Tag Archives: salvation
3. THEY DON’T HAVE A LIFE-LONG, SATISFYING MISSION IN LIFE!
I’ve been thinking recently about what my unsaved friends don’t have in not knowing the Lord Jesus as their Savior. My friend Mike inspired me to think about what I do have as a believer in Jesus. He chooses to think of himself as not lost, as not being outside the family of God.
Please don’t misunderstand me, but Mike is a great guy. He is giving, kind, compassionate, but utterly deceived about his status before a holy God. And so, I’m so thankful for God’s Word telling me the truth about my need of a Savior. My unsaved friends (1) don’t have an authoritative source for what they believe.
In our post today, I want to spend a moment being thankful for a second blessing and that is — having my sins taken care of by Jesus on the cross. For, when I think of my unsaved friends, . . .
2. THEY DON’T HAVE THE ASSURANCE THAT THEIR SINS ARE FORGIVEN!
How audacious of Christians’ claiming their sins have been eternally forgiven by God, that they are now in His family, and that He will never turn away from them! But that’s what the Bible, God’s Word, promises to all who turn to Him in faith.
I need to pray for my friend that he will come to a knowledge of his need of Christ, that God the Holy Spirit would do His good, convicting work in his heart. (to be continued)
“We are not simply dealing with matters of life and death. We are dealing with matters of eternal life and eternal death.” (Bill Hybels)
“I’m afraid that in the United States of America today the prevailing doctrine of justification is not justification by faith alone. It is not even justification by good works or by a combination of faith and works. The prevailing notion of justification in our culture today is justification by death. All one has to do to be received into the everlasting arms of God is to die.” (R.C. Sproul, Saved from What?)
If we have truly been rescued from God, by God, and for God, then there is no greater joy in life than in serving Him. Whatever that means.
Being rescued from God reminds us of the rightful, eternal judgment that awaited us upon death if our sins were not taken care of. John 3:36 says that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” The Bible teaches that we come into this world as sinners, as those who are under the wrath of God. And the only way to get that wrath removed from us is to believe in His Son. Those who reject the Son won’t get eternal life, but eternal judgment. They will not see life. Why not? Because “God’s wrath remains on them.”
Some today bristle at the idea of God’s wrath. They not only hate Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” their perspective twists that sermon into “GOD in the Hands of Angry SINNERS!” Being rescued from God means being rescued from His wrath.
But we have also seen that our rescue from God was accomplished by God. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity, paid our debt that we might be
righteously forgiven. Only one who is fully divine could pay that debt. The centrality of the deity of the Lord Jesus is a doctrine rejected by many in our culture. What they do not realize is that a non- divine Jesus can’t save anyone.
The story is told of a liberal minister who was being tried for heresy by his denomination. “We understand that you deny the deity of Jesus,” the council said to him. “Is this true?” The minister replied, “Deny the deity of Jesus? Deny the deity of Jesus?!”, he replied. “I haven’t denied the deity of any of us!”
The central theme of the Bible is that God loved man so much that the Son of God volunteered to become human (without giving up His deity) for the express purpose of coming to this earth to die for man’s wrong-doings. To deny the deity of Jesus completely obliterates the meaning of His atoning work on the cross.
We have been rescued from God, by God, and for God. The burden of this book has not been to simply talk about how nice it is to be saved. Instead, we have looked at several implications of salvation. We have seen that our lostness has been taken care of. The work of salvation was done out of the love of God paying the debt we could never pay. We were lured into becoming fellow men-catchers with Jesus. We also saw that we have embarked on a life of learning in which Jesus Himself is our curriculum and He puts us to work. Because He is now our life, we are not devastated when we are labeled, but do our utmost to speak to the intellectuals of our day the Good News about Jesus, even if we are thought to be mental airheads in the process! There is now a glorious liberty to those who are the Sons and Daughters of God, and nothing should entice us to give up our
freedom in Jesus. With all these blessings, we also discovered that we have been launched into a mission for the Son of God and need to get to it.
But not all will believe. Not all will be saved. In fact, some will resist this message and will go to their graves passively ignoring or actively opposing Jesus and His atoning work. What about them?
Yes, what about those who die without Jesus? Those who refuse to see their own lostness, mock the love of God, steadfastly resist His attempt to lure them into the family of God — what about them? What about those who insist on not enrolling in Jesus University, who are content with the myths of this world and will not become learners of God’s grace? What about those who give no reason to be labeled as “little Christs,” and turn away from the liberty that God promises to His redeemed children? What about those who couldn’t care less about His mission and launch themselves into their own orbits of self- absorption? What about them?
Limits to God’s Love?
Some would say that the unredeemed, those who refuse to be saved, will still be loved eternally by God, even as they are separated from Him and the family of God. After all, isn’t the love of God everlasting? There can’t be limits to God’s love, can there?
But what does the Bible itself say about those who die without Jesus? We read in Matthew 25: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” (v. 41). To be in the category of the “cursed” does not sound like they are objects of God’s love. Earlier in this chapter of Matthew we read of a worthless servant. The master tells the
faithful servants to “. . . throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v. 30). At the end of Matthew 25 Jesus gives us a summary conclusion of the sheep and goats’ analogy: “Then they [the goats] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] to eternal life.” (v. 46)
The fate of those who die outside of Christ is explained as their being thrown out of His presence, a place of eternal fire originally prepared for the devil and his angels, a destiny described as eternal punishment where there will be everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The book of Revelation tells us that “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, 10 they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’” (ch. 14).
We read in Revelation 16 of those who experience a foretaste of God’s wrath: “They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.” (v. 9). This seems to contradict those who say that a moment’s experience of God’s wrath will immediately convert a person to faith.
In Revelation 20, we read of the punishment of the evil trinity: Satan, the beast, and the false prophet. We
read: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (v. 10). Two verses later we read about the fate of all human beings outside of Christ: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (vv. 12-15).
There is no way that anyone could read such verses and conclude that the lost are still objects of God’s love. They are, instead, objects of His eternal wrath.
