The Biblical Marks of Discipleship

One of the current needs of the church today is to recover the biblical concept of discipleship. Over the past generation the understanding of discipleship as being foundational to the mission and life of the church has been watered down. During the same period of time one can find many resources devoted to the topic. However, instead of being the foundational principle upon which the church should operate, discipleship has been relegated to just one ministry amongst many within the church. During this time, the church has unofficially adopted the strategy of running programs as being the necessary approach to building a healthy church. Hence churches have children’s programs, youth programs, evangelism programs, discipleship programs, and music and worship programs – amongst many others. This partitioning of programs has led people to see discipleship as just another program within the larger church with the effect that people see it as an option or preference. One person joins the choir, another goes to the discipleship class, but both are “active” in ministry. And while that may be so, as a result of partitioning the church into programs, the church is not fulfilling the great commission.

Before Jesus ascended to the Father he made clear the purpose of the church. Every gospel account and the book of Acts communicates some version of the Great Commission. The most explicit enunciation of the Great Commission is found is Matthews’s gospel. Their Jesus said,

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV).

From this text it is clear that the Great Commission is not limited to evangelism. And while the church has always understood that the Great Commission is a command to lead people to Christ, it has not always embraced the equally important aspect of this command to lead people to grow in Christ as disciples.

The word disciple literally means “a learner.” That aspect of discipleship is clearly articulated in Matthews’s account. However, when one takes a larger view of scripture it becomes clear that a disciple is a learner who follows his/her teacher. When Jesus first called his disciples, he did not call them to simply be students. He called them to follow him (Matthew 4:19). In addition, this was a call to begin a new way of life where following Jesus took priority over everything else (Luke 5:11). In Matthews’s account of the Great Commission this idea of discipleship is the primary emphasis of the command. While Jesus was clearly commanding the church to do evangelism, this was to be done under the wider scope of making disciples.

This idea is further communicated in the book of Acts chapter eleven. Several years after Christ gave the command to make disciples, the church in Antioch was sending Paul and Silas out as missionaries. During this period Luke records that “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (vs. 26). Of significance is that the term “Christian” was not an identification the church gave itself. The word came from those who were hostile to the church. It was essentially a pejorative name given by the enemies of the church to identify those who were actively (and antagonistically in the minds of non-believers) following Christ. The early disciples were so effective in following Christ by both leading people to Christ, and teaching them to also follow Christ, that the non-believing community took notice. Hence a “Christian” was known as one who followed Christ in such a way that non-believers knew who they were by what they were doing in Jesus’ name. In addition, immediately after Pentecost when Peter preached his first sermon, the church did not simply preach for people to accept that Jesus was the long awaited for Messiah, but after their confession of faith, the apostles began the process of teaching the church to effectively follow Christ (Acts 2:42). Later as the church matured, and even came under intense persecution, these Christians “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Their training as disciples led them to publically follow Christ as they both proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior, and led others to do the same.

The very heart of the Great Commission, then, is to make disciples who, in turn, have made it their purpose to follow Christ by making disciples. If there is one biblically legitimate “program” for the church, then, it is to make disciples who are, themselves, disciple makers. Discipleship was never meant to be found in the backwaters of the church’s calendar. It is the very purpose for which Christ created his church. A church that is not making disciples is not obeying the Great Commission. In addition, based on Acts 11:26, one might argue that a Christian is not one who simply believes that Jesus in the Messiah (after all the demons believe, James 2:19) but one who has made the commitment to be an active follower (disciple) of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:57-62). The main purpose for the church’s existence, then (according to Jesus), is to lead people to effectively follow Christ (cf. Eph 4:11-12).

If making disciples is the essence of the Great Commission, and the very purpose for which Christ created his church, then it is important we understand the specifics of what a disciple looks like. In what follows I want to outline the biblical marks of discipleship.

  1. As noted above, a disciple is, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus. Some might argue that believing in Jesus should be the first mark of a disciple. And while it stands to reason that belief in Jesus is of paramount importance (cf. John 3:16), it can be argued that belief in Jesus does not always lead to true salvation, let alone rise to the level of making one a disciple. Consider Matthew 7:21-23 where “believers” in Jesus are condemned (also note James 2:19 where demons are said to be believers!). When Jesus called his first disciples the call was unequivocally to “follow” Jesus. While it can be argued that they had a nascent belief that Jesus was the Messiah, it is clear that their belief in Jesus was incomplete. It took several years of following Christ before they had a true appreciation for, and what we might call a developed belief system concerning, the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah.
  2. A disciple is one who learns to follow Christ. The very definition of the word means to be a learner. However, the biblical context reveals that this learning is similar to what we today call On the Job Training. Learning happens in the context of following. And while Jesus taught the multitudes, for those who were following, he also demonstrated what he taught. Their learning was experiential. The disciples were effectively apprentices under Jesus. A cursory reading of Luke chapters nine and ten reveal that Jesus told the disciples what he wanted them to learn; he then demonstrated to the disciples what that looked like; finally he sent them off to do what he already showed them. What is a disciple to learn? This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start:
    1. They are to learn what the Master is doing, then do those things (John 14:12)
    2. They are to learn the teachings (doctrines) of scripture (Acts 2:42; Heb 5:12-13)
    3. They are to learn obedience to the Word (Luke 6:46, 1 Peter 2:1-3)
    4. They are to learn the will of God (Rom 12:1-2)
    5. They are to learn to live a life pleasing to God (Col 1:9-11)
    6. They are to learn to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:16)
    7. They are to learn to live a life of repentance and self-denial (Luke 9:23)
    8. They are to learn to share their faith (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, John 20:21; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15)
    9. They are to learn to use their spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8; Cor 12:4-27)
    10. They are to learn submission to the leadership of Christ (John 14:23, Psalm 2)
    11. They are to learn to worship (John 4:22-24)
    12. They are to learn to pray (Matt 6:9-13)
    13. They are to learn to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
    14. They are to learn to love others, even their enemies (Matt 5:43-47; Rom 13:8-10)
    15. They are to learn to give and be generous (Luke 6:36; 1 Cor 16:2; Phil 4:10, 15)
  3. A disciple is one who employs what he learns as a new way of life (Mark 4:24-25; Luke 6:46-49). This means he takes what he learns and puts it to use. He lives the truth (James 1:22-25; 2:14-17). In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission Jesus made this clear when he said we are to “Observe” all things he has “commanded” us. The Greek word we translate observe is tereo, and it means we are to pay careful attention to Jesus’ commands. We are to guard against not doing those things. We must make it our priority to obey, follow, and do those things he has instructed.

