Monday, November 6, 2017

"Prophecy Fulfilled"

            With the solar eclipse, hurricanes, rising sea levels, political and social unrest, many people have been asking me about biblical prophecy.  They want to know if these things are signs of the times.  To which I reply as the apostle Paul did.  While he thought that Jesus would return anytime, he remained vague, saying, “For you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Romans 13:11).”[i]  That’s because Jesus Himself warned us not to try to predict the end, telling us that “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows (Matthew 24:36).”  But that doesn’t stop some people from trying.  It seems like there’s always one doomsday forecaster or another trying to find some obscure prophecy, and attaching a date to it.  Recently, David Meade predicted that the alignment of Virgo and Leo on September 23, 2017, would signal the beginning of the end.[ii]  Yet that date has come and gone, with no sign of the apocalypse.  Meade should have taken Jesus’ advice before trying to figure out a date.

            The fact that there are crackpots predicting the end of the world does not, however, mean that we should discount all prophecy.  The Old Testament is filled with predictions of the Messiah (perhaps over 300 of them!) that find their fulfillment in Jesus. As we continue our study through the book of John, we come across some of these fulfilled prophecies.  John 19:23-24 tells the story of the crucifixion and how…

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they divided his clothes among the four of them. They also took his robe, but it was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.  So they said, “Rather than tearing it apart, let’s throw dice for it.” This fulfilled the Scripture that says, “They divided my garments among themselves and threw dice for my clothing.” So that is what they did.

            This fulfills a prophecy in Psalm 22:18, which says, “They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing.”  Then, we see the fulfillment of Psalm 22:17, “I can count all my bones,” together with Psalm 34:20, which says, “For the LORD protects the bones of the righteous; not one of them is broken!”  These come to fruition in John 19:31-33, which says:

It was the day of preparation, and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath (and a very special Sabbath, because it was Passover week). So they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken. Then their bodies could be taken down.  So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs.

Psalm 22:14 also says, “My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.  My heart is like wax, melting within me.”  This parallels John 19:34-37:

One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe. These things happened in fulfillment of the Scriptures that say, “Not one of his bones will be broken,”and “They will look on the one they pierced.”

            Finally, we have a prophecy that says, “He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man's grave (Isaiah 53:9).”  This finds its fulfillment in John 19:38-42, which reads:

Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body. When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth. The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before. And so, because it was the day of preparation for the Jewish Passover and since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

               Generations before Jesus was crucified and buried like a criminal yet given a rich man’s grave, it was foretold by Isaiah through a prophecy from God.  A thousand years before Jesus hung on the cross, David predicted the flow water, his pierced hands and feet (Psalm 22:16), his intact bones, and the soldiers gambling for his clothing.  Why is so much detail given through prophecy and later fulfilled in Jesus’ death?  So that the evidence will be overwhelming, that Jesus is who he says he is.  So that, after examining all the prophecies of the Messiah, along with their fulfillments in Jesus[iii], you too might believe and say as the Roman centurion at the crucifixion, “This man truly was the Son of God (Mark 15:39)!”

            When you read predictions made by people like David Meade, be careful.  When you hear preachers talking about how an event in the news is the fulfillment of scripture, be cautious.  While interest in the End Times can be fascinating, it’s better to focus on the greatest subject of prophecy found in the Bible—the atoning work of Jesus, done for us on the cross.  In that respect the Bible interprets itself, and demonstrates how Jesus is the both the subject and fulfillment of prophecy, and how by God’s grace we can put our trust in him.

[i] All scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.
[ii] “Biblical signs in tonight’s sky?” By Christopher M. Graney in ASTRONOMY ESSENTIALS | HUMAN WORLD | September 23, 2017  September 28, 2017.
[iii]  September 28, 2017. 

"A Game of Thrones"

            In George R. R. Martin’s novels, A Game of Thrones, which has become an HBO television series, the nobles from the Seven Kingdoms of the continent of Westeros battle it out to determine which family will emerge victorious and sit on the Iron Throne.  Meanwhile, wildlings from the north of Westeros, driven by need and an advancing army of the dead, also prepare to attack.  Across the Narrow Sea, a new queen rises, backed by her own forces and the power of three dragons.  Martin’s sweeping fantasy epic is marked by constant intrigue, murders, lies, betrayals, and couplings of many kinds.  In a titular quote, Cersei Lannister says, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.  There is no middle ground.”

