What is God’s will for my life?

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:2 (NIV)

I don’t remember when I first discovered this promise in Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I do remember, as a new believer, thinking it was a remarkable discovery.  I had encountered this idea that God had a will for my life.  But, I didn’t have a clue how to know what it was and  I couldn’t figure out why God would hide it from me.  Then I found this verse.

As I thought about this verse, I envisioned the process of finding God’s will like a video game.  I would set out on a spiritual quest to conquer each level of the transformation process until I had finally won all the levels and, at the end, I would earn a key that would open the treasure chest where God’s will would be revealed to me.

So, I set out.  The levels weren’t as clearly marked as I had thought and I think I repeated some levels.  OK, I’m sure I repeated a lot of levels.  It felt like I was changing, being transformed.  But, it didn’t have any clearer picture about what God wanted me to do with my life.  The promise seemed clear; if I am transformed then I will be able to test and approve God’s will for me.  Was there really no golden key at the top level?  I was getting discouraged and afraid I was running out of time.  I needed to hurry up and find God’s will so I could do it and not waste my time doing something that might not be his will.

As I went through this process, I also began learning the truth I shared a few weeks ago that God cares more about who I am than what I do.  That realization caused a big disconnect for me.  My psychology professor would have called it a cognitive dissonance.  My idea of God’s will, the thing I was looking for, was based doing.  In my head, God’s perfect will for me meant doing what God wanted me to do.

I was reading about the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel in the Old Testament when the clouds began to clear:

Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the Lord anointed you ruler over his inheritance? 2 When you leave me today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb, at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin. They will say to you, ‘The donkeys you set out to look for have been found. And now your father has stopped thinking about them and is worried about you. He is asking, “What shall I do about my son?”’ “Then you will go on from there until you reach the great tree of Tabor. Three men going up to worship God at Bethel will meet you there. One will be carrying three young goats, another three loaves of bread, and another a skin of wine.  They will greet you and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept from them.  “After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, timbrels, pipes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying.  The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person.  Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you. 1 Samuel 10:1-7 (NIV)

The last two verses, which I have underlined, caused me to stop.  Samuel told Saul that he would experience a series of events at the end of which he would be a changed into a different person.  That sounded to me like he would be what Paul calls “transformed” in Romans 12:1.  Samuel then said, once these things had happened, in other words, once Saul had been transformed, he could do whatever his “hand finds to do” because God was with him.  If Saul would start with being the doing would take care of itself.  I thought to myself, what if I had misread the directions?  Could it be that God’s will was not about doing but about being?

If that were true, Romans 12:2 wasn’t talking about “God’s will” in the sense of something to do.  Paul is saying that God’s perfect will is for us to focus on who we are by being transformed.  If we are transformed, we will be doing God’s perfect will for us and that gives us the opportunity to see how good it is.

But, like I said last time, there is still a sense of God’s will that involves doing.  Because that is true, I wanted some level of confidence that what I was doing, or going to go, was God’s will for me.  Again, the insight came from the Old Testament, this time Psalm 37:4:

Take delight in the Lord,

and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalms 37:4 (NIV)

 

I had always read this verse as a promise about stuff.  If I delighted in God, he would give me the stuff I wanted.  But, what if I turned it just a little and looked at it from the perspective of being.  If I take delight in the Lord (am transformed), He will lead me to desire the things He wants for me.  It’s not about me getting the stuff I want, but about me wanting the stuff that God has for me.

 

I had found the key to knowing God’s will.  It wasn’t where I expected it to be and it didn’t look the way I expected it to look.  Funny how that happens.

 

Now, I believe that there are situations where God has a specific will for us.  He may call us to a career, a marriage, a ministry or something else.  That leading or calling to do is part of the concept of God’s will.  But, as we will see next week, the “doing” part of God’s will may sometimes come with complications.

 

Are you seeking God’s will for your life?  Instead of asking what God wants you to do in some specific situation, ask if you are being who God wants you to be right now.  If you are being transformed into the person God has called you to be, trust that He will lead you to do the things He wants you to do.

 

Press On!

David

Do

 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40 (NIV)

Now, wait a minute.  The Last time, you said, “God cares more about who I am than what I do.”  “This verse if from Jesus’ parable of separating the sheep from the goats, and it sounds like God is deciding who gets into heaven based on what they did.”  You’re right, this verse is from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.  Let’s talk about the king’s decision.