While the above list is not exhaustive, it reveals the true function of a disciple. I think a good working definition of a disciple can be stated as: A disciple is one who actively and obediently follows Christ into a new way of life in the context of the church for the purpose of making Christ known amongst the nations. It’s the last part of this definition we often lose sight of. Christ created the church to be a witness to his life, death, and resurrection so sinners can know the gospel and be saved. The church does not exist for the pleasure of its members, but for the glory of its King (Rev 19:16). Further, as someone once said, “The church is the only institution created for the benefit of its non-members.” Indeed, Christ did not come to “be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

The program of the church is defined by the command to make disciples. This should and must be the church’s first priority. While there are many good things the church can do as disciples, it is a certainty that if the church is not making disciples it cannot do the one thing, indeed the very thing, it was created to do.

 

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Which Door?

This is chapter one of my book, “Man of the World, Battling Satan’s Infiltration of the Church.” Click on the link to the right to see more.

There seems to be a default mode that people lean towards in church life. While the invitation of the gospel is to enter into a unique and special relationship with God through Christ, many people seem content with a life of religion. The problem is that there is nothing in the gospel that even hints that that is God’s goal for a believer. Yet, there are many people who are active church members who are content with their religious routine and not even remotely concerned that the life of God is not a living reality for them. Yet, that is why Jesus came. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3, NKJV). And, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The thief is Satan. He is the author of lifeless religion. But, Jesus came that we may know God and experience His life as a living reality on a daily basis. And notice, He said He came to bring an abundant life. This is not a normal, run of the mill common life that is content with sitting in pews and attending committee meetings. This is a supernatural, extraordinary, uncommon life that walks with the living God! This is the kind of life that is filled with a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). This is a life that experiences a peace that transcends understanding (Philippians 4:7). This is a life that knows every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). In short, this is a life that knows God. Let that sink in. Knows. God.

So, before we look at the specifics of how Satan seeks to derail God’s will for the church, (something that he is quite skilled at) I have a question for you. Do you know God’s goal for your life? That is not an academic question. It is a matter of life and death. Get this answer wrong and everything that follows will take you in the wrong direction – away from God. But, in reality, the answer is simple. He wants you to love Him.[1] Period. He loves you with an everlasting love, and He has gone to great lengths to share His love with you and to enable you to love Him in return.

This is important to understand. Love is relational. The first and greatest commandment that God revealed to the world was that we are to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We are to love God with our entire being and with every fiber of our will. Love is life; and God wants that life to explode within us and ooze out of every pore of our body to those around us. And we need to understand that God’s love for us is more than we can possibly imagine.[2] His love is so great that He came to die for us so we never have to be separated from Him.

But, He is jealous for our love. He will not tolerate us loving something or someone else more than Him.[3] Loving something other than God is the very definition of idolatry. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t want us to love our spouse, children, or friends. No, in fact, He wants us to love them very much. But, He has created within us a very special place that was meant to be reserved only for Him, and He is jealous of that place – very jealous.

That place is meant to be the most important part of our life. It is where we are connected to God. Think of that place like a room. God has placed a room in every heart that has ever lived. And in that room God seeks, through faith in Christ, to place a doorway that opens to a very special place: the eternal presence of God. As the author of our life He has reserved the right to have complete and sole ownership of the room and have complete access through the doorway. He wants to enter the room of our life and commune with us forever.

As such, the room is meant to be the most significant and important part of our life. It is where we are meant to be intimately connected to God. But before He can enter the room He must place a doorway there. In our fallen, sinful state, the doorway has been blocked so we cannot have fellowship Him. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Our sin effectively blocks the door so God’s presence is absent from our life. Jesus is the One who opens the door, and who becomes the door which leads to God. Through that door the Holy Spirit of God floods our lives with His life, love, hope, truth, and righteousness. So the Bible teaches that “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” True life can only be acquired and experienced when God enters our life through Christ.[4]

Therefore, allowing Christ to open the door into the room is the most important thing we can do this side of heaven. That door is opened when we place our faith in Christ. It’s not opened because one sits in church every once in a while. When the door is opened we receive the most valuable treasure that we can possess. We receive the fullness of God’s forgiveness, life, and unconditional love. Our Father knows that of all the essentials we need to survive, these things are the most important of all. Therefore, He is jealous to open the door, and to keep the door open so He can fill the room with these vital needs.

