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100% Jesus – By Larry Jones, November 2013
It took me a while to catch on to the organic food movement. I understood the basic principles, but not the urgency. This might be due partially to my upbringing and the long summer months I spent as a child on my grandparents’ farm in Kentucky.
We were organic before organic was cool. My grandfather raised most of his vegetables in a huge garden behind a chicken house, and some of his beef came from a steer he raised on fresh grain. Our meat and vegetables were supplemented with bass, bream and catfish from local farm ponds, and an occasional rabbit or squirrel. Fruit came from apple trees in the yard, wild blackberry patches and a neighbor’s plum tree.
We didn’t live totally off of the land. Once a week we made a pilgrimage to the local Winn Dixie to
stock up on household items, and staples like cereal, milk and cheese. Our food on the farm also had a little help. No, we didn’t pile on the fertilizer. Instead, my grandparents collected leaves in the fall, let them compost in the winter and plowed them into the garden with the rotor tiller in the spring. But we did use pesticides. Every few weeks my grandfather filled a small leather bellow with white powder and “dusted” the garden. I’m not sure what was in the dust, but fortunately I don’t have any residual twitches or deformities today.
Yet, even though everything I ate wasn’t organic and the word wasn’t even in my vocabulary, I did grasp the difference between packaged food and the fresh stuff from my grandparents’ farm. I figured my grandparents were just saving money by raising their own food. I had no idea we were so advanced! I also learned to respect the land, be kind to the animals we were planning to eat, and work hard with my hands.
Maybe this is why it took me a while to get the organic craze. I assumed everyone knew the difference between farm fresh and processed food, and tried to eat as well as possible. I had no idea how corrupt our food supply had become and how little the average person understood about soil, plants and produce. In the Garden of Eden, God delivered the first lesson in agriculture to Adam: “Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29). He didn’t say anything about potato chips or cattle injected with steroids, but in His omniscience He surely knew it would come to that.
Of course, the idea of organic is much broader than food production. It includes environmentally friendly practices in lawn care, building supplies, and the more scientific designations of materials that decay over time and those that don’t. There is even such a thing as organic thinking which focuses on a holistic approach to human interaction. However, the practice of organic gardening and farming is what most people think of when they hear the term, as these constitute the platform for the modern organic movement.
The organic movement emerged in response to the industrialization of farming in the 1940s when synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers became commonplace. Since this time other controversial methods have been introduced such as irradiation, growth hormones for livestock, and genetic engineering. Not long ago the discovery of some genetically modified wheat in Oregon set off a firestorm of panic and led a Japanese wheat importer to cancel a major order.
Consumers are not only concerned about inorganic plants, but also their impact on other consumable goods as the work their way up the food chain. For example, people want to know how much pesticide travels from the grain a cow eats to the milk she produces, and finally to an infant who is nursed by a mother who eats and drinks dairy products.
You may be wondering why I am spending so much time processing the organic issue, especially as it relates to our walk with the Lord. To explain my rationale, I need to return to the 1940s and ask a rather basic question: “Why did farmers introduce synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers to their fields?” There are some obvious biological answers to this question, but I think there is something even more fundamental. Farmers enhanced their techniques to produce more food, more quickly, for more money. While it should be noted these modern innovations don’t guarantee a bumper crop or prevent natural disasters, they do help offset farm losses incurred in the bad times.
In the same way, the modern church is living in a time of spiritual industrialization. This is a personal observation with positive and negative implications. It is a positive sign when we respond aggressively to Christ’s statement, ”I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” (John 4:35). Why would we not want to be reaching more people, more quickly, to reap greater kingdom growth? The Lord has given us unparalleled resources, and to fail to use them would put us in the category of the man who hid his one talent in the ground and was condemned for his foolishness.
On the other hand, in our effort to make the most of what God has given us, we must be careful we don’t evaluate success by numbers alone regardless of the size of our ministry. Please don’t misunderstand. I think it is easy to excuse our laziness in sharing Christ by saying the church isn’t about numbers. Indeed, reaching the world with the gospel is about numbers, because there is no better way to measure our progress. Yet, if we are careless it is possible to unwittingly poison our spiritual well and spoil the soil for future generations of believers, should the Lord tarry.
We will bring greater clarity to these concerns later, but it is important that you know it is not my intent to critique the modern church. Technically speaking, there is no difference between the church today and the church of New Testament. It is the living body of Christ, composed of those who have been cleansed by His blood and are connected to each other through a common bond of grace. What has changed is our context and the structures we have created to fulfill the Great Commission in our age. Although I think it is possible for a strategy to be inherently ungodly, the true character of the church always resides ultimately in the heart of every believer. It is easy to speak in institutional terms and complain about ways in which the church has lost its way, but we must remember if we are in Christ, we are His church. If the church is not what we think it should be we should not be so quick to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility for its trajectory.
This is my focus: Christ’s church as it relates to our personal faith and mission. While we cannot separate our work from the collective body, neither can we ignore the unique role God has given each of us in our individual journeys. The Apostle Paul touched on this truth in his letter to the Philippians when he wrote, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). As the church, we move together in obedience to the gospel, but in our own person we seek God’s purpose for our lives. It is true the church body can have a worthy structure, and still not produce the fruits of the Spirit in its members, but if its members are living for Christ, the body will surely reflect His glory.
Therefore, the greatest contribution any of us can make to the Lord’s church is to be the best reflection of His grace possible. If we establish this as our goal, the stewardship of everything He has given us for kingdom work will follow. I realize the fellowship we have with other believers in the church is essential in this process, but at some point we must all decide for ourselves what kind of Christian we are going to be.
It is natural for us to follow the path of spiritual industrialization. We only have so much time and energy, so we want to be a part of a church with a clear vision, innovation, recognizable brand, and a defined path. Since Jesus told us to make disciples, it stands to reason we would want to be in a place where they are being churned out in masses and the kingdom is growing exponentially.
I have witnessed the opposite. There are churches with no vision and no plan for making disciples. This doesn’t necessarily mean the people in them lack a sincere love for Christ and His mission, and sometimes a catalytic event or person can provide the spark to get things moving again.
It is neither right nor wrong to seek either of these soils as the place to invest our lives. But whether we are a part of something dynamic or choose to grind out our faith in a setting where we must constantly kindle the most basic passion for Christ’s commission, the question of what we are producing still comes back to us.
Chapter 1 – The 100% Jesus
The desire to reflect “100% Jesus” is to stand apart from and at times transcend our environment. Whether we are surrounded by highly creative and committed believers, plugging along with those who have grown complacent in their mission, or pouring our lives out to the “least of these” in the shadows of urban decay or a third world country, the first and most important question we must ask is whether or not the Jesus they see is the Jesus of the Bible. It is a given we will never reflect Him perfectly, but at least we can represent Him accurately. It is alright to tell the world, “This is not who I am yet, but it is what I hope to be. It is also what I want to share with you.”
Once we take responsibility for our own reflection of Jesus, it dawns on us (if it hasn’t already) we are actively making disciples everywhere we go. Whether we are a part of a clearly defined, visionary path in a growing church, an instigator in a floundering ministry or an ambassador in the bellows of abject poverty, our responsibility to the mission is greater than a single focus. What about our homes, our workplaces, and our own neighborhoods? How do we view the cashier who rings up our morning caffeine? When our doctor walks into the examination room are we only concerned about whether or not he will make us well, or do we wonder whether or not he is well in his soul?
Please understand we all need a structure or program as a context for making disciples. If we deny this reality we are deceiving ourselves. Even those who say they just want to “go with the flow” or “let the Spirit lead them” had declared a methodology. Industrialized Christians get with the program. Initiators tell others to get with the program. Ambassadors take the program to those who need it. But in all of this, the key is not the program, but the Person. Do they see Jesus? And which Jesus do they see?
The scriptures tell us everything we need to know about Jesus from an academic perspective, and He is revealed to us on a deeper level when we accept Him as Lord and Savior and receive His Spirit. The gospels show us how our walk with Jesus impacts every facet of our lives, and the remainder of the New Testament helps us apply His teachings in our church family, our homes, and our community. Jesus didn’t address every issue we face in our modern world specifically, but He did give us the principles we need to respond to all of them.
It is difficult to identify any one portion of the Bible as the starting point for a pure, organic approach to following Jesus. It is important to know the prophetic and historical context of His appearance, as well as the facts related to His death, burial and resurrection. We should see Him as King of an ever-expanding kingdom on earth, and the Suffering Servant who died that we might live.
I believe it is safe to rule out approaches that make Jesus a vehicle for our personal agenda, whether political, social or personal. While it is probably impossible to be completely self-aware of our behavior along these lines, at least we can avoid any overt attempts to make the person of Jesus fit our motifs. I realize this danger is inherent in my choice of the organic movement as a metaphor for my thoughts here. There are those who believe Jesus had a particular dietary directive for His followers. If He did I don’t find it in the Bible, and I will go ahead and confess I will eat about anything that doesn’t move if it tastes good. If you can accept my weakness in this respect, read on.
I have always thought the portion of scripture known as The Sermon on the Mount is a great place to begin one’s walk with Jesus. It is a profound summary of kingdom life, and is at the same time highly principled and grounded in reality. Then, within this important discourse can be found something we refer to as The Beatitudes. The term “beatitude” is a Latin word expressing happiness. The idea behind the designation is the fulfillment Jesus can bring into our lives when we pursue His Father’s will with our heart, mind, soul and strength.
This is where I have landed in my personal quest for a pure reflection of Jesus. I hope I am never so arrogant to call my witness to the world “100% Jesus.” Yet, this is my target. My life-long goal is to see Jesus more clearly, that I might understand His Father’s will more distinctly, and a result reflect both the Father and the Son more accurately to a lost and dying world.
Chapter 2 – The 100% Jesus in the Beatitudes
The Beatitudes are familiar to believers and non-believers alike, and phrases such as ”the meek will inherit the earth” have made their way into popular culture. My deeper appreciation for them was developed many years ago when I purchased a used edition of Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones’ large work, “Studies in The Sermon on the Mount”. I have since learned Dr. Jones’ book was a compilation of sixty sermons preached at Westminster Chapel in London over a period of a little more than a year. The Beatitude portion accounted for thirteen sermons, which is extensive considering the brief wording of these important statements.
In his introduction Dr. Jones suggested the Sermon on the Mount was the “best means of evangelism. Surely we all ought to be urgently concerned about this at the present time. The world today is looking for, and desperately needs, true Christians. I am never tired of saying that what the Church needs to do is not to organize evangelistic campaigns to attract outside people, but to begin herself to live the Christian life. If she did that, men and women would be crowding into our buildings. They would say, ‘What is the secret of this?’” Something tell me Dr. Jones knew the meaning of “100% Jesus” long before organic was cool.
The Beatitudes might well be viewed as core values for the Christian life and the foundation of every moral and ethical application that follows. Indeed, this is how I see them. They are the two greatest commandments in longhand, and every time I study them I discover new truths I somehow overlooked before.
You may already possess a similar appreciation for this important section of scripture. In proverbial eloquence, Jesus uses these few short statements to challenge our perception of reality as it relates to heaven and earth, and to cause us to think about the insurgence of His kingdom here. In fact, before we examine the Beatitudes, we will spend some time painting the bigger picture He had in mind. While Jesus’ words convict us on a personal level, they also lay a foundation for our corporate kingdom citizenship. Just as it matters how we produce food for a hungry world, we must also understand the environment in which these spiritual truths were intended to function.
Our goal is to represent Jesus in the purest sense, and although it is unrealistic to think we will do so all of the time and in every way, He has nevertheless considered us capable of pursuing this purpose. The possibility our world might see Him as He is depends on our willingness to let Him permeate our being.
Blessed are we if we hear and understand, and a blessing we will be to others. But first, we must catch a panoramic glimpse of the kingdom. We must also pour out the contents of our hearts and eliminate anything that obscures the glory of our Lord who is remaking us from the inside out.
“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them” (Matthew 5:1-2). Have a seat with Jesus and listen now. The time you spend with Him on the mountain might help you see Him as never before. And once you do, you will never be the same.
Our generation has re-acquainted itself with kingdom thinking. Not that the idea ever vanished from the church’s consciousness, but a profound shift has taken place, as well as a greater focus on the meaning of kingdom. Simply put, many believers are now less concerned about creating a single place where people come to find Christ, and more intentional about expanding the kingdom everywhere they go. This doesn’t mean people have stopped constructing church buildings or inviting the community to attend special events on their campuses. Rather, it suggests the place a church gathers for worship is seem more and more as a home base for the mission and not necessarily a destination.
You may be familiar with the terms “attractional” and “missional” that help define these two ministry philosophies; that of drawing people to a place or taking the place to the community. We must be careful with labels because they can mischaracterize ministries that have discovered their own unique blend of these two approaches within their particular environments. It is also possible to misrepresent ourselves in our effort to be perceived as a part of a trend.
Yet, the conversations created by considering the models we use for sharing Christ have a way of purifying our kingdom definitions and aspirations. In the same way we hope people see a true picture of Jesus in our individual lives, we also want them to view the church body as His possession and not the creation of any man. Whether we choose to be attractional or missional in our methodology, or some combination of the two, we must be thoroughly convinced the process belongs to Jesus. Twice in His Beatitudes Jesus promises “the kingdom of heaven” to those who follow His teaching. It is both a reality and a blessing when we surrender the throne of our hearts to the King of Kings. But maybe it would be helpful to spend a little more time examining the biblical concept of kingdom, especially since our involvement in it impacts our spiritual formation as citizens.
What is the Kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, as it is sometimes called, is inhabited by those who have placed themselves under God’s rule. It includes material resources as well, but the work of the kingdom on earth is carried out by God’s people as He directs them and His Spirit moves in them. Christ has called the church to proclaim the kingdom and invite others to citizenship through His blood poured out at Calvary.
The church is the kingdom, but the kingdom is more than the church. It is everything over which God reigns which has been consecrated for His holy purposes. However, when the church came to earth, God’s relationship with His servants changed forever. When Jesus died on the cross, the temple curtain that separated worshippers from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, signaling a final payment for sin and the removal of mankind’s guilt and shame. From then on it was possible for sinners, Greek and Gentile, male and female, to become full citizens and co-heirs of the kingdom of God. As well, these same individuals were tasked with sharing the good news of Jesus with others and expanding the kingdom through the work of grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit in believers.
It was only possible to enter the kingdom through grace, not by works lest followers boast of their own righteousness (Ephesians 2:8). This was different from the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers who hoped to gain citizenship through their own efforts (Matthew 5:20). Jesus’ illustrated deeper truths of the kingdom with parables (Matthew 13:11), and helped His listeners translate truth into action through other teachings, such as The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
One of the clearest examples of Jesus’ kingdom vision is found in His model prayer where He asked His disciples to pray, “Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” Of course, if God chose to impose His will on His creation, He could. But instead He has invited us to share in His inheritance and given us the freedom to choose willingly. Herein is the beauty of the kingdom of God: it is growing in the hearts of believers who have received Jesus as Savior and ever-expanding through the work of the gospel.
It is important to remember our role in the kingdom of God is that of a servant. Yes, we are full citizens, but God’s system of government is not a democracy. While we are free to choose our allegiance, and have been given a scope of authority to perform ministry, we are not in charge of the kingdom. Therefore our successes and victories ultimately belong to God.
This doesn’t mean our efforts to grow the church don’t matter. God inspires us to use the resources He provides in fresh and innovative ways. Yet, in every generation, what He desires most are workers with submissive hearts who are committed to His mission of transforming lives. This can take place in small, midsize and large churches. It occurs in storefronts, multi-campuses and parachurch ministries, as well as traditional, contemporary and multi-generational congregations. God can even use seriously flawed ministries as long as He can find someone who is willing to live by His Spirit and for His glory.
This is the nature of the kingdom of God. We are His ambassadors and He defines our steps. When we forget this important truth we become possessive, permissive and pompous, but when we serve with a kingdom mindset, God uses us to change the world.
The apostle Paul shared this perspective in His letter to the Philippians. While he was imprisoned in Rome some church leaders decided to stir up trouble in his ministry. They were filled with envy and selfish ambition, and saw the incarcerated apostle’s situation as an unexpected windfall. Yet, Paul was thankful. He knew for every jealous rival who was using his misfortune for personal gain, there was a pure-hearted brother who was emboldened to preach more courageously. Not only this, but Paul wasn’t losing any sleep over those who were trying to leverage his pain. He wrote, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
When we remember the kingdom of God is indeed God’s kingdom, we are more likely to do His will, give Him praise and adapt to trials over which we have no control. The Lord will guard our hearts against the footholds of pride and independence, and teach us to watch for His hand in everything.
This doesn’t mean we should stand by passively as we wait for God to tell us what to do. This would be a mistake in two regards. First, Jesus’ teaching is packed with action words such as “go”, “give”, “love”, “forgive”, and “pray.” Our decision to follow Jesus instantly enrolls us in a general daily agenda.
In the city of Jericho Jesus went to the home of a corrupt tax-collector by the name of Zacchaeus. Everyone in town was shocked to see someone like Jesus visit a notorious sinner. We don’t have a record of everything that was discussed, but we know Zacchaeus responded by promising to give half of his wealth to the poor and repay the people he had cheated fourfold. Jesus stood up and said, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). As far as Zacchaeus was concerned, following Jesus was synonymous with serving Jesus.
The second reason we shouldn’t merely wait for God’s direction is because, individually, we are redeemed kingdom pieces in motion. God is making us into the people He needs us to be as His Holy Spirit transforms us from the inside out. The Apostle Peter wrote, “As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Our new relationship with God is a daily process in which He fills us with love and grace and shows us how to live together with other kingdom citizens.
Therefore, we are the kingdom of God. The Father’s reign extends to our personal borders, and He is working through us to storm the gates of hell everywhere we go. Yet He can only use us when we take our citizenship seriously and pursue His vision. We pray, “Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” May it be so, as we live for Him.
Chapter 3 – Why is The Journey So Hard?
