We live in an era when it is common for churches to promote the “benefits” of being a follower of Jesus. Certainly there are benefits! I am concerned that we teach and preach the whole truth rather than simply acting like salesmen to get people to buy a product. The reality is that we are not in a competition with other ideas or philosophies. We are not trying to out-sell others by touting the highlights of a relationship with Jesus.
There are many blessings that come from being in a relationship with Jesus. There is the practical nature of the wisdom of the Bible that can lead to a more productive and enjoyable life for anyone.
There are also the blessings that Jesus said that apply just to his children. He told his followers not to be anxious about anything because his Father would take care of their needs (Matthew 6:25-34). He promises peace and security that is unavailable elsewhere (John 14:27). He promises to answer our prayers (Matthew 7:7-11). We have these promises highlighted in our Bibles, don’t we?
When he walked the earth his power and care was demonstrated multiple times. He healed the sick and raised the dead. When the crowds grew into the thousands and they were hungry, Jesus fed them all with equivalent of a child’s lunch box of food. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of following a man like this?
Not only that, his message of love resounds with the modern audience. He was a friend of the outcast, the foreigner, the sexually immoral, and the handicapped. They were drawn to his love like a moth to the flame. This type of inclusiveness is in-step with our times.
It’s no wonder that churches, in an attempt to be successful, hold up this all-embracing love and the wonderful benefits of following him. Churches that preach this “you can be successful” message grow. Their ministries are trumpeted across the land and around the world.
But something is wrong. These things were not the whole message of Jesus.
Jesus said radical things as well. He wasn’t interested in saying the things that would bring in the greatest number of people. He wasn’t interested in having the most followers on Instagram. He said things that made people unfriend him on Facebook. (I know, I know, those things weren’t around then).
Consider these three potential followers and his response to them:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
This person volunteered to follow Jesus wherever he went. This sounds like someone ready to be led in the sinner’s prayer! Jesus did not respond enthusiastically, instead he throws cold water on him. Instead of assuring him that all of his needs will be taken care of and that he will experience one blessing after another, he warns him that he has nowhere to sleep. Jesus made it clear that being a follower was not going to be a guaranteed life of ease. Jesus was a homeless man. Those who follow him must understand that.
To another Jesus said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
This one said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus tells him to let the dead bury their own dead. Scholars have debated the exact meaning of this phrase. Some say that the man’s father wasn’t dead and he wanted to take care of him until he died. Others argue that the man’s father was dead, but had not been buried yet. Still others think that Jesus was referring to the spiritually dead. Whichever is correct, Jesus is pointing to the priority of following him over every other priority. Notice that the man was willing to be a follower, but said, “Let me first…”. Such a attitude shows that one is not in full submission to Christ.
Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”(Luke 9:57-62 ESV)
This man wants to simply say goodbye to his family. Jesus tells him that if he sees that as important, he isn’t fit to be a follower. What kind of leader wouldn’t let his follower run home to say goodbye? But he said even stronger things than that about the priority of family for those who would follow him.
Listen to what he said to the great crowds that followed him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-33 ESV)
Those who follow him must be completely in love with him and completely satisfied by him. Family, position, wealth, and comfort must be left behind. Read that last sentence again. Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. The word “renounce” means to forsake, to say goodbye to, or to separate yourself from something. Jesus is telling the crowds that they need to leave everything behind to follow him.
It’s the same thing that he said to the rich man who wanted to have eternal life. He told him to sell everything he owned. All of his possessions needed to be sacrificed. This wasn’t a fundraising appeal by Jesus. He wasn’t looking for the rich man to transfer the ownership of his possessions to the ministry. Jesus told the rich man to give it to the poor. Once he had renounced all that he had, he was free to become a disciple. When the man went away sad, Jesus didn’t run after him to soften the requirement. Instead, he said to his disciples, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 10:17-27).
These radical crowd-dispersing sayings don’t make sense, unless we understand that Jesus is God Incarnate and that he is offering us something a million times better than anything the world has to offer us. He is offering us himself. He is offering us the relationship that we were created to experience forever. This is the greatest thing that we could ever hope to receive.