But God knows if the door is not opened and remains shut we will find ourselves in desperate peril. He does not want anything blocking the door. Blocking the door is akin to cutting a baby’s umbilical cord while still in the womb. Spiritually speaking we cannot survive such an event for long. If the room remains empty of His presence, our life is eternally forfeit! Let that sink in. Eternally. Forfeit. Lost. And no amount of church activity can change that.

However, after Jesus opens the door we learn to love God. And, when we love God as we were meant to, we make sure the room is always ready for Him and that nothing blocks the door. When we learn to do this, He dwells in this special place and fills it with His eternal life. Everything we experience with God begins in that room after He enters it.

Unfortunately we all have a sin problem and are subject to this danger. But sin has an author. His name is Satan. For reasons we will discuss later in the book, he hates God, and he desperately wants to shut the door of God in our lives, and fill the room with sin, despair, enmity, hopelessness, and death. Satan has many devices he employs in his efforts to pollute the room and block the door. But one of his most successful and enterprising efforts is to create a mirage which leads one to believe the room is full and the door is authentic. This is his most deadly of deceptions.

When an unsuspecting person walks into this mirage he believes the room has everything needed for life, and he believes the door leads to God when in reality it leads only to death.  This is the deception Satan uses to trap people into believing they are okay with God, when in fact they are on the road to hell. Satan achieves his mirage through religious sentiment and activities. He wants us to believe that all we need in the room is a bunch of religious stuff; and he wants that religious stuff to give the appearance of Christ – but be devoid of the life of Christ.

Once Satan successfully generates this mirage he leads the unsuspecting soul to become loyal to it. Many people love religion. As we will discuss in a later chapter, religion gives one a sense of confidence. Because of this, once a person becomes loyal to their religion they become very jealous of it. They will guard it and defend it. But tragically, many will discover that what they are defending is not real.

When Jesus came to the height of His public ministry many loyal members of the Pharisees felt threatened by Him. Little did they know that Jesus was trying to show them the real doorway so they could have true fellowship with God, and have that special room filled with His life. But they substituted the fullness of His life for the empty shell of religion.[5]

Because they saw Him as a threat, they defended their mirage to the point where they were actually fighting against God Himself. Think about that. As God was trying to open the door so they could have His life, they were desperately trying to make sure it stayed shut. This is the destination of lifeless religion. The height of their folly was revealed when they put Jesus to death. When they did, they effectively and eternally shut the door to God’s presence for themselves, and forfeited what God was trying to give them.[6] Likewise, even today, many people fall in love and become loyal to their religion, but they do so at the expense of their salvation. And in their misplaced loyalty to religion, they unknowingly declare war against God.[7]

In the following chapters we will see how Satan’s mirage takes shape, and we will look at the deception this mirage generates in our life. But before we proceed, it is important to understand a very vital point. God is not interested in religion qua religion. He is interested in people. He came to us so we can receive His life and enjoy Him forever. He wants to have a relationship with people that will never come to an end. We must make sure that we don’t make the mistake the Pharisees made by exchanging the life of Christ for religion.

Religion proper is a system of activities, and even an institutional identity, that has the ability to lead people to identify with God. But identifying with God is not the same thing as having a vibrant relationship with Him. One can be religious and have a relationship with God. But the relationship is the principle focus of God. The reality is that there are many religious people who have no relationship with God at all, and tragically they don’t know it. In fact, religion can become a distraction that prevents them from ever meeting God. Consider the rebuke God gave to His people through the prophet Isaiah:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”[8]

Notice, they had all the religion their calendar could handle, but had none of the relationship their religion was meant to initiate. Though they believed they were worshiping God, and even pleasing Him, He declared that He was not listening and He was not with them. Instead of being in communion with God, He reveals they only had the pollution of sin. In all their religion they never knew God was absent. The true door was shut and their religious practices made sure it was nailed shut.

It needs to be pointed out that God did not hate their religion for the sake of hating religion. He hated their religion because it actually prevented them from knowing Him in spirit and truth. As such they continued to live in sin and believed they were worshiping God all the while ignorant of their great peril.

This is where Satan is a master. He can distract us from the realities of God’s life and lead us to see only the superficial adornments of a life-denying religiosity.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-religion. After all, I am a pastor. But I am against the deceptive mirages the enemy creates. True religion leads to the life of Christ. As an under-shepherd to Christ I have a great love for the church and I desire to see the Lord’s sheep enter the true door where they can feed on green pastures and drink still waters that gives rest to their souls – a place where they can obtain strength for their journey and enjoy true fellowship with God. But as a pastor I cannot stand to see the sheep running into the desert where they will not find God’s life but will only suffer the scorching heat of sin and breathe the arid climate of despair, all the while thinking they are running to God.

At the same time I don’t want people to flee the church because they “hate” religion. The church was created to be, and should be the fragrance of God’s life in the world. As such, the church needs to reveal the true doorway to life – that it is found in Christ, not in religion. True religion always leads people to Christ, who is God’s life. To that end the church must wage war against the schemes of the enemy so the sheep can be free to come and go into the glorious presence of their loving God and shepherd, who laid down His life so they can freely and boldly come to the throne of grace.

The reality is that the whole history of God’s work of salvation can be distilled down to that one point: Everything God did was so Jesus could come to open the true door of eternal life and to make sure everyone has an opportunity to walk through it and discover a living, vibrant faith that brings one into communion with the God.[9]

Thankfully, God did not come to bring us a dry, dead, lifeless religion. He came to bring us His indestructible life through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through Him, God gives His life away in abundance.