There is an old film from the 60s titled “Rage” about a doctor’s desperate attempt to reach a city where he can receive treatment for rabies. When he begins his journey he has forty-eight hours before his disease becomes incurable, and along the way he encounters a series of challenges that cut into what little time he has left. He delivers a baby by cesarean and runs the battery down on his jeep in an effort to provide enough light for the operation. The father of the baby helps him jump-start the jeep and decides to ride with him, but several miles down the road they run out of gas. The two men, and a third passenger they picked up along the way, decide to hike across a mountain range that leads to a highway. Once they reach the highway they commandeer a school bus, suffer a mechanical breakdown and get a push from the school children down the other side of the mountain. The bus speeds down a hill at a dangerous rate of speed and finally comes to rest just outside the city, where the doctor jumps to the ground and begins to run. That’s where the movie ends, presumably just before the doctor gets the life-saving rabies serum he needs.
Not long ago I watched “Rage” for the first time in years and I was struck by the empathy I felt for the doctor whose greatest enemies were time, and his own inability to ignore the pain of others. It occurred to me citizenship in the kingdom of God isn’t much different. If time weren’t a factor and if people weren’t important, how we lived wouldn’t matter. But it is, they do, and it does.
We also have Satan as our adversary, and he is relentless in his efforts to rob us of our hope and distract us from our mission. The Apostle Paul defined this battle in his letter to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). The journey is hard, yet one fact is certain: we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Kingdom work is hard by design. I don’t mean to suggest the evil we encounter along the way is a part of God’s plan. Instead, it is the work of Satan who tries everything possible to make us feel mistreated and abandoned. James was concerned believers might misinterpret their feelings in the midst of difficult circumstances when he wrote, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:13-14). Clearly, it is not God’s desire for us to be harassed by the Tempter, or to fall victim to his schemes.
Still, our exposure to hardship, suffering and sin hints of Divine intentionality. As Jesus’ painful death on the cross neared, He made this request of His Father in reference to His disciples: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). It is highly possible you have heard this excerpt many times before, but have you ever contemplated its strategic implications? This prayer was not a last-minute brainstorming session between the Father and the Son. If the kingdom of God on earth was to expand through believers, then it was necessary for them to live in non-kingdom places where they could love and serve non-kingdom people. Though inherently dangerous, this approach was the most practical means of reproducing disciples. How else can Jesus’ principle, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8), be put into practice?
Just as Jesus’ mission required Him to suffer for our sakes, our mission calls us to suffer with Him. One day there will be one kingdom, and death, mourning, crying and pain will cease (Revelation 21:4). But while we live as citizens of God’s kingdom, behind enemy lines, it is impossible to avoid the inevitable conflict. In the words of Paul, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).
I used to view this verse as an attitude adjustment. In other words, it helped me put my struggles in perspective, although I recognized my occasional discomforts were nothing compared to the persecutions endured by my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. But now I realize Paul’s statement is a challenge as well as a reality. Our journey is hard because we have chosen a more difficult, but profoundly more rewarding path.
One day a teacher of the law came to Jesus and said: “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (Matthew 8:19). Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (8:20). Another disciple asked Jesus to let him go bury his father. His father was probably not dead, but he wanted to remain with him for as long as he lived. Jesus said, “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead” (8:22).
If you have taken an oath of citizenship for God’s kingdom, only to be surprised by the difficulty of the journey, you must know the misunderstanding is not Jesus’ fault. He could not have been more honest. Maybe you weren’t listening closely enough, or someone misrepresented the Christian walk by making it sound too easy. Or perhaps it was easier to talk about trials in the abstract until Satan unleashed his fury in your life. My advice is not to give up, but “re-up.” Consider it joy when you face trials (James 1:2). The journey is hard because we are engaged in a spiritual struggle, but if we persevere, we will experience indescribable joy.
Chapter 4 – Kingdom Joy
By now you may be wondering if, perhaps, I have misplaced my theme. If we are concerned about letting the pure essence of Jesus shine through our lives, is the subject of the kingdom of God really this important?
Absolutely! In fact, if we approach the gospel in any other way we have missed one of Jesus’ key teaching points. We also risk insubordination since we can easily become prideful of our methods and forget who is ultimately in charge. It is, after all, the kingdom of God we are building, and regardless of how much of our lives we invest in His work, the finished product will never bear our name.
This is where Jesus’ Beatitudes take center stage. If, as Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones claimed, the Sermon on the Mount is the “best means of evangelism” and a tool for building “true Christians”, those who want to point the world to Jesus must embrace its principles. The Beatitudes are a preamble to the Christian life and the embodiment of lasting happiness.
We know the gospel is the power of salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), but it is the “unashamed” kingdom joy found in those who proclaim it that prompts people to listen. Even those who find the cross through an independent reading of the scripture owe their discovery to the first disciples who passionately recorded the things they witnessed. Pure Jesus shines in the hearts of sinners made pure and their inward and outward joy is purely irresistible.
Kingdom Joy in the Early Church
Kingdom joy was an infectious trait in the first church. The message of the cross brought transforming power, but the irresistible qualities of its adherents set the stage for its proclamation. Luke describes this dynamic when he writes, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47)
The euphoria experienced by the Jerusalem church was not the product of clever marketing techniques. I am not suggesting there is anything inherently wrong with strategic efforts to share the story of Jesus, and certainly God had a method in mind when He birthed His church on the Day of Pentecost. In fact, Peter’s delivery of the first gospel sermon might be the best orchestrated event in church history. Yet, people who heard weren’t nearly as impressed by a plan as they were a personality. They witnessed the reflection of Jesus in His followers, and since many who heard Peter’s sermon had undoubtedly also met the Lord, there was joy in knowing His Spirit was alive in His followers.
Nothing has changed, really. People who need Jesus are still drawn to those who know Him, and are filled with His presence. Whether or not they embrace the cross, they are pleased, and perhaps even surprised to find someone who truly reminds them of the Jesus they imagine. I use the word “imagine” because a non-believer’s understanding of the Jesus of the Bible might be inaccurate. But he knows joy when he sees it.
Kingdom Joy and The Beatitudes
The Beatitudes teach this joy. We return to them throughout our lives and each time they broaden our understanding of what it means to be blessed by a loving Savior. They are like filters through which we strain our souls, becoming purer with each pass.
When I was a young boy my grandfather and I made cider in an old grinder. We picked the apples, dumped them into the grinder and took turns with the crank handle. At the bottom of the grinder juice drained from a metal chute into a bucket. It was murky and mixed with pieces of apple core, so we strained it through a porous cloth over a large kitchen pot. We repeated the process several times until the juice was clear. And yes, it tasted great!
There is a sense in which our apple grinding is a metaphor for all of scripture. Life-experience has a way of changing the perspectives from which we view God’s Word. But if this is true of scripture in general, I believe it specifically pertains to the Beatitudes. For example, as many times as I have contemplated the implications of being “poor in spirit” I am still trying to come to grips with the level of selflessness and spiritual reliance it requires.
As we begin this journey into Jesus’ kingdom vision for our lives, I encourage you to do three things: 1) Remember spiritual growth is a process. Just as God’s kingdom is expanding gradually through the ministry of His people, it is assuming new places of prominence in our hearts, 2) Recognize kingdom truths require kingdom action. Jesus’ teachings are not merely an academic exercise, and 3) Remain focused on the mission. The purpose of this discourse is to learn how to present Jesus to our world in the purest form possible. Obviously, as imperfect humans, we will never be conduits through which Jesus flows in His purest form. Yet, the goal of “100% Jesus” is a good one. If nothing else, there will be moments in our lives when we come close; when the Lord moves in, though and around us and the people who see us see Him with great clarity.
We have one more stage to set before we address the Beatitudes in detail. Context is important, and it is good to understand the significance of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. I can’t help but think Jesus had the mission in view as He used this teaching to established a kingdom mindset for His followers. The mission is still in view, and we are on the front lines delivering God’s grace to our generation. To do so, we must be different. The Sermon on the Mount helps us know how.
Chapter 5 – The Sermon on the Mount
Jesus’ earthly ministry began with His baptism by John, a forty day fast and temptation in a wilderness, and the calling of His closest disciples. He travelled throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues, preaching on the kingdom and healing the sick. As news of His power spread, those with diseases came to Him, and He healed them.
When Jesus saw the crowds, He walked up a mountainside. Was He exhausted by ministry? Did He want some private instruction time with His disciples? Or was this a part of a carefully crafted plan to teach people deeper kingdom truths by first meeting their immediate needs? Perhaps it was a little of all three.
It appears Jesus moved to the mountainside with His closest disciples, only to be joined by a constant trickle of uninvited guests. At some point the entire crowd seems to have followed, since Matthew concludes his record with this commentary: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).
It isn’t vital that we know Jesus’ intended audience since His lessons were ultimately for all who wished to be disciples. Yet, it is plausible to envision Him sitting, encircled by His disciples. Others may have huddled behind them where they could hear the sermon clearly. Then Jesus’ teaching was possibly dispersed through the crowd until the last person heard. What an amazing event this was as the Lord of the kingdom shared the elementary framework for the life of the disciple. It was, and remains the life every follower seeks.
The Sermon’s Key Points
It is difficult to summarize the Sermon on the Mount in short form, since it can be viewed from so many different perspectives. But if we focus on one subject, the disciple, it is possible to be a little more specific.
The first section of the sermon describes kingdom citizens (Matthew 5:3-16). The Beatitudes, which we will examine in greater detail later, are included in this portion. In the Beatitudes Jesus paints a beautiful picture of the believer’s heart as it is transformed into His image. He continues by highlighting our relationship to the world, calling us “salt” and “light”, and encourages us to maintain our salty and visible for the sake of those who need to find God.
Section two builds on Old Testament Law and helps define kingdom righteousness (Matthew 5:17-7:12) for its citizens. The Pharisees practiced a misguided form of righteousness that presumed they were capable of satisfying the Law with good works. They may have been theoretically accurate, but the fact no one seemed to be able to keep the Law perfectly rendered their approach irrelevant. Jesus came to fulfill the Law by paying the penalty for our sins on the cross, and in His Sermon on the Mount He reminded His listeners that true righteousness was a matter of the heart. There is no spiritual virtue in doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Kingdom righteousness is rooted in a sincere conscience toward God and our acceptance of the grace He offers through His Son Jesus.
The third section is both an encouragement and a warning to correctly discern kingdom truth from falsehood (Matthew 7:17-7:27). There have always been false teachers who mislead kingdom citizens. Jesus wanted His followers to evaluate the firmness of their spiritual foundation and the motives of those who lead them. The best building blocks for kingdom life were the Lord’s own words and the willingness of His disciples to put them into action.
There are other themes within these broad divisions, but it is clear Jesus’ sermon was a kingdom constitution for all who would come after Him. As you ponder this outline, it is possible you are already connecting some dots between this important section of scripture and other examples of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Like detectives uncovering a mystery we are led to exclaim, “Eureka! It all fits.” Indeed it does if we view it through the kingdom window.
The Sermon and the Beatitudes
We are ready now to move forward with our study of the Beatitudes. Our goal is to grasp Jesus’ kingdom vision of the people we should be, that we might live organically or naturally. When we do this there is no need to be consumed by other’s perceptions. Our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees so we become conduits for the purest representation of Jesus possible. He doesn’t need us to be perfect. In fact, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, His strength is seen in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). But He does need us to be honest, and to pour ourselves out in humble submission for the sake of the lost.
The Beatitudes are a kingdom reality check. I am convinced Jesus’ words made His disciples’ heads spin as they tried to understand how they could possibly live out these ideals in their daily lives. They are the proverbial “shot over the bow” for every Christ-follower. It is ironic that something promising so much happiness should also require fearful obedience.
We must accept the fact kingdom blessings are serious business. In our culture we are led to believe joy should be easy and free of pain. It shouldn’t require commitment and sacrifice. Perhaps this is why the joy people seek never lasts.
Take courage! You are about to be blessed! I promise you any temporary discomfort you feel will be worth the journey. It may take a while for you to fully disembark the train of spiritual industrialization. Our goal is still to win the world for Jesus, and to make more disciples with great urgency. But I believe you will feel better about the mission as Jesus takes His rightful place. He is the 100% Jesus. To the extent His perfection finds its way through our tainted lives, we will touch our world with His grace.
Chapter 6 – Applying the Beatitudes
The filters through which we view anything biblical will impact how we apply truth to our lives. This doesn’t mean truth changes, but rather that the way we perceive it is multi-faceted.
When I was a young boy, my grandfather and I frequently fished in a large pond that belonged to our cousin. We had been there so many times we had a mental map of every underwater ledge, drop off and tree limb. We knew where the water was shallow or deep, and where we were most likely to get “hung up”. Every trip made us wiser.
But we were still guessing. Trial and error taught us many things, but the world where the fish lived remained very much a mystery. One day, for reasons no one was ever able to determine, a large dam at the end of the pond developed a catastrophic leak. Within hours all but a small two-foot puddle full of fish was left. Several fish passed through the leak and ended up in a nearby creek. Some just disappeared into an underground abyss.
That evening my grandfather and I stood on a hill overlooking the pond in shock. It was like a death in the family. But the sight was also very revealing. For the first time we were able to see the terrain of the pond as it really was. There were old rusty chairs, tree stumps, and a tire or two. We were most surprised to discover a fence, still intact, stretching across the bottom of the pond. Suddenly so many things made sense. The fence, still covered with fishing lures, hooks and monofilament line, was our mystery revealed.
One day, all of God’s truth will be crystal clear, but now we must do our best to examine it from as many angles as possible to overcome the limitations of human vision. As we move into the Beatitudes, we must view it through: 1) the 100% pure Jesus, who is transforming us through the presence of His Spirit, 2) the kingdom of God, which is expanding on earth, even as it is challenged by the Prince of Darkness, and 3) the tragedy of those living in darkness who will be eternally lost if they don’t find Jesus.
Remember, the church is the kingdom, but the kingdom is more than the church. God reigns in heaven and on earth, and He will be victorious. As you spend time with each Beatitude ask yourself how it can make you a better conduit for Jesus, where you can apply His grace, and who God might have brought into your life for just this purpose. The Beatitudes are more than commands with a promise. They are the truth of God, cutting to our inner core, and carving out the image of Jesus. In the end, all that really matters is that He is seen in us.
The Spiritual Filter
We must see the Beatitudes as a spiritual filter through which our whole being passes. Each phrase has the ability to cleanse our human hearts and bring both the kingdoms of God and of this world into clearer focus. As our heart is made pure, so is our vision of Christ and His vision for the lost.
While this process of becoming better conduits for the 100% Jesus may sound simplistic, the actual experience is not. The Apostle Paul was concerned about the spiritual development of the Galatian Christians and addressed them with these words: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Did you catch that? Watching others go through the painful struggle of discipleship is like giving birth. The same can be said for the disciple’s own experience. Granted, Paul could not claim first-hand knowledge of the birth process, but he had seen enough to know this was an appropriate metaphor to describe how the Holy Spirit orchestrates our transformation.
It is time now to begin pouring our hearts and minds through the strainer. As we do, we must be careful not to focus too much on ourselves. I realize this may feel counterintuitive since we must examine ourselves in order to evaluate our progress. Yet, our purpose for this struggle cannot be self-centered, lest we become like the Pharisees who strained out the gnat and swallowed the camel. Our desire should be to see Christ more clearly, to understand the kingdom more perfectly, and to kindle our passion for lost souls. In fact, the more Jesus is found in us, the more naturally these things will occur. It is impossible to grow in our Savior’s grace and not be affected by His kingdom vision and His compassion for the lost.
Join with me now as we take hold of Christ’s first Beatitude and attempt to embrace it fully. I must offer this warning to which I have already alluded: blessings sometimes involve pain and sacrifice. They require us to give us what we don’t need to possess what we must have. But I promise you the joy will be worth the pain.
Filtering out Self
We must never lose ourselves. Jesus’ first disciples were undeniably independent and although they needed to learn humility and obedience, they were never asked to relinquish their identity. On the contrary, Jesus drew on Peter, Andrew, James and John’s experiences as commercial fishermen when He said he would make them “fishers of men.” When Matthew traded his tax tables for the kingdom, he invited his tax-collection buddies, some other town sinners and Jesus to a feast. Matthew had no intention of hiding his future from his friends, or his past from his Savior. He knew who he was and who he hoped to be.
It is true, in order to follow Jesus, we must crucify self. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Yet, Paul wasn’t suggesting some sort of mindless emptying of personhood. Instead, he was describing a transformation to a new kind of self. In fact, this new self is really the old self, as we all were before our hearts were tainted by sin. One might even say Jesus came to die for our sins so we could be ourselves again. Just as we were created in the image of God, our new life in Jesus restores the “image of the Creator” in us (Colossians 3:10).
This means, when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, we can be certain He wasn’t asking us to dissolve our membership in the human race. Nor was He necessarily expecting us to put away our passions and dreams. He was, however, inviting us to reorder our lives; to think and act from a different perspective. The cross would become our new reference point and His grace our new environment.
Together with the Apostle Paul, we no longer live for ourselves. The Lord has redeemed us for a holy purpose and therefore we struggle daily against spiritual lethargy, lest we return to our old ways.
Our preoccupation with the sinful self takes many forms. The words “selfish”, “self-centered”, “self-absorbed”, “self-indulgent”, and “self-righteous” each describe a different way of living out the same rebellious attitude toward God. We all battle these demons since it is difficult to completely discard the dead carcasses of our former beings. In some unfortunate cases Satan might even gain a significant foothold in our hearts and rekindle our spirits of disobedience.
This is why the filtering process must never stop. We must take up the cross of Christ “daily” and guard against anything that threatens our ability to sense God’s leading. Two areas of concentration will help us stay this course: our passion for God and understanding His plan for us. As a growing dynamic, these two pursuits bring us to a place of spiritual poverty and put us in line for kingdom blessings.
Chapter 7 – Our Passion for God
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3)
When we hear the word “passion” we think of intense emotions that drive us to give our whole being to a person, thing or cause. I passionately love my wife. My wife and I are passionate about our children. Our whole family is passionate about the work of the kingdom of God, and each member has found a way to be a useful spiritual citizen.