            A lot of people feel this way about the thrones they protect.  They feel like their lives depend on their upwardly mobile career, their influence on the school board, or the little territories they control in the local church or civic organizations.  For these folks, winning is everything, and control is what it’s all about.  Toward the end of John’s Gospel, powerful players strut and fret their hour upon the stage, determined to keep their thrones and defend their power in the face of a new threat—a Carpenter from Nazareth, whom many people called the King of the Jews.

            As in Martin’s books, the priesthood in John’s Gospel is both corrupt and just as interested in wielding political power as they are leading the people spiritually.  Jealous of Jesus’ popularity, incensed by His unorthodox teaching, and threatened by the fear of a failed revolt against the Romans, the High Priest decides it’s better to have Jesus killed than allow Him to continue.  Jesus is betrayed and arrested, then tried by the High Priest.  After that, Jesus is sent to Governor Pilate, who is reluctant to pass sentence because he is afraid of the real power—not the religious leaders or even the soldiers he commands—but the people.  Yet, Pilate is between a rock and a hard place, because he must also answer to Rome.  In Pilate’s inquisition of Jesus in chapter eighteen, the reader observes, “With all this talk of kingdoms and thrones, it doesn’t look like the one who has the power is really in charge.” 

Jesus is quick to point out that God, not Pilate, is in charge.  “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36[i]).”  Even so, Jesus is brutally treated, and in a real-life scene that rivals the violence of George R.R. Martin’s books, he is scourged so badly that the flesh is ripped from His back.

            In chapter nineteen, the game of thrones continues, with Pilate and the people trying to figure out who’s really in charge.  In a mockery of majesty, Roman soldiers press a crown of thorns on Jesus’ brow, set a purple robe on him, slap him across the face, and shout, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  Even though he sits on the throne, Pilate lets the people tell him what to do as they shout for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Never mind that only Roman law could call for the death penalty—and even then, for criminal actions and not religious opinions—Pilate allows the priests to tell him, “By our law he ought to die because he called himself the Son of God (v. 7).” 

The Bible says that when they say this, Pilate becomes more frightened than ever, because while he had known the people were demanding the crucifixion of a heretic, he had no idea that they were asking him to kill a god.  So he asks Jesus where He is from.  But Jesus does not answer.  Pilate asks, “Why don’t you talk to me?...Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you (v. 10)?”

Jesus replies, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above (v. 11).”  With this one statement, Jesus shows that He may be beaten, but He is not defeated.  The One who seems powerless is about to take His throne on the cross.  The thorns He wears are more valuable than gold, because while He already was the Son of God, this crown earns Him the title of Savior.  Pilate may have at his disposal a legion of soldiers, but if His Father had willed it, Jesus could have commanded a legion of angels to come to His aid.  The priests may have influence, the people may have power, but God is in control.

But, still the game of thrones goes on, with only one of its players knowing the final score.  The religious leaders remind Pilate that if he lets Jesus go, he is no friend of Caesar’s.  Pilate feels the weight of the Roman crown bearing down on him, but he also fears the people—so he lets them decide.  They call for Jesus’ execution, and the governor capitulates, even though he finds no fault with the accused.  They take Jesus away and crucify Him.  Pilate has a sign placed above Jesus’ head that reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (v. 19).” 

Again, the game of thrones continues.  The religious leaders that Pilate’s inscription actually labels Jesus as their king.  They can’t quite tell if he’s being sarcastic or serious, so they offer a correction.  “Change it from ‘The King of the Jews’ to ‘He said, I am King of the Jews (v. 21).’”  Pilate retorts, “No, what I have written, I have written (v. 22).”  So Jesus, already recognized as Son of God by many, is crowned, enthroned on the cross, and literally declared to be royalty by a representative of the greatest empire the world has ever known.  The game of thrones is complete—In what looks like defeat, Jesus has triumphed.  Cersei Lannister said, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”  But Jesus has done both!

In this game, Jesus proves that when each player thinks they have the power, the religious leaders, the people, the soldiers, and Pilate are really living a farce.  In fact, God is maneuvering for the win.  The Bible says it’s all about Jesus, not us.  “Through [Jesus]God created…the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16).”  Because it’s all about Jesus, Revelation 4:10 depicts twenty-four rulers casting their crowns at His feet, and rejecting their own glory. In our lives, we must be careful lest we think too highly of our own position and power as well.  Don’t even bother trying to play the game of thrones, setting yourself up as if you’re in control—because God is on the throne.  Instead, trust the One who was willing to bear the scourge, the thorns, and the cross for you.  Let Him be the King of your life.