However, a Man of the World is one who is satisfied with religion. He has fallen in love with it, and it has become his god. So when the true living God shows up, the lover of religion thinks it’s an intrusion and he finds it very distressing. The first area God’s presence disturbs in that person’s heart gets to the heart of man’s fallen condition. When God shows up He knocks on the door of that room and demands he hand over the key. He then commands him to relinquish control of the room and allow Him in.

But, despite all piety of religion, a true Man of the World says, “No!”

To that subject we turn next.

 

[1] Matthew 22:36-37; Deuteronomy 6:5

[2] Ephesians 3:19

[3] Exodus 20:4-6

[4] John 17:3

[5] John 5:40; Also, read the entire chapter of Matthew 23

[6] Matthew 23:15

[7] John 5:16; 7:1

[8] Isaiah 1:11-15

[9] John 10:10

Success Realized

I have come to the pinnacle of success in business. In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success.
However, apart from work, I have little joy. – The last words of Steve Jobs

Self. It’s the number one killer in the world today. It destroys marriages. It rips communities apart. It leaves children orphans. It threatens social stability at every level. It damages lives. It leaves people bereft of friends and loved ones. It is the source of wars and fights. And it is the real reason we must tragically open graves on a daily basis.

When Adam and Eve first sinned, they didn’t just break a simple rule. They effectively opened the door of Pandora’s Box unleashing hell. Man was created in God’s image. It’s something we don’t reflect upon often enough. There are many things that means, but one consequence of this wonderful truth is that being made in God’s image means we were given great creative skills and abilities – abilities that far surpass that of the animal kingdom. Man’s ability to cultivate, build, think, imagine and create is vast. But man was created to do these things in a way that reflects the creator back into the creation. But because of Satan’s lie man’s abilities were high-jacked. We were created to serve God. After God created Adam, he told him to tend and keep the garden God had created. The words in the original language are the language of worship. Adam and Eve were to bend all their ingenuity in the service of their God. But, when they accepted the lie of Satan, all those abilities were now placed in the service of self. Focusing those abilities on self has become the source of much evil in the world.

This is not to suggest that good things aren’t accomplished today or that people always and only do things that are inherently evil. It does mean, though, that most things in life are not done for God. Most people engage in the various activities of life with self in mind. Daily we go through life pursuing our ambitions and dreams. We think about our future, our jobs, our daily objectives, our next big score, our likes, our dislikes etc. etc. etc. … but rare is the person who thinks about these things in relation to God, and rarer still is the person who uses their God given ingenuity in service for God and for the glory of God. Sadly, when we fail to employ our God given abilities as an act of worship, we fail to achieve true success; and we fail because we are not living for the purpose and design for which we were created. But in that failure comes a very real dissatisfaction in life.

Despite the many achievements we have enjoyed, many people still lack real satisfaction. People can and do attain great success in the various accomplishments of life. There are great thinkers, engineers, doctors, inventors, builders, artists, musicians, and the list can go on and on … yet there is not a single achievement that has brought lasting contentment to people. No matter how successful, we are still dissatisfied. No matter how technologically advanced we have become, no matter the quality of life we have achieved (which is the best the world has ever seen), no matter the diseases that have been eradicated, there still lies within the heart of man a desperation. This gives rise to the belief that we haven’t done enough and must press on. If we can only change this one thing, all will be well. However, when that one thing is attained, and the desired goal realized, the dissatisfaction remains; and we believe that we have not done enough. There is more to do. There are more things to fix. And when our desperation becomes great enough, we believe others are to blame. If they would just get on board; if they would only see things our way; if they would just get out of the way… all would be well. But they don’t. They then become our opponent. But they are thinking the same things. If only they would see it this way and not that; if only they wouldn’t be so ignorant; if only they would get out of our way. And they don’t. Catastrophe, conflict, war, pain, sorrow, misery, and tragically, death are the result.

The problem is born out of a true need all people have. But we fail to understand what the real problem is, and as such search for a tragic solution. Hence, we envision a future without the perceived problem and seek to fix the symptom of the problem and not address the real problem itself. But we have forgotten what it was like to achieve a solution to a smaller problem only to discover that it was not enough; it didn’t fix what was really wrong. Rare is the person who pauses and looks at the problem from the different point of view. The history of mankind is replete with wars and tragedies. And behind many of them lie this scenario where it is believed that the vision, once realized, will bring about our peace, happiness, and fulfillment. All will be well … then.

Another word for that vision is utopia – the ideal paradise. People seek to attain utopia in their personal lives, in their homes, their neighborhoods, and nations. But no matter their achievements, no matter how far they travel to find it, it always eludes them. But, the satisfaction they seek cannot be had this side of heaven. Heaven is heaven not because of where it is, but because of who is there: God. Rare is the person who thinks about their dissatisfaction in life and considers that, perhaps the one real problem they have is that they are disconnected from their creator. “Tend and keep the garden” God told Adam. In other words use your creative powers and ingenuity as an act of worship in service to me. Worship me with your abilities and skills. Or, to quote the apostle Paul, “Do all things unto God, and not unto man.” This will bring the satisfaction we long for. Instead, we do all things for the glory and happiness of self, and are miserable as a result.

