Often, it seems, we are trying to show the world how important Jesus is, or how impressive, or, even, how logical; but how much better it would be if, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we simply showed them lives filled with seeming impossibilities.
The Conversion of the Warder (Acts 16), Philips Galle, 1582
“The unique thing about the early Christians was their radiant relation to a Person. ‘The Lord,’ they called Him tenderly, and when they used the term they gave it its own New Testament meaning. It meant Jesus Christ, who a short while before had been among them but was now gone into the heavens as their High Priest and Advocate. It was this engrossment with a victorious Person that gave verve and vibrancy to their lives and conviction to their testimony. They bore witness joyously to the One who had lived as a true Man among men. Their testimony was not weakened by the pale cast of metaphysical thought. They knew that Jesus was very Man and very God, and He had died, had been raised from the dead and had ascended into heaven. They accepted literally His claim to be invested with authority over everything in heaven, earth and hell. How it could be they never stopped to inquire. They trusted Him absolutely and left the details to their triumphant Lord.”
A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous
Because Jesus has come, because He has taken on flesh to set us free, because there is now no condemnation for those who are in Him, and because He now sits at the right hand of the Father to dispense all His grace and glory upon those who would believe and ask, our present life in Him is as rich as we would have it be. Any sense of lack is simply you and I not living up to our heavenly privileges.
There is more for us. And it's all to be found in Him. Right now. Today.
God’s Spirit specifically tells us that in later days there will be men who abandon the true faith and allow themselves to be spiritually seduced by teachings of the devil, teachings given by men who are lying hypocrites, whose consciences are as dead as seared flesh. These men forbid marriage, command abstinence from food — good things which, in fact, God intends to be thankfully enjoyed by those who believe in him and know the truth. Everything God made is good, and is meant to be gratefully used, not despised. The holiness or otherwise of a certain food, for instance, depends not on its nature but on whether it is eaten thankfully or not. It is consecrated by the man who has accepted the message, and thanks God for food.
You will be doing your duty as Christ’s minister if you remind your church members of these things, and you will show yourself as one who owes his strength to the truth of the faith he has absorbed and the sound teaching he has followed. But steer clear of all these stupid Godless fictions... (1 Timothy 4:1-7a)
In actuality, either our life with Jesus is a matter of Union-with-Him (in His Life, Way, Death, Resurrection and an Experience-of-His-alive-Life-within-us) or it all becomes external observances, things measurable, rules followable, ie. a state of disunion. I highly doubt that the people trying to foist these ideas upon Timothy’s fellowship were “bad people”; more likely, they were just trying to be careful: “Timothy, this stuff you and Paul are talking about is pretty out there; let's rein it in a little, shall we?”
But, my friends, it’s our personal digging-into-Jesus, our Branch-clinging-to-Vine-ness that’s most imperative for us each playing our proper part in the Body of Christ. Without your Belief and experience of Him, we’re all in danger of descending into “stupid Godless fictions,” into externals disconnected from the Life and Way of Jesus.
So what do you say? Shall we dig in - and delight - this day?
There is really no need to "defend our faith." If you and I would only live it - enjoying all the wonders of the splendor of our inheritances in Jesus - the world's counterpoints would become utterly indefensible.
"There are doubtless many reasons for the degeneration of Christianity into churchiness, and the narrowing of the Gospel for all mankind into a set of approved beliefs; but the chief cause must be the worship of an inadequate god, a cramped and regulated god who is 'a good churchman' according to the formulas of the worshipper. For actual behavior infallibly betrays the real object of a man's worship."
J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small
What if we began to measure our confidence, not against our personal strengths, or dreams, or plans, or smarts, but only against His immeasurable promises? For instance:
"And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus." Philippians 4:19
"All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us." 2 Corinthians 1:3,4
“You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon Him, for you are His personal concern.” 1 Peter 5:7
"Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus." Philippians 4:6,7
"Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever." 1 Chronicles 16:34
"And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them." Romans 8:28
"This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!" 2 Corinthians 5:17
"Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do." Psalm 1:1-3
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Joshua said to the people [just before the crossing of the Jordan], “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow Yahweh will do wonders among you.” (Joshua 3:5)
And rather than asking you to imagine the burning look in Joshua’s eyes while saying these words, or the rapt attention of the millions of people listening, I want you to – for a moment – instead imagine just Jesus and yourself, sitting together, tomorrow morning. You’ve only just woken up and brushed your teeth; you now walk out to the kitchen table; He is sitting there, waiting for you. With the warmest smile, He then motions you to sit directly opposite Him, and, for the longest while, He just looks at you – like the proudest father might look on his little boy or girl. Finally He speaks, short and sweet: “I have sanctified you; today I will do wonders in your midst.” Only that. That’s all He says.
