I’d rather scrap it than move forward without the guidance of Christ.

A vision is simply a tool, a way to help a church get to the point where it is not run by a pastor, or by special interest groups, or by power players, or by anything or anyone other than Christ. How does Christ build his church? He does so through his teachings, by his example, by his death and resurrection. He tells us to Love God, Love Others, and Make Disciples. It’s that simple.

Jesus will build his church. It has a common confession, he promises to build it, and he assures its success.

3. Assurance of mission success

Let’s be honest, I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect. That means that our churches will never be perfect. The only way it would be is if none of us were a part of them, which kind of defeats the purpose, right? But the amazing thing is that when Jesus builds the church, (not the building, not the programs, but the people) even when we’re imperfect, we are assured that we will succeed in our mission. What is the mission? Make disciples everywhere we go in defiance of Hell.

and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

The strange thing about this statement is that Jesus uses active language to speak about a passive defense. If you talk about something prevailing, it is usually an active thing: i.e. one army prevailed against another. But here the term “gates” is by nature a passive defense, not an active offense. So for this passive object to prevail, all that would be required is that the active object, the church on mission, cease to attack. Jesus says that won’t happen. Yet we see it happening everywhere in our own country. We see churches get so wrapped up in pettiness, so concerned with making sure that certain individuals are mollified, so concerned with making sure that no one disturbs the status quo, so concerned with comfort and ease and making sure that church “feels right” that they will ignore the clear teaching of Scripture and let the gates of Hell stand unassailed.

A church that fails to engage in the mission of Christ doesn’t make Christ a liar, but it does make itself not a church. In other words, failure to engage in the mission we’ve been given doesn’t mean that Jesus was wrong: it means that we are.

After all, he gives us the mission and then gives us the authority to carry it out:

4. Authority to engage on behalf of Christ

[19] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

People get hung up on this statement, but I think there is a simple way to understand it: Jesus gave us commands, he gave us a mission, he assures us that it will succeed, and he gives us the authority we need as a church to make sure that it gets done. If there is something in the church that is bound that would help the church, Jesus says we have the authority, his authority, to loose that, to set it free to do the work that he has given. And if there is something that would hinder us from fulfilling the mission, Jesus says that we have the authority to bind it, to keep it from getting in the way of the mission.

It’s a simple statement of mission authority: Do whatever it takes, within the mission parameters, to complete the mission.

Think of what Jesus has entrusted his church with: finishing the work that he started. Fulfilling the Great Commission. And he’s not holding us back: he’s saying, “You have all the authority that you need to make this happen.”

Which makes this next verse potentially confusing:

[20] Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Why? He just praised Simon Peter for the right confession, he just told them they couldn’t fail in assailing the gates of hell, and then he says, “Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone.”

Why? Because the Jews were expecting a christ. First century Palestine was rife with supposed messiahs, men who would make extraordinary claims about themselves, gather a group of followers with promises of restoring the glory of Israel, crushing the Roman occupiers, blah, blah, blah. And followers would come, deceived by the promise of worldly power and glory alongside this latest messiah. And then the leader would say the wrong thing to the wrong person, or make an attack on a Roman outpost, and the next thing you knew, he and all his followers were beaten and hung on crosses.

Jesus tells his disciples not to say anything about his being the Christ, because Jesus wasn’t a charlatan like those others. He didn’t want to attract people with vision of grandeur, he wanted them to see the whole picture. And they couldn’t get the whole picture yet. Because as important as Jesus’ teachings and healings were, Jesus’ mission as Christ wouldn’t be complete until after his crucifixion and resurrection.

So he tells the disciples why they can’t share the good news about him being the Messiah yet.

[21] From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This doesn’t sound good to the disciples. Peter especially doesn’t think so.

[22] And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” [23] But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Peter, who just made the confession of Jesus as Christ, who just had Jesus exclaiming with excitement, who has been given this new identity and this new assurance, that same Peter, says, “Um, Lord, you need to cool it with the whole dying thing. We ignored it the first couple times you mentioned it, but it’s getting embarrassing. Stop it.”

And Jesus calls him Satan.

And we want to as well: “How dare you, Peter?”

