It was an ordinary night.
A young couple had a baby. Exciting, not unprecedented.
Workmen in a field nearby shielded their eyes from the sudden brightness of countless angels, singing the praises of a Savior.
“Peace on earth, goodwill to men!”
Soldiers stormed through the village, slaughtering babies, leaving wailing, bereft mothers in their wake.
Decades passed, nothing changed.
A young man staggered under the weight of the immense burden and fell to the ground. He was beaten, bloody, barely looked human. He climbed the hill of the skull and voluntarily put himself on that cross, naked, humiliated, scorned, rejected, completely innocent, carrying your sin and mine.
“It is finished!”
In this fourth week of Advent we delight in the coming of Jesus. The baby in the manger: fully human and fully God. An epic miracle, but not the end of the story. We delight in His submission to become one of us, to be obedient to the Father, to humble himself to the cross. We delight in His perfect life and sacrificial death. We delight in His finished work, our reconciliation with God.
I want to credit Jeremy Sams for the image at the top of the post. He is a Christian artist based in North Carolina. The manger is meaningless without the cross.
A glow on the horizon, pink, purple, barely perceptible.
You keep waiting, listening to the waves. The sky is brightening. You know the day stretches before you, yet you linger in it’s first moments. The edge of the burning orb appears, first a sliver, then fully revealed.
A brilliant heavenly visitor stood before the small-town, engaged, teen girl. Her expression was confused.
“But I’ve never been with a man.”
At first glance the response of Mary is identical to that of Zechariah. He stated the impossibility of what was promised and was punished for his doubt. Mary’s question came from a place of faith.
Gabriel told Mary that a distant family member was pregnant in old age, a sign from God that this promise of virginal conception would become reality.
Mary immediately traveled to visit Elizabeth and her words of greeting have been repeated for centuries. The Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth and her preborn son. John leaped in the womb as the fetal Messiah entered their home! Elizabeth specifically affirmed Mary for her belief in the fulfillment of the promise of God.
In this third week of Advent, I believe. Not an open ended, nonspecific sense that things will be ok. Not belief in myself and my abilities. Rather, confidence in the fulfillment of the promises of God.
The sky is glowing. He is with us, changing us. Just like at dawn, the brilliance of His glory is yet to be fully revealed.
The curtain fluttered closed behind him. Darkness mostly surrounded the altar. The lampstand quietly glowed on his right. He heard the murmured prayers of hundreds, expectantly gathered just outside. He had looked forward to this moment for every one of his seventy-five years with no guarantee that it would happen.
He lit the incense. Smoke began to curl upwards.
Fear knifed through him, completely displacing his chanted petitions. Something unapproachably bright was visible above the altar. A presence.
“Don’t be afraid!”
The voice was deep, calm, believable.
“Your prayers have been heard. Your wife will have a son.”
Confusion danced around the edge of his fear. They had stopped praying for a child when Elizabeth turned sixty, more than ten years ago.
“He will go before Him in the Spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.”
The rest of the words became a blur. This was a Messianic prophecy!
“But I am an old man.”
His words tumbled out almost before he thought about it. My wife is old. This isn’t possible.
He didn’t believe.
Gabriel’s words to Zechariah broke centuries of heavenly silence. A prophecy from Malachi was quoted, naming this promised son a forerunner of the Christ.
In this second week of Advent, note the source of doubt – our identity. When Zechariah analyzed himself and his capabilities, he doubted God’s promise. When you and I focus on our limitations, our deficiency of energy, desire, time, compassion – we doubt.
One of the first steps to faith is to turn our gaze and our hearts away from ourselves, and toward out God who CAN do the impossible!
“Let there be light”
God spoke and separated light from dark. And the light was good.
“Where are you?”
A question from God. The man and woman hid, guilty because of their sin, turning away from the light and towards darkness.
“Every thought of his heart was evil continually”
Man embraced the darkness, violence ruled the land. A worldwide flood brought a momentary end to the bloodshed.
“Every man did that which was right in his own eyes”
The moral relativism of Judges wrapped up with unthinkable evil almost resulting in the loss of one of the twelve tribes.
“And they will be thrust into thick darkness”
Isaiah spoke to a people who were sent into captivity, punished for their rejection of God, for their embrace of idolatry and immorality.
“Lest I come and smite the earth with a curse”
Malachi ends with a promise of the coming Day of the Lord, and the possibility of utter destruction.
And then God was silent.
In this first week of Advent, like Israel during four hundred years of silence, we sit in darkness.
I’m thankful for my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for the gift of salvation, for direction and purpose now, for hope of eternal glory later.
I’m thankful for God’s word which continues to be incredibly relevant to every aspect of our journey.