Here is the parable:

Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

In the parable, Jesus is talking about the time when he will decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.  The parable seems to say that he will make his decision based on what a person has done, or their “works” and not based on who they are, like we talked about last week.  There is another interpretation that I think fits the parable and is consistent with the pursuit of transformation over conformation.

Let’s start by looking at the group who Jesus says the righteous helped and the condemned ignored.  They are the poor and marginalized.  Jesus calls them “the least.”  You know who they are, you see them outside your normal circle.  We feel uncomfortable when we are around these folks.  Nonetheless, Jesus implies that it is important for us to feed them, invite them in, clothe them, care for their physical needs, and visit them in jail.  The righteous did these things and the condemned didn’t.  The big question is, why?  Why did the righteous help and the condemned not?

The answer to this question lies in rephrasing the question they asked in response to the King’s extravagant grace or extreme punishment.  Both groups seem to respond to Jesus in the same way by asking “when” they got it right or when they got it wrong.  I think if we expand their question a little, we find the key to unlocking this parable.  The righteous are saying to Jesus, “We helped a lot of people and we don’t remember all their names and faces.  But, you would have stood out to us.  How did we miss you?”  The condemned are saying, “We didn’t help that group of people, because, frankly, they aren’t very important, and they make us uncomfortable.  But you are important, and we like you.  If we would have seen you in the crowd we would have helped you.  How did we miss you?”

The filter for sorting the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the condemned is the motive and not the actions, or like we talked last time, being conformed or transformed.  The righteous are those people who are being transformed by God into new people.  They are being changed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit and that transformation results in action.  I am sincere in saying that God cares more about who you are than about what you do.  That doesn’t mean you will stop doing.  You will do things for a different reason.  Not to impress God or others, but because you can’t help yourself.  The more you are transformed, the more you will find yourself drawn to the marginalized, the weak, the poor, those who can’t pay you back.  What’s even better, you will enjoy it.  You will find joy in helping, serving, caring, and giving.  What’s even better, you will find Jesus in the group.  When you least expect it, he will be there saying “thank you.”  He will smile at you through a child’s face, hug you through a homeless person, shake your hand from a hospital bed or prison cell.

The sheep “did” because they were compelled from the inside.  Jesus didn’t reward their doing. He reminded them that what they did is evidence of their righteous and He rewarded their righteousness.  Likewise, the condemned were not punished for failing to do.  Jesus reminded them that their failure to act is evidence of a deeper issue, they are not transformed and that too is reflected in their actions.  The key to the parable is that we can recognize the transformed by what they do and the transformed get into heaven.

Want to know more about this process of transformation?  Start with this post.

Press On!

David

Be

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8 (NIV)

The longer I am a believer, the more I find how simple and difficult this walk of faith is.  This verse from the prophet Micah is a great example.

God is calling his people Israel to account for their actions. He tells them all he has done for them and yet they have not followed him. The people respond by asking God if a list of outwardly impressive actions would be enough to show their sincerity. Their suggestions get progressively more extravagant, beginning with the sacrifices God has given them in the law, to a great magnitude of the sacrifices,to an extreme that God has never required:

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Micah 6:6-7 (NIV)

Micah’s response to their question cuts through the noise and exaggeration. To paraphrase, he says, “You are making this too hard. God isn’t calling you to do stuff that will impress him.  Just do what God has already told you to do: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.”

I understand what the people were saying. Somewhere along the way, I also developed the idea that the best way to show God I love Him and want to follow Him is by doing stuff for Him. As a modern believer, my list is different from the list of responses the people offered. I don’t sacrifice animals or make other offerings like that as part of my worship.  I do other things: I go to church, I serve, I give, I lead, I follow . . .  You get the point and you probably have a similar list.

The things on my list are good things, but I began to see they said nothing about who I am.  I could go to church, serve, give, lead, follow and much more all from an impure heart and bad motives, trying to impress God or others.  And, I found that if I was good at it, I could appear to others to be someone I was not.  This is when God began to show me one of the simple yet difficult truths I refer to in the opening sentence, God cares more about who I am than about what I do.

