Sabbath

I’ve written elsewhere about how Jesus interacted with different aspects of the Law. I’d like to revisit that topic and dig a little deeper into the issue of Sabbath, the day of rest, and how Jesus reinterpreted and revealed it.

A little history

We first encounter the idea of a day of rest in Genesis 2:2. After spending 6 days creating the world, God took a day off. He wasn’t tired, but he decided that a day spent leisurely enjoying his creation would be a good thing. God thought this was such a great idea that he blessed the seventh day, making it holy.

While it was God’s model to rest on the seventh day, we don’t have any indication that anyone observed it from Adam to Moses. The Patriarchs seemed to treat each weekday alike, though they did have a few festivals and holy days they observed. The Sabbath, as we know it, was codified by Moses in Exodus 20:8-11

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

After 400 years in slavery, working hard all day every day, God liberated his people. Sabbath was a deliverence of their souls as much as the exodus was a deliverence of their bodies. God commanded his people to celebrate freedom and to trust in his ability to provide. The Israelites were freed from having their identities wrapped up in how hard they worked or how much they could produce. They were forced to reckon with a God who provided for them abundantly – no longer were they living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. Sabbath was a celebration of freedom and prosperity.

Sabbath is about rest and freedom

Sabbath was a gift God gave to his children and to everyone who was a part of the nation. No one could work on the Sabbath day – wives couldn’t cook or clean, slaves couldn’t serve, even animals had to stay in their stalls. Even foreigners in Israel were required to rest, they couldn’t buy or sell or conduct any business in the nation. 

Sabbath was intended to lead the nation of Israel into increasing freedom. It was supposed to help them enjoy God, his creation and one another. It was supposed to remind them of their captivity and how they had been set free. It was supposed to remind them that there are far more important things than earning a paycheck. Most importantly, Sabbath was supposed to get the people thinking about God — God didn’t need to rest after creating the world, he is Almighty after all, so why did he? Jesus gives us a hint – “sabbath was made for man,” Mark 2:27. Sabbath was God’s gift to humanity, to set us free, to keep our spirits alive and vibrant. But it quickly got turned into a tool to manipulate and control. The true meaning of Sabbath was lost and it became a dead ritual.

Sabbath is about setting other people free

In Luke 6, we see Jesus beautifully reinterpret Sabbath law in two instances.

First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a wheat field and the disciples, presumably hungry, pick some of the grains of wheat and eat them. This greatly offended the religious elite, for harvesting grain was forbidden on the sabbath. In turn, Jesus tells a story from 1 Samuel, when David was on the run and took the Bread of the Presence off of the altar and ate it. His point in sharing this story was to say that, if ever human need and religious observance collide, human need comes out on top. It doesn’t rightly represent God to let someone go hungry so that you can “follow the rules.” Jewish rabbis have often asked the question: If someone is drowning at the time of prayer, what do you do? You go and help that person – they need your help, God does not. Jesus stands in this tradition.

The second instance is when Jesus comes to synagogue and sees a man with a withered hand sitting there. Since it is illegal to do work on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders were watching Jesus to see what he would do. If he healed the man, he would be breaking the law and, therefore, could not possibly be from God.

Knowing their hearts, Jesus calls the man to the front of the room and asks the congregation a question, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good, or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Jesus looks each person straight in the eye and proceeds to heal the man. The religious leaders are furious and begin to plot Jesus’s death.

Jesus says that doing good is lawful on the Sabbath. He also implies that not helping someone, when it is well within your power to do so, is evil. The reason for this is simple: Sabbath is about setting other people free – free from hurt, hunger, homelessness, oppression and injustice. Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah 58, reinterpretting Sabbath to mean freedom just as Isaiah reinterpreted fasting to mean justice. 

“Us” and “Our”

Jesus taught his disciples a radical understanding of community in the Disciple’s Prayer, he taught them to pray in the plural. “Our Father… give us today our daily bread…” In community, I can’t truly be full if someone else is hungry, I can’t really be warm if someone else is without clothing or shelter and I certainly can’t rest when  someone else is oppressed or enslaved. There is no “me/my” in Jesus’s model prayer, there is only “us/our” and the yearning to see God’s Kingdom manifest on the earth. 

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live with this wonderfully reinterpreted understanding of Sabbath. Should we each take a day off each week for leisure and enjoyment? Absolutely! We should also understand that Sabbath, setting people free from the tyranny of sin, sickness, demons, death and worldly systems of oppression, is a lifestyle to be engaged in every day, not just talked about once a week.

Jesus, our Lord, is Lord over the Sabbath. He is our Jubilee, the cancelation of our debts, the restoration of our inheritance and the power we need to overcome every work of the enemy. May God bless you with good success in your efforts to set people free this week.

Thanks for reading friends.

Palm Sunday

As a Pastor, I have a love/hate relationship with Palm Sunday. 

I love my memories of being a child, marching in triumphant procession through the sanctuary waving a palm branch and singing. It was festive and fun and one of the only roles of significance the children had in “big church”. It was a time of proclaiming Jesus as Lord, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

Yet, as a pastor now looking back on those times, it seems to be a studied case of missing the point. Yes, men and women and children shouted and celebrated as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey’s colt. Yes, the city resounded with praise for this miracle worker from Galilee. Yet just a few days later, these same people who shouted Jesus’s name in praise were shouting for him to be crucified. Palm Sunday, in many ways, represents our hypocrisy – it betrays the superficial devotion of our hearts. 

Palm Sunday is, for me, one of the saddest days of the year. The crowds were so excited because they thought they could enthrone a puppet-king, a god who was just like them. Yet not even a week under his “rule,” after seeing the threat he was to their self-satisfied religious elitism and his refusal to be defined by their expectations, these same crowds bowed to the status quo, condemning the Righteous One to death. Palm Sunday is the exultation of an idol. Easter is the exultation of the One True God. Amazing how different the crowds were on those two days.  