True happiness, then, comes through using our God giving abilities as worship. But worship is so much more than singing songs and listening to sermons. Worship is a sermon lived. Worship is using our God given skills in a way that reflects God’s glory back into the world. God is the master lawgiver. God is the master sculptor. He is the master engineer and designer. All skills and abilities find their source in him. So many of the problems we experience in life are a result of forgetting this great truth. Instead of using these things as an act of worship to the One who gave them, we use them to worship ourselves.

As a result we live in a world where our satisfaction seems to always be stymied; either by a bad situation, or by a certain person, or a group of people. We will achieve happiness and our little utopia, so we think, when we remove the obstacle that is preventing us from doing so. Last week an assassin tried to take out some politicians. In his mind, they were the obstacle. He’s now dead. The newspaper reported a story of man who murdered his wife and kids. They were hindering his freedom, or so he thought. He now faces capital punishment. Hitler sought to rule Europe and murdered the Jews as he went, because they were the problem. Most of Europe was destroyed trying to stop him. In the 20th century Communists sought to convert the world to dialectical Marxism, and killed a 100 million people because capitalists were the hindrance to world peace and prosperity. Islamist jihadists seek to kill their way to utopia, because the non-believers are the problem. Many people live in constant fear as a result. There is no end to the tragedies that have been unleashed on the world because someone stood in the way of someone else’s potential achievement of their utopia.

I wonder, though, how many leaders have walked a battle field after a hard won victory only to realize the problem was still there. There are many battlefields in life. The ugliest one does not lie in a meadow turned killing field. The ugliest one lies within the human heart seeking to carve out happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment in life apart from God.

Adam and Eve were the first people God created. They weren’t born. God raised Adam from the ground and crafted Eve from Adam’s rib. There were no birth defects or genetic problems that distorted their life. They did not inherit their parent’s disabilities. They must have been beautiful. I can’t imagine their native intelligence. They had it all. Until. They bought the lie that happiness and satisfaction could be theirs apart from God. Nothing good came from that titanic mistake. Instead all the suffering we experience in life did. Despite their intrinsic God given abilities, they experienced profound sorrow as they were driven from God’s presence – a sorrow that still plagues the hearts of man today. And a sorrow that can only be removed when one is reunited with God.

But there was another man, the second Adam – Jesus. He did not make the same mistake our first parents made. Instead of looking away from God, he embraced the will of God completely. His life was lived for God. His death was experienced so we can die to self. Sin, in all its varied and ugly forms, is nothing but pure-self on display. Jesus killed sin so we can be free of its insidious power to deceive and enslave. He did two things for us: 1st, through his cross he freed us from sins power and from God’s judgment against sin. 2nd through his life he showed us what a life lived for God looks like. He never raised a sword against anyone. He was never unkind, hateful, or vengeful. He did not fight those who sought to kill him. He never defended himself when falsely accused. He did not plead that it was someone else’s fault. But it was. It was ours. And instead of removing us because our selfishness is the problem, he chose to die for us. And as he died he suffered greatly. His suffering was real. But he never took his eyes of the Father. “Not my will be done, “He said, “but yours.” His prayer is our answer. His sacrifice our salvation. And though our sin brought him more suffering and pain than we can imagine, because he was doing the Father’s perfect will, he never lost his joy (see Hebrews 12:2).

Most people will go through life looking for others to blame for their dissatisfaction and unhappiness –and their misery will continue, and they will probably destroy someone along the way. But we can be those who look inside ourselves and realize an unhappy life is a life disconnected from God. The great news about heaven is that we don’t have to wait to go there. Jesus brought heaven to us. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Once we turn to him, he brings heaven to us. Once there, firmly ensconced by his life and presence, we realize there is no one to blame. There never was. It’s only then that we can get on with life as it was meant to be lived. And as we employ the skills that he has given us, we discover that no matter what we do, with him taking delight in our work, we will “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”

 

 

 

A Very Real Power

I was thinking lately about the power of language. As I thought about how God used the spoken word to create the universe I was struck by the reality that there is great power in our use of language. It is something we often take for granted. God said, “Let there be….” and the world and all that is in it came bursting forth into existence.

We cannot create a universe, but we can create divergent realities with our language. Think about the power words have over children when they are still learning. What is said to that child can determine the course of his or her entire life. Think about how criticism can break a person emotionally and psychologically. Conversely, think of how a word timely spoken can redirect the course of a person’s entire life in positive ways. Words are more than just ideas verbalized. They are a form of power that we wield every time we open our mouth. As such we are to use our speech in ways that honor God and direct people to the path of life.

The Bible has much to teach us about the use of our words:

  • “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).
  • “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).
  • But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:8-10).
  • “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
  • “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (Proverbs 4:24).
  • “What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:12-14)
  • Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11).
  • The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Proverbs 10:11).
  • “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
  • “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue” (Proverbs 17:4).

That’s just a sampling. It appears that God is very concerned with how we talk.

Our ability to speak is a product of being created in his image. Speech did not evolve over time. It was given to us because we are created in his image. When we speak we are exercising that great privilege of utilizing an attribute of God. Either we use it for his glory or we misuse it and bring dishonor and shame to his name. Every time we speak we have the ability to reflect him back into the world. When used correctly, we can speak life into people. When misused we can tragically speak both death and chaos into people’s lives.

When God speaks, he speaks life. Think of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb. How did he do it? He called his name and commanded him to rise. The result? A dead man rose again and walked out of his grave after being there for four days. In Ezekiel 37 God gave the prophet a vision. He was brought into a valley filled with dead people – only skeletons remained. The prophet looked and noticed that the bones were old and dry. God then asked him a question: “can these bones live?” God told the prophet to speak to the bones. Life was breathed back into them. The bones came together. The bodies were recreated. Life was given. It was no longer the valley of dry bones.

