Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hearing the Gospel for the First Time

I have a confession to make: I had been a Christian for five years before I ever heard the gospel.  One night at summer camp I listened to the story of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to pay the price for other people’s sin.  My sin.  I believed the message, I prayed the prayer and asked Jesus into my heart--and five years later began to discover that the good news was so much better than I had been told.

Jesus didn’t proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and heaven, he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  His gospel of the Kingdom of God differs radically from the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die.

Why not take a few minutes and check out these passages:
  • John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching the Kingdom (Matthew 3: 1-2).
  • The very first message Jesus shared was the Kingdom of God (Mark 1: 14-15).
  • Jesus said the reason he came to Earth was to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).
  • He said the new birth was the way to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5).
That’s all four gospels, and we’re just getting started:
  • The book of Acts opens and closes with the Kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3 & 28: 31).
  • The Kingdom of God was Paul’s message from Corinth to Ephesus to Rome.
  • The book of Hebrews describes a kingdom that can never be shaken (12:28).
  • Peter and James depict the Kingdom of God as the calling of all believers.
The Holy Spirit inspired more than 150 references to God’s Kingdom in the pages of the New Testament.  And don’t even get me started on pictures of the Kingdom in the Old Testament.

If the words “Kingdom of God” seem awkward when they appear after the word “gospel” perhaps it’s because we have shortened the gospel to mean exclusively redemption from sin and going to heaven. The rediscovery of the gospel of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples and teach them to obey” stand as the greatest need in the North American church today.  Discipleship under the Masters’ hand and maturity in Christ depend on the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

We have confused Heaven with the Kingdom.  Heaven is a great place.  I’ll get there someday because Jesus paid the price, but in the meantime Heaven is breaking into the here and now.  I believe we have become preoccupied with an arrow pointing to Heaven when we should be looking for how God is bringing the Kingdom to Earth.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added)  Jesus said plainly that God’s Kingdom should be our highest priority: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:33)  Do we really think he meant that we should place going to heaven after we die as our highest earthy priority?

Consider his actions and words at the very end of his earthly ministry.  Jesus chose to remind his friends about the message he had announced from the very beginning: the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He spent the 40 days after his resurrection teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3)  In the few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God was still his passion.

The Kingdom of God is the true context for discipleship.  No serious student of Jesus ignores his teaching or demonstration of the Kingdom.  Yes: demonstration.  Jesus explained his actions in terms of the Kingdom of God.  Healing, deliverance, and feeding the masses were all signs of the Kingdom of God.  The world longed for the rule and reign of God to come to Earth, they received their answer in the actions and teaching of Jesus.  In his absence, Jesus expects us to demonstrate and explain God’s Kingdom today.  To be about the Kingdom is to be about the Father’s business.

Perhaps one reason the church struggles in the area of spiritual formation is that we are not making disciples of the Kingdom.  In our enthusiasm over God’s forgiveness and mercy, we have overlooked his purposes and plans.  Everyone who trusts in God can expect to go to heaven, but Jesus is after more than eternal reward.  He wants us to join him in the family business.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Does Jesus Trust Us?

Why would Jesus save me from Hell?  That’s easy: most believers understand his infinite and sacrificial love on behalf of everyone in need.  Pastors and church leaders present this picture of Jesus again and again.  “Even if you were the only sinner in history,” they proclaim, “Jesus would have died for you.”  But here’s a question most Christians fail to ask: Why would Jesus want to disciple me?  We are comfortable with our need of a Savior; we are less comfortable with his vision for our lives.  Any unworthy fool can receive his mercy; believing that he trusts us is another matter entirely.
The truth is, Jesus wants to place his trust in us.  Jesus selected the most unlikely people to train as disciples: working-class fishermen, turn-coat tax collectors, members of the armed resistance against Rome.  After three years of intensive training, his followers scattered at the hour of his greatest need, and hid behind locked doors after his death.  The best disciple-maker in history left behind a decidedly rag-tag group!  Yet Jesus had confidence in these very men.  After his resurrection Jesus gathered these eleven fearful and scattered men and, under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, set them loose to turn the world upside down. Jesus saw each one as pre-selected by the Father's grace and fully capable of Godly potential. (see John 17: 6 - 11)
Today’s Memo is addressed not only to individual believers, but also to a second group of people: pastors and church leaders.  Do we believe in our congregation as much as Jesus believed in his?  When pastors lack vision for their people the result is lowered expectations, dumbed-down preaching and a general chaplaincy that considers victorious Christian living a pipe dream. The lesson of Jesus the disciple-maker should be clear: even if individual Christians do not have confidence in their identity in Christ, at least their leaders should.
What would happen if pastors and leaders began to operate from the conviction that it is possible to reproduce the character and power of Jesus in his followers?  Jesus apparently held that idea:
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (John 14: 12 - 13)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why His Humanity Matters