Palm Sunday is a rude awakening for my soul because it brings to mind all the times I call Jesus “Lord,” but don’t actually do what he says. It is a convicting reminder that I really like God when it seems that he is just like me, but that I often rebel when it becomes clear that he is not. “I AM WHO I AM. I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE!” declares God to Moses in the burning bush. “I AM NO ONE’S PUPPET KING.”  

I’d love to be exuberant this Palm Sunday, but it just isn’t in me. I find myself consumned with questions of my own devotion – how to serve this man who comes in fulfillment of all prophecy, who is God Incarnate and so completely other, yet who wants to be known and who calls me friend? How do I go beyond a superficial faith into one of substance, intimacy and obedience? How do I submit myself and posture my heart to receive God on his own terms, for who he is, and not who I want him to be?

Wether you share my struggles with Palm Sunday or not, I wish you a good start to Holy Week and I pray you encounter and experience God in a fresh way this year. Thanks for reading friends. 

Persistance Trumps Intensity

How badly do you want it? No matter what “it” is, there are only two ways to answer that question. 

The first is to answer with momentary intensity – I want it bad! I want it now! Your desire is intense and all consuming, yet ultimately fleeting. You want something else just as badly a few days or weeks down the road.

The second way to answer the question, ‘How badly do you want it,’ is with consistent, persistant pursuit. The internal fire of this answer may not be quite so spectacular as the first, but it is far more constant. And far more useful. This kind of answer perseveres in hard times and doesn’t ever quit. This answer is the thousands of minute decisions that serve the purpose of fulfilling a larger goal. This is the only answer that has ever brought meaningful and beneficial change to the world.

To paraphrase a popular Russian proverb, “The quality of a man’s character is not in the intensity of his emotion, but in its duration.” It doesn’t matter how much you want “it” right now – how much do you want “it” next month? Next year? Next decade? Only a sustained focus will take you to those extraordinary places you want to go.

I’ve purposefully left “it” up to your imagination, for this concept applies to many different situations – following Jesus, pursuing revival, starting your own business, traveling the world, learning to play the guitar, loosing weight. In our instant everything society we have developed collective ADD. Trends, fads and fashions come and going with alarming speed and regularity – who the heck is One Direction and does anyone remember Hanson? 

I wonder if the recent surge in popularity of the more liturgical mainline denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian)  has more to do with their cultural steadfastness than their superior theology? 

In any event, persistance over time, a long obedience in the same direction as Eugene Peterson might say, is the only way to a truly transformed life. Emotional intensity is a beautiful thing, but if it isn’t paired with pragmatic, dogged determination to continue forward no matter what comes, then it is a beauty that dies before its time. I’d rather chart my course on the map I know to be true than to simply sniff the wind and sail in whatever direction seems most pleasant at the time. And the fascinating thing is, as I continue to choose to go in the same direction over and over again, my emotions come into alignment – they begin to burn with sustained intensity over the things that really matter. 

We can’t substitute praying for obeying

I am putting together some teaching notes on revival for a conference I am speaking at towards the end of April and stumbled across this gut-punch from A.W. Tozer:

“Have you noticed how much praying for revival has been going on of late — and how little revival has resulted? I believe the problem is that we have been trying to substitute praying for obeying, and it simply will not work.”

As someone who spent several years regularly praying for revival each week, that statement carries a lot of “Ouch!” However, it is absolutely true and one of the draw backs I see with an overly spiritualized understanding of revival. We can’t substitute praying for obeying – no matter how fervently we pray, if we don’t actually do the stuff we’re praying about, nothing will ever change. 

Wether it is getting into better shape, making more money or starting a revival – prayer only takes us so far before tangible actions must take palce in order to realize those desires. Human beings are made to work, work is spiritual. More precise: work is the means whereby spiritual desires become physical realities. Human beings unite the spiritual and the physical – our very nature is to pull the unseen/intangible spirit world into the world perceived by our senses. That may sound rather esoteric, but take your house as an example. That house first began as a dream inside a builder’s mind. The architect put it onto paper, but it was still intangible as of yet – no one could live in it. Then a series of people took that blueprint and made it a reality – something of substance that has measurable impact on the world. No matter what we are called to do, this is the essence of who we are.

Prayer tills the soil and work plants the seed, but it is still God who makes it grow. Sowing seed into untilled soil might produce a small crop, but much will go to waste. However, having perfectly tilled soil with nothing planted is foolish and unproductive because nothing will grow. Because God sovereignly refuses to violate our free will, we have to give him something to work with – in this case, our willing and obedient hearts. Prayer, the type of intercession that births revival, is certainly strenuous, but it is not the kind of work I’m talking about here. The kind of work I am talking about is taking the risks of the Kingdom: praying for the sick, proclaiming the Good News, feeding the hungry with food and Truth. 

I know that I have been guilty all too often of wanting to substitute praying for obeying – for actually doing the stuff that Jesus commands me to do. Praying is safe, it is fun, it feels productive. And it is productive, but it will never produce a harvest on its own. Jesus said, “Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” Prayer mobilizes workers, it does not replace them. Conversely, obeying is work – hard work. It is inconvenient, it requires me to risk, to fail. Obedience requires me to be on point, to be in constant communion with God for the sake of others and not consumed with my own little life. Obedience is sacrifice. 

I am so thankful that Holy Spirit led me to Tozer’s quote – I needed a Reality check. I’m not in this thing called “following Jesus” to lead a safe, comfortable life. I’m in this because God revealed himself to me and called me to serve him and this is what service looks like. If God calls me, us, to do hard things, then so be it – we are more than conquerors through Christ. 

Blessing to you my friends!