But before we come down to hard on poor Peter, let’s think about why he said it. For one thing, it didn’t fit his expectation of what the Messiah would do and who he would be. Peter was a Jew. He expected the conquering hero just like everyone else in his country. And Peter wanted to be a part of it. That’s the second, and related, concern. Peter wanted to be the faithful disciple who serves in the revolution and is richly rewarded in the kingdom that comes. He wanted the position, the power, the comfort, the ease that comes with being on the winning side.

But he didn’t understand that those things don’t come immediately. They come, the kingdom comes, but not on our timetable.

Peter didn’t understand that the rewards of Jesus’ Kingdom are only available to those who have paid the price of discipleship.

If we’re honest, we don’t want Jesus to suffer and die either. Because we know that if Jesus suffers, we will suffer. We are like those Jews running after false messiahs. We want the blessings of the Kingdom without the pain of crucifixion. We don’t want a crucified messiah because we don’t want to be crucified disciples.

But the joy of resurection is only available to those who have been crucified.

[24] Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. [25] For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. [26] For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [27] For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

We don’t want to go through the painful process. We don’t want our service in God’s mission to involve change or pain or discomfort. False messiahs promise the kingdom but end up leading their followers to the cross.

Jesus promises the cross and ends up giving us the kingdom.

Persecution, sacrifice, even death are going to come. Following Christ costs you everything or you’re not following him. But the flip side of the coin is the blessed truth that in giving up everything for Christ, you are really gaining everything.

If your confession of Christ hasn’t cost you anything, you haven’t confessed Christ. And if you haven’t confessed Christ, you won’t see the kingdom. But if you have, even though that confession costs you everything, the kingdom is yours and you will see it.

Oh for the day when that’s all we see!

The Unpardonable Sin & Family Identity

Apparently, tracing family history is a big thing in my new home state of Utah. But it’s not a new phenomenon to me: my great-aunt was into lineage study and her work is legendary in our family, though not necessarily in the way she would have wanted. See, she traced our family line back to Squire Boone, Daniel Boone’s brother. Interestingly enough, Squire Boone was the first Baptist preacher in Kentucky and Indiana, where I worked and studied for about 10 years. It seems somewhat prophetic given my calling. But our line of the Boone’s didn’t stay real committed to the faith beyond Squire. In fact, when I moved back to Kentucky for school, my grandpa suggested I look up some of our ancestors. I asked where he suggested starting and his reply was “with the prison records.” Anyways, my aunt did all this research, traced us back to Squire Boone and then back across the pond to England. Apparently, the family had been a pretty inconsequential bunch, but some ancestor had done the king of England a favor at one point and was granted a land holding and title, leading to our last name. Fascinating stuff.

But it’s all hearsay at this point. I don’t have any details on any of it, and a lot of what I think I know could be made up or exaggerated. Why? Because my aunt saved all her research in cardboard boxes. Apparently, she had a ton of material, stuff she’d mailed out to people for, traveled to get, years of research. And this is pre-computer days, so it’s all paper files, which take up a lot more room than a flash drive. She needed a place to store the files, so she took them to my grandpa’s place in Tumalo, OR. My grandpa and grandma have a ranch there with lots of space and they even have a well-maintained cabin/bunkhouse on the property that they store stuff in and visitors stay in too. Well, my aunt put her file boxes in there. Quite a while later, grandpa decides to clean out the cabin. He doesn’t look in the boxes, just tosses them all in the burn pile and lights them up. My grandpa’s still alive, but it was touch and go for a while! My grandma was able to find some stuff that grandpa didn’t and she put together a binder for all of us to have a copy of what was left.

Why? Why did my aunt give so much time to putting that all together? Why was it such a big deal that grandpa burned it? Why did grandma take the time to put as much as she could together for us all?

Because in our disconnected, highly-mobile, and increasingly confusing world, having a family identity is important. Understanding who you are requires understanding who you came from.

In Matthew 12, we find Jesus providing some family research for his followers. He’s walked them through a lot, and they’re getting ready to head into a lot more, and he takes the time to establish who they are, what Jesus’ family looks like, what’s their identity, how’d they come to be a family when they didn’t share a mom and dad?

What we find is that Jesus’ family is marked out by a series of encounters and teachings from Jesus. He paints a picture of his family, not in bloodline and heritage, but in faith and work.