I’m thankful for His love which is the source of our love for others, for His Spirit which fills and regenerates our wandering souls.
I’m thankful for Beth. Her commitment to me, the girls, our home and Regenerate are amazing.
I’m thankful for our daughters who are growing into beautiful young women, each gifted and accomplished in her own way.
I’m thankful for Regenerate, for the privilege to gather with brothers and sisters to pray, sing and read God’s word.
I’m thankful for our yellow house, a gift from God to be shared with others, a little kingdom outpost, home.
I’m thankful for my practice, staff and patients. The Pines office is a place to form meaningful connections with others, to craft an environment that is supportive and healing. I still love what I do!
I’m thankful for music, the soundtrack of life, the way to communicate the inexpressible.
I’m thankful for the third Thanksgiving blog post that I’m typing in South Florida, for sunshine and eighty-degree days, bike rides by the ocean, our backyard with thriving palm and banana trees.
I’m thankful for each of you who know a little bit about our story. We don’t see you often (ever) yet know that you pray for our efforts as we seek His glory, personal growth and to disciple others.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
Why did it have to be a cross?
A guy died a long, long time ago. Maybe he was a nice guy. Maybe he said some good things. What does that have to do with me?
There is something wrong with you, something wrong with the world. Right and wrong isn’t something we made up. It’s something outside of us, independent of us. Rape is wrong. Racism is wrong. Abuse of power is wrong. Dishonesty is wrong. It’s probably easiest to understand your internal moral code in terms of how you’d like to be treated. Whether by word, action or inaction, you’ve violated your own moral code. So have I. This is a fundamental, undeniable and yet contentious point.
I’m a good person, right?
All have sinned.
What happens after the sin? You did the crime, you do the time? This is justice. We all have a concept of justice and strongly want to see it become reality.
Repayment of stolen money is perhaps the simplest application of justice. Pay back the missing amount. We’re even. Everything is ok again. If someone else paid back the money for you – WOW! You’d be grateful, you’d be free of the debt. That’s substitutionary atonement.
What about an offense like rape or murder? There is NO amount of money that will make up for what was done. The horror of the wicked actions looms over the victim and their family for years, decades.
Justice must come from outside. It is derived from an objective source that measures the offense, determines and implements punishment. If either the victim or the offender metes out judgement, bias is inevitable. Fairness is lost.
Sin and justice. You’re still with me?
The next step to understand the cross is the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, completely righteous God. The great “I AM”! He is the standard of perfection. There is NO sin in God.
Our sin creates at least two problems. As sinful creatures, we are distant from God, unable to be part of Him. Our sin also leads to incomplete justice. We are not able to fully understand our shortcomings or pay for them. Not even close! It would seem our plight is hopeless.
We’ve established the existence of sin, the need for justice and the perfection of God. Onto the scene steps Jesus, the God-man! At the right time, He entered history, lived a perfect life and died the death of a criminal. He was not punished for His own sin, of which there was none. He suffered to pay the penalty for the sins of all who believe. His resurrection from the dead validated everything he said about himself and ignited a revolution which changed the world.
Belief in Jesus transfers your guilt to him. His suffering and death pay the price for your sin. His perfection is credited to you, allowing you to stand in the presence of the perfect God.
It’s too good to be true!
A few years ago, I received a letter from “Indiana Unclaimed”. The advertisement directed me to a website with the promise that I could log on and type in my name and BOOM - I’d get a check in the mail. I didn’t believe it. You probably wouldn’t either. A couple weeks later I logged in, typed in my name, the check came in the mail – a couple thousand dollars! Your salvation is worth infinitely more than a few thousand dollars! Belief in Jesus is the key that unlocks this incredible treasure.
I’m a believer.
You’re climbing a mountain. The path is long and steep. The peak is not visible; however, you are certain this trail leads to it. The distance between your current position and the mountaintop is unknown. Lunch was some hours ago and you’re a bit hungry. In your pack are only two granola bars and a liter of water. You had not anticipated the steepness or length of the hike, hence the potentially inadequate supplies. Your favorite travel websites failed to alert you to the rocky nature of the trail. You regret the morning’s choice to wear flip-flops. Your iPhone died – no more GPS.
You have a guidebook in your pocket. It includes a short summary of this “TOP 10” trail, frustratingly lacking in detail. The copyright inside the cover of the small book is a decade ago and its accuracy is definitely in question.
Is the climb worth it? CAN you make it? Is it wiser to turn back?