I once listened to a theologian give an hour-long presentation on a point of New Testament doctrine.  He spoke with passion.  He waved his arms.  He used Greek and Hebrew words and even threw in some Aramaic.  He was fully involved.  Then came the time for questions.  I couldn’t resist:

“I can see you feel strongly about this point,” I said.  “But may I ask, why does this matter?  Why is it significant?”

The PhD. stared blankly for a moment. He straightened his notes and stammered, “Well, I . . . uh . . . It’s--well, I just think it’s something we should know.”

Correct doctrine is important, but correct doctrine divorced from any significant connection to our lives is useless--perhaps worse than useless because we settle for head-knowledge without encountering our destiny with God.  Truth may be written on paper, but its true arena is in human lives.

That’s why church desperately needs to understand the humanity of Jesus.  Jesus--God-the-Son--was and is a human being.  His humanity matters to us now.  Any sincere Christ-follower needs to embrace the humanity of Jesus not only as a doctrine, but also as a life-giving reality day by day.  From the beginning God the Father has loved . . . people!  He made people, he talks to people, and he accomplishes his work through people.  The humanity of Jesus is not so much an exceptional act of God as it is the crowning act of God.  Consider these four highlights from the Old Testament:

In Creation, God spoke the world into existence--but he fashioned humanity with a personal touch, using his own hands.  God kissed the breath of life into the first man.  Every other living being came into existence by the command of God.  Humanity, however, breathes the very breath of God.  God created a garden, and gave it to . . . people: the man and the woman.

In Restoration, God chose a man.  The first twelve chapters of Genesis describe the decay of creation.The very earth itself became sick because of sin and rebellion released in the earth by . . . people.  Yet God’s solution was to select a man, Abraham.  Genesis 12: 1 - 3 reveal that when God chose to set things right, he chose a man. Abraham not perfect but he was part of God’s solution.

In Exodus, God spoke from a burning  bush, but he acted through . . . people.  The Voice in the bush declared, “I have seen their suffering, I have heard their cries, and I have come down to deliver them.” (Exodus 3: 7 - 8)  But God immediately said to Moses, “So go now, I am sending you . . .” (v. 10)  God chose to speak through a man, to work through a man, and to lead through a man.

When Isaiah caught a vision of Heaven, the very first words spoken by the Almighty were, “Whom shall I send?” (Isaiah 6: 8) Isaiah may have been snatched up into heaven, but he awoke with an earthy mission, to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  In one sense it didn’t matter whether Isaiah was qualified for the job, because he had been commissioned by God.  Israel heard the words of God through a human--Isaiah.

It should be no surprise then, that when God Himself wanted to accomplish the redemption of the whole earth, He did so through a man.  Jesus, 100% God, was also 100% man.  The religious authorities in his day could not accept the idea that a man could  forgive sin, that a man could open the eyes of the blind, or that a man could cleanse lepers with a touch. Sin, blindness and leprosy were contagious, men should flee from them all!  But the Man Jesus Christ came with a heavenly contagion that set the oppressed free.