1. Jesus’ family is made up of those who recognize God’s work in the world through his Son, not those who see it and try to explain it away.

[22] Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. [23] And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”

The crowds are amazed! For heaven’s sake, we just read it and we should be amazed: Jesus healed a man who couldn’t see, couldn’t speak and had a demon. If you’ve been paying attention to what we’ve seen in Matthew to this point, those three miracles are like the trifecta. This is amazing! It’s like Jesus is working up to a finale: “you’ve seen me heal a blind man, you’ve seen me heal a mute man, you’ve seen me drive out demons, now watch as I do not one, not two, but all three of those miracles at once, in one man!” Those who saw this miracle would have no choice but to acknowledge both Jesus’ power and the truth of who he was.

The crowds get it: this miracle should cause everyone who sees it to at least consider that maybe Jesus was the Messiah, the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, come to earth, Immanuel, the Promised One. The crowd could get it, we can get it, anyone who hears it should get it.

Except the Pharisees didn’t.

[24] But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” [25] Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. [26] And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? [27] And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. [28] But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. [29] Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. [30] Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. [31] Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. [32] And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that many get sidetracked and confused by this idea of the unpardonable sin and many, myself included, have wrestled with the question: “have I committed the unpardonable sin?”

Let me say this: If you are worried about possibly having committed this sin, you haven’t committed it.

The unpardonable sin comes to us in a context that clarifies its meaning. Jesus is not talking to his disciples, he’s not even talking to the crowds following him; he’s quite clearly referencing the Pharisees who just saw him do this amazing miracle. And the Pharisees turn away, like “meh. He’s only doing this because Satan’s doing it through him.”

That’s the unpardonable sin: to see the clear demonstration of the unfathomable power of God, and to turn away from it in stubborn, hard-hearted rebellion.

If you’re a Christian, in other words, if you’ve repented of your sins, committed to following Jesus, and are seeking to submit every area of your life to his Lordship, you can’t, by definition, commit the unpardonable sin. You’ve already recognized God’s work in the world and you rejoice in it. You can’t commit the unpardonable sin if you’ve acknowledged your sin and Jesus’ solution: you’ve submitted to the work of the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is refusing to submit to the clear work of God in the world.

2. Jesus’ family is made up of those who speak the truth of the gospel, not those who speak with the cynicism of the world.

[33] “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. [34] You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. [35] The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. [36] I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, [37] for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Those who rejoice in the work of God are those who speak of the work of God. Have you ever met a triathlete? How do you know someone is a triathlete? Talk to them for five minutes. Even if you just met them, they’ll tell you. Why? Because anyone who can swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles is awesome! They’re doing something amazing and they want to tell others. Is it motivated by pride most of the time? You better believe it! And dare I say, that pride is, if not permissible, at least understandable? If I had a triathlete family member, I’d be proud and I’d tell everyone before they could.

And yet what is a triathlon compared to what God is doing in the gospel? What is a race compared to a universe-redeeming, comprehensive, unimaginably glorious, plan of God for the ages? Those who get it, those who see it and submit to it, can’t help but tell others about it. If you’re one who constantly is complaining, cynical about the work of God, running down the ministry of the church with words and actions, stop and ask yourself: “Do I really believe the gospel? Have I really grasped the truth, the goodness, the completeness of it?” Because if you have, if you’re part of Jesus’ family, the good treasure of the gospel inside you can’t help but bubble up in your conversations! It’s going to happen!

3. Jesus’ family is made up of those who submit to his superiority, not those who demand his performance for their satisfaction

[38] Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” [39] But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. [40] For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. [41] The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. [42] The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

Do you get the irony here? Just a brief moment earlier Jesus had hit the trifecta healing and the same Pharisees and scribes who heard that one dare ask him for a sign!? “Like, Jesus, the dude walking around seeing, speaking, and not slobbering at the mouth anymore, that’s cool and all, but could you really show us a sign, I mean, like a for real sign?”

Do you hear Jesus’ indignation? “An evil and adulterous generation” – “Evil” because they weren’t asking because they were submitted to him and longing to see him work again, but asking because they had no intention of every submitting and were hoping that maybe he couldn’t do it again.” “Adulterous” because these were the Bible scholars who were supposed to be giving their lives to understanding scripture so that when the Messiah came, they would recognize him, yet when the Messiah came, they were so busy loving their position and authority that they couldn’t see what was obvious: He’s here.