A Shocking Resurrection
But the idea of God’s righteous hatred of the wicked is not just taught in the last book of the Bible. We read in Daniel 12:2 an amazing end-times’ statement: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
The Bible teaches that there will be a resurrection of the wicked, for they will receive indestructible bodies which will undergo God’s wrath eternally. We do not rejoice in such a doctrine, but must recognize that, apart from God’s grace in our lives, we would merit the same. And that’s one major reason why those of us who are saved must get the Good New about Jesus out to a lost world. A.W. Tozer said, “The vague and tenuous
hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”11 May those of us who by His grace know Him not succumb to such a doctrinal drug.
Friends: This is the seventh chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
Saved! Chapter Seven: LAUNCHED!
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first men to set foot on the moon. Aldrin later suffered an emotional breakdown, followed by a slow, painful recovery. One writer asked what caused the breakdown. Aldrin said it resulted from the terrible disillusionment he felt after working so hard, achieving every goal set before him, and then finding it empty when it was over. His dreams, fantastic though they were, were not lasting enough. After accomplishing that great goal in his life — walking on the moon — he was left with no purpose or meaning.
What is your mission in life? George Bernard Shaw once said, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
I believe Shaw’s quote could be easily adapted to describe many Christians today. They haven’t found the true joy in life even though they’ve found Jesus. They don’t view their lives as being used for a mighty purpose. And, if the truth be told, they each seem to give every appearance of being a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances who complain that the church will not devote itself to making them happy!
How wonderful to be found when one was once lost, to be loved by an eternal God, to be lured into the joy of the gospel, to begin a life of learning eternal truths, to experience a bit of suffering by being labeled by those who oppose Jesus, and to be set free — liberated — to serve the living and true God! All these blessings are truly amazing, but we were never intended
to sit in the corner of our church and, as the old song says, just “count your blessings, name them one by one . . .” We discover in this chapter that we have been launched, sent out on the grandest of all missions!
We learn about this sending out in the passage of Scripture known as the Great Commission:
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt.28)
Before the Great Commission
Before we look at this passage in detail, let’s notice what has happened before the giving of this Great Commission. In Matthew 28 we have the story of the two Marys visiting the tomb of the Lord Jesus. A violent earthquake takes place, and an angel of the Lord comes down from heaven and rolls away the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb and sits on it. The guards at the tomb are overcome with terror, shake violently, and “became like dead men.” The angel calms the women and announces that Jesus has risen just as He said. He invites the women to inspect the empty tomb, then to go quickly and tell His disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee.
The women hurry away from the tomb, “afraid yet filled with joy,” to run and tell His disciples. Suddenly Jesus Himself meets them and greets them. They grab onto His feet and worship Him. He tells them not to be afraid but to tell “my brothers” to go to Galilee and “there they will see me.”
Matthew 28 also tells us about the lie the chief priests and the elders convince the guards to spread, that Jesus’ disciples had come during the night and stolen the body of Jesus. With an appropriate bribe their deception is purchased. Then we read our text on what transpires in Galilee.
Grand Hoax or . . .
Occasionally, as a theologian I have shared some of my research in a professional meeting of other theologians. The act is called “presenting a paper” and often involves very heavy, sometimes esoteric, topics which can instantly cure anyone’s insomnia. A number of years ago I did an in-depth research of I Corinthians 15 and called the paper “Paul’s Consequent
Nihilism in I Corinthians 15.” There. Now, don’t you feel your eyes getting heavy?
The point of the paper was the centrality of Christ’s resurrection, especially as seen in verse 32 where Paul says if Christ has not been raised, then “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Nihilism as a philosophical term refers to an extreme form of skepticism which rejects all values, challenges one’s belief in existence itself, and even doubts the possibility of communication. Essentially, nihilism refers to living as one chooses, living it up, not caring about consequences. My point in my paper was hopefully Paul’s point: that if Jesus is still dead in the grave somewhere, it doesn’t matter how we live. We should “party hearty!”
But because He has risen from the dead, we have every reason to expend our lives for His cause. After giving several strong lines of evidence for Christ’s resurrection, Paul concludes his chapter by writing, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (v. 58).
Because Jesus Christ kept His word — He predicted His own resurrection — no sacrifice for Him can be too great. He is the risen Savior, the Son of God, God manifest in the flesh, and what He commands, we must do. The Christian faith is not faith in faith (meaning that we believe because we have to believe something), but faith in the truth about a living Jesus who will one day judge the living and the dead.
Sent on Mission
here in Matthew 28: “. . . go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We have been launched; we have been sent on mission, and nothing should deter us from fulfilling our assignment! If we are convinced that the gospel is true, and we see that we have been sent on mission, nothing should hinder us from doing our part in fulfilling that Great Commission.
In one of my seminary courses this past semester I required students to select, read, and critique a book which I described as one which would “boil your blood before you get past the preface.” What I meant was that often we Christians only read what we agree with. We need to know the strongest arguments against our faith firsthand, and that involves reading such books. I do not recommend that new believers read such books, but this assignment was given to graduate-level, seminary students.
Most of my students read their books (from a list I recommended) and did a superb job of evaluating and critiquing the various challenges they were seeing to biblical Christianity.
One student emailed the following to me when I asked him where his “Boiling Book” review was. “Dr. Dixon,” he wrote, “I did not complete a ‘Boiling Book’ review because I could not find a book that makes my blood boil. I do not entertain peoples’ opinion concerning scriptures; I spend enough energy trying to keep up with my own thoughts.” I wrote him back and said we should have discussed his perspective earlier in the
semester because this assignment was worth 20% of his final grade!
But what was this student really saying? I had given the class a list of “Boiling Blood” books, so he did not have to “find” such a book. Was he saying that he had more than enough to do and didn’t need to waste time reading a book he knew he would disagree with? Was he saying the assignment was unreasonable, that it was not at all conducive to what he was trying to accomplish in the course? Could he have been saying that nothing could make his blood boil as a Christian? I certainly hope not, for that would indicate that nothing could outrage him, could anger his Christian sensibilities, could provoke him to respond rationally to the arguments hurled against his Jesus. I can agree to some extent with his sentiment that “I spend enough energy trying to keep up with my own thoughts.” He should wait until he’s my age when the challenge is remembering what one’s thoughts were!
