Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Immanu-El, Part 3: Let God love you!

The last two weeks I've written about "Immanuel" (also spelled "Emmanuel" meaning "God with us") as the explanation of why and how Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh.  Essentially, God became one with us so we could become one with God.  --Well, at least, all the good people, right?  So some believe we're good enough to have God smile on us, but those of us who still struggle with sin -- at least, what we understand to be sin -- continue to feel unworthy and left out.

Not so fast...in fact, not at all!  "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" says Paul in 1 Tim. 1:15; and even Paul's own history as a strict Pharisee still didn't let him claim to be good.  He continues, "and I am the worst of them all.  But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners" (the rest of verse 15, and verse 16).  Here we see two great truths:  first, nobody is so bad that God doesn't show mercy through Jesus, because that's why Jesus came; and also, that there aren't any people who are good enough to claim God's favor by their own works.

Does that acceptance only apply to people who have repented of all those specific sins and then been baptized?  Does God, after this enormous gift to us of his Son becoming flesh, living a perfect life, dying as a perfect sacrifice, and then being raised from the dead, throw the task of completing our salvation back on our incompetent shoulders?  Paul continues in 1 Tim. 1 "others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life" -- but where does the belief come from?  In verse 14, he exclaims "Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus."  And let's understand, that is the perfect faith Jesus displayed during his earthly ministry, the complete trust that the Son has had in the Father from eternity, as part of their Triune relationship.  Jesus has believed for you, obeyed for you, and died for you, as a complete gift, because neither you nor I can do any of it well enough for a perfect God.  

The whole universe has been united with the Father through the Son: "For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross" (Col. 1:19-20).  I looked up the word "everything" in the Greek.  Guess what?  It means "everything."  So unless you're not in heaven or on earth, it means you, dear reader, are also "reconciled" or made at peace, with God.  No matter what you've already done, or not done yet.  Because of Jesus Christ, we are already fully accepted by the Father.

So if it's all been done by Jesus Christ, Immanu-El, and even our belief doesn't earn our place with God, what's the point in believing?  Because that's how God becomes real to us, so we'll begin to participate in the relationship he established for us in Jesus.  So, we Gospel preachers say, renounce your self-reliance, let go your efforts to clean yourself up, and simply let God love you. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Immanu-El, Part 2

Last week I wrote about the 'big background story' of humanity and salvation:  Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the nation of Israel as the foundation of what God would reveal in the Messiah.  Now we move to the actuality:  how God came to be among us, "God with us" as Isaiah 7:14 says.  If God is perfect and we most emphatically are not, how can the two come together?

It's simple, yet profound and earth-changing:  The two come together in Jesus, Immanu-el or "God-with-us," the Son of God born into human flesh as the firstborn son of a peasant girl.  Luke 1:26-38 says that Mary's womb became the growing place for a child who would be called the Son of the Most High.  Matthew's gospel records the angel telling her specifically that this child was fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy, in Mat. 1:18-23.  What a strange event:  God, the Creator, coming into his creation to become a human, just like his other human creations!  For the first time, the Almighty God became limited by being part of his creation.  God, who had sent prophets and leaders to speak for him, this time came to speak for himself (Heb. 1:1-3). 

When God came into human flesh, he joined himself completely with humanity (Heb. 2:14-18)!  Jesus (whose name means "Yahweh saves") was both fully human (he was able to experience all our human life, Heb. 4:15) and he was fully God (Heb. 1:3).  So when he died on the cross, Jesus the man was able to die just like all humans; but when Jesus the Son of God died, he died for your sins and mine, not his own (Heb 2:14-15).  To put it another way, God became one with humans, so that humans could become one with God.

It was God's plan before time began to adopt us, to give us his nature (Eph. 1:3-6) which is a completely free gift (Eph. 2:8-9) and cannot ever be earned.  It was through Jesus, who was the perfect human and is the only human ever to be perfectly accepted by God, "When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven" (Heb. 1:3).

Because of Immanu-El -- Jesus -- all of us can come to God completely without fear (Heb 4:16) any time.  We are fully accepted and loved by God (John 17:23) because of his Son.  Even when we've made a mess of our lives, even when we look more like the Three Stooges than anything else, even when we're ashamed of our own behavior, we are still fully loved by God, because of Immanu-El, God with us, Jesus the Christ. 

And that's the meaning of Christmas!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Extreme Personal Makeover

Our cats are an interesting study in selfishness.  There's not much sharing between Haley and Susie, just a me-first, outta-my-way animal instinct.  Unfortunately, that is how I often feel too.  Yesterday, The Wonderful Joanne and I had what we call a "meaningful discussion."  I thought she was pressuring me into purchasing something, and reacted strongly with why I didn't think it was a good idea.  When I finally said I was sorry, it was mostly by complaining about the way I thought she had treated me.  Only later did I realize that I had simply defended myself again.  So this morning, another apology was in order, a real one this time.

See, the problem is not that we don't know what to do, it's that we are so filled with self-seeking that we don't let love -- outward-flowing, other-centered giving without seeking a return -- guide us first. This gets back to what I've been writing and speaking about lately:  that the Triune God had determined before time began (before we are 'good enough' to deserve his love) to adopt us into his circle of love and self-giving (Eph. 1:3-11, etc); and although he loves us right now, right where we are, he is determined not to leave us in our self-created pain.  So he sent his Son, whom we celebrate during Advent and Christmas for coming into the world, not only to pay for our sins but to give us a Person to love and follow.

"Following Jesus" is a daily walk of seeing ourselves, seeing Jesus, and admitting where we don't measure up to him.  Then surrendering (it sounds simple but it's one of the hardest things we can do) surrendering this part of us that demands gratification so Jesus can give us rest, peace and assurance from himself instead.

What are some of those me-first, outta-my-way human instincts? Paul writes in Galatians 5:19-21, "When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God."  Our sins -- these and many more -- are forgiven in Christ, but God is on a campaign to renovate our inner selves, at the deepest level.  To restore us to what humans were at Creation, and to what we all are, in reality, because we are now "in Christ." 

"Following Jesus" includes being led by his Spirit to have his inner desires: "So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves...the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires...Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives" (Gal. 5:16,17,25). That's how the surrender thing works.

You've not arrived yet at perfection, and neither have I.  But let's be encouraged:  we are on the journey with Jesus, and he is the one who not only knows the way, he IS the way (John 14:1-10) and he has shown us that way.  Will you follow him with me?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Trust and Rest

We in the Western societies spend our lives pursuing more, better, bigger and higher.  We stay caffienated in order to be more alert and "productive."  A bumper sticker claims "He who dies with the most toys wins" (wins what? we wonder).  A poster advertising a workout club says "You can rest when you're dead."  A John Wayne movie has him kicking people awake long before the sun is up, telling them they are "burning daylight."  We think societies that take a mid-day break -- a two-hour lunch or a nap -- are wasting time.  We think our lives are measured by how much we can accomplish.  And sometimes we think we have to apply the same amount of effort toward "pleasing God." 

As a fulfillment of the original Sabbath command to Israel, Jesus calls us in Matt. 11:28-30 to come and rest in him: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”  That's an enigma to us:  how do you rest in a person?  What does being humble and gentle have to do with rest?  How can the 'yoke' (an instrument for carrying heavy burdens) be easy to bear?  How can we rest while still carrying a load, even a light one?  And what if, while you're resting, you're really supposed to be doing something more productive?

