"The moment the truth dawns upon us that the purpose of God’s visit to this planet was not to establish another religion but to reveal the reality behind the appearance of things, we see what I believe to be another unique feature of the Christian Faith—its utter inescapability. Its principles and laws do not merely apply to religion and the religious way of life, they apply to life itself, wherever and whenever it is lived."
J.B. Phillips, God Our Contemporary
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"You must not judge by the appearance of things but by the reality!"
Jesus, in John 7:24
Below might be the best description of the experience, and feeling, and fruit of "Union with Jesus" that I've ever read anywhere. Montaigne was writing of his closest earthly friend; but try reading it as describing your pursuit of intimacy with Jesus:
In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.
Beyond all my understanding, beyond what I can say about this in particular, there was I know not what inexplicable and fateful force that was the mediator of this union. We sought each other before we met because of the reports we heard of each other, which had more effect on our affection than such reports would reasonably have; I think it was by some ordinance from heaven… Our friendship has no other model than itself, and can be compared only with itself… Our souls pulled together in such unison, they regarded each other with such ardent affection, and with a like affection revealed themselves to each other to the very depths of our hearts, that not only did I know his soul as well as mine, but I should certainly have trusted myself to him more readily than to myself.
Michel de Montaigne, Of Friendship
“Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” Jeremiah 32:27 (NASB)
Personally, I can’t recall another question spoken in the Scriptures that holds the same meaning and weight as the question with which this implied promise concludes: “is anything too difficult for Me?” Because if there’s any doubt in our minds as to His ability to encounter, overcome and, even, demolish any difficulty, then--what are we doing? Who do we think we’re going to follow, next, if this One, this God, can’t surmount any challenge, hardship, barrier or impasse?
My friends, I want us to truly know this God, this One: “the Lord, the God of all flesh” who is unstoppable in face of difficulty.. I want you so unshakably resolved upon His power and sheer dynamism that there’s never any more question for you in your day to day.
So, for that reason, I want to take you on a journey of His ability, over the aeons, to overcome every difficulty, every trial, every divide, every impossibility that might’ve seemed insurmountable. And, to do that, I want us to consider, in each era or day, His and our “state of existence”—Who He was and who we were—during that precise period of time (or, even, pre-time).
Before Creation – God was. We weren’t. He existed and we didn’t exist at all. And yet He manifested existence and time and space and being, and made the triune choice to make us “in His image.”
In the Garden of Eden – He was. We were now also. And He overcame any potential boundary lying between the Divine and those Made-in-the-Image-of-the-Divine, and He walked with us “in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8, ESV).
From the Fall until the Incarnation – He was God: perfect and holy. We were fallen: imperfect and broken. And yet, for the remainder of human history until His coming, He continued to manifest His grace and to reveal His voice across the divide. It was only by His grace that “history” didn’t end with the Fall: He might’ve scrapped the whole thing because humanity was no longer perfect.
The Incarnation – He was Himself and yet with us. We were still imperfect and yet with Him. He actually allowed humanity to see the very face of God.
The Cross – He was Himself and yet totally in our place, on our behalf. We were our broken selves, and yet our sin-existence hung suspended-in-time upon that Man on the Cross. And He personally overcame sin, that separating force that had destroyed mankind ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden.
The Resurrection – He was alive again—God and Man—entirely by His own power. We were still imperfect, and yet now offered a new sinless, deathless, human existence. And He had permanently, once for all time, overcome death, “the last enemy” of mankind (1 Cor. 15:26, NIV).
The Ascension – He was Himself—Man and God—on the throne again. We were able, by His blood, to have direct access. And nothing can now separate our confident earth-to-Heaven approach: He has said “It is finished” to all human-to-God separation.
Pentecost until Today – He is with the Father--and with us: within our hearts. We are here on earth, as new Kingdom creations--and yet “raised up with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6, NIV). His and our shared, bi-locational reality means there’s no difficulty unable to be overcome, no provision meant to be unmet, no spiritual deficit He won’t personally invade, overwhelm and conquer. He is there and here; we are here and there.
In every portion of history and pre-history, we have dealt with a God who is unable to be stopped, unable to encounter any natural or supernatural difficulty that has any ounce of power against Him. Let us say to our hearts today: Behold, I am following the Lord, the God of all flesh; nothing is too difficult for Him!
Lack of seeming substance? He created existence!
Lack of connection? He personally comes to encounter us!