Holiness

Holiness = separate, set apart, cut off from the world

Luke 5:17 introduces us to a group of people who end up being one of Jesus’s main antagonists in the Gospels, they are known as “the Pharisees.” “Pharisee” means “to be separate” or “set apart.” Interestingly, we use that same definition for the word “holy.” I don’t think this is by accident.

The Pharisees were the holy ones of Israel. They were fastidious about obeying the minutest command of the Law and extremely zealous for their own personal holiness. They were the strictest sect one could belong to in Judaism. The Pharisees’s zeal stemmed from a noble belief, the belief that if everyone in Israel would obey the Law for just a single day, that would be enough to usher in the reign of God on the earth. Therefore, they were outspoken advocates for obeying the Law and outrightly shunned those who were lax in their devotion.

The Pharisees correctly understood the Old Covenant concept of holiness. In the Old Covenant, holiness was a commodity, a resource one could gain or lose depending on certain actions. This is where many of the Ceremonial (clean/unclean) Laws came from. Interestingly, the only way to gain holiness in the Old Covenant was by abstention. Every vow available to the Israelites to increase holiness required them to abstain from certain things: like drinking alcohol, cutting their hair, being in the presence of a dead body, etc. This led to the idea that holiness was all about seperating oneself from the world, abstaining, staying pure.

Holiness was a fragile reality on the Old Covenant. Eating something on accident, someone having a heart attack in your presence or countless other things would negate any holiness you had aquired, for you had become ceremonially unclean. Thus, you would have to do whatever was necessary to become ceremonially clean again and start all over. So you can understand why the Pharisees were so freaked out by Jesus and so offended at the things he did. Jesus broke all of their rules. He lived by a different understanding of holiness.

Holiness = attached to God

When Jesus came and inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven on the Earth, he brought with him a different understanding of holiness. By default, everything in Heaven is holy. Why? Because everyone there lives in ever present awareness and worship of God. The one time someone (satan) consciously chose to cut themselves off from that awareness they were booted out of Heaven.

Jesus brought the holiness of Heaven to earth. He lived with an ever present awareness of Immanuel, the God who is with us, and made his home in our Father’s love. Jesus taught us that the holiness of the New Covenant is radically different than the holiness of the Old Covenant. Holiness in the New Covenant starts with being attached to God in loving relationship and results in loving attachment (relationship) to others. Furthermore, the holiness of the New Covenant is never lost because it never gets dirty. Holiness in the New Covenant is simply undefilable. In the New Covenant, when the holy and unholy meet, the dirty get clean and the sick get healed, not the other way around.

The Jesus brand of holiness breaks all the rules. No longer is holiness defined by what you don’t do – instead, holiness is all about manifesting the love of God by loving others. Holiness is where the awareness of a loving God touches human need.

Every time Jesus broke the rules it was to show love to someone in need. Hungry disciples and hurting people trumped Sabbath restriction. The desire to restore someone to wholeness overrode the social taboos concerning sickness, disease or the proper interactions between a man and a woman. Love for sinners led Jesus into situations that pricked the religious sensitivities of those in power. In all of these situations, Jesus demonstrated that holiness doesn’t get dirty, doesn’t seperate us from those in need and doesn’t bow to social pressure.

Holiness is fun

At one point in time, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). Evidently, Jesus partied so much with the wrong crowd that he gained a reputation for corrupt character. Of course, Jesus was neither of those things (drunkeness is condemned all throughout Scripture), but it is interesting that he had gained that reputation in religious circles.

Imagine if you read in the paper that a pastor in your city routinely hung out with prostitutes and drug addicts and was also seen carrying a keg into a frat house known for its wild parties. What do you think the tone of that article would be? What do you think the response of the Christian community in that city would be? What would YOU personally think? Talk about scandal, right? Yet this is who Jesus was.

I think we have an outdated view of holiness in the America. We’ve held on to the Old Covenant style of holiness and failed to embrace the New. As Paul says, “Such things have an appearance of godliness, but deny its power.” Abstaining from certain things (like drinking alcohol) sure seems holy, but it really does nothing to change your interior life. Only a vibrant relationship with God can do that.

Holiness based on seperation from the world will never bring about the righteousness God desires because we are called to love the world. It is only by bringing the limitless resources of God’s affection into the depths of human need that we begin to see what holiness is all about. Holiness sets people free through love, kindness and compassion. Holiness eradicates sin through Spirit empowered self-sacrifice. Holiness touches the untouchable and breaks all the rules. Holiness elevates human need above religious observance.

Holiness is the polar opposite of Pharisee. Where Pharisees push away, Jesus embraces. Where Pharisees shun, Jesus loves. Where Pharisees are concerned about what God thinks about them, Jesus is concerned with what God thinks about others. Jesus lived with an intense awareness of God’s Presence and character. This allowed him to interact with others in a way that revealed God as Love, this is the essense of holiness. No matter how strict our outward observance, if we don’t represent God as Love then we have missed the boat.

Holiness is not conformity to the world

Some take the message of holiness, love and grace too far and advocate for outright immorality – such was the case with the Corinthians. They were so amazed at the message of grace and tolerance that they celebrated the fact that someone in their congregation was having sex with his father’s wife. They wrote to Paul thinking that he would be overjoyed with how loving, accepting, and tolerant they were. Here is Paul’s response:

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: a man is sleeping with his father’s wife! And you are proud? Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, that you may be a new unleavened batch — as you really are.”

1 Corinthians 5:1-2,6 emphasis mine

There is such a thing as sin and it can ruin your life and the lives of others if left unchecked. Holiness does not celebrate or condone sin in ourselves or others, but neither does it fear sin. Holiness enters into a dark situation and sheds light. Holiness tenderly touches disease and dysfunction in order to bring healing. In order to bring light, there must be darkness. In order to bring healing, there must be disease. It isn’t wrong to admit that.

Jesus never embraced the sinful lifestyles of the people he befriended, yet they never felt judged, condemned or looked down upon. In fact, it seems like they had so much respect for this miracle working Rabbi that they ended up changing their own behaviors as they followed him. Jesus didn’t condemn sinners, but he did encourage them to leave their livestyles of sin.

