Walking The Tight Rope – A Reprise

Blondin carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on a tightrope

A few years ago, self-designated King of High Wire, Nik Wallenda, took his act to Niagara Falls.

It had been a hundred and fifty years since anyone made the attempt to cross the raging waters balanced on a wire stretched from shore to shore.

I’m sure there would have been other attempts, but state law banned the feat inside the State Park. Wallenda, following in his famous grandfather’s tragic footsteps, was able to cut through the red tape and gain permission to make the try directly above the Falls, not further downstream where other famous performers worked.

Charles Blondin was one who successfully made the walk. A famous circus performer in the middle of the nineteenth century, he gained special fame for his “different theatrical variations: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope” (from Wikimedia, “Charles Blondin”).

Call it courageous or call it fool-hearty, these incredible performers know that one misstep may be their last, as was the experience of Nik Wallenda’s 73-year-old grandfather, Karl. There’s no place for detours or side trips, no wandering astray for a time, not even mentally. This is life or death on the straight and narrow.

What a metaphor for life. All of us can take the straight and narrow–choosing the only Way, Jesus Christ who reconciles us with God–or we can step out into the wide open spaces and float or sail or dive merrily toward destruction.

How restrictive, some say, to walk that one path, that only way. Why can’t a different path get us to the other side just as well?

The wire might look scary and the walk might be buffeted by winds, but there simply is no other way. In contrast, free falling might look like fun, but that’s a way down, not a way across.

Myself, I’d rather not make the crossing, but of course, in life, we don’t have that option. One way or the other, we will leave this shore. Knowing this, it seems imperative to learn everything I can about walking the wire.

Of course we can change the metaphor. Rather than me walking the straight and narrow, I can instead put my trust in the skilled and practiced King to carry me across. On his back, in the wheelbarrow–He can take me however He chooses. It’s His show, not mine.

This article is an edited version of one that appeared here in June 2-12.


Tears Of The Messiah – A Reprise

I re-posted this article two years ago (it first appeared here in March 2013), but I think it rightly brings a couple things together. First, it deals with the events leading up to Jesus’s trials, crucifixion, and resurrection, which we commemorate at this time of year. Secondly, it includes thoughts based on the book of Jeremiah, which I am again currently re-reading. Without further prologue:

– – – – –

Most people know that Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb before He raised him back to life. It’s a touching scene, one that has produced any number of sermons.

Fewer people, I tend to think, know about Jesus weeping over Jerusalem on his final entry into the City of David. Luke records the scene, as well as the build-up to it. Clearly Jesus cared deeply—not for the walls and the buildings, but for the people inside, for what Jerusalem stood for. This was the place God intended to be central to His worship. His people were there, the temple known as His house was there.

As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, shouting:

    “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord;
    Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:37-44)

Earlier, when Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, He had similar thoughts:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! (Luke 13:34)

Jesus was deeply moved by the rejection of His rebellious people. He wanted them to receive their King, to experience the peace with God He offered.

Scripture makes it clear that God’s desire is still for rebellious people to repent and turn to Him. Jesus said in Matthew, “It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish” (18:14) Then in 1 Timothy, Paul wrote

This [prayer on behalf of all men] is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

I’m in awe that Jesus unabashedly wept for those who would turn their back on Him, that God, loving the world so much, paid the price for our sin just so we could enjoy peace with Him:

you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:18-19)

I’ve never thought about it much before, but might not Jesus weep for each person who walks away from Him?

Jeremiah is sometimes called the weeping prophet because in a number of places Scripture mentions him weeping for Judah and their stubborn, rebellious heart—well, more precisely for the destruction of the nation which he foresaw.

At one point he prophesied that the people who had been taken to Babylon in the first wave of captivity would be better off than those left behind. They would prosper in their new land and one day be restored to Judah. But those who stayed or who fled to Egypt would bring destruction on their heads. I’m sure the people who heard him thought he was nuts. Captivity good, freedom bad, he seemed to be saying.

The problem was, they had limited sight. Jeremiah was speaking the words given him by omniscient God.

So, too, Jesus knows we are in desperate need of His life-giving blood—more dramatically than if we were in need of a transfusion. What’s more, He bled out for us. Why, then, wouldn’t He weep over those who wave Him off and walk on by to destruction?