[i] All scripture quotations are from the NLT.

"What is Truth?"

            Earlier this week, many people enjoyed the day off in remembrance of Columbus Day.  The famous Looney Toons cartoon depicts Columbus trying to convince King Ferdinand of Spain that the earth is “round, like the apple.”  The king responds, “She’s flat, like the panake.”  Columbus retorts, “She’s a’round, like my head!”  In response, the king hits Columbus on the head with a mallet and says, “She’s flat like your head!”  The Looney Toons version of the story (which many of us learned as historical fact), depicts Columbus claiming the earth to be round, unlike most in Christendom, making him a hero for proving a new theory about physics and geography.  Actually, most people in the late fifteenth century already knew the earth was round—it was the circumference of the earth that was in question.  In fact, it was fiction author Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle, Legend of Sleepy Hollow), who depicted church leaders warning Columbus that he might sail off the end of the earth.  This comes from literary myth, not history.[i]
            Even today, many want to paint Christians as being ignorant, anti-education, and anti-science.  The term “flat-earther” has been used to describe creationists and others with a conservative standpoint.  Yet, the Bible doesn’t teach that the earth is flat.  In fact, Isaiah 40:22 (Douay-Rheims Bible) says of God, “It is he that sitteth upon the globe of the earth.”  “Also, Luke 17:34-36 depicts Christ's Second Coming as happening while some are asleep at night and others are working at day-time activities in the field—an indication of a rotating Earth with day and night at the same time.”[ii]  The fact is that there are many places where the Bible and science agree.  This should bolster our faith and give us confidence.  Yet many people try to make the Bible speak as if it’s a scientific textbook when its purpose isn’t to teach science at all.  Attempts to try to make the Bible say what it’s not trying to say simply discredit the source of our faith. 

            Science is the search for fact, and religion is the quest for truth.  Science uses the scientific method, which works repeated experiments until a theory is proven or disproven and fact established.  Religion uses a different method—that of finding God within the Bible, creation, and the inner self—to discover ultimate Truth (with a capital T).  Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, as many believe.  Too many religious people discount science, and too many scientific people abandon faith.  In reality, it’s when we use our brains in church and our faith in the classroom that we become the most well-rounded people, able to understand fact and truth.

            In John 18:19-24, 28-40, fact and fiction are figured, and truth is put on trial.  When Jesus stands before the High Priest, He knows he’s condemned even before the trial.  He knows that false witnesses have trumped up charges, so He says in verse 23 (NLT), “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating me?” Jesus stands for Truth, but His accusers want nothing to do with the Truth.  They want only to prove about Jesus the things that they erroneously believe.

            Later, on trial before Pilate, the Roman governor investigates whether there’s anything behind Jesus’ charge of treason.  Pilate cares nothing for the charges of blasphemy—these are accusations based on the Jewish religion, about which he knows next to nothing and cares even less.  But Pilate’s job is to determine the facts of the case.  Does Jesus, indeed, claim to be the King of the Jews?  Verses 37-40 (NLT) say:

Pilate said, “So you are a king?”

Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”

“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then he went out again to the people and told them, “He is not guilty of any crime. But you have a custom of asking me to release one prisoner each year at Passover. Would you like me to release this ‘King of the Jews’?”

But they shouted back, “No! Not this man. We want Barabbas!” (Barabbas was a revolutionary.)

            Pilate’s powerful words, “What is truth?” still ring clearly today.  It is, perhaps, one of the biggest questions of this generation.  It seems like ultimate and objective Truth is hard to find in an age of uncertainty and rhetoric.  In a time when the President talks about “fake news,” we must wonder if there’s a source of “real news” anywhere.  If conservatives only watch Fox, and liberals only watch MSNBC, then it seems like both groups are looking for “news” stories that simply support their preconceived notions.  Like the people who conducted Jesus’ trial, we’re often far less interested in discovering the truth than we are having our opinions reinforced.  But perhaps Fact and the Truth are out there, for those who use both their faith and their brains.  In fact, good Christians must employ both their intellect as well as their belief if we are to understand God and our world.