Our chief concern as Christians is to represent God well. In order to do that, we must know who He is! We must know his character, his likes and dislikes and what he says is or is not appropriate in the lives of people, ourselves included. Many of the things we think God is concerned about, he really isn’t. And other things we think are insignificant are actually huge issues in his sight. I can’t tell you what those things are in your life, but he can.

I believe holiness needs to be radically redefined in most people’s minds. Holiness is primarily about representing and manifesting the character of God. Holiness is fun, God conscious and enjoys meeting human need in extravagant displays of love. New Covenant holiness goes far beyond seperation and detachment from the world – it goes on to attachment with God for the sake of the world.

Thanks for reading friends.

“But I want you to know…”

Luke 5:17-26, the story of Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed man, is a really difficult story for me. Here is the story from the ESV:

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal.[d] 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

When Jesus sees the paraplegic man dangling in front of him, the first thing he does is forgive him his sins. This troubles the religious leaders because it goes against God’s word – only God could forgive sins and that happened only after a specific sacrifice was offered. When Jesus speaks forgiveness he effectively asserts that he is greater than the Law, even greater than the Temple – he makes himself equal to God. Of course, to us as Christians, this makes total sense. But to the Jews of Jesus’s day it was blasphemy.

Jesus addresses the religious leaders and their unbelief and then offers the most troubling part of the passage, “‘I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” so he said to the man who was paralyzed, “rise up, pick up your mat and go home.'” Why do I find this troubling? Because Jesus never required people to believe in his ability to forgive sins on faith alone – he always offered them proof through signs, wonders and miracles. In this passage Jesus directly links his authority to forgive with his ability to heal.

My Struggle

This troubles me as a Christian, and especially as a pastor, because Jesus is my model for life and ministry. If Jesus didn’t require people to receive forgiveness of their sins by faith, then neither should I. But that is about the only thing I can ask people to do because I live a largely powerless life as a Christian. I can’t say to people with any confidence, “I want you to know that Jesus has the ability to forgive your sins, therefore, be healed! Know that what Jesus just did for your body he can do for your whole life – he is the only one who can make you right with God.” I WANT to say that, but I’m really afraid to. Putting someone’s faith and salvation on the line in that way terrifies me and seems amazingly irresponsible.

Yet Jesus did it. (John 10:37)

In John 14:11 Jesus appeals to the miracles he performed as proof of his unique relationship with God. He said that even if someone didn’t believe his words, they could at least look at his miracles to see proof of his claim to be God’s son, to be the perfect representation of the Father.  In John 15:24 Jesus acknowledges that the miracles he performed revealed the character of God (healer, redeemer, restorer) and says, “If I hadn’t done among them what no one else did, they wouldn’t be guilty of sin…” Jesus argues that it was his demonstration of the Gospel that brought condemnation and guilt on those who persisted in unbelief. Words are cheap, and it is hard to prove actual spiritual change has occured using them – so Jesus appealed to miracles as proof that what he had said actually happened. That floors me.

My Desire

I want to be able to proclaim and demonstrate the Good News of the Kingdom just like Jesus did. I want people to have absolute confidence in Jesus’s invisible work in their hearts/spirits because they have witnessed Jesus’s visible work in their body, soul or mind. If someone comes to salvation and faith in Jesus by words alone, then they have tremendous faith and will be greatly blessed (John 20:29), but if I can’t also demonstrate the Realities I speak of, then something is really, really wrong.

The burden of proof

How is anyone to trust in Jesus without proof? The claims of Christianity are off the charts. We believe that a man died on a cross 2,000 years ago, was raised from the dead and levitated into Heaven to sit on the Throne of an invisible, yet all-powerful God. We believe this man is still alive 2,000 years later and is some day soon going to descend out of Heaven to establish a literal Kingdom on the earth. We believe that this man’s sacrifice, death and resurrection secured for us eternal life and an extravagant inheritance if only we will submit ourselves to him and take up his life as our own. We believe that we will reign with him on the earth forever

Friends, believing in something that outlandish without proof takes great faith – and some people have it! But we shouldn’t be surprised if others (atheists) require some sort of proof from us. The burden of proof isn’t on them – it is on us who bear the name of Christ. I don’t look for proof of unicorns because I don’t believe they exist. If someone in my life insists that unicorns are real, they are going to have to show me some proof in real life – photoshopped images or stories of other people who have seen unicorns won’t cut it. Why should it be any different with atheists and God?

The burden of proof is only problematic if we don’t believe God will come through. Do we? Are we willing to take that risk? Reading through the book of Acts, it is striking how many times you will read “and the Lord confirmed his word through the signs that accompanied it.” How do we know it is his word if he isn’t confirming it?

I know I’m over-emphasizing miracles

I know I’m over-emphasizing miracles and I’m doing so for a reason. My intent is not to cast anyone into doubt or despair, but I do want to draw attention to a hole in our presentation of the Gospel. We are called to proclaim AND demonstrate the Gospel, just like Jesus did. Every time Jesus comissions his disciples/the Church it is for that purpose (Luke 9, Luke 11, Mark 16, Acts 2). We are in error if we know the word of God, but not his power (Matt. 22:29). 

My intent in this post is to share with you my journey in trying to live out the fullness of the Christian life and to convince you to join me in trying to do the same. I’ve tried to be transparent with my doubts and struggles, and I hope that hasn’t put you off. I am absolutely convinced that it was (and is) Jesus’s intention to pass on his miracle ministry to the Church so that we can do what he did – save sinners, represent the true nature of our Father and do what no one else can do so that those who persist in unbelief are rightfully condemned. 