Jesus says, “No. There’s nothing more I could do than what I’ve done. If you don’t believe yet, you won’t. I’ll give you the sign of Jonah, I’ll die and be raised to life three days later, but most of you won’t buy that either.”

When they ask for a sign, how different are they from us when we do the same? I wish I didn’t do this but have you ever had the conversation with God: “God if you’ll prove yourself by doing what I want you to right now, I’ll really believe, I’ll really commit my life to you, etc”? It’s no different than an atheist insisting that if God were real, he’d prove it by healing all the sick people in a hospital. The atheist isn’t really concerned for the sick people, he’s demanding personal satisfaction. God hates self-centeredness, he bows to no one and nothing, and he owes you nothing.

Get this one statement and you’re close to getting the central message of Scripture:

There is a God, you’re not Him, and He owes you nothing. But He loves you anyway.

Those who are part of Jesus’ family don’t demand that God becomes some sort of trained monkey there to entertain and serve them. That’s Pharisee stuff. Christians hope that God would be willing to use them as his monkey. There is nothing that the Christian wants more than to be useful to God, to be submitted to God as his slave, to serve, to love, to die if that’s what is required. To forgive, to pass overlook an offense, to crucify self-interest on the cross of Christ’s love.  Something greater has come, something greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, great than you, greater than me – it’s Jesus. It’s the kingdom of heaven. It’s worth sacrificing everything for and nothing is worth losing it over.

4. Jesus’ family is made up of those whose allegiance is given to him alone, not to those who leave space in their hearts for idols.

[43] “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. [44] Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. [45] Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

Jesus, perhaps reminding his audience and the man he just healed, but still addressing the scribes and Pharisees, makes it clear that it’s not enough to recognize the work of God if you don’t embrace the one who did the work: God himself. God can do amazing things for a person, but unless they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they will end up filling themselves back up with idols.

I’m reminded of a comedy bit I heard once in which a comedian said he got off cigarettes with a nicotine patch, got off the patch with marijuana, and got off marijuana with cocaine so he was pretty well tobacco free.

Unfortunately, that’s what happens in a lot of people’s lives. Maybe not falling into drug addiction out of tobacco addiction, but simply replacing certain idols with other idols. This can happen in the church. In Colossians, we are told to put off sin and put on Christ. Too many of us take off our blatant external sin and trade it for an internal, insidious, and just as deadly a sin. We quit getting drunk, but we judge the girl whose insecurity causes her to dress inappropriately. We quit cheating on our taxes, but refuse to listen to counsel from other believers.

If we’ve given our allegiance to Christ, there is not part of our life we get to mark as off limits. We don’t submit to Jesus as king by marking off sanctuaries for our favorite idols. We don’t get to decide which parts of God’s Word we’re going to obey and which ones we’re going to ignore.

5. Jesus’ family is made up of those who do what he commands, not those who can quote him.

[46] While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. [48] But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” [49] And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! [50] For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Are you a part of Jesus’ family? I don’t know. Scripture’s pretty clear that only an individual can make that decision, “to confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and to believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead.”

So I can’t know if you’ve done that. But I can ask you this: “Are you doing what he commands?”

We wrestle with this all the time: Are we saved by faith or by works?

I think Ephesians 2:8-10 is particularly apt here:

[8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

We are saved by grace through faith. It’s not something we did or that we do, it’s the gift of God. We can’t boast that we’ve saved ourselves or contributed to it in any way. But that’s not the end of the passage:

[10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Those who have been saved by grace through faith aren’t saved to sit on a shelf; we are saved, created in Christ Jesus, for good works that God decided in advance we should do.

In other words, the only thing you have to do to be saved is to believe that Jesus is Savior and submit to him as Lord. And then everyone who does that will get to work at obeying their new Lord. And we know what he’s commanded, right? “Love God, Love Others, Make Disciples.” Put it another way: Do everything you can to demonstrate the amazing worth of God, do everything you can to demonstrate the love of God to others, and teach others how they can love and serve God and others too.