We need to see that God’s method, revealed in scripture, is to use humanity in the earth.  Before Jesus, God partnered with men.  In Jesus, God sent a man.  And after Jesus, he commissioned men, “Go therefore into all the world . . .” (Matthew 28:18) Why is this significant? We need to see that God has always chosen to work through humanity to accomplish his purposes in the earth.  Jesus, our model, demonstrated the potential of a human life lived in total submission to the Father.  Jesus healed and taught and discipled not by virtue of his divine nature but by the grace of being a Man fully submitted to God.  He didn’t raise the dead because he was the Boss’ Son, he did so to display the full potential of a human life in partnership with God.

To grasp the humanity of Jesus is to grasp the hope that Christlikeness is possible for each of us.  His intention is to reproduce Himself in the lives of his followers, to launch a community of God’s sons and daughters capable of the kind of character and power demonstrated by the only begotten Son of God.  God only ‘fathered” one son, but He wants to adopt untold more, and each adopted child can possess the same family privileges as their older brother.

The work that began in the Garden with Adam and Eve reached perfection in Jesus Christ, but it continues through us to this very day--if we choose to live it out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday's Meditation: How I Spent St. Valentine’s Weekend.

I went to a wedding this weekend and the Kingdom of God broke in.  Jesus loves weddings.  His first miracle, a scandalous display of joyful excess, was performed at a wedding.  Our Lord compared the Kingdom of God to wedding celebrations no fewer than four times.  And among the final images of Scripture is the “wedding supper of the Lamb.”

Two kings presided of the festivities this weekend--the father of the bride and the father of the groom.  Never have I been invited to enter into joy as I was this weekend.  The “rehearsal dinner” jammed 60-plus people into a small space filled with wine, food, and merriment.  The groom’s father recounted the goodness of God.  Laughter echoed in my sleep hours later.  The wedding itself was a banquet: in the sacred space of a rented church, we found our places at banqueting tables instead of pews, sharing wine and cheese while we waited on other guests to arrive and the wedding party to assemble.

A Coldplay anthem grew louder as the bridesmaids entered, and when the bride turned the corner, escorted by her farther, the room erupted in shouts and cheering.  People sprang to their feet, the groom fist-pumped the air, and all heaven came close.  The glory of God was upheld.  The vows were holy and solemn.  Prayers were prayed, blessings spoken, and the spirit of prophecy proclaimed that a new outpost of God’s Kingdom had been established in the earth.  The man of God, drawing on his authority as a minister of the gospel, announced that two had become one.  The bride was kissed.  There was food and drink.  Later there was dancing and celebration which lasted as long as you chose.

This wedding was an outpost of the Kingdom.  Most Christians don’t know how to throw a good party.  They don’t know what to celebrate and are suspicious of unbridled, hilarious joy.  Richard Foster, a master of spiritual discipline, knows better:
"Celebration is central to all the spiritual Disciplines. Without a joyful spirit of festivity the Disciplines become dull, death-breathing tools in the hands of modern day Pharisees . . . Joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Often I am inclined to think that joy is the motor, the thing that keeps everything else going. Without joyous celebration to infuse the other Disciplines, we will sooner or later abandon them. Joy produces energy. Joy makes us strong."
This weekend my wife and I entered into the joy of our Master.  I wish the same for you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Questions We Ask

Once there was a boy sitting on a porch, with a dog next to him.  A salesman approached the porch and asked the boy, “Does your dog bite?”

“Nope,” said the boy.

The salesman stepped on the porch to ring the doorbell and the dog viciously bit his leg.  “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite!” screamed the salesman.

“My dog doesn’t bite,” said the boy.  “But that’s not my dog.”

Sometimes asking the right question can make all the difference.

One of the great obstacles in becoming a follower of Jesus is learning to ask the right questions.  The disciples wanted to know who among them was the greatest.  The Pharisees wanted to know by what authority Jesus did his powerful works.  Pontius Pilate wanted to know, “What is truth?” when Truth Himself was standing right there.  It’s clear they all missed the point.  What is not so clear is the fact that we, too, can miss the point.