Published in: on March 19, 2018 at 5:21 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

The Need For The Cross

As we approach Easter, I’m well aware of the fact that many people will simply ignore the day. Some (at least those in the northern hemisphere) will also celebrate it as a “spring is here” day, commemorating the new life in nature demonstrated by buds on trees, green replacing the colorless world of winter, baby birds pushing out of eggs.

But the resurrection of Jesus? No need for such “myths,” many will say.

The resurrection, of course, hinges on the cross. Jesus had to die first before He could be raised incorruptible.

In fact His death was not an act of martyrdom. It wasn’t the tragedy that spawned a movement.

Rather, Jesus did something no one else could do. The nails that crashed into His hands and feet, essentially nailed the “certificate of debt” owed to God by every sinner, to that cross.

The blood Jesus spilled that day was that of a Perfect and Unblemished Lamb—chosen to make redemption possible. His blood did exactly what the blood of the Passover lamb did: it covered those “under the blood” so that the angel of judgment would pass over that place.

Jesus paints His own blood over the doorposts of our heart, so that we who believe He did what He did and promised what He promised, will be redeemed in the exact same way.

Because Jesus went to the cross, anyone of any race or gender or culture or age can now receive remission of that debt we could not pay—the wages of sin which is death itself.

Some people think that God unfairly judges, that “nice” people or “good” people should go free. But that’s like saying the nice rapist should go free or the good business man or great basketball player who abuses his wife should go free.

Because the truth is, we all fall short of God’s standard.

Some people think God is terrible for “sending millions of people to hell.” But the truth is, those “millions” who make themselves God’s enemies, don’t want an eternity with Him.

Some people claim God is cruel for allowing suffering. But again, He has only given way to what people who oppose Him want or have earned:

“Your ways and your deeds
Have brought these things to you.
This is your evil. How bitter!
How it has touched your heart!” (Jeremiah 4:18).

Which brings us back to the debt of sin and the cross that cancels it.

If someone says God is “unfair” for giving laws He knew we wouldn’t keep, they’re missing one important ingredient: holiness. God is perfect, without spot, righteous. A different standard simply would be other than perfect, not holy, marred. Fellowship with a perfect God is not possible for imperfect people.

Unless God makes it possible.

The cross did just that.

Couldn’t God have just changed the rules, waved away the requirement for sin?

Well, that leaves out an important ingredient too: justice.

God is as just as He is holy. When His law is broken, when the debt is owed, He requires payment.

So Jesus paid at the cross.

It’s kind of funny. Of all the objections I’ve heard about Christianity and God’s plan of salvation, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an objection to God loving humanity so much He was willing to die.

Sure, I’ve heard that God the Father was committing child abuse by sending His Son to die. But that’s all wrong. His will was to save the world. He didn’t send a “second god” or a “lesser god” or a human iteration of Himself to die. Jesus is God and Jesus went to the cross even though He could have commanded legions of angels to come rescue Him. He didn’t because “of the joy set before Him.” That joy was each and every person who would love Him back.

The cross is the greatest symbol of God’s love. There Jesus showed God’s love, cancelled the debt of sin, washed away sin, provided a way of escape from the result of sin, and reconciled all who believe in Him to God.

In short, without the cross, there would be no Easter.

Re-imaging Jesus — A Reprise

If I post an article from the archives, I usually try to pull one from the “you-probably-haven’t-been-reading-this-blog-that-long” past so that most of the current visitors might not have seen it yet. This one is not so old, but I thought it worth re-posting as we approach Easter. After all, if we don’t have a clear understanding of who Jesus is, the sacrifice He paid for the sins of the world will likely lose meaning.

This one deals with the view of Jesus which people who consider themselves to be “Progressive Christians” popularize. It needs to be corrected by looking at what the Bible says instead. The following appeared here in July 2015.

– – – – –

Some years ago those in the emergent church started talking about “re-imaging” God, understanding him in ways that deviated from traditional theology. One classic conversation about looking at God differently developed from an article entitled, “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?” I addressed the issues brought up in the article in “Attacks On God From Within.”

But as so often happens, teaching that clearly oversteps the bounds of true Christian thought, begins to seep into the Church as if it is orthodox and normative, as if it’s what the Bible actually says and has said all along.

One such twisting of Biblical intent is the image of Jesus so many are throwing around. I’ve read more than once that if He were here today, He’d be hanging out in gay bars and with druggies and prostitutes.