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Keep the Sabbath?

unsplash_52ce2b0530dab_1The concept of Sabbath rest is arguably a major theme throughout Scripture, particularly the Old Testament. There is a rich imagery associated with this concept underlying much of the New Testament as well. Understanding the critical role that the idea of Sabbath rest played in the Old Testament  is important if we are going to understand how it fits into our Christian lives today. We also have to understand the misconceptions that have grown up around this idea of rest in the Christian community. Only then can we understand Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

Sabbath in the Old Testament: A Brief Synopsis

  1. Creation: God rested on the seventh day and he invited his creation to rest with him.
  2. Law: The Sabbath is given as a reminder of God’s sovereignty.
  3. Relational: The presence of God with his people is an assurance of Sabbath rest
  4. Physical: The entrance to the promised land is pictured as entering into God’s rest.
  5. Broken: Mankind is constantly losing their place of rest before God.
  6. Promised: One of the signs of the Messiah is that he would give his people rest.
  7. Eternal: Sabbath rest is a crucial element in fulfilling the eternal promises of God.

The Need For Sabbath

How appealing are Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:25-30?

[25] At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; [26] yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. [27] All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. [28] Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. [29] Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. [30] For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It sounds so refreshing and yet this is the place where it is incredibly hard for us to get. We are so busy working and playing and making sure everyone knows that we are busy. But Jesus is inviting us to rest. Jesus is inviting us into Sabbath rest. And that invitation is couched in terms that serve to de-center our lives from self and to re-center them on Christ.

Throughout his gospel, Matthew is telling us what the kingdom of heaven is like so that we can tell others. Here, he tells us that the kingdom of heaven is a place of true rest, true Sabbath.

Do you think that’s a message of hope for our time? Do you think that Sabbath rest in Jesus Christ would be good news to share with your neighbor who is running herself ragged with keeping a list of rules in order to please her religious leaders and progress in self-righteousness? Do you think that this idea of coming to Jesus because he isn’t there with a list of rules, but with a humble heart of love would appeal to someone who is concerned with climbing a ladder and not being stepped on along the way?

God paints this picture of Sabbath rest throughout the Bible and intends it to be this wonderful, clear, compelling, enticing, stunning, counter-cultural reality in the life of his people. The rest that he promises, the rest that he gives, should be a cause for celebration in our lives, for praise on our lips.

Too often, though, we have neglected it entirely. We have followed the lead of our culture that measures success by the hours we work, that demands 24/7 engagement with the world through social media. Our minds never shut off anymore. We face a never-ending stream of news content, print, audio, video, paper and digital, headlines and sound bites vying for the prize of being the most disturbing and disrupting to our lives, just so that they can get our attention so they can sell another advertisement. Those advertisements beg, cajole, intimidate, and dare us to buy the product to find the peace we are looking for: this shampoo really could magically transport you to Shangri-la, this soda could really refresh you like the Fountain of Youth. We are in a constant battle inside our own minds, comparing our lives to those of our co-workers, our Facebook friends, and our church family. We come to church to fight for control, to check and make sure the decorations, the lighting, the music, and the sermon are acceptable to our preferences. We paint on smiles and make small talk and all the while we are trampling on the good news that Jesus Christ provides us with rest.

How can we share the good news that Jesus Christ can give us rest if we’ve never taken a moment to avail ourselves of the rest he provides? The world needs to hear of the rest the Jesus offers and we need to learn to live in that same rest. But first, we have to clear up some Christian misunderstandings.

Sabbath Misunderstandings

 

1. Sabbath rest is a moral obligation.

There are denominations and individuals within Christendom who continue to advocate Sabbatarianism (the idea that the Sabbath, as a created institution rather than an Old Covenant statute, is still binding on those who follow Christ). In other words, Christians are as morally obligated to observe a strict Sabbath day as they are to not murder someone.   There is certainly an appeal to this position as it seeks to bridge the gap between Old and New Testaments for the believer. Nonetheless, I don’t believe this is an appropriate reading of Scripture and neglects the central role of Christ and his commands in establishing his people’s ethics.