Only in Jesus is there forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is the most basic confession of the Christian faith. How people respond to that Truth will affect them for all of eternity, therefore, it is essential for us to present them with the most compelling presentation of the Gospel we can – clear arguments and a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.  I hope you will join me in trying to fill in this hole in our Gospel presentation because Jesus wants people to know that he has power and authority to forgive sins and change lives… and he wants to give  them that certainty by healing their bodies or the people they love.

Thanks for reading friends.

Kindness Leading to Repentance

Luke 5

I love the story in Luke 5 of Jesus, Peter and the miraculous catch of fish. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, please allow me to recap:

Jesus has become quite a popular teacher, so much so that crowds of people press around him, making it difficult for him to teach and for others to hear. One day, Jesus is walking by the lake and sees two fishing boats. He walks up to Simon Peter and asks him to row out a little from shore so that Jesus can teach the people without being crowded. Peter agrees, and after he is done teaching, Jesus says to Peter, “Row out a little further and put down your fishing net, you’re going to catch a great number of fish.” Now, Peter and his companions have been fishing all night and they were just cleaning up for the day when Jesus came up to them. A tired, cranky, mildly irritated Peter responds, “Look, your obviously not a fisherman. If you were, you’d know that the fish only come up to where we can catch them during the night. During the day they are too far down for our nets to reach. But I see that you are a teacher, a holy man, so because you say so, I will… again.” Sure enough, Peter catches enough fish that the net starts to break and the boat starts to sink. Peter’s response is absolutely priceless – “Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Peter’s Response

Jesus doesn’t say anything about Peter’s character or behavior, Jesus doesn’t do anything but bless Peter with extravagent abundance. Jesus turned a fruitless evening into a bounteous affair. It is estimated that the number of fish they caught that day would have been the equivilent of two weeks worth of hard work. And here it is, almost jumping into their boat.

Peter could have expressed any number of emotions: elation, gratitude, joy. Instead, Peter is suddenly aware that he is in God’s crosshairs. He is moved to confess his sin, how he has fallen short.  God Almighty has turned his full attention onto Peter in order to bless him and he does so in the midst of Peter’s grumpiness. I think this is a timeless principle for evangelism and a beautiful representation of Father’s heart for his kids. 

God Delights in Showing Kindness and Compassion

Jesus chose to reveal to Peter our Father’s nature. He chose to show Peter how kind, gracious and good God was towards him. He chose to not call Peter out for his grumpiness and unbelief – instead, he chose to bless Peter in an extravagent and tangible way. And Peter, confronted with the goodness, kindness, and compassion of God, comes to a place of repentance. He realizes how far away he is from God and feels unworthy of this kind of Love. He understands that his life has not been lived in a way that honors God or responds to the Goodness he has been shown. Like Adam in the Garden, he wants to hide in guilt and shame from the Lover of his soul.

Kindness is part of who God is. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It is something that we as Christians should exhibit in growing measure as we go from glory to glory, being conformed and transformed into the character of Christ. Showing kindness to people, genuine and extravagent kindness, is a powerful way of re-presenting our Father to this orphaned planet. The kindness I’m speaking of goes far beyond generic good deeds – they are inspired acts of love. They are extravagent and they are specific. They might looks like roses or prophetic words. They might pop into your head or they might take awhile to plan. Whatever they are, intentional and extravagent acts of love carry with them the power of God to open up hearts to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

I don’t want the kindness of God to be a secret we keep from the world. I want everyone, especially the people of my city, to understand that God is kind, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. I want them to know what is feels like to have God’s full attention fixed on them and to know that God isn’t angry with  them or disappointed in them. Instead, I want them to understand that He knows them AND loves them. I want them to know that they can’t escape from God’s goodness and mercy. I want them to be confronted with the outrageous extravagence of a God who loves them so much He was willing to die for them. That is the truth of who God is. It is Good News. They really should hear about it.

Understanding “The Law”

Hi friends, I got the following email this morning from someone and I thought it asked some great questions. There seems to be a lot of talk right now in Christian circles about the Law, the Gospel, Grace and how those things all fit together. I thought I’d chime in with my thoughts. First, the email:

Morning Ben-
I am reading Luke Chapter 5 and the man with leprosy was healed by Jesus and He tells him to present an offerring for his purification. Why don’t we do that now? I know that was part of the law, right? But when in the Bible does this become something we as Christians don’t practice.  Does that make sense? I am really trying to understand these details better. 

What is “the Law”?

Whenever Christians/theologians talk about the Law (capital “L”) they are talking about the first five books of the Bible, otherwise known as “the Torah” or “the books of Moses.” The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They describe the story of God making covenant with the Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and, finally, the people of Israel. “The Law” refers to the commands that God gave to the Israelites as part of his covenental agreement. The Law was supposed to distinguish the Jewish people from every other people on the face of the Earth and consisted of 3 types of commands: ceremonial laws, moral laws and religious observances. There were 613 different laws that a Jew needed to abide by in order to live under the covenental blessing of God. To break one of them was to be guilty of breaking them all. In order to try and protect the (illiterate) people from breaking one of God’s laws, the priests/levites/rabbis/scribes created additional laws called “the hedge.” These are the “rules taught by men” that Jesus so strongly criticized.

An example of “the hedge” is found in Genesis. In Genesis 2:16, God said to Adam, “You are free to eat of any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…” However, just one chapter later, the serpent quizzes Eve about God’s commands, her response? “The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it…”” Genesis 3:2-3.

God didn’t say they couldn’t touch the tree, Adam did. Adam was trying to protect his wife from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and breaking God’s command, so he told her to not even touch it or else she would die. Well, that was an easy door for Satan to exploit. Eve only needed to touch the tree (which was perfectly permissable) and not die, then she was easy pickings. She broke a man made rule which then gave her confidence to break a God made rule – not good.

By the time Jesus enters the scene, many of the Jews had stopped trying to obey the Law. God’s rules and man’s rules were so confused and conflated that many people just gave up trying. Jesus reinterprets many of the Laws and totally ignored others. He gave people hope that they too could live a life pleasing to God.