The answer is that we must learn to trust in Jesus, not in ourselves.  That is the essence of our salvation (Eph. 2:8-10 etc.) but even more, it is the essence of daily life in Christ, the new life we are called into (Gal. 2:20).  Jesus doesn't tell us "come and rest, then go work more."  He simply says come and rest.  Robert Mulholland, Jr. in Invitation to a Journey refers us to Psalm 131, a song encouraging us to trust.  Verse 2 says "I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me."  The child is content just to sit quietly on his mother's lap, knowing he is secure there.  That's the kind of trust we are to learn.

 Life today is not just "preparation for heaven" as some put it, like prepping for an entrance exam.  Our lives are meant to be a living relationship of deepening love for God through his Son Jesus; learning to listen to him and respond; learning to trust Christ for everything, no matter how small or large.  As we learn to trust, we can rest from the frantic activity we use to seek God's approval, or even 'get ahead in the world.' 

"Just trust."  Quick to say, a lifetime to learn.  What will you surrender to God today, trusting him to handle it for you? 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Walking with Jesus

I've been spending a lot of time lately studying and discussing with others what it means to be a Christian.  It's a big subject, but at the same time it has a pretty simple answer.  You may not know it, but that's a big issue of discussion within the Christian world right now, and frankly, many churches in the Western world have it wrong. My denomination was certainly wrong about it, in important ways, for a lot of years, but we're a lot closer now and still growing into a better understanding of it.  To be more personal, I had it wrong all those years and I'm just now seeing it more clearly. 

Most of the time when most Christians tell you about salvation, it's all about forgiveness of your sins and going to be with God when you die.  Those two things are true, but if that's all there is, you may as well live like a pagan until two minutes before you die, then be sure to ask for salvation!  This feeds our Western consumer mentality:  God is someone who will give you forgiveness and other stuff, and salvation is a product you acquire by saying a prayer and getting baptized.  Oh, and attending church -- so choose the most attractive church around, that will make you feel good and increase your social status. 

All of that misses the point.  I wrote briefly about that on September 6, that salvation is not about location but about relationship.  Let me begin to expand on that here.

Salvation is not just a legal or accounting transaction that takes place in heaven when you say the right prayer.  It is being saved from yourself and your sins, but more than that, it's being saved into a life spent with Christ, following him.  Jesus told the twelve, "Come, follow me" and they spent the next three years walking around with him, watching the way he treated people and scratching their heads over what he had just taught.  They began to realize that what he taught related directly to the way he treated people (you might say he lived what he taught).  And they figured out eventually that what he taught and how he treated others came directly from his relationship with the Father, whom Jesus came to reveal.  Once the Holy Spirit was given to them, those relationships were clear to them, and they were able to live what Jesus taught, and teach it to others as he had taught them.

Living a Christian life is, simply, learning to walk with Jesus every hour of every day. Learning to trust him.  Surrendering control to him.  Listening to him.  Letting him do the talking instead of your old motivations. You may have been a Christian for six hours or sixty years, but quite possibly you and I both have missed out on a lot of this, and we both need it.  We'll look later at the methods that will help us, but let's begin with a quietness before God, recognizing our complete inability to make life work and surrendering it to him instead.  Will you walk with Jesus along with me?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Prayer: Surrender to a Loving God

"Please pray that I will get a new job...Prayers are requested for immediate healing of...Please pray I can find a new place to live...I've been praying for the same thing for ten years and nothing ever happens."  Have you ever heard those phrases?  I have.  Now, there's nothing wrong with asking others to pray with us, and absolutely nothing wrong with praying!  I wonder, though, when we talk about prayer in this way, if we really understand what prayer is?

As Westerners, we have the mindset (without thinking about it; that's what a mindset is) that everything must improve my life and make me happy in some way, or it's no good.  Let's face it, we've done the same with prayer.  We read in Philippians 4:6 "in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" and presume that prayer is about telling God everything we need, expecting he will provide it. 

If your child were to treat you that way, it would sound like "Daddy and Mommy, thank you for giving me breakfast this morning, and I need a bike and a sweater and a new video game and it's really, really important that we go to McDonald's for dinner tonight."  And you'd be thinking "slow down a little, will ya?"  But God is not a vending machine that dispenses our treats when we plug in the right words. (And Jesus said "your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him" in Matt. 6:8.) 

The prayers of the Bible, especially in the Psalms, are much different -- lots of real complaints and requests, for sure, but when we read carefully, they show a process of deep surrender to the will of God.  Robert Mulholland Jr. diagnoses prayer in Invitation to a Journey when he writes "our prayer tends to be a shopping list of things that need to be accomplished, an attempt to manipulate the symptoms of our lives without entering a deep, transforming relationship with God in the midst of what we think we need..." (105).  Prayer, he reminds us, "is primarily relational, not functional."  Henri Nouwen is quoted as saying "Prayer is the act by which we divest ourselves of all false belongings and become free to belong to God and God alone." 

Prayer, then, is not trying to get God to do something for us, but is a process of surrendering ourselves to God for what he wants to do in us.  That's a long and complex discussion, so we'll have to get back to it another week.  But for now -- try just taking yourself to God without any pretense or any agenda, and spend time with him.  Let me know how it goes, will you?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


My friend Michael Duduit, who writes regularly on preaching and is editor of Preaching magazine, talks about this latest protest movement that started in Wall Street and has since "occupied" a couple of dozen city parks across the nation.  He says there's a better solution than protesting the amount of money somebody else makes or how little attention is given to the average citizen.  Michael says "Here's a better bet: Occupy Worship. Meet the One who alone can satisfy your needs and breach the chasm caused by sin, and the best news is you don't even have to go to New York or any other city to Occupy Worship—you can demonstrate anywhere!"

I like the way Michael thinks.  He reminds us that even if all the money earned by all the investment bankers and all the highly-paid executives of all the companies that are the target of these protests was spread around to the poor, it still wouldn't be enough.  (Not to mention, most of the poor in the US have a thousand times more than the true poor overseas.)  Why not?  Because humanly, we never have enough.  Even those highly-paid executives feel their lives would be better if they just made, say, 10% more.  The solution, Michael rightly says, is to worship.

Now, by worship, Michael and I don't mean to turn on your favorite Christian song or hymn, sing along loudly, and pray.  Closing our eyes and praying doesn't make our problems go away (it doesn't work for Tim Tebow in the backfield either).  No, we're talking a deep, focused, sincere, whole-hearted, whole-life surrender to the One who owns eternity and has already accepted you, dear reader, as his beloved child.  As we've been studying lately in the Beatitudes, a life "in Christ" means we have full access to the blessings of living in the love and acceptance of the Father through the Spirit (John 17:20-23, Col. 1:24-27, etc).  "Christ is in you" says Paul, and he's not talking some metaphysical claptrap or fuzzy idea, but a spiritual reality. 

Life -- real, authentic life -- is lived out in that reality, minute by minute.  Not just "what would Jesus do?" but "Jesus, what are you doing and what would you have me do?"  Offering ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) is what Paul calls "truly the way to worship him."  Focusing on whole-life worship helps us understand that the momentary troubles of this life really are momentary.  We don't ignore them, we work on them with the passion that Jesus had cleaning out the moneychangers (the honest and the dishonest together) from the Temple, in John 2:13-17, and the love he had when he healed the sick and provided bread for thousands. 