2. Sabbath rest is about personal well-being.

There is another response from Christians that sees Sabbath for the Christian as a largely private enterprise. God ordained the Sabbath, in this view, as a reminder to us that we need margin in our lives. So, as New Covenant people, we are not morally obligated to observe THE Sabbath, but we benefit by observing A Sabbath. Not a specific day, not a specific length of time, but just a reminder from our Father that we need to take time for ourselves, to rest from our labors. While this conception is popular, particularly among American Christians, it fails to give proper weight to the biblical text or, again, to the role of Christ in Scripture.

3. Sabbath rest is an aid to personal righteousness.

Finally, many still think that keeping a Sabbath, whether strict or flexible, serves to help develop personal righteousness. This idea has merit, although it must be carefully caveated. Because too often this approach can benefit us but quickly turn to legalism: Sabbath as a spiritual discipline at best, but, at worst, as showcasing self-righteousness. There can be an immense spiritual benefit in Sabbath rest, but we have to be careful that it does not become an opportunity for pride.

With these misconceptions about the Christian life as it regards the Sabbath, what are we to do? Thankfully, we don’t have to guess.

Jesus Brings Clarity – Matthew 12:1-21

  1. Sabbath rest is not about keeping specific rules on a specific day, it is about being with Jesus.

 [1] At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. [2] But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” [3] He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: [4] how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? [5] Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? [6] I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. [7] And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. [8] For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees were ticked that the disciples were violating their understanding of what keeping the Sabbath meant. Jesus isn’t having it. He clarifies for them, and for us, that keeping the Sabbath isn’t about doing or not doing certain things during certain times; it’s about being in the presence of God. The disciples were free to grab some 1st-century fast food because they were practicing what the Sabbath really meant: they were hanging out with Jesus.

  1. Sabbath rest is not about personal well-being, it is about seeking others well-being.

            [9] He went on from there and entered their synagogue. [10] And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. [11] He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? [12] Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” [13] Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.

The Sabbath isn’t a self-serving break from doing good: it’s preparation for doing good. Jesus heals on the Sabbath to model what we ought to use the Sabbath for – an opportunity to serve others. Some days that might mean skipping a shower after work and heading over to help someone pack to move. Other days, it might mean taking a nap so that the next day you can help someone move. If your view of Sabbath rest is wrapped around you, then you’ll resent any intrusion into your special time. But if it’s wrapped around serving others, you’re free to work to serve or you’re free to rest in order to serve another time.

The only thing the Sabbath cannot be is all about you. It’s a vehicle for loving God, loving others, and making disciples, through active participation or passive preparation.

  1. Sabbath rest is not demonstrating self-righteousness, it is trusting in Christ’s righteousness

 [14] But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. [15] Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all [16] and ordered them not to make him known. [17] This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

            [18] “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,

                        my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.

            I will put my Spirit upon him,

                        and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

            [19] He will not quarrel or cry aloud,

                        nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;

            [20] a bruised reed he will not break,

                        and a smoldering wick he will not quench,

            until he brings justice to victory;

            [21]     and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever feel weighed down by the weight of responsibility and work and trying to be perfect? Jesus won’t beat you down, he won’t add to the burden, he calls you to come and be healed, to sit at his feet, to experience the Sabbath rest you were intended to experience. It only happens, though, when you are willing to quit trying to prove your own righteousness and trust in the righteousness of the one Matthew and Isaiah speak of – Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

The Sabbath wasn’t given to be a strict rule, it wasn’t given so you could pamper yourself or display your righteousness. No, the Sabbath was given to point us to Jesus. It is essential that we regain a Christocentric view of the Sabbath as Christians for the sake of our mission – taking the good news of God’s promised rest through the Messiah to the nations by the power of the Holy Spirit. Do you want to experience Sabbath rest? Spend time with Jesus. Serve others in the name of Jesus. Trust in the righteousness of Jesus. And, finally, tell others about Jesus.

Doubt, Faith, and the Christian Life

3534516458_48e4e8595f_bAt some point, we need to have an honest conversation about the Gospel. Yes, the all-encompassing truth that the God of the Universe is actively working to redeem all of Creation and remaking it as the Kingdom of Heaven under his sovereign rule. The good news that he invites us to join him in that work, to be his ambassadors and his servants, actively bringing the Kingdom into reality through our thoughts, words, and deeds. And the best part is we are invited to tell others, many of whom have never heard or thought of any of this, of the truth that will set them free.