The 3 categories of Law 

As I mentioned before, there were 3 categories of Law: ceremonial law, moral law and religious observances.

Ceremonial law dealt with the issues of being clean or unclean. One needed to be ceremonially clean in order to worship at the Temple. Ceremonial, or cleanliness, laws included kosher dietary laws, what to do with certain types of illnesses, infections and molds, how to interact with women on their periods, what to do about dead bodies and many other kinds of things. Being “clean” or “unclean” was a HUGE issue for the Jewish people. To be “unclean” was to be excluded from worship, family and community life and there were involved rituals and sacrifices needed in order to “get clean” and be reinstated to the community.

Moral law dealt with how the people should behave as God’s covenental people. I use “moral” in this sense to mean “accurately reflecting the character and nature of God” not in the sense of “good/bad”. Laws that represent the Moral law category would be, “Don’t bear false witness. Don’t covet. Don’t steal.” God doesn’t do any of those things, so the people who bear his image shouldn’t do them either. Moral law is an interesting category because it requires an intense study of the character of God and how we live in the tension of being called to be like him, yet still falling short this side of the Resurrection.

The final category, what I call Religious Observances, are the Laws given by God specifically to the Jews to make them unique from any other people. Some Jewish dietary laws fall under this category, as does the Sabbath, the Jubilee and various other Feast days. The most famous of these Laws is the prohibition to the Jews of worshipping any god than YHWH. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, religious observances are what caused the Jews the most amount of persecution when they followed them.

How Jesus interacted with the various categories of Law

As Christians, it is vitally important to understand what ended with Jesus and the Cross, what changed and what carried through virtually intact. It is also essential to understand the the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New and that the New Covenant interprets the Old. Basically, this means that if you are reading through the Old Testament and come across a Law, then you must go to the New Testament to study how Jesus and the authors of the New Testament dealt with that particular subject. The New Testament understanding of the Law supersedes the Old Testament understanding.

Jesus and Ceremonial Law

Jesus demolished ceremonial Law with his understanding and teaching of sonship and intimacy with the Father. Jesus was so in love with God, so filled with the Spirit, that he was undefileable. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could make Jesus unclean or unworthy to be in God’s Presence because he was and is God’s Beloved Son. In the Old Covenant, if a leper touched you, you became unclean. With Jesus, when lepers touched him they got healed! Jesus’s radical understanding of Grace and the Love of God allowed him to effectively set aside the requirements of ceremonial law. As Christians, our lives are hidden in Christ, we are filled with his Spirit and the power of Jesus’s resurrection flows in our veins – we are God’s beloved sons and daughters and nothing, absolutely nothing, makes us unfit to be in God’s Presence. We can come with confidence before the Throne of Grace because of Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf.

Jesus and Moral Law

Jesus was and is the fulfillment of moral law – he is the perfect representation of the Father. Every moral law in the Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is our model and standard in terms of character and, while he set the standard high, it isn’t beyond our ability to duplicate by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In many ways, Jesus intensified the demands of moral law. In the Old Covenant, as long as you didn’t actually have sex with a woman who wasn’t your wife, you could oogle her all day and be just fine. But Jesus says that to look at a woman lustfully is the same as having comitted adultery with her. Similarly, in the Old Covenant, as long as you didn’t physically assalt and kill someone you could despise them in your heart all you wanted, but in the New Covenant, simply cussing someone out internally puts you in danger of the fires of Hell – why? Because free will doesn’t go away in eternity.

Think about it, in the beginning, God created everything and everyone absolutely PERFECT. How, then, did  Lucifer fall?  Lucifer had free will and used it poorly. He indulged in internal fantasies of what it would feel like to be the one worshipped, rather than the one worshipping. Satan wasn’t created evil – he became evil as he used his free will to create a wicked fantasy of himself sitting in God’s place. Jesus set the standard of moral law so high so that we would have to engage in a lifelong pursuit of being conformed to his character and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus gives us ample opportunity in this life (and in the Millenial Kingdom) to learn to distinguish Good and Godly thoughts from carnal and sinful desires. We are being trained to live in ABSOLUTE FREEDOM for eternity as we obediently respond to Holy Spirit convicting us of sin and less-than-pure motives.

Jesus and Religious Observances

Jesus embraced his Jewish roots and identity, but on his own terms. Jesus did observe certain rituals and feast days, but other things, like the Sabbath, he reinterpreted  so that they would be more life-giving.

In the book of Acts, we see the Church wrestling with Jewish culture and religious observances. As the Gospel spread like wildfire across the Roman Empire and thousands upon thousands of Gentiles (non Jews) entered into God’s family and eternal life, the question arose “what do we do with them?”  Some people wanted “Christian” and “observant Jew” to be one and the same thing. They wanted to circumcise the Gentiles and make them live like Jews. Others, notably the Apostles Peter and Paul,  argued that God’s Spirit was given to the Gentiles, and to the whole Church, as a gift, not because they had been faithful to obey the Law. The compromise was to create some distinctly “Christian laws” that would differentiate the Christian church from other Gentile religions and protect the intent of the Law to set apart a people holy to the Lord. The four laws the Jerusalem Council agreed upon in Acts 15 were: 1) To abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols, 2) from blood (presumably from eating food with blood in it, but some have argued that it means from violence or “shedding blood”),  3) from the meat of strangled animals  and, 4) from sexual immorality. Paul seems to have theological disagreements with numbers 1, 2 and 3 later on, arguing that all food is clean if it is received with thanksgiving, but he vigorously upholds number 4.

Ultimately, it appears that if you were a Gentile when you became a Christian, you should remain a Gentile and if you were a Jew, then you should remain a Jew (culturally speaking of course). And in instances where Jews and Gentiles are part of the same congregation, they need to be gracious to one another and try to do whatever they can to minimize offense and celebrate freedom. They must trust that each person is doing what they feel God is asking them to do and to not quarrel over “disputable matters.”