But emotional drive alone doesn’t fully capture the meaning of passion. The Latin root of the word means “to suffer or endure.” Does this mean when we are passionate about others we are really just willing to endure them? No. Instead it suggests our love is so deep we will do anything for them, even if it involves dying.
This is why Jesus’ death on the cross is referred to as His passion. He completely poured Himself out for our salvation. He loved us with His heart, but He showed us His love with his body and blood. Passion involves the whole person, given in complete surrender. The Apostle Paul described Jesus’ attitude this way: “Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).
The poor in spirit are those who have surrendered to the Father in humble servitude. With Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane they cry out, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Their old rebellious spirit tempts them to live for themselves, but the cross compels them to give up self and live as slaves. They are indentured to grace, and though free to leave cannot imagine life without their Master.
God’s kingdom is unlike any on earth. Where else do we find a perfect Ruler who is willing to give His very best to every citizen, including those outside the city walls who curse His holy name? What other kingdom rewards its leaders by demanding greater service to the least of all? When believers stand before Jesus on the last day, they won’t be singled out for their achievements. Instead they will be covered by the grace their Savior won for them at Calvary, and He will honor them for their willingness to be used for His glory.
This is the point at which we break some of the unfortunate stereotypes associated with the poor spirited. They are not emotionally impoverished or stoic, mindless automatons. Instead, they are zealous for the kingdom and often offer their last ounce of devotion for the One who gave His life for them. Though David saw the Messiah through a dim mirror, he shared the perspective of New Testament worshippers when he wrote, “For zeal for your house consumes me”! (Psalm 69:9).
As followers of Jesus, this should be our ideal. But we should never define zeal as an undisciplined crusade. We must remember this is not our kingdom, or our battle. Indeed, the battle belongs to the Lord, and as long as He reigns in our lives our highest goal is to obey Him in everything.
Perhaps it has already occurred to you how important the filtering of our sinful self is to our deeper passion for God. The impurities indoctrinated into our former self by the Deceiver are gradually removed and our true self emerges. This self, poor in spirit, offers its full allegiance to the King.
Once this process begins, our development as ambassadors of the kingdom flourishes. We can’t help but be more effective in our witness in a world that craves authenticity and loathes rote religious practice. Practice alone can create a false passion that places more attention on spiritual jargon and activity. Real passion is first humble, then fully subservient to God’s kingdom agenda.
Understanding God’s Will
I use “understanding” as a verb, suggesting we are involved in a process that will not be completed in this life. It is possible to come to a limited understanding of God’s will in the noun sense, as long as we realize our vision will always be impaired by sin and human weakness. This is another one of the realities that calls us to spiritual poverty.
Have you ever considered the fact God may not want us to understand His full will, at least all at once? We are normally so determined to discover what He wants us to do, such an idea seems unfathomable. Why would a God who painstakingly revealed truth to us through His Holy Spirit choose to withhold anything? And yet, we sense a definite frustration in His writers as they strive to remain devoted in the midst of circumstances that lack clarity. In the Psalms we read, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) And again, “Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (Psalm 44:24) In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul shared his future hope of a visit, but stopped short of any promises: “I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:7).
We can only imagine how Abraham felt when God asked Him to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain. God didn’t tell Abraham He was sending him to the mountain to test His trustworthiness. He just told him to go and offer his only son on an altar. Abraham went understanding (verb), but not really understanding (noun).
In my relationship with my earthly father there were many things I did understand. I knew I was expected to do my homework, clean my room, mow the grass, take out the trash, and shoot an intruder with my 20-gauge shotgun that I kept under the bed. Alright, so the shotgun thing was a little weird, especially since I was thirteen at the time. But most everything else was similar to the tasks all of my friends were asked to perform. From time-to-time my father also shared higher ideals and dreams for my life. He wanted me to love the Lord and serve him. He would say, “I don’t care what you do for a living as long as you find a way to please God.”
But there were also the unstated things. I know from conversations I had with my father before his death he wanted me to find the place God had prepared for me. I don’t mean to suggest there was only one place, but I came to realize my father was much more aware of the way God had wired me than first imagined. He may not have known where I would end up, or even what God would do through me, but he had some definite notions of what might work best. My father would have wasted his time had he tried to explain this to me when I was a young man. He knew some understandings take time, and must be acquired through personal struggles.
If it was this way with my earthly father, then how much more must it be so with my Heavenly Father. He has revealed portions of His will to me in scripture and helped me discern other aspects of His plan for my life, but is waiting until I have matured in my journey to show me many other things. Of course, the possibility exists He is already trying to teach me these things and I am yet too dense to see them. Either way I am incomplete and need to pursue the poverty of spirit to come to greater knowledge.
The most obvious obstacle to this knowledge is our human will. In the beginning there was nothing inherently evil about the will, but when Adam and Eve fell under Satan’s influence and rebelled against God, everything changed. The drives put in us for our own survival and sense of satisfaction were corrupted by selfish ambition and bitter envy. Our way was no longer His way, and to this day mankind continues to pursue darkness and death over light and life.
Proof of this stubborn bent toward rebellion can be seen in our blatant disobedience of God’s expressed will. While finding God’s specific will for our lives is important, it does no good to arrive at our perceived destiny if we lack the character necessary to take possession. For this reason, the first step in understanding God’s will is to keep His commandments. Jesus shared this principle in His words to His disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). Our motivation for living within God’s will should be to please Him, not ourselves, and if our hearts are truly in the right place we will begin by doing the things we already know to do.
Do you see how the poor in spirit are better equipped to grasp God’s kingdom plans? They crucify their sins daily through unwavering obedience, and as they are transformed either God becomes more specific in His leading, they become more aware of His purposes, or both. God isn’t going to unleash anyone for big things if they can’t be trusted in the small things. He would be foolish to give a rebel the keys to His kingdom, and since God can’t be fooled, this scenario simply isn’t going to happen.
Some will rebel along the way, and there will be deceivers who pretend to be called, but God doesn’t employ disobedience servants. Even Jonah, who hated the people of Nineveh, plucked them from the fire of destruction by obeying God’s command to warn them through preaching. First he sailed the other way, but ultimately he was swayed back to His task by His Lord’s stern hand. Obedience and great spiritual tasks go hand-in-hand.
More than Obedience
We see, however, that while Jonah found obedience in the belly of the fish, he was hardly poor in spirit. Obedience is a sign of spiritual life, but it is possible to have one and not the other. In the fish Jonah cried out to God, “What I have vowed I will make good” (Jonah 2:9). True to his promise, when the word of the Lord came a second time commanding him to go to Nineveh, he went.
But something was still not right. Jonah’s feelings toward the people of Nineveh was unchanged, and he resented God’s decision to redeem them. More than this, he sat on a hillside east of the city and asked God to take his life! That’s right. Jonah singlehandedly led an entire city to repentance and saved them from destruction and yet was so angry with God he wanted to die! He had a poor attitude, but not a poor spirit.
Yes, in the process of understanding God’s will we must be obedient servants, but God also wants us to do the right things for the right reasons. He wants us to understand His heart and act on His behalf. The rebel says, “Why do I need to obey?” The one who is poor in spirit says, “Show me why so I can obey you more.”
In truth, God will accomplish His ends regardless of whether or not we choose to follow Him. This is why Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will help God succeed.” Instead, He promised us a kingdom inheritance. By virtue of our surrender to the Son and His purposes we have entered into a new citizenship. Our reward is a front row seat where we see His glory revealed.
Zealous passion for kingdom work and a growing understanding of God’s will define our existence. It is amazing, and sometimes downright shocking to follow Jesus’ first disciples as this persona emerged. When James and John started out, they were ambitious men who saw Jesus as their ticket to political influence. Why else would they have allowed their mother to solicit the right and left positions at Jesus’ future throne? (Matthew 20:21) In time, however, they would discover what it meant to be kingdom servants. James would soon die for his faith and John would face persecution and exile. John gives us an additional point of observation through his writings, where we see him transformed from the one who wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritans to an ambassador of love.
The same can be said for almost all of the disciples, notably Peter and the Apostle Paul who was “abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15:8). It is easy to see why Judas, the exception to the case, failed to develop. He never grasped the right passion or pursued understanding, but continued in his fallen human state, reaping what he sowed.
“Poor in spirit”, therefore, is really a choice. It represents the thing or the one to whom we have sworn our allegiance. When we offer our lives to Satan he beats us down and robs us of our worth. Then we are poor in every way. But when we surrender to Jesus, He lifts us up and empowers us for ministry. We reign with Him in His kingdom and find ourselves riding on the crest of eternal conquest. Such is the life of those who are willing to filter out the old self repeatedly and receive their inheritance with thanksgiving.
Chapter 8 – The Pathway to Joy
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4)
I once served in a little country church where it was common to “bless” those who were hurting, or failing. If someone messed up they were more likely to hear, “Bless your heart, honey” than to be criticized publicly. Don’t misunderstand. People still succumbed to the temptation of gossip, and on occasion those who suffered were neglected. Yet, there was an assumption that painful seasons were temporary and with God’s help and the support of His people, even the most unwanted experiences could be redeemed for good.
Still, the notion that someone who mourns should perceive the experience as a blessing sounds absurd. When we mourn over the loss of a loved one our hearts ache. Comfort comes through the loving words and actions of others, but it is hard to imagine any blessings we might receive could possibly make up for what we no longer have.
Sorrow over sin isn’t much different. Yes, we appreciate the assurance from others that better days are ahead, but given the choice we would rather turn back the clock to rewrite our story. Blessing we are offered in the process of healing still doesn’t hide the fact it would have been better not to have sinned at all.
But we must remember the beatitudes are not as much about our circumstances as they are about how we respond to them. We can’t change the past, but we can forge a different future. At this juncture the act of mourning prepares us for a blessing and to be a blessing.
Mourning is Nothing New
The Bible is full of mourners. It might seem ironic to some that the “Good Book” would be so full of sorrow, but one of God’s greatest gifts to us in His revealed Word is the transparency of human drama. We remember David’s lament at the news of His son’s death, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33) But we also remember David’s sorrow over his personal sin with Bathsheba and his longing to be clean again: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). The Bible even contains an entire book of mourning called “Lamentation”, considered to be the prophet Jeremiah’s painful perspective of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
In the New Testament, parents mourned over the loss of their children (Luke 7:11-15), Jesus mourned over the loss of a friend (John 11:35), and disciples mourned over their failure to be faithful under fire (Luke 22:61-62). Yet, mourning in the Bible was never considered a permanent state. In fact, it was known to be a necessary part of the healing process. In a Psalm prepared for the dedication of the temple David wrote, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
Perhaps you have cried yourself to sleep and awakened to a new day with a new sense of God’s presence and hope. Sometimes our pillow is filled with many tears over a period of many months, but the dominant theme in the Bible is that mourners will be comforted and even in the midst of life’s greatest heartache God is working.
Learning to Embrace Mourning
If mourning holds such great promise in our lives, why does it frighten us? Why is it hard for us to grieve openly, or to enter into a time of personal restoration? Could it be, similar to our future resurrection, we dread the transition points of moving from life to death to life again?
One of my favorite books as a child was “The Story of Ping” by Marjorie Flack. You may already be familiar with the story. Ping was a domesticated Chinese duck who lived on the Yangtze River. One day his master released him, along with the other ducks, onto the riverbank to feed. When it was time to leave, Ping realized he was going to be the last duck to return. He knew the last duck always got spanked as a reminder to be more prompt, so he hid. After a day on his own, Ping decided being separated from his family was worse than the punishment he might receive. When he saw the boat by the bank he raced to catch it and arrived just in time to get spanked, before waddling on board.
Alright, so maybe getting a swat on the tail feathers may not be as dramatic as the decision to enter a time of mourning. But it does illustrate how our present fears can stand in the way of God’s will for our lives and a renewed sense of community. There are other obstacles as well, such as pride, arrogance, bitterness and regret. Mourning always involves letting go or putting to death those things that stand in our way of receiving God’s comfort. The key is to desire healing and restoration most of all, and to long for joy so much we are willing to suffer in order to find it.
In the pathway to joy we must understand there is a distinct difference between the pain inflicted by Satan as he seeks to keep us in bondage and the discipline of the Lord as He leads us to freedom. Satan fills our lives with empty promises and beats us down to keep us in His clutches. God builds our lives on truth and shepherds us through the valleys to still waters. At times, the two experiences can feel similar, but the motivations behind them could not be more different.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to embrace God’s discipline because it is a clear sign of His concern for our welfare: ‘And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?’ (Hebrews 12:5-7) It is natural for children to dread the discipline of even a loving father, but they learn to accept it if it is delivered in love and produces a positive outcome.
It is also important to realize the Lord’s discipline is active in all kinds of mourning, whether it is a result of sin or circumstances over which we have no control. Regardless of the source of our personal suffering, Satan will try to use it to gain a foothold in our hearts, and God’s truth is always our best defense. In fact, I have counseled as many people who are innocent victims of suffering as those who have brought trouble on themselves. It seems the conscientious are always concerned they will sin and bring dishonor to the Lord, and as a result they usually grow in their devotion, although others would be hard pressed to find anything wrong with their spiritual walk. This is why we find ourselves running into the arms of our heavenly Father, ready to do whatever He asks for the sake of receiving His comfort.
Mourning Changes our View of Others
In the Preaching Ministry people sometimes refer to a “pastor’s heart.” Sometimes this term is merely a synonym for a “caring heart”, but it may also suggests a pastor has experienced the personal wounds of sin and loss and has the ability to connect with those going through the same on a deeper level. In turn, as he walks through the valley of despair with others he gains insight into suffering through their journey and grows in compassion.
It has been my observation, however, that this so-called “pastor’s heart” is not exclusive to those who have been formally trained in ministry. Perhaps people have grown accustomed to using the term because it helps them divide us preacher types into those who seem aloof or controlling and those who sincerely care about people. Yet, I have found the “pastor’s heart” in many contexts.
Several years ago I performed a funeral for a deputy sheriff who helped manage a local jail. He worked closely with inmates who were trying to prepare for life after their release and cared enough to connect with them on the outside to see how they were doing. My deputy friend had a “pastor’s heart.” I know a school teacher who gives her children personal books to take home and goes out of her way to make sure her less fortunate students have the supplies they need. She has a “pastor’s heart.”
Maybe you have a “pastor’s heart” too. Has Satan ever tried to destroy you with a personal sin that had to be removed through a painful process of self-evaluation and conviction? If so, then you understand how much others hurt when they reap what they sow. Do you know what it means to live in the dark pit of depression and come to a place where you don’t care whether you live or die? Then you can show patience to those who seem stuck and have lost the desire to take positive steps for their own welfare.
I have talked with former mourners who vowed they would never be those people who turned their sorrow into a ministry to others. They have said, “That’s not me. Once I get through this I don’t want to talk about it again.” But as time passes and they watch others suffer as they have, their perspective changes. They finally come to the place where they can’t stand by and do nothing. Their heart compels them.
This may be one reason, among many, why the Pharisees and Jesus had such different philosophies of ministry. Although Jesus was sinless, He understood human suffering, and was willing to take on the role of a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The Pharisees, on the other hand, claimed self-righteousness and looked down on anyone who failed to live up to their standards.
Jesus was a mourner. He was the prophesied suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:3-4).
It is true, there are those who become bitter as a result of personal pain and spend the rest of their lives thinking the world owes them something. But most of the mourners I know eventually embrace the “pastor’s heart” and are willing to do almost anything to ease the burden of those who come behind them. If you have suffered in life, my guess is you have this kind of heart, and since the moment you found yourself in a place you thought you would never be you have never seen others quite the same.
Mourning Changes Others’ View of Us
Sinners loved Jesus. Well, at least the ones who were willing to admit they needed a healer loved Him. So did those who were estranged from the religious community because they were suffering from a chronic illness or just happened to have the wrong pedigree. When I say they loved Him, I am not referring to the obvious draw of Jesus’ miraculous power over disease, or even the attractiveness of His teaching. These things were good, but there was something else people came to see.
In Luke 7 we find a sinful woman in the home of a Pharisees named Simon anointing Jesus with an expensive perfume. As she poured her heart out before the Savior her tears fell on His feet, then she kissed His feet and wiped her tears away with her hair. Simon was shocked! He reasoned to himself if Jesus was truly a prophet He would know a sinner was touching Him. Jesus answered Simon with a parable about a money-lender who forgave two debtor; one a small amount and the other a large one. Jesus asked, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon correctly discerned the one who had been forgiven more would love more. Jesus concluded, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47).
This is why people flocked to Jesus: His ministry gushed forth grace. He was the Great Mourner. Somehow they knew. Somehow they always know when they are not going to be turned away in the name of religion. Real grace is a pure reflection of God’s heart and even the prospect of a painful restoration process can’t dissuade those who truly want to be healed.
People always feel safer around someone they believe understands their circumstances. This is why wise politicians strive to be transparent about their personal heartaches. They know how easy it is to become detached from their constituents in the course of governing. But when a government leader is diagnosed with a serious illness or suffers a family tragedy, the line that separates the powerful from the less fortunate seems to disappear temporarily.
I don’t mean to suggest those of us who worship and serve in a local church are above others, but rather that others sometimes perceive us that way, at least spiritually speaking. We must never forget how intimidating the church can appear to those who don’t know Christ, or even those who do but have been alone in their walk for many years. This isn’t necessarily because we have purposely done anything to create this perception or that cultural stereotypes regarding Christians are fair. But true or false, fair or not, those who are outside of Christ or out of fellowship with His church are often uncomfortable around us. If they are ever to catch a glimpse of the 100% Jesus, they need to know we are a source of comfort, even as we have been comforted.
In our desire to change how others view us, we must remember to maintain a biblical balance between grace and truth, comfort and conviction. As we have seen, these two aspects of the mourning process are inseparable. God’s truth is filled with grace and grace is itself one of His most foundational truths. At Calvary the penitent thief received comfort from Jesus as he died for his criminal conviction. One of the reasons I appreciate Luke’s account of the woman who anointed Jesus feet is because it presents a straightforward picture of sin, repentance and forgiveness. Jesus didn’t excuse the woman’s sins, but He did offer her compassion and an opportunity for a new life.