All of this sounds good, all of this stirs the blood, and it gets us excited. And if it doesn’t get us excited, it may be that we don’t understand it.

But we also need to understand that this excitement is not enough to sustain us. We can get all jacked up about God’s Word, the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ mission, and run with it. Some of us can run a marathon on excitement, some of us can only run a couple feet, but eventually, we fade. Faith is exciting, but all the excitement will eventually exhaust us. And when excitement fades, doubt creeps in.

The strangest thing about Christianity is not that some people doubt its claims, but that some claim they never do. Eventually, doubt affects all of us, whether it’s doubt about our salvation, doubt about the Bible, doubt about the truth of the gospel itself, or doubt about God and his character.

And too often, the church has made this anathema. We’ve belittled those who doubt, we’ve acted incredulous that anyone would ever doubt, we’ve pretended that we don’t doubt. Nonsense. Doubt is a reality and it’s dangerous and downright harmful for us to pretend otherwise. If we are not honest about our doubts, we cannot trust the sincerity of our faith.

But, even as real and as inevitable as doubt is, it’s never where we ought to stay. There is a difference between honest doubt and self-serving doubt. Some people use “doubts” to serve their own agenda. Honest doubt is grounded in the hope that God can bring you through that doubt to a deeper, more genuine, stronger faith. Self-serving doubt is grounded in the hope that your doubt will free you from the obligations of a faith centered in a holy God.

But what is doubt, generally speaking? Doubt is the natural result of faith’s ideals running up against the world’s reality. In Matthew 11, we see the faith of John the Baptist run smack into a pretty brutal reality:

[1] When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. [2] Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples [3] and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John, who believed in Jesus, who pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” who was willing to decrease that Jesus might increase, sends his disciples with a question that reveals his doubt: “Are you the One or not?”

5 Causes of John’s Doubt

  1. Persecution: John is in prison for declaring truth to power. Is it any wonder that he begins to question things? He declared the truth and it got him in trouble – was it not true enough?
  2. Isolation: When John was mixing it up with his disciples and his religious opponents, he had both positive and negative reinforcers for his faith. Now that he’s in prison, he’s isolated from all that. He’s able to get lost in his own head, isolated with his thoughts, and that leads to doubt.
  3. Inaction: John seems to have been a pretty intense guy. And now he’s forced into inaction. The frustration of going from doing something about his faith to being unable to do anything added fuel to the psychological fire.
  4. Jealousy: This may or may not have been the case, but look at what spurred John to act on his doubt: “when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ.” The deeds of Christ may have represented a challenge to John’s ego now that he was sidelined.
  5. Accusation: There is an accusation inherent to John’s question in response to hearing of Jesus’ deeds: “You are doing all this good stuff for them, but if you were any kind of real messiah, you’d make getting me out of jail one of your works.”

These 5 causes of doubt in John’s life find their correlation in almost every Christian’s life at some point.

Persecution: While most Christians in America have not experienced prison time for their faith, many around the world have. Others have been killed, had family members killed, or worse. Many have lost homes, jobs, security – everything they have. And in America, there are many who grow weary of constantly “contending for the faith” against those who seek to belittle and tear it down. Some have faced opposition in their place of employment, in their family, or in their education. It’s not the same as state-sponsored persecution in other countries, but it is challenging and can lead to doubt.

Isolation: Many Christians find themselves isolated in their faith at one point or another. Maybe it’s the demands of providing for oneself and one’s family that requires long or odd hours that prevent consistent Christian fellowship. Maybe it’s a new baby in the house who’s sleep schedule or health keeps one or both parents in a state of exhaustion and away from the church. Or maybe it’s poor decisions that have led to an unwillingness to engage with other believers. But whatever its source, isolation begins to sow an introspection that can quickly devolve into doubt.

Inaction: Isolation and inaction can go hand in hand, the result of circumstances out of our control. That job requiring so much time takes time away from gospel engagement. That new baby demands all we have to give with nothing left for service. Those decisions made make us feel inadequate to work. But inaction is not always a corollary to isolation. Sometimes, we are in the midst of the swirl of God’s work in our families, churches, and circumstances. But for one reason or another, we just sit it out. We feel like we already served our time, we feel like someone else should step up, or we’re just plain stubborn. But if our faith is not put into action, eventually we start to doubt its reality.