Want something to occupy in protest of this world's sickness?  Occupy, and be occupied by, Jesus-in-you, with everything you've got, and watch what happens!  (And come back and tell me!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Paint and Renovation

Yesterday, on my day off, I spent most of the day slapping paint on my house.  The siding needed paint a couple of years ago, and it got dry and cracked.  The surface of the wood soaked up the primer like a thirsty man soaks up water, but the primer is doing its job.  The surface is now sealed and looks a whole lot better.  And that's what paint is for, to weather-proof the exterior and make it look good.  But of course paint does nothing to repair the structure, seal the windows, or insulate the walls.  A good paint job can make a dilapidated house look great -- if you don't look too closely.

Some people approach Christianity the same way as painting a house.  Attending church, and taking on Christian culture and speech and dress, can make you look better on the outside -- but right below the surface, the old person still exists, unchanged.  When Jesus invited his original disciples to follow him, he started them on a process that created a change in the innermost being:  thinking, focus, emotions, and responses to other people.  He invites his disciples today to do exactly the same! 

In church we're preaching through the Beatitudes (Matthew. 5:3-10).  Those sayings of Jesus have brought up uncomfortable realities about how we, no matter how long we've gone to church, haven't "arrived" -- we are still on the journey of learning to think and be as Jesus taught.  Jesus meant these sayings to shake us, to wake us up to his new Kingdom reality, and to challenge us to surrender our thinking and emotions to him. 

Paul was concerned for his flock in the same way.  He wrote the epistle to the churches in Galatia to warn people not to get caught up in empty religious forms (in this case, the Old Covenant law -- but it could have been anything) because those had no power to change the inner person.  In Galatians 4:19 Paul tells them his goal for them, that "Christ is fully developed in your lives" and in chapters 5 and 6 he emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in change.  That lifelong process of learning about Jesus and letting him change us is what we call "discipleship" or "spiritual formation."  Spiritual formation, for ourselves first of all, is the foundational job of church pastors and leaders.  It's a major part of what we continue to teach and emphasize to all Christ-followers.

Following Jesus isn't a surface-level paint job.  It's a back-to-the-foundation renovation project.  He is exceedingly patient and kind while he works us through this process, but he is exceedingly thorough and persistent, too.  So he asks us to listen carefully to him, to surrender our wills to him and to ask the Holy Spirit's constant help in revising our thinking and our emotions.  And when that happens, something else results -- the outside becomes beautiful.  Let's determine to take on the lifelong work of following Jesus, and see what he wants us to look like!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Football and Jesus

Football is a game of gains and losses -- trying to gain yardage down the field to make a goal, and trying not to lose too much of it.  We have lots of gains and losses in our individual lives, too.  My greatest gains -- and some of my greatest apparent losses -- have been because of Jesus Christ.  You see, God knew me and loved me before I was born, and he called me to be his child, before I was born (just like he knew and loved and called you, whoever you are).  But it was forty years before I really began to know him.

I was brought up with the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong.  I thought he knew the Bible better than anybody and had the truth revealed to him directly from God.  After he died in 1987, I began to understand how he had made a lot of mistakes interpreting the scriptures, and how I needed to revise my thinking.  Slowly, I began to have a greater appreciation for Jesus Christ.  Finally, in January of 1995, I was faced with the choice of holding on to my attachments to Old Covenant regulations or grasping hold of Jesus Christ.  Letting go meant loss -- cherished memories, the idea that I was more important to God because I did certain things that others didn't, and as it turned out, losing the respect of some family members and friends.  But it meant gaining a much clearer view of Christ and what he did for me. 

In 2 Cor 3:7-18, Paul writes about the difference between the law of Moses and the new covenant in Christ, and it's very plain he is writing about his own Jewish people.  Especially in verses 14 through 16, he shows that it's impossible to really comprehend Christ if we focus on Moses, who only pre-figured Jesus.  That was the change in thinking that I had to make, and that many of us faced, 17 years ago.  It took a leap of faith, since we had been warned that if we abandoned those teachings we would be punished severely by God -- but it meant gaining far more meaning in looking to Jesus Christ directly.

Paul addresses that gain/loss idea again in Philippians 3:5-11.  Especially in verses 7-8, he describes his pedigree of birth and obedience to the law, then says dramatically, "everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."  I echo Paul's words, with great joy!  Seeing the awesome power of Jesus Christ in scripture and knowing how the whole Bible focuses on who he is and what he did, has brought me incredible riches.

In football, we keep our eyes on the ball.  But what's our spiritual focus?  Jesus.  Heb. 12:1-13 reminds us "...let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith."  Our goal is not physical riches and health, but eternal life and the mind-boggling riches of knowing Christ forever.  That will mean losses in this physical life -- but immeasurable gains in the age to come.  So let's keep our eyes on Jesus!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Darkness and Light

The Amazing Joanne and I went camping last week for a short vacation.  One of the shocking parts of camping in a state park is how dark it is at night, with no bright streetlights around.  We saw stars -- formations like the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, O'Ryan's Belt (he was the first Irishman in space, by the way), and thousands of others.  That was the fun part.  The difficult part was walking to the potty in the middle of the night.  That same darkness became a hazard, because there were rocks to trip over and stickleburrs that we wanted to avoid.  So we turned on the lantern and walked in its light.

Which reminded us, of course, of Psalm 119:105, "Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path."  How do we see that "light" of the Word?  Here are some common approaches:
  • The Bible is the instruction book for life; so you should look up the verse that tells you what decision to make or that answers your question.  --This approach unconsciously treats the Bible like a buffet, where we can go in and take just the foods we want, and all we need to do is find the right verse to apply to our questions.
  • The Bible is a set of laws and principles that will guide us, although it doesn't always contain an exact instruction for each situation, but we should follow God's laws for a successful life and to avoid sin.  --This approach unconsciously sees God as some sort of rule-giver, like a supervisor at work or in a boarding school, laying down the law and punishing us for getting out of line. 
  • The Bible is an ancient book of wisdom and we can learn from it, but it's not authoritative.  --This tells us that we are the superior beings, and the Bible is something we can take or leave at our discretion. 
Each of these approaches is fatally flawed because it leaves you and me as the authority in how (or even whether) to interpret and apply the scripture. 

Here's a better way:  The living Word of God, Jesus Christ, is the One to whom this verse points. (I've written about that in previous weeks).  So how do we read "Your word is a light to guide my feet and a light for my path"?  That the whole Bible, as the inspired written revelation of God, tells us who God is and what he is like, most particularly and clearly in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ himself.  That we look to Jesus, in the Gospel accounts and in the other writings, to understand our relationship to God through him, being adopted into the life and love of God (Eph. 1:3-5) and being filled with Christ (Col. 1:27).  That light in us, Christ himself, is the Lamp for our feet.  "I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life." (John 8:12). 

Let's follow him, being filled with him, and let his Light guide us. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


We need rest; that's a basic rule of human life, isn't it?  We excuse ourselves for working all the time by saying "The Lord put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things, and right now I'm so far behind I will never die!"  But God never meant for us to live without rest.  And the physical rest he gave the Israelites in Exodus 20:8-11 (a drastic change from generations of slavery in Egypt) was meant to lead them, and us, toward the true eternal rest.