In the same way, people who reach out for the hope Jesus gives aren’t just looking for acceptance. They want something that can change the course of their lives for the better. It is true they may not be receptive to everything God has to say, but they come expecting to hear something of substance.
The good news is, if we are mourners we are in a position to share the whole counsel of God. We have experienced sin and loss, but have embraced the Lord’s forgiveness and healing. Mourners don’t have to be incredibly clever in their efforts to draw others to Jesus. They point the way by example, and those who come to know them are able to witness living proof of the gospel’s power.
Comforting while Being Comforted
Do we have to be fully healed before we reach out to others? Absolutely not! Obviously, if we are bleeding profusely from open wounds we need to have our own needs taken care of first. In the opening instructions of an airline flight the attendant always reminds parents to put their oxygen masks on first in the case of a sudden drop in cabin pressure. They can’t help their children if they allow themselves to lose consciousness.
On the other hand, if we wait until all of our hurts are completely cured before we attempt to share God’s comfort, we might never be used. There is a balance between healing and helping, but at some point we need to rise above our circumstances and re-engage in ministry. When we do, we begin to reclaim God’s purpose in our lives, sometimes causing our own recovery to accelerate. In nothing else, when we walk alongside other hurting people we remember we aren’t the only ones and it is easier to put our trials in perspective.
The first Christians had no choice but to comfort others, even as they were receiving God’s comfort in the midst of trouble. One of the most amazing conversation stories in the New Testament occurred in Philippi where Paul and Silas had been imprisoned for their faith. Even though both of them were beaten and chained, they found the strength to sing songs of praise. As a result of their witness, and a providential earthquake, a prison guard found salvation (Acts 16:19-23). In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul wrote, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Notice, Paul says God’s comfort gives us the ability to comfort others “in all our troubles”; not after them.
Although we will be blessed when we mourn, there is no virtue in rushing headlong into sin or personal pain in order to experience the comfort of God. We should obey the single word found in the Apostle Paul’s warning to Timothy regarding youthful lusts: “Flee” (2 Timothy 2:22). In regards to trials, we must remember when Jesus was speaking about the future destruction of Jerusalem He said, “Then let those who are in Jerusalem flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:16).
If you can run, run. If you can avoid heartache and still maintain your integrity, then by all means do so. Even Joseph and Mary protected Jesus from danger until He was old enough to care for Himself.
But when we fall, God is there. When we hurt, He does not abandon us. Not only is He there with us, but He offers us grace and peace, and for believers the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gave His disciples this promise: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12).
This means there is joy in the process of mourning. I have personally experienced the incredible comfort of God rushing into my spirit at a time when I was down to my last ounce of strength. I have heard many metaphors used to describe this sensation, from the wind at our backs to the mighty crest of an ocean wave, but they all suggest the same thing: when we are spent God opens His storehouse of joy and does for us we can’t do for ourselves.
If you are hurting right now, I am so very sorry. I hope your pain is short-lived and one day very soon you wake up to a glorious new dawn. But until then, I am confident God will comfort you, and as a result you will feel blessed. Yet, you must be willing to enter the process, which means your heart will be broken if it isn’t already. I encourage you to embrace this rebirth of your spirit. It is the pathway to joy unspeakable.
Chapter 8 – Defining Success
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)
My great-uncle always seemed happy and he had a way of making me feel important. During the summer months my grandfather and I fished at his pond, and if he was home we would talk first. The last time I saw him he said I should come back some day to go horse riding. But the horse ride never came.
I was unaware my uncle had been battling depression, and I remember how strange the news seemed since I thought depressed people sat by themselves in dark rooms with frowns on their faces. My uncle never frowned, and was always upbeat. But something was terribly wrong, and not long after the invitation to go horse riding, he took his own life.
My grandfather had been at my great-uncle’s house the night before his death, trying desperately to speak hope into his life. My great-uncle said, “You just don’t understand.” We didn’t. As I would discover later, sometimes people carry unbelievably heavy burdens through life. Whether or not the burdens are anchored in reality is irrelevant.
One of the burdens I encounter frequently in my conversations with others is a profound feeling of failure. Most of us want to be successful, but chances are, we aren’t going to reach all of our goals all of the time. How we define success, and how we interpret our circumstances will determine how we recover from our disappointments. We will return to this thought in a moment.
There is another important subject that naturally intersects with success: that of human ambition. Ambition is a part of our God-given composition. It gives us the drive to get up in the morning and pursue purpose in our lives. After sin entered the world, however, ambition went the way of other human characteristics as Satan exploited our sinful nature. We developed selfish ambition, which leads us to use the gifts and opportunities God has given us for our own gain, at other’s expense. On the flip side we embraced apathy, which is the sinful habit of wasting our gifts and opportunities by failing to use them for any meaningful purpose. The first sin is a refusal to care about others and the second a failure to care about anything.
How do success and ambition relate to one another within the context of the beatitudes? Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). I am convinced the meek are those who seek a restored vision of ambition where success is measured by how well we use what God has given us for His glory. When we grasp this principle, we experience a revolution in the way we establish and strive after goals in our lives.
Misperceptions of Success and the Christian
The two aforementioned sins of selfish ambition and apathy have a clear foothold in the modern Christian walk. These not only lead to all kinds of mischief in our personal lives, but also keep us from seeing kingdom success through God’s eyes.
The first, selfish ambition, takes many forms. Spiritual shepherds who take advantage of the poor by promising health and material wealth, those who use kingdom resources for personal business schemes, and those who view other thriving ministries as the “competition” are only a few examples. Astonishingly, God can use selfish behavior in His kingdom for His glory, as we see in the example of those who wished to cause the Apostle Paul distress in his imprisonment (Philippians 1:17). Yet, the human toll wrought by demons such as poor ethics and jealousies in the name of Christ is significant.
Perhaps you have been exposed to selfish ambition in ministry and were unaware. This is because Satan sometimes uses our language and practice against us in an effort to cloud our perception. In the Old Testament, when Absalom campaigned to take his father David’s kingdom away, he camped out at the city gate and made himself the judge and provider for those who passed through. He used his position to exploit his father’s weaknesses and establish himself as a confidant. When people tried to show respect to Absalom by bowing, he would reach out, hold them and kiss them. In this way, the Bible says Absalom “stole the heart” of Israel. As if this manipulative plan wasn’t bad enough, he hatched the final stage of his strategy by telling his father he needed to go to Hebron to make a vow to the Lord. Absalom was one of the original “god-talkers”, spiritualizing his actions to convince others his wisdom was from God.
I have heard people use the term “kingdom view” to cast guilt in the direction of those who don’t wish to participate in their plans or cooperate with their wishes. A true kingdom view, as we will discover later, is certainly the place to begin as we function together for God’s glory. But when the kingdom view is nothing more than a personal vision rooted in an ambitious self-promoting plot, then it has become something much different from the kingdom Christ wants to grow through us.
The second sin of apathy strips Christians of the healthy drives God put in them for the purpose of accomplishing His mission. It is hard to imagine the Apostle Paul shrinking into a corner somewhere to live out his faith in obscurity. Instead, we find him pressing on and straining to fully grasp Jesus’ calling in his life (Philippians 3:12-13), fighting the good fight and finishing the race (2 Timothy 4:7).
There are those who have a hard time reconciling a competitive spirit with Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), or Paul’s instructions to live in harmony with others (Romans 12:16). Yet, there are many things believers should contend with in our world, and it is a grave mistake to think a meek spirit removes us from the battle. This is why we are told to put on the whole armor of God to stand against the devil’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11).
Indeed, meekness is not weakness, and in fact may be the exact opposite. While I believe we have the right to fight back when we are threatened, I also know it takes just as much courage to resist a fight. Jesus allowed Himself to be beaten and crucified, but we can hardly call His actions passive.
I encourage you not to view selfish ambition and apathy as having too little meekness or too much meekness. Meekness is not a happy balance between two extremes. It is defined by something else, or more accurately “someone” else. There is a way that leads to success that brings true and lasting joy.
More than by Default
Along with misperceptions associated with meekness is a rather fatalistic interpretation of Jesus’ promised reward, “the meek will inherit the earth.” How can this be?
There is a popular notion the earth will be inherited by those who merely stay out of the fray. One only needs to observe history to understand this principle. Civilizations come and go, and the winds of war continue to blow over the same parcels of land. In time, students of history unearth the past and display artifacts in museums where children come to learn nothing man-made lasts forever. It can be assumed, therefore, one way believers might inherit the earth is to hide under a rock while the rest of society self-destructs, then emerge to claim what remains.
Nature teaches us a similar lesson. I am not a meticulous lawn-keeper, but I do take pride in my property. Every year I haul in dirt, plant seed and fertilize. I cut and trim my grass in a timely manner and manicure other plants in my yard so they appear orderly to the eye. But for all of my hard work, I am aware the results are only temporary. If left unchecked everything I have attempted to maintain over a period of eighteen years would quickly be undermined by weeds, bugs and drought.
So is this what Jesus means? If we just hang on long enough and make sure we aren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, will the earth be handed to us on a silver platter? This scenario seems very plausible to anyone in my generation who saw the first run of “Planet of the Apes” during the cold war era. Who can forget the final scene where Charlton Heston grieves over the insanity of the human race in the shadow of the ruins of the Statue of Liberty?
I am not refuting the fact that a literal doomsday would leave many of the disenfranchised cultures (probably not apes) of the earth to pick up the pieces. Still, this is not the kind or means of inheritance Jesus has promised to the meek.
Success and the Meek
One of the best ways to clarify our understanding of any character trait is to examine how it was revealed in the ministry of Jesus. Few people would refute the fact Jesus succeeded in accomplishing everything He came to do, yet He did it with meekness. On the cross He was beaten down, ridiculed and abandoned, but completely in control. He thirsted, but had enough strength to declare victory over sin with three simple words: “It is finished.”
It is worth noting, while Jesus’ main goal was not to be famous, He was wildly successful as a celebrity. People followed Him everywhere and it was not uncommon to find Him trying to pull away from the crowds for a personal time of prayer or a teaching session with His disciples. It is easy to understand why others wanted to be with Him when we consider His ability to heal and connect truth to the human heart in a way that amazed even His enemies.
But He could have done more. I mean, Jesus could have used His power and position to acquire most anything He wanted. It would have been nothing for Him to crush the mighty Roman bureaucracy and ascend Caesar’s throne. He could have eliminated His foes and elevated His friends. Tradition tells us Mary later lived in a home on the outskirts of Ephesus where she was cared for by John. Jesus could have easily kicked Herod out of his palace and asked the disciples to fix the place up for His mother. He could have called it “Mary Manor.”
But He didn’t. He didn’t do any of this because His mission was fundamentally infused with meekness. He, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)
Some say, “Remember, Jesus wasn’t meek all the time. There was that day when He cleansed the temple.” Indeed, this was a dramatic event. The animals scurried, tables and coinage went flying and money-changers ran from their posts. Yet, I contend Jesus may have been more meek at this moment in His ministry than any other. Allow me to explain.
I have become convinced the spirit of meekness God desires is our complete surrender of ambition to His purposes. Realize, I am not suggesting we discard our ambition, but rather that we become intentional about living by God’s agenda. Let’s return to Jesus’ encounter with the money changers as recorded in John 3. We read, “To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:16-19)
The reason Jesus cleansed the temple was because the spiritual leaders of the day had turned His Father’s house into a venue for personal gain. Yes, His reaction was drastic, and He was certainly angry. But the principle Jesus was upholding was one of meekness. God gave humans ambition to help them grow His kingdom, not their own. In addition, when He was asked for a sign to justify His authority he referenced His future death and resurrection. That’s right! Instead of swirling His whip over his head and shouting, “I’ve got your sign right here!” Jesus pointed to the cross. I feel certain the money-changers were baffled by His words, but in hindsight we see things with perfect clarity. Jesus was consumed with His Father’s will. There is no better definition of meekness.
When we seek God’s will above all else, and humbly submit to His authority, we are able to participate in His inheritance. In matters of salvation we are co-heirs with His Son Jesus because we have put our souls in His hands. And in regards to the earth and our temporal existence, we have transcended the bounds of every geopolitical map and claimed citizenship in a greater kingdom. The meek don’t withdraw from the world with its challenges and conflict. Instead, they engage the world with the truth that our true selves can only be discovered when we live for our Creator.
Perhaps you have already considered the people in your life you hold to be successful in light of these considerations. It is hard to judge whether or not others are happy in their existence, and it is unfair to assume they are unhappy because they do not appear to give God glory for their blessings. But we must keep the definition of what it means to be truly blessed in view.
All humans are blessed. In fact, the Bible tells us God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45). Beyond this general blessing, many people find happiness in worldly success, and even acquire a level of peace and contentment, having achieved their personal goals and dreams. Yet, the biblical idea of the blessed life involves one other critical marker: that of living to please God. Believers don’t just receive God’s blessings, or revel in how well they have parlayed them into earthly success. They also want to know their lives have been lived for a divine and eternal purpose, and they know this is only possible when they have sought the will of God and attempted to live for Him in everything.
Pursue the joyful path of meekness. In the process, don’t lose the drive God has put in you to use your gifts and your time on earth to the fullest. At times, the gentle spirit of the Lord, who loves us as children will compel you to treat others with His tenderness. But there will also be moments when your submission to His will leads you to take a bold stand.
If you do these things, you will inherit the earth. What is an earthly inheritance anyway but a defined possession marked by human paperwork. When we die the things we have accumulated no more belong to us than they did before we made our entrance. We still respect legal ownership because it is a part of the human system God has ordained for order and civility. Otherwise, His command not to steal from others would make very little sense. Yet, God has, does and will own everything. Our titles, deeds and account numbers are temporary tools to account for those things over which He has made us stewards.
The meek believer recognizes this important relationship and seeks to understand and live within the will of God. Success is discovering this will and finding a way to pursue it each day and in every way. This is no higher ambition.
Chapter 9 – Living Religiously
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6)
In the Appalachian Mountains where my father grew up, when people turned from a life of sin to follow Jesus, it was said they “got religion.” “Getting” religion involved more than a mere profession of faith. New believers put aside sinful practices, rededicated themselves to their loved ones and joined with a church family.
I am not certain when the word “religious” fell out of favor with Christians and non-Christians alike. It is now common to find churches publicly disavowing “religion”. Some will say, “We are here to tell you about a relationship, not religion.” Not long ago I saw an Internet post that read, “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.”
But wait! Is it possible for any follower of Jesus to make the claim he is not religious, with any sense of honesty? Religion, after all, is a set of beliefs and a form for expressing those beliefs in our daily lives. If we believe in the Word of God and the good news of Jesus, we are religious. If we try to follow Jesus’ teachings in our conversation and walk, we are religious. Perhaps the only thing really non-religious about Christians telling people they are not religious is that they are breaking God’s command about bearing false witness (Exodus 20:16).
Alright, I’ll admit I am playing the devil’s advocate. While I am confident nothing I have said here is untrue, I also realize it is impossible to miss an important nuance in the subject of religion. Religion can be misguided and devoid of value. In the same chapter we find Jesus’ directive to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:6) we also find this strong judgment: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees had turned religion into a vehicle through which they had proclaimed themselves righteous and condemned others who failed to live up to their expectations.
I will leave it up to sociologists to determine when our culture developed its current mainstream distaste for religion, but I feel very certain the cause of this development is akin to the error of the Pharisees. Today, religion is seen primarily as a vehicle through which Christians promote themselves, or a personal cause. Whether these perceptions are completely fair or accurate is beside the point. They have become reality in the minds of the people we are seeking to reach for Jesus.
As a result of these developments, we must bring definition to Jesus directive to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Surely, it is possible to allow God to use us for his purposes in this process, and avoid the trap of religious opportunism.
Is Religion the same as Righteousness?
Religion and righteousness are not exclusive of one another. It is possible to be religious and righteous or righteous and religious. But before we explore these relationships, it might be helpful to consider some differences between the two.
Religion or religious behavior is focused on human behavior. It would seem strange to speak of a religious God, but we think nothing of referring to a righteous one. We can presume this is because it would be absurd to think God needs to practice the qualities that make up His perfect nature. Religion is usually reserved for a human act or lifestyle indicating the earthly working out of faith.
Righteousness can be an act or a lifestyle as well, but it is also an imputed state, owing its origin to the blood of Jesus poured out on the cross. As believers, we have been made righteous, and as a result pursue a righteous life and perform righteous deeds. This last form, “deeds”, is what most of us think of when we think of religion. It is the focus of James’ letter when he wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
In the negative, the absence of righteous actions might very well indicate one is not in the right relationship with God. If we see righteous acts and religious acts as close relatives, we might also say those who are undisciplined or irreligious in their faith also need to examine their walk with God. But another negative line of reasoning also reminds us religion is not the same as imputed righteousness, which can only be given by grace, and any notion we can be declared righteous by God based merely on our actions is erroneous.
Yes, religion can be a barometer of righteousness. But, no, we cannot attain righteousness through the practice of religion. This means if we are to hunger and thirst after righteousness, we must first focus our attention on the state of our hearts, and allow religion to take its rightful place as a “pure and faultless” expression of our love for God. When we figure out this dynamic the religious life we live will be a sincere reflection of righteousness.
The Hunger and Thirst
Hunger and thirst are so common to our existence we instinctively assign them certain behaviors. The logic is pretty simple: If we are hungry, we eat. If we are thirsty, we drink. But the closer we look at the process of hungering and thirsting the more fascinated we are by their design.
Did you know our sense of smell is responsible for 80% of the things we taste? The human tongue can recognize the basic sensations of saltiness, bitterness, sweet and sour, but the nose is necessary for anything more complex. This is why, when we have a head cold, hardly anything tastes good.
If the sensation of taste is not confined to buds on our tongue, then we shouldn’t be surprised if spiritual hunger and thirst exhibit similar complexities. Spiritual sense begins with some basic human needs: the need to be at peace with ourselves and in community with God and others. Adam and Eve weren’t spiritually hungry or thirsty before they sinned, since their relationship with God was complete and unsoiled. But when they fell, their perfect peace was destroyed and a dark void invaded their hearts.