This is the central message of the gospel and must be at the core of our lives and ministries. Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. He died for our sins and was raised to life. He offers himself to all who will follow him. At the core of following him is understanding who he is. This is what led Paul to write, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I might gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
The message of the Scriptures is not things like “Five Steps to a Happy Marriage” or “Keys to Financial Freedom” or “Have a Peaceful Center in Troubled Times”. Let’s say a person has a happy marriage, is financially secure, leads a relatively calm life, and is nice to their neighbors. Is that person a Christian? Maybe. Maybe not. There are plenty of atheists, Muslims, and Hindus that live “good” lives. What if we add attending church regularly to the mix? Does that make them a Christian? No.
Can you look your successful Muslim neighbor in the eye and tell him that following Jesus is better than the success that he has enjoyed? Can you tell him that even if it means losing his family? What about your scientist friend who fears rejection by his peers if he becomes a follower of Christ? Remember, the early Christians were not financially secure. They were persecuted and often fled for their lives. Even though they were considered the scum of the earth, they rejoiced in what they had found in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).
John Piper has said it well: “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It's a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don't want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.”
Jesus isn’t against having a nice house or a good job. He is against people having idols. And an idol is anything else that we turn to for satisfaction and security. It could be our money or our career. It could be family or a car. It could be our tools or our talents. All of these things have the potential to be soul-destroying idols. We are to love him with all that we are because he is worthy of being loved.
Our message must be one of exalting Christ above all things. He is worthy of our complete love and devotion. He died on the cross so that we might be forgiven of not giving him priority in our lives. We can be freed from the guilt of this sin and all the behaviors that flow from it. This is the message of the Bible and it must be the central message of our lives and of our church.
After the disciples had walked with, listened to, observed, and learned from Jesus, one of the specific things they asked Him to teach them was how to pray. As I look at my own life - listening to, learning from and following Jesus, I find that I need to start with something even more basic. I need him to teach me to WANT to pray.
Why is that, do you suppose? The God of all love, all wisdom, and all power wantsus to ask Him for what we need. The Creator of the ends of the earth wants us to be still and know Him. The Everlasting God wants us to rest in His ability to do all things and use all things for our good. But far too often, we cannot “stay awake” for even one hour to spend time with Him.
Several years ago, I attended the International Council for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in California, and I came away with one over-riding conviction. As Christ-followers, we will spend time in prayer because of the incredible love God has given us for Himself and for the world. OR we will spend time in prayer because we are convicted of our lack of lovefor God and the world. (And our prayers will be focused on asking Him to change us.) If we are notspending time in prayer, can we honestly say that we love the Lord our God with ALL our heart, ALL our mind, ALL our soul and ALL our strength?
Remember - it’s the simple, honest prayer of a repentant and humble soul that He desires… “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”…from the privacy of our room, our closet or wherever we can find a quiet place. He will teach us how to go deeper in our prayers as we spend time in His presence.
Lord, teach us to want to pray…
A Year-long Journey through the Psalms.
I (Pastor Nick) made one resolution for 2019. I resolved to read the book of Psalms every month.
All 150 chapters each month for the whole year, so basically five chapters of Psalms a day. I am happy to say January and February were a success.
But why am I doing it?
The obvious reason is to be in the Scriptures every day with a goal. However, if you spend enough time with me you will know that I think that checking the required boxes and hitting a measurable and attainable goal in following Jesus is more like the starter in an engine or the feather sticks that can help get the campfire going.
At some point, the Spirit moves to change our desires and thinking so that following Jesus becomes natural, logical, and enjoyable. Then the engine runs and the logs in the campfire burn. Though, it is not natural, logical, and enjoyable because you are hitting goals. Rather, it is natural, logical, and enjoyable because we experience and recognize His presence to greater degrees and want more if it. Sure, you’ll hit all the required boxes, but you’ll do it without even thinking about it or being motivated by the empty, unchecked boxes.
A different reason is to grow in knowledge of the Psalms. For a guy like me that loves learning, this reason fills that bucket. It is a big book of the Bible. There is a lot in there. There are countless ways that the Psalms connect with other passages in both the Old and New Testament. It is almost as if all verses lead to Psalms and vice versa.