            While it’s untrue that the Church ever taught that the world was flat, it is true that we believed in a geocentric, rather than heliocentric solar system.  In 1543, Copernicus was made famous by teaching the theory of the Roman Ptolemy, who believed, contrary to popular opinion, that the earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around.  Later, Galileo adopted both the opinions of Ptolemy and Copernicus.  Adding the evidence that he gathered with his invention, the telescope, Galileo began to teach as fact that the sun is the center of the solar system.  In response, the Roman Catholic Church subjected him to the Inquisition.  Journalist Alan Cowell writes:

Summoned to Rome for trial by the Inquisition one year later, Galileo defended himself by saying that scientific research and the Christian faith were not mutually exclusive and that study of the natural world would promote understanding and interpretation of the scriptures. But his views were judged "false and erroneous." Aging, ailing and threatened with torture by the Inquisition, Galileo recanted on April 30, 1633.

Because of his advanced years, he was permitted house arrest in Siena. Legend has it that as Galileo rose from kneeling before his inquisitors, he murmured, "e pur, si muove" -- "even so, it does move."[iii]

            Interestingly, Galileo remained condemned by the church until Pope John Paul II issued a retraction in 1992.  Even though so much evidence pointed to the fact that Galileo was right, the Church was more interested in their version of the Truth which said that if humanity is the crowning point of creation, then it must be at the physical center, and therefore the sun must revolve around the earth.  That theology, plus Joshua 10:13 which records a day when the sun stood still in the sky, made the Church sure of this “truth,” which was nothing more than a misunderstanding of the scriptures and a denial of objective fact.

            Today, if the Church is going to survive in an era when people are searching for the Truth, we would do well to also be on the side of fact.  We must make sure that we don’t check our brains at the door when we enter the sanctuary.  We must also be certain not to check our faith at the door when we enter the classroom.  Galileo was right—science and faith are not mutually exclusive, and we can learn about God from observing creation.  Whether it’s in the science classroom or in the news room, whether we’re in church or anywhere else, let’s see if we can look for fact instead of fiction.  Instead of washing our hands of the Truth like Pilate did, let’s embrace Truth in all its forms, so God can speak to us, and through us, to a searching generation.

[ii] “Who Invented the Idea of a Flat Earth?”  October 11, 2017.
[iii] Cowell, Alan.  “After 350 Years, Vatican Says Galileo Was Right: It Moves”  The New York Times.  October 31, 1992.  September 8, 2017.

I Am What I Am

            Recently, I was reminded of an old story that I’ve heard many times, and perhaps you have, too.  The version told by one comedian says that an old man and his grandson had a donkey named Hiney that they needed to take to market.  So they set out with the boy on the donkey’s back and the grandfather walking.  They came across a lady who criticized, “I can’t believe that boy making the old man walk!”  So they grandfather took the boy off, and sat on the donkey himself.  Later, they passed a man who remarked, “That old man is so selfish, not sharing the ride with his boy!”  So the grandfather pulled the boy up on the donkey’s back and together they rode on.  Some time later, they passed a girl who said, “Those cruel people are going to break that poor donkey’s back—they ought to give him a ride, instead!”  So they climbed down and hoisted the donkey on their backs together.  Pretty soon they came to a rope bridge.  By the time they got to the middle, the wind picked up and the bridge swayed and caused them to lose their balance.  Over the donkey went, and fell to her death.  And the moral of the story is, if you try to please everybody, you’ll lose your Hiney!

            In this age of political correctness, we are told that the best thing to do is please everybody, and offend nobody.  But the truth is, in a society as diverse as ours, it’s impossible to please everybody—and if you try, you’ll lose your hiney.  So the best thing is to quit trying to be politically correct, and be true to who you are—your core personality and your beliefs.  Be kind about it as you’re being yourself, though.  Don’t intentionally be offensive as you defend your faith.  James 1:26[i] says, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.”  Proverbs 12:18 tells us, “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing.”  So many scriptures remind us to make sure that our words are loving and kind—but kindness and political correctness are two different things.  Political correctness tries to please everybody, and that’s impossible.  So be true to who you are, and speak boldly for your faith.

            John 18:1-18, 25-27 gives us two contrasting examples—one of Jesus who is true to Himself, and one of Peter who denies his core beliefs.  When the Pharisees and soldiers came to arrest Jesus with swords, clubs, and torches in their hands, Jesus knew he would be delivered up for crucifixion.  He knew how severe the consequences would be for identifying himself.  Yet, three times He did so, saying, “I am He (verse 5)...I am He…I am the one you want (verse 8).”  , “As Jesus said ‘I am he,’ they all drew back and fell to the ground (verse 6)!”  I believe this happened for two reasons. 

