DEEPER HOPE

Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings

Paperback

Kindle

Say yes to Students of Jesus in your inbox:

 

SEARCH THIS SITE:

Archive
Navigation

Monday's Meditation: The Kingdom of God

Easter Sunday is eight days gone, but we would do well to remember that the resurrection was not a one-time event. Forty days after his resurrection Jesus remained on the earth and appeared to his closest followers time and again. While many of us may be familiar with the details of Easter Sunday--the empty tomb, the fear and confusion, the bewildered joy of seeing Jesus alive again--most of us are a bit fuzzy on the forty-day stretch after his resurrection.

The gospels only hint at this passage of time. They report that first in Jerusalem and later in Galilee, Jesus encouraged his friends but we get only a glimpse of what Jesus said or did. In Acts chapter one we are given eleven short verses about the things on Jesus’ mind during those resurrection days.

Acts 1:3, however, reveals that the subject most important to Jesus during that time was the Kingdom of God. This should not surprise us. Before Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptist declared that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. In his earthly ministry Jesus himself preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Now, with just a few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God is still his passion. Years later as the book of Acts closes the connection Jesus and his Kingdom is still the primary message of his followers (Acts 28:31).

Have you ever had to give last-minute instructions? Imagine you were leaving (as Jesus was) until an undetermined day of your return: what would you say? What important words could you leave with your best friends? Jesus chose to remind his friends about the message he had announced from the very beginning: the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

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

What will you do with your time in the forty days after the resurrection? Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God during that time. Perhaps he still wants us to embrace his teaching.

NOTE: here’s one place to start.

What if you got to live forever but you didn’t like the life you got to live?

As a new believer I had conflicting thoughts and emotions about eternal life. Those who led me to the Lord told me I could go to heaven by trusting Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins. I hadn’t thought much about heaven, and what thoughts I did have ran more to the negative—hell sounded like a pretty bad place. If there were only two choices, then heaven seemed like the better alternative.

Someone told me that in heaven we would spend all eternity worshiping God. This presented a problem because most of the worship services I attended were boring. Could it be true? Would heaven consist of an unending songfest directed toward the Almighty? I enjoyed singing Amazing Grace in church but one of the verses gave me cause for concern:
    “When we’ve be there 10,000 years
           bright shining as the sun
     we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
           than when we’ve first begun.”
With a strong measure of guilt I tried to imagine myself happily singing for 10,000 years only to consider that we had just begun. It was not appealing.

Popular images of heaven include the idea that we will inhabit celestial mansions, waft upon fluffy light clouds and worship eternally. These images certainly beat the idea of eternal torment and suffering but do they truly present the activities we would choose to do forever, especially given the activities and tastes we have right now?

Here's a question: What if you got to live forever but you didn’t like the life you got to live?

The difficulty flows from two misunderstandings. First, popular images of heaven may not be correct, and secondly, “heaven” and “eternal life” are not the same things.

Jesus himself provided a reliable definition of eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Nothing about clouds, songs, or heaven. Eternal life is knowing the Father and knowing Jesus. The Father has given Jesus the authority to grant eternal life, and Jesus’ definition is simply that we would come to know the Father and the Son.

So when does eternal life begin? If we can adjust our view to what Jesus has revealed, the answer, of course, is now. When we first turn toward God, we are entering into eternal life. When we turn away from our selfish choices and orientation and choose Jesus, we are entering into eternal life. When we grow in our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are growing into eternal life.

When does a child know its mother? At birth? From within the womb? As a teenager? Earlier in the same gospel Jesus tells us that we cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God unless we are “born from above.” (John 3: 3 – 8) His choice of birth imagery is instructive: a child begins to perceive light and dark before birth. A child intuitively knows its mother’s voice and heartbeat before birth. Yet after the trauma of labor and delivery a child is characterized by what it does not know: the entire process of growth and maturity could be considered “getting to know” its parents.

This process of growth and knowledge continues even beyond childhood. Most adults realize that with each passing decade they come to “know” their parents more and more. I knew my father more fully after I became a father.

Our life in God is made possible by Jesus Christ. That life has its beginning when we are “born again,” and John’s gospel reminds us from the very beginning we are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” (John 1: 13) As we are born of Him, his intention is that we would spend every moment of eternal life growing in the grace and knowledge of Him.

So what about heaven? As we begin to experience eternal life through our walk with Jesus, he begins to work heaven into us even now. I may not know the details of what heaven “looks like,” but I have come to understand that heaven feels exactly like the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruit of coming to know the Father and the Son, through living in the Spirit each day (see Galatians 5: 16 – 25)

I’m no longer troubled by the thought of heaven. Whatever it looks like and whatever he has for us to do, I can rest my relationship with him. As I cooperate with the Holy Spirit he is making fit for heaven, whatever that is!

Monday's Meditation: The 39 days after Easter

So Easter Sunday has come and gone. Followers of Jesus all over the world have marked the most significant day in history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection was the Father’s exclamation point to the ministry of Jesus; the “Temple” had been destroyed and raised up three days later.

But what about Monday? Is the singing and shouting over? Jesus encountered the disciples on Easter Sunday, but what about Monday, or Tuesday, or beyond? The first eleven verses of the book of Acts provide at least five mediations for us in the days ahead.

Meditation #1: The resurrected Jesus remained on the earth for 39 days after Easter Sunday. Many Christians celebrate the victory won at the cross (and rightly so!), but apparently Jesus had more to say and do. The gospels are about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), but the rest of Acts reveals that Jesus was still doing and teaching in the decades after the gospels. Is it possible Jesus is still doing and teaching in our day?

Meditation #2: Jesus’ message in the 40 days of resurrection was the Kingdom of God. (Acts1:3) During that time Jesus continued to speak about the Kingdom of God. In fact, the Kingdom of God is the “good news” preached by Jesus in the gospels. And he had more to say after Easter Sunday. In fact, the book of Acts closes with the Apostle Paul proclaiming the Kingdom of God (Acts 28: 31). Have we meditated on the meaning of the Kingdom?

Meditation #3: What was so important that Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem? While the gospel accounts end with Jesus saying, “Go!” in Acts Jesus says “Wait!” In our day many Christians are familiar with the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28: 16 - 20) but are we aware that Jesus commanded us to wait? What was so important that Jesus said, in effect. “don’t go anywhere, don’t do anything until you receive all that I have for you?” Have we meditated on the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

Meditation #4: Jesus told his followers plainly that there were some things that we would not know, especially regarding the times and the seasons of the last days. Yet this very topic is of great interest in the church today. Literally millions of books have been sold on this subject. In Acts 1: 7 - 8 Jesus tells us to focus on the mission, not the culmination of the mission. Have we meditated on the wrong subject in our day?

Meditation #5: The angels who were present at the ascension asked a pretty good question: “why are you looking toward heaven?” It’s a question worth considering. Frequently we are more concerned with heaven than with the Kingdom of God. The breathtaking sacrifice at Calvary did indeed purchase the forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven, but in our generation many followers of Jesus have limited his work and message. One final meditation for the days ahead--if the gospel is only about going to heaven, why did Jesus invite us to take up the yoke of discipleship?

The Bible & Students of Jesus

Once there was a man who was very good at his chosen profession. Although he was young everyone recognized that he was a rising star within his organization. One day he took a business trip. Before he arrived at his destination he unexpectedly encountered his arch-enemy along the road, and that enemy left him on the roadside defeated and--somehow--totally blind.

This man was led by the hand toward his destination, a strange town where he knew practically no one, and was left alone in a room for three days. During those three days, in the darkness of his new-found condition, he had time to reconsider everything he had learned about his profession. He was a man of great learning, especially with respect to the “Bible” of his business. And oddly enough the “Bible” of his business was in fact, the Bible--at least the Old Testament.

The man’s name was Saul, and you can read this story in the Book of Acts, chapter 9. Saul had a passion for the Old Testament. He was almost certainly a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Judaism. He had studied under one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Rabbi Gamaliel. And some Pauline scholars speculate that Saul had likely committed the entire Pentateuch to memory. Imagine that: Saul had memorized every word of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Despite such a passion for the Bible, when the author Himself came to earth Saul and many others like him could not recognize that the One who inspired the Scripture was standing in front of them. How could people who had studied the Old Testament scriptures all their lives miss the Subject of those scriptures?

I would like to suggest this answer: it is easier to relate to a book than a living person. Books are manageable. Books can be memorized and mastered, books can be analyzed and interpreted, and books can be used to support conclusions we have have already decided upon.

In our pursuit of Jesus, we need to think seriously about the role of the Bible. If our aim is to take his yoke of discipleship and to learn from him, what role does the Bible play in becoming a follower of Jesus?

It’s too easy to criticize Pharisees like Saul. “How could they have failed to recognize Jesus?” we might ask. “Surely we would not have missed God’s anointed when he came.” Yet we should be careful, because these Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers possessed a commitment and dedication to the scripture that was likely far greater anything we practice in our day.

Among the closing words of the Old Testament are these:
"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3: 1)
God Himself came to earth in the person of Jesus. He came to the center of religious devotion and announced that the Kingdom revealed in the Old Testament scriptures was breaking in unexpectedly. The very guardians of religious orthodoxy could not recognize him. How could this be?

Perhaps the religious people of Jesus’ day were engaged in a kind of idolatry. Not in pagan practices or rituals but in a kind of idolatry which elevated the inspired word of God over God himself. The Bible is a precious gift from God. He breathed it into the minds and hearts of the men who wrote it. I believe that God Himself watched over process of collecting and canonizing these documents. I believe that God has protected the Bible through many dark ages so that every generation would be able to benefit from his gift. I love the book he has given us, but I do not confuse the book with the Author.

Sadly, in many Evangelical circles the Holy Trinity has morphed from “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to “Father, Son and Holy Bible.”

Our Bible is inspired, literally God-breathed, and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Our Bible is the “more sure word of prophecy,” capable of correcting us when subjectivism and emotionalism threaten to lead us into error. Yet our misuse of the Bible can cause us to “get the lyrics right but get the music all wrong,” in the helpful phrase of Leonard Sweet.

Todd Hunter, a leader in the Vineyard Movement says plainly that “the Bible is the menu, not the meal.” I believe he means that the Bible should help bring us to the Bread of Life, Jesus, and encourage us in a living relationship with a Lord who is still alive, still speaking, and still doing.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures in the first century is still moving and working all over the world. Jesus pointed his followers to the ministry of the Holy Spirit when he said, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14: 26) For each follower of Jesus there is a tension between learning about Jesus and having a relationship with him through the Holy Spirit.

So how should we come to the Bible? I'd like to suggest three "nevers:"

  • First, never come to the Bible alone. Always invite the same Spirit who inspired the Book to inspire your encounter. The Holy Spirit is the one who "will teach all things," and He will use the Bible as part of His tutorial.  
  • Second, never settle for head-knowledge apart from personal experience. True, our first ideas about following Jesus may come from reading the Bible, but I believe we should ask the Holy Spirit to move us from the book to real-life experience. What starts as head-knowledge must find its way into our experience. 
  • Finally, never come to the Bible without a commitment to obey his voice. James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that if we build a lifestyle of merely hearing God's word without doing it, we will become deceived. God doesn't speak "FYI," he speaks "FYO," For Your Obedience.

The Bible is a gift--a gift we should treasure and respect. Let's use that gift to grow closer to the Giver.

How did he become the man he was? Part Two.

NOTE: This week’s post is part two of an article begun last week (see below)

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 which demonstrated full reliance on the Holy Spirit, and 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 is 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: complete God and complete 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 ourselves an excuse to live powerless lives. Lives powerless over sin or powerless over the sicknesses and 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.