A quick drink of water refreshes you. The bottle is returned to the backpack. You turn uphill with renewed energy. Your left foot lands on a loose rock and instantly you’re down on the trail, searing pain shoots up your leg! You gingerly slide off the flip-flop. The foot looks ok, there is a bluish hue to the skin on the outside of the ankle. It hurts to touch and is starting to swell. The movement of the ankle is painful, but intact.
What does it mean to persevere?
There is a path, a direction. There are obstacles, challenges. There is some question of the possibility of success.
You cannot persevere if you are not going anywhere. The path is not necessarily geographic. Your direction could be to learn something, to develop yourself, to grow in faith. If there is no direction, if there is no goal, there can be no perseverance.
You cannot persevere if there are no obstacles. A ball does not persevere in rolling downhill. You do not persevere to fritter away four hours on YouTube. Super Hero movies need super villains. If there is no imaginable possibility of failure, there will be no struggle, no heroic perseverance.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to lay aside every weight and sin which so easily clings to us. Run with perseverance (endurance, patience) the race set before you.
Take off your ankle weights. Leave them on the trail. Like lint, sin clings to us to so easily. Check yourself all over, clean it off. Your race isn’t my race. You are called to run YOUR race. We have a direction, we gaze upward toward the author and finisher (perfecter) of our faith – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is the template of heroic perseverance. He climbed Mount Calvary, enduring the suffering and shame. He is victorious, seated at the right hand of the Father, in glory.
Climb the mountain. Keep gazing upward. It’s worth it. Trust the guidebook. Put one foot in front of the other. Persevere!
Wake up early, a couple hours before sunrise. Uber to the airport. Maybe Southwest, you’ll connect in a hub: Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis. The second flight will be longer than the first. Your neck hurts from trying to nap in the cramped seat. The pilot announces the final approach into northwest Nevada. There are a few mountains on the horizon. It’s a brown world, boring. Reno is suburban sprawl interrupted with high-rise casinos. It’s Pacific Time, still morning. Collect your bags and the keys to a small rental SUV. Heading south, the city quickly falls behind. You turn west. The desert gives way to fir trees. The air cools. Switchbacks ascend to the Mount Rose pass. Snow covers the ground. A wide spot in the road allows drivers to pull off for scenic photographs. Ski lift towers march to the peak on your left. Your ears feel pressured, then pop. On the descent you become aware that you’re entering a different world: a lush bowl, rimmed with mountains, trees densely covering the slopes, water stretching almost to the horizon.
Lake Tahoe is its own world. Walled off from the surrounding desert by mountains on all sides. Lush wooded slopes rising above the lake a stark contrast with the barren Nevada desert to the east.
The Washoe were here before the Europeans came. They gathered pine nuts, hunted, fished, and built a life. They were a peaceful people and viewed the lake and mountains as spiritually significant.
A memorial on the north side of the lake reminds us of the tragedy of the Donner party. Brave, incompetent pioneers who suffered through the longest winter of the past couple centuries. Stuck on the shores of a mountain lake, buried in twenty feet of snow, unable to go west through the pass or east to Reno. They slowly starved. Half of them died. A cautionary tale? Perhaps.
In the smartphone/social media era, Lake Tahoe is a place to unplug and disconnect. Sit by the lake and be absorbed in the undulations of the water. The waves are gentle, quiet, consistent. Predawn, the water is dark, cold. The air is crisp and still. The water tints golden and the mountain peaks red as the sun climbs into view. The morning sky is reflected by the lake, the blue hue otherworldly. The Sierras rise to their snowy crests, thousands of feet above the lake, yet appearing small. You keep taking pictures, frustrated that none of them adequately reflects reality. The morning pushes into afternoon. Clouds drift in front of the sun. The water changes, becoming a darker, blackish blue. The surface rougher, almost choppy. You feel the breeze and zip your sweatshirt.
We yearn for a connection to something beyond ourselves.
That feeling on the shore of Lake Tahoe isn’t unique to me. The atheist and the deist are both blessed by the majesty of this place. Our environment is not just uniquely crafted to enable our survival. It’s also endowed with extravagant beauty.
It is the kindness of our God that draws us toward repentance. In the peaceful moments He whispers to each soul. Can you hear Him?
I love you.
A sense of purpose is elusive. I can grasp it for a moment. My action has meaning. I connect with something more than myself.
But there are days and weeks that I’m not able to firmly hold my sense of purpose. I’m drifting, wandering. Doubts come, nagging questions.
Is it worth it?
Why am I doing this?
How long should I press on?
Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?
We can think about a sense of purpose in at least three levels. The first level is action to meet basic needs like food and shelter. I work to buy groceries and pay the mortgage. It’s that simple.
A second level of purpose involves actions designed to meet higher level desires like love and approval. I’m motivated to show up at my kitchen table for supper. That table is a place where I belong. I am loved and approved, that’s where I’m supposed to be.
We’ll use the word ‘Altruism’ to describe the third level of sense of purpose. We sense the value of those around us and our action benefits them. I mow the lawn and pick up litter which makes our street more attractive. Respecting others in line at the grocery store esteems my fellow shoppers as having value equal to my own.
Let me make three observations about the three levels of purpose. First, as described above, levels one and two are selfish and level three is selfless. Second, almost every action results from a mixture of multiple levels of motivation. Third, the whole concept of ‘purpose’ has a fundamental inadequacy.
Let’s flesh this out with an example. I get paid every two weeks as a reward for caring for patients. That compensation is tangible and transferrable to Safeway for food and to PennyMac so they will let us live in our yellow house another thirty days. My patients and staff reimburse me with approval in the form of warm smiles, handshakes and four-star reviews on healthgrades.com. Caring for each soul that wanders into my office pushes my altruism buttons. My typical office day is a rush of actions, fueled by a mishmash of selfish and selfless motivation. On those days that I’m tired, and during the visits with exceptionally challenging patients, all that sense of purpose is inadequate to keep nagging questions from bouncing to the surface.
The secret sauce is to connect to a fourth level of purpose, bigger than obtrusive doubts.
Jesus stood before Pilate, bloody but unbowed. Exhausted, confident, suffering, calm, determined, a prisoner, completely in control. Pilate’s question: “are you a king?” Jesus responded with a statement of purpose. “I came into this world to teach the truth, to BE the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to me.” (paraphrase)
From the moment Jesus entered a human shell, he understood his direction toward the cross. His whole life pointed forward to that hour.
Can you and I grasp a divine purpose for our lives? Yes! Perhaps not as clearly and consistently as Jesus, but I believe we can connect with His overarching plan for us.
Connecting with God’s purpose for our lives transforms each of the above levels, decreasing selfish motivation. When our focus drifts and everything seems fruitless and futile, may we plant our feet on the Rock. May we look to the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
Have you ever written a letter to someone you never met?
A small group of men stood on the Mount of Olives, half a mile from the gates of Jerusalem. Their mouths were open. They squinted upwards at the impossible brightness of the puffy clouds and blue sky. It wasn’t just an ordinary afternoon. The Master had disappeared. His multiple appearances in the past forty days convinced them that He was ALIVE! They were transformed, ready to pour out their lives, ready to DIE for this reality.
The walk back to the city was downhill, surprisingly short. They gathered in the upper room, broke bread together, prayed, and waited.
Pentecost was ten days later. Jerusalem was packed, jammed with people from all over the world. The city was barely cleaned up from one feast before it was filled with messy throngs to celebrate the next.
It’s hard to overstate what happened that day. It was like a hurricane with no rain, like a forest fire with no burns. The awareness that we are on the edge of infinity was palpable. There is so much MORE in the universe than we see, measure and understand. Thousands heard the preaching, repented and were baptized in the name of Jesus.
Jews from Rome were in the audience that day. They witnessed the power of the Spirit. They heard Peter preach the truth. They believed, received and were baptized. You can imagine their conversations on the three-month walk home. The Messiah came! We just missed seeing Him. What if the rabbi at home doesn’t believe us? Can we convince him with scriptures from the Psalms, Isaiah and Joel?
The gathering of Jesus followers in Rome grew. We don’t know for sure if it’s genesis was a few Jewish Christians, returning from Pentecost, AD 33. It’s certainly possible.
In AD 49 Claudius expelled Jews from Rome. This included Aquila and Priscilla, the host family for a house church. The pair traveled to Corinth and started a life there, integrating with Jesus followers in their new city. They met a well-traveled man in his fifties who shared not only a common faith, but also a common profession – tent maker. Paul, Aquila and Priscilla worked together for “a season”, as long as eighteen months.
Paul was a seasoned writer and church planter. He had heart for cities, the most populated and sinful places. He longed to go to Rome, to see the name of Jesus proclaimed in the center of the world. Through Aquila and Priscilla, Paul heard the insider account of Jesus followers in Rome. What did they understand about the gospel? What questions remained unanswered? What struggles did they face?
Inspired by the Spirit and filled with love for people he had never met, Paul wrote a letter, his longest letter. He dictated it, Tertius put the quill on the parchment. The finished letter was wrapped carefully and carried to Rome by a trusted friend, Phoebe.
The core of this letter to Roman Christians is a detailed presentation of the gospel. We are Jesus followers in a time and place that Paul could not have imagined, much less visited. He writes to us as well.
With Resurrection Sunday behind us, we are digging into the letter Paul wrote to Jesus followers in an urban, secular setting. I hope you’ll join us as we start the series “Foundations”, the book of Romans.
Join us as we celebrate the resurrection, Sunday April 1, 2018 at 6:30AM. We will be at the beach in Pompano, just east of the intersection of Terra Mar Drive and A1A.
What if I could write something that changed the world?
What if the words coming from this pen could soothe hate,
halt the abuse of power,
The 2017 film “Good-Bye Christopher Robin” dramatized the struggle of A. A. Milne with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Milne returned to London following the first World War suffering intrusive flashbacks, anxiety and panic. A playwright by trade, he became acutely aware of the banality of routine. He ached to transmit the terrors of trench warfare, the violence, the death. If humanity could read and understand this, we would change. There would never be another war.
A. A. Milne failed.
He wrote a children’s story, hated by his son. Twenty years later that son fought in the second World War, unfathomable in it’s destruction, pain and loss of life.
Every day around us marriages fail. Relational wounds fester. Middle aged men drift into obesity and alcoholism. Children are ignored and reach their teen years isolated, staring at small screens in the dark. Forty-five-year-old fathers hate themselves, wracked with guilt after succumbing to pornography again. A sixty-five-year-old divorcee works overtime, afraid of going home alone. They wonder if their best days passed them by. They wonder why.
A long time ago in a faraway land, a man came. He offered regenerating love to unlock purpose and peace in the human heart.
He was the Word that changed the world.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5:3-11 (ESV)
Even the optimist suffers a letdown in January.
Advent is four weeks of excitement. We retrieve decorations from storage and arrange them carefully. Countless candles are lit. Icicle lights are strung along the roofline and faithfully plugged in every evening. We sing seasonal songs, silly and serious.
We organize a shopping list and purchase each gift. Amazon boxes show up within forty-eight hours and are hidden under the bed until they can be wrapped.
Our travel plans are finalized: flights, rental car, hotel. There are lots of calls and text messages finding out exactly who will be there. We’ll need that coat again. Haven’t worn it in two years. OH NO!! It’s too small. No worries, just buy another.
We share Advent anticipation with our church family. The weekly readings start in Isaiah. We meditate on the Children of Israel in darkness, waiting for the Light of the World, looking forward to the fulfillment of promises made to Abraham and David.
Holiday commercials are packed with gentle flurries and perfect trees. Everyone shows up nicely dressed and is overjoyed to be together. We all get what we were hoping for and this time, it really does make us happy. Mom and dad hug each other and smile. Children share. A fire on the hearth quietly crackles.
Christmas Eve we read from Luke chapter two. We can almost quote it. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . .”
Jesus is born! His coming is objective reality.
Christmas Eve winds toward midnight. Maybe we’re in church. Maybe we’re home with chocolates and egg nog. It’s almost impossible to sleep with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, and we don’t even know what a sugar plum looks like.
You wake up with a headache on the twenty-fifth of December. You slept too long. Or not long enough. The morning coffee and breakfast are good. Deep down inside, you know it’s just another day. You open some presents. The shirt doesn’t fit and it’s the wrong brand. You smile and act excited. You’re tired but feel guilty napping because missing a minute of this day would be a micro-tragedy.
The flight to the family event is delayed. You arrive exhausted. That ONE family member who is SO hard to deal with – there they are! Same as always! Your kids fight with their cousins. You’re bored. The cold is oppressive. And then it ends too soon. The Christmas hamster dies. You fly home. You need a Clif Bar to scale the mountain of laundry. Work is crazy, just trying to catch up. And then the calendar rolls into a new year and you are too tired to stay up until midnight. You think about how much older you’re going to be in 2018 and that you need too lose a few pounds. You scroll through Facebook and for a few moments feel very alone in this world. You open the credit card app and the pending balance momentarily takes your breath away.
Even the optimist suffers a letdown in January.
We are the people of the Already and the Not Yet. He already came. He has not yet returned. We are a redeemed people, brought to life through his coming, victorious in his completed work on the cross. Yet, all creation groans under the weight of the curse. I am part of creation.
Join me in the anticipation of Advent, living in the shadow, looking forward to His second coming. Whether we meet him in death, or in the sky, it will be a “Christmas Day” - a glorious fulfillment of everything for which we were created with NO letdown.
He stood up.
The meal was over, he had momentarily lost interest in the somewhat heated conversation. The earthen bowl was warm against his hands. He lifted it and scooped in three measures of clean water. He placed it, now heavier, back on the floor.
The argument at the end of the table continued as he slipped off his outer robe and deposited it on a low stool. A hush fell on the seated men as he walked to the end of the table, towel draped around his waist.
He knelt in front of Nathaniel, who was speechless. There was audible shock in the silent room. He took Nathaniel’s right foot and dunked it in the water. Particles of dirt floated to the surface. He cleaned the foot, scrubbing between the toes, then patted the foot dry with the coarse towel. He moved from one man to the next, repeating his actions.
Peter held up a hand, his face flushed. “You will NEVER wash my feet!”
On his knees, he paused and smiled up at the ruddy fisherman. “If I don’t wash your feet, you are not part of me”
He continued calmly, twenty-four feet to wash. There was an eagerness in the room for this awkwardness to be over.
He was at the end of the table, almost finished, wiping Judas’ feet. The disciples face was taut, tormented, indecisive, guilty. The Master’s eyes radiated nothing but love for this lost sheep.
He sat at the table again. They waited expectantly.
“Do you understand what I just did?”
“You call me Master, rightly, because I AM. I set an example for you of an upside-down kingdom. I want you to serve each other this way. You’ll be happy when you do, and that’s a promise.”
Paul finished his first letter to the church at Thessalonica with a series of short thoughts: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, ESV)
Let’s start with that last line. Do you ever wonder what God’s will is? The future is always unclear. At times we are more acutely aware of that uncertainty. Part of God’s will for you is to rejoice, pray and give thanks. Perhaps these three commands encompass ALL of God’s will for you. Everything else is just details. Work hard, mow your lawn, serve your family and community – do it all with rejoicing, praying and being grateful.
Prayer – communication with the Almighty. This includes a cry for help, joyful celebration, worship, petitions, gratitude, asking for direction. The foundation of prayer is looking outside self. I am not the source of joy and fulfillment in my life. I am not capable of solving anybody’s problems. Looking outside of myself, I am grateful for the many good gifts that God has given and cry out to the one who sees the future for help and direction.
Rejoice Always. This is not because Jesus followers have the easiest lives. Paul planted churches in communities that wrestled with poverty and active violent persecution. Paul was martyred for his faith.
There are at least two concepts which bring joy into the lives of the redeemed. In the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians, Paul makes a comparison between what we experience in the here and now and what we will experience on the other side. It’s a bit like comparing the buying power of a penny and one-hundred billion dollars. Do I look at my challenging relationships as though they have the weight of a penny? Paul describes our current struggles as “light and momentary” - brief in both degree and duration. If I really grasp this, I’m well on my way to rejoicing always.
James, the brother of Jesus, explains a second concept which powers our ability to rejoice. Right at the top of his letter, he states that we are to consider every trial that we face with joy, because those trials will produce steadfastness, that we might be mature and perfect! Constant rejoicing, even during bleak moments, is linked to an awareness that the sovereign God uses those moments to develop maturity.
This is God’s will for us. We look outside ourselves, reaching beyond what we can see toward the One we cannot see. We Pray. We compare the size and duration of current suffering with the size and duration of future rewards. We submit to the sovereignty of God and permit Him to use trials to perfect us. We rejoice. We obey both of those commands and never stop reaching out to God with hearts full of joy. In everything we give thanks!
“To the one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
(Thomas Aquinas, 13th century)
The apostle John recorded a moment of struggle on the edge of Passion week (John 12:27-30). Jesus had been teaching in the temple courts, less than five days before the crucifixion. He was deeply troubled in spirit. Bracing himself for what was to come, Jesus called out to the Father to glorify himself in the revealed plan of redemption. A voice responded from heaven “I have glorified it (my name), and I will glorify it again.”
There were at least three groups of people within earshot. Some thought they heard thunder. Some heard the voice of an angel. John understood this was God speaking, what He said and why He said it.
Some of the listeners that day were followers. They didn’t understand everything about Jesus, but were willing to sacrifice to be where He was. Listening to His teaching, they were being transformed. John was in this group. John knew the voice was God the Father, voicing approval of His Son and His plan.
Belief opens your eyes. You can see God and hear His voice.
A second group who heard the voice from heaven and attributed it to an angel. They understood the words but not their purpose. Maybe these were God-fearing Jews who were drawn by the crowd, knowing nothing about the young man whose taut face was turned upward to heaven.
There is this place of curiosity, yearning for more. In this South Florida church-planting endeavor, we long to meet those who are unfulfilled with what our culture offers. People who hear a voice and even understand the words, yet don’t know the identity of the source of life and hope.
The third group heard thunder. Many scribes and Pharisees knew exactly who Jesus was. He was a poor man from a no-name town promoting an ideology which threatened the temple system. His words angered them. Their goal was to stop his teaching, even end his life. Yes, there was a storm coming. Thunder rolled in the distance, impending doom.
You don’t have to believe. If you choose not to believe, you’ll find a simple and natural explanation for the world around you. Instead of the voice of God speaking from the heavens, glorifying His name – you’ll hear thunder.
Let me take you to a tomb with a dead body inside, huddled mourners outside. Jesus wept at the tomb. He asked for the stone to be rolled away. Martha said what everyone was thinking – “but Lord, he stinketh”. Jesus response: “If you believe, you will see the glory of God”.
Do you want to see the glory?
Can a Christ follower lose their salvation?
This is a BIG question, even a point of contention. Our foundation to explore this is the inspired Word of God. I’d like to review familiar verses which speak to both sides of this issue. We will discuss implications and potential pitfalls.
Our opponent can use an issue like this to split Jesus followers, limiting our fellowship and impact on our community. I’m convinced there is a common ground to be found on the other side of this discussion.
You and I are sinners. This is our fundamental identity, inherited from Adam (Romans 5:12-21). The penalty for our sin is death (Romans 3:23). Jesus is the incarnation of God who lived a perfect life and was crucified to take the penalty for our sins (Romans 3:24-25). We are saved by belief in Jesus (Romans 10:9). We believe and are raised from death to life, made a new creation in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-9). Being alive in Christ and dead to the world affects our actions (Ephesians 2:10, Romans 6:1-4).
That’s the gospel!
I hope you believe it. If you don’t, but you’re curious, please reach out to me or a Jesus follower in your community. Anyone can be drawn to the truth, believe, and be saved.
Eternal Security is a doctrine also called the Perseverance of the Saints. This is the concept that all of those who are saved by belief in Jesus, will continue to be saved until the day that they die. Once you are saved, there is NOTHING you could do to lose that salvation.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. (John 10:27-29, ESV)
Jesus taught that he was the Good Shepherd, calling to the sheep. His sheep recognized his voice and followed. Sheep are not strong or independent. The Father is greater than ALL. He will protect the sheep and No one is able to snatch the sheep away. A possible understanding of this parable is that NOTHING, not even the sheep itself, can snatch it out of the hand of the Father. Once the sheep recognizes the voice of Jesus and responds, it is eternally secure.
This becomes a question of free will. I believe that every person has free will. This gift from God is not something deserved or demanded. God knows what we will ultimately choose. Our free will is preserved in that we do not see the future, do not know what choices lie ahead of us.
The eternal security understanding of these verses limits free will. Proponents of this would state that the sheep, itself, is included in the “no one” able to snatch them away. This means that once the sheep responds to the voice of Jesus, it is no longer free to wander away. After we cross over from death to life, have we lost our ability to choose?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39, ESV)
These beautiful verses are so reassuring. You might be facing depression, loneliness, chronic illness, persecution, uncertainty, even death. You are more than a conqueror, walking in victory, knowing that the God you serve is stronger than whatever you face. He will be with you through the trial and will greet you with open arms and endless love on the other side!
Can I separate myself from the love of God? The doctrine of Eternal Security would indicate that I cannot. Once I have responded to the gospel and believe, I am not able to resist the love of God. Of course, none of us is really strong enough to resist God’s love, yet he grants us that choice.
Mark chapter ten tells the story of a man who came to Jesus with a question. The law-abiding man might have been seeking validation. Jesus looked at him, loved him, and told him to sell everything and give to the poor. It was too hard, too much to ask. The man walked away sad and lost.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 24, ESV)
The thread running through each of these passages is the incredible power and love of God. He is able to keep us in that love and present us perfect on that last day. Does that mean that he WILL keep us from stumbling and present us faultless? Do we play a role in “keeping ourselves” in the love of Christ. Jude encouraged the recipients of his letter to do exactly that (Jude 23).
It’s clear that if you want to be in the love of God, if you hear the voice of Jesus and respond, there is nothing powerful enough in this universe to take that away from you. If you want to keep your salvation – you will!
And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. (Luke 8:13, ESV)
This verse from Luke is in the middle of Jesus explanation of the Parable of the Sower. I would strongly encourage you to read both the complete parable and Jesus explanation of each of the four groups.
We wrestle with the situation of those in “group two”. Those who believe in Eternal Security would say that people in group two were never saved. Rather then debate the unknowable, I’ll stick to the words of Jesus. There is a category of people who “hear the word”, “receive it with joy”, “believe for a while”, and then “fall away”.
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6, ESV)
The writer of Hebrews tells us about a group of people who have been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God. That sounds like a group of people I’d love to invite into my living room for worship every Sunday! The author goes on to say that if these souls fall away, it is impossible to restore them to repentance. In falling away, their actions are crucifying the Son of God all over again!
Those who believe in Eternal Security might respond that because you cannot lose your salvation, those who have fallen away were never saved. This logic is a bit circular in nature. I would strongly prefer to let the verses speak for themselves.
The pitfall of Eternal Security is a false assurance of Salvation. Someone has no interest in God’s Word or His people, no desire to do what is right and avoid what is wrong is not saved, even if they prayed the “sinner’s prayer” when they were five years old. We endanger their soul by reassuring them that they’re fine and they can persist in their lifestyle. We should rather encourage belief, repentance, pursuit of truth, and discipleship. I have met many Jesus followers who staunchly embrace Eternal Security and do NOT live a life of license. This pitfall is not expressed by everyone who holds to this position.
There are two main pitfalls of believing that it is possible to lose your salvation. The first is the potential to live in fear. If I said a bad word, lashed out at a family member in anger, or entertained lustful thoughts today – have I lost my salvation? The answer to those questions can be found in the passages quoted above from John ten, Romans eight and Jude. If the direction of my heart is to respond to the voice of my Savior and embrace my regenerate identity, I HAVE NOT and WILL NOT lose my Salvation.
Legalism is another potential pitfall. The temptation is to create check-boxes like thirty minutes of Bible reading daily, church twice weekly, fasting one meal a week. As long as I have completed all of the above – when I die, I’ll go to heaven. Legalism was a problem for the Pharisees who were better than ANYONE at creating and completing religious check lists! Jesus harshest words were for these arrogant, pretentious hypocrites!
Jesus Followers SHOULD focus on holy living. We make check lists and stay organized to accomplish long term goals in work, music, or sports. We can do this in our walk with God as well. The key focus is that anything we do as a Christ Follower who was dead and has been brought to life is a result of salvation and NOT the way that the salvation was earned.
At the end of the discussion, everyone agrees that God is the judge, the decider, and we are not. Imagine a pastor who preaches the name of Jesus, leads a church, and travels the country leading revivals. Imagine that same pastor reaching age forty and deciding that God doesn’t exist. He now teaches that all paths lead to enlightenment as long as they are embraced with enthusiasm, that the highest goal in life is diversity, and “just be nice”. Those who embrace Eternal Security would say “He was never saved”. Those who consider loss of salvation a possibility would say “He is not saved now”.
After all the words and opinions - there is common ground. As Followers of Jesus, we want to reach the lost, share the gospel and welcome repentant souls into the kingdom.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”
Next Wednesday at 3:30PM *send*.
This is me, setting up my annual performance review. I’m a little uncomfortable with the whole idea. I do great work! I show up every day. I’m fast with the computer. My patients and staff LOVE me. Why should I sit down with my medical director for an hour and talk about who-knows-what?
Prior to Wednesday I must complete a mandatory self-evaluation. Let’s look at the three goals I made last year. Hmmm, I cannot remember what they were. A big part of this is my quality scorecard. The numbers don’t lie: my through-put time has been below sixty minutes only ONE month the entire past year. There are goals for cancer screening and control of Diabetes and Hypertension. I see red boxes in several columns: FAIL!
Am I that bad?
Can I objectively gauge my own performance?
It takes an hour Wednesday afternoon, a profitable hour. We talk about the successes and failures of the past twelve months. We set three office goals to accomplish in the coming year. It’s a healthy mix of encouragement and exhortation. As I drive home, my mind is stirred up. What a privilege to be part of this team! I’m excited to make every office visit and every staff interaction a little better.
Do you want to grow?
We read the verse at the top of this post and we think about the time we were sitting around a campfire, just a few of us. Someone had a guitar. We started singing hymns. It was REAL. It was DEEPLY MOVING. Jesus was in our midst!
And that’s TOTALLY valid.
And that TOTALLY takes this verse out of context.
The context of this verse is accountability.
Jesus tells us how to resolve a disagreement. Matthew 18:15-20 records the multi-step process. First, have a one on one meeting, second, a meeting with two or three others. The final step is to take the problem before the whole gathering. If our brother who is in the wrong will not listen to the group, he is excluded from the fellowship. Jesus concludes this teaching with the statement that if two or three of us are together in his name, his power and presence are there.
We are saved by grace, through faith and NOT of works, so that NONE of us could boast. This is NOT works-based salvation or legalism.
Accountability faces the truth with love. The truth that I need to walk in community. The truth that many of my goals are uncompleted, even forgotten. The truth that I am not as good as I think I am. The truth that I am NOT able to objectively look at myself. Without input, I’ll get stuck in dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns for decades.
On the other side of the difficult conversation is renewed love for the gathering, fresh goals, and deeper motivation to live intentionally. What is church? Accountability.