God seeks to give life away. He has given us the ability to give life by using our speech the way he does. While I cannot go into a graveyard and raise the dead, I can give the words of life to those who are dying around me, and I can see them brought back to life.

God is the author of life. He delights to give his life away – and to give it away in abundance. He delights to raise the dead. He proved this through the death and resurrection of Jesus. He created people to enjoy his life. And he saves people so they can freely and joyfully give his life away too. We have great power, the power to give life. All we have to do is speak the words of God, and we will see God’s power flow through our words imparting his life, love, and truth – transforming them as did the prophet in the valley of dry bones.

To this end we must never gossip, slander, or accuse another. We must never attack and tear down through criticism and discouragement. We must never be self-righteous fault finders. We must not be name callers and mockers. Even if we think the things we say are true. This type of speech is violent in nature. The outcome is always painful and leads to a form of death in the ones to whom it is directed. If we must confront someone (at times it is vital and necessary) it should be done in a way that teaches and corrects. We must seek to always turn people to Christ. When Jesus confronted the woman at Jacob’s well he revealed her sin, but did so in a way that made her crave his words. Her life was changed – because even when confronting her sin, he spoke words of life to her.

Words that speak death never cause healing and never imparts life. It may feel satisfying for a moment to speak with violence to another. But, in the end those words will be turned back on ourselves. That’s why Jesus said, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). If we speak words of death and chaos it’s because we have those things in ourselves. Thankfully we can repent. Even from the depths of death God’s words of life can reach us and bring healing and life back to us.

We should consider, though, that our words have the ability to reveal our spiritual identity. We all fail every day, some days worse than others. But, every day reveals patterns of behavior. Do we normally speak life into those around us, and only occasionally, through sin, speak in violent ways that produce death in others? – and then repent because we know we were wrong? Or, do we normally speak words of death and only occasionally speak words of life to others?

We must consider carefully the use of our words. Jesus said we will give an account for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36). If we live a life of repentance, then every careless word we speak will already be accounted for on the Day of Judgment. But, if we know nothing of repentance (a good sign we speak words of death), then in giving our account, we will come to understand why we are condemned.

  • What do our words reveal about our spiritual identity and what do they reveal about our eternal destiny?

Thankfully we can call upon Jesus and be healed and forgiven of our sin; and we can be assured of an eternal life filled with his abundant life in us and flowing through us to those around us.

Speak life and live.

My Brother

“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

The other day someone made the statement to me, “We are brothers.” What he meant was, we are fellow believers, and as a result there is a relationship between us grounded in Christ. I agreed and we gave the appropriate man hug with the hit on the back, and then we went our separate ways. This morning while doing my quite time I read the above verse. Jesus raises an interesting point concerning our relationships in Christ. He seems to limit them.

Jesus’ family came looking for Him. His mother and brothers were attempting an intervention. Mom found the brothers and convinced them to put a stop to what Jesus was doing. I think they thought He lost his mind and they were seeking to “speak” with Him about His ministry. His reply is almost shocking. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He asked. The normal reply would have been, “Those guys out there with the little old lady who are waiting for you.” But instead Jesus points to those who are actively following Him and says, “Here are my mother and brothers!” He then defines that relationship with great specificity. He says, in effect, “Those who are doing the will of God are those who are my kin.”

Jesus seems to be limiting our relationships in Christ to those who are in fact doing the will of God by following Him. A brother in Christ is limited to those who are traveling down the same road with Jesus. A brother (or sister) in Christ is not one who simply believes in Jesus, then goes their own way. Nor are they the crowd of people who followed Jesus because He healed them or made them a meal (cf. John 6:1-12; 26). There were many people who followed Christ to get something from Him. In John’s gospel He turns to a very large crowd of people who are following Him because he did something for them, and then makes a statement about eating His flesh and drinking His blood – and, wonder of wonders, most walk away from Him. Jesus isn’t interested in believers who are in it for their own benefit. He is interested in followers who do the will of God.

A person who believes in Jesus and then acts on that belief in following Christ are those who are first, in a relationship with Jesus; then, second, they are those who are our spiritual kin – our brothers and sisters in Christ. Many people claim belief in Jesus. And it is certainly the case that we are called to believe. But many who believe are not following. Jesus made some interesting statements in this regard:

  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
  • “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46).
  • “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26)

Following Jesus is doing the will of God. Notice those who claim belief, but Jesus points out that they are not doing the will of God. Notice that others call Him Lord, but he says, despite that claim, they are not doing what He tells them to do. He then says, a servant MUST follow him.

Many people want to claim some sort of relationship with Christ. They say to Him, “Lord, Lord.” But Jesus makes it clear that those who are in a relationship with Him are following Him. It behooves us to ask the question: Does my belief in Jesus lead me to follow Jesus? The answer to that question has eternal significance.