This view is such a skewered picture of Jesus, it really troubles me!

First, Scripture tells us where Jesus “hung out”—His starting place when He arrived in a town—was the synagogue: “They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach.” (Mark 1:21)

Similar verses are all through the gospels:
“He entered again into a synagogue” (Mark 3:1)
“When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue” (Mark 6:2)
“Departing from there, He went into their synagogue” (Matt. 12:9)
“He came to His hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue” (Matt. 13:54)
“On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching” (Luke 6:6)

And when He went to Jerusalem, He headed for the temple. (see Matt. 21:14ff, 24:1, Mark 12:35, 13:1, Luke 19:47, 21:38). Most telling might be what He said to the chief priests and their men who came to arrest Him in the Garden: “At that time Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as you would against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me.’ ” (Matt. 26:55, emphasis mine)

When He needed more room to teach because the crowds grew, He hung out on hillsides and mountain tops and lake shores.

Oh, but He ate with sinners and prostitutes, those who wish to re-image Jesus will point out.

It’s true that Scripture does record Jesus eating with Matthew the tax collector and those he invited to his house. But Mark gives the complete picture:

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.

And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. (Mark 2:14-15, emphasis mine)

In other words, these men called sinners were now disciples of Christ.

In truth, it was the Pharisees who accused Jesus of eating with sinners.

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34, ESV)

Jesus responded to the criticism by saying the sick need a physician and that He came to call sinners to repentance.

And yet those re-imaging Jesus have apparently chosen to believe the Pharisees, though Jesus identified them as sons of their father the devil who was a liar from the beginning and the father of lies (John 8:44)—a clear indication that Jesus knew them to be liars.

This new view of Jesus claims that He told stories and didn’t actually give directives. In fact, some say He loved people by first being with them, then being committed to them and showing Himself for them. Only later did He direct them toward truth and holiness out of His love.

Well, yes and no.

Jesus didn’t always show that he was committed to or for certain people—most notably the Pharisees, but also the Syrophoenician woman who wanted Him to heal her daughter. He flat out told her He’d come to the Jews. Some might even find His response racist and offensive:

He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:24-26)

Not quite the politically correct Jesus we’re shown so often these days, the one who loves everyone. He did heal her daughter and even praised her for her faith. But where was that “love for everyone”?

We seem to forget that “everyone” would include the Pharisees, and Jesus did not treat them in the loving way the Progressive Christian espouses. In fact, He was quite directive with them, hence the whip in the temple. Yes, those were most likely Pharisees He was going after when He overturned tables and drove out money changers—the sinners wouldn’t have been allowed in to do the work. They were presumably tagged sinners because they didn’t adhere to the Mosaic Law.

At the same time, Jesus was very directive in His teaching. He said if you look at a woman with lust, you’ve committed adultery. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he owned and follow Jesus. He said those who wanted to follow Him had to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. And each one of His stories had a point, a directive that was to guide action or expose truth. He was not trying to entertain.

Jesus also didn’t hang with prostitutes. The adulterous woman was brought to Him and He told her to stop sinning. The woman at the well who had had many husbands went into her village to tell the people she’d found the Messiah. The woman who the Pharisee Simon identified as a sinner and who poured perfume on Jesus was actually a disciple of Christ. Luke tells the whole story (7:36ff) and ends with Jesus reproving His host for his self-righteousness. In the process He clarifies the facts about her: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for [this reason] she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

In the same way that the re-imagers want to make out that Christians are the new Pharisees, they want to hand Jesus the winebibber and glutton tag—only that’s now apparently a positive on his resumé.

But it’s not who Jesus was when He walked on earth. He came to teach, and that’s what He did, along with healing so many people there were days He didn’t even have time to eat. If sinners came to Him, He never turned them away. That’s who He came to save, but He wasn’t out trolling for the sinner hot spots.

It’s time we stopped rewriting the pages of Scripture to create this view of Jesus we think fits what our culture might like—Jesus, the anti-church, pro-gay guy who told cool stories.

The Pharisees weren’t “Church” and Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, not to tell them how much He’s for them.

Easter And The Declension Of Western Civilization

Easter_LilyPerhaps some will think I’m crying wolf. Is Western civilization really declining? I think we have only to look at Easter and see how our society treats it to realize that there’s been a fundamental shift.