Lack of holiness? He will never stop pursuing His people!
Lack of understanding of God? He has showed us His face!
Fear of the consequences of sin? He ended it!
Fear in the face of death? He has conquered it forever!
Desire to know God? He invites you into the throneroom of Heaven!
Desire for a new life? He invites Himself right into your heart!
Let me type it once again with confidence, from me to you: Behold, you and I are following the Lord, the God of all flesh; nothing in the heavens or the earth is too difficult for Him
"[Jesus] taught, and his teaching is as difficult to follow now as it was then, that what is apparently happening may bear little or no relation to what is really happening. The reality, according to him, is the establishment and growth of a Kingdom of inner loyalty which transcends all human barriers. Therefore, the realization of the existence of this Kingdom, working for its expansion, living according to its principles, and, if necessary, dying for it, is the real significance of man’s temporary existence upon the earth. Jesus taught, and demonstrated in person, that the very things which the world values most highly are irrelevant and ineffectual in the dimension of permanent reality. He neither denied the existing world nor despaired of its inhabitants, but by setting up an entirely different standard he showed the way of constructive human living. He showed men how they need not be overinvolved with this world, how they need be neither deluded by its glamours, nor confined by its limitations."
J.B. Phillips, God Our Contemporary
"Certain people declared in my hearing, ‘Unless I can find a thing in our ancient records, I refuse to believe it in the Gospel’; and when I assured them that it is indeed in the ancient scriptures, they retorted, ‘That has got to be proved.’ But for my part, my records are Jesus Christ; for me, the sacrosanct records are His cross and death and resurrection, and the faith that comes through Him. And it is by these, and by the help of your prayers, that I am hoping to be justified.
"The priests of old, I admit, were estimable men; but our own High Priest is greater, for He has been entrusted with the Holy of Holies, and to Him alone are the secret things of God committed. He is the doorway to the Father, and it is by Him that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets go in, no less than the Apostles and the whole Church; for all these have their part in God’s unity. Nevertheless, the Gospel has a distinction all its own, in the advent of our Savior Jesus Christ, and His Passion and Resurrection. We are fond of the prophets, and they did indeed point forward to Him in their preaching; yet it is the Gospel that sets the coping-stone on man’s immortality."
Ignatius of Antioch
from his letter to the Philadelphian fellowship
ca. Early 2nd Century
“Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ But I tell you this — though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence. And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. You fathers — if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Luke 11:5-13, NLT (Italics mine)
So, suppose instead you went to the house of your friend, Jesus, whether at midnight or whenever, wanting to borrow a dash of His Holy Spirit. You say to Him, “The whole world is in need of your presence, a fresh experience of your visitation, and I myself have nothing to give them.” And instead of, say, calling out from His bedroom, you can hear Him rushing to the door; it gets thrown open and almost pulls you in with its gust of wind blowing by. “I’m so glad you called on me first,” Jesus smiles. “My door is never locked, and I’m absolutely never in bed. I can help any time, any minute, any day.”
And, furthermore, Jesus tells us this Himself — that what He does He does for friendship’s sake – you are His friend – and if you continually knock, He will continually answer because of your joyous persistence. And it is He Himself who tells you, keep on asking, and you will literally receive what you actually ask for. He says: Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door of the Kingdom will be opened to you. For everyone who asks… “everyone” most certainly including you… receives. Everyone who seeks… “everyone” still most certainly including you… finds. And to everyone who knocks… and you are still a part of “everyone” here… the door will be opened.
If you yourself are a father – or if you can imagine a good father – if his children ask for a fish, he would not give them a snake, would he? Or if they ask him for an egg, would he give them a scorpion?
“Of course not!” Jesus laughs, as He says.
“So if sinful people know how to give good gifts to their children” – and here Jesus grins with the readiness of a wonderful reminder coming – “or, if formerly sinful people who I’ve set free with my blood know how, then how much more – listen… HOW MUCH MORE will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26,27, NASB)
Imagine meeting a Man on the street-corner, or at a beach, or along a mountain path, and He immediately stops His day to talk with you, to hear your story, to know you. His initial opening question had caught your attention by its directness; you’d never met the Man before and now you’re pondering and answering equally directly. For some reason, as you answer Him about your day – and your life – you feel a strange relaxation of your usual guardedness. You are apt to trust this Man’s ability to understand you. It is a strange sensation, instantaneously trusting Him.