I'm reading through the Gospels again, and was struck this morning by how Jesus discusses rest.  In Matthew 11:25-30 Jesus has just been talking about John the Baptist, "the one the prophets said would come" and sighing over the people who hadn't responded to his teaching and miracles.  Then he points to the Father's revelation in Jesus himself, and encourages us to come to him to find rest.  When Jesus said "if you're carrying heavy burdens" he wasn't just talking about physical loads.  The religious leaders of his day "crush[ed] people with unbearable religious demands" (Matthew 23) instead of freeing them to love God.  (A little like the Egyptians, who told the Israelites in Ex. 5:6-9 to make bricks without having straw provided, and God delivered them from that toil too.)  But Jesus doesn't give us here a looser set of rules for keeping the Sabbath -- instead, he offers us himself as the source of rest.  That is continued as Matthew stacks two more Sabbath-principle incidents in 12:1-21 to show how the leaders of his day misunderstood God. 

Why did Jesus do this?  For multiple reasons.  First, he was here to "reveal the Father" (Mat. 11:27) to his disciples.  Next, in that revelation of the Father, through Jesus, we find that the heart of God is not about getting more performance out of us but about resting in his Son.  Because we are "in Christ" we are able to rest in the perfection of Jesus' obedience to the Father, instead of trying to perform well enough which we never will anyway.  In fact, if we insist on trying to show God how obedient we can be, we will miss the point of trusting in his Son altogether. 

Every day I think about the work I believe I have to do, and all the plans I'd like to see come together, and it's easy to get burdened and stressed.  But when I realize that the work itself gets done by Jesus, and only through me, not because of me, then I can learn to rest, at least some, and let him work.  Do you know how to rest in him?  If not, let's talk. 

What then is the reason for responding in faith, in a life of obedience?  Paul talks about that in Romans 5 and 6, and we'll unpack that a little at another time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lights, Bible, Action!

A lot of people have trouble understanding the Bible.  It's a big book -- 1200 pages or so.  It's easy to get bogged down in the lists of people and places we don't know.  So how do we understand it?  Here's an idea:  imagine the entire Bible as a single movie.  There is a long list in Wikipedia of movies based on the Bible, but most of them take just one story or sequence or idea. How would we create a movie on the whole Bible?

We'd have to decide the central theme first.  Most people read and understand the Bible chronologically, and that's okay, but it takes a long time to get to the point and you can miss the main ideas in trying to keep the chronology straight.  My favorite idea, courtesy of Dr. Gary Deddo, is to portray the Bible as a "whodunit," a mystery.  That's really a pretty good description of the Bible -- there are lots of characters, conflicts, twists and turns of plot, surprises, and many times when you wonder what this scene has to do with the story. But when the truth is revealed, you can say "Aha!  Now I get it!" as you see all the pieces fall into place.

The central theme of the Bible is God, through the Son, creating the universe and humanity for a never-ending relationship of love.  How did God create everything?  Through the Son (John 1:1-3, Heb. 1:2).  What happened to humanity?  We decided not to trust God and left that relationship of love (Gen. 3:1-8).  How did God win us back, proving his love for us without any doubt?  Through the Son, whom we know as Jesus, coming to live among us (John 1:14, Heb. 1:1-2), giving his life for us (John 3:16-17, Rom. 5:1-10) and moving us back into a relationship of love with God (2 Cor. 5:15-21).  How will it all end up?  When Jesus returns in glory and the entire creation is restored to fellowship with him (Phi. 2:10-11, Rev. 21:1-7).  So, the central character in our movie has to be the Son of God.  The entire story revolves around him. 

So, just for fun, how about outlining a script of the Bible's story?  The question is, how would you begin your version of this movie -- with Genesis 1?  John 1?  Hebrews 1?  Revelation 21? The story of Israel? The birth of the Messiah?  The end of the story in Revelation?  Really, you can begin the movie anywhere you want, just so you focus on the central character. That's what the Gospel is really about.

And how about you?  Do you understand it?  Have you realized how God has planned to love you, from before he made the earth (Eph. 1:3-5) and is right now pursuing you as the one who loves you more than anyone else?  Right now is the time for you to face that awesome truth -- that security and peace beyond all others -- and dive headlong into his love!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Joyce Powell, 1933-2011

My dear mother-in-law, Joyce Powell, recently passed from this life into eternity in God's arms, after a long and fruitful life and a long struggle with several different physical ailments.  We will all miss her terribly. 

Here are two photos of Joyce from several years ago, enjoying The Lovely Joanne's birthday party on the beach -- a favorite place for them both.  She took great joy in seeing her daughter's happiness.  Joyce and Stuart, her husband of 55 years, often traveled to America on business and to see their beloved Joanne (and to give their son-in-law a hard time).  After Stuart retired, and Joyce became unable to travel, Joanne did the traveling for the business.  The advantage in that was that the travel included visiting clients in England, then spending time with her parents in the north.  I got to go too, from time to time, as we tried to honor them by spending time with them.

Joyce was known by many for her practical wisdom.  Her daughter says she had more common sense in her pinky finger than most people possess altogether, and I think she's right.  Joyce could take just about any stain out of just about any fabric, and could pack a suitcase so when you took the clothes out, there were no wrinkles.  She had a system and a reason for just about everything. 

Many people found Joyce's wisdom about life -- not just laundry -- helpful and encouraging.  She always had a kind word for everyone.  And her humility, her clear understanding of her own strengths and weaknesses, helped create that wisdom and a gentleness with others who were struggling.  She often reminded people of the blessings they had from God which we so often overlook in our trials, as a way to help gain perspective and keep a balance. 

Joyce was always good for a laugh.  One of our funniest memories of her, was her inability to choose just one item in an unfamiliar restaurant menu, since they all sounded so good.  After finally ordering and being served, she always thought your plate looked better than what she had ordered!  One year, Joanne and I found an extension fork (for toasting marshmallows in a fireplace, I think) and gave it to her for Christmas as a "tithing fork" so it was more convenient for her to get a bit of what was on your plate too.  She laughed uproariously -- and never used it.  But she was always up for preparing food for us and anyone else who happened by.  One had to be persistent to get away from their home and still be hungry!  

For some reason, she took a shine to me the first time we met, and it wasn't long before she was suggesting, in her own quiet way, that her daughter pay more attention to me.  I never really felt worthy of her approval or affection, but it was one of my great joys that she had given it. 

It's a comfort for Joanne and me, as well as Stuart, to be absolutely sure we will see her again.  She is secure with her Savior, awaiting the resurrection of the body (1 Cor. 15) -- of which Jesus is the Pioneer, the first of "a great harvest" (verse 20).  But to be honest, we miss her something awful, and the days just aren't the same without her.  It will be wonderful to see her again, along with my own mother, who died in 1975, and a whole lot of others we all miss.  Until then, we wait, with our hope in Jesus, for his return in glory.  God speed that day!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Relationship First, Location Later

"If you die tonight, do you know for sure that you will go to heaven?"  That's a standard opening question for a lot of evangelicals when they want to talk with someone about God, Jesus and salvation.  For some people, that's an engaging question.  The problem is, that's really not the center of what salvation is.

It's true that Jesus said "There is more than enough room in my Father’s home...I am going to prepare a place for you...I will come and get you...you will always be with me where I am" (John 14:2-3).  But there is a lot more to salvation than mere location.  John's gospel uses a lot of space talking about how our own being -- how it is we exist -- is caught up in Christ, knowing who he is and relating to him, and through him, being caught up in the Father. See for example John chapters 5 (eternal life is to know the Father and the Son), 6 (feeding on Jesus, not just on physical bread, in order to remain 'in him'), 7 (come to Jesus and drink spiritually of him), 10 (entering life through the Messiah), 14-17 (beginning to open up the inner workings of the triune life of God) and so forth.  Being "in Christ" or "united with Christ" (Phil. 2:1) is about inner change and growth, not moving from one place to another.  (And if we only change locations, we always end up taking ourselves -- including all our old habits -- with us anyway!)