Why is this so hard?  Because, it is much easier to “do” than to “be.” Back to today’s verse. God is not asking me to impress Him with what I do. Instead, he wants me to be just, to be merciful and to be humble. I can’t be those things on my own.  It is contrary to my human nature and contrary to what our culture expects and rewards.  To be just and merciful and humble, I must begin by allowing God to change who I am.

Paul talks about this process of transformation in Romans 12:1-2. He says there are two options, we can be conformed to the world or we can be transformed by God. Conforming is what happens when we press up against something for a long time.  You have seen it when you lean against a surface with a pattern on it.  After a while, you take on that pattern. The same thing happens when we lean against the cultural patterns around us.  After a while, we begin to look like our culture.  Now, if our culture is good, the patterns will be good. But, if our culture is bad, the patterns will be bad.  The problem is that patterns imposed from the outside are only skin deep and don’t have any effect on what is inside us. The other option is transformation. When we are transformed, we are changed from the inside out.  Our hearts are made new and the newness spreads to the surface. We begin to look and act differently.  Unlike conformation, transformation lasts.  We no longer change when we lean against the culture.  Instead, we change the culture.

Conformation is doing things intended to impress God and the people around us.  Transformation is being who God wants us to be and allowing Him to change us, so we can change our world.  To be transformed, pursue the inner disciplines that bring you closer in your relationship to God.  Pray daily. Read the Bible to get to know God better and to understand His will and purpose for us. Ask God to change you on the inside so that you will have a greater impact on the outside.  You will see and feel the transformation. You will begin to do things, but from a different motive and the things you do will have a different result. You will experience the power of being the person God has made you to be.

 

Press On!

David

Blessed

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.  Luke 6:22 (NIV)

Tell me the first word that you think of when I say, “poor, hungry, weeping, excluded, insulted, and rejected.”  Did anyone say “blessed?”  If you did, it is because you have been through this exercise before. This is another example of how radically different Jesus’ teaching was compared to his contemporaries and how different it remains today.  To understand his message, we need to start with relearning some things.

The world in Jesus’ time was not so different from ours when people thought about what it meant to be “blessed” by God. They believed “bless” meant “good stuff.”  If someone had good stuff, good things, a pleasant existence, they were blessed by God.  If not, they must have done something wrong and God passed them by when He came around with the stuff wagon.  There are many times that the disciples expressed that feeling to Jesus, and his response was, essentially, “Guys, that’s not how it works.”

It’s easy for us to get our eye on the “wrong ball” when we talk about spiritual things.  We live in a physical world and we are “tuned” to respond to physical things.  Our tendency to focus on the physical world is a problem, though, if the physical world makes us forget that the spiritual world is the real and eternal world.  Jesus’s message is that the physical world and its rules and laws won’t last forever.  In fact, believers are already citizens of the eternal world and we need to begin learning the new language and customs apply there.

There is stuff in heaven, or in the new world, but the stuff there is different.  In the spiritual world, we understand that all the stuff belongs to God, because He made it.  Even though all the stuff belongs to God, he shares it freely with us, because he also made us and loves us.  More important than the stuff though, it that, in heaven, we are always in God’s presence.  We know Him and experience Him directly.  We always know and experience His favor.

Let’s take this context and go back to today’s verse.

Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”

Jesus is telling his disciples, including us, that when we experience poverty, hunger, sorrow, exclusion and rejection because we believe in him, we will also experience God’s presence in a different way.  Jesus promises that, as the world rejects us, heaven embraces us.

How does this look for modern believers here in America? Most of us are not suffering hunger, sorrow, exclusion or rejection because of the gospel, at least not in the sense that we see in other parts of the world where believers are persecuted for their faith.  Here, we may experience a subtler exclusion or rejection because of our faith.  The principle still applies.  As we seek the spiritual world, we will experience losses in the physical world. We will also experience God’s blessing and know His presence.  Watch for it this week.

 

Press On!