Many Christians—perhaps most—identify Easter as the single most important event in human history. It is also the bedrock of the Christian faith–without a resurrected Christ, we have nothing. In fact the Apostle Paul said, if Christ was not risen from the dead, we are most to be pitied:

if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:14-19 – emphasis mine)

For years—perhaps centuries—Easter has been afforded a place of honor in Western civilization among “Christian” nations. Here in the US many traditions sprang up around Easter that have little to do with Christ’s resurrection.

For a time it was the Easter bonnet and the Easter dress. Then there was the Easter lily, the Easter basket, and the Easter bunny with Easter egg hunts. There was even Easter vacation for school kids. TV often put on special programing, and stores kept special Easter hours or remained closed. For years Easter cards have been available, and these often contain something of the resurrection message.

What seems apparent to me, however, is that Easter, even its non-religious traditions, is fading from the public arena.

A number of years ago a minor controversy arose that proves this point. First, Google chose Easter Day to “honor” Cesar Chavez with a doodle on its search page. As it happens, March 31, the day Easter fell that year, was Chavez’s birthday and two years earlier President Obama declared that date to be Cesar Chavez Day. The point is that Google had a choice—feature Cesar Chavez or feature Jesus Christ. Their response? We’ll honor Cesar. After all, he means so much to Western civilization.

The other part of this controversy, however, is the way some downplayed it, calling it “silly” and “much adoodle about nothing.” In other words, commenting or complaining about a business like Google ignoring the holiday that marks the singular most important event in Christianity was simply not considered newsworthy.

Of course, Google wasn’t the only entity that ignored Easter. CalTrans, the road maintenance organization here in California, was busy at work Sunday morning on at least one freeway. I don’t recall any businesses posting “Closed for Easter” signs either, so perhaps the criticism aimed at Google was not silly but misguided. It’s all of Western civilization that is leaving Easter behind.

Was striping away non-religious Easter traditions, a bad thing? Was the Bing search engine more respectful to Christians for including Easter eggs on their site? I have to say, no, I don’t think so. They were more respectful to Easter tradition, to Western culture, but not to Christ and Christianity.

As the world has become smaller, those of us in the West have learned that the East also has a rich heritage and has made significant contributions to Humankind. We’re learning to appreciate different ways of looking at the world. However, some take this learning and appreciation a step farther and denigrate that which has formed the West.

I’ve heard, for example, slams against the “Greek mind” and against Aristotle. Too linear, the accusation is. The Eastern mind understands time to be cyclical, as we see all of life to be. Look, for example, at the water cycle or the life of a plant.

Individualism is bad too, according to a recent radio commentary. Especially here in the US we have prided ourselves on being individuals, but we live in a world of community. We need fewer Lone Rangers and more group hugs.

The ironic thing is that Christianity isn’t actually a Western religion. It’s roots, of course, are Semitic. While the New Testament of the Bible was originally written in Greek, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Then, too, Christians celebrated Easter all over the world, not just in enclaves in the West.

And community is practically a Christian’s middle name. In fact Christianity provides a beautiful marriage of individualism and community. God gives each Christian a special gift, and then instructs us to “employ it in serving one another” (1 Peter 4:10).

In short, if it’s possible to wrap this weighty subject up in a sentence or two, when the West ignores Christ, we’re not expanding our worldview or becoming more cosmopolitan. We’re actually taking a step backward and denying the most unifying Power and Person imaginable. God Himself said He loves the world, not the West or the East, not Africa or North America. He loves the world. He gave His followers the commission to make disciples, not just at home but in the farthest recesses of the world.

Why else have Christians from any number of nations gone to far-away places to live and work and preach the good news? It’s not to claim that one culture is better than another. It’s to bring into the family of God people from every tribe and tongue and nation scattered throughout the world. Yes, family. I have brothers and sisters in all kinds of places, some who risk their lives to celebrate Easter.

Ironic, I think, that Western civilization seems intent on divorcing itself from the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings that influenced our worldview, while people all over the East are embracing those same truths.

This article is a revised version of one that appeared here in April 2013.

Published in: on March 14, 2018 at 5:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,

The Difference Between Being Religious And Being Christian

On my way home from church yesterday, I decided to stop for gas. I didn’t want to, but given that the station near my church is cheaper than just about anywhere and that I likely couldn’t go the whole week without gas, I though the responsible thing would be to fill the tank.