By way of analogy, would I have said to The Amazing Joanne, "let's get married, so that when we die, we can be buried side by side!"  No, marriage -- like salvation -- is moving from one state of relationship to another, and growing in intimacy.  Not that God does not know us, but that we didn't know God, and we come to know him better as we walk together for the rest of our lives.  So then, what will it be like to be "always be with him where he is?"  It will mean being able to know God perfectly rather than in the limited way we do now.  To love him perfectly -- and to love others perfectly -- not in the limited way we do as humans.

So why do we focus on the 'heaven' bit?  Probably because we can imagine it as better than this physical life.  We want to have that new body (see this post for more) and feel nothing but joy forever.  Well, what's true is that life everlasting, in the presence of the Father through the Son by the Spirit, enjoying that relationship perfectly, will be more fulfilling than we can know or imagine.  Let's not reduce it to merely walking on the beach or eating good food without gaining weight, forever and ever. 

Do you have that connection with God?  Knowing him and being sure that he loves and accepts you through his Son?  If not, let's get started so you can begin enjoying it now -- and then, forever!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pictures from the Old Testament: Circumcision and the Messiah

Circumcision can be a delicate matter, but it's used in the Bible as a picture of our salvation in Christ.  So let's see if we can explore the idea, shall we?

Circumcision was common among many of the nations of the ancient near east, where Abraham was called by God.  The Lord ordered Abraham and his male descendents to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant God had instituted with him: (Gen. 17:1-14).  If foreigners wanted to join the covenant community, their males would also be circumcised, so that act became a sort of initiation ritual.  Any man who didn't carry the identifying sign of the covenant, or fulfill various other rituals of the Old Covenant, would himself be "cut off" (either thrown out of the community or killed). 

Figuratively, God began to use "circumcision of the heart" in the Hebrew scriptures to look forward to a day of changed hearts and obedience to God from an inward motivation.  See Deut. 10:16 and 30:6.  In Jeremiah 4:4 the prophet says the people should circumcise their hearts, but that is figurative in more ways than one, because they couldn't change their hearts; God was looking forward to a whole new covenant. 

But there's another level of understanding.  In a Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 53, verse 8 says that this suffering servant would be unjustly 'cut off':  "Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream.  But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people."  Daniel 9:26 also describes how this Anointed One (Hebrew "messiah") would be cut off.  Jesus, as we know, had no sin in himself, but he took on all our sin and died to take it all away (2 Cor 5:21).   He was "cut off," in our place, to bear the blame and the shame of all humanity being "uncircumcised in heart and ears" (Acts 7:51).  So this ancient practice, in a sense, pre-figured not only our own salvation and change of heart, but also the Messiah himself -- Jesus the Christ. 

God has designed a system of symbols and meanings, written into scripture, to show us who he is and how he loves us in many different ways.  This is just one more symbol or idea from the Hebrew Scriptures that looks forward to Jesus.  After all, it's all about him!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Resurrection Body

I'm becoming very thankful that one day, this body will be changed to a more glorious form that will be suitable for eternity.  I think a lot of those I love and serve in the church, along with The Lovely Joanne, feel the same way.  The last six months or so, we've all been assaulted by a myriad of aches and pains, and medical treatments for various body parts that have quit working up to the original specification.  We've been poked and prodded, stabbed with needles and shot with various kinds of rays, given exercises to do and pills to take, in an attempt to get the engine going again.  And in June, of course, Joanne and her father and I said goodbye to her mother, Joyce, as this mortal life ended for her. 

This physical body is not designed to last forever.  David said famously in Psa. 90:10, "Seventy years are given to us!  Some even live to eighty. But even the best years are filled with pain and trouble; soon they disappear, and we fly away."   Paul follows up on that in the "resurrection chapter," 1 Cor. 15.  Let's look at v. 53:  "For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies."  The earthly body, not suited to eternity because it decays, "cannot inherit what will last forever" (v. 50).  So God will give us a body, "the new body he wants [us] to have" similar to the way a seed planted in the ground sprouts in a new form (v. 38). 

We received our human body because of Adam, and will receive our spiritual body because of Jesus Christ (v. 45-49).  We will not be disembodied spirits, but will have bodies made for us by God: "For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies" (2 Cor. 5:1-3).  Jesus, after his resurrection, still looked like himself, including the wounds he had suffered on the cross.  He ate and drank with his disciples -- but he could also appear and disappear at will, and travel somehow.  And we will be given bodies like his (Phil. 3:21) so it follows that we, like Jesus, will look much the same as we have before.  (Now, there's a big debate about whether we'll get our hair back, or how much we will weigh -- the Bible doesn't say, and I'm not going there either!  You'll just have to find out later.)

What a relief that will be!  No more doctor visits or hospital stays, blood tests or mammograms.  Proctologists and gynecologists alike will be out of work (not that they'll mind, I'm sure!).  Joints and muscles will work properly again, and we won't be bothered with psoriasis, cancer or Crohn's disease.

What do we do in the meantime, while we suffer from these things?  We deal with what we have patiently, and look out for one another.  "Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (James 5:16).  And with hope in our hearts, let's look forward to the end, when even death will be destroyed completely by Jesus (1 Cor. 15:26).  Amen to that!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Apprentices of Jesus

Mrs. Williamson just celebrated her 97th birthday, and that stirred up wonderful memories for me.  Her late husband hired me to work on their farm for the summer in Kansas when I was just a lad.  He taught me how to drive a tractor and a truck, how to listen carefully to instructions, to remember exactly where in the workshop he said to find the tool he sent me for, and how to work hard and not quit even when it was a long day.  I watched and learned from him how he planned his work to do the harder part first, how he could move a heavy load of hay or grain almost without trying, how to take time to go fishing whenever he could, and many, many other lessons in work and life.  He was a great example. 

Jesus told his disciples “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mat. 4:19).  For three years or so, they followed him around, camping out under the stars or staying in someone's home, doing the chores as well as watching him perform miracles.  They learned by watching him and imitating what he did.  He even kicked them out of the nest and commanded them to do what he had done (Luke 10:1-10).  They learned what he taught as they went along, and the Holy Spirit was responsible to help them remember and to learn more, even after Jesus ascended bodily to heaven (John 14:26).

Paul told his followers "And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ." (1 Cor. 11:1).  Paul's life was very intense, living among people from city to city and teaching them what Jesus had taught, being persecuted but persisting in teaching the Good News.  And some of Paul's followers did imitate him, even to the point of dying for their beliefs. 

Discipleship is, in some Christian circles, mostly studying the Bible, learning facts about God, and being told to be active in a local church.  A more accurate understanding of "disciple" is that of "apprentice" -- not learning facts so much as learning how.  Like Mr. Williamson taught me.  Like Jesus and Paul taught their apprentices, who would go on to teach others:  "You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others" (2 Tim. 2:2).