Why, you ask yourself, are you talking to this Man in this way?
Perhaps it’s because of the way, when He first saw you, that His eyes lit up: the look in His eyes was a look of immediate recognition: like He knew you. And then, too, there was the way He totally stopped His own momentum – His walk, His day – and became consumed with the answer you gave to His initial inquiry. And, especially, it was the way that – as you talked – He was so totally rapt with attention at every detail you felt so strangely comfortable sharing. Again, you had never met this Man till fifteen minutes ago; now, you are wanting to spend the rest of the day together.
What is it about this Man?
It feels to you like every ounce of His energy is brought into focus for the particular moment He’s inhabiting. That’s something. And the set of His eyes – the openness of His countenance – seems to reflect an inner peacefulness that’s nothing like anything in the whole world. He is fully alive, right now, to you. Unto you. Directly toward you. There is something within this Man that calls down into the inside of you and whispers of wonders and newness and new life offering itself to you. His presence – even without words – somehow speaks of a whole new thing He’s offering… if you’ll only just--
What is He asking? you wonder.
Whatever it is, you’re interested in giving it.
Ezekiel 36 probably made absolutely no sense to Ezekiel’s original hearers and readers because they’d never set eyes on Jesus of Nazareth. Ezekiel 36 should make perfect sense to us because we’ve already met, we already know, that Man I was just writing about.
I was describing, of course, Jesus Himself. As it’s very clear He was, when you read through the four Gospels. His face and carriage and countenance and the way He spoke to any and all were the most arresting experience anyone had ever had. They found themselves “telling Him the whole story.” They broke the necks of bottles of alabaster and anointed His feet. They sang in the streets when He came through. They clamored and clung to Him; they “jostled at His elbow.”
Because the “new heart” and the “new spirit” of Heaven had been revealed, once for all time, and the people’s “hearts of stone” and fleshly spirits yearned for exchange. Even if they couldn’t have explained that fact. When they crowded Him by the tens, and hundreds, and thousands, and tens of thousands, what they really wanted was Ezekiel 36. They wanted what was in Him, in them. And they had to be in that Presence, as long as they had it.
The glory of this promise is that – already and forever – the realities it speaks of are already and forever yours. Jesus has already and forever given you a new heart and a new spirit; He has plucked the old right out of you. Already and forever, He has lavishly poured His own Spirit upon you and – to the degree you’ve desired – within you. There is every opportunity – now and already and forever – for you to knowingly walk in His statutes.
Jesus is your sanctification. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life.
And while I love the heavenly reality that everything I’ve just said is already and forever accomplished for you, I also appreciate the last line of this promise: “And you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” There is demonstrable work for you to do, today. The only action that you properly bring to the equation of your sanctification is to get LOST in the words and life of Jesus. To listen to Him. And obey.
So, let’s go meet that Man in the circumstances of this day. It’s the only one we have. And He’s the only one we need.
"The administration of the Law which was engraved in stone (and which led in fact to spiritual death) was so magnificent that the Israelites were unable to look unflinchingly at Moses’ face, for it was alight with heavenly splendor. Now if the old administration held such heavenly, even though transitory, splendor, can we not see what a much more glorious thing is the new administration of the Spirit of life? If to administer a system which is to end in condemning men was a splendid task, how infinitely more splendid is it to administer a system which ends in making men good! And while it is true that the former temporary glory has been completely eclipsed by the latter, we do well to remember that is eclipsed simply because the present permanent plan is such a very much more glorious thing than the old." 2 Corinthians 3:7-11
Do you see how Paul is comparing-contrasting this clear dichotomous pair - the Law vs. the Spirit - to bring our NEW REALITY into focus? Well, let me make the contrast even more clear!
In verses 7-11, Paul gets absolutely carried away in using different forms of the same Greek word: δόξα - "glory." In just these four sentences, he uses the word TEN TIMES:
has been glorified
having been made glorious
One senses that Paul is trying to make a point...
Well, here it is: The overriding, overpowering, overmastering reality of Jesus is GLORY. If you've ever had the sense that this is anything less than TEN GLORIES WORTH OF GLORY, you've been getting the wrong impression. We are dealing in a GLORIOUS way of life.
Which begs the question of our hearts today: Is what we're doing with all of this absolutely GLORIOUS? Do you find yourself, more often than not, feeling a little carried away by the glorious wonder of Jesus?