For centuries humans have attempted to fill this void in two inadequate ways. First, they have immersed themselves in selfish ambition and self-gratification, hoping to find peace through pleasure, fortune and fame. These pursuits can make one happy, but only for a short time. Trophies tarnish, records are broken and earthly pleasure is momentary.
The second way humans have tried to find peace is through self-righteousness. Some have masked the true nature of their relationship with God by creating a code of goodness and awarding themselves a passing grade. This was how the Pharisees in Jesus’ day managed their spiritual emptiness. They emphasized the rules they were good at keeping and used their personal standard as a litmus test to judge others. Unfortunately, just as ambition and self-gratification are temporary, self-righteousness is hollow. One might even say righteousness that is defined by man is not righteousness at all.
In truth, the only way to restore true peace in our hearts, and make things right with God is to hunger and thirst after Him. We must pursue Him passionately, discover His will for our lives, and allow Him to guide, teach and even chastise us. Graciously, God has established a means of peace through the blood of His Son Jesus. When we accept Him by faith, we begin anew and experience a peace that surpasses anything this world has to offer.
I try to stay away from appetizers. Don’t get me wrong. I have no trouble devouring a large fried onion or a heaping bowl of chips with salsa. But if I overdo things, I can easily fill up before the main course is delivered.
Still, it’s a challenge. It’s hard to wait for something more nutritious when a waiter is pushing the quick fix. After an order of wings or some bread sticks I can pretty much guarantee I will be taking half of my meal home in a Styrofoam box.
This is not an indictment on appetizers. In fact, as they relate to the spiritual realm, a lot of people find their way to the deeper things of God after they have their appetites whetted by something less substantial. Maybe you found salvation as a result of some relationships you formed on a church softball team or a youth event that involved water balloons and hot dogs. You may have continued to attend a church because you enjoyed the worship band’s “vibe” or the preacher’s sense of humor (I am obviously speaking hypothetically…right?). These things may be lean on the substance of the gospel, but if they are presented in the proper context they reflect Christ’s love and draw people closer to the cross.
Sooner or later, though, we want to be filled and we must ask where we can find lasting fulfillment. To get there, it is important to think in terms of a living process instead of a single serving. We must also remember the process begins with the Life-Giver. Jesus described this very dynamic when He said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
Isn’t all bread important for life? In our culture of mega food marts it is easy to forget about impoverished people for whom a meager allotment of rice or grain truly is a matter of life and death. Since people need food to survive, we can easily receive Jesus’ self-designation as a metaphor. Indeed, Jesus is the food we eat, just as He is the air we breathe. Without Him we could not find the strength to continue.
Yet, this bread is more than an inspiring figure of speech. Jesus isn’t just similar to the food that keeps our bodies from wasting away. He is life itself. In the beginning, as an eternal member of the Godhead, He breathed into our ancestor Adam’s nostrils, and he became a living being. Then He formed Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs and she became the mother of all who would come afterward. The scriptures suggest Gnostic elements in the early church attempted to undermine Jesus’ role in creation and relegate Him to something less. In response the Apostle Paul wrote, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17)
If, hypothetically, Jesus were to cease to exist, so would we. So would everything. Since the notion of eternity would disappear with Him, so would our past and future. There would be no way, no truth and no life. There would be no “be” for all reality would end.
I don’t mean to suggest Jesus’ role as our “bread of life” is limited to physical life, but we must understand the scope of the matter. His place in our life begins with life itself. Once we grasp the significance of this truth it makes more sense to speak of spiritual life and death and the hunger and thirst for righteousness that draws us to it.
It seems we are prone to compartmentalize our various appetites in life and relegate the spiritual kind to an optional status. As long as people are eating and drinking, we aren’t alarmed if they don’t seem to be seeking God. Even if we believe it is important that they know God, we are willing to give them time and are reluctant to raise serious concerns. But if they pursue God, and become so obsessed with the journey they enter a season of fasting or some other intense form of spiritual discipline, we get nervous. We don’t want to stand by and watch people we care about go off the religious deep end.
Before you label me a nut, I must tell you I am not prone to extremes in spiritual disciplines. I would be concerned about someone engaged in an open-ended fast with no clear motivation or objective. My point is merely that we have established priorities, spoken or unspoken, and making sure our spiritual lives don’t die on the vine isn’t always at the top of the list. I propose it should be.
This doesn’t mean our physical life isn’t vitally important, or that we should disregard the physical in order to attain the spiritual. If God didn’t care about our physical bodies and have a purpose for them He might have created us in a disembodied state. Instead, He chose to bring us into the world through a physical process and endow us with gifts and aptitudes to manage the rest of creation.
Still, as the Bible reminds us, we are all going to die physically and our bodies return to the earth. Our souls, on the other hand, will survive, and the spiritual choices we make while we are on earth will determine whether we are in God’s presence for eternity or forever separated from Him in hell. Once when Jesus was preparing His disciples to share His kingdom with a hostile world He said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The temporary suffering inflicted on our human bodies is nothing compared to the tragedy of losing our souls.
Why am I spending so much time talking about the need for a spiritual appetite instead of focusing on the things that fulfill us? After all, if we learn how fulfilling the feast of righteousness can be won’t our hunger and thirst increase? I am aware we are more willing to eat and drink when our favorite foods and beverages are placed before us. The only problem is, in our spiritual walk, if what God has put before us is unappealing at the time, we might turn up our nose and walk away. I am convinced we must hunger and thirst because we are sure we will die spiritually if we don’t, and ultimately die a second death in eternity. When our spiritual appetite wanes we should sound the alarm, because we know if we don’t, we will die.
It All Looks Good
It’s funny how we become less finicky when we are truly hungry and thirsty, and in turn how much more full we feel when we learn to appreciate what is put before us. My grandfather and I used to pack a light lunch when we worked his tobacco fields together. If you have ever spent a morning in a tobacco field you know the job is sweaty, sticky and exhausting. When lunchtime rolled around we found some shade under an old hackberry tree and pulled some bologna sandwiches out of a Tupperware container. The sandwiches were mushy and warm, but in our famished state it didn’t matter.
Since I live in an area surrounded by a number of military bases, people in our church family frequently deploy to dangerous locations around the world. During their time away they take advantage of group Bible studies and worship services provided in their base compounds, but they really miss their church family back home. Sometimes tragic events on the battlefield make their time away nearly unbearable and they survive with true grit and the prayers and encouragement of others. When they finally arrive home, and walk through the doors of our church building for worship, they grin from ear to ear. A few weep. From the stage those of us leading ministry are concerned we might mess up. From the spot our returning military personnel are standing, it is impossible for anyone to make a mistake, unless one of us fails to appreciate the presence of the Lord.
We live in a paradoxical time in church ministry. There is a place for excellence because the people we are trying to reach for Christ are picky eaters. It is important that we humble ourselves as believers and not grow frustrated with those whose view of righteousness has been skewed by the Deceiver. The table we set in worship and in any other expression of our faith will influence whether or not those who don’t know the Lord bother to come back for another helping. But in this, we who know there is more must keep our perspectives. The moment we begin to put our product over God’s presence and the spiritual hunger and thirst that draws others to Him, is the moment we strip our message of its nutritional value.
This paradox reveals an ironic conflict in the quest for spiritual fulfillment. We will not pursue God with passion unless we are truly hungry and thirsty, but our hearty appetite can also lure us into sinful practices or the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisees. When we are starved, it all looks good and we must find a way to center our hearts God.
The Right Appetite Leads to Lasting Fulfillment
I am old enough to remember a time when food packages didn’t have nutrition labels. Something called the “Fair Packaging and Labeling Act” came along in 1965 and now we have immediate access to calorie, fat and sodium counts. Gone are the days when we stuff anything in our mouths just because we are hungry. We want to be full, but we also want to be healthy.
Unfortunately, everything our soul consumes isn’t labeled. This requires a greater sense of responsibility on our part as we navigate a toxic world. We know we want to avoid selfish ambition and bitter envy because they destroy our relationships and leave us emptier than before. We also want to reject self-righteousness because it fools us into thinking we are filled, even as we starve to death. But where do we go for the meal God has prepared, and how do we make sure we feast on and reflect 100% Jesus?
The answer to this question might seem over-simplistic, but it is rooted in the old adage, “you are what you eat.” Since we don’t always have time to scrutinize every decision in our lives, we adopt broad principles that help us make choices that lead to spiritual fulfillment. In the case of righteousness, if we want to reflect Jesus, we must eat and drink Jesus. Does this sound weird?
It seemed downright bizarre to some people Jesus was addressing in the city of Capernaum. They followed Him after His feeding of the five thousand and believed Him to be the prophet who was “to come into the world” (John 6:14). Then Jesus said something so strange it must have left His audience grimacing and shaking their heads in disbelief: “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:55-56). We are told, from that time on many of Jesus’ disciples stopped following Him. Can you blame them? Who wants to follow a nut?
But in reality, Jesus was merely trying to show His disciples the organic nature of faith. You don’t find God by piling on human additives or using spiritual pursuits as a vehicle to feed your ego. Instead, you arrive at the place God wants you to be by feeding on His Son. The label of selfishness and self-righteousness has been replaced with a simple category: “Jesus – 100%”.
Of course, when it comes to good spiritual nutrition we are still left to determine what constitutes “Jesus food.” This discernment takes work, which is why we can only succeed when we take responsibility for our diet. We will flourish is we feast on these biblical points: 1) the things Jesus did, 2) the things Jesus said, and 3) the things other people said about what Jesus did and said. In this way we plant spiritual truths in our hearts and reinforce them by modeling our Savior’s perfect example.
We also rely on the Holy Spirit and His sanctifying work in our hearts. He is the One who created the Word that communicates the pure Jesus we seek to follow. The Holy Spirit helps us process spiritual food and convert it into a life of worship.
As we follow Jesus’ example and His teachings, and the Holy Spirit transforms us from within, we devour the grace that pours from Calvary. This is our eternal food, even our salvation, which guarantees the removal of sin through the sacrifice of blood and eternal life by the resurrection from the dead.
If you hunger and thirst you will be filled. Give Jesus His rightful place at the table and you will always have access to the righteousness that brings lasting joy.
Chapter 10 – Have Mercy
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7)
Jesus once told a parable about two servants. The first servant owed a king the enormous sum of 10,000 talents, which translates into billions of dollars today. It is inconceivable anyone could repay this kind of debt, let alone a servant, which is exactly the point Jesus wanted to make. The king commanded the servant’s family and possessions be sold to settle his account. Everything he had worked for would be taken away and the people he loved most would be treated like property by strangers. His heart crushed, the servant fell on his knees and begged for mercy, and incredibly, the king relented and forgave his debt. It is hard to imagine a happier ending. It is also hard to believe what happened next.
The servant who had been shown grace was also owed a debt by a second servant. It was an inconsequential debt compared to his, but that didn’t seem to matter. He grabbed the servant by the throat, choked him and demanded payment. When the second servant begged for mercy, the first servant had him thrown into prison. Things might have ended there if it hadn’t been for some other servants who witnessed everything and reported the incident to the king. The king was outraged! He confronted the first servant with his wrong: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?” Then he turned the first servant over to his jailers to be tortured until he was able to pay back the debt he had been forgiven, virtually insuring he would suffer forever.
This parable illustrates Jesus’ fifth Beatitude perfectly: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). It came in response to a question by Peter, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times!” Then He told this parable.
What do you suppose Peter thought about Jesus’ answer before he heard the parable? Did he run the numbers in his head and try to paint a mental picture of what it might mean to forgive someone seventy-seven times? Or did he hear Jesus’ real message? Mercy wasn’t about numbers. It was about treating others as God treats us and learning to forgive our brothers from the heart (Matthew 18:35). Our ability to embrace this principle will greatly impact our posture toward others, especially when we feel offended. It will also define our relationship with God. This latter point is the biggest reason to make sure we live lives of mercy.
How do we define mercy, and do our motives for sharing it matter? Technically, mercy is an expression of kindness or grace to those who deserve otherwise. Years ago I braked on a wet road and slid into a car that had slowed down to cross a rough railroad crossing. When our bumpers collided I saw the older couple in the car I hit lurch forward and bounce back into their seats. I rushed to see if they were alright and the husband slowly exited his car and walked back to survey the damage without saying a word. Fortunately, those were the days of huge rubber bumpers and incredibly both of our vehicles were unscathed. I apologized profusely and braced myself for a barrage of angry words. But they never came. The husband said, “That’s alright. There doesn’t seem to be any damage and we’re alright. Just remember to be more careful when the roads are wet.” Surely you will understand why I hugged him, and thanked him before returning to my car. I didn’t deserve this act of kindness, but I received it gladly and to this day remember it when I catch myself following too closely on a wet roadway.
I have often wondered why the man in the other car was so gracious. Was the accident less serious than I first thought? I don’t think so. The car I hit skidded at least two feet on impact. Was the couple in the car afraid of reporting an accident to their insurance company, fearing it might hurt their status in their advancing age? Or could it be the husband remembered when someone showed him mercy, and sensing my sincere remorse decided to give me a break? I will never know.
But there’s more. I draw on this event when someone younger than I am makes a mistake that creates a problem in my life. I would be lying if I said I am always forgiving and gracious. Yet, I remember. Mercy works this way. Fear, sorrow and relief leave an impression on our hearts and it is difficult to seek revenge on others for foolish acts when we know we have been guilty of the same. “Lord, how many times must I forgive?” If we stay stuck on this question we are missing Jesus’ point.
As humans, it is hard for us to avoid the temptation to quantify and qualify our relationships with others. In the case just mentioned, Peter wanted to know “how many.” One of Jesus’ most famous parables was told in response to a lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor.” Jesus answered with the story of a Good Samaritan who showed mercy toward a dying man (Matthew 10:25-37).
“How many” or “Who?” are irrelevant in the presence of the God who loved the whole world and offered salvation to “whoever believes” (John 3:16). Yet, this was one of the most difficult realities for those who followed Jesus’ ministry to grasp. The Pharisees and teachers of the law loathed Jesus’ attendance at a party thrown by Levi (Matthew). They wanted to know why Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors. (Luke 5:30) James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village when its residents turned Jesus away (Luke 9:54). The Samaritans rejected Jesus because He was on His way to Jerusalem, I wonder if they would have treated Him differently had they known they would be the good guys in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus didn’t care how many times people needed to be forgiven, or who they were, but He certainly found Himself in constant trouble with those who did.
We shouldn’t be too harsh with those who seemed consumed with such things. In Jesus’ day it was nearly impossible for people to administer mercy unless they had an official score sheet. Jesus used this social norm as a jumping off place for His teaching on the subject: “You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’” (Matthew 5:38). This directive had been God’s way of making sure His people didn’t go overboard when exacting justice (Exodus 21:24). But to Jesus’ dismay, a principle intended to govern retaliation had turned into a permission slip to seek revenge.
It would also be dishonest of us to pretend this was merely a first-century problem. The modern proliferation of television court trial shows is just one reminder we have not come very far in our ability to resolve our differences with civility. It is important that we realize mercy is not a willingness to live within the law when we would like to surpass it. In fact, it is about the law. To understand how, we need to delve deeper into the mercy God poured out on all of us at Calvary.
Mercy and the Law
Our perception of mercy changes when we see it in relation to an official moral code. There are, of course, unofficial codes or social mores. For example, the notion of a “mercy killing” suggests we are justified in killing a living being to relieve it of some misery. In the violent venues of war and vigilante justice, an enemy might claim the virtue of mercy by killing his captives quickly instead of subjecting them to torture.
But for mercy to have a sound definition, it must be held against a true standard. When a judge shows mercy in sentencing a convicted criminal his grace is apparent because others know it could have been worse. Therefore, when we talk of God’s mercy, we aren’t tossing out His Law, but rather referring to an act by which the Law is satisfied. Confused? Stick with me.
The Law of God was satisfied when Jesus died at Calvary. He paid our debt of sin, making it possible for us to be justified through faith. Perhaps it has already occurred to you how this free gift is different from an earthly judge who reduces a sentence. God, in His mercy, didn’t just reduce the penalty. Instead, He completely erased it with His Son’s own blood.
This brings us to the heart of Jesus’ Beatitude. We will receive mercy, even as we show mercy, but the mercy we receive from God is greater than anything we could possibly hope to share. To compensate for our weakness, the Spirit of God touches our hearts and moves us to love as He has loved. When Jesus heard the Pharisees and teachers of the law criticize His attendance at Levi’s party, He said, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:13). We must learn the meaning of this passage, borrowed from Hosea 6:6, if we hope to exemplify the mercy of God.
It is possible to keep the Law and miss mercy. This was God’s message through Hosea and the principle Jesus attempted to apply throughout His ministry. There was nothing wrong with the Law, but it could not offer grace. It provided the backdrop against which the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross could be understood, but it could not save. Many thought otherwise. The Pharisees believed they could be made just through a strict adherence to the Law. Jesus portrayed their kind in His Parable of the Good Samaritan in which two spiritual leaders left a man to die because they wanted to preserve their ceremonial purity.
In truth, the Law as given by God was a Law of mercy. It instructed Israel in matters of civil peace, justice and hospitality. Unfortunately, any time humans use a moral code to justify themselves, the form of the Law overshadows its spirit. Sacrifice is the form. A heart of humility, bent on loving God and honoring Him in everything is the spirit.
Maybe Jesus’ parable about the two servants is beginning to make even more sense to you now. The king wasn’t required under the law to forgive, but out of mercy he absorbed the enormous sum owned by the first servant. The first servant could require the second servant to repay him, under the law, and when he was unable he was treated harshly. The king honored the spirit of the law while the first servant used its form for his own selfish ambition. The parable seems horribly unfair, but there are aspects of it that come much too close to home.
Mercy or Sacrifice?
In many ways, we have a fortunate perspective when it comes to Jesus’ teaching on mercy. Unlike those who followed Him throughout His ministry, we have almost two thousand years of reflection on the cross. We possess the biographical and theological words of the apostles in scripture, and centuries of thought shared by some of the greatest minds in history. But this doesn’t mean we are less prone to put form over spirit and miss the heart of God on this subject. I fear we are more like the second servant in Jesus’ parable at times than we would like to admit. How?