Being an apprentice of Jesus is not only studying his words, but action:  staying close to him in prayer and submission, loving as he loved, giving as he gave, even sacrificing ourselves as he did.  And taking on other apprentices, to show them the way as we've been shown.  Do you have an apprentice, learning from you how to walk with Christ?  If not, how about asking Jesus to show you who he has for you?  It could be a family member (the first place to look) or a co-worker or friend.  Even if they don't yet believe as you do, letting them see the peace and joy you have in Jesus can open them up to becoming a believer.  It's never too soon or too late to begin...how about today?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jesus Cleans Us Up

The woman following Jesus that day (Luke 8:40-48) was bleeding, and in Jewish society that meant, according to the purity laws God had given the Israelites through Moses, she was unclean and under  restrictions (see Leviticus 15).  She may have given birth or it may have been something else, but for twelve long years, she had continued to bleed rather than heal naturally.  Anyone and everything she touched became ceremonially unclean -- so it would have become very inconvenient for her to live in a home with her family.  She might have had to live on the streets, suffering the rejection of the public as well. 

Surely, she thought, if she could ask this great teacher, Jesus, for healing, she would be well.  But she was ashamed.  She had received only condemnation from her own people, as they would have concluded her disease was due to sin.  Her shame was so great she couldn't face anyone, let alone this powerful teacher and healer.  She saw her chance as the crowd thronged around him, reached out and touched his garment -- just the little bit of the lower hem that was in her direction for an instant.  Instantly, Luke tells us, her flow was stopped.  She was healed!  (Jesus, as God in the flesh, was not made unclean by her touch; his power cured diseases and uncleanness, showing he was superior over them all!)

Jesus knew his power had healed her, and demanded that she come out in the open so the Father could be given praise for her healing.  So now, all who knew her as a hopeless woman, trapped in her uncleanness, could know God's power. 

Jairus asked openly (v. 41) for healing, and Jesus responded willingly.  The woman was ashamed to ask openly, but she was healed regardless, because she responded to the love and power of God in faith. 

Here's the question:  What is in you right now that needs Jesus' healing power?  Are you ashamed of it?  Are you ready to ask him for healing?  His power is more than enough for your needs.  Admit your need, come close to him, and let his power pour through you.  You will never be the same again!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sprouts and Summer Camp

One of my hobbies is gardening.  I like to see things grow -- at least, the plants I'm trying to grow -- and watching another part of God's creation develop.  Besides, I get to grow some of my own food, fresh from the garden, and it's a lot less expensive hobby than sailing or sky-diving! 

Jesus used a lot of agricultural analogies in his teaching, as did the apostles, and there are hundreds of references in the Hebrew Scriptures to things that grow.  One of those is found in Psalm 128:3 and reminds me of the work we get to do with young people: "Your children will be like vigorous young olive trees as they sit around your table."  Young plants, especially trees, are a source of hope for the future.  When we tend them, giving them fertilizer and water and sunlight as they need, they tend to grow strong and live up to their potential.  When we neglect those plants or withhold their needs, they don't do well, sometimes even dying.  Children are the same in all those respects.  They need nurture of several different kinds. 

Our regional "Spiritual Enrichment Program" camp, SEP Rockies (just outside of Denver), is an example of an intense nurturing environment.  For seven days in a row, the staff pour out what the Holy Spirit has filled them with, giving positive attention to the young people in every conceivable way.  We teach them about the loving God who is Father, Son and Spirit, with our words as well as our actions.  It's tremendously hard work, with a lot of sacrifice, and we come home exhilirated and exhausted.  But the way we see the campers grow while they are at SEP, and the way we see their potential blossom and come out, is worth it all.

Will you pray for us this week?  This kind of work does not happen just because we show up and take our positions, but because we seek and respond to God's power and inspiration.  Please pray that we can hear the Holy Spirit's voice of direction, and have the courage to do what we should in the wisest possible way, for the sake of those "young olive plants."  Thanks!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A word on God's Justice

I'm posting a link here to blog called "Trinity and Humanity:  the Journal of the Adopted Life" run by some friends of mine, in which they explore the relationship God has called us humans into.  This particular one is very interesting:  how do we define, and think about, the justice of God?  How does God see our sins and foibles, our mistakes and the times we hurt others? 

Here are some interesting concepts.  See what you think:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


It's simple, says the little package.  Just plug this adapter into your computer, install the software and you can connect up to seven devices to your computer.  Cool, I thought.  The adapter plugged in just fine, the software downloaded and installed (eventually) and the little blue light came on.  Then the whole process ground to a halt as I tried to connect a device.  Over and over.  Isn't it wonderful, I reflected, how technology can save us time, and simplify our lives?

It's a good thing we don't have to go through all that with God.  Our connection with him, through the Holy Spirit, has all the best features:
  • always-on  John 14:16, "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you." (Compare, by the way, that the Holy Spirit came and went from time to time in the Old Testament; his presence was not yet permanent.  Judges 3:10, 1 Sam. 10:6, 1 Sam. 16:14, etc.)
  • automated connection Acts 2:3-4  Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit...
  • high-bandwidth  John 14:17,  "He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth."  John 16:13, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth."
  • secure Eph. 1:13-14  ...When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. 
  • error-correction Rom. 8:26-27   "And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will."
  • restores dropped connections  Rom. 8:15-16, "So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father." For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children."  
Rather than relying on technology, we can be happy that we have miraculous, secure and eternal connection with God through his Spirit who lives in us and leads us into the will of God.  Let's surrender to his sure hand, letting him guide us into right living, teach us more about our Savior, and live his supernatural life in us!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

God's Judgment: Restoration, not Revenge

One of the most inspiring and puzzling passages in the Gospels is when Jesus, after his resurrection, confronts Simon Peter on the beach of the Sea of Galilee (John 21).  Peter, we remember, had blustered about his courage and conviction to the point of dying for Jesus (John 13:36-38 and Mat. 26:31-35) then had denied the Master three times, as we read in John 18.  In John 20, Jesus speaks with all of the disciples together, and to Thomas directly, but leaves Peter alone.  How much had Peter's conscience been bothering him since that night of his denial?  How tortured was his thinking those ten days or so until the meeting at the shore?  Did he say "I'm going fishing" because he felt he was no longer qualified as a disciple of Jesus?

Simon knew -- or thought he knew -- he was in for some strong words, or much worse, when Jesus started talking to him that day.  So what did Jesus say?  "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others?"  That was a direct reference to Peter's earlier proclamation of his outstanding loyalty to Jesus.  "Do you love me?" Jesus asked, three times.  All three times, Peter responded that he did indeed love Jesus.  "Feed my sheep / Care for my lambs" were Jesus' responses. 

Would you or I have said it that way?  Well, there are plenty of times I've spent many words lecturing someone about their inability, lack of attention or commitment, and general ineptitude.  Jesus focused on restoration.  Jesus restored Peter as an apostle by confirming that he still loved and believed in this broken, messy man.  Was Peter judged by Jesus and found wanting?  Yes.  Was he corrected?  Without doubt, Peter felt corrected by Jesus.  But Jesus' judgment restored Peter to a place of service.  Peter's gratitude and love inspired him to serve his master the rest of his days, all the way to a brutal Roman execution for his preaching. 

By looking at this example, I don't want to diminish, in any way, God's righteous judgment against sin.  Yet Jesus didn't make Peter suffer additionally for sinning; Jesus had suffered for all sin, even for Peter's sin, on his cross, to restore all humanity's relationship with the Father.  The penalty was gone, and the restoration began, with Peter here as an example.   Our problem is, we don't believe it, and think we have to make it up to God somehow on our own strength, or suffer for our sins.  We need to repent of that wrong thinking.  What will our final judgment look like?  If this example is any indication, it will be far different than some courtroom drama.  God is after restoration, not revenge. 