Or... does it feel scheduled, routine, manageable, based upon a specialized knowledge that some have and others don't; does it feel (let's be honest) a little boring? Systematic? Something that can be picked up or set back down dependent upon the way a week's going?
My friends - again - the Way of Jesus is GLORY. Anything less - anything like the old Law - is not what we're after.
Jesus Himself is what we're after. Together. Today.
"We are not meant to remain as children at the mercy of every chance wind of teaching and the jockeying of men who are expert in the craft presentation of lies. But we are meant to hold firmly to the truth in love, and to grow up in every way into Christ, the head. For it is from the head that the whole body, as a harmonious structure knit together by the joints with which it is provided, grows by the proper functioning of individual parts to its full maturity in love." Ephesians 4:14-16
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"As far as I am concerned, the value of an ideal is measured not by its abstract beauty or purity, but simply by its capacity for being made incarnate. My realism is not the realism of the flesh; it is an incarnate realism. There is a world of difference here: the saint is the least carnal of men for the simple reason that he is the most incarnate."
Gustave Thibon, Back to Reality
"For I passed on to you Corinthians first of all the message I had myself received—that Christ died for our sins, as the scriptures said he would; that he was buried and rose again on the third day, again as the scriptures foretold. He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve, and subsequently he was seen simultaneously by over five hundred Christians, of whom the majority are still alive, though some have since died." (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
Now, even though we don't have a record in the Gospels or Acts of this 500-person encounter with the Resurrected Jesus, I want us to ponder on it just a little. FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE! Presumably, with there being FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE there, these must've been people who had tracked with Him over part, or all, of His three-year ministry.
So, perhaps they'd sat amongst the 5,000 and had a share of the bread and fish. Maybe they'd been there for the Sermon on the Mount. I wonder how many of them had been standing along the street at His triumphal entry, waving the palms, shouting the praises?
For these people, whether with Him for a day or for the whole three years, I can almost guarantee I know the thought that ran through their minds throughout: "What I'm seeing here is historic. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff..."
BUT... then He died. Thereby moving from "historic" to "historical." What yesterday was unprecedented always get crushed under the weight of the Present...
EXCEPT... if death - and time - no longer rule. If a Man should walk back out of the tomb...
For these FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE, imagine assembling, being together, and then - THERE HE IS - ALIVE - JUST LIKE BEFORE. For the entirety of the rest of their human lives, Jesus would never be "historical": He will always be contemporary.
Where is He, for you, on that timeline? Is He "back there" or "right here"? Is His life "historical" or contemporaneously "historic" - happening right now and all the time?
Here's a hint at your answer: The way you live your daily life. It will tell you. It knows.
"Copy me, my brothers, as I copy Christ himself." 1 Corinthians 11:1
Really, this is the exact definition of the generational process we now call "discipleship": to, as closely as possible, imitate and take on the way another person intimately interacts with, imitates and personally follows Jesus. This has been an important thought for our community for years, so let's start off the New Year by saying again: Discipleship is not knowledge-about; it is not knowing-all-the-right-answers; discipleship is the literal process of literally, demonstrably following Jesus of Nazareth. And one of the best ways of doing that is to copy another - to apprentice yourself to another - who is literally, demonstrably doing that already.
Again, as Paul says it: "Copy me... as I copy Christ himself."
Which raises a pair of good New Year's looking-forward-and-looking-back questions to consider:
Who, personally, are you learning the Way from?
Who, right now, are you leading along that Way?
Happy New Year, my friends! May it be a rich one in Him!
Then Jesus made his way round the villages, continuing his teaching. He summoned the twelve, and began to send them out in twos, giving them power over evil spirits...
(Later) The apostles returned to Jesus and reported to him every detail of what they had done and taught. “Now come along to some quiet place by yourselves, and rest for a little while,” said Jesus, for there were people coming and going incessantly so that they had not even time for meals. They went off in the boat to a quiet place by themselves... (Mark 6:7 & 6:30-32)
Those last three verses, along with the sending-and-going verse above them, really give us the whole cycle of face-to-face intimacy, sending, going, ministering, testifying and intimacy that should be the cycle we're never not part of. Think of the disciples' experience of those last few days: being called near to Him, His breath on their face, His hand on their shoulder as He sent them out, two by two; then going out to preach and to cast out evil spirits and to heal many people of their diseases; and then to return, overwhelmed with joy at all they'd seen Him do through them, and to have Him invite them to come and be alone with Him; and to sail off across the waters to an unknown place...