David

Wait

 

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 (NIV)

The prophets predicted the coming of God’s Messiah hundreds of years before Jesus was born – and the people waited.  Jesus was born in a small town in Israel.  His coming was heralded by angels, wise men from far away, and more prophesies about him when he was presented at the temple.  His parents wondered what all this meant – and they waited.  Jesus began his ministry about 30 years later.  He called 12 men to follow him and a larger crowd also gathered around.  He told them that he was the Messiah and had come to fulfill the prophesies from long ago.  His followers watched as Jesus’ life unfolded in a way that was far different than they understood the Messiah’s life would be – and they waited.  Jesus was crucified and buried.  The disciples thought everything was lost.  They gathered together for comfort and safety – and they waited.

After three days, their world was changed when they learned that Jesus was alive, raised from the dead.  He spent 40 days with them.  I believe this is the time when he explained his teaching.  He “connected the dots” and filled in the gaps.  He finished the process of preparing them to go into the world and make disciples of all nations.  He promised them great power to accomplish their mission.  But, there was something they needed to do first – wait.

Take a couple minutes and read the first chapter of the Book of Acts.  You will see that before Jesus made the promise in verse 8, he said, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:4-5 (NIV)

I hate waiting.  It’s not that I am an amazing man of action or a type A personality.  I just get this sense that time is running out and I don’t have forever to wait around for God to do something.  I hear myself saying, “God, I want to do whatever you want me to do, but we need to hurry up.”  Maybe you can relate.  You believe that God has called you to something great, something new, something wonderful.  But, it has been a while and you are still waiting.  I’d like to share a few things I have learned about waiting, as a reminder to myself and an encouragement to you.

Jesus spent three years telling his followers about the new kingdom he had come to establish.  During the time following the resurrection, I think he explained that he was not talking about a political kingdom, like the ones they knew, but a spiritual kingdom.  It would eventually take in every nation on earth and would transform the lives of those who entered.  The scale was so much greater than they could have imagined.  But, before anything would happen, they needed to wait.  Why? There were spiritual and practical reasons.  Spiritually, they needed time to reflect and pray.  Luke (the author of the Book of Acts) tells us that after Jesus has instructed the disciples and ascended into heaven, the disciples went back to Jerusalem where they joined together and prayed. They would have spent about 10 days in a concerted time of prayer.  God used that time to lead them to do some things to get ready for the next phase they were about to enter, like selecting the person who would replace Judas as a disciple.  Practically, the right time had not come.  The disciples could have gone back to Jerusalem and started preaching right away, but two things would have been missing, the power and the people.

It all came together on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jews from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of the Harvest.  The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, as Jesus told them He would, and the disciples launched what would become the Christian church.  Peter, who less than two months before could do nothing right, preached his first sermon and over 3,000 people responded to follow Jesus.  From there, the message Jesus had taught would spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to the rest of the world, just has Jesus had promised.

In hindsight, I’m sure the disciples saw the waiting was critical.  The Holy Spirit added power to their message by allowing them to speak in languages they had never learned to people who had come from all over the world.  Those people would now go back to where they had come from and carry with them the message of Jesus. Had the disciples not waited, the impact would have been lost and their mission may have lasted only days and not millennia.

Back to us, the people who are waiting today. What can we learn from this?  I have learned that there may be, and usually is, a time a waiting between a calling or vision and its fulfillment.  I get a flash of insight into where God is leading me.  It gives me hope for the future but fades to a time of waiting.  I have also learned that waiting is not idle, wasted time.  It is a time of preparation, a time to pray and plan, a time to get in place the pieces I will need to accomplish what God has called me to do.  I gather together with other disciples and share what I have believe is going to happen and ask them to pray with me and for me.  And, I wait for God to move.  Often, the outcome is different and bigger than I had imagined.  The vision grows into a reality that, had I known what was coming, would have been too intimidating to begin.

Are you in a time of waiting?  You’re not alone.  Don’t give up and don’t be disappointed.  Remember, this is a time of preparation, not idleness.  Take the time to pray and share your vision with others you trust.  Ask them to pray with you and for you.  Write down your insights.  Get ready for God to move.

In closing, I think of Noah.  Perhaps the most famous of all “waiters.”  God told him that He would flood the world and, to be saved along with his family, he needed to build a huge wooden ship.  Noah built the ship while waiting for the flood.  He must have been ridiculed by everyone around him.  Even his family had to question his sanity.  God was finally shown to be true to his promise and Noah was ready because his time of waiting was also a time of preparation.