Divide the Word, Not Believers

So I just finished a debate – if you can call it that – with a man who forcefully argues for a hyper-Calvinism position on the atonement. We sat down to have coffee a couple of weeks ago and somehow got into a debate on Romans 9. Let me say upfront that there are many good Christians who are hyper-Calvinists; and there are many good Christians who are not. I belong to the latter category. The conclusion of the story, I assume, based on his comments on FB, is that he has broken fellowship with me. In our discussion on Romans nine, I presented a reading of the text that disagreed with his. On FB, without articulating what I actually said about Romans nine, he told anyone reading that I vehemently oppose God’s sovereignty in salvation, I dishonor God, and that I despise the sovereignty of God. When I called him a Calvinist he said I was disparaging him and that he does not accept such titles – he even said I was disparaging Calvin. I thought I was being accurate based on his argument. He thought I was being divisive. One of the things I took away from his comments where he accuses me of dishonoring God is that because I disagree with him, I am therefore dishonoring God. To dishonor God is a serious thing. It is to be living in sin and rebellion against God. To accuse someone of dishonoring God because of theological differences is a scary place to be. You might as well make the claim “To disagree with me is to disagree with God.” Where did we ever get the idea that disagreement over theological arguments is A. equivalent to attacking God; and B. grounds for accusing a brother in Christ for being in sin; and C. grounds for breaking fellowship? Friends this is not Christianity. This is insanity.

As far as my reading of Romans nine, in a nut-shell I believe Paul is explaining why God’s promises to the Jews have not failed. It seems that the point of contention comes from the verse that reads, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Rom 9:13). Hyper-Calvinists insists that this means God chooses who gets saved, and conversely, God chooses who goes to hell. I think that is a misreading of the text. That verse is a quote from Malachi 1:2. It is my contention that Paul quoted Malachi for a reason, and that he quoted that verse to reflect the thinking of Malachi. In context Jacob represents Israel and Esau represents the people of Edom. This is an important point. God is not saying that He chose Jacob to go to heaven and chose Esau to go to hell. Each person represents their respective people: Jacob = Israel, Esau = Edom. If that’s correct, then is it possible that there is another meaning to that text than the ones given by hyper-Calvinists? I think so. And I don’t think that puts me in the category of dishonoring God and vehemently opposing God’s sovereignty in election. If my reading is wrong, it does not make me a sinner, it simply means I am mistaken. And for the record this reading does not mean that I believe a person is saved by their own efforts. They are saved only by what Christ has done. Period.

Going back to Malachi: again, Paul is quoting Malachi for a reason. The opening verse of Malachi puts a question in the mouth of the prophet: how have you loved us? So God answers the question and tells them how. He explains that God’s favor is on Jacob, and therefore on all Israel and not on Esau, and therefore not on the peoples of Edom. The larger context is the sin and rebellion of Israel which the prophet goes on to address in detail. The message from God to Jacob is: I love Jacob (read all Israel) despite their sin. And while they certainly deserve the punishment of Edom, they will not receive it. At the end of Malachi, it is clear that despite their sin, and the pleading of their innocence not-withstanding (which is a sin), God is still going to bring about His purposes of salvation through them (Malachi 4:1-6). So, despite their sin, God’s promises given to them WILL NOT FAIL (Rom 9:6).  Paul incorporates this thinking in his letter to the Romans. He says plainly in verse 4 & 5 that all the promises of God have come to Israel, then in verse 6 makes it clear that, despite appearances to contrary (Israel falling under judgment because they reject the gospel, Rom 9:32, 10:1-3, 16) God’s promises to the Jewish people have not, and cannot fail.  He goes on to address this concern that apparently some people had; but he is careful to explain that the ones who reject it do so because they are not following God’s plan for salvation. In seeking to establish their own righteousness (Rom 10:3) they have gone off the reservation. Their cries of unfairness 9:14, 19 (incidentally the people in Malachi claimed God wasn’t being fair either) that God won’t accept their righteousness through the law become the context of what Paul address in the rest of chapter 9 and 10. Paul is saying that God is not being unfair because as the One who gives the promises, He is the one who guides how those promises are received – by faith, not by works. And He is the One who creates the boundaries of how salvation comes into the world (i.e. through Jacob and not Esau – and not even Pharaoh and the powerful Egyptian nation can thwart God working in history, vs. 9:17). The promises are received only through faith and based only on the work that God has done in bringing salvation into the world through the Jewish nation and ultimately through Christ.

In explaining this, Paul is also lamenting the fact that many Jews reject the Gospel (9:1-3, 10:1) and is essentially pleading with them to accept the work that God has done.[1] He is in effect pleading for them to place their faith and trust in what God has done.  Look at verse 11:23, “IF they do not continue in unbelief, God will graft them in.” – notice the IF, making the sentence a subjunctive clause and putting the responsibility on them – i.e., if they will believe what God has said and done, and accept the gift of righteousness that He gives through Christ, He will bring them into life. He is concerned that they come to saving faith. And he wants them to abandon any attempt to be saved outside of Christ. That is why in verse 9:3 Paul says that he is willing to sacrifice everything, even his own salvation, so that they might be saved. In the middle of Chapter 10 this thinking is elaborated on. He says in 10:9, “That IF you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In context this confession must be seen against those who seek to establish their own righteousness (10:3-8). But Paul argues that Christ, not our works, is our righteousness. Then in verse 10:10-13 he says in sum, whoever will come to Christ, gentile or Jew, and confess faith in Christ will be saved. That is explicitly stated in verse 11 as he quotes Isa 28:16. Faith in Jesus delivers God’s salvation to all (will not be put to shame). And in his turmoil for them to hear the gospel he makes it clear that to be saved THEY MUST HEAR THE WORD OF GOD (v. 10:14, 17). In that context verse 10:17 becomes so important: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing the Word of God.” In other words, faith is received and salvation imparted, when they hear the Word of God and believe it. There is no equivocation in these words. We cannot say, “Well, God may or may not save someone, that’s up to Him.” Paul’s answer is, sacrifice everything so they can hear and respond – plead, explain, persuade, beg, pray, and preach the Word – for without it, they have no hope of responding and therefore no hope of salvation.