Jesus is showing these men a pattern of life that is THE pattern for life: an ongoing continuum that proceeds from intimacy toward intimacy, traveling over roads that are only passable as we walk in intimacy with Him. Our ability to do anything in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven is borne from how we're intimate with Him.
Intimacy with Jesus is not part of it.
Let's intimately walk with Him into this New Year of our life!
"The kingdom of God is the most astoundingly radical proposal ever presented to the human race. It means nothing less than the replacing of the present world-order by the kingdom of God. It is the endeavor to call men back from the present unnatural, unworkable world-order to a new one based on new principles, embodying a new spirit and led by a new Person. As Jesus announces this new kingdom we find some things begin to rise into prominence as essential elements. God is our Father, and trust in him with its rest and poise is to replace the present order based on self-centeredness with its worry and inward frictions. Men are brothers, and the brotherhood of our common humanity is to replace the present order based on race, color, money, and class distinctions. Human personality is of infinite value, and this conception is to replace the present order based on the exploitation of others. Service is the only sign of any way to greatness, and is to replace the present order based on conceptions of power through command of the service of others. Self-renunciation is the way to self-realization and must replace the present order based on self-assertion. The cross is its manifestation and symbol. Love is to be the working force of the new kingdom and is to replace the present dependence upon force. The seat of this new kingdom is in the heart — 'the kingdom of heaven is within you' — and it works from this center to every human relation. This is to replace that in the present order which organizes life in things outside of the man."
E. Stanley Jones, Christ at the Round Table
Could I offer a re-framing for your ponderings this Christmas?
Because, while it is powerful and beautiful and absolutely the real thing to focus in on the picture of the baby Jesus, swaddled on a bed of hay, as the heart of Christmas, I want to remind our heads and hearts that that amazing arrival was nothing more and nothing less than a personal invasion by the General - the General! - of the Army of the Kingdom of Heaven. Prior to that day, perhaps the greatest surprise invasion ever accomplished was carried out by Hannibal when he came over the Alps to attack the Roman army. And do you know what he said when he was told that that crossing-over was impossible?
"Aut inveniam viam aut faciam."
"I shall either find a way - or make one."
That is the heart of Christmas: the Incarnation that was a forever making-of-a-Way. The seemingly unbridgeable divide between God and man, Heaven and earth, was suddenly, catastrophically erased for all eternity.
He is with us, now.
There is no more separation necessary.
Then the Pharisees went off and discussed how they could trap Jesus in argument. Eventually they sent their disciples with some of the Herod-party to say this, “Master, we know that you are an honest man who teaches the way of God faithfully and that you don’t care for human approval. Now tell us—‘is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not’?”
But Jesus knowing their evil intention said, “Why try this trick on me, you frauds? Show me the money you pay the tax with.” They handed him a coin, and he said to them, “Whose face is this and whose name is in the inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they said.
“Then give to Caesar,” he replied, “what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God!”
This reply staggered them and they went away and let him alone. (Matt. 22:15-22)
Isn't Jesus absolutely brilliant?
In the space of one action, one question and one comment, He is simultaneously doing three separate things: He is lowering the valuation of any-currency-ever as the denominator of life's importance; He is heightening our understanding of what our lives owe to God: ie. EVERYTHING; and, by so casually saying, "Just pay the tax," and then following that up with "And give God your all," He is showing us what the life of following Him is supposed to look like: stealthy, under-the-radar, seeming-to-fit-in while, in reality, it's working to aid and abet another Kingdom's earthly invasion!
He is setting up, here, a sort of Kingdom of Heaven guerrilla warfare. It will seem to be everywhere and yet nowhere. It will look just fine to the Caesars of this world - but they'll have no idea what's coming; Who is with us, behind us...
"Jesus got [His] divine life by depending absolutely upon the Father all His life long, depending upon Him even down into death. Jesus got that life in the full glory of the Spirit to be poured out, by giving Himself up in obedience and surrender to God alone, and leaving God even in the grave to work out His mighty power; and that very Christ will live out His life in you and me. Oh, the mystery! Oh, the glory! And oh, the Divine certainty! Jesus Christ means to live out that life in you and me."
Andrew Murray, The Believer’s Secret of the Master’s Indwelling
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"The writers of the New Testament Epistles never regarded the Christian religion as an ‘ethic,’ still less a performance. To them it was an invasion of their own lives by the living Spirit of God; their response in repentance and faith provided the means by which the divine could penetrate the merely human. They lived lives of super-human quality because they believed quite simply that Christ Himself was alive within them."