I don’t pretend to know the exact meaning of my student’s email or his inner motivation for not doing that assignment, but I do know this: If I am sent on a mission for Jesus, it will require the full complement of my emotions to sustain me in my role in that mission. And if I really care about lost people, I will expose myself to their best reasons for not believing the gospel. And I should expend my very best energy to respond to their opposition so they can move from the category of enemies of God to the category of His fellow-workers.
The risen Jesus appears to His eleven disciples (Judas, the betrayer, had hanged himself) in Galilee. When the disciples see the Lord, they worship Him, but there were some who still doubted. There always are. We do
not read that Jesus rebukes those who are doubting, but He simply issues the Great Commission.
He begins the Great Commission with a declaration of His own authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He says (v. 18).
Christians believe, for good reasons, that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Divine Trinity. So when we read, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” the thinking follower of Jesus should react, “Wait a minute! He’s God the Son. What does that expression mean, ‘All authority has been given to me’?!” The answer, we believe, is that He is making this statement as the incarnate Son of God, the One who became flesh (Jn. 1:14) and dwelt among us. As God- become-man the Son is given all authority. Theologians, who get paid big bucks to try to figure out such matters, suggest that certain things became true of the Son of God when He became human, things that were not true before He took on Himself our likeness. For example, it is impossible for God to die. But Jesus died, didn’t He? He had to become human to die for our sins. Similarly, the Son of God temporarily gave up His position in heaven as He descended to earth (Phil. 2:6-8), but has now been exalted to the right hand of the Father (Phil. 2:9-11). As God-become-man Jesus could give the Great Commission to the disciples because God the Father had commissioned Him!
In considering the Great Commission, we must focus on the Person of the Lord Jesus. If He was truly God- become-man, then He has the authority to command us to do anything! Someone has said, “Eternity is an awfully long time to be wrong about Jesus.” That certainly applies to those who have not yet believed the gospel,
but it also applies to us who have. We dare not minimize the authority of the Lord Jesus as He gives us our marching orders.
Our Calling to Disciplize
Let’s look at the words of Jesus carefully. He says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .” (v. 19).
Most translations of the New Testament translate this verse as we have it in the New International Version: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .” There are some interesting renditions, such as The Message which says, “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near . . .” The Wycliffe Bible has, “Therefore go ye, and teach all folks . . .” [We don’t use the word “folks” enough, do we?]. I prefer Young’s Literal Translation which says, “having gone, then, disciple all the nations . . .”
A little Greek is a dangerous thing, but the verse does indicate that the emphasis is not on the going but on the disciplizing. The “going” part is actually a past participle which could be translated “after having gone.” The main verb, then, is “disciple” or “make disciples.”
One immediate and obvious observation is that we are not told to go out and make converts. What?! We are told to go out and “make disciples.” Now, the New Testament teaches that one can’t be a disciple without first becoming converted. Conversion occurs when one repents of one’s sins and believes the good news about Jesus. At that point one moves out of the category of spiritual death and into the category of spiritual life, out of the kingdom of Satan and into the kingdom of God. At conversion one begins the process of becoming like Jesus, sometimes called sanctification
(which means to be set apart). The normal Christian life is a process of becoming more and more like Jesus and that’s a pretty good definition of discipleship. The word “disciple” actually comes from a verb meaning “a learner.”
We were never sent out simply to make converts. We were and are sent out to make Jesus-followers, learners, disciples.
A Geography Lesson
So our text reads, “Therefore go and make disciples . . .” The implication may well be, “You can’t stay where you are comfortable. You must move out and communicate this message to all people everywhere.” This is what Christians refer to as “missions.” In many churches missions seems to be an afterthought, a minor item on the church’s agenda, a footnote in their annual budget. But from Matthew 28 it appears to be the believer’s defining purpose: we are to go and make disciples of all the nations.
Pastor John Piper, a man whom I greatly admire, puts it this way: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” Worldwide missions is the believer’s effort to bring as many as possible into a worshipping condition before the God of the Bible.
For many, this will involve leaving their home country, learning a next-to-impossible language and culture, and moving to a location where people eat what people were never intended to eat. Why? So that those who have not heard the good news about Jesus can hear it, believe it, and become worshippers of this missionary God.
My wife Linda and I were missionaries in Germany back in the 1970’s. Although we were part of only a two- year team to West Berlin, we did our best to learn the German language and culture so we could effectively share the gospel with lost people. [We began our two- year term down in Munich and were present when the Israeli athletes were massacred at the 1972 Olympics].
German is a challenging language, but not as difficult as some others. I remember doing door-to-door evangelism in Berlin and using my new language. The old lady who answered the door first had to be assured by me that we were neither Jehovah’s Witnesses nor Mormons (these two cults had covered Berlin at least twice in their “evangelism” efforts). I then wanted to say to her, “I’m sorry to bother you, but we are inviting you to watch a Billy Graham crusade on TV this week.” The word “disturb” in German is stoeren. However, like many languages, prefixes can be added to words and can radically change the meaning of the simple verb. I actually used the word zerstoeren with her which meant that I said, “I am sorry to have to DESTROY you, but . . .” This was not an example of good evangelistic method!
Missions is not meant to destroy people or cultures, but to introduce people to Jesus.
I’ve always thought that one should immerse the candidate for baptism and as he or she is brought up out of water, the baptizer could ask, “Will you tithe 10% to the Lord?” If they say nothing, they should be dunked again and then asked, “Did you say you will tithe 20% to the Lord?” [I’m kidding].
There are various interesting views about water baptism among Christians. For some churches, a “waiting period” is required to make sure the new convert is really that — converted! Some have an extensive baptism class (lasting hours) that is probably more like a “Christianity 101” course. I guess they want to make sure that they are not baptizing those who don’t realize the step they are taking.
It seems to me that the baptisms in the New Testament were done so close to conversion that the two events are virtually identical. I get the impression that one hardly gets out the words “I believe” before they are saying, “Glub, glub, glub” (a sound some people make when they are immersed in water).