I’m waiting for God to move, you’re waiting for God to move.  Welcome to the club.  Hand me another plank and a nail and keep watching the sky, there is a storm on the horizon.

 

Press On!

David

Jesus on effective leadership

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  Mark 10:43-44 (NIV)

Brothers James and John were two of Jesus’ 12 disciples.  They were two of Jesus’ three most intimate friends, Peter, James and John.  Despite the close relationship they shared with Jesus, they had missed an important lesson about what it meant to be great in the kingdom Jesus had come to establish.

Mark 10:35-45 (NIV) 35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Like everyone else who heard Jesus, the disciples believed that Jesus was going to be a king of Israel in the same way that David had been a king of Israel.  They knew that the former kings of Israel had key advisors who held places of high honor and great power.  Most likely James and John reasoned that, since Jesus held them in such high regard, it only made sense for Jesus to select them as his top two advisors.  They were just asking him to make it official.

When the other disciples heard about the brother’s request, they became indignant.  Maybe because they were all thinking about asking Jesus the same question and the brothers beat them to it.  Jesus used the situation to explain, once again, that we can’t use the things we know in our physical realm to understand the heavenly realm.  Doing so will lead us to the wrong conclusion, whether we are talking about what it means to be born again, what it means that Jesus is God’s son, or, in this case, what it means to be great in the kingdom of heaven.

The brothers and, judging by their reaction, the rest of the disciples were thinking of Jesus’ kingdom in earthly terms.  Which made sense, because that was the only model they had.  In an earthly kingdom, the important people were given seats of honor and great authority.  When an important person told someone to do something, they did it.  When an important person asked for something, they got it.  After all, what was the point of being great if you didn’t get the benefits that went with it?

Jesus’ teaching about greatness was as radical as the idea of being born twice.  In heaven, your greatness isn’t measured by who serves you, but by who you serve, not by what you have, but by what you give.  To be great in the kingdom of heaven, serve everyone.  To have it all in the kingdom of heaven, give it all away.  Jesus finishes the lesson with the ultimate example, himself.  As the creator of the universe, he deserved to be served by everyone, yet he took the form of a person and served everyone by dying for their sins; he deserved everything we have to give, yet he gave everything he had for us.

The disciples may not have learned Jesus’ lesson that day, but they did learn it.  They led the way in servanthood and sacrifice.  James was arrested and executed by Herod about 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection. John was persecuted, tortured and died in exile on the island of Patmos.  All the apostles were martyred for their faith.

Today, in America, following Jesus probably won’t include the same consequences experienced by the disciples.  But, Jesus’ call to servant leadership and sacrificial giving has not changed.  Look around this week and find the people you can lead through serving and situations where you can gain by giving.  You may not need to look further than your own family.

Press On!

David

The problem we are all trying to solve – What kind of father would do that?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)

This is one of the best-known verses in the Bible.  Many of you memorized it in Sunday school. The rest of you have seen on a sign in the end zone of a pro football game.  The verse is John’s summary following the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus I wrote about two weeks ago.  If you didn’t read that post, you can take a minute and read it now along with John 3:1 – 21.

When I was young, this verse seemed like a wonderful thing: God sent his son to die for our sins and that is why we can go to heaven when we die.  As I got older, and learned more about Jesus’ life on earth, the verse began to trouble me.  Jesus had a spectacular birth with angels and a light show.  He even had important visitors drop by to see him with some very nice gifts.  When we catch up with Jesus again, he is around 30 years old and living in a small town in a remote part of Israel.  As the story unfolds, we learn that God has given him a big job, which involves choosing and leading a team of people who have little or no experience in mission work, teaching a message that is rejected and ridiculed by the religious leaders, and he knows the conclusion to his fruitless labor will be death in the most terrible way possible.  As a young man, I remember asking myself “What kind of father would do that to his son?”  (We watched NBC’s broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar last week and I saw the same depressing story set to song.  The entire musical seems to ask why God would cause so much pain in the life of such a nice guy.)  For a long time, I didn’t get the good news of the gospel because I couldn’t get past thinking how unfair God had been to Jesus.