The problem was, when I got out to pump the gas, I locked my car, with my keys inside. And my cell phone. And my AAA card. Now that last is very significant. I hate to admit it, but I’ve had some experience locking my keys in my car before, and boy, AAA is invaluable, and the third-party service person they send is quick and efficient.

But you need to call the AAA Roadside Service representative first.

I wasn’t too worried; just annoyed with myself for doing such a dumb thing. I mean, I was at a gas station, in broad daylight. My car, sadly, was blocking one of their pumps, but I thought that would encourage the attendant to help me so I’d free up the area.

This, that, and the other happened—I won’t bore you with the particulars. The short of it is, we couldn’t find the number for AAA. It’s printed right there on the card, but remember, mine was locked in the car with my keys. And cell phone. Finally I started asking customers in the little mini-mart, and then those getting gas, if they had a AAA card. I just needed the number!

One older guy said he didn’t have one but he could ask his friend Anne. He pulled out his cell phone, so I thought he was going to put the request to the computer. No, he actually called someone. Said he needed her to stop what she was doing and get the number. She did, he wrote it down, programmed his phone, then let me use it to talk to the person I needed to. In less than half an hour, a service guy showed up and had my car open in under a minute.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to talk with the stranger who had lent me his phone. While we were still trying to hunt for the number to AAA, he said some very disparaging remarks about people of other ethnicities.

You need to know, I live in a multiracial area of interlocking communities. When I gave the AAA person my info, I wasn’t even sure what city I was in. All that to say, on any given day, you might interact with people from three or four different ethnicities who live in various nearby pockets dominated by Koreans, Tai, Hispanics, Chinese, Vietnamese, and more. So some of the people I asked if they owned a AAA card, didn’t speak English. No big deal and no surprise. They kindly allowed me to ask my question to one of their party sitting in the back seat of the car who did speak English.

But the man who was contacting Anne had nothing good to say about anyone from another race, and he had some really bad things to say. Imagine my horror when he said something about going to church! Really! I thought I was going to be sick.

And then, as the conversation continued, it came out that he belonged to the Christian Scientists. He went to his car and brought back some literature (like a used Sunday school quarterly for those of you who have been around long enough to know what those are) he wanted to give me. It had his writing in the blanks and I didn’t know what might be there. I declined as politely as I could. But he went on to tell me about the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, who really wanted a religion of love, so she started Christian Science and it was all about being good.

Two things that initially seem incongruous. First this man said some really nasty things about other people groups. The entire group of people several times, and then about an individual in a different people group at another time.

Second, he was kind to me. He even waited in his parked car until the service person was about to drive up. He came over to where I was waiting to say that AAA had called (since I had done so from his phone, he got the message) to confirm that the service guy was just moments away. The man left before I even thought to say more than thank you.

Why, I wondered? How could he be so awful and yet so kind?

And then it hit me. Religions that teach you are to be good, actually accomplish that. The man did a good deed, and I suspect he did it thinking this was his religious duty. But he didn’t have Christ who transforms lives and changes people.

I couldn’t help but compare his religion with what my pastor taught just that morning—all about community and how all are welcome at Christ’s table because Jesus came for the sick, not the well. The people who think they’re well, didn’t want to come to Him. But all who knew they were broken and in need, came gladly.

The question the Pharisees asked the disciples was, “Why does your Master eat with sinners?” They wanted religion to be an exclusive, us-not-them club. They wanted to use their religion to feel superior, to divide, to put others down.

Jesus does just the opposite. He invites the Matthews and the Nicodemuses and the women caught in adultery and the ones too ashamed to go to the well with the “good” women. He wants them to come and follow Him so that he can heal their brokenness. He wants to give them new life, living water, the bread of heaven. He wants to bring transformation to their lives.

Being religious might mean that a person does good things once in a while. Being a Christian means a person has begun the transforming process to become like Jesus Christ.

Published in: on March 12, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Comments (6)  
Tags: , ,

Cleaning the Cup—A Reprise

1194095_wine_glass_dark_fieldIn recent years a fairly popular criticism of Christians in Western society is that those in traditional churches are playing the part today of the “religious leaders,” also called the Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus in the first century.