J.B. Phillips, Making Men Whole
As we prepare for a national holiday centered around thankfulness, it might be good for us to remember that NO ONE has more grounds for gratitude than ALL followers of Jesus of Nazareth. For, after all, we personally know the One who created and upholds all creation... which is something! And we have had a glimpse of the glories of the Incarnation: His arrival, His life, His words, His sparkling personality. We have been set free - been set free: past tense - by the finished work of the Cross. And we now know that life and death hold nothing daunting for us: we have seen Him walk from the tomb - totally unscathed...
And so, where are we now; who are we now?
The actual, living, flesh-and-blood, personal representatives of the Kingdom of Heaven to this generation of humanity...
...who've been imbued with the selfsame Holy Spirit of God that carried that Man through the 33 years of His human existence...
...and who may always - ALWAYS! - stop on a dime, reorient our attentions, and commune with the Living King who sits upon the throne of Heaven.
I'd say we have some reason to be thankful this week! I hope it's a wonderful one for you!
Some of you know that I did a long fiction-nonfiction writing project, a few years back, to try to bring the Book of Acts into a more first-hand focus. Below is a little bit of it. First, you'll see the passage where some of the disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene decided to go ahead and start preaching to the Gentiles in Antioch, not just the Jews. Then, from there, you'll see my imaginative write-up of, perhaps, what it was like when one of those men suddenly decided that it was time to do so. I tried to bring into focus the potential presence of Simon of Cyrene (who carried the Cross with/for Jesus) among them. Hope it stirs your heart for this Monday!
Now those who had been dispersed by the persecution which arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, giving the message as they went to Jews only. However, among their number were natives of Cyprus and Cyrene, and these men, on their arrival at Antioch, proclaimed their message to the Greeks as well, telling them the good news of the Lord Jesus… (Acts 11:19,20)
A Man of Cyrene on the Road to Antioch
My blood is quickened within and I walk this road and I think on the ways of the Holy Spirit, and, my brothers, I am tempted to throw all constraint on the winds which blow up from the Sea, and past us. Feel them blowing by us, west to east. Smell that scent of adventure that first carried us from the coasts of Africa to there, on Shavuot, and think of all that has happened unto us since! What is man to stand before the whims of our Jesus! Who were we to think this thing could be contained within the Hebrew race! My brothers, as we approach upon Antioch, I’m of a mind to say goodbye to the past; to walk right into the courtyards and marketplaces and, yes, synagogues; to proclaim the name Jesus to any man, woman or child who’s made of flesh and blood like me; to say that it is only in the name of Jesus that anyone finds rest for their souls and a place of heavenly peace for their minds…
Peter has broken the mold – let’s shatter it now, brothers! Let us enter the town with the roving gaze of Jesus and see all mankind as the quarry, the prey, of the whispering will of the Holy Spirit! Let us conquer the hearts of man and woman, Jew or Gentile; have no fear that wrongdoing comes on the voice of the Spirit that gave Jesus life from the dead!
I see the fear in your eyes, Simon, my brother of Cyrene. What for? Did not you yourself once fall under the gaze of the darkhearted Gentiles and are you not the very man whose shoulders quaked under the cross with our Savior, our Jesus? Brother! Have we not come too far to ever turn back now? Sometimes I place myself within your flesh and mind, using of my imagination to imagine that day, and here’s what I come to – tell me if any of this reprises anything like any of your memories…
I am standing, that day, along the road watching him pass. The smell of the crowd is thick and pungent with sweat and rage. Suddenly, all eyes turn from him to me – to you, I mean! – and I’m thrust from within my hiding into the hot sun of the Jerusalem day. I feel naked under the gaze of the people, the soldier who calls, and, most of all, him – Jesus, the sufferer under the weight of the cross. I slip under the right side of the horizontal crossbeam – Jesus slides over – his fleshless shoulders shearing against the grain – and he turns his eyes to meet my eyes.
That moment, Simon, what was it like? What came upon your mind? Did you not know that this was the Christ, our Savior, our God?