The questions we bring to Jesus can make a big difference in our journey of transformation.  We live in a religious culture that craves correct answers.  I’m afraid Evangelical Christianity places correct answers above relationship with God.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with correct answers: we won’t get very far believing that two plus two equals twenty-two.  But you can do the math all day long and still not know God.
“There is today no lack of Bible teachers to set forth correctly the principles and doctrines of Christ . . . strangely unaware that there is in their ministry no manifest Presence, nor anything unusual in their personal lives.”  ~ A.W. Tozer
What Tozer wrote in the early 1960’s is even more acute today.  We have come to God with our list of questions, eager to hear the answers we think are important.  We have come to the scriptures with our values and world-views, eager to read into the text those things we think God wants the world to know. We have done this.  The church.  We have insisted that God speak to our values rather than learning what is on his heart.

I believe we have valued knowledge over experience and relationship.  Knowledge is easier to grasp.  We can master a subject.  Yet there is a kind of knowledge that comes only from experience.  It’s the difference between studying the physics of a curve ball and learning to hit one.  In the arena of Christianity, it is easier to relate to a book (the Bible) than it is to experience relationship with the Lord Himself.  Again, I am talking about you and me, the church.  One reason we reduce evangelism to the narrow message of “Jesus died for your sins” is that it does not require relationship with Jesus on the part of the believer or the prospective believer.  The Great Commission--to make disciples--costs everything on the part of the believer and the prospective believer.

Do we really want to know Jesus, or simply know about him?  How long would it take to know him?  Consider these amazing words from the Apostle Paul, who had walked with Jesus for decades when he wrote:
I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3: 8 & 10 (I omitted verse 9 in order to emphasize Paul’s point.)
Every follower of Jesus should ask this question: if Paul still desired to know Jesus more and more after two decades, how much more is there for me to experience?  Paul was not hungry for doctrine about Jesus.  He wanted Christ himself.

Jesus understood the powerful attraction of religious doctrine when he said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”  Sadly, as he spoke to religiously-minded people he concluded, “yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  (John 5: 39 - 40)  Correct doctrine is important, but it is not the reality.  It is the doorstep, not the door.  The menu, not the meal. It is the skeleton, not the living body.

The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord.  Love is relational and experiential--and yes, love depends upon the truth as well.  We can take a lesson from our own children: we want them to love and trust us, but we do not require that they understand us in every respect.  They can even repeat our words back to us, but it does not guarantee that they understand what we have said.  In many cases the understanding will come years, even decades, after we are gone.

What questions do we bring to the Lord?  What questions do we bring to the scripture?  The answer waits upon the right questions.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Is God in Control?

The highest heavens belong to the Lord,
       but the earth he has given to man. ~ Psalm 115: 16

Several months ago Steve Thompson visited the irenic hills of Kentucky to talk about the Kingdom of God.  During one of his chats, almost as an aside, he observed, “People like to say ‘God is in control.’ I’ve got news for you--he’s not.  If God were in control the world would look a lot different than it does.”  His words have echoed around this place for months.

Some people were scandalized, some were energized.  Steve’s point: we have been told a great many things about God in our lives, but have we examined them to see if they fit with our personal experience?  For example, if Jesus came to proclaim and demonstrate the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom, doesn’t that mean there are places on the earth where God does not rule and reign?  What is the evidence in my own life: is God “in control” of my heart? my thoughts? my actions?  Or perhaps my world: is God in control of my neighborhood or community?  We can extend these same questions further and further outward.

Jesus invited his disciples to participate with him in the mission.  He included them early and often (see Matthew 10, Luke 9, and Luke 10).  He was still inviting and including the disciples even as he prepared to go to the Father:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. ~ Acts 1: 8

Each Monday is an opportunity for meditation.  Perhaps these questions can influence your week:
  • What is my role as an agent of God’s Kingdom?
  • How does my job differ from God’s job?
  • Is God in control?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Impossible Mentor?