The reason the gospel message sounded wrong to me is that no father, at least not a loving father like God is supposed to be, would put is beloved son through what Jesus had to suffer.  So, what was I missing?  My problem was the same as Nicodemus, I was trying to interpret the spiritual world by applying what I knew of the physical world and it didn’t work.  I wrote two weeks ago about the metaphor Jesus used with Nicodemus.  He described the process of being reconciled to God and entering eternal life as being “born again.”  That didn’t make sense to Nicodemus because, in our world, people aren’t born twice.  In this verse, John uses another word model, or metaphor, when he describes Jesus as “God’s one and only son.”  John is talking about a spiritual reality that we have come to call the trinity, which is the understanding that, in the spiritual world, it is possible for God to be one God yet in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  That is a difficult concept.  It is like telling a single-celled creature that there are other creatures with tens of trillions of cells, yet the multi-celled creatures are still one creature.

We learn from the gospels that when God took human form, he took on human limitations.  Jesus got hungry and tired.  He felt pain and sorrow.  Most importantly, Jesus’ relationship with God the Father was changed for the time he was on earth.  Jesus knew that part of his sacrifice for our sins would require losing his close relationship with God the Father.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus begged God to take the cup from him, I don’t think Jesus was afraid of the physical pain he was about to suffer.  I think Jesus was anticipating his separation from God the Father, which was something he had never experienced.

Back to today’s verse.  If we read this verse through a spiritual lens and not through a physical lens, we get a completely different meaning.  John isn’t saying that God sent his poor son to solve the problem of human sin by dying on a cross.  John is saying that God himself did something for us that no one else could do.  God, in the person of Jesus, accepted the limitations and indignities of becoming a human, loved the people he created even though they had rejected him and, finally, experienced physical death in the worst way humans could devise.

When I approach this from a spiritual rather than a physical perspective, the question changes.  I no longer ask, “What kind of father would sacrifice his son to save the people who rejected him?”  Now I ask, “What kind of God would voluntarily give up his position in heaven to take on a human body and suffer rejection and death at the hands of the people he created to make a way for them to spend eternity with him?”  He did it because he loves us more deeply than I can imagine.

I have tried over the last 5 weeks to explain the Christian’s answer to the problem of death.  Physical death does not make a Christian’s life meaningless because a Christian’s physical death is not the end of the story.  God himself offered a sacrifice that no man could offer to pay the price for sin.  I love the way that profound mystery is expressed in the song How Deep the Father’s Love for Us performed by Phillips Craig and Dean.  If you have a few minutes, follow the link and listen to the words.

Press On!

David

 

He is risen!

My faith hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.  If Jesus was not raised from the dead, my faith fails.  This is not a conclusion I reached quickly or lightly.  After years studying philosophy and theology, I came to believe the resurrection is the foundation for everything I believe is true.  For your Easter reading, I have distilled years of studying and thinking about the resurrection into about 700 words.

A few years after I converted to Christianity, I took a self-study class on the proofs for God and the Christian faith at a local seminary.  At that time, I believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead because the Bible said so.  But, I couldn’t defend what I believed or explain why it was important.  I wanted to answer two questions: 1) what proves the resurrection? and 2) what does the resurrection prove?

In response to the first question, I found two compelling facts supporting the resurrection.  The first is that the early Christians were talking about Jesus’ resurrection within two months of it happening.  See Peter’s sermon in Acts chapter 2.  People were still talking about the resurrection decades later. Paul says in his letter to the church at Corinth that, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to over 500 people, most of whom were still living at the time of his letter (I Corinthians 15:3-6).  The Jewish leaders knew that Jesus’ followers were claiming that he had been raised from the dead.  To disprove the claim, they only needed to show people his body.  But, they couldn’t produce his body or explain where it went, even within days of the resurrection.   Instead, they told the guards at the tomb to lie and tell people they were over-powered by Jesus’ followers, who stole the body, and moved it someplace else.  Why the disciples would have done that is beyond me.  It is completely out of character for who they were and what they believed about Jesus at the time.  The second reason I believe the resurrection happened is that the people who saw the resurrected Jesus went to their death believing and declaring that he was alive.   Some of them died horrible deaths and, if they had recanted and admitted to stealing the body or lying about seeing Jesus alive, the Jewish leaders would have used that confession against the church.  For more on this, I refer you to A Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, which was also made into a movie in 2017.