One more question:  how is it, today, that Jesus wants to restore your relationship with him, and service to him, in spite of your faults?  It's worth asking him, and listening carefully for the answer.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


One of the comforting pictures from the Hebrew Scriptures is that of the faithful resting 'under God's wings.'  It's found five places in the Psalms:  17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 63:7, and 91:4 .   It's also used in Ruth 2:12, when Boaz shows favor to Ruth and says "May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge."  This is a figure of speech comparing God to a mothering bird, protecting her chicks from the eyes of predators and sheltering them from rain, sun and harm. 

Does God have wings?  Hardly; God isn't hampered by physical form, although he has sometimes appeared as a human (for instance, Genesis 18).  But his loving care for us is described in many different ways in Scripture, including this picture of providing and protecting.  Jesus didn't have wings either but he picks up this word-picture, as recorded by Matthew and Luke.  In Luke 13:34, he says "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me."  Jesus' people refused his offer of protection, preferring their own blindness to his offer of God's redemption through his suffering.

But he was put to death on a cross, which was most likely an upright stake (the basic meaning of the Greek word used) with a crosspiece which he was forced to carry to the hill where he was killed.  The soldiers nailed him to the crosspiece, and put a sign over his head (Matthew 27:35-37) proclaiming him, ironically, "King of the Jews."  

Now, this is total speculation on my part -- this interpretation doesn't appear in Scripture so I can't claim it's authoritative, just a word picture in my own head.  As Jesus' arms were spread out and his hands nailed to the crosspiece of his stake, with the sign above naming him as King of the Jews, he 'spread out his wings' in a manner of speaking, to provide shelter and protection for all people -- his own nation as well as all of us Gentiles.  Though he died a criminal's death, it was to save us from our crimes against him:  "I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said" (1 Cor. 15:3).  

Colossians 1:20 says, "Through [Jesus] God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross."  God has already brought you back to himself, through Jesus' blood.  The only question is whether you find yourself "under the shadow of his wings" as he says you already are -- or whether, like Jesus' own people, you stubbornly prefer your way -- a way that didn't work for them either?  God lets you choose.  I pray you choose life. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pictures from the Old Testament: the Rock

Our ongoing series on the pictures in the Old Testament (the Hebrew scriptures) that point to Christ, takes us to a lot of humans; but today, to another object, not a human but a rock.  In the history of the newborn nation of Israel, fresh out of Egypt, Moses twice asks for water from a rock for the thirsty people. 

First, in Exodus 17:1-7, the thirsty people ask for water and blame the lack of water on Moses.  God tells Moses "I will stand before you on the rock...Strike the rock, and water will come gushing out. Then the people will be able to drink."  In Numbers 20:1-13, the people are thirsty again (and cranky as usual), so God tells Moses to speak to the rock, "and it will pour out its water."  Instead of speaking, Moses yells at the people, then strikes the rock with his staff.  The water comes out anyway but God corrects Moses and doesn't allow him to take the people into the Land of Promise because he "did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel." 

Normally, water ran down the riverbeds during rainy season, or there were pools in the wilderness from springs deep underneath the earth.  These sound like truly supernatural events, with water coming from an unexpected spot. In one story the rock is to be struck, in another Moses is to speak to the rock but strikes it instead.  What's it all mean?

These symbols are interpreted for us in the New Testament, primarily in two passages.  In John 7:37-39, Jesus says "anyone who is thirsty" can come to him and drink, and John interprets that as meaning the Holy Spirit. So the physical water given to Israel was just a picture of the greater reality, the Holy Spirit, given from Jesus, the true Rock.  In 1 Cor. 10:4, Paul writes, as part of a warning not to take God's provision lightly, that the Israelites ate and drank "spiritual" food and drink in the wilderness, drinking from the "spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ."  The manna pictured Christ's body given for us, and the water from the rock pictured the Holy Spirit to be given, so we should read "spiritual rock" as being a picture of Christ, not an actual rock dragging itself around in the desert sand.  God's faithfulness was with them, as it would be later in sending his Son -- who was "struck" in order to provide life for us.  (Some have read this verse as indicating that the second Person of the Trinity is 'the one' who accompanied the Israelites; but let's remember, God is one, not divided in any way, so "all of God" was there, not just one Person.) 

So, Jesus, the Rock of our salvation, is also the source of the promised Holy Spirit, whom he sent to be with us.  The Hebrew Scriptures agree perfectly with the Greek Scriptures, that the plan and purpose of God is fully presented in his Son Jesus, whom we know as the Christ.  Salvation and reconciliation with God through Christ is the main theme of the entire unity of Scripture.  Will you accept what he has worked so hard to offer you?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Life and Death...and Life

This time of year, everything is growing.  Fast!  The lawn is trying to get ahead of me again, and the weeds are growing faster than the veggies in the garden.  God created the spring of the year, I think, to give us hope not only of physical life and health from eating the great foods that are available to us right now, but to remind us of the new life, a forever-life, that he has prepared for us through his Son, whom we know as Jesus. 

We also face death in this physical life today.  Just last week, one of my friends lost his mother to suicide, a sad and regrettable result of hopelessness.  My mom died 36 years ago, and I still miss her.  Death came into the world, according to Genesis 3, because of humanity's rebellion against God; our first parents didn't fully believe that God was providing completely for them, so they listened to a talking snake instead (how much sense does THAT make??).  Death, in this physical world, is the ultimate result of the choices we've all made, and it's the end of the line as far as we can tell with our five senses; but God has promised us more.

John 3:16 says "For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."   Jesus says further in John's gospel, in chapter 5, "I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life" (verse 24).  Whoa, "already passed"?  What's up with that?  The next few verses explain that the "new life" starts with belief, but is made full at a future resurrection:  "And I assure you that the time is coming, indeed it’s here now, when the dead will hear my voice—the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live...Don’t be so surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again" (vs 25, 28).  Why is it already true?  Because "The Father has life in himself, and he has granted that same life-giving power to his Son" (v. 26) and those who chose then -- and choose now -- to believe in Jesus, are already living in that new kind of life, the life that will last forever. 

So why the future resurrection?  So that everything will finally be set right -- back the way it was before that first rebellion, and in fact even better.  The Bible ends the same way it begins:  in a garden.  "Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations. No longer will there be a curse upon anything" (Rev. 22:1-3) And all the hurt will be gone from this new life:  “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever." (Rev. 21:3-4). Human bodies will be changed to eternal, glorified bodies with no more aches and pains:  "Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies...It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies."  (1 Cor. 15:42-53).

I'm looking forward to that for a lot of reasons.  Are you? 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jesus Is the One

Please see this wonderful video courtesy of Churchleaders.com and Tim Keller:


What do you think?  I think Tim has it figured out. What an awesome God!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


On Sunday, May 22, a tornado half a mile wide left a six-mile swath of destruction in Joplin, Missouri -- not far from my mother's home town.  So far, 116 people are known dead and several hundred were injured in that storm. We join Christians around the country in praying for the people who were affected, not only in this storm but the many that will surely follow this year.  

There are storms in life produced by the weather, and there are "storms" of another kind, difficult circumstances of life that teach us lessons we usually can't get anywhere else (or perhaps they won't sink into our minds in any other way).  The Bible often calls these situations "trials" and there are several important passages on trials in its pages.  Let's look at just a few:

1 Peter 4:12-19 reminds us not to be shocked "as if something strange were happening to you.  Instead, be very glad..." The text tell us that trials are normal for the Christian life, and have two purposes:  first, they test us; second, they allow us to be "partners with Christ in his suffering."  Ouch, you mean we have to suffer as Jesus did?  Well, yes, that is part of Christian life -- it shows we identify with Jesus, just as he identified with us by becoming human.  "So be happy when you are insulted for being a Christian" says verse 14. 