I have friends who hold to infant baptism, and I defend their right to hold that view, as long as they don’t teach that an infant is saved by being baptized.
When we lived in Canada, there was a church that was between pastors. They would sometimes have me come and preach. Once they invited me to baptize one of their college students. I remembered my pastoral theology class in Bible college when I was a student. We were taught how to properly immerse a baptismal candidate. Positioning yourself and the one being baptized in the baptismal tank was important, because you didn’t want to whack the person’s head on the side of the tank when you took them under.
The college student I was to baptize was quite tall, so I positioned us at one end of the tank, asked him to give a testimony to his faith in Christ, and missed whacking his head by an inch or two. However, it was obvious to all that I didn’t take him completely under the water. His head stayed above water, and everyone noticed it. Some of my friends kidded me and said, “You baptized all of him — except for his mind!”
Baptism is not an Evangelical option. It is one of two ordinances commanded by the Lord Jesus. It is to be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (v. 19). This clear Trinitarian reference reminds us that this new disciple is now in a redemptive relationship with the Divine Trinity.
Our Pedagogical Privilege
The Great Commission, our being launched into the mission of God, involves educating the new disciple in the truths of Jesus Christ. Jesus commands that we are to teach them “to obey everything I have commanded you.” (v. 20).
Again, we are not commissioned to create conversions but to develop disciples, and disciples — learners — must be taught! Please notice, however, that the purpose of teaching these disciples is so that they will “obey everything I have commanded you.” God’s truth is not meant to puff us up, but to grow us up.
I heard about a police officer who interrogated a teacher about a murder suspect. “Is it true that this man was your student?” The teacher replied, “He might have attended my lectures, but he was never my student.”
When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ, there is a learning process which begins. It is not a learning curve. It is a brand new highway on which he or she will travel the rest of their days! Becoming a serious follower of Jesus Christ is not a correspondence course or a do-it-yourself project. It involves a life-long educative process.
We noticed in our fourth chapter about “Learning” the quote from Flannery O’Connor who said that, “The high- school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
Christians on the mission of Jesus are not consulting tastes. They are, by God’s grace, forming them. Feeding on God’s Word becomes a holy habit, but Christians were never meant to enter God’s restaurant with the words, “Table for one, please!” No. We are meant to learn in community, to be discipled by older believers.
Jesus’ Promised Presence
The last part of the Great Commission is Jesus’ promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Let’s think about Jesus’ “being with” us as we go out on mission.
What does it mean to say that Jesus will be “with” us? If God is everywhere present (what theologians call the “omnipresence” of God), then is Jesus somehow more present with His disciples who are engaged in disciplizing?
In my theology class in seminary, I try to explain this concept by talking about the fact that God is not spacially limited in any way. As one fellow theologian puts it, “Wherever there is a where, God is there!” I talk a bit about Psalm 139 (a great text on God’s omnipresence) and then I ask my class, “Are you all with me?” Those awake will respond, “Yes!” I then ask, “No, are you really with me?”
Some give me a strange look as if to say, “Dr. Dixon, you’re repeating yourself again. Have you considered retirement?” I then explain the difference between being somewhere spatially and being somewhere relationally. We can physically be in someone’s presence, but not be tracking with them, not connecting with what they are saying, not in fellowship with them. Are you with me?
When Jesus says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” this is not mere physical presence. [Although, when you think about it, to have the “mere” physical presence of Jesus with us is about the best gift anyone could ever have!]. It is far more than geographical proximity. He is with us in our quest to fulfill the mission He has given us. He is with us in language-acquisition; He is with us in culture-learning; He is with us when we are persecuted, slandered, ignored, ridiculed, beaten, or rejected. He is with us. Do we believe His promise, or do we act like we’ve been abandoned, forsaken in our potentially life-threatening response to His marching orders?
Those who are followers of Jesus Christ have been launched.
Confession time. I am particularly weak in my grasp of the Old Testament. But there is so much truth in the Old Testament that I need to know. I think of the evil king Sennacherib’s message to Hezekiah when he said,
“Say to Hezekiah king of Judah: Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says . . .” (2 Ki. 19:9).
When the God we depend on says He will be with us in our mission — we can take Him at His word. For we have been launched.
If we see ourselves as having been saved, we have much for which we must be thankful. He did not leave us in a lost condition, but found us and all heaven rejoiced in our being found. He has loved us with an everlasting love, even to the extent of showing us that salvation must be received as a gift, not earned by our goodness.
Something brought you and me to a realization of our need of Christ. And He lured us into His family so that He could catch men and women through us.
Those who are saved are now enrolled in what I call Jesus University. We are to learn of Him and our learning ought to give us a soul rest which strengthens us for our labor for Him.
Although we can offer no part of the price for our salvation, there will be a price to our living for the Lord Jesus. Some will consider us a stench in their nostrils. Others will label us intellectual airheads. But such rejection should be expected for those who have been saved.
Jesus gives a freedom to all who trust in Him, and that liberty should not be bargained away for anything. He wants us free! Free to serve Him, free to enjoy the abundant life, free to trust in His grace alone.
Such freedom is not to be enjoyed as an end in itself, but as the foundation for our being launched into the world for him. We are to be on mission, looking to establish not merely converts, but disciples.
Being rescued from God’s wrath is a wonderful thing, accomplished by the Son of God. There is no one else apart from the Second Person of the Trinity who could have secured our salvation. But God wants His house
filled. And we are called to become like the Lord Jesus, and to seek the last, the least, and the lost.
Friends: This is the sixth chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
Saved! Chapter Six: LIBERATED!
“Man’s first duty is not to find freedom, but a Master.” (anonymous) “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” (Gal. 5:1)
What happens when a person gets saved? We’ve seen that his lostness has been taken care of. He has been gloriously found by the Savior and brought home! We also realized how much that person has been loved by the Lord, loved enough to be shown that his own good works can’t save him, that he needs Someone to die for him so he can inherit, rather than earn, eternal life. We have also noticed that such a person has somehow been lured to the Lord and is now sent out to catch men for God! We also became aware that salvation involves learning, for Jesus invites His followers to study Him and get busy for the Kingdom. In our last chapter we observed that a major Christ-follower, the Apostle Paul, was not silenced when he was labeled. He clearly and cogently presented the Good News about Jesus to the philosophers of his day, apparently unconcerned that he was being thought an intellectual airhead!
We now want to focus on how our coming into a relationship with Jesus Christ involves one of the greatest gifts anyone could receive: freedom! But with that freedom come certain dangers which must be recognized and avoided. We learn about our liberation in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man
who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.” (Gal. 5:1-3)
The story is told of a pastor who was preaching on our text, Galatians 5. As he waxed eloquently on the liberty we now have in Christ, he shouted enthusiastically to the congregation, “If you are in Jesus, you are FREE! You’re FREE!” Little Tommy, sitting next to his mom and dad, cried out, “No! I’m FWOUR!”
History tells us of an occasion when Abraham Lincoln saw a pretty female slave being auctioned off. There were men there bidding on her for who-knows-what reasons. Lincoln saw this and started bidding on her as well. He outbid every man there and so she came over to him. She eyed him with hatred and disgust. She asked him something along the lines of “What are you gonna do to me?”
His reply? “Set you free.” Her face lit up in surprise as she asked him, “Free?” He nodded in the affirmative. “Free to do what I want to do?” He smiled, “Free.” “Free to SAY what I want to say?” Again he nodded, “Free.” Her eyes slowly grew large, “Free to go where I want to go?” Once more he nodded and she smiled and said, “Then I want to go with YOU.”
The Lord Jesus spoke of this freedom in John 8 when He said, “35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (vv. 35-36)
This liberty that Jesus gives begins with a freedom from our sins. The Bible teaches that our sins have made us enemies of God. We read in the book of Romans,
“9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath
through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5).
Reconciliation, being brought back into a harmonious relationship with God, took place while we were God’s enemies! What must it mean to be an enemy of God?
Enemies in the Bible are those that want to destroy you. They oppose you in every possible way. They do not want harmony; they want power and domination and victory . . . over you! We were enemies of God. We were not in a spiritually neutral position, neither opposing nor cooperating with God. We were enemies of God. There was enmity, disharmony, tension, alienation between us and the Creator of the universe. Of all the beings in creation the one Being we do not want to be opposed to is the Creator! Yet that was our spiritual condition before God. Enemies. Let us not sugarcoat that reality. He could have easily destroyed us, separated us from Himself forever.
Instead, He reached out in love and “reconciled us through the death of His Son.” We could not create or recover a harmonious relationship with our Creator on our own. He had to provide the reconciliation. We did not first become friends of God and then achieve reconciliation. No, while we were enemies of God, He provided His Son for us. Doesn’t it feel good not to be an enemy of God?
The Apostle Paul does not simply remind us that our reconciliation came through the death of the Son of God. He continues, “For if, while we were God’s
enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10). Please notice that reconciliation is a done deal. We have been reconciled to God. That took place through the death of His Son for us (and our belief in Him). What’s greater than reconciliation with a God to whom we were formerly enemies? Being continually saved through His life.
If it were not for the reconciling work of the Lord Jesus, we would not be free. We would not have the liberty promised in the Scriptures. We would still be enslaved, as enemies of God, to our sins.
One of my great privileges in being a seminary professor is that I get to teach a survey of Bible doctrine at our local prison. We have a cooperative program with the South Carolina prison system for lifers who are believers in Jesus and want to achieve an Associates’ degree in Prison Chaplaincy. For several years now I have taught theology to inmates who will never get out of jail.
One of the first challenges which I faced in working with these men was my curiosity. I wanted to know what each did that would land them in jail, for life. It was a natural curiosity, but God taught me that I did not need to know that information. Such knowledge would not assist me in training them. The gospel offers full forgiveness for sin, although being incarcerated for life is how these men will pay their debt to society. Some of the dearest brothers I would ever want to meet are my students in this prison.
The first year I began teaching in the prison, I was overwhelmed with my own freedom. I could show my ID badge to the officers at several exit points, and they
would buzz open the large metal doors, allowing me to leave the prison. For a few weeks in that first year I would exit the prison, walked to my car in the parking lot, and sit there thanking the Lord for my freedom, for His grace that I could leave. A couple of times — don’t tell my wife this — I drove directly to a local ice cream place and had a large vanilla milkshake! Because I could. I had the freedom to go anywhere and do just about anything that I wanted to. (The milkshake is our secret, right?)
The freedom which Christ has purchased for us with His blood allows us to go just about anywhere and do just about anything we want. Our text, Galatians 5, indicates that He saved us to give us that freedom: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” He does not want our lives to be incarcerated.
Nor does He want us to be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. The slavery to which Paul is referring is the effort to save oneself by a keeping of the law. Specifically in Galatians 5, these believers were capitulating to the propaganda of the Judaizers who were teaching that one had to be circumcised to be saved.
Salvation does not come about by our efforts to keep the laws of God. God’s laws were given to show us our sin and our need of a Savior. The Galatian Christians were in danger of putting themselves again under the yoke of slavery, the idea that one must keep God’s laws to be saved. Such an idea was anathema to the concept of grace and made null and void the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus.
The very idea of circumcision, especially for an adult male, makes me shiver. And Paul essentially says that if the Galatians allow themselves to be circumcised,
that won’t be good enough. (I would think an adult male who has been talked into circumcision would find that extremely troubled news!). They would then be “obligated to obey the whole law.”
But isn’t the Christian obligated to obey the whole law? Didn’t Jesus say, “If you love me, keep my commandments”? (Jn. 14:15). Yes, of course, but not for salvation!
Putting oneself under the law for salvation negates the work of Christ — and steals away our God-given freedom in Him.
I understand that when the Allies moved into areas that had been occupied by the Nazis in World War II, a number of concentration camps were discovered. The Nazis had tried to conceal from the world what they had been doing to the Jews (and other nationalities). Sometimes the camps were empty, for the prisoners had been sent away, often on death marches.
In a number of camps the Allied soldiers found hundreds or thousands of malnourished prisoners, many of them dangerously close to death.
The liberation of the concentration and extermination camps began with the Soviet troops in July of 1944. British and American troops did not reach the German concentration camps until the Spring of 1945. They found not only piles of corpses, but tens of thousands on the verge of death. The Allied liberators did everything they could to help the survivors, but many died anyway.10
10 To read further on the emancipation of such prisoners, one might find help at: http:// sfi.usc.edu/watch/exhibits/witnesses-change-stories- liberation#sthash.ISUW6C8N.dpuf
When the Lord Jesus gave Himself as the ransom for our sins, He bought us with His blood and set us free from the penalty we rightfully deserved. Unlike the innocent victims of the concentration camps, our guilt before God kept us in a condition of slavery. From that slavery Christ has set us free.
I have led several tours of Christian high school students from the States to Europe, and eventually to visit the concentration camp Dachau, where over 32,000 prisoners died. It is hard to describe the somberness one feels in walking around Dachau. The citizens of the medieval town of Dachau appear naturally ashamed of what took place there during World War II, but tourism is their primary industry.
There is now no more Dachau for the children of God. We are free to serve Christ with the liberty He has purchased with His own blood.
Friends: This is the fifth chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
Saved! Chapter Five: LABELED!
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
“To label someone is often to libel them!” (anonymous)
In our discussion of SAVED!, we have explored the issue of being lost, seen how Jesus loved the rich young ruler enough to tell him the truth, witnessed Jesus drafting His first disciples as He lured them into His man-catching force, and been educated in how we who follow Jesus are to be constantly learning about Him and His plans for this world.
We now move to the category of being labeled. Is this following of Jesus painless, without cost, without rejection? No, there is a price to pay to follow Jesus.
An Odor or a Fragrance?
The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:15-16). I would much rather go through life being thought of as a fragrance than as an odor. How about you?
When my daughter Amy was about twelve years old, we were snuggling on the couch, the way fathers and daughters are meant to do. I leaned over and smelled her hair and said, “Wow. You smell great!” She leaned over and smelled me. “You smell great too, Dad!” Then she smelled again and said, “No, that was still me!”
Here in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul emphasizes that believers have an impact upon two categories of people: those who
are being saved and those who are perishing. He stresses that our primary audience is actually God Himself (“we are to God”), but we will provoke responses to the gospel message we represent. Paul does not mince words. He prepares these Corinthian believers for rejection. To those who are “perishing,” Paul says that they will be considered “an aroma that brings death.” To those who are “being saved,” Christians are “an aroma that brings life.” Believers in Jesus do not have a choice to be either an aroma or a stench. Both are inevitable; both responses will manifest themselves. The question, “And who is equal to such a task?” reminds us that we depend upon Him for our strength, especially when we are rejected as something oderous to the world.
None of us cares for criticism. None of us wants to be derided, verbally abused, stereotyped, put down with labels which seem to say, “Oh, I know who you are! You’re one of those!”
None of us cares to be labeled. But criticism should not surprise us. One of the most blatant examples of labeling happens to the Apostle Paul in Acts 17. There we read the following:
“16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”
We see here in Acts 17 that as Paul was waiting for his friends, Silas and Timothy, he was not just waiting around. He was looking around at all the idols in the city of Athens (v. 16). And the multiplicity of idols grieved him. The Bible says he was “distressed.” If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, I ought to be distressed by all the cultural idolatry, if I take the time to observe.6
6 Timothy Keller’s excellent book Counterfeit Gods ably discusses our contemporary idols. 52
the Jews, the God-fearing Greeks, the daily intellectual loiterers, and the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers.
As he debates with these various groups, Paul gets labeled. Some of them ask, “What is this babbler trying to say?” (v. 18). The term “babbler” really means “seed-picker” and refers to a crow or some other scavenger-type bird who finds food where he can get it.
It appears that Paul’s critics are expressing an intellectual snobbery that the Apostle was advocating ideas that did not fit into their systems of thought. He certainly was not preaching the kind of strict Judaism which had rejected Jesus as Messiah. Nor was he simply affirming that non-Jews could simply convert to Judaism and be right with God (becoming “God- fearers”).
Paul was also not teaching Epicureanism. Founded about 300 years before Paul, this philosophy focused on the simple, modest and pleasure-filled life. Strongly materialistic, this worldview affirmed pleasure as life’s great good, and sought to pursue freedom from fear and pain.
This philosophy also taught that the gods do not interfere with human lives. The Epicureans are singled out as the first and worst heretics in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In some ways, Buddhism is Epicurean in that it affirms a lack of divine interference and the belief that great excess leads to great dissatisfaction.
Nor was Paul in agreement with Stoicism. Founded in the 3rd century B.C. by Zeno, Stoicism taught that destructive emotions come from errors in judgment. One’s philosophy, said the Stoics, could be judged by their behavior, not by what their words. They also
believed that a serious Stoic, if marked by self- control, could be immune from misfortune. Pursuing the Stoic way of life, one would gain clear thinking and be able to understand universal reason, which they called logos.
A deterministic view of life in Stoicism meant one could fit into the world, in the words of Epictetus, ”sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Among the best educated elite in the Roman Empire and in the Greek world, Stoicism was the most popular philosophy.
Later Stoicism would be described as classical pantheism. Its most famous modern representative would be the Dutch philosopher Spinoza.
So Paul interacted with these four groups: the Jews, the God-fearers, and the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearers. He openly debated with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.
In the marketplace he also engaged a fifth group I call the intellectual loiterers of the day. We read of that group that Paul reasoned with “as well in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (v. 17).
My, what readiness on Paul’s part to engage with a variety of audiences in several different venues on a daily basis! Perhaps his daily discussions with these intellectual loiterers caught the attention of the more formal Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who then began to debate with him.
None of us wishes to be labeled a parasitic plagiarist! Other Bible translations render this term “babbler” as “a talker of foolish words” (BBE), “an amateur” (CEB), an “ignorant show-off” (GNT), or a “pseudo- intellectual” (CSB). My favorite translation is that Paul is accused of being “an airhead” (the Message)!
We all care about how others, even those who oppose the gospel, think of us. One preacher said, “When I share the gospel, I worry about what people will think about Jesus. And I worry about what people will thing about me. But mostly I worry about what people will think of me.” How would you like to be called an amateur, an ignorant show-off, a pseudo-intellectual? And being called an airhead would put me over the top. Jesus did say somewhere, “Beware when men speak highly of you,” didn’t He?
Paul’s being labeled apparently did not come from the way he conducted himself, but from what he said. Because the next verse tells us that some verbally reacted: “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” (v.
18). Our culture has become so post-Christian that presenting the “old, old story” to many will sound like new, foreign gods!
While there may be certain value to nostalgia, if we faithfully preach the truth about Jesus, for many in our biblically-illiterate culture today our message will sound like a new cult, like a bizarre script recently rejected by the producers of the old TV show the X-Files!
Why did these philosophers react to Paul as they did? The text tells us that “they said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (v. 18).
There have been some commentators who have suggested that Paul was wrong here in Acts 17 to engage with the philosophers of the day in intellectual argument, that he should have simply “preached Christ.”8 But verse 18 says he did preach Christ. He was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Paul’s Gospel Presentation
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant
8 Norman Geisler does a commendable job in defending Paul’s approach here in his article “An Apologetic for Apologetics” found at http://normangeisler.net/articles/apologetics/ AnApologeticForApologetics.htm
of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
The Wisdom of a Compliment
There are several steps in Paul’s approach here before the Athenians, steps that will help us in our witness for Christ. His first step is that of compliment. Paul compliments the Athenians for their religiosity. He says, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.” (vv. 22-23).
If I had been Paul, I would have said (in my best Southern drawl) something like, “Ya’ll are a bunch of IDOLATORS! Ya’ll are going to HELL!” Paul begins with affirming their serious desire to worship. A writer by the name of Phyllis Theroux once said,”One of the commodities in life that most people can’t get enough of is compliments. The ego is never so intact that one can’t find a hole in which to plug a little praise. But compliments, by their nature, are highly biodegradable and tend to dissolve hours or days after we first receive them — which is why we can always use another.”
Let’s not misunderstand Paul’s approach. He is not saying, “Your religion is good enough! You all will be fine, just keep being sincere!” No, he establishes what my German friends call an Anknufungspunkt, a contact point. How hard do we work to develop a contact point with unbelievers?
The True God’s Uniqueness
24-25). He is the One who meets the needs of humanity, giving everyone “life and breath and everything else.” (v. 25). As the God of the whole earth, He has marked out man’s boundaries in terms of both history and geography (v. 26). God’s actions were intentional. He wants human beings to seek Him, reach out to Him, and find Him. “He is not far from any of us,” Paul says.
To strengthen this point, Paul quotes from several of their own poets. One says, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This quotation appears to be from the poem Cretica, written by Epimenides around 600 B.C. The exact quote is:
“They fashioned a tomb for you,
Paul also says in verse 28, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” He appears to be quoting Aratus, a Cilician poet who lived about 275 years before Christ. Paul, being brought up in that area, knew the writings of Aratus. In his poem Phaenomena, Aratus writes:
“With Jove we must begin; nor from him rove; Him always praise, for all is full of Jove! He fills all places
where mankind resort,
A Command to Repent!
Paul goes beyond an intellectual disputation about novel theological ideas. He concludes his presentation by saying, “Therefore . . . God commands all people
9 I require my seminary students to read at least one book that challenges their Christian faith (I call it “a book that will boil your blood before you get past the preface”) for some of my classes. We need to know the objections of unbelievers so we can respond biblically to them.
everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Paul clearly declares that repentance and belief in the risen Jesus is the command of the true God. Recently, my wife and I have been counseling a young professional who has made some moral choices that jeopardize his entire family. He has confessed his sins, but it does not appear that he has repented. Confession is not repentance. Confession ought to involve a grieving over one’s sins, but sometimes it is simply admitting one’s wrongs to avoid further consequences. Repentance involves the heart — and we are notoriously capable of conforming without heart transformation.
Acts 17 is not simply a discussion about religious perspectives. Paul is issuing a gospel call to belief in Jesus and repentance of one’s sins. What is the alternative to Paul’s gospel call? Judgment. God has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” (v. 31). These Athenians are not fine with their religious pluralism. They need to turn from their idols, believe the gospel, and serve the true and living God!
And for that message Paul is willing to be called “a babbler,” “a seed-picker,” “an airhead.”
Friends: This is the fourth chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
Saved! Chapter Four: LEARNING!
Calvin (not the Reformed theologian, but the cartoon character of “Calvin & Hobbes”) is standing in the pouring rain, waiting for the school bus. He says with great disgust, “Why do I have to go to school to learn things I don’t want to learn?”
“The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” (Flannery O’Connor)
“Make no mistake about it — the demands of following Jesus Christ are indeed taxing. But it needs to be said in this context that the price of not following him is higher still.” Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus
We have seen in our study thus far that being saved means we have been rescued from our lostness, been loved by the Savior, and been lured into His family to go and catch others. In this chapter we will see that we have also enrolled in what I call “Jesus University.” We are called to be disciples, a word that simply means “learners.”
We read in Matthew 11:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
By Invitation Only
Jesus wants followers, but He describes the kind of people He wants to come. Those who qualify need to be “weary” and “burdened.” Those who are fully rested and carefree need not respond to the invitation.
Jesus promises rest to those who are invited. What about those who don’t think they need His rest? They can continue to live their lives spiritually restless rather than restful, independent of rather than intimate with the only One who can meet their need for soul rest.
Many factors bring a weariness of soul, not the least of which are our own shortcomings, our failure to put God first in our lives, our internal sense that we have not met God’s holy standard and therefore rightfully merit His judgment. This weariness of soul can be covered up, ignored, even anesthetized by the things of this world, but only Jesus’ rest will bring it relief.
Burdens can be good or bad for the soul. Some burdens drag us down, shove us to the brink of despair, cause us to question God and His goodness. Other burdens cleanse our souls of our self-focused mania, redirect our energies towards others, strengthen our resolve to trust God in the dark. The burdens which make it hard to take that next breath, which crush us with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, are not burdens given to us by a loving Creator. These burdens are efforts by the Evil One to bombard us with the questions, “You think God is GOOD?! Are you out of your mind? How could a good God treat you like THIS?!”
Burdens have the great potential to either turn us away from the Lord or guide us to Him, realizing that He and He alone can lift that burden, can transform it into an opportunity to see Him work.
Volunteering to Work
Jesus does not provide only soul-rest. Following Him doesn’t mean we have been given the gift of a present or eternal vacation. He also deploys those who have found His rest into His work. “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says. Yokes in the animal world are not freely chosen by the beasts of burden. They are imposed on them. Jesus appeals to our choice — “Take my yoke upon you.” But the voluntary acceptance of that yoke indicates that we are joining Jesus in His work. There is work to do. And the Savior invites us — the weary and the burdened — to yoke ourselves with Him in doing that work.
When I was a pre-teen, one of the more popular TV shows was “Dobie Gillis.” It was in black and white and featured the dating adventures of a loveable young man whose best friend was Maynard G. Krebs. Maynard was a beatnik (you might need to look that word up). What I remember most about Maynard was that whenever anyone used the word “work,” he would freak out and shout, “WORK? WORK!?!?!”
I’m afraid that’s how a lot of us feel. But we were created to engage in meaningful work (work was not a result of the fall in the Garden; weary work was).4 I believe we will even have work to do in the New Heavens and the New Earth!5
We are not commanded merely to take His yoke upon ourselves. We do not become slave labor in the plan of
4 Udo Middleman’s book Proexistence discusses this issue of the goodness of work.
Jesus. We become co-workers who also need to be educated.
Jesus issues the challenge to “learn from me.” Joining Jesus is not just a working environment; it is also a learning environment. We are to learn from Him. What does that mean?
When I was a first-year Bible college student, I had a particular attitude toward studying which I would not recommend. My attitude was most noticeable on Monday nights. I would take a quarter and flip it. “If it lands on heads,” I would say, “I’ll stay up half the night and watch ‘Monday Night Football.’ If it lands on tails,” I would say to any who were listening to me, “I’ll play chess until the wee hours of the morning with my roommate. But if it lands on its edge, I’ll study for tomorrow’s mid-term exam!”
The entire Christian life, from conversion to glorification, is a life of study. In fact, I believe that in eternity we will be learning and growing and more deeply appreciating the character and works of God. The one who loathes study has simply joined the wrong religion!
Perhaps a large part of our work for Jesus is learning of Jesus. He is our curriculum. Studying His character ought to merit the very best efforts of every one of His followers. We read in I John 2:6- “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
We need to study how Jesus lived His life — and follow Him! The four gospels provide abundant information on how He acted; how He reacted; what stirred His emotions of anger, disappointment, frustration, joy. This is far more than a “What Would Jesus Do?” kind of approach to life. This involves what would Jesus say?, how would He react?, what would Jesus have thought?
Becoming like Jesus begins with learning about Jesus. And learning about Jesus is not an elective course — it is the required curriculum for any who claim to be His followers.
One of my few academic strengths is my grasp of English grammar. When I was in high school, I struggled with grammar and punctuation issues. I would dangle a participle with nary a concern, split infinitives with reckless abandon, and not hesitate to cruelly splice commas wherever my adolescent mind would direct me. Someone advised me that the way to become excellent in English was to “fall in love with your English teacher!” My English teacher in my senior year was, amazingly, a knock-out! Falling in love with her was a no-brainer. I learned everything there was to learn about gerunds, misplaced modifiers, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, the proper care and feeding of an ellipsis, etc.
Now as a graduate professor I get to read papers from students who apparently did not fall in love with their English teachers, whose sentence fragments would fill twelve baskets full if Jesus were feeding the 5000, and who seem to have an unending supply of the words “it” and “thing” to use in their research papers (two words that should almost always be avoided).
One of my graduate students wrote me an email asking for approval of a particular research topic. Her brief email had at least five grammar mistakes in it! I wrote back, approving of her chosen topic, but also reminding her that her paper should be carefully proof- read because I am death on grammar and form issues.
She emailed me back and said, “Did you intentionally try to hurt my feeling with your comment about grammar?” I assured her that my intention was not to
“hurt her feeling,” but to help her strive for excellence in her work.
May I suggest that learning about Jesus will often “hurt our feeling”? He does not save us to make us happy, but holy, and His lesson plan does not have our emotional well-being at the top of His list!
Why should we learn from Jesus? There are many reasons, of course, but Jesus Himself provides a justification for our pursuit of Him. He tells us, “for I am gentle and humble in heart . . .” (v. 29). We read of the Messiah’s gentleness in Isaiah 42:
2 He will not shout or cry out,
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” That Isaiah 42 passage is quoted in Matthew 12:
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
till he has brought justice through to victory. 21In his name the nations will put their hope.”
This is the One we should study. He is not quarrelsome; He does not shout out in the streets. His gentle touch will not break a bruised reed. A wick almost out, barely smoldering, will not be pinched or extinguished by Him. His character is gentle, non- violent, kind. That is the Person we get to study.
He is also humble. He describes Himself as “humble in heart.” One is reminded of Moses who, when his authority was being challenged by Aaron and Miriam, wrote parenthetically, “(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)” (Num. 12:3). Moses did not defend himself on that occasion. Nor was his self-description refuted by the Lord.
What is the reward for learning of the Lord Jesus? Jesus Himself says, “and you will find rest for your souls.” (v. 29). It is one matter to find and enjoy rest for the body, but what about one’s soul? Where do we find true soul-rest? Answer: only in Jesus. We have been saved to come to Him, to labor for Him, to learn of Him, and to rest in Him. May I ask you, my friend, “Have you found your rest in Him?”
Friends: This is the third chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
Saved! Chapter Three: LURED!
Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “The Christian will have to look a lot more redeemed before I believe in his Redeemer.”