First, because When Jesus says, “I Am,” He is speaking the name of God as given to Moses at the Burning Bush: “I Am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14).”  But He is not just speaking the name as anybody else would—He, God Himself, I Am, incarnate in Jesus, is speaking His own name.  And the power of that is so great that it knocks everyone back.  Here we see Philippians 2:10, which says that “every knee should bow,” coming to literal fulfillment.  And one day, not just a hoard of oppressors but the whole earth will bow before His name. 

Second, I believe that the testimony of any believer is a powerful thing.  When we say, “I am who I am, and I refuse to hide, regardless of the consequences,” the forces of darkness are thrown backwards.  Note that Jesus never said anything unkind, but clearly states the truth in an inoffensive way.  They are thrown back by the power of it, not by any offensive words that Jesus uses.  Too often we Christians see the world coming with swords and clubs and torches, and we respond from the flesh rather than from the spirit.  We return insult for insult, injury for injury, and in doing so we earn a bad name for believers.  While we shouldn’t give in to political correctness, we should stand for the truth in plain speech and loving action.  Only that will cause the world to stagger back in light of the truth.

In contrast to Jesus, who remained true to Himself and spoke the truth in love, Peter denied his core beliefs and his identity as a disciple.  Just Jesus identified Himself three times, Peter denied who he was as a follower of Christ three times.  “The woman asked Peter, ‘You’re not one of that man’s disciples, are you?’  ‘No,’ he said, ‘I am not (v. 17).’”  Later, “as Simon Peter was standing by the fire warming himself, they asked him again, ‘You’re not one of his disciples, are you?’  He denied it, saying, ‘No, I am not (v. 25).’”  Finally, “one of the household slaves of the high priest…asked, ‘Didn’t I see you out there in the olive grove with Jesus?’ Again Peter denied it. And immediately a rooster crowed (vv. 26-27).”  Peter caved in to the pressures of political correctness, denied who he was, and in the process denied his Lord.  When he realized what he had done, he wept bitterly and likely remained in that miserable state until Jesus restored him after the resurrection.

Today, so many people in our culture have misconceptions about what Christianity really is that many believers feel pressure to deny or apologize for their faith.  So-called Christians who behave in ungodly and unloving ways have swayed public opinion and made them judge all Christians in light of the extreme few.  But instead of being like Peter who covered up his faith, true believers need to shine a light of Christlike behavior and godly love.  Like Jesus, we need to say, “I am what I am,” even if it gets us in trouble.  Today, I wonder, how many Jesus-followers are willing to put their necks on the line to stand firmly for the love of God?

In October of 1555, Protestants Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were martyred for their faith by the English crown, which was Catholic at the time.  As both burned at the stake, Latimer was consumed by smoke and died painlessly, but Ridley’s pyre was made of green wood and made him simmer rather than burning him outright.  Latimer’s last words were ones of encouragement to his friend: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as shall never be put out.” 

This is a gruesome reminder from the not-too-distant past, that sometimes believers pay with their lives for faithfulness to Christ.  Certainly, Peter was afraid that he, too, could be martyred if he publicly aligned with Jesus.  But Jesus Himself was not afraid to say, “I Am what I Am,” even though He knew it would mean His death.  What will you do, when they ask what you believe?  In Matthew 10:32-33, Jesus said, “Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.”  This doesn’t mean being obnoxious about your religion, but it does mean being true to your faith, and to your Lord.  Political correctness says that we shouldn’t ever offend anyone—but if you try to please everybody, you lose your hiney.  Try not to offend your neighbors if you can, out of kindness, not political correctness.  But it’s better to please God and remain faithful to Jesus.  Only then can we light a candle and set it on a stand, so its brightness can outshine the darkness of this world.

[i] Scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.

The Gospel According to Jesus

          Not long ago, I came across a little story about a man considering the meaning of eternal life:

Thinking of the fullness and duration of this wonderful life, W. B. Hinson, a great preacher of a past generation, spoke from his own experience just before he died. He said, "I remember a year ago when a doctor told me, 'You have an illness from which you won't recover.' I walked out to where I live 5 miles from Portland, Oregon, and I looked across at that mountain that I love. I looked at the river in which I rejoice, and I looked at the stately trees that are always God's own poetry to my soul. Then in the evening I looked up into the great sky where God was lighting His lamps, and I said, ' I may not see you many more times, but Mountain, I shall be alive when you are gone; and River, I shall be alive when you cease running toward the sea; and Stars, I shall be alive when you have fallen from your sockets in the great down pulling of the material universe!' "[i]

            So often, Christians use the term “eternal life” to mean a life of never-ending duration after we pass from this world to the next.  And it does mean that.  W.B. Hinson anticipated this kind of everlasting existence.  But when Jesus uses the term, He means this and more.  In John 17, we find Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” which is full of the Lord’s intentions and prayers for His followers.  In this, we find that the Gospel according to Jesus reveals not just a life of eternal duration, but eternal quality.