So, in these chapters two important truths are on display. One, God’s sovereignty in bringing about our salvation through Jesus Christ, and fulfilling all His promises despite the sin of His people. We CAN be saved from judgement and wrath ONLY because of what God has done through Christ. We CANNOT establish our own righteousness. Second, through his pleading, and willingness to sacrifice, and urging that they hear the word, Paul reveals, to some degree, the responsibility for people to believe what God has done and accept through faith that it has been completed for them. So, I see God’s sovereignty and man’s free will side by side. I do not see particular, limited atonement in these verses. If you do, then God speed. But to claim that the above argument makes one a sinner and breaking fellowship over it is really an outrage – unworthy of the Savior who died for us that we might live for God, love God, and demonstrate that love by how believers love one another.

[1] That, incidentally does raise a question: if I’m wrong and Paul is in fact arguing that God chooses each individual for either salvation or damnation, why such emotional turmoil? He reveals that turmoil again in 10:1. If he is making the hyper-Calvinistic argument, then the pleading and turmoil seem out of place.

Do What?

Over the course of the last year I have heard several Christians dispense advice along these lines, “You have to do what is right for you.” I remember being a young soldier in 1990 and giving out the same advice to someone who asked me about a situation they were in. The advice has an appearance of wisdom. In every situation there are factors that only the person involved in can navigate; and only the individual can assess the consequences that will arise as a result of their choices. So, telling them to do what is right for them, i.e., what will benefit them the best, seems to be the right advice to give.

Before I came to know Christ, I saw myself as an isolated entity with no clear connections to the world around me. Sure I had family relationships, friends, and breathed the same air as those around me, but whatever I chose to do, in my mind at the time, had little impact on others and the world around me (in so far as my actions did not hurt others). That may be a bit of a simplification, but, like those around me, I made choices that I believed were best for me without giving much thought to anything else. But, when I met God, my perspective on life changed.

Before we meet God we are simply individuals trying to navigate this strange thing we call life. But, when we meet God, the purpose for life, and specifically our purpose for life, slowly becomes clear. As we grow in our faith and learn the Word of God, we begin to see our place in the world. Like our former life, we might conclude that our place in the world is small and insignificant. But, the conclusion we draw from that observation rapidly changes. Whereas before we concluded that what we did had little consequence, today, with our new life in Christ, we realize that everything we do reflects back to Christ. In the larger scheme of things I am insignificant, but I now realize that despite that reality God cares deeply about what I do. And what I do matters in His sight.

One of the amazing truths of scripture is that, despite the reach of my influence in the world, the God of creation has taken up residence in my life. The world has no idea who I am, but my Savior does. And while a simple action that appears to not affect someone else may lie before me, I am reminded that my actions, no matter how simple, does affect Christ. As we grow in our relationship with Christ we discover that we can either please Him, or we can grieve Him. I remember several years ago, shortly after I was saved, that a choice was placed before me. The choice was mine to make and would have had little impact on those around me. Because of my relationship with Christ I knew there was only one choice to make. Later, I heard the Holy Spirit speak to me. He said He was proud of me. He was pleased with the choice I made. That small choice had large ramifications for my spiritual growth.

Before I met Christ, dispensing the advice that “You should do what’s right for you” came naturally. The advice assumes that the person faced with a decision has only himself to think about. After meeting Christ I realized that I can no longer, as a follower of Christ, give that advice. I now know that the purpose for life in general is that we are all called to glorify God. The purpose for my life, specifically (and yours too), is to live a life pleasing to Him. As I please Him, He is glorified. We please Him when we obey Him. And we please Him when we follow His will for our life.

His will for my life may not be His will for your life. But, one reality all Christian’s share is that we are all called to submit to His will. Many aspects of His will are general in nature. For example, we are all called to love one another. We are all called to forgive others. We are all called to abstain from sin. We are all called to share our faith. We are all also called to follow Him – daily. When we do follow Him, we discover that there are aspects of His will that pertain only to us. God called me to pastor a specific church. That’s a call only I can answer. His call on your life is a call only you can answer. But we are all called to submit to His will as we follow and obey Him.

As a result I can no longer “do what’s right for me.” I realize that no matter how insignificant I may be to the larger world around me, I am not insignificant to God. What I do matters in His sight. And since I am called to follow His will, I can amend the original advice to: “Do what’s right in God’s eyes.” As a follower of Christ, that’s the only legitimate advice I can give. As a friend, I can help another to discover what that might look like, but I can never regress to, “Do what’s right for you.”

Sometimes that can be hard. Doing what’s right in God’s eyes does not always seem to be what’s right for me. It may not be what I initially want to do. It may require that I sacrifice something I did not intend to sacrifice. It may mean that I have to own up to behavior I do not want to own up to. It may mean I have to forgive someone I don’t want to forgive. It may mean I must repent of certain sins. It may mean a whole host of things I simply don’t initially like. I suspect Jesus faced the same dilemma. Just before He was arrested, He was fervently praying to the Father, “Take this cup from me!” The cup he was referring to was the cup of suffering that lie just before Him on the cross. But, Jesus didn’t need to ask for advice. And He didn’t do what was right for Him.  He did what was right in the eyes of the Father. So, he submitted to the Father’s will and said, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

As Christians, that is the only way to live. And as brothers and sisters in Christ that is the only legitimate advice we can give.