Jesus started talking about what would be proved by his death and resurrection early in his ministry.  In John 2, when he chased the money lenders out of the temple, the religious leaders asked him for a sign demonstrating that he had authority to do what he did.  Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:13-21).  On another occasion, when the Jewish religious leaders asked Jesus for a “sign” to prove his teaching that he was God, Jesus said that none would be given except the “sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” Matthew 12:39-40 and 16:1-4.  As I studied what the resurrection proves, I came to see the resurrection as the ultimate validation of Jesus’ teaching.  It is God’s stamp of approval on everything Jesus said and did.

Jesus’ argument was simple:

  • When I die, only God can restore my life.
  • If God restores my life, as I predict he will, he is validating everything that I have said about Him and about myself.
  • If there is no God, or if I have not represented Him accurately, I will stay dead.

It is this simple argument that cemented for me the importance of the resurrection.  As the Apostle Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor 15:14).

I love Easter.  Because he is risen, I can say, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.”

 

Happy Easter!

 

David

The Problem We’re All Trying to Solve – Part 3

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  John 3:3 (NIV)

A friend told me about a vacation he was taking to a paradise island.  I stopped in to see my travel agent and asked him if he had heard of the place.  “Yes, I’ve heard about it,” he said.  “But, did your friend tell you that the island has a very strict immigration law.  The only way to get on the island is to be born on the island.”  I was puzzled by my travel agent’s response.  “How can my friend be planning to go there?” I asked.  My travel agent replied quietly. Though the room was empty, it was like he didn’t want anyone to hear him, “It appears he has found the secret to being born on the island.”

Today’s verse is from a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Take a minute to read John 3:1-20 to get the verse in context.  Nicodemus was a high-ranking Pharisee in Jesus’ time.  He probably had come to talk to Jesus at night because he didn’t want any of his friends to know he was visiting with the controversial teacher.  We don’t know for sure what Nicodemus came to talk about.  But, Jesus’s odd opening statement tells me that Jesus may have known.  Nicodemus had questions about heaven.  Jesus’s explanation of how someone gets into heaven sounded as strange to Nicodemus as the travel agent’s reply to my question about getting to the island paradise.  The answer was not at all what he expected and the process required something that he could not do on his own.

We all have the same blind spot that kept Nicodemus from understanding Jesus.  Our understanding of the spiritual world is limited because we have nothing to compare heaven to except the physical world we live in.  The phrase, “you must be born again” doesn’t make sense to us because, on earth, people aren’t born again. They are born once, and that’s it.  We expect the spiritual world to follow the same rules as the physical world.  Except, there is no basis for that expectation.

We look at heaven as if heaven were modeled on, or made to look like, our physical world.  The Bible tells us that it is the other way around, our physical world is modeled after the spiritual world.  Our physical world may be like the spiritual world in some ways.  Much like a plastic model rocket is like a real rocket.  If someone had never seen the Saturn V rocket with the Apollo space capsule on top, showing them a model would help explain what it looked like.  But, it could not explain the complexity of the real rocket or give any idea of the incredible power it generated at lift off.  And, we would never say that the real Saturn V couldn’t get fly to the moon because the model is glued to a stand.  We understand that the model is not the real thing.  In the same way, Jesus used word models, or metaphors, to help us understand what heaven is like and how we get there.

Nicodemus came to Jesus with the same problem we are trying to solve.  All Nicodemus had learned prior to his meeting with Jesus told him that physical death was not the end of the story. Nicodemus believed he had overcome the problem of death because he had lived a good life, as judged by the Jewish law, and that would get him into heaven.  What Jesus told him undid his solution.  Jesus said, you don’t get into heaven because you have done good things.  The only way to get into heaven is to be born there.  You live on earth because you were physically born on earth.  You live in heaven because you are spiritually born in heaven.

The solution to problem of physical death is to be spiritually born in heaven.  When we are born in heaven, we have dual citizenships, one in the physical world and one in the spiritual world.  Death is not the end of everything, it is only the end of our time in the physical world.  We will leave the physical world and spend eternity in the spiritual world of heaven.

Like Nicodemus, this may sound strange to you.  You don’t understand how someone could be born a second time.  Over the next two weeks, we will see how Jesus answers that question.  For now, give yourself the challenge of reading the Gospel of John in the next two weeks.

Press On!

David

Post Script: Sorry I missed last week, my webhost was down.  Thanks to Juan Carlos Ortiz for inspiring the opening illustration.

The Problem We’re All Trying to Solve – Part 2

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 6:23 (NIV)

The problem we are all trying to solve is death. Or, how we make sense of life if death is the end of the story.  Many of you reading this know that I died about four years ago.  You can read about it here.  Following that experience, I wrote a series of posts about death and what it is like to die.  Today’s post is from that series.

When I had my heart attack, I was dead for about 30 minutes.  I do not have a specific memory of that experience, maybe because I was sedated when it happened.  I have some impressions that I will share in this next series of posts along with my thoughts on death and what happens when we die.  This series will “get into the weeds” a little bit and I hope you will hang with me.  It’s stuff we don’t often think about and it may be the most important stuff I say in the blog.

Let’s start with a fundamental truth: our spirit, or soul, lives forever.  Once you exist, you never cease to exist.  At death, your soul is freed from your body, but it doesn’t perish.  Take a minute to let that sink in.

Jesus told us that, when we die, our souls will be taken to heaven where we will spend eternity with God or we will go to hell where we will spend eternity separated from God.  Heaven is a place of joy and fellowship, hell is a place of suffering (we see the consequences of decisions we can’t change) and darkness.  Hell isn’t something we like to talk about, but Jesus talked about it a lot.  It is real and he doesn’t want us there.

What heaven and hell have in common is that things happen, but time never passes.  Imagine the most peaceful and joy-filled time of your life, you look at the clock and it is stopped.  The peace and joy continue and time remains stopped.  Can this go on forever? Yes, it does.  Now imagine the worst time you ever had: fear, regret, panic, suffering and pain.  Imagine being trapped in that time.  You keep checking the clock and time has not passed.  Can this go on forever? Yes, it does.

So, the big question you should be asking is: How do I make sure that, when the time comes, I am going to heaven and not to hell?  Do you meet the entry requirement?  To get into heaven, a person must be perfect without ever having sinned.  God is perfect and he cannot allow imperfect souls to be around Him.  That’s a problem because, on our own, we are not perfect.  That’s where Jesus comes in.

The consequence for our imperfection, or sin, is eternal death. Or, as Paul says, the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). When we sin, we earn death. Paul also confirms that we all have sinned and fall short of God’s perfect standard (Romans 3:23). We like to think that “sin” is the “big things” that we don’t do. But, the truth is, sin is every time we do not follow God’s law perfectly. By that standard, I can’t begin to count how many times a day that I sin.

God knew that His standard was unreachable when he set it, that is why He planned an alternative. For us, because we sin, death is the necessary outcome. But, what if a person did live a perfect life? That person would not have “earned death” and would be entitled to go to heaven and spend eternity with God. That person is Jesus. He lived a perfect life, yet he gave up his life for us on the cross. Jesus died the death that we are all condemned to die. God allows us to claim Jesus’ death on the cross as the death that we should have received for our sins. Then, because the price for our sin has been paid, God wipes out its consequences and we can enter heaven as if we had never sinned. The Bible calls us “righteous” meaning that we now have right standing before God.  When we get to heaven and are asked, “Did you live a perfect life?”  We can say, I have accepted the perfect life that Jesus lived for me.

The last question is, if you don’t have this right standing with God and are not sure you will go to heaven when you die, how do you get it? You simply need to ask. There are many versions of the “sinner’s prayer” that you can pray. I will give you one here. There is no magic formula. You are committing your life to God and asking Him to forgive you and change you. Will there be changes in your life? You bet. Will it always be smooth sailing? No. But, I can assure you that a life spent on earth at peace with God and eternity in heaven with Him will far outweigh any temporary problems you may face.

Here’s what you can pray. Don’t be afraid to be honest and fill in the gaps.

“Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Please take my life and make me the kind of person You want me to be.”

This prayer is from the Cru Web site.  If you want more information, follow this link.

If you have prayed this prayer for the first time, welcome to the kingdom of heaven! If you have prayed this prayer or something like it to recommit your life to Jesus, welcome back.  You can follow these links to read the posts on daily prayer and daily Bible reading to get started.