            In verses 2b-3, Jesus addresses God the Father, but refers to Himself in the third person, saying that Jesus “gives eternal life to each one you [the Father] have given him.  And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.”[ii]  So to Jesus, eternal life is simply this: knowing God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Jesus spends the rest of His prayer asking God for some blessings for His people.  The Good News of Jesus is that God wants you to not only live forever, but also to experience unity, joy, holiness, and eventually to live with Him in Heaven.

            Eternal life means unity for Jesus-followers.  In verse 11, Jesus asks the Father, “Protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are.”  In verse 21, Jesus continues, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”  Then in verse 23, Jesus says, “I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”  Jesus’ desire for the Church is that each of its members be as united with one another as Christ is with the Father.  Too many churches are divided, one faction against another, or the people against the pastor, or this congregation or denomination against another.  The world is divisive enough as it is—the church certainly shouldn’t be.  Jesus wants us to be perfectly one with each other.

In verse 13, Jesus prays, “I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy.”  This joy is part of eternal life.  I mean, who would want to live forever, if you’re not joyful?  Everlasting life with a sour, bitter, hateful, unforgiving heart wouldn’t be heaven—it’d be hell!  Joy is one of the ways you know a person has the Holy Spirit moving in their life (Galatians 5:22-23).  Those who call themselves Christians but who lack joy in their lives may be saved, but they aren’t going to enjoy their salvation very much.  Joy is the result of opening your heart to allow the Holy Spirit to transform you from the inside.

Jesus continues to pray for this eternal quality of life for His followers in verse 17: “Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.”  Some Bible translations have Jesus asking God to “sanctify them” by God’s truth.  This “truth” is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which sanctifies a person from the inside out.  This holiness is not an external avoidance of that which defiles, but a separation from things that get in the way of life and fruitfulness in God’s order.  Led by the word of truth, believers walk in step with Jesus.

Finally, Jesus prays, “Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am (verse 24).”  This is connected to Jesus’ earlier statement, “There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am (John 14:2-3).”  At this point, He gets to what we always think of when we use the phrase “eternal life.”  We generally mean “forever in heaven.”  Yes—Jesus promises this to the people He saves.  And we can rejoice in the anticipation of this gift.

But the Gospel according to Jesus means something more than simply “getting saved,” if by that we mean going to heaven and avoiding hell.  The Good News of Jesus is that our lives might take on an eternal quality, not just quantity.  Jesus asked the Father that, with this everlasting mindset, we might experience unity, joy, and holiness, and that one day we might enjoy the benefits of heaven.  Jesus means all these things when He uses the expression, “eternal life.” 

There are three huge gates that lead into the Cathedral of Milan. Over one gate there is an inscription in marble under a beautiful flower bouquet that says, "The things that please are temporary." Over the second gate, there is a cross with this inscription: "The things that disturb us are temporary." However, over the central gate, there is a big inscription saying, "Eternal are the important ones."[iii]

            Jesus says, “And this is the way to have eternal life--to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth (John 17:3).”  I pray that you’ll know His eternal life—that you’ll choose not the things that are temporary but the important things that are eternal.  And I pray that this everlasting life for you will be one not just of never-ending duration, but of perpetual holiness and wholeness.  This is the Gospel according to Jesus.

[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iii] Unknown source.  August 24, 2017.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

"In Jesus' Name"

Recently, I was reading about the importance of giving your children good names.  It reminded me of a list I’d seen of some bad names had by some characters in history:

Charles the Simple, Son of Louis the Stammerer. So called for his policy of making concessions to the Norse invaders rather than fighting. 
Louis the Sluggard, noted for his self-indulgence, he ruled from 986 to 987 over the Franks.
Ethelred the unready (968-1016) so called because of his inability to repel the Danish invasion of England. At first he paid tribute to the Danes, but their raids continued and he was forced to abandon England for Normandy in 1013. Those who are more generous call him Ethelred the ill-advised.
Louis the Fat, like his father, was obese. At the age of 47 because of his extreme corpulence, he was unable to mount his horse.[i]

            Proverbs 22:1 reminds us that a good name is better than great riches.  Members of prominent local families would probably agree.  The family reputation, especially in small communities, is all-important.  If a family member behaves in an unseemly manner, then it’s likely that others who bear that same name could be seen in the same light.  This could have social, and even financial consequences.  Nobody wants to hire the siblings of Ursula the Untrustworthy, or children of Larry the Lazy.  Of course, if the community knows you as Willy the Wealthy or Jennifer the Generous, that reputation extends to your family as well.