I maintain that this position compares avocados and watermelons. The Pharisees were trying to work their way into God’s good graces, even as they rejected Jesus. Christians—if they are actual followers of Christ—have understood that our best efforts fall short of God’s glory and have instead accepted the work of Jesus at the cross.

Does the fact that Christians follow Jesus mean we can then live as we please and do as we wish? Certainly not. The instruction in the New Testament is for Christians, not all people in general, which I think we sometimes lose sight of, at least here in America. Rather than concerning ourselves with all that the Bible says, we work to bring all of society into a moral lifestyle.

To an extent, this is not a bad thing. Christ’s teaching is life-changing, but the truth is, it’s possible to clean up the outside of the cup and leave the inside disgustingly dirty.

However, Jesus didn’t advocate scouring the inside and leaving the outside filthy. He said, essentially, clean the inside, and the outside will take care of itself: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matt. 23:26).

Here’s what Jesus was really getting to:

“So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 24:28)

In other words, these words are directed at pretend Christians, or at religious people in other faiths that think doing a bunch of good deeds will put them in right standing with god or the universe or whatever it is they worship.

The outside can look all spiffy and clean. One reason Christians team up with Mormons in political matters, I believe, is that Mormons are so very moral. They are pro-life and pro-marriage, don’t drink or smoke or gamble, go to church, give to charities, and generally present a face of kindness.

Clean cups, at least on the outside.

Honestly, moderate Muslims are right there beside them. The women dress modestly, they are law-abiding, they worship regularly, they oppose homosexuality, drinking, and abortion.

I could say the same about any number of people of religion—they do many, many right things because, in their belief system, they have to. The doing is their ticket to “God’s” good graces—whether that means enlightenment, nirvana, heaven, or another planet where they will rule.

Shockingly, atheists fall into this category, too. Their list of “right things” will differ from Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and pretend Christians, but they still have their list: Be tolerant of people outside Western culture, take care of the environment, avoid even the appearance of prejudice, speak only in a politically correct way, support gender equality, gay marriage, and labor unions.

The gods that the atheists are trying to please, of course, are themselves. They talk much about doing something meaningful for society and leaving a legacy. They want to “make their mark,” to be remembered.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the people who have these spiffed up outsides. Those folk see no need for Him because they believe it’s up to them. Either God expects them to measure up, or they have to reach the standard they’ve set for themselves. So they busy themselves cleaning the outside of the cup, and when drink splatters, which it always does, they hurriedly wipe it away. When greasy fingers leave a smear, they wash and polish, until the outside shines.

All the while, germs roam free on the inside. They can hate and lust and covet to their heart’s content. They can doubt God and rail at Him, they can be disappointed and think He’s let them down or doesn’t really care or isn’t really there. Just so long as on the outside, they look good.

Jesus said He came to heal, but only sick people need healing. The well send the physician away. Services not needed here—only healthy people on site.

But that attitude is indicative of the spiritually blind. All people have fallen short of God’s glory—His righteous standard, and the only standard that matters.

Children run races and win trophies, but how silly if they strutted around claiming to be the fastest runner in the world. They would have measured themselves against themselves and decided they were the best. But if they were to measure themselves against the world record holder, they would clearly, consistently, and always fall short.

So too with Man’s efforts, as soon as we measure ourselves against God’s holiness. We might shine the outside of our cup in an effort to fool ourselves and others that it is clean, but to kill the germs crawling around inside takes the touch of the Master, the work of Jesus, the healing of the One who came to save.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2013.

Define Your Terms

I ran across another atheist the other day who apparently is “an ex-Christian.” In another discussion months ago, a different individual told me she had once been “just as you are now.”

Well, how in the world would she know what kind of a spiritual life I have? Did she think that all Christians have exactly the same walk with the Lord? Or was she under the impression that because she did Christian things, that made her a Christian?

It’s hard to know what any of these individuals who no longer claim the name of Christ once thought. They certainly believed at the time that they were Christians. But why did they?

Some people think they’re Christians because they go to church. Once when I was on jury duty, I met a woman who asked me about that when I identified myself as a Christian. Her daughters had asked her, and she didn’t know how to answer. They were under the impression that they were Christians because they were Americans, but they weren’t sure if they needed to go to church in order to be counted as Christians.

Some people think they become Christians by praying a prayer or by being baptized or by taking a class and learning answers to questions about God and the Bible. None of that is undesirable. In fact all those things are good and helpful, but they don’t make a person a Christian.