I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. Sitting in my office was a young man who had been cheated out of $200 by someone else in the church. Both men attended our church, and one guy really did owe the other $200. But the guilty party wasn’t in the office, the other guy was--and he was full of anger and frustration because of his loss. That’s when I made my hasty suggestion:

“You could forgive him his debt,” I suggested. “Jesus told us to do just that.” Big mistake.

“Well I’m not Jesus!” he nearly shouted back at me. End of discussion, end of ministry time, end of opportunity to take the yoke Jesus offers. It was my mistake. Not for suggesting a perfectly Biblical remedy to his anger and frustration, but for expressing the solution in such a way that he would consider it impossible.

It’s impossible to be like Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was perfect. He led a sinless life. He was God-come-to-earth and his life sets the bar impossibly high for any of us.

I believe that the central problem in nurturing followers of Jesus in North America is our view of Jesus as the Impossible Mentor. It’s a paradox: nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus as a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example. Our esteem for Jesus’ life of obedience to the Father and our desire to be “just like Jesus” does battle with the deep-seated notion that it is impossible to be like him. Who would choose a mentor who is impossible to imitate?

Some passages in the Scripture inspire fill us with confidence. Some light the fires of hope in our hearts. Other passages seem too idealistic, too fantastic to find their way into even our dreams, much less our daily lives: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8: 29) Is this possible? Does God really look at each one of us and see a destiny in which we look like Jesus?

Whatever our theological foundations regarding this passage we should all recognize that it is about God’s intention for each of one us--to become “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Simply put, God desires to have more children like Jesus. Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, but we become his sons and daughters by adoption. The destiny of those adopted into the family of God is that we, too, should bear the family likeness. That is: we will look just like Jesus.

In a conversation with a dozen young Christians this week, I asked them if they felt it was possible to live a life without sin for even one day. No takers. So I rephrased the question and asked if it is possible to go for an hour without sinning. Only one of them thought it was possible to stay within the will of God for a single hour.

These questions are not academic. They go to the heart of our life “in Christ.” If our intuition tells us that following His example is impossible, for one day or even an hour, how can we have the confidence to pursue his vision for us? The bottom line is that God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Perhaps the reason the Apostle Paul instructs us later in Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is so we can see the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with Jesus. A practical, day-to-day moment-by-moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises.

Let me encourage you this week to ponder the foundations of your commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. Here are a few suggestions for meditation and prayer:
• Is it possible to learn from him?
• If Jesus is my mentor, have I committed myself to failure with no possibility of success?
• What kind of Master would invite me to be his apprentice if he thought there was no possibility to follow in his footsteps?
The answers spoken from our heart will determine whether discipleship is possible.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday's Meditation: The Imperishible Seed

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.  For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” ~ I Peter 1: 22 - 23

Part of the mystery of the new birth is the power of the seed.  New life in Jesus is something more than a resolution to follow him, more than human determination to become a better person.  No: it really is a new birth, and Peter describes this new birth in terms of an “imperishable seed.”  It’s true in the natural world.  Inside of an apple seed are the instructions--the potential for an entire apple tree.  Deep inside the seed is the DNA, and it sets the course for the seed.  An apple seed can only produce an apple tree, nothing else.

But DNA is not destiny, it is potential.  Without the right soil or the right temperature, without enough water, the seed cannot reach its potential.  The imperishable seed inside of each believer contains the possibilities of Christlikeness.  To be born from above means that we have heaven’s genetic code implanted within us.  But we are the soil: the choices we make shape our future in Christ.  Becoming like Jesus is a partnership: our choices are the soil; the DNA guarantees the outcome.

Peter was there when Jesus talked about seed falling into the ground.  He heard the Lord teach about the different kind of soil and their effect on the seed.  And here in Peter’s letter, written decades after Jesus ascended to heaven, he reflects on the potential of that imperishable seed.  He encourages us to choose obedience and heart-felt love, because these ingredients are essential to reaching the full destiny of the seed.

Here’s a meditation for a Monday: how will I tend the seed inside of me?  Christlikeness is built into the imperishable seed.  He graciously planted it there.  His DNA makes it possible for me to become like him, but my choices contribute to the outcome.