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.


            Now’s the time when everybody’s gardens are overflowing with produce.  It seems every time I go to church, somebody hands me a bag of corn or some tomatoes or cucumbers.  For a pastor who doesn’t know the first thing about gardening, these gifts are very much appreciated!  It saves me money at the grocery store, but more than that—there’s nothing better than fresh from the garden!  In Jesus’ day, bearing much fruit was about far more than preferring your produce to be fresh.  It was about survival.  Most people grew their own food, and if you didn’t produce much, you might starve, especially when things got lean.  Today, a message about being “fruitful” might be better received if the sermon were about being “successful,” which amounts to the same thing.  But keep in mind that Jesus’ definition of success is far different from the world’s.

            Go to any bookstore’s self-help section (or even the shelves at WalMart), and you’ll find authors who apply spiritual principles to help you to be successful in life.  Just believe, and your problems will be solved.  Just give enough money away, and God will pay your bills for you.  Just follow these easy steps and everyone will follow your amazing leadership skills.  But God’s definition of fruitfulness is much different.  Galatians 3:22-23 says, that “the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”[i]  See, the world thinks that success is measured by material things, but God counts fruitfulness by the content of your character.  Then (and only then) will godly character result in fruit-bearing actions.

            In John 15:1-17, Jesus talks about the importance of fruit-bearing.  Seven times in the first eight verses, He uses the word “fruit” or “fruitful.”  So, how do you cultivate the fruit of the Spirit?  Nine times in these short verses, Jesus uses the word “love.”  Two times out of these nine, Jesus commands His followers to love—in the same way that God loves.  How does God love?  Unconditionally, sacrificially, redemptively, and faithfully.  Loving in this way can be so difficult that it seems unnatural—especially when we try to follow Jesus’ call to love even our enemies.  But Jesus doesn’t ask us to do it on our own.  Seven out of those nine times, Jesus refers to God’s love—whether that be the love of Jesus or of the Father.  So while He does make love His command, it’s all based on our ability to receive the love of God.  In fact, for those hard-to-love people, God gives us supernatural ability to love even when it doesn’t come naturally.

            When you receive God’s love and begin to show that love to other people, your seeds of love begin to grow and produce much fruit.  The fruit of the spirit is seen in the growth of Christian character.  Another kind of fruit is seen in the lives of those people in whom you invest your time and love.  Some of those fruits you can see immediately, as they respond to your care.  Other times the fruit takes a long time to develop.  Davon Huss writes:

We might be used by God to produce fruit we will never see. Takes time to take a fruit tree from a sapling to a mature, fruit producing tree. Down South, a young man, walking along a dirt path, comes upon an old man bowed to the ground planting pecan trees in a field. He stops and asks the old man, "Why would you plant pecan trees? They’ll take so many years to mature that you’ll never enjoy the pecans." The old man responds, "I plant these trees because all my life I’ve eaten pecans from trees I did not plant."[ii]

When fruit takes a long time to come in, what’s necessary to keep that fruit growing is remaining in Jesus’ love.  Ten times in John 15:1-17, Jesus instructs His followers to remain in Him, and remain in His love.  Jesus knew that not all fruit emerges overnight, so some staying-power is in order.  The Greek word, menĂ³, is translated as “remain” in the NLT.  It indicates staying, dwelling, waiting, continuing, and waiting.[iii]  Some translations say “abide,” but I prefer “remain,” because to me that word sounds like “re” (as in, over and over, repeatedly) going back to the “main” thing.  To my ears, when I re-main in Christ, I am making Him the main aspect of my life, and I’m going back to Him again and again.  Every time I may wander, I re-main.  I re-turn.  I re-unite.  I re-assess. 

Jesus says we are to remain in Him, even as a branch remains in the vine.  On its own, the branch can do nothing—it can’t bear fruit because it has no life of its own.  All the life that’s in the branch comes directly from the vine.  So when we realize how dependent we are on God, and remain in His love, drawing our nourishment from God, we will bear much fruit.  This past week, I had the privilege of leading a young man to receive Jesus as his Savior.  While he made the job easy for me by directly asking me what it means to be saved, I believe that the success of the conversation was due in part to his listening, but also in part to the fact that I’d been listening as well—listening to God every day as I practiced abiding in God’s presence.  Regularly remaining in God’s word, seeking God in prayer, and relying on God’s guidance results in fruitful opportunities.

Today I wonder, have you gotten a little off-track in your reliance on Jesus?  He calls you to re-main, to return again to the main thing.  To abide in Him, because it’s only when you make Jesus the main thing in your life, that you can bear any fruit at all.