The second servant had a serious case of compartmentalization in his life. We all compartmentalize. Without this God-given ability it would be impossible for us to function and focus in the midst of trouble. The catch comes when we fail to recognize how an event in one arena of our lives should influence how we behave in another. It is easy to become arrogant in our successes and lose sight of those who have supported us along the way, or even in the way. We have all met people who warm up to us when they need us and ignore us after they get what they want. I have talked with husbands and wives who tell me they have “outgrown” their spouses. I can’t help but think, “Really? You have outgrown the one to whom you have committed your life and without whom you would not have succeeded?”
People who think they will be justified by their much sacrifice are compartmentalizers. They pick and choose the kind acts for which they believe they should be recognized by God and they don’t want to be saddled with responsibilities that might keep them from reaching their goals. The merciful, on the other hand, live in the shadow of the cross. They are convinced their hopes and dreams are tied to Jesus’ willingness to set them free from sin. When they sense a need for mercy they take on the role of ambassador, carefully administrating the grace they first received from God. Merciful people make plenty of sacrifices, but only because they are necessary to express the heart of God in a difficult circumstance.
But I Need Definition!
It is one thing to say we should not quantify and qualify mercy, but much harder to avoid the practice. After all, everything needs definition or structure, and mercy is no different. How else do we know when we have shown it, or not?
At the risk of relying too heavily on the parable of the two servants, I am convinced the answer can be found there. Just as the first servant’s compartmentalizing shows us how we separate grace received from grace shown, the actions of the king provide the positive alternative. I believe the key rests in the fact the first servant’s debt was so great it could not possibly have been forgiven.
I have tried to formulate scenarios in which a servant could have racked up a debt of 10,000 talents. The only one I find plausible is something similar to George Bailey’s unfortunate circumstances in the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”, where his bookkeeper lost a large deposit and brought his business to the brink of disaster. Perhaps the servant was in charge of the king’s treasury and allowed it to fall into the hands of thieves. But an amount in the billions of dollars would be an epic heist, and it is doubtful that much money would be entrusted to one servant.
Instead, I find this principle: The quantity lost by the servant was unfathomable and the quality of the king’s mercy was unconditional. Therefore, the mercy we show others should extend to wrongs that cannot possibly be paid back and our kindness should reflect the absolute grace of God. This makes Jesus’ mercy Beatitude less of an equation and more of an attachment to God’s heart. Luke reveals this truth in his record of Jesus’ words, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36 NIV).”
This is the final and ultimate definition. The only way to truly be merciful is to study the mercy of God and emulate Him. We will never do this perfectly, but at least we have a principle that can be learned. If we want to show more mercy we must learn more about God’s mercy. This is the mistake the first servant made. He failed to learn from the king, compartmentalized his life, and as a result lost his opportunity to change his world. We have the opportunity to choose a better way.
We Can Make a Difference
There is an obvious “if-then” aspect to Jesus’ mercy Beatitude. It is hard to miss this lesson in the parable of the two servants. The flow of mercy into my life is connected to it flow out of my life. I am not certain how God weighs the mercy He shows me against the mercy I show others, but I suspect He is not as concerned about a point for point scorecard as He is the condition of my heart.
But I close our time with this Beatitude with an additional perspective. If we can only give what we have received then Jesus’ teaching is as much about our endless resource of mercy as it is about our actions. We should never run out of mercy because God’s supply is infinite. There are times in our lives when it is difficult to show mercy because those who need it most have hurt us deeply. It is also hard to be merciful toward those who are struggling as a result of their own irresponsible behavior. In these cases mercy must sometimes be tempered with tough love and the establishment of boundaries, but it is necessary just the same.
When you are required to share mercy where mercy isn’t deserved, remember this: the inherent nature of mercy presumes something is undeserved. Perhaps you remember the words of the Apostle Paul when he wrote, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” What has God shown you?
Chapter 11 – Made Pure Again
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew5:8)
Once while Jesus was teaching, some people brought little children to Him to receive a blessing. The disciples rebuked them. After all, the Savior was much too busy for children! Then Jesus rebuked the disciples. He said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).
The likeness of a little child has generally been associated with a pure heart. Children don’t have the baggage adults have and they are often able to understand eternal truths with astonishing clarity and simplicity. The prayers of a three year-old can be as theologically sound as that of a sixty-three year old, and what they lack in vocabulary they make up in passion. One prays for the neighborhood cat and the other for world peace, but God hears them both.
Children are a great example, but it is important that we not think they are the only ones with pure hearts. A child’s heart is pure because it is unpolluted by the world, but what has become polluted can be made clean again.
Suppose you lived in the mountains and a clear stream ran by your home. The stream was so pure you could drink from it, and in the warm summer months you loved wading in it barefoot. Then, one year the spring rains failed to come and the stream ran low. It became blocked by twigs and leaves, and the marshy silt where the water once flowed emitted a putrid odor. It was disgusting!
But the rains came at last. They fell relentlessly, producing a torrent in the stream basin. The rushing water washed the twigs and leaves away and cleansed the silt. When the rain stopped, you kicked off your shoes and waded in where the clear, cool water rushed past your ankles. That which was pure, and had become stagnant, was made pure again.
The fact that Jesus told His disciples to be like children so they could enter the kingdom of God presupposes the possibility. But how does it happen? How can someone who has been stained by sin be clean again? (we find out tomorrow…)
The Bible talks about two kinds of cleansing; one an event with ongoing implications and the other a process. The event is the washing away of our sins through the blood of Jesus. In 1 John 1:7 the apostle John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Jesus cleanses our hearts from sin, and continues to keep us in a state of grace until we reach the end of our journey.
The second cleansing, a process, is known as sanctification. Simply put, sanctification is the means by which Christ reverses the effects of sin in our lives and returns us to a place of personal peace and purity. His daily flow of grace restores us to spiritual health. In this way we become like little children again.
When we become like children, we don’t lose the wisdom we have gained in life, and we don’t forget the difficult lessons we have learned along the way. We wouldn’t want to. Our memory of Satan’s crimes helps us appreciate the Lord’s renewal, and we are able to offer hope to others by sharing our testimony. As we share, we will discover many of the people who need grace already have a childlike attitude, regardless of whether or not their hearts have been sprinkled clean. The trials of life have forced them to their knees and they are waiting eagerly for someone to show them the way.
Can We Really See God?
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”. Jesus said it, therefore it must be true. But what about those other verses in the Bible that seems to suggest seeing God is not such a good idea? In particular are God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33:20 when He said, “you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”
I vividly remember as a kid being terrified at the prospect of seeing God. There were two things I knew I should never do: stare at the sun and look into the face of God. How or when I thought I might encounter God’s face, I have no clue, but I was ready to cover my eyes should it happen.
Yet, according to the scriptures there are those who saw God’s face and lived to talk about it. Among them are Abraham (Genesis 17:1), Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9-11). So which is it? Can we, or should we see the face of God, or not?
In the case of Jesus’ Beatitude, we could view seeing God as an eschatological event. If we have been washed clean by the blood of Calvary, and if the Holy Spirit is working in us daily to transform us into the image of Christ, we will be pleased to see God’s face at the end of time. We will have been changed from our earthly state and will have no fear of death. But even if we accept this interpretation it still doesn’t resolve statements that appear to conflict in the Old Testament.
Some say no one on earth has actually seen God in a natural way. Instead, He has appeared to them in vision and dreams, or they have been caught up in some intermediate state between heaven and earth. This reasoning works for some God sightings, but certainly not the one in Exodus 24 where Moses and his associates appear to be very much awake on earth, eating and drinking together.
Perhaps the best answer rests in something Jesus said in John 6:46: “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father”. If no one but Jesus has seen the Father, then who did they see? How could they see God, but not see the Father? One possible answer is that Old Testament servants saw Jesus before His incarnation. In the Upper Room Jesus told His disciples, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). To see Jesus is to see the Father, but the unique quality of Jesus in His role as Mediator allows humans to see Him and live.
“Anyone Who Has Seen Me”
If Jesus is the member of the Godhead people have looked upon with their own eyes, then His words in the Sermon on the Mount were more profound than His listeners could have realized. God was in their midst, but they would not see Him if their hearts were darkened by selfish ambition or self-righteousness.
Jesus once healed a man who was blind since birth. The healing caused a great stir among the spiritual guides of the day who refused to accept Jesus as being from God. After an incredibly frustrating encounter with some Pharisees the man who was healed confessed His belief in Jesus and worshipped Him. Within earshot of the Pharisees Jesus remarked, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (John 9:39) Jesus came to offer those who wanted to see God a pure heart, but His presence hardened the hearts of those who rejected Him.
The parables Jesus told were directed at blind guides with toxic thoughts. Parables have a way of drawing people into a story and convicting them when their defenses are down. Unfortunately, conviction can make hearts harder when people refuse to repent, which was the case with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus said, “This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matthew 13:13).
If we have seen Jesus, we have seen God, but we can see neither if our hearts are polluted. Now we rely on scripture to see Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to encounter His presence. But just as in Jesus’ ministry on earth, we can only see what we are willing to see, which is why a pure heart is still critical if we hope to know and share the 100% Jesus.
How Clear Is Our Vision?
If seeing Jesus is synonymous with seeing God, how do we calculate clarity? Do our visions of the Son and the Father run parallel to one another, or is it possible to see less of one and more of the other? How do we see Jesus since He isn’t physically with us?
In our search for answers to these questions it is important to remember our ultimate goal of sharing the 100% Jesus with our world. How can we help others see what we have not first seen? Because of God’s infinite qualities, it is impossible to estimate how much of Him we have actually seen. But it is important to ponder how spiritual eyesight works so we can consistently improve our vision. The eternal future of others may well depend on whether or not we consider this a priority.
We see Jesus in the scriptures, through believers whose lives have been fashioned by His teaching and inner presence, and through circumstances in which He appears to be moving. The last of these three is the most subjective and we must be honest enough to admit our discernment of events can be flawed. The obvious influence of the Lord in the lives of His people is more tangible, but even this can be misdirected by those who have learned to use Jesus as a vehicle for personal gain. The scriptures paint the most definitive picture of all, and even though they must be interpreted by fallible human beings, they are distinct and unchanging.
With these three visions in mind, we might correctly say any attempt to mathematically align our image of the Father and the Son is irrelevant. Jesus was “God with us”, but His earthly acts before those who saw Him helped people understand the attributes of the Father whom they had not seen. God put His Son in human form, but the form was not His fullness. The fullness of God, found in Jesus, could not be seen with the human eye. Yet, what was seen with the human eye made that fullness possible to grasp.
From the objective to the subjective, we paint the most accurate picture of Jesus possible in our minds, and we take our artwork on tour each waking moment. We pursue what we cannot see in its entirety, so we can give our world a glimpse of its Creator. It isn’t necessary to show others 100% of Jesus, but it is important to do our best to make sure what we pass along is pure Jesus.
Pure Heart – Pure Vision
It is mind-boggling to think God came to be with us in the flesh. In his first letter the Apostle John captured this miracle when he wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).
However, as incredible as it seems that God became one of us, the incarnation was not His ultimate objective. Instead, as the humble Son, He became obedient to death – even death on the cross! (Philippians 2:8). Then He was highly exalted and given a name above all names. The Son came to earth to win our salvation. This was the Father’s vision, and it must be ours too.
We seek a pure heart in order to see God, that we might comprehend what He sees when His heart breaks for lost souls. This heart inhabits every recorded moment of Jesus’ ministry. We find it in His compassion for sinners. We hear it in His parables of the lost sheep and coin (Luke 15). We find it in the portrayal of the lost son’s father who proclaimed, “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32). Then, at the very end, Jesus forgave a crucified thief and mediated the sins of His killers” (Luke 23:24). Can there be any doubt where God stands when it comes to sin and His passion for our redemption?
This brings us to a final and most exciting observation. If we see God in His Son, and if His Son helps us see people as we should, then the possibility exists that we might also see God in those who receive His free gift of grace. In other words, when our hearts are as they should be, we are able to see God as He works in the hearts of the redeemed. Paul said it this way in his letter to the Colossians: “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:7-10 ). When we see what God is doing in others, we see God. In fact, we see each member of the Godhead working in concert as the Father, Son and Spirit redeem, cleanse and restore.
We now come full circle as we realize God is also visible in our lives. Our hearts must be pure to see God, but this same condition makes it possible for others to see God in us. Later in His sermon Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16),
Are we really the light of the world? Didn’t Jesus say this was His role (John 8:12)? Yes, He did, but He invited us to partner with Him in reflecting His Father’s glory. I know it sounds crazy, but no more so than the thought we can see God and live. With Jesus, this is not only a possibility, but an outcome. See God and we shall live indeed.
Chapter 12 – Winning the Peace
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9)
When a war ends, the battle for peace continues. Governments must be restored or replaced, infrastructures repaired and grievances buried. History shows us many of the world’s most costly wars came about because the peace was never completely won from a previous conflict.
Jesus came to secure our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. He paid our debt of sin, defeated Satan, and tore apart the curtain separating us from the Father. Jesus won the war, but He left His followers to win the peace. This is why He called peacemakers “sons of God” in His beatitude. Citizens of the kingdom are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, sons of God, and ambassadors of peace. Even before His victory at the cross the Savior was already calling His followers to take up the task of reconstruction.
How is the peace won? Are we policemen stamping out remaining elements of the old regime, or diplomats winning over the hearts and minds of dissidents? Is the work with the citizenry, foreigners, or both? What weapons do we use and what recourse do we have if the people we are trying to lead insist on inciting violence or continuing the conflict?
Several years ago I was given a book about the work of the gospel on the American frontier entitled “Bible in Pocket, Gun in Hand”. In the Old West troublemakers liked to disrupt worship services, prompting preachers to lay a gun on the pulpit to establish some ground rules. The Apostle Paul wrote about spiritual armor, but he didn’t mention any Colt 45s.
The peace must be won, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). But how does it happen?
The Peace Plan
Peace is inherent to our omnipotent God’s nature and design, while chaos is the work of Satan. Most of us are amused when we see drawings of the Garden of Eden before sin entered the world. Adam and Eve are smiling as they stand behind strategically placed bushes, and animals on every level of the food chain are living together in harmony. Maybe things weren’t quite this cheesy, but it was good! Adam and Eve were at peace with one another, with God, and with all of creation.
Then the peace was destroyed. It started with an innocent sounding debate between the woman and the Deceiver and ended with banishment, shame and separation. The one word that described the world before sin was “good.” Then “good” was replaced with “pain”, “sweat”, “cursed” and “evil.” For years after this fateful day mankind longed for Eden, and in the fullness of time God crushed the head of Satan as promised (Genesis 3:15) and restored peace.
No, God didn’t take away the influence of evil in the world, or instantly restore the heart of all mankind. Instead, He revealed a plan by which people from every nation could call on the name of His Son Jesus and make peace. This peace would be facilitated by the removal of sin through the blood Jesus shed on a cross at Calvary. His sacrifice made it possible to enter into a new and lasting relationship with His Father. This peace is available to us now, and once we receive it we are able to embrace the words of the Christian hymn, “Victory in Jesus, our Savior forever!”
But as we have said, after victory comes we must still win the peace. God calls us to be peacemakers and indwells us as the Holy Peacemaker through the person and presence of the Holy Spirit. In the Upper Room Jesus told His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). This abiding peace, of which Jesus spoke, would be the driving force behind kingdom work through the centuries. It is still at work in us as God restores Eden in our hearts.
Peace Changes Everything
To understand how the peace of Jesus changes our lives, and the world around us, we need to return to Paul’s exhortation in Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”. The context for this verse is recognized as one of the New Testament’s key passages on the subject of “Christian Liberty.” Christian Liberty is the freedom to break cultural rules if they are allowable by God. This principle became critical to the church at a time when Gentiles were receiving Christ and seeking fellowship with Jewish members.
Under the system of Old Testament Law, Jews were expected to follow a number of ceremonial regulations to insure their offerings and dietary practices were pleasing to God. God had given His people these regulations to teach them the importance of personal holiness. But things changed when Jesus died on the cross. He became the final sacrifice for sin, rendering the Old Testament sacrificial system unnecessary. And since many of the dietary practices of His people were tied to their preparation for worship under this system, breaking those practices was no longer considered a matter of holiness. This doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with God’s dietary directions, or even that it is wrong for people to practice them today. The problem came when Jews and Gentiles tried to work and worship together in the church and they came into conflict over food and drink.
We can only imagine the tension in a room when a Gentile family showed up with some hamburger meat that had been sacrifices to a pagan god. We can hear a respected leader from the Jewish community as he reads a list of some “concerns” to share with the group about some matters of hygiene. This is why Paul focused on “righteousness, peace and joy” as opposed to “eating and drinking.” What one ate or drank didn’t make him righteous, but rather a clear conscious toward God. And peace and joy were the expected by-products.
Two fundamental expressions of this new dynamic were a part of the teaching of Christian Liberty. On one hand believers were free to disregard Old Testament ceremonial practices as long as it didn’t violate their conscience. On the other hand, they could choose not to use their freedom if they felt it might cause another believer to stumble in his walk. The choice to eat or not eat was situational, which does not endanger the idea of absolute truth since both were permissible. Why should anyone care about these distinctions? It is because they were called to win the peace, and their first reconstruction project happened to be very close to home.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” His truth certainly applied to this future culture clash in the church. However, it is doubtful His followers at the time would have made the connection. The church was yet to be born, and a discussion about fellowship between Jews and Gentiles would have been nonsensical. This doesn’t mean trouble between these two groups was not a concern during Jesus’ ministry, or that there were no other conflicts, such as the one between Jews and Samaritans.
This leads us to wonder what the people who heard Jesus’ words were thinking. Which peace were they supposed to win? Was it the one between the Roman Empire and the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, or perhaps the internal strife between Jewish religious sects and political activists? It could have been one of the social divides the Apostle Paul later identified in his letter to the Galatians: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Roman and Jew, Pharisee and Sadducee, Zealot and Herodian, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. The potential for relational breakdown must have seemed endless as did the opportunity for peace.
