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How Did He Become The Man He Was? (Part Two)

(NOTE: This post is part two of an article begun Monday. You can read it here.)

How did Jesus become the man he was? As the record of his life unfolds in the gospels we are faced with an unspoken question: how did Jesus do the things he did? If we choose to say simply, “he was the Messiah, God come to earth,” how can we explain his statement in John 14:12? “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

His earliest followers understood that Jesus lived a life that demonstrated full reliance on the Holy Spirit: a life in perfect submission to the Father’s will. True, he was without sin and in his perfection Jesus‘ sacrificial death paid the price for our pardon. But his life was more than a substitution, more than payment for our sin--as great as that sacrifice is. His life was a model for anyone who would follow him, a model of both moral excellence and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But how can his life be a model for anyone if his character and power cannot be imitated? Whether we articulate the question or not, each of us is forced to wrestle with the nature of Jesus--was he God or was he man? If he was only a man, how can his death pay the price for all mankind? If he is God, how can he reasonably expect his followers to live up to his example? It's an important wrestling match because our answer may well determine our own progress as a follower of Jesus.

Jesus clearly expected his followers to do the same kind of works he did. The instructions to the twelve in Luke 9:2 are clear, “he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” Just one chapter later he widened the commission to at least 70 of his followers. In short order they returned joyfully, "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name." (Luke 10:17) Even as Jesus was pleased with their works he reminded them of their own need for redemption, and then--filled with Holy Spirit-inspired joy, made a most startling statement: "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

The “wise and learned” debated the nature of Jesus the man and Jesus the Son of God for nearly 400 years. Finally, in 431AD at the first Council of Ephesus the church settled on this formulation: Jesus was one person, not two separate people: completely God and completely man, all wrapped up into one person.

Both aspects of his nature are important for everyday living. Only God’s own Son can purchase the redemption of all humanity--no human sacrifice will do. Our forgiveness rests completely in the sufficiency of God’s own sacrifice. We need to approach him as the only one capable of dispensing divine mercy and grace. At the same time, Jesus is the example of a human life lived in full accordance with the Father’s will. We must see (as was pointed out in Part One) that his miracles were accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, not by virtue of some divine standing as the Son of God. When Jesus operated under the power of the Holy Spirit, he was showing us how it was done. That is, he was calling us to be like him in every way.

Simple passages like Luke 2:52 point to the fact that Jesus lived a very human life. Other, more enigmatic verses like Hebrews 5:8 seem to point to the fact that Jesus modeled obedience--an obedience he had won by suffering the same difficulties we face. Perhaps most challenging of all, verses like Matthew 10: 7-8 seem to indicate that he had higher expectations for his followers than we have today.

Throughout the 20th century, skeptics and scholars alike attacked the divinity of Jesus. In the academy Jesus’ identity was deconstructed and the gospel record was regarded with suspicion. The miracle accounts were explained away. We were asked to accept the idea that the miracles were not true in any concrete sense, but mythical illustrations of spiritual points.

The Evangelical church responded with a vigorous defense of the gospel record and of the truth regarding the divinity of our Lord. The world at large denied the divinity of Jesus in the 20th century, and the church held fast to the truth--Jesus is God come to earth. However, as we rose to his defense we fell prey to a subtle over-emphasis. The church stood firmly on the divinity of Jesus at the expense of asserting his humanity as well. While maintaining the miracle accounts in the gospels were true indeed, we lost sight of his teaching that his followers would do his works.

Some 21st century Christians vigorously defend the miracles of Jesus' day without recognizing his call to do the very same works in our day. Some 21st century Christians vigorously defend the holy and blameless life of Jesus twenty centuries ago without sharing the good news that, by the grace of God, we can live lives of substantial holiness today (see, for example Eph. 5:27 or I Thess 3:13).

To ignore the humanity of Jesus is to ignore his call to be like him in every respect. To over-emphasize his divinity is to give us an excuse to live powerless lives: lives powerless over sin or powerless over the sicknesses and the demonization so prevalent in our world today.

How did he become the man he was? The simple answer is he lived in the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. The more difficult answer is that he calls us to live the same way.



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How Did He Become The Man He Was? (Part One)


Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head,

The stars in the sky look down where he lay,

The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

Don’t worry, it’s not Christmas time, but this carol raises an important question to anyone who wants to follow Jesus. The song celebrates the Incarnation, literally, the enfleshment of Jesus, when God Himself became man. It is a powerful carol because any parent remembers well the beauty and mystery of their child asleep in the crib. And everyone can relate to sleeping babies. But . . .

The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes / The little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes . . .

Right here--at the words, “no crying he makes” the song begins to depart from our personal experience. Most mothers would begin to worry about a baby who never cries. What kind of baby was this Jesus? Did he ever cry? What kind of child was the boy Jesus, growing up year after year with Joseph and Mary?

Will you indulge me in some foolishness? This baby Jesus, who is God Incarnate: how did he receive the Magi when they came to worship? Did the infant in the manger invite them in and gesture for them to sit? Did he say, “Please, come in: you must be exhausted from your journey.” Did the newborn baby thank them for their thoughtful gifts?

Or imagine Jesus as a boy learning the family business at his father’s side: the sinless Son of God, perhaps six years old, driving a nail into a board for the very first time. Did he hold the hammer correctly? Did he drive the nail straight and true? Or was he like all children, and gain his skill through experience? When the perfect human being first held a saw and cut a piece of wood, did he cut the board correctly? And if he did not, what does this say of his divinity?

Behind these silly imaginations hide questions for anyone who would become like their Master. If Jesus is our example in both behavior and ministry, how did he become the man he was? If Jesus modeled ministry for us by healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead, by what power did he do these things? Indeed, the church has debated these questions for centuries. It is not merely the stuff of theological curiosity—because Jesus called us to be like him in every way.

If Jesus accomplished moral excellence and supernatural ministry exclusively through the privilege of his identity as the Son of God, how can he expect us to follow him? Any serious follower of Jesus should take time to ask: how did Jesus do the things he did? Was he sinless because he had some advantage over you or me? Did he heal the sick or multiply the bread and fish because he had some secret power not open to any of his followers? If Jesus did these things because he was the Boss’s son, isn’t it unfair for him to expect us to become like him?

Luke chapter 4 depicts the very beginning of Jesus ministry--the very first sermon recorded in that Gospel. It is short, and revealing:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:  

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4: 16 - 21)  

Jesus selects the passage from Isaiah that begins plainly, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” I think Luke is trying to say that everything that follows in the life and ministry of Jesus flowed from the operation of the Holy Spirit in his life. Luke points out the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ baptism (3:22) and in the 40 days of testing in the wilderness (4:1 & 14). In Luke’s second work, the book of Acts, he quotes the Apostle Peter, who gives a one-sentence summary of the ministry of Jesus:

"You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached -- how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him." (Acts 10: 38-39)

Jesus did what he did by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by virtue of his unique identity as the Son of God. Make no mistake: Jesus is God Himself come to earth. His example for life and ministry, however, is through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, and that same Spirit is available to his followers. What does that mean for us today?

(Be sure to come back Thursday for part two.)



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Cool Stuff, No Category

How long should a blog post be? Seth Godin sometimes writes only a few sentences. Other blog experts say 500 words, and others say 1,000. Still others say use video, pictures, and graphics every time. Nearly all of them agree there should be a unifying theme.

But what to do with cool stuff that takes only a few words, and defies categorization? That’s me, today—bringing you cool stuff, with no categories.


I know a guy . . .

Years ago we invited a pastor/musician to spend the weekend teaching at our church. One night, when there were only three or four people left in the building, the auditorium was flushed with the smell of roses. I thought I was crazy. I said nothing. Sunday afternoon, while driving his wife and him to the airport, the interior of the car began to smell of roses.

“Do you smell those roses?” I asked.

Our guest smiled a little and said, “Oh, that: years ago that began following me around and happening from time to time. The Lord told me it’s the fragrance of his presence, and he just likes to remind every once in a while me that he’s with me.”

Is there a category for that?


Fresh bread . . .

One week I preached on the story Jesus told about a guy who needed bread to give to an unexpected visitor. The guy knocked on his neighbor’s door late at night and asked for bread. After saying no, the neighbor got up and gave the man as much as he needed. The teaching point was that we could ask the Father for “bread” to give to others. A woman in our church had wanted to give an offering to missionary, but the woman and her family had no extra money—so in prayer she asked the Father for “bread” they could give to the missionary. The next day a man came to her door with a $200 check for her family because her husband had helped out at a private school so many times. It wasn’t payment; it was an unexpected thank-you gift. Then the man said, “and here is a loaf of bread my wife just baked: we thought your family would enjoy some fresh bread.”


Help is on the way . . .

And then there’s the time we made a visitor break down and cry at church. At the end of our services we have a “ministry time” where prayer partners will pray with you for any need. Just before the service ended one of the ministry guys pointed to a woman in the congregation. She was a visitor.

“I think the Lord wants you to know that help is on the way—does that makes sense?”

The woman began to cry.

“I think you’ve been caring for a family member and you’ve been alone in it. But Jesus wants you know he sees you and help is on the way.”

The woman lost it completely and began to sob. She also left without talking to anyone. As the pastor I thought, well, that’s a visitor we’ll never see again.

Later that week I got an email from the woman. “I wanted you to know that as soon as that man began speaking to me I knew exactly what the Lord was talking about. I was divorced over a year ago, and have been struggling to provide for my son. On Monday—the day after church—a check arrived from the state of Kentucky with the first child support I had seen since the divorce.”

But here’s the cool part for me: she continued, “I don’t think God created the check out of thin air. It surely was put in the mail the week before. But when that man told me ‘help was on the way,’ I was flooded with the assurance that God saw my need, loved me, and that my boy and I were going to be OK. I’ll never forget that feeling of God’s love.”

That’s pretty cool stuff, and I think there’s a category for that: the Father’s loving care.


Do you have any “Cool Stuff, No Category” stories? Why not share them here, in the comments of Students of Jesus?



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The Deep Work of Glory

Sometimes God and we have the very same goals yet we find ourselves working against him. God wants to bring many sons and daughters to glory. And we want glory. What could possibly be the problem? The problem, as is so often the case, is that God means one thing while we mean another. What God calls glory came at great cost to him, still he offers it to all. We think we have a better way.

We think the path to glory is our own achievement; Jesus proved the path to glory was humility. We think glory comes in the noisy public square; God gives glory in the secret place of sacrifice. The Father wants to give glory to many; we want glory as a reward fit only for the few, provided that means us.

It turns out God’s way is as important as God’s will. He wants to “bring many sons to glory.” His method is his own suffering. “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:10-11). It’s breathtaking: his suffering makes family of us all.

We use our version of glory to set us apart from others: we require the praise of men. Our version is just plain wrong. It blinds us from seeing—or tasting—the real thing. Jesus wanted nothing to do with fool’s glory: “I do not accept glory from human beings, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:41-44)

To accept glory that comes from the praise of men is to celebrate a cheap imitation. We must choose between the fast food of praise and the deep soul work of suffering. Jesus suffered, and others came to glory. We prefer the praise of men because such praise is food of ego. It is cheap and goes down easy. We can find it on nearly any street corner. It is tasty and filling. But the praise of men rejects the deep work of God. He invites us to become deep people. The deep work is the slow work; it is also the lasting work. Four hundred years ago Richard Sibbes encouraged us toward the deep, slow rhythms of God: “Glory follows afflictions, not as the day follows the night but as the spring follows the winter; for the winter prepares the earth for the spring, so do afflictions sanctified prepare the soul for glory.”

The deep work prepares us for eternal joy. We do not pursue suffering in order to win glory: we endure suffering and discover Jesus there, waiting for us. The Apostle Peter assures us of a result (“joy unspeakable and full of glory”) even as he tells us the truth: “since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.

Glory is the true gold of life with God. It is as rare as any true gold, but there are veins of his glory available. The same Jesus who suffered for us the one willing to suffer with us. Such is his glorious assurance.



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God's Indispensable Grace Gift

Only fools and lawyers argue over the law, and both are highly trained specialists. The rest of us should leave such work to the experts. Sometimes they unite in their work, giving us ordinances prohibiting the transport of ice cream cones in your pocket, or banning birds from flying over city landmarks.

I’d be content to leave the law to the fools and lawyers except for a troubling practice among religious people: they are in the habit of treating the Bible—especially the Old Testament—like a book of law. If there is anything worse than city ordinances against public singing before 8:00 in the morning it’s when religious people become religious fools and lawyers with respect to the Bible.

It’s understandable. The Old Testament sometimes calls itself “the Law” which is an unfortunate translation because life is more like a living room than a courtroom. Hebrew scholars, rabbis and Christian professors alike, would like us to know “Torah” can mean instruction, teaching, or even “the way.”

The Old Testament, that portion of the Bible we so often avoid, was the “Bible” that shaped Jesus’s spiritual formation. Jesus was nourished on the stories of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—and that’s just Genesis! Jesus chanted the Shema, memorized the ten words from Sinai, and paid close attention to the rituals of Leviticus. Jesus sang the Psalms, puzzled over the prophets, and marveled at the courage (and stupidity) of people portrayed in the Biblical narrative.

Jesus did not grow in wisdom and stature by memorizing the rules; he became a deep person by engaging the Old Testament with all his faculties: his mind, his heart, his imagination, his hopes, his questions, his fears, and his spirit.

Jesus knew his Bible as something beyond the scroll in the synagogue. It was all around him. He saw grass whither and fade, and then reflected on things that last forever; he saw the clumsy gait of an ox and saw the folly of following a prostitute to her house; when the thunder answered the lightning he heard the voice of God; he gleaned insight from industrious ants. The sweetness of honey tasted to him of his Father’s wisdom. When he wrestled with the poetry of Isaiah, Hosea, and the prophets the wisdom of God spoke to him through his parents’ marriage, the oil his mother used to cook, the tramping of soldiers through his home town, and the in-breaking of God’s mercy in each new sunrise. Jesus did not need some someone to bring the Bible alive, his world was alive with the Bible. He understood at a gut level that God’s word was living and active, and that everyday life teemed with the deep truth of the word of God.

Meanwhile, in our modern age, we think “Bible study” is the stuff of ancient languages and word origins. Like either lawyers or fools (you decide) we ponder over the meaning and application of cross-cultural studies or socio-psychological interpretations. We think Bible study is more like hard work and not at all like a feast. We march with grim determination through our “quiet times” and we wonder who will make the book of Job feel more like Jimmy Fallon.

The Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is the Father’s indispensible grace-gift to followers of Jesus. Our Lord has modeled every aspect of life for us. We can follow his example, including his loving embrace of the written word, which brings us to the Living Word.



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