Becoming a Christian is quite easy, but it’s more than saying magic words or doing a list of right things, or even giving all the right answers to specific questions.

I know former students who raised their hands pretty much every year their teacher at the Christian school where I taught, asked them if they wanted to accept Jesus as their Savior. They got A’s on memory verse tests, attended good Bible-teaching churches, and today want nothing to do with God.

So what makes a person a Christian? Not a temporary assent that I’m a sinner, that I want “Jesus in my heart.” Not memorizing Bible verses, going to church, helping in homeless shelters, giving gifts to needy children, taking communion, being baptized.

Those things can all be true about a Christian, but they don’t make a person a Christian. I’d say, it’s actually pretty easy to mimic someone who is a Christian. After all, if you go to a Christian school and you go to church, the friends you make may all do those same things. Why wouldn’t you do them too? It’s part of kids wanting to fit in. If all your friends are raising their hands, you want to raise your hand, too.

Adults do the same thing. A bunch of people jump to their feet clapping at the end of a concert, and pretty soon more and more people join them. Maybe everyone, though there could be a few who don’t think the performance deserved a standing ovation. Still, they join the crowd rather than being the lone hold out who stays seated.

But that’s beside the point.

The question is, if none of those things I’ve mentioned, make a person a Christian, then what does?

When I was a kid, I was under the impression that Christians didn’t sin. But I sinned. Which was why I went for so long questioning whether or not I was a Christian.

Finally I decided to take God at His word. He said, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). So if I confessed with my mouth, and I had, if I believed in my heart, and I did, then I was just going to assume God meant what He said—I was in fact saved, whether I “felt like it” or not.

So then I tried to figure out when I became a Christian. Was it the first time I asked Him into my heart? The time I went forward in a church service? When I realized on my own what John 3:18 really meant? (“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”)

Much later, as an adult, I can look back and see how God worked in my life all those growing up years, even when I was struggling and doubting and unsure. I’ve concluded that I became a Christian when I first asked Jesus into my heart, though I didn’t really understand much about what that meant. As I gained more understanding, however, I continued to believe.

It’s continuing to believe that makes a person a Christian.

And lo and behold, that’s precisely what the Bible says. Hebrews 3:14 says it clearly: “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”

The Apostle John used the word “abide” which simply means “stay”: “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9; emphasis mine).

The writer to the Hebrews again: “but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.” (Hebrews 3;6; emphasis mine).

Then there is Matthew’s clear statement: ““But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

I could go on. There are many more verses about abiding, holding fast, persevering until the end, than I ever realized.

So who is a Christian? One who believes and keeps on believing.

The pretenders, who said they believed, obviously didn’t believe at the level that you could call abiding, or holding fast, or persevering.

All this reminds me of the parable of the sower and the seed that started to grow and then got choked out by thorns. Were those beginnings of a plant ever “Christians”? Not by the definition that the Bible gives.

Published in: on February 28, 2018 at 6:18 pm  Comments (6)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

God’s Plan And The World—A Reprise

For God so loved the world, John 3:16 says. And yet there are people who think Christians are some kind of exclusive club looking to keep out people who aren’t like us.

First, Christianity doesn’t belong to Christians. It belongs to God. Second, it isn’t a club, though it is a relationship—first with God.

Jesus told a story to illustrate how His plan of redemption and reconciliation works.

A rich ruler decided to put on a banquet. He sent out invitations, but one after the other the people he wanted at his feast sent their regrets: A new responsibility needed attention. Another important relationship had to take priority. Too busy to squeeze in the time.

Fine, the ruler said to his servants. They don’t want to come, then they don’t get to come. Invite people from all walks of life, no matter what their status, what their occupation, even the beggars.

When everyone arrived, there was still room for more people, so the rich man sent out his servants again, this time to the places where criminals were apt to hang out, and told them to compel the people to come.

At last the banquet got underway, but one person wasn’t dressed appropriately. Why aren’t you wearing banqueting attire? the host asked. The guest had no answer, so he was put out.

The banquet is a metaphor for the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” the great celebration God has prepare for His people. But “His people” aren’t necessarily who you’d expect. They aren’t an exclusive set handpicked for their charm, wit, intelligence, skill, power, prestige, or money. They are simply those who accepted the invitation. In contrast, those who are too self-important, too determined to go their own way, won’t accept the invitation. And some might accept but won’t come prepared.