It is highly possible Paul was thinking of Jesus’ words when he wrote, “You are all sons of God”. This is the exact phrase the Master used when He asked His hearers to take up the mantle of peacemaker.
The peace Jesus died for on the cross was something only He could bring. The peace we build in our human relationships is ours to win. All things have been made new and we are called to live as sons. This means all of us have inherited the kingdom, and as citizens we want everyone and everything to reflect the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
Winning the Peace Inside and Out
God calls us to participate in the same peacemaking campaign we find in the teachings of Jesus and the writing of the Apostle Paul. We are no strangers to relational conflict. It is easy to argue the greatest challenges we face in our world today have their root in greed, distrust and misunderstandings between people. This is true in our governments, businesses, communities and families.
It would be wrong to assume, if we merely apply Biblical principles to these environments, the problems will just go away. Truth is important, but it must begin on the inside if it is going to have an impact on the outside.
This was the error of the Pharisees. In theory they believed they could create a moral world by teaching and enforcing God’s Word. But because they believed righteousness was a product of human effort, they lost sight of God’s heart. They failed to receive God’s perfect peace or begin the task of winning the peace because they were fighting the wrong battle with the wrong weapons. Instead of self-righteousness they should have pursued the righteousness of God that comes from a pure heart and a submissive will. Sure, it was good to promote a moral code, but instead of condemning those who failed to live up to their standard they should have helped them see the love of God.
There is no border between the peace of God in us and the peace we win in our world. We must have one to produce the other. This doesn’t mean winning the peace does not involve upholding truth, or the “correcting”, “rebuking” and “training in righteousness” Paul spoke of in his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16). It simply accepts the fact we cannot share what we do not have, and we cannot produce what we do not understand.
If we are having trouble winning the peace in our relationships with others, the cause is probably multi-faceted. Peacemaking takes two, and we cannot create peace with those who insist on conflict. It is unhealthy to punish ourselves for failing to reconcile with someone who refuses to make amends. Two willing parties can also be sabotaged by those who wish to stir up trouble between them. Paul instructed Titus to warn a divisive person twice, then to have nothing to do with him because he is “warped and sinful.” Of course, Satan is hard at work in both the unwilling party and the divisive person to promote chaos in the world and inhibit those who wish to spread God’s grace.
But among these causes, we must be willing to admit our personal lack of peace can possibly spill over into our work of peace. This doesn’t mean, if we are in Christ, that we have lost the perfect peace of the Holy Spirit who inhabits us. Still, we should not assume the Spirit’s ministry is finished, or that our old human nature has been completely eradicated. The Apostle Paul himself had some occasional fallouts with others, notably with Barnabas over the inclusion of John Mark in a second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41), a confrontation with Peter over the Gentile issue (Galatians 2:11-13), and controversy with errant brothers like Alexander the metalworker who did him “much harm” (2 Timothy 4:14). There is no way of knowing for sure what part, if any, Paul’s personality played in these difficulties, and there is no indication his issue with Peter left any irreparable damage. However, it is safe to say even the most committed believer can allow personal struggles to complicate the job of peace making.
The need for a borderless pass between the peace in us and the peace without does not suggest we should grow so fearful of conflict we are afraid to express our convictions. Winning the peace will naturally involve disagreements, debates, and agreements to disagree. It might also produce some serious wounds if we choose to arbitrate between quarrelers. Jesus was Peace in the flesh, but He still managed to alienate the Jewish Sanhedrin and bring the wrath of the Roman government down on His head.
We are not talking about peace at the expense of truth. Where there is no truth, peace will certainly unravel due to distrust and disrespect. This explains why parents who manage their children by giving them everything they want and refusing to hold them accountable for their actions sometimes find themselves hopelessly at war. Indeed, there is hope, but the pain required to reverse the thought processes in their home will be significant. We can uphold the truth and still find ourselves embattled, but choosing to circumvent principle is one way to guarantee a negative outcome.
Truth builds trust between people. Combined with love and respect, it has a freeing effect on those who have struggled with conflict all of their lives, but could never figure out why. It exposes issues between loved ones who have danced around the proverbial “elephant in the room” for years, but have never been able to see it clearly. And it provides hope because truth is a light that help deliver those who are lost from their blindness.
When the older son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal pouted on the back forty, his father tried to reason with him. The son was furious because he had served faithfully for many years, and his father had never thrown him a party. In addition, his younger brother who was had become the subject of so much joy, had squandered his life in sin. The older son was basing his anger on these tenets he believed to be true. Indeed, he had the facts straight, but his truth was incomplete. He was ignoring the guarantee that he would inherit everything his father owned because of his faithfulness. And while his brother had wasted many things, he was home safe, which was an answer to his father’s prayer. We aren’t told whether or not the older son changed his attitude, but he was certainly confronted with a purer and more accurate picture of his circumstances.
Peacemakers establish a foundation for peace with love and truth. If they have been honest with God about their own sin their hearts are in the right place to seek reconciliation with and between others. If they know God’s peace, purchased in love, they care enough to win personal peace with others as a necessary step in showing them the face of God.
The peace of Christ in us helps us win the peace with and among others. It is His very Holy Spirit working in us to share the message of the torn curtain. Under the Old Covenant, the Holy of Holies was a place where only the High Priest could enter. It was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain. But the High Priest of heaven, Jesus, offered His own life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, the curtain was torn in two, and men and women were once again able to come shamelessly into the presence of God. There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, and God is pleased to find His creation living together in harmony (Psalm 133:1, Romans 8:1).
As this peace grows in us, and we model its ethical expression in our daily lives, we must also hope for all to become as we are: walking ambassadors for the Prince of Peace. It isn’t that we are the perfect models of peace, but rather that we know where it can be found, and want others to experience joy in every relationship, Creator and creature.
Sometimes, I think, it is hard for us, as humans, to define this longing. We know it exists, but are unsure of its cause. Why do we have trouble with relationships, or find they elude us altogether? Why are we unable to trust, or afraid the people we love are going to leave us? Obviously, experience teaches us all human relationships come with potential challenges.
Do you know what it is like to live with these uncertainties? Has it been so long since you found the Lord’s peace you have forgotten? It is not good to live in the past, but it is important to recognize our former struggle in the habits of others. There is a crisis of longing in our world that can only be answered by Jesus. We are the peacemakers, making peace with God and others, and drawing others to the same kind of reality. Do you know someone right now who longs for the peace that comes from knowing God? Pray for God to use you to show them His perfect peace, found in His perfect Son Jesus. If the “sons of God” don’t do, who will?
Chapter 13 – The Problem with “Easy”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
Several months ago I washed the siding on our family home: by hand. Every two or three years the siding on the north exterior starts to turn green with fungus. Normally, the cure is relatively simple. A pressure washer and some cleanser from the hardware store will restore the luster in a couple of hours. Why, then, did I wash our house by hand?
The siding is trimmed with painted wood which peels and cracks with time. The trim is almost due for a point job and I knew a pressure washer would only make matters worse. So I washed it by hand. It took all day, but I deferred hundreds of dollars in unnecessary repairs.
I was on a ladder around mid-afternoon when a stranger stopped his car, rolled down his window and started to taunt me. “Hey!” he said. “Are you going to wash that whole house by hand?” I yelled back, “Are you going to park there with that dumb look on your face?” Not really! I wanted to be rude, but I kindly explained the situation. He shook his head in disbelief and drove away. Everyone wants to be a critic.
I must admit I understood his reaction. Why would anyone do something as labor intensive as washing a house by hand when he could do the same job in a fraction of the time with a pressure washer?
On a similar, though more serious note, this is why it is hard for some to understand why Christians intentionally put themselves in harm’s way when it would be easier to walk away. When a Christian in a violent corner of the world is ordered to recant his faith at gunpoint, would it be so horrible if he acquiesced and later repented? In a free society where opinions are expected, wouldn’t it be easier to ignore those whose unbelief puts their eternal souls in peril? Why do Christians insist on doing things the hard way?
Jesus’ last two beatitudes help put this behavior in perspective. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). At the risk of making a believer’s insistence on suffering even more difficult to understand, we must take time to understand why Jesus taught us the hard way might be the best way, if not the only way.
Jesus Set the Example
In our day of participatory leadership and consensus building, we preach that no one is indispensable. But when it comes to God’s plan of salvation, Jesus was the only One in a position to fulfill it. Only the perfect Son could pay the price for our sin and free us from Satan’s prison. And it wasn’t easy.
Jesus’ job wasn’t easy logistically. When we read the narrative of Jesus’ birth we can’t help but feel sorry for Mary and Joseph. This poor couple endured the twists and turns of a role they didn’t ask for and an adversary in Satan who tried everything possible to stop them. When Jesus grew to be a man and His ministry began, He had to design His ministry around foot paths, fishing boats and word of mouth communication.
Jesus’ job wasn’t easy physically. A carpenter’s son had his work cut out for him (no pun intended). There was furniture to build and customers to please. Jesus grew up strong, and some artists do Him an injustice when they fail to show His muscular forearms and calloused hands. This upbringing prepared Jesus for the rigors of ministry, and it subjected Him to the bumps, cuts and bruises associated with physical labor.
Jesus’ job wasn’t easy relationally. His family worried about Him. His disciples misunderstood Him. His elders hated Him. The crowds hounded Him. And somewhere in this mix, He still found a way to heal the sick, raise the dead, restore the fallen, love the forgotten and give hope to the hopeless. Don’t believe for a moment it was easy for Jesus to manage all of the people in His life while maintaining His own emotional well-being.
And finally, Jesus’ job wasn’t easy spiritually. His arrival on earth was a direct challenge to the foothold Satan held in people’s lives. The fight was on the moment Mary was told she was pregnant, and it didn’t end until Jesus burst forth from the tomb to proclaim victory over sin and death.
I love the words of Howard B. Gross in his Hymn, “Give of Your Best to the Master”: “Jesus has set the example, dauntless was He young and brave.” The only way life could have been easy for Jesus would have been for Him not to come. The way He came wasn’t just the best way. It was the only way. Do you see a pattern?
Jesus had every right to teach on the subject of persecution since He was “despised and rejected” and “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Satan persecuted Jesus directly and indirectly through the evil intent of man. One of Jesus’ habits that infuriated the Jewish leadership was His insistence on healing on the Sabbath. I am convinced He did this on purpose to emphasis the inseparable bond between worship and mercy. But it didn’t win Him any points. After Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath we are told, “So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted Him” (John 5:16). I should point out, not all of the Jews persecuted Jesus, since His disciples were all Jewish, yet those in control hounded Him all the way to Calvary.
Although Jesus always seemed to be in trouble with someone, He didn’t enjoy suffering for suffering’s sake. He was, however, willing to do anything for our salvation, and if that meant enduring persecution, He was ready.
When we suffer for our faith, we are following Jesus’ example, and filling up what He has left behind for those who wish to come after Him (Colossians 1:24). Jesus asked us to take up our cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). I think this cross includes the normal struggles and temptations we face in the normal course of our lives. But it also suggests some of us might be called upon to make an extraordinary sacrifice. We know the full extent of these possibilities because of the road Jesus traveled.
Yet, if we must suffer, we still might question the teaching of the Beatitude. Sure, we might be persecuted. But will we really be blessed through suffering? Such a proposition begs a closer examination.
The Big Because
Jesus’ final subject of persecution, addressed through His last two Beatitudes, is the only one that offers to answer “cause.” The other Beatitudes give us a reason for pursuing such things as mercy and righteousness, but we are left to surmise the conditions under which they are important. For example, we know we will be called to show mercy when we meet those who need to see God’s grace, and we are compelled to live righteous lives because we want our walk with God to be pure and filled with joy. But it is our job to connect these theological points.
The subject of persecution is different, perhaps because it is harder to understand how one might be blessed when he is under attack for his faith. This is where the “big because” comes in. Jesus wants His listeners to know the source of persecution so they are not surprised when they suffer for doing what is right.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
There are at least three causes of persecution referenced here. Jesus followers will be mistreated, 1) for their emphasis on a personal walk with God apart from legalistic bondage (“righteousness”), 2) for their association with Jesus (“because of me”), and 3) because those who reject truth have a history of shooting the messenger (“persecuted the prophets”). We find all of these challenges in the history of the church, from its birth to present.
What is most interesting is, the first and last of these three causes come from within the faith community. Legalists are believers, as are those who reject prophets who tell them things they don’t want to hear. One might argue these are not true believers, or they would receive God’s truth with gladness. While we can assume there are those who call themselves Christians but are not, I feel certain many who persecute their own brothers and sisters in Christ do so because they think they are protecting the kingdom from falsehood. After all, the Sanhedrin’s used the charge of blaspheme against God’s own Son. We shouldn’t be surprised when godly people do the same to others.
The persecution of God’s people by God’s people is only an unfortunate exclamation point to the much bigger problem found in our second cause: people who associate with Jesus will suffer. In my own lifetime I have witnessed two cultural transitions in the treatment of Christians. As a boy we thanked God we were not persecuted like believers in other countries, but a noticeable shift in the acceptance of the Christian message took place when the church became embroiled in the great moral debates as the second millennium came to a close. It became fashionable to attack Christian leaders, belittling everything from their evangelistic zeal to their insistence that the idea of “sin” still mattered. The scandalous behavior of some televangelist of the same era didn’t help matters. This was followed by a second transition in which it became popular to ridicule Jesus and the things God Word says about Him. Today Jesus is portrayed in ways that would have been considered blasphemous and slanderous by the majority of people just a generation ago. Jesus is now defamed for sport.
Some have said if our faith is really that strong, we shouldn’t worry about what people say about Jesus. While it is true we need to be careful we don’t become “unchristian” in our response to attacks on our faith, we must also recognize we are living in an environment that has become much more hostile to Christians.
This is what makes the internal kind of persecutions so disheartening. It is bad enough that following Christ now comes with tremendous societal baggage. But the fact His own people can’t refrain from persecuting one another over petty jealousies and disagreements makes one wonder where the greatest enemy lies.
Avoid the Persecution Pitfall
When the Lord’s people are persecuted by other believers, the mission of the church suffers, but it is important to recognize some or our suffering can be self-imposed, or wrongly interpreted. The term “martyr complex” may be a convenient jab we use to tease people when they complain about being mistreated, but it still reflects a valid problem.
A complex involves a psychological tool people use in their lives for a variety of purposes, such as avoiding personal responsibility for one’s actions or denying the truth about one’s circumstances. Full-blown complexes can create serious issues in our lives, but lesser forms can be used by any of us to create a victim mentality.
After graduating from high school I worked at a bank to earn some income for college. The manager of the bank was a member of our church, so it wasn’t long before everyone knew I was a Christian. One employee told me she was glad I was there because it was hard being a Christian in the workplace, but the more time I spent around her the more I realized her problems had little to do with her faith. She constantly complained about her workload and had a bad habit of blaming other people for her mistakes. When the other employees held her accountable she accused them of attacking her because she was a Christian. I stayed as far away from her as possible because I was confident one day God was going to take her out of commission. With witnesses like her, who needs adversaries?
Certainly, we will face persecution as believers, even if it comes in the form of mild taunting and name calling. But just because someone disagrees with us or clashes with our personality doesn’t mean they are attacking our faith. Even if they are, their behavior may have more to do with challenges in their own lives than the convictions in ours.
It Really Isn’t Easy
If we are persecuted by other believers who question our Christian commitment or reject our work, we are surprised. When the world attacks us because of our relationship with and to Jesus, we can become discouraged. When this kind of trouble comes, we struggle to know what to do and say. We question whether or not we are truly victims, or merely a part of a big misunderstanding. It isn’t easy.
But then, Jesus never said it would be easy. In fact, He said it would be hard. As Jesus was preparing for His betrayal and arrest He warned His disciples: “All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:1-2). Later on, Saul, who was to become Paul, persecuted Christians with zeal. Several years after Paul decided to follow Jesus he wrote these ironic words to his protégé Timothy: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
It isn’t easy being judged by your own brothers and sisters in Christ. It isn’t easy being rejected because your message is unpopular. It isn’t easy for millions of Christians throughout the world whose lives hang in the balance because their faith puts them on the wrong side of a political struggle. And it isn’t easy suffering one of more of these trials while Satan uses them to gain a foothold in our hearts. Maintaining our faith isn’t easy, and neither is managing our circumstances. Jesus was right.
Yet, it is worth it. Once we understand what Jesus did for us on Calvary it is a joy to know we are filling up His suffering by taking fire in His name. This doesn’t mean we should go looking for trouble just so we know what it means to suffer. But when we do, we should not think God has abandoned us, or our faith is in vain. On the contrary, God can use times of persecution to fan the flames of His mission and purify us for greater service.
Don’t be surprised when you suffer. Your pursuit of righteousness is an offense to the world, and God’s servants have a long history of persecution. Ask God to use you in every situation, and to help you remain faithful in your cause and your character. Should we ask that our way be made easy or hard? Perhaps we should just ask that our lives be purposeful.
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).
Chapter 14 – Practical Detox
As our souls are strained out by the Beatitudes we are confronted with the need for change. We turn our attention now to the process of purification and the heart God touches.
Releasing the Toxins
Every cleansing process produces waste. The dirt on your clothes and dishes goes down the drain and ends up in a treatment plant. Medical supplies in a hospital are quarantined in separate containers and managed carefully to avoid the spread of disease.
I live by a river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the sewer drains in our community have little fish emblems painted on them to remind us to be careful with toxins. What goes down the drain ends up somewhere.
So what happens to the dross that emerges when Jesus purifies us through His truth? We want to live organically so more of Jesus can shine through our lives, but what happens to our bad attitudes and behaviors in the process? Perhaps I am carrying the organic metaphor too far, but I feel the question must be asked. Maybe the answer is as simple as saying our old life is being crucified daily on the cross we have taken up in the name of Christ. But I sense things are a bit more complex.