Together, as yokefellows walking, we trudge up the hill with crowds a-lining both sides of the twisting path and I talk to him of my sin, of their sin, of the whole world’s sin – past, present and for all the futures to come. He listens, walking, and I know he hears. When we finally arrive at the top of Skull Hill, I am shoved aside by that same soldier who first called me, and I disappear from the center of the moment I’d shared with Jesus. I look back down the hill and relive each and every step with him. Coming up and up the path we just trod together, Jesus and I, I see the thick drag-mark of the upright of the cross which has furrowed the dirty of the trail so deeply. His side, the right side of that furrow, is a way marked thick with blood. My side, the left side of that furrow, is clean and spotless…
Brother Simon, look ahead! Look at the town of Antioch! This town is filled with men, women and children who know nothing of the Kingdom of Heaven; who are lost as we once ourselves were; and who hunger and thirst for the taste of life – the taste of that blood – the taste of Jesus of Nazareth! Shall we not go and set them free with the Way you once trod with Him? What have we to fear when you’ve seen him dead and then risen again!
All you, fellow Wayfarers, listen unto me! Where’er and from whence you hail, I renounce all ties to the age-old past! I will descend to this city and preach to Jew and Greek alike!
Who follows? Who walks the way I walk?
I know the One who leads it!
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” (Mt. 9:35-38)
The pivot in this section between Jesus’ own doings and His famous words on the plentiful harvest is the “compassion” He feels when He sees the shepherdless crowds.
compassion (noun) : sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it
I think the Church of our day too often meditates upon Jesus having compassion on us because we’re “harassed and helpless,” wearied and cast-off; but remember, that’s the look of sheep “without a shepherd.” That’s no longer us; that’s over now! We stand now shoulder-to-shoulder with the Good Shepherd: our new life’s work is meant to be the “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” And how is their distress to be alleviated? He just told us: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Friends, we must either be reaping today or praying for reapers. The harvest is plentiful; it’s the harvesting that isn’t. In any given week, we spend far more time thinking of our own harassed helplessness when, because we already have a Good Shepherd, we’re supposed to be knee-deep next to Him in the work. Along very similar lines, my favorite of the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus, had this to say in his day:
‘From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress… And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now, you are at the Olympic games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day or a single event. This is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be Socrates.’
My friends, although we are not yet totally like Jesus, we should be living as men and women who at least want to be totally like Jesus. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Let's do it!
"Your pride in your church is lamentably out of place. Don’t you know how a little yeast can permeate the whole lump? Clear out every bit of the old yeast that you may be new unleavened bread! We Christians have had a Passover lamb sacrificed for us—none other than Christ himself! So let us 'keep the feast' with no trace of the yeast of the old life, nor the yeast of vice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of unadulterated truth!" 1 Corinthians 5:6-8
So, literally and figuratively, Jesus brings to the table, to the "feast," Himself: the perfect Passover Lamb. And what does Paul say that we're invited to bring? The unleavened bread. That combination of salt, water and flour.
The "salt" that is the Good News, the Gospel, the Reality of who Jesus was and is, and all that's He's done and is doing.
The "water" that is His Holy Spirit, the Spring of Life that wells up within us, the inward experience of His very life.
And the "flour," our personal personalities, refined and made ready for His purposes: consecrated for new, beautiful things.
Friends, there is NO NEED for the "yeast of the old life," here: we are a New Ingredient of a New Life in a New Covenant.
All things have been made New on this Monday!
"We are writing to you about something which has always existed yet which we ourselves actually saw and heard: something which we had an opportunity to observe closely and even to hold in our hands, and yet, as we know now, was something of the very Word of life himself! For it was life which appeared before us: we saw it, we are eye-witnesses of it, and are now writing to you about it. It was the very life of all ages, the life that has always existed with the Father, which actually became visible in person to us mortal men. We repeat, we really saw and heard what we are now writing to you about. We want you to be with us in this—in this fellowship with the Father, and Jesus Christ his Son. We must write and tell you about it, because the more that fellowship extends the greater the joy it brings to us who are already in it." 1 John 1:1-4
I've probably taught through this section 15 or 20 times, and I don't think it has ever ceased to thrill me as much as it did the very first time I read it in this, the Phillips translation. It's this wonderful combination of "high" and "low" Christologies: knowing Him as He is as the glorious King of Heaven while fully remembering Him as He was, as a Man, as that bearded Teacher-Carpenter out of Nazareth in Galilee: He is "something which has always existed"; He is "the very Word of life himself"; He is "life"; He is "the very life of all ages"... and yet "we ourselves actually saw and heard" Him; we "observed [Him] closely"; we touched Him; He "became visible in person to us mortal men."