If you and I gave our whole “quiet times” everyday to arriving at that reality, we would be the most fruitful, joyous, connected disciples of Jesus that the Modern Era has ever seen. Our acceptance of what He’s done for us, our expectancy of what He’s bound to do today, would define our every moment.
What do you do, personally, when you meet with Him? Is it time for a change to what's become, perhaps, just a routine?
"Bishop Temple says: 'Christ was not a man, but Man, he was not a God, but God.' In him we see what man is and how far we have fallen, in him we see what God is and how far we may rise. He is the universal meeting us personalized. Since I am a person, the universal must meet me personalized… Jesus changes everything he touches. Call him a man, and you will have to change your ideas of what a man is; call him God, and you will have to change your ideas of what God is. You can transfer every quality of Jesus into God without the slightest sense of loss or blasphemy. And when you set him up as man he appeals to universal man."
E. Stanley Jones, Christ at the Round Table
"We are near the end of all things now, and you should therefore be calm, self-controlled men of prayer. Above everything else be sure that you have real deep love for each other, remembering how ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.' Be hospitable to each other without secretly wishing you hadn’t got to be! Serve one another with the particular gifts God has given each of you, as faithful dispensers of the magnificently varied grace of God." 1 Peter 4:7-10
This week, in slowly reading and rereading through these verses, it was like my heart took a deep breath, savored for a moment, and then let it out. Because, I thought: What a wonderful thing it is to know Jesus of Nazareth. What freedom we're given. What simple joy. What purpose.
Think about the admonitions in these four verses. Even if the world should be coming to its close, we're called to be - in fact, we're resourced to be - calm, self-controlled conversationalists with our Savior, our Friend. Our work is love. Our tool for that is hospitality: in the Greek, "acts of friendship." The only talents in us that end up mattering are the "particular gifts God has given us"; we are esteemed as the "faithful dispensers of the magnificently varied grace of God." That's who we are in God's sight.
If you know Jesus at all, then you must realize that we are all neck-deep in the roaring, powerful River of Life that flows from His throne. But I think we think, sometimes, that we shouldn't get too carried away with our identity being too fully in Him. This week, I thought: No, let's get swept away; let's fully be who we're supposed to be in Him!
What do you think? Are you with me?
“How do I know anything about the sun? Because the sun shines, and in its light I see what the sun is. The sun is its own evidence. No philosopher could have told me about the sun if the sun did not shine. No power of meditation and thought can grasp the presence of God. Be quiet, and trusting, and resting, and the everlasting God will shine into your heart, and will reveal Himself. And then, just as naturally as I enjoy the light of the sun, and as naturally as I look upon the pages of a book knowing that I can see the letters because the light shines; just as naturally will God reveal Himself to the waiting soul, and make His presence a reality.”
Andrew Murray, The Believer's Secret of the Master's Indwelling
“…there is only one vocation… you are called to a deep interior life, perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.”
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
“We should never think of God as being spatially near or remote, for He is not here or there but carries here and there in His heart. Space is not infinite, as some have thought; only God is infinite and in His infinitude He swallows up all space. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord.’ He fills heaven and earth as the ocean fills the bucket that is submerged in it, and as the ocean surrounds the bucket so does God in the universe He fills. ‘The heaven of heavens cannot contain thee.’ God is not contained: He contains.”
A.W. Tozer, Born After Midnight
"I beg you, as those whom I love, to live in this world as strangers and “temporary residents”, to keep clear of the desires of your lower natures, for they are always at war with your souls. Your conduct among the surrounding peoples in your different countries should always be good and right, so that although they may in the usual way slander you as evil-doers yet when disasters come, they may glorify God when they see how well you conduct yourselves." 1 Peter 2:11,12
To get to the crux of these two verses, we have to go back to one word in the first sentence - in the Greek, ὡς: "as" - "Beloved, I exhort you as strangers and exiles..."