            In light of this, it seems strange that God told Mary and Joseph to name God’s Son Jesus (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).  Jesus was one of the more common Hebrew names at the time.  In fact, there are several Bible characters named either Jesus or Joshua (both of which are Y’shua in Hebrew).  So to be named Jesus in that John was like being named John Jones in this culture.  Why such a nondescript name?  Maybe God wanted His son to be Everyman—to be common in order to identify with all humanity.  But the name of Jesus is significant.  It means Salvation, or A Saving Cry.  When we need salvation, we have only to cry to Jesus, and He will surely save!

            In John 16:33-34[ii], Jesus says something very special about praying in His name.  “At that time you won’t need to ask me for anything. I tell you the truth, you will ask the Father directly, and he will grant your request because you use my name. You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy.”  Even when He said this, Jesus knew that this figure of speech was difficult to understand, so He explained it.  “Then you will ask in my name. I’m not saying I will ask the Father on your behalf, for the Father himself loves you dearly because you love me and believe that I came from God (vv. 26-27).”  In other words, Jesus was saying that the Father hears and answers our prayers because of the idenitity we carry as bearers of the name of Jesus.  This is something that’s easily misunderstood, so we need to examine it further.

            Many of the Christians I grew up around insisted that when you pray, you MUST tack on the phrase, “In Jesus’ name” at the end of every prayer.  Maybe it was just a habit, but it seemed to me (and to many) that this was a magical phrase you needed to use if you wanted to get what you were praying for.  Praying “in Jesus’ name” was the key that unlocked the heavenly treasure chest.  Without that key, your prayers just weren’t effective.  Is this what Jesus meant by praying in His name?  Certainly not—but to many believers (including myself) it still seems a bit odd to end a prayer with simply “amen.” 

Something else I was told was that by adding this expression onto my prayers, I was invoking the authority of Jesus.  So, many of the Christians I knew believed that this name was a weapon to use against the enemy, or a badge to flash like a police officer ordering people.  “When you pray in Jesus’ name,” they claimed, “you are commanding things to happen in the spiritual realm.”  But if this were true, then by throwing around the name of Jesus, you’d be manipulating God, who cannot be controlled by us or any force in the universe.

Now, this isn’t to say that Jesus’ name isn’t powerful.  Philippians 2:9-11 says, “Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  But as powerful as Jesus’ name is—as effective as it is for breaking chains and bringing down spiritual strongholds—praying in Jesus’ name means something more.

For just a moment, I want you to think about every single person with whom you have a close, personal relationship.  What’s the one thing all these relationships have in common?  You know each other by name.  Coming together in Jesus’ name, or praying in Jesus’ name, may involve authority, but it’s not commanding.  It may involve getting what you’re praying for, but it’s not about putting in your order with God.  Gathering and praying in Jesus’ name is about knowing Him personally, taking the name of Jesus the way a wife takes the name of her husband, being called by Jesus’ name, and belonging to God.  If you are a Christian, then you are a Christ-one.  You bear the name of Christ because He lives inside you.  Just as Jesus is one with the Father, you are one with Jesus, and you bear His name.  It’s in this kind of intimacy that you approach the Father in prayer—and God will give you what His perfect wisdom knows you need.

In Isaiah 43:1b-3a, we learn that just as we call Jesus by name, God calls us by name as well.

“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

            This is the greatest thing about the name of Jesus—it’s our name too.  God has called us by the name of Jesus, declaring His righteousness even when we were not.  And so we belong to God.  Praying in Jesus’ name means remembering that He never leaves nor forsakes us—and that wherever we go, God is there.  He is our God, the Holy one of Israel.  He is Jesus, our Savior.  As believers we are so glad to be bearers of His name!      

[ii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.

"If the World Hates You..."