Friends, there is nothing more glorious in all John's writings than the idea that his Best Friend - a Man whose scent he can still remember, a Man whose extra cloak he's perhaps kept with him all these years - is Himself the Meaning, the Definition and the Purpose of all life under the sun.
This is GLORY. This is the glory that's YOURS. This is the glory that's yours TODAY.
"Christ wants us to show Him to the world. Our argument is not our logic and theology, but our Lord Himself: ‘you will be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8). This is all He needs, that we shall tell about Him and make Him real to men. This also is the solution of all the sinner’s difficulties. You cannot save him by preaching theology to him, but show him Christ, his crucified, living, welcoming Savior, and all his doubts will flee. This is the solution to all questions about sanctification. We may seek for blessings and experiences, for states and conditions and find that we have to go over it all again and again; but let us only see Jesus ‘who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30) and we are satisfied, and go forth with the joyful cry, ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20). ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength’ (Phil. 4:13). This is the solution to all questions about healing. It is not enough to know the theory and doctrine; we must behold the life and receive it from Him."
A.B. Simpson, The Christ of the Forty Days
“When Jesus had finished talking on these matters, he left Galilee and went on to the district of Judea on the far side of the Jordan. Vast crowds followed him, and he cured them” (Mt. 19:1,2).
The word for “cure” there is ἐθεράπευσεν, from the root verb θεραπεύω (/THerə-pyoo ‘o/): “To serve, to pay attention to, to attend to, to take care of, to devote oneself to, to brood over, to treat medically, to heal, to cure.” And now go back and read the phonetic spelling of that Greek word again – say it out loud to yourself: Which of our English words comes from that word?
“And Jesus therapied them there.” Yes, Jesus served, Jesus paid attention to, attended to, took care of, devoted Himself to, brooded over, treated them medically, healed them, cured them there. What these vast crowds received, what every individual who ever approached Jesus received, is precisely what the whole world may yet receive, what every individual may today enjoy, of Jesus: perfect, individualized, “therapeutic,” heart-mind-body care – person to person – from this Man.
Let's take full advantage of what He's offering us this week.
“Now I am giving you a new command — love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. This is how all men will know that you are my disciples, because you have such love for one another.” (John 13:34,35)
The Disciples of this new command, the Body of Believers of this new Way, will be characterized by the selfsame love as Jesus’ love. No difference at all. Exactly the same in every way. Which begs the question, just as certainly as it begged the question on the night of the Last Supper: How did Jesus love? What makes for that difference between people who talk about Jesus’ love and those ones where we can actually see His love flowing from them?
Well, first, let’s talk about what Jesus’ love was not; what it didn’t contain:
It was without self-absorption, self-advancement, self-belief, self-conceit, any overdone self-confidence, self-congratulation, self-consciousness, or self-criticism. It was without any self-deception, self-defense, self-delusion, self-determination, any grounds for self-doubt, no self-excitation, certainly no self-flattery, entirely bereft of self-importance. It was without self-indulgence, self-interest, self-justification, self-love, self-pity, self-pleasure, self-preservation, or self-promotion. It was totally disinterested in any form of self-reliance, self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, self-seeking, self-styling, self-sufficiency, or self-support.
And most importantly: Jesus loved without self-protection. He gave His all that all might know His love.
For us, the Self-life is the final wall that needs to be toppled over in order to enjoy the kind of love that He’s ready now to give us, to pour forth from us. That selfsame love as Jesus’, the love we see play out all across the Church of Acts, actually has no need of the human Self. It only needs Jesus Himself.
Then Jesus looked up and saw the rich people dropping their gifts into the treasury, and he noticed a poor widow drop in two coppers, and he commented, “I assure you that this poor widow put in more than all of them, for they have all put in what they can easily spare, but she in her poverty has given away her whole living.” (Luke 21:1-4)
As He said in Matthew 6: "When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward…" Back in those days, the wealthy would literally herald their generous giving through the use of artificial fanfare and pageantry on the way to Herod's Temple...
But now imagine this woman, as she puts on her worn old shawl, heaves a sigh of fearful poverty, and picks up her last two coins to walk there. And, on the other end of her journey to give those coins, stands the Messiah, her God, watching her actions with pure joy. Again, Matthew 6: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Just one more way that intimacy with Him, living our whole lives before Him, turns every act of our lives into a wondrous glory!