I think we think that, as followers of Jesus, we have to actively withdraw from the world, ie. make ourselves as if strangers and exiles. But Peter is saying, no, as followers of Jesus, you are already strangers and exiles: you already don't quite belong.
But where do we not belong?
Well, obviously, amidst the broken ways of the world, amidst its "slanders" and absurdities. But where else? Amidst "the desires of your lower natures," ie. in the way of the flesh within: we are exiled from even part of ourselves.
That is at the heart of what Jesus meant when He said to His friends: "It is the Spirit which gives life. The flesh will not help you." (John 6:63) And that's why we must give our greatest attentions to the ways of the Holy Spirit; otherwise we'll always be sitting on the sidelines of every battle, both in and around us.
Just a little reminder of your position and inheritance:
Your past is swallowed up by what Jesus did in the past on the Cross; your present is lived in His presence because He rose - He's alive!; and your future is to spend all eternity with the One who's presently sitting on the throne, loving you, empowering you, being your living hope.
No aspect of your human experience is untouched by His love. No aspect of this particular day is unknown to Him; He is with you.
“It takes many differing instruments to make up a symphony. We must let the Spirit pull out all the stops and play every key of our personalities. We must be utterly ourselves. We must be natural. But we must also remember that we need other Spirit-played instruments to complement and complete our partial tones. The one who most differs from us may have most to give us. The Spirit comes not to uniform us but to unify us.”
E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road
"Delight yourselves in God, yes, find your joy in him at all times. Have a reputation for gentleness, and never forget the nearness of your Lord. Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus.
Here is a last piece of advice. If you believe in goodness and if you value the approval of God, fix your minds on the things which are holy and right and pure and beautiful and good. Model your conduct on what you have learned from me, on what I have told you and shown you, and you will find the God of peace will be with you." Philippians 4:4-9
So much of our own personal expression of Jesus’ goodness often uses “outward language,” yet it was Paul’s joyous “inner life” that was belying his circumstances at every turn. Consider this famous set of verses through the lens, not of comfortable American Christianity, but instead as written by a Roman prisoner imprisoned because of adherence to a small and controversial new faith-movement:
1) “Delight yourselves in God, yes, find your joy in him at all times.” With chains clanking on his wrists, Paul is looking out the window of his prison-cell with a goofy grin on his face, writing the Philippians. He writes the words, “Rejoice in the Lord always…” and then laughs out loud. Then continues, “Again I say, Rejoice!” Brothers and sisters, our personal joy – meaning Jesus’ joy pouring forth from us – must be the Church’s great witness to the world. Our lack-of-joy, in the face of all that we already have in Him, may be the greatest problem in the American Church today…
2) “Have a reputation for gentleness, and never forget the nearness of your Lord.” The first phrase of this sentence needs to be read in light of the second. Paul, originally one of the least “gentle” people you ever could meet, now sits in house-arrest absolutely relishing the nearness (both locationally and, according to the Greek used, “the akin-to”-ness) of Jesus. Genuine gentleness is a natural byproduct of proximity to our Savior.
3) “Don’t worry over anything whatever…” Stop right there. Do you even begin to understand that both here and in Matthew 6:25, we are actually commanded not to worry about anything? Commanded. Not to worry. Even without Paul’s wonderful sentences that will follow these five clear words, we should be given pause by the seriousness of the language he utilizes. Then comes the promise: “…tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus.” This language is perfect because, presumably, Paul was looking out the window at the Roman guards standing guard over him as he wrote these words. And it’s with that level of personal watchfulness that the peace of God will watch over those hearts determined not ever to worry in His presence! My favorite wording of the privileged position we inhabit? “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.” (1 Peter 5:7)
4) “If you believe in goodness and if you value the approval of God, fix your minds on the things which are holy and right and pure and beautiful and good.” Again, don’t forget that Paul is sitting in house-arrest in Rome, calling us – in our relative ease – to mine down deep into the “holy, right, pure, beautiful and good” goodness of Jesus. Just scratching at the surface should never be enough for us; nor should we be barely delving down with any old hand-trowel. No, we should be – by the power of the Holy Spirit – drilling down deeper and deeper until we freefall into the caverns of gold that are to be found in Jesus! We should be swimming in the vats of His glorious grace, spiritual inheritors of a spiritual lifestyle like the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck!