It is also a notoriously difficult book of the Bible from multiple different disciplines. Is it difficult to translate? Yep. Trying to translate 10th century BC Hebrew poetry, with all its metaphors, unique vocabulary, innuendos, syntax, and mechanics, into 21st century English is a chore. Is it difficult to interpret? Yep. Beside the losses in translation, there are layers of meaning and fulfillment while also being a piece of art. Growing in my knowledge with the Psalms should help ease these difficulties to an extent.
The deeper reasons why I want to do this are more in line with the Spirit being at work in my life.
One side of that coin is that I want to have the Spirit work in me so that I appropriate the Psalms into my life. I am not saying that I want to apply the Psalms to situations in my life and come up with a to-do list. My reason here is different. I want the Psalms to become my Psalms. I want the realities discussed in the Psalms to become my reality. I want the worldview in the Psalms to become my worldview. I want the truth found in the Psalms to become my truth. I want the Psalms to trigger in my mind as I go about life to help me define life. I want the language of the Psalms to fill my vocabulary in both prayer and even simple conversations.
As an example, take a look at Acts 4:23-26. After Peter and John were released from the Council that had told them not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name, they went to their friends and reported what had happened. Then that group of believers prayed for boldness. In their prayer they quote Psalm 2:1-2. They had appropriated the truth in that passage and it filled their vocabulary. They saw for themselves how people will gather together against the God the Father and Jesus, the Anointed One.
The other side of that coin is to have the Spirit work in me so the Psalms appropriate me. I want the Psalms as the Word of God to go beyond me. I want to see how the Psalms go beyond me, but take me into its words and put me in my place. The Psalms talk about grander realities than I can sense with my bodily senses. The Psalms talk about greater experiences of God than I have ever had. It will give greater meaning to everything it touches. The Psalms will make you feel small but still connect you to it.
As an example, take a look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:14-36, specifically verses 25-36. Peter quotes Psalm 16 and 110 and shows how, though David wrote them, those Psalms are talking about Christ. Then Peter shows how the Psalms connect himself and his listeners to the overarching narrative of redemption history displayed in those verses. The Psalms appropriated them. It did a good job too. Here is the next verse.
"Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Then about 3000 people were baptized.
If this language of appropriation is a bit odd, stay tuned; I will be fleshing it out over the next few months. Overall, I want the Spirit to work through the Psalms.
There is also a bonus reason I am fulfilling my resolution of reading the Psalms every month. I realized it after I made the resolution to read the Psalms every month. That bonus reason is hearing the Spirit nudging me to keep going and fulfill my vow. GULP. Apparently, the Almighty likes where He is taking me with this. He brings up verses like...
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion,
and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who hear prayer,
to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me,
you atone for our transgressions.
So why am I sharing this with you?
I want to help your treks through Scripture, your personal meditation, and encourage your interaction with the Spirit as you read. Maybe some of my reasons and the ideas behind them will resonate with you and give some clarity to movements of the Spirit in you.
I also want to challenge you a bit with this. Not in a confrontational way, though it may do that, but more in a physical training way. I want to challenge you with more weight. I want to challenge you to go deeper and further.
So taking the truth of Psalm 1 and keeping with the topics discussed, I want to give you fuel for your meditation and delight in the Word with this post. For that, the best I can give you is questions. Not answers. Not pragmatic practices of application. But simple questions that can help as you and the Spirit explore the Scripture and your own heart.
Do I believe the passage I just read is still living and active today? Is it still sharp? What do I believe in my heart that goes against the truth of this passage? What do I believe in my heart that goes with this passage? As a child of God, how does this passage express the history or the circumstance of His children? These questions will hopefully help you see where you are in appropriating the Scriptures into your life.
How does this passage go beyond me? And where does it place me in its grandeur? How does this passage refine me and my mind/internal life? These questions will help you see where the Scripture is appropriating you into God’s reality, His work, and His history with humanity.
Where else is this passage referenced? Where else does this passage connect? Cross-references are some of the most fruitful exploratory tools in reading Scripture. Don’t miss them!