James 1:2-4 says much the same thing, more briefly:  "For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow."  That's a little like lifting weights, using the resistance of the weight to build muscle and strength.  We grow in our faith and endurance by facing problems we can't work through on our own, and relying on the strength God gives us to endure.  That growth is why James says "when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy." 

Hebrews 11 is a long list of faith-driven accomplishments of the saints of old.  And after all those stories of faithful heroes, we are told "none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us."  We get to join the list of the faithful, as our faith is made plain to others while we endure our trials; and one day, we will all see that "something better" God has waiting for us.  I have no doubt -- that is, I have faith, despite the troubles of today -- that the trials will be worth it.  Do you?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pictures from the Old Testament: the Levitical System

Most nations around ancient Israel believed that they were ruled by unseen beings in the sky who controlled the weather, the fertility of people, animals and crops (and thus their lives, in an agricultural setting) and many other things.  The nations believed they had to appease those beings by any number of methods including sacrificing animals -- and sometimes humans, sometimes even their own children!  (See for instance 2 Kings 17:31.)  The problem was, one could never be certain of success; the weather might still be against you, your crops might still fail, etc.  You always had a little cloud of doubt hanging over your head.

The system God gave Israel was similar in many respects, at least to the casual observer. They had holy places, priests, altars, sacrifices of animals and grains, and even boxes that represented the presence of their god (that's why the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant in 1 Samuel 4).  But there were differences, and those differences assured the people of the forgiveness and faithfulness of Yahweh.  In addition, the whole Levitical system (the priests were all from the tribe of Levi) points directly to Jesus, our Savior. 

Here are just a few points, to illustrate:
  • The 'sin offerings' described in Leviticus 4 and 5 are described as being effective:  "they will be forgiven" is used in 4:20, 4:26, 4:31, 4:35, and 5:10, 5:13, 5:16, 5:18, and in other places. 
  • The offering had to be a 'male with no defects' (Lev. 1:3)
  • The priest wears, on his turban, a seal engraved with the words "Holy to the LORD" which is taken to mean that he "may take on himself any guilt of the people of Israel when they consecrate their sacred offerings. He must always wear it on his forehead so the Lord will accept the people." (Ex. 28:36-68).
  • The priest wears stones such as onyx and emerald, engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel: “In this way, Aaron will carry the names of the tribes of Israel on the sacred chestpiece over his heart when he goes into the Holy Place. This will be a continual reminder that he represents the people when he comes before the Lord." (Ex. 28:29
Jesus himself fulfilled all those things: 
  • He is our high priest (Heb 9:11) the one bringing the offering, and he was also the offering itself.
  • He had no sin of his own but carried our guilt (Heb. 9:14)
  • He represented all the people, as did the high priest in Israel; and through his sacrifice on the cross, all sin is taken away for all people, forever (Heb. 9:24-28). 
  • That offering is effective, not because of the blood of animals, but the blood of Jesus himself (Heb 10:4-10).
This is one more of those reasons why we say that we read the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, through the lens of Jesus Christ.  The sacrificial system of the Israelite nation did nothing to change peoples' hearts (Heb. 10:1-4) but only looked forward to the One who was to come.  Now, we live under the terms of the New Covenant, not the old one (Heb. 10:9) and are completely forgiven, even to the point of having a clean conscience.  That's what Jesus has given, not only to us, but every human who has ever lived! 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Understanding God: Pictures from the Old Testament: Joshua

Last time we looked at a little of the life of Moses who led Israel out of Egypt.  Now we move on to Joshua, who was Moses' assistant for so many years.  Joshua's job was to lead the group out of their wanderings in the wilderness for so many years, into the Land of Promise.  He had already seen the land once, as one of the twelve spies (Numbers 13:16) sent to look the place over, and along with Caleb was one of the only ones to have faith that God would help them conquer the land.

Joshua was a man of faith, a strong leader and had a large part in setting up the nation of Israel in their now-historical home.  But in Joshua chapter 1, God felt it necessary to tell him that, just like Moses, God would be with Joshua all his life.  "No one will be able to stand against you as long as you live. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you." (verse 5).  Three times (verses 6, 7 and 9) God says "Be strong and courageous" and finishes with "the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."

There are a lot of famous exploits in this book of history, including crossing the Jordan river in its spring floods stage (chapter 3) the fall of Jericho (chapter 6) and the long day (chapter 10).  All that served to help establish Israel in the land, so that many years later, Messiah would be born in the land and complete the true salvation of all people.  Moses led Israel out of Egypt, but Joshua (Yeshua in Hebrew) led them into peace.  The Son of God born as a human, whom we Westerners know as Jesus has the same name in Hebrew; it's just the change to English that makes his name sound different.  Joshua was born in captivity in Egypt, and walked into freedom in the Land of Promise, just as Jesus was born into human flesh and sinful nature, yet without sin, and leads us now into eternal life. 

The historical book of Joshua ends in chapter 24 with the scene where Joshua gathers the Israelite leaders, rehearses their history, and reminds them that they are now in a land of plenty with cities and orchards and vineyards they didn't create themselves (verse 13); a picture of salvation given us as a free gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ.  Then Joshua finishes with these ringing words in verse 15: "Serve the Lord alone. But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord."

Jesus, of course, is the only one to ever "serve the Lord" perfectly.  And by his perfect life, his death on the cross that was in our place, and his resurrection to eternal life, he has led us into the true "land of promise" with God, forever (see Colossians 1:13-14, Ephesians 1).  Let's live every day in that glorious truth!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Understanding God: Pictures from the Old Testament

We come back today to our intermittent series of people from the Hebrew Scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament, whose lives picture our salvation in Christ in some obvious or hidden way.  Sometimes it's a parallel, sometimes a contrast, sometimes both in one.

Today we discuss Moses, who is recognized as having founded the nation of Israel.  Modern Jews trace their heritage from the defining moment of the Exodus, when Moses led Israel out of Egypt, just as Christians trace their beginnings from the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  What might be revealed in the story of Moses as pictures of Christ?  Here are a few examples:
  • Both were born into a life of oppression: Moses into slavery (Ex. 1:8-14, 2:1-10) the Son of God into human flesh (John 1:14, Phil. 2:1-11). 
  • Both had to be rescued from a king who murdered children (Ex. 2:1-10, Matthew 2:13-23)
  • Moses led his people out of Pharaoh's oppression, (Ex. 12:37-42) Jesus out from under Satan and sin (John 12:30-32)
  • At God's direction, Moses helped create a nation as the people of God, united under their 12 tribes and the covenant of law (Ex. 19:1-8, 20:1-20); Jesus created a new people united by grace, not race; not by law but by God's forgiveness (Gal. 2). 
There's a contrast, also, in John 1:17:  "For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ." The phrase "unfailing love and faithfulness," also translated "grace and truth," comes directly out of Ex. 34:6, in which God is describing himself to Moses:  "The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, 'Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.'"  Just as God reveals himself to Moses in these words, Jesus reveals God to us in his entire life: "No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known."  (John 1:18). 

The whole Old Testament is filled with pictures of the salvation offered to every person on earth through Jesus Christ. Moses is just one more of those.  What else is in Moses' life that is revealed in Christ to be a picture of future grace?  Who else do you see in the Hebrew scriptures as they anticipate the Savior?  Let's find another one for next time.