Do you remember how the Pharisees in Jesus’ day removed toxins from their lives? In Matthew 23 Jesus exposed their practice of pronouncing themselves pure and condemning others. They wanted to be praised for their righteousness (Matthew 23:5), and masterfully crafted a holy life that looked righteous on the outside, but inside was full of “dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27). The Pharisees were forever concerned about distancing themselves from pollutants, but their hearts were filled with “greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25) and in the end they only distanced themselves from the people who needed God most.
When we are confronted with truth we can react in a number of ways. We can defend our honor by denying responsibility for our actions, blame other people for our troubles, or pretend we are something we are not. Not only are these options dishonest, but they also keep us from the kind of change we should be experiencing when we take Jesus’ teachings to heart.
After Jesus shared His Beatitudes He made two parabolic statements. Those who follow Him are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But if salt loses its saltiness and light is hidden from view, what good are they? In other words, when our idea of righteousness is devoid of real transformation, it is difficult to point the way to God. It is hard to reflect the 100% Jesus of the Bible when we have merely rearranged the toxins in our lives to make us look better. How, then, do we properly dispose of those things in our lives that obscure our Lord? What can we do to insure the purity we embrace is more than a show?
The only responsible place to dispose of our old life, whether sin or sin’s carcass, is at the foot of the cross where Jesus’ blood poured out on our behalf. We cannot trivialize our past, blame it on others, compare it to others, or claim to save ourselves through righteous acts. Jesus’ teachings in the Beatitudes, or any other body of scripture, always bring us to a place of repentance. Repentance is how all spiritual detox begins, because without it, we are not willing to surrender our will to the will of God and seek the better life He has planned for us.
This marks the difference between merely learning more about Jesus and letting His teachings transform our inner being, as well as our view of the world. What we know won’t change the world, but what we do with what we know will.
Did you know it is possible to be confronted with the truth and remain unchanged, just as it is possible to know there are toxins in our food supply and do nothing to improve the situation? James wrote, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).
There it is! The Beatitude word “blessed.” If we apply the Lord’s truths to our lives and let Him change us, we will be blessed.
We face many obstacles as we strive to remove the additives that obscure the presence of Jesus in our lives. Ironically, even the steps we take to acquire an organic approach to our faith can turn toxic. It is common to find churches using the terms “real” and “authentic” in their marketing strategy. What do these terms mean, and who determines when worship is real or authentic? Is it defined by our casual dress, an acoustic feel in worship or the passionate expression on people’s faces? Or is it something more, or altogether different?
One of the interesting characteristics of Jesus’ Beatitudes is that most of them can be pursued with little public display. Other people can’t see the work God is doing in our hearts, and it may not be obvious how hungry or thirsty we are for righteousness. Mercy is sometimes administered through non-action and meekness involves the surrender of our will in our private moments of prayer.
This does not mean our spiritual walk is purely private. Far from this, the purpose of removing toxins from our lives is to allow the truth of Jesus to shine for the whole world to see. Yet, it is wrong to assume we can determine whether or not someone is real or authentic in a single encounter.
The organic walk is just that: a walk, not a sprint. It is a lifestyle where the nature of Christ is revealed daily in the decisions we make. We are full of flaws, but determined to overcome them, tempted to seek revenge, but tempered by the cross, spiritually needy, yet thirty and hungry for more. Perhaps the shortest and most accurate description of this life comes from John when he writes, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).
Avoiding the Toxins
The process of purification in our hearts involves more than removing things that don’t belong. As James reminded us, religion that is acceptable to God is “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). In other words, what we avoid is as important as what we extract.
In the book of Daniel we read the account of some young men of God who courageous refused to compromise their faith. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had brought several young Jewish captives of royal birth into his court. They were “without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace”(Daniel 1:4). The king’s official was asked to feed the captives the king’s meat and wine for three years before entering his service. But Daniel had other ideas. He drew three young men, Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, into an inner circle and asked the official to feed them only vegetables and water. When the official refused, Daniel was able to convince his guard to provide vegetables and water as a ten-day test. At the end of the test the four young men looked so much better than those with meat and wine the guard allowed them to continue their diet.
it is doubtful Daniel did this because he was a vegetarian. As a Jew, he would have eaten the Passover lamb with his family in his home country. But the test he devised was symbolic of the way God blesses us when we rely on Him. Incidentally, after three years Nebuchadnezzar had Daniel and his friends brought before Him, and he could find no one equal to them.
We are made pure by the blood of Jesus, we become pure by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and we manage purity by steering clear of sin. Every fall I wash and wax my car to prepare it for the harsh winter elements. I am always amazed at how dirty the surface has become. The cleaning and waxing changes my focus. Suddenly, I see every smudge and streak, and when I drive through a mud puddle I can’t wait to wash it off. Then, as time goes by my enthusiasm wanes and I fail to notice the new film of dirt as it forms.
In the case of Daniel, the sin was not in consuming the king’s food and drink, but rather the temptation to let a pagan leader usurp his reliance on God. He and the other young men of Israel were in Babylon as captives, partially because their nation had replaced the worship of God with pagan idolatry. Perhaps it was because Daniel and his friends had lost so much they weren’t about to turn their backs on God again. They weren’t ready to let the dirt collect again.
When I was a child my Sunday School teacher taught me a song to remind me to defend my heart against life’s toxins. I sang, “Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little eyes what you see, for the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little eyes what you see.” There was also a stanza about ears, lips, hands and feet. The message was clear: “if you don’t want sin in your heart, don’t let it in your life.” The Apostle Paul said it this way: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:10-11).
Everything that doesn’t look like Jesus
The great artist Michelangelo is credited with saying, “I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.” This is a useful principle in the detoxification of our souls. We remove and refuse anything that doesn’t look like Jesus. All of Jesus’ teachings seek this end. He is truth, therefore to grasp and apply His teachings is to become like Him. The Apostle Paul wrote, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Truth is both cumulative and repetitive. We are forever recognizing more truth and deepening our understanding of it. For this reason we want to know everything Jesus taught, and we want to consider what He taught from every perspective. As our awareness grows, undesirable additives in our lives are increasingly evident, and our desire to put on the character of Jesus intensifies. This is, in summary, the blessing of the Beatitudes.
Can you think of something people in our culture mistakenly associate with Jesus? Look a little deeper than His European image in art, or the occasional misquote from those who use Him to support their cause. The real problem, in our context, is those who use Jesus as a vehicle for their ambitions. Jesus has become the mascot for political, financial and commercial gain. Unfortunately, Jesus’ followers have come to believe if they spiritualize their cause, they should be able to expect the support of the Lord’s people, and can question their Christian commitment if they refuse.
I am not talking about moral causes which must be defended with all certainty. Our culture will always rebel against biblical morality and its adherents. But I cannot help but believe it would be easier to uphold truth if there wasn’t always something for us to gain in the process. The first Christians also stood for truth, but they were willing to lose their lives if necessary. I fear modern believers are sometimes more concerned with the bottom line of their human ambition than the tragic outcome for those who die without Jesus. This is probably the most prevalent misperception our world has about Christians: that they really aren’t ultimately about Jesus, or His message. The course humor we see depicting Jesus in blasphemous ways is not so much directed at Him as it is at what His followers have made of Him.
I don’t mean to suggest the perceptions our world has are correct, or fair. It really doesn’t matter. If there is one shade of truth in them, we should be concerned. The things we add to Jesus for our own sakes must be removed for the sakes of those whose souls hang in the balance. The organic plea from our world is to give it the saving message of a Savior without the toxic side-effects of our self-absorbed endeavors. Isn’t this how we received Him? Isn’t this how the Father presented Him as he “became obedient to death—even death on a cross?” (Philippians 2:8)
Chapter 15 – Blessed and Forever Blessed
If the term “beatitude” is the Latin word for happiness, and if lasting happiness is received as our will is given over to the will of the Father, then we want to pursue Jesus’ instruction with a passion. We are reminded of the cider grinder and the role of the cloth that filters out impurities with each pouring. All of God’s Word is a filter through which our souls pass, and as it convicts us, more of the 100% Jesus is revealed.
We filter our hearts, but we also fasten our gaze on perfection. The filter removes dross, but the grace, peace and love of the Savior up our empty places and brings light and life where death once reigned.
It is true our world has a very different view of happiness. Here, we focus on satisfying every desire, and are forever tempted by envy and selfish ambition. We approach the diseases of the heart and mind in a secular fashion, and seek to find peace by denying the existence of sin and relinquishing our responsibility to a moral creator. There is, of course, a healthy ambition, and the secular sciences have many truthful observations to share. But to be blessed in the deepest sense we must know God and embrace His will for our lives.
Centuries ago Solomon discovered this principle. He wrote, “I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly–my mind still guiding me with wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 2:3a). But after he had exhausted every possibility he concluded, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Real happiness comes from above.
The Christian perspective on the blessed life transcends the world, but it also confounds onlookers. How could obsessing over the will of God make one happy? And while it might make sense that a life of obedience translates into a life with less trouble, what about the paradox of persecution? Those who receive mercy are promised mercy, and peacemakers will be called sons of God. And then they are persecuted? How nonsensical it all seems.
But for those who know Jesus, there is no contradiction. Eternal purposes produce everlasting joy. Participating in the suffering of Jesus enhances our spiritual vision and makes us part of kingdom lore. We may not rush headlong into trouble, but when it comes our hearts are purified and we see God. This is our choice. We can invest the majority of our time in the next big thing the world has to offer, or we can see God. This is not an indictment against the world’s pleasures. If God hadn’t wanted us to enjoy some of our own creations, He would have stripped us of our gifts and dreams. On the other hand, had he wanted us to be the center of the universe, He would have remained silent.
He has not been silent. Instead, the Creator has spoken to us through the patriarchs, prophets and apostles. And most of all, He has revealed His very nature in the person of His Son.
There is more to life than meets the eye. So which will it be: the latest thing or the God of the universe? Will we fill up on junk food called “temporal” or hunger and thirst for His righteousness? “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
When I meet missionaries who have spent their lives sharing the gospel in hostile regions of the world, I am struck by their enthusiasm and sense of purpose. It is true they are susceptible to seasons of discouragement, and sometimes depression. They are also often targets of unwarranted harassment and open persecution. But even when I encounter these front-line warriors at their worst, their eyes light up when they tell me how God has worked in their circumstances. It seems they are blessed and forever blessed.
The loss of loved ones to death is the most difficult separation most of us will face, and I have walked with many through its barren desert. We have talked about many things: the meaning of life, abandonment, the existence of evil, and the nature of faith. I have seen the demons of anger, regret, guilt and bitterness. In some ways, none of us ever completely heal from such losses, but we can find peace in them as we draw on God’s grace and infinite wisdom. Sadly, I have known those who never find this peace and instead turn their back on God. I understand their disappointment, yet their response breaks me. If only they would run into the arms of their Creator He would carry their pain. God has never promised He will make life pain-free, but as our divine Shepherd He has proven He will direct and comfort us with His “rod and staff.” I don’t fully understand the constitution of those who have been through grief’s deepest pit and emerged with their souls intact. I know they are forever changed by their nightmarish journey. Still, in the midst of everything they seem to be blessed and forever blessed.
To be blessed is to find ourselves in greater harmony with the heart of God through life’s experience. To be forever blessed is to be confident God hasn’t finished His work in us, and will continue to lead us in His truth until we reach our final rest. When we finally learn to live in the pure presence of the 100% Jesus and His unpolluted vision of the Father’s will, we find the quiet assurance of faith’s certainties.
Revelation 20:6 is best known for its “thousand years” reference and the volumes that have been written about it in an effort to define the biblical millennium. This is an important subject to be sure, but perhaps not as important as the promises found in the other portions of the verse: “Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ.” We are made pure, and are in the process of becoming pure. In the meantime, we do not fear death because we have experienced the power of our risen Lord and His indwelling Spirit.
We are heirs, faithfully administrating His grace to a lost world. This brings us full circle to our motive for seeking an organic faith in the first place. We want to see Jesus clearly, but if we know Him it is more critical that He be seen clearly in us. It may be a cliché to say we are “blessed to be a blessing”, but if this were not the case, then why else would Jesus leave us here in this difficult place as we wait for His appearing?
Chapter 16 – Sharing the 100% Jesus
We return now to our initial goal of sharing Christ in our toxic world. If we hope to be on mission in every area of our lives, allowing God’s Word to filter out everything that doesn’t look like Jesus, then we must ask ourselves how we are doing.
First, is our passion for lost people growing? Do our hearts break at the thought there are those who need Jesus whose image of Him might be obscured by gross misrepresentations of His teaching and character? Does it matter that we might not share Him as He is, or that our lives might be filled with so many contradictory habits that others are unable to appreciate our Lord? Are our words seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6), or have the toxins of the world trampled down our witness and left our message a bitter pill for others to swallow?
If salvation isn’t important, then our attempt to reflect Jesus is eternally irrelevant. We might be better people, but we are still without hope. But if there is a life after this one, and if the present world is going to become obsolete, then we must make sure the world sees the biblical Jesus, and hears His call to a new life.
Secondly, are we becoming more aware of toxins in our lives that obscure the perfect picture of Jesus? Are we walking in a biblically framed relationship with Jesus, or have we allowed the world to define who Jesus is and what He expects of us?
Some toxins are easy to spot. Not long ago a cable network introduced a reality show about mega-church pastors. The show focuses on the extravagant lifestyle of the pastors and the drama that exists in their unusual brand of faith. I don’t mean to suggest the ministries depicted in this show aren’t being used by God to change lives. God has shown me He can work through almost anything to help people find grace. But the show also reinforces a lot of unfortunate stereotypes our world has of the church that leads them to resist the kingdom. In a market-driven show about the work of Christ, it is easy to spot the toxins.
Other impurities are not so easy to detect. We have secret sins, hidden phobias, resentments, regrets and prejudices. Our work for the Lord is sometimes tainted by selfish ambition and self-absorbed theologies. How was it possible for Judas to walk with Jesus throughout His ministry and remain unchanged? How could Peter listen to Jesus’ warning about his denial and not have the courage to claim Him as Lord in the courtyard? Why did John Mark grow fearful and desert Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary journey, and what led Simon the Sorcerer to accept Jesus then try to buy the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit from Peter? Three of these four examples had an opportunity to change course, purify their lives and let the 100% Jesus inhabit their hearts. One, Judas, was unable to recover from his crime.
Spiritual toxins, just like those occurring in the natural world, seep into our hearts undetected. Because they are so prevalent in every aspect of our environment change only occurs when the Holy Spirit convicts and the perfect person of Jesus calls us to a higher place. The process of detox is painful, but rewarding as we become more effective conduits of God’s grace to a lost and dying world.
Third, are we engaging our world in such a way that allows people to see Jesus as He is revealed in our lives, His Word and circumstances? It is important to let the Word of God purify our hearts, and we must love those Jesus came to save, but unless we physically reach out to the lost the condition of our hearts is irrelevant to our mission. This is where the organic nature of our faith makes us most effective.
When I was a young boy I watched college football games on television and attended one in person. The competition was exciting to watch and we always cheered for our favorite team. But watching football isn’t how I learned to love the game. My passion was developed in our front yard where my grandfather and I spent hours tossing a football. It grew in a nearby field where I met my friends on Saturday morning for a game of tag football. And it was reinforced when I played one-on-one with my own son. In fact, I still bear a scar from one of our games when I slipped and my glasses sliced my cheek open.
The purest form of anything is dispensed in person where it is impossible to hide behind the hype. It is where we share life together and are willing to reveal our inner selves. This is why, when God wanted to redeem us He came in person, in the form of His Son, Jesus. In His description of his encounter with Jesus, the Apostle John wrote, “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:2-3). It is difficult to proclaim anything for the purpose of fellowship unless we engage others. The 100% Jesus is seen best one-on-one. That is how He came. That is how He sends us.
Let them see Jesus!
My barber has a license tag that reads, “ICGSUS”. Ordinarily, I would only give the tag a passing glance. It is creative, but not much different from other statements of faith I see as I drive around town. But there is more to the tag than meets the eye. My barber has a prayer room where she comes early in the morning and spends hours before the Lord. Her mother, who is 101 years old, still spends three hours in prayer every day. Over the years I have watched my barber answer God’s call to reach out in Jesus’ name, in every way possible. She has visited women in prison and given them hair makeovers, then given them free cuts after they were released and even offered to teach them her trade as a gift. She has taken trips to third world countries and loved on poor children who need to know they are not forgotten. I am not sure what my barber has seen, but I have seen Jesus in her. Through a faithful prayer life, she has successfully guarded her heart against the world’s toxins and remained organic in her love for the Lord.
Before I close, I want to make sure we know developing a walk that centered in the 100% Jesus is not achieved by following a formula. The Beatitudes are not incantations we repeat to evoke some sort of mystical blessing from God. The organic Christian life is fundamentally an honest relationship with our Savior. Our relationship grows as we focus on His Word and journey with Him in prayer. We must have a passion for the lost, but we don’t live for them. We live for Jesus, and as a result the lost are able to see Him in us. This means the most loving thing we can do for people who need Jesus is to love Jesus with all of our being. The Lord’s heart for the lost will spill over into our relationship with everyone we meet.
Just recently, I unearthed a picture of my Uncle Gene. Uncle Gene had a serious alcohol problem, and battled other demons that affected his marriage and his relationship with his co-workers on the railroad. I love the picture because my uncle is sitting on a back porch stair, with a railroad cap on his head and a coffee mug in his hand. He looks reflective. The picture makes me think of the things my uncle might have been reflecting on when the picture was taken. At the time he had turned his life around. He quit drinking and restored his relationship with my aunt and others. Most importantly he gave his heart to Jesus. One of the biggest factors in his decision to accept the Lord was my father, who had a pure interest in seeing his brother saved for eternity. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and I can’t help but think my father’s love for Jesus and for his brother was so sincere and unwavering, it eventually reached its target. I doubt my Uncle Gene would have come to the Lord through creative marketing and packaged principles of evangelism. Instead, he came by way of those in his life who cared more about his soul them themselves.
This is the spirit of the 100% pure Jesus. He cared more about us than He did about Himself. He left His home of glory and gave everything for our salvation. That’s pure. That’s organic. That’s the 100% Jesus! Oh that I would reflect a single percent of His love for me.