            Voice of the Martyrs reports about cases of martyrdom and persecution around the world.  Telling of a church in China, the website records:

Living Stone Church in Guiyang has worshiped openly since 2009, growing to a regular attendance of more than 700 members. The Chinese government has harassed the church since its founding, but the purchase of a new office space for meetings seemed to bring tensions with the government to a new high.
The church’s…co-pastor, Su Tianfu, previously reported that 99 percent of the church’s members have received calls from government officials, pressuring them to leave the church. In addition, church leaders have been continually pressured to join the government-sanctioned Three-Self Church.[i]

            We in the United States are quite blessed to live in a culture where we don’t experience this kind of intense persecution.  Movies like “God’s Not Dead” and “God’s Not Dead 2” underscore that we American Christians can often feel quite persecuted, regardless of the fact that we aren’t being killed on the streets for our faith, or imprisoned for our beliefs.  But what did Jesus have to say about His followers being hated by the world?

            In John 15:18,[ii] Jesus says, “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.”  This word “if” can also be translated as “since,” indicating that Jesus assumed that His followers would indeed be hated.  So it’s not surprising that some Christians feel like the world hates them.  There are basically three possible reasons why some believers might feel that way.

            First, some Christians have a persecution complex, and they only think the world hates them.  When I was a child, I was picked on a little bit because I was the kid who brought his Bible to school and went off to the corner of the playground to read it during recess.  I remember one boy calling me a “religious freak.”  Because of this, I felt persecuted.  Maybe at work, your boss has asked you to take down your religious artwork because the company doesn’t want to promote the disunity that religious expression in the workplace can create.  You may feel that Christians are discriminated against because Duck Dynasty got canceled, or Tim Tebow got cut by the Eagles, Broncos, Jets, and Patriots.[iii]  But this isn’t persecution—it’s business.  Persecution is when, as Jesus said in John 16:2-3, “you will be expelled from the synagogues, and the time is coming when those who kill you will think they are doing a holy service for God. 3 This is because they have never known the Father or me.”  Persecution is when Boko Haram beheads Christians, or China jails them, or Rome feeds them to lions.  “The world hating you” isn’t when some people dislike you.  When we American Christians exaggerate how much everybody hates us, that’s called a persecution complex.

            Second, the world system hates some Christians because they accurately represent Jesus, whom the powers that be despise.  In John 15:19, Jesus says, “The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.”  Being part of the world means following human standards of right and wrong, rather than God’s.  It means following greatness, rather than following goodness.  This is what the Pharisees did, as they sucked up to the power of Rome.  But heaven’s reign isn’t about following the world system.  It’s about caring for the downtrodden and outcast, welcoming refugees and strangers, forgiving those who have harmed you, loving your enemies, speaking up for the oppressed, defending the weak, providing for the poor, and helping the hurting.  It’s about challenging those who value money over mercy, rules over relationship, and convenience over justice.  So if the world hates you because you look too much like Jesus—then good!  You’re doing the right thing.  Jesus says in Matthew 5:10, “God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

            Third, the world hates some Christians because, well, they’re jerks.  Some people who call themselves Christians are anything but followers of Jesus.  They may be church members or attenders, but they have never let the teachings of Jesus impact their behavior, and they certainly don’t have the love of Jesus in their hearts.  They are bitter, uncaring, judgmental, mean-spirited, power-hungry people who are part of a social club called the Church. The world hates people like that, and can spot fakes a mile away.  So just because the world hates you, that doesn’t mean you reflect Jesus—it might be the opposite.  Maybe you’re just a jerk in Christian clothing.  Time to repent of false religion and find a relationship with Jesus that truly transforms you.

            In John 15:26-16:1, Jesus says, “But I will send you the Advocate—the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify all about me. And you must also testify about me because you have been with me from the beginning of my ministry.  I have told you these things so that you won’t abandon your faith.”  Jesus promises that He will be with us, in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will comfort and teach us, giving us courage for each day so that we will keep the faith.  Jesus says in John 16:33, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” 

            So if you ever get to feeling like everybody hates you, it’s best to ask why.  There are good and bad reasons why people might hate you—and maybe they don’t hate you at all.  But you can be sure that if you let Jesus transform you by His love, He will be with you no matter what the world says or does.

[i] The Voice of the Martyrs. April 17, 2017.  China:  Jailed Pastor Gravely Ill.  August 10, 2017.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iii] For a poignant article on Tim Tebow, read: Redeeming God.  Myers, Jeremy. “Why the Eagles Cut Tim Tebow.”   August 10, 2017.