Jealousy: This seed can grow into a deadly fruit. When we look at what God is accomplishing in other lives and we start comparing it to what he is accomplishing in ours, our doubt can take on a hard edge. We get frustrated by other’s success in the Christian life. We start to question the motives and hearts of servants who are doing the will of their master. Jealousy rears its ugly head anytime we start to compare our life with that of others. And that comparison is simply watering the seeds of doubt we plant in our minds.

Accusation: This is the ultimate result of jealousy – it arises out of jealousy:

“God, why are you making me struggle financially every month when they’re not?” OR “God, why won’t you give me a spouse? Why won’t you give me children? I see all these perfect families on Facebook, but you haven’t provided them for me.” OR “God, my kids don’t listen to me. Why can’t you make them more like so-and-so’s kids?”

“God, are you the One who’ll provide for me or should I look for someone else?”

How Does Jesus Answer Doubt?

 [4] And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: [5] the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. [6] And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus answers John’s doubt (and ours) by pointing us back to the power of God working through the gospel. In doing so, he answers the question, doesn’t he? Every cause of John’s doubt (and ours) is answered implicitly in Jesus’ response.

  1. Persecution: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” means that there will be those who are offended by Christ and by his work in his followers. Don’t let persecution surprise you into doubt: expect persecution so you can prepare against doubt.
  2. Isolation: Just because you’re not out there working, doesn’t mean God is working. As a matter of fact, the fact that God doesn’t need your presence to demonstrate his is good news! The kingdom of heaven’s advance is not resting on your shoulders. Rejoice in what God is doing when you’re not there.
  3. Inaction: Just because you can’t do something doesn’t mean you can’t do something. Don’t worry about the fact that you’re not out here going toe-to-toe with the Pharisees right now: others are able to work. Here’s a thought: use forced physical inaction as an opportunity to exercise spiritual action – pray!
  4. Jealousy: Don’t be jealous, it’s not about you: look at all the good that’s being done for others. Don’t get so wrapped up in your own head that you think God’s work has to be done through you or it doesn’t count. Rejoice that others are seeing success in their ministry.
  5. Accusation: God doesn’t always work how you want, but that doesn’t mean you give up on him. “What right has the pot to say to the potter, ‘Why did you make me this way?'” Understand that angry accusations against God ultimately reveal your heart instead of actually bearing effect on him.

Doubt in the Christian faith is assuaged not by self-deluding introspection but by remembering Jesus’ life and work. Focusing on our circumstances, our fears, our desires only reinforces our doubt. Focusing on Jesus, his life and his work, overcomes our doubt.

Learn to Recognize the Difference between Honest Doubt and Self-serving Doubt

We have to do a better job in the church of making room in our faith for doubt. The gospel is no small truth claim! It has universal implications and anything that big will incur doubt along the way. Just as finite humans cannot comprehend the entirety of this enormous universe, we will not be able to comprehend at all times and in all ways the entirety of the gospel. There will be gaps in our knowledge, in our understanding, and in our experience. And doubt will fill those gaps from time to time. When it does, however, we need to make sure it is honest doubt not self-serving doubt. In the heart that desires Christ, doubt is a motivation to seek him. In the heart that desires self, doubt is an excuse to abandon him. Honest doubt will own the gaps and seek to fill them with faith through the provision of God’s sovereignty. Self-serving doubt will seek to widen the gaps in order to free us from the constraints of that same sovereignty. We have to recognize the difference between the two:

Honest doubt sees Jesus’ work and praises him

Self-serving doubt sees Jesus’ work and demands more.

Honest doubt sees Jesus’ holiness and repents

Self-serving doubt sees Jesus’ holiness and ignores it.

Honest doubt sees Jesus’ kingdom first

Self-serving doubt sees oneself first.

Honest doubt will be rewarded

Self-serving doubt will be destroyed.

Ultimately, let me encourage you: don’t feign faith for the sake of others but don’t flaunt doubt for your own sake either. Instead, be honest, be seeking, and look at Jesus! Doubt is a reality, but it doesn’t have to define yours indefinitely.

*Image by Marco Bellucci