People often talk about "the end justifying the means," where the "means" are a series of actions and resolves that have resulted in whatever "end" they happen to be considering. But our "End" is a Person who literally justified our approach to Him; our "means" are now meant to be His own perfect actions and resolves. To be called by Jesus, then to be saved by Jesus, means walking with Jesus, means necessarily to begin to walk like Jesus. The interconnection of elements is supposed to be a thing of awe, of glory.
Acts 2:43-47 - "Everyone felt a deep sense of awe, while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles. All the believers shared everything in common; they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need. Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple; they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy. They praised God continually and all the people respected them. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation."
"For our example of the patient endurance of suffering we can take the prophets who have spoken in the Lord’s name. Remember that it is usually those who have patiently endured to whom we accord the word “blessed!” You have heard of Job’s patient endurance and how God dealt with him in the end, and therefore you have seen that the Lord is merciful and full of understanding pity for us men." James 5:10,11
That's probably the most casual reference to the sufferings of Job in all the scriptures: "You've heard about Job, right? See, that worked out..."
But, seriously, as we read through both these verses, as we consider the Greek subject-words in all three sentences - "suffering," "patience," "blessed," "endured," "endurance," "outcome," "full of tender mercy" and "compassionate" - we have to remember two important things:
1. The unbelievable, real-time pressure James' original readers were under because of Jesus, because of belief in Him
2. The fact that we are now pretty soft
For us - and let's be honest! - much of what we often call "suffering" is just things not going our way. (And, please, understand me: I'm well aware that many of us have dealt with tragedy before; that we've seen our share of true suffering.) But "things not going my way" was certainly not what James' readers were thinking when they read these words...
Many of those people would live the remainder of their lives, after meeting Jesus, with the strong possibility of death-for-Him hanging over every day of their daily experience. They woke like that; worked like that; raised children like that; had friendships like that; and, most importantly, worshipped like that. And so, in the midst of their sufferings, in the midst of our oftentimes pseudo-sufferings, what is James saying to keep our hearts and minds trained upon?
In the Greek, the "tender mercy" and "compassion" of his brother, Jesus.
We are to keep those attributes right in front of our face, like, "I know He's merciful; I know He's compassionate; so I know I can trust Him to the end."
"So Naaman went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Then he and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, 'Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel...'" 2 Kings 5:14,15a
A thought to keep in front of us: What if our daily life could prove to be a proof of both the existence of, and the preeminence of, our God?
“[Bishop Bienvenu] was then alone with himself, contemplative, peaceful, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with that of the ether, affected in the darkness by the visible splendor of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, and opening his soul to thoughts which fall from the unknown. At such moments, offering up his heart at the hour when the nocturnal flowers offer up their perfumes, he could not have said himself, possibly, what was passing in his mind; but he felt something fly out of him and something descend into him… He dreamed of the grandeur and presence of God… He did not study God; he was dazzled by Him.”
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Then people began to bring babies to him so that he could put his hands on them. But when the disciples noticed it, they frowned on them. But Jesus called them to him, and said, “You must let little children come to me, and you must never prevent their coming. The kingdom of God belongs to little children like these. I tell you, the man who will not accept the kingdom of God like a little child will never get into it at all.” Luke 18:15-17
Now that’s a big statement; certainly one that bids us pause to consider the lives and lifestyle of “little children.” (And while I was pondering that exact thought, my three-year-old son woke up and came to join me in the kitchen. So, for the next 20ish minutes, I simply watched him and wrote down everything he happened to do.) Here’s a list of attributes that might help us and lead us in our intimacy with Jesus…
Trying to "reason our way to God" is asking the infinite immensity of all He is to squeeze into the limited finite housing of our mind and mental processes. An honest reasoning has to be prepared to allow one's mind to open out into that immensity: out where the mysteries lives in His glory. And that's precisely what we're invited to do as recipients of the Holy Spirit.