How Grace and Law Interact

Depending on which category of Law you are referring to, Grace means different things.

No Christian need concern themselves with ceremonial law. We are forever clean because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. We never have to try to be “good enough” to get into God’s Presence or righteous enough for him to hear our prayers. In fact, we are the Temple, for God’s Spirit lives in us – so we can never be excluded from his Presence. We are undefilable, able to walk into the messiest circumstances and set people free. Grace means we never have to work for God’s acceptance or favor, it is a free gift given to us at salvation because of Jesus’s obedience and sacrifice. It means that we are God’s Beloved Sons and Daughters and that nothing can ever change that.

Every Christian needs to concern themselves with obeying God’s moral law. Grace, in this instance, is God given ability to bear the fruit of the Spirit and be conformed to the character of Christ. Grace is God giving us the mind of Christ, infilling us with the Holy Spirit and giving us a heart that longs to love him and serve him. Obeying God’s moral law is the process of sanctification – it requires effort and results in doing righteouss deeds, but should never be confused with salvation. We do good works BECAUSE we’re born again, not so that we CAN be born again. Grace empowers us to obey God’s moral commands and to represent him accurately, it doesn’t excuse us from being sanctified

Gentile Christians do not need to be concerned with religious observances. If you want to follow some of them, like the Sabbath or the tithe, then I think that is great. But please, don’t get silly about things. Unless you were raised in an ethnically Jewish home you have no business pretending to be something you are not. It isn’t a small thing in God’s sight to be Jewish. Don’t mess around with something you dont understand because you think it it “cool” or “biblical”. Grace, in this instance, allows for people from a wide variety of backgrounds to do life together. It allows us  to humbly love, serve and honor those who are different than us and recognize that God’s family is large and diverse and that we are just one small part of it. Grace allows us to live out the weightiest matters of the Law, to love God with all that we are and to love others with the same type of sacrifical love with which Jesus love us.

Closing Thoughts

I realize I worked through this complicated issue quickly and using broad strokes. My intent was not to do a detailed analysis of every Law in the Bible. Rather, I wanted to give you a mental paradigm to go about researching these things for yourself. You must be absolutely convinced from responsible use of Scripture of your own opinions about the Law, the Gospel and Grace. You can’t take my word for it or anyone else’s.

Good luck in your study my friends!

Ben

Recovering your sight

Mark 6:39-44

Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. Emphasis mine.

The passage above, from Mark 6, is the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 men plus women and children with five loaves of bread and 2 fish. It is a tremendous miracle, one I find myself returning to often. I’d like to discuss one more dimension of this miracle in this post – the idea of “looking up to heaven.” The Greek word translated “to look up” is also the word that means “to recover sight,” as when Jesus healed someone of blindness. That particular piece of information caused me to approach this passage in a different light. 

Jesus was surrounded by a huge crowd of people. They had been with him for some time and now they were hungry. Rather than send them away to fend for themselves, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wanted to feed them. Jesus shared his intentions with the Disciples and they responded just like you or I would have – “Jesus, there are thousands of people here. We don’t have enough money to cater a lunch for this many people. You have to send them away.” Jesus was insistent, “No, you feed them.”

The disciples did a quick search and found five loaves of bread and two fish. They brought them to Jesus. “Jesus, here is what we have… enough to feed one, maybe to people. What about everyone else?” 

Jesus responded by taking the loaves and fish and then directed the people to sit down and ready themselves for a meal. What great faith – both in Jesus and in the crowd. The people had no clue what was going on except that the Teacher said they were going to have dinner. I can imagine more than a few people mumering under their breath, “I wonder how that is going to happen.”

In the midst of the murmering and noise of the crowd, Jesus took the loaves and looked up to heaven. Jesus refused to be blinded by what was in front of him. Instead, he recovered his sight, he cured his own spiritual blindness by looking to heaven and seeing Father for who he truly is. In the midst of tremendous human need and an even greater lack of resources, Jesus began speaking to our Father. ‘Daddy, there are so many hungry people here and I want to feed them. I want to reveal to them that you are the God who Provides. I want them to understand that I am the bread from Heaven by giving them bread from heaven. But there is so little bread and so little of me…’ Faith has no problem acknowledging the facts. Faith is grounded in reality, not fantasy. Faith also refuses to leave God out of the equation. ‘…but you are Good. You are generous and kind. You sustained your people for 40 years in the wildnerness and you have brought us to this point. It was your idea to do this, you want to reveal yourself to these people. You want to show that you are trustworthy and you want to take away any excuses they have for not believing you care about them.’ 

Looking up to heaven and seeing God for who he truly is allowed Jesus to act in faith. He began blessing the bread, multiplying it before his very eyes as he broke it and gave it to his disciples to distribute. The miracle continued as the disciples broke the bread and gave it away and it continued further as the crowd broke the bread and gave it to one another. By the end of the meal there was more left over than what they had started with! Everyone ate and was satisfied. What a wonderful picture of God’s love, mercy and grace – the more we give it away the more we have, in fact, we end up with more than what we started with. In God’s Kingdom, things grow as they are given away and shrink as they are hoarded.

What Jesus models for us is a profound understanding of faith. As Bill Johnson says, “If you ever look at a problem and feel hopeless you need to redo the math and factor in God’s faithfulness and ability.” Faith is so much more than belieiving God can do something – it is believing he wants to and will because we asked. Faith isn’t presumptuous, we aren’t entitled to a miracle and God doesn’t owe us anything, rather, it rests on the promise of God’s word. God really is a good Father, he really does love us, he really does delight in us and longs to partner with us to release His Kingdom on the earth. 

Many of us will never need to feed 5,000 people fish sandwiches for dinner, but we will need to look to heaven for answers to our marriages, our difficulties with our kids, our problems at work and countless other things. The temptation in each of those situations is to be blinded by the facts and to operate from a place of lack. The challenge for us is to “recover our sight” by looking to heaven and factoring in the goodness of our Heavenly Father. Then we will probably have to give up or give away the things we’ve been holding onto, even hoarding, for this miracle manifests in brokenness. It won’t be easy, it may or may not be fun, and it will certainly be worth it.

I try to never ask people to do what I have been unwilling to do myself, so I’ll close with this story:

Several years ago, my wife and I were both working full time trying to pay off our student loans. I felt God calling me to give up my full time job with benefits and to go into ministry in the House of Prayer, which meant fundraising my entire salary. Quitting my job and asking other people to pay my debts absolutely rankeled my soul, yet God was insistent. So I quit my job and spent one month simply sharing with my family and friends what I believed God was calling me into. Now, to be totally honest, I have AMAZING and generous family and friends, but their response totally blew me away. Without even asking, my family and friends honored the call of God on my life and ended up supporting me with more money than what I was making working a full time job.

God is faithful. 

I hope my story inspires you to step out in faith. You will never build a satisfying and compelling history with God by playing it safe. Don’t be foolish, but don’t be afraid to take risks. You never know when you might end up walking on water.

Ben

Busting Some Myths About LGBT People

This is the second installment of my thinking relating to how I believe Christians should think about and interact with the LGBT community. Yesterday’s post laid out the foundational concepts I use to think through and process this issue. Today is going to focus more specifically on breaking down myths and stereotypes some Christians have about LGBT people. For many LGBT people reading this it is going to seem archaic and possibly silly to hear a pastor talking about these things, so I appreciate your patience. I’m trying to start from Ground Zero and build up from there.

Response to Yesterday’s Post
Thank you to everyone who read and commented yesterday. The response was, frankly, overwhelming. I’m thankful you take the time to read what I write and benefit from it.

One friend posted this video in the comments section of my Facebook page. The video itself introduces us to various members of the Body of Christ who also identify as LGBT. I thought Huff Post’s title of the section was wonderful – “LGBT Christians aren’t an ‘issue,’ they are ‘the Church’.” That sums up what I was trying to say yesterday in much fewer words. :)

Overcoming Prejudice
I argued yesterday that prejudice is the driving force behind many Christian’s beliefs, attitudes and actions towards the LGBT community. Prejudice is when one group of people with certain defining characteristics elicits a fear response in another group, usually the group in power. The group in power then seeks to dominate and control the first group in order to feel safe. Prejudice allows fear to masquerade as wisdom and control to be mistaken for love.

Fear clouds our judgement and makes us act irrationally. My hope in this post is to dial down any anxiety you may have about LGBT Christians and expose some myths the Christian community has about some people. I’m certainly not the best person to do this, but hey, its my blog. :)

Truth Telling
1) LGBT Christians are not “an issue,” they are “the Church.”
The Body of Christ encompasses a large number of people from all sorts of backgrounds and life experiences. Part of the beauty of the Gospel is that, in Christ, God reconciled humanity to Himself. God’s family is large and diverse – we need to remember that. The Glory of the Church is the ability to take people from all walks of life, love them and teach them to obey all Christ commanded. In the midst of that we see God at work, changing and transforming hopeless sinners into the beautiful Bride of Christ. Where we are when we start our journey with Jesus is largely irrelevant for we are all called to press on in faith-filled obedience.

2) It is totally possible to love Jesus and be LGBT.
Being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive. I’ve had the privilege to know a few members of the Body who self identify as LGBT or with those tendencies and they love Jesus whole heartedly. Of the people I’ve interacted with, all of them share the view that actively pursuing a homosexual lifestyle is a sin, so they talk about being LGBT using the word “struggle.” Since I share that view, I will probably use the word “struggle” from time to time, but I also acknowledge that some LGBT Christians don’t feel any struggle with their sexuality and are at peace with where they are.

3) LGBT people are not better or worse parents than heterosexual people.
There is a myth perpetuated in some Christian circles that gay or lesbian parents are unfit to raise children due to their issues. I disagree that being an LGBT person is something that disqualifies you as a good parent – there might be other issues that do, but being LGBT isn’t one of them. While I don’t personally know or interact with LGBT couples that have children, I imagine that they are as loving, kind, gentle and stern as any other parents. I believe they are concerned with raising their kids right and that they will succeed and fail in that as well as heterosexual parents.

Bad parenting is bad parenting, no matter who you are. And good parenting is good parenting, wether it comes from a lesbian, gay, straight or transgendered person. Prejudice is what makes us think a gay or lesbian couple can’t raise a child because we believe they are so deeply flawed in their moral, ethical and spiritual faculties that they cannot possibly function in society, let alone raise a well adjusted child. Well, some do. And others don’t. Just like the rest of us.

4) Homosexuality is not a communicable disease.
Some people don’t want to be around LGBT people because they are afraid that being gay will “rub off.” This is especially true of straight parents who have never interacted with LGBT people. These parents don’t want their children to be taught or tutored by LGBT people because they don’t want their children to grow up to be gay. (This is one of those instances where fear looks like wisdom.)

Do you worry about your child’s teacher being fat because you don’t want your kid to grow up to be fat? Do you worry about your child’s teacher being divorced because you don’t want your child to grow up and be divorced? If not, and you are worried about an LGBT person teaching your child, then you have just discovered prejudice in your heart and it is time to repent.

5) LGBT people are not predators.
LGBT is not pedophile. LGBT people have the same revulsion to predation as you and I do. We have two unrelated adults in our Sunday School classrooms at all times to ensure that our kids are safe from pedophiles, not gays.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but I think it covers several main concerns I’ve heard voiced within the Christian communities I’m a part of.

As always, thank you for reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ben