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



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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.

How did he become the man he was?

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. We can relate to sleeping babies. But then . . .

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 year after year with Joseph and Mary?

Will you indulge me in some foolishness? This baby Jesus, 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?

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, like all children, did he 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 consider--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’ 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 which begins plainly “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Everything which follows in the life and ministry of Jesus flows 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? Come back next week for part two.

"Here. I'll Show You"

In my youth I was a diver on my high school swimming team. Like most teenagers I had taught myself how to do a front flip and a back flip, but going beyond the basics required coaching. The next step was to learn how to do one-and-a-half summersaults and land in the water head-first. My coach was another high schooler, a senior, and he was a great diver. I asked him about doing the one-and-a-half. I wanted to understand the concept and to know what to expect. His answer was surprising.

“You just throw your head down into the water,” he said. “You just have to feel it. Here, I’ll show you.” and in what seemed like one graceful move he was up in the air, tumbling easily and knifing the water. He didn’t know physics or aerodynamics. He didn’t know the technical terms of diving. But he could show me how. I learned how to do one-and-a half summersaults as a freshman, and by my senior year I could do two-and-a-half summersaults.

That first year I was a disciple of someone who knew how to dive. He was older, more experienced, and he demonstrated how to dive day by day. In less religious language, he was my coach, my mentor, or my example. He established me as a diver and to this day, decades later, I can still do one-and-a-half summersaults.

That same year I became a follower of Jesus, because I knew in my heart I needed a savior. I was grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. I also knew I need something more. I needed to learn a new way to live because my life was a mess. Unlike my diving career, it took me years to find an example for following Jesus.

“Don’t look at me,” my church youth-leader said. “I’m just a man. Keep your eyes on Jesus.”

This presented a problem for me because I couldn’t see Jesus. I could read about him. I was certain that his sacrifice paid the debt for my sin. I just couldn’t see how in the world I would ever be like him. The problem was Jesus was unreachable. To make matters worse, everyone I knew kept pointing only to him. If the advice for Christian growth ever deviated from "don't follow me, I'm just a man," it became, “be sure to read your Bible and pray.” I tried to do it, but prayer was boring and lifeless. Bible reading was a little more interesting--and also a lot more confusing.

In my experience even the leaders in the church seemed to indicate that we were all in the same boat: sinners who needed a Savior. Right, I got that; but now I was in the boat and I was looking for someone to show me how to become part of the crew.

Then, one day, almost by accident, I came across an amazing statement by the Apostle Paul. It startled me because it was so different from what I was used to hearing in church. This man, Paul, said:

Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
I Corinthians 11: 1

Paul seemed to be confident in his relationship with Jesus. Although he once referred to himself as “the worst of sinners,” he knew what following Jesus was all about. He invited people to imitate his actions. Instantly I knew I needed exactly this: someone to imitate. Yes, Jesus was the goal, and here was someone who could do something more than simply point to the goal. Paul told the Corinthians, "Here. I'll show you how."

How many Christians (or even leaders in the church) make such statements today? I suspect that many people would consider Paul’s words boastful if they heard someone else say them. Yet this is exactly what Jesus instructed in the “Great Commission” when he charged us with “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 2820)

I believe this is the challenge of the church today. We have a gospel that promotes forgiveness and exalts Jesus as Savior. We have language which declares Jesus is Lord. We do not, however, have much of an idea about how to make disciples who will actually be like Jesus. In fact, some leaders even consider discipleship as secondary to the mission. I have heard this preached more than once: “When you get to heaven God will only have two questions. ‘Do you know my Son?’ and, ‘How many did you bring with you?’” I would like to suggest that this concern for evangelism is sincere but misguided. Even for those whose heart burns to win the lost, the answer is Jesus’ instruction to make disciples. Robert Coleman’s little classic, The Master Plan of Evangelism brings this home powerfully.

Paul's example is not merely an example for recognized church leaders. Leaders and "common Christians" alike, we should each consider how we can share our very lives with other believers. Our example can encourage others, and the practical aspects of following Jesus can be shared from one follower of Jesus to another--apart from formal classroom situations. Each of should should ask, "Is my life worthy of imitating?"

What is the Rock?

Jesus offers his followers the kind of life that results in rest and peace. Yet Christians are thrown from crisis to crisis as if the storms of life are in control. Still, Jesus is very clear on this: if we will take his yoke upon ourselves, we can find the kind of life that will be characterized by rest and peace. Who doesn’t want a life like this?

My wife worked for years in a crisis pregnancy center. One day a young, unmarried Christian woman (a teenager, at that) came into the center for a free pregnancy test. The test was positive, and my wife delivered the news to the girl. “I don’t understand,” she cried as my wife held the girl in her arms. “How could God let this happen to me?” The news rocked this poor girl’s world. She received the news as if the pregnancy was something that happened to her--as if some force beyond her control had imposed its will on her and changed her life forever.