This story, this word picture (actually two versions—one in Matt. 22 and the other in Luke 14—which I’ve compressed into one), makes several things clear. First, those who ended up at the rich man’s table, enjoying the feast, did nothing to earn their invitation.

Most of them were going their own way, expecting to do something different, be somewhere else, and suddenly the invitation comes—there’s a banquet, and you’re invited.

To accept such an invitation, it seems to me a person would have to realize what an honor, what a privilege had come their way. If they thought, No big deal; I can throw my own banquet if I want to—then chances are, they wouldn’t put a great deal of priority in attending. If they had plenty of food and weren’t particularly hungry, they could easily have thought ill of the invitation—what a bother, in the middle of the work day? he can’t expect me to drop everything and come just because he’s throwing a party.

But for the people who were out of work, who begged just to buy a scrap of food, who had never sat at a banqueting table in their lives, this invitation had to be the best news they’d ever heard.

Of course, there may have been some who didn’t think the invitation was real. What, you think you’d be invited up to the mansion for a party? You’re deluded. Or someone is scamming you. You’ll show up and somebody will jump out from the bushes and shout, April Fool, and you’re it. I mean, no one, no one in their right mind, invites a bunch of riffraff to share their table.

So the people who benefit from this invitation don’t earn it, but they must trust that the invitation is true.

The_Marriage_Feast_by_MillaisThe part of the story that has long given me trouble is the part about the guy getting put out for not wearing the proper clothes. I’d think none of those beggars or poor or the ones coming in from the highways and the byways would have the proper clothes either. I can only conclude, the banquet attire was something the host provided for his guests, so the man who was dressed inappropriately had no excuse. Which his silence would seem to corroborate.

So there’s God’s plan for the world. He invites, and we either accept or reject. Nothing exclusive about it. In reality, none of us can provide our own banquet. We might think we can, but that’s delusional. Only God can provide what we need. Our role in the matter is to recognize our need and His provision, then trust that He will give what He said He would give. That trust, I believe, is the proper clothing we need. Trying to go to His banquet all dressed up in our own rags of self-righteousness will surely get us barred from the table.

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2015.

From The Archives: Holiness Means What Again?

Pole_vault_barThis article is a revised version first of one that appeared here back in May 2011 as part of a discussion with author Mike Duran about the meaning of holiness.

To understand holiness we need to start with God because He alone is holy. Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (“And [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” -Heb. 1:3a), gave us the insight we need in His “Sermon on the Mount.”

In part He said the following:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court …

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, … But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, …

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [selected verses from Matt. 5, emphasis added]

raise the barThe point I’m making is that Jesus set the bar where it belonged—at perfection, starting not with our external actions but with our thoughts and intentions and desires.

In so doing, He exposed us all because none of us is perfect. We all know this, even the most convinced atheist who doesn’t even believe in a moral standard. But because our hearts are desperately wicked, because we are so easily deceived, Jesus laid it out for us.

Now we can’t think evil thoughts about another person, while on the outside smile and help him fix his flat tire, then come away with a sense of goodness. Those evil thoughts pin us to the wall. Sure, we might fool others, and even ourselves if we refuse to look closely, but we aren’t fooling God.

The very pride we might feel at living an externally moral life, or at pointing out someone else’s activities which we categorize as moral failings, shows the real problem: we are, at heart, people who want to be God. That’s the sin the Fall infected us with.

We Christians are missing the point if we look at drug addicts or homosexuals or rapists or corrupt politicians or corporate criminals and think their problem is their external behavior. No doubt their external behavior complicates their lives, but their problem is their rejection of the grace of God He has lovingly and generously supplied through Christ, that which would provide the forgiveness they need.

No amount of “clean living” will change what they need—substitutionary payment for the insurmountable debt they owe. Their lives are forfeit. Putting away cigarettes, unplugging from pornography, taking the four-letter words out of their vocabulary, or any other external and all of them combined, isn’t going to change their standing before God.

Or mine.

We can enter His presence, enjoy a relationship with Him as His child, by grace alone.

But what about holiness? That’s where this started. Holiness is my response to my holy God.

– – –

For related posts, see “Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word” and “Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on January 16, 2018 at 6:21 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , ,