Jesus Makes Life Easy?

Believe in Jesus and all of your troubles will go away, right?

Health and Wealth are promised us, right?

Apparently not if you were one of his apostles.

Paul’s experience while following Jesus:

“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”       2 Corinthians 11:24-28

Seriously folks, let’s start actually reading our Bibles instead of preaching what people want to hear.

Jesus promises us a lot of wonderful things, but a life of ease is not one of them.

This life is often hard.   Sometimes following Jesus seriously actually makes it harder.

Full of love and purpose?  Yes.

More money?  No.  You’ll have to work for that.

Guaranteed long life?  Nope.

The promise being a part of what God is doing now and forever?

Sign me up.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.   It is for me anyway.

You’ll have to decide for yourself.

 

 

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Just Be Perfect

You know that Jesus told us to be perfect, right?

What did he mean by perfect?

Perfect like God, according to Jesus.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Matthew 5:48

If Jesus expects us to be as perfect as God, frankly (and probably blasphemously), he’s just crazy.  Right?

None of us are perfect and we all know it, even if some try to throw off that vibe from time to time.

So, what gives?  Has Jesus given us an impossible standard to strive towards that we can never, ever dream of achieving but hope to make just a little bit of progress toward over our lives?

That’s what a lot of Christians seem to believe and teach.

And if perfect means perfect in the total sense that we understand the term, what else can it mean?

Be perfect like God.   Yeah right.

Thankfully, I don’t believe that’s the case.  And while many have weighed in on this over the course of church history, I’d like to simply make two observations.

The first starts with a reminder that the New Testament was written in Greek.  For that reason, every English language Bible is a translation and translators always have challenges.

The Greek word – telios – is generally translated ‘perfect’ and I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be.   But words can have shades and variations of meaning in language.   And those meanings as generally understood can vary over time.

We know that this is true when we think about the word love in its biblical use compared to our common use today.

Telios can mean that something or someone is complete or accomplishing its intended purpose or fully mature.    The idea here is that perfection doesn’t necessarily mean that a person never makes a mistake or never, ever sins.

I think that for us, it’s more like the way that God intends us as real people to be.

Real.  Not in some fantasy world.

The other major realization comes right from the biblical text itself.

The ‘therefore’ gives us the clue that we need to tie this statement back to what was said before it.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.   Matthew 5:43-48

Given that context, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus’ point here about perfection primarily involves our love for others.

And we don’t have the space for it here, but biblical, agape love certainly means something different than the way we throw the word around today.

Jesus refers to the normal way of fallen humanity as loving those who love us.

What God is asking us to do is to take on his perspective toward the world.

Our default position is to want our enemies to be punished, or to go away at least.

But God loves everybody who he’s created and desires to have them back.

“Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  2 Peter 3:9

Jesus’ call to us is to agree with God about this.  When we hate our enemies, we are disagreeing with God and working against his purposes.  And that’s ironic, sadly.

I’ll be writing more about this, but I want to make a bold claim.

In this context…

Perfection is possible.   For us.

We will always stumble.  We will have times of anger and the violence and evil around us will test our ability to maintain God’s perspective.

But it is possible that the settled perspective we keep on returning to will be that we agree with God on this.

For us to know God’s heart deeply, we must.

God doesn’t require this for us to come into relationship with him.  But God desires it deeply of those who are in relationship with him.  Those of us who have received God’s deep love and forgiveness.

Our God…

“who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”                       1 Timothy 2:4

We must love our enemies because we were once the enemy.

But God’s love changed that.

And it still works.

 

Are You Close to the Kingdom of God?

There is something fascinating that Jesus says in one of his interactions with a ‘teacher of the Law’ in Mark’s gospel account.

This comes after Jesus’ saying that the two most important commandments are to Love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”   Mark 12:32-34

Jesus didn’t usually get along all that well with the teachers of the Law.  They tended to have different views about what was most important.

But to this particular man, Jesus says something remarkable:

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Which I take to mean something like, you are really on the right track with your thinking.

Most of what this teacher said to Jesus was just affirming what he had already said, which is good.  Agreeing with Jesus is never a bad thing.

But the man added something else that Jesus had not told him.

He made a comparison with something else.   Did you catch it?

He says that loving God and neighbor is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices.

In a sense this is nothing new as the prophets said as much, but people didn’t really get that message.

For so many people, religiosity is everything.

A problem with that is it can miss the point.

The sacrifices and holidays and habits of the Jewish life were intended to remind them to love God and each other.

Yet somehow, people often felt that as long as they did the right worship activities, they were in good spiritual shape.

We don’t have burnt offerings or sacrifices anymore.

We have worship services and financial offerings and ordinances and Bible studies and…

Sometimes we measure our commitment by our participation in these things.

But we can involve ourselves in all of them and miss God’s Kingdom.

If we don’t love God wholeheartedly and love each other as much as we do ourselves, none of those activities have had their desired effect.

But if we go about all of them with a kingdom purpose, they can be of immense value.

Ironically, in some instances, people who are involved in regular ‘worship’ practices are quite far from God’s Kingdom while some others who are less involved are actually closer to the Kingdom.

When we stand before him, Jesus will not ask us about our attendance records.   He will hold us accountable for how well we love God and others.

For the few of us who are elders/overseers, we have the added responsibility before the Lord for whether our ‘worship gatherings’ compel people toward God’s Kingdom or distract them from it.

The Emotional Apostle

We tend to view Paul – the well known apostle of the New Testament church – as being brave and strong and impervious to obstacles.

There’s truth to all that, but there’s something else.

I believe that the Scripture shows us a deeply vulnerable, emotion filled man.

And he’s not afraid to show that.

Paul is both deeply emotional about the message that he shares as well as the people he shares it with and those who respond to it.

In Acts chapter 20, Paul gets together with the elders from Ephesus, who it’s evident he developed a deep bond with.

He recounts his past ministry among them this way.

“Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”  Acts 20:31

Yes, tears.

As they parted ways, look at Luke’s description:

“When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.”  20:36-37

Grown Christian men.

Embracing and weeping together.

Beautiful.

I’ll remind us again about Paul’s recounting of his personal assessment while undergoing serious trial…

“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” 2 Corinthians 1:8

From what I can see, Paul was a guy who had no shame about putting his emotions on display for all to see.

Yet, he was bold.  He knew who he was and what God called him to do and he was not ashamed of that one bit.

Like Paul, we are to find our on strength in God.  He is able.  He will provide.

But spiritual strength doesn’t deny emotion.

On the contrary, my experience is that the stronger our faith in God becomes, the MORE emotions will come to the surface.

Godly emotion is a gift.

Denying or suppressing it is a rejection of that gift.

 

 

Who’s the Boss in the Church?

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”  1 Peter 5:1-4

There are a few things I’d like to note from this passage.

One is that elder is the primary role of responsibility in the local churches and between churches. Notice that although Peter also has the role of apostle, he considers himself an elder –  in camaraderie with those who speaks to.

While some interpreters think that there would have been one elder for each small church, I don’t see where the New Testament teaches that.  I believe the New Testament model involves a team of elders responsible for shepherding the local church rather than one pastor.  See Acts 20:17

But the main point is this:

Jesus is the one who has authority over the church, not any humans.

I believe that Peter makes this clear in the text.  He calls the people ‘God’s flock.‘  We collectively are his people and he the Lord over the flock, which is the church.

Those of us who are elders do have a responsibility, given to us by the Lord and affirmed by Peter.

We are to shepherd God’s flock that’s under our care.  Our responsibility isn’t to help guide and direct people where we want them to go, but rather where Jesus wants us to go and and how he wants us to live.

Our responsibility isn’t to find a unique direction to lead people in, but to encourage the local church to be faithful to the Lord and what he’s commanded.

That’s why it’s so important that we know his word well.

Paul says this to Titus regarding elders:

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”  Titus 1:9

Peter goes further and reminds us who is really in charge.

“When the chief shepherd appears…”

Who is that?   It’s Jesus, the good shepherd of John 10:11.

Jesus is going to hold us accountable for, and reward us according to our faithfulness in following his authority. 

That means that our primary responsibility is to be faithful with what Jesus left us to do: preaching the gospel and making disciples.

He’s not going to hold us accountable for our slick plans, our great facilities or our inspirational storytelling.

Our responsibility as shepherds is first and foremost be be faithful to God and to guide others in faithfulness to him as well.

“…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  Ephesians 4:12-13

Bible Study is Never Done

I just read this quote by N.T. Wright.   It captures well one of my core convictions that we need to keep on reading and studying the Bible, not assuming we know…

“One of the wonderful things about the Bible is the way no generation can complete the task of studying and understanding it.  We never get to a point where we can say, ‘Well, the theologians have sorted it all out, so we just put the results in our pockets or on the shelves, and the next generation won’t have to worry – they can just pull it out and look it up.’   No, the Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do it’s own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text.”

Surprised by Scripture, page 29.

Living With Abandon

Paul picked up what Jesus was putting down, and I believe it was the biggest factor of his ministry effectiveness.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  Matthew 16:25

That is a hard teaching to accept.  You’ll never be guilted into it.

But if you had a life transforming experience with Jesus you might.

Peter did.

Paul did.

Abandoned his own life to God.  Like a lifelong trust fall.

“I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”  Acts 20:24

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. ” Galatians 2:20

“What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ  and be found in him…”  Philippians 3:8

It seems like almost none of us can speak like this with wholehearted sincerity.

I don’t know if I can.

But I really want to.

Imagine what Jesus could with a a person like that.  Or 10 people. How about 100?

Let’s not beat ourselves up.  Remember, his yoke is gentle and his burden is light.  In him we find rest for our weary souls.  Jesus loves us more deeply than we can imagine.

Jesus, may we experience you so deeply that we’ll be willing to be wholly yours.