In my invitations to speak to Christian organizations, many people are familiar with the gospel stories I select as the theme for my talks. This familiarity can sometimes work against hearing the word of God in a way that can change our lives right now. We are tempted to think that because we have a heard a story before we must already understand its meaning. I believe this is especially true of the final story Jesus tells in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, & 7). So many people have heard the story they unwittingly think there is no need to let the word of God instruct them if they hear it again. But let’s try to hear it again:

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." (Matthew 7: 24-27)

Each time, after I read these words out loud, I stop and ask the same question: “What is the rock?” In more than a decade of speaking engagements I have never once been given the correct answer immediately. The answers offered are invariably “Jesus,” “God,” or “the Bible.” These are answers are worthy sentiments, but they are wrong.

Only after reading the text a second (or third) time with special emphasis given to the key phrase does it dawn on the listeners that Jesus is requiring something of them in response to his preaching. Jesus says plainly that the difference between the two builders is putting his words into practice. One man hears and puts the words into practice, and the other does not. The old-fashioned word for this response is “obedience.” In these three chapters Jesus offers words of life. He speaks to our condition. He challenges our ideas of piety. He teaches us to pray. He points toward a loving Heavenly Father who is poised to help us in every situation Then at the end of the greatest sermon ever preached, he invites you and me into the building process.

Jesus has provided the guidance, but we must take the initiative to build on his words. We must decide if we trust his words enough to adopt them into our lives. It is one thing to hear him speak, it is quite another to order our lives around his words. His words are the words of life. But we must act on them.

Implicit in his teaching is the idea that we are all building. Each day, brick by brick we are building the houses of our lives. Everyone is building. The question is whether we are building on the rock, and the only way to do that is to put his words into practical operation in our lives.

As a pastor I have listened to people in crisis as they stare into the corner of the room and share the specific sadness that robs them of rest and peace. Their difficulties are real, their pain is not imagined. Sometimes the house of their life is crumbling around them. Seldom do I hear someone question whether they are forgiven or whether they will go to heaven. But frequently I hear them question if God cares about their suffering at that moment. From their ruin they do not doubt that God will forgive them at the end of their lives, but they openly wonder whether he cares at all about their lives right now.

Of course, God does care about our lives right now. He cares so much that he sent Jesus to model how to live in this world in a way that equips us to experience rest and peace right now, no matter what happens. But he will not build our lives without us. We must participate with him, and that participation begins with the determination to put his words into practice, to build on the rock.

School of Ministry, Part Two

Jesus summed up the entire curriculum for training his disciples with a simple command, “Come, follow me.”

The Problem:

For many of us “Come follow me” is too simple. Jesus is no longer here, how can we follow? Jesus lived in another place and time, how does his life serve as an example for ours today? Or perhaps the greatest challenge: Jesus is the sinless Son of God, isn’t it impossible to follow him?

Perhaps the very fact that we stumble at the invitation demonstrates why individual Christians (and the church as a whole) have difficulty impacting our society. We are good at study. We are big at planning and organizing. We are very good at structure and control. But we are not very good at following. Those who cannot grasp “Come follow me” underscore the problems we face.

I suspect that we are limited in our effectiveness because we have placed understanding above obedience. We have prized our intellectual capacities above the kind of love that causes us to become imitators of the Beloved. In a natural family children learn first by imitating their parents. Only later do they understand. But in the family of God we are at risk of being the kind of people who James, the brother of Jesus, cautioned: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” His warning reminds us that if we separate actions from what we learned we are setting ourselves up for deception.

“I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Jesus did not say, “I know the answer,” he said “I am the way.” He did not say, “I know the truth,” he said “I am the truth.” And he did not say “I will teach you about the life,” and said, “I am the Life.” Jesus did not come to produce “agree-ers,” he came to produce followers.

Some may object that since Jesus is no longer involved in earthly ministry that the model had to change. But He Himself said, “I only do the things I see the Father doing.” (John 5:19) He demonstrated how to follow an “invisible” God. He showed us how it is done. His actions present a clear pattern for us to follow.

The Beginning of the Solution:

The beginning of the solution is to look for his presence. It is that simple. He has promised it to us. Even as Jesus prepared to return to the Father, he made a startling assertion: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28: 20)

Through the agency of his Holy Spirit Jesus remains alive and present among us. We must train our faculties to recognize his presence. He did not lie to us; he is here for us today. The first step toward becoming a follower of Jesus is to refuse to settle for anything less than his presence. This is a challenge to a society (the church!) which has prized education over relationship. We have substituted learning about him for being with him.

If this first step sounds too mystical, too subjective, it may underscore the extent of our need. The plain promise of Jesus is that, through the agency of His Spirit, Jesus remains available for us today: to lead, to guide, in short--for us to follow.

There is ample encouragement from believers in other cultures and times that he is available to us today. For example, Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite from the 17th century, lacked the necessary education to become a cleric. Instead he entered a monastery as a servant, working in the kitchen. From this place of humility he discovered the presence of Jesus in that kitchen and wrote letters to his friends, sharing that discovery. These letters and conversations were collected into a simple book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Its central message is that to those who are willing, the very presence of God can be cultivated in our lives. Or in Biblical language, “You will seek me find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13--but also Deut. 4:29; Prov. 8: 17; Matthew 7: 7; and Acts 17:27.) It is the testimony of scripture that God’s presence is available to all who desire it.

The beginning of the solution is to accept the invitation given to us--he is available! We can only follow those we see and hear, and Jesus still speaking, still pointing the way. Our “studies” in his School of Ministry begin with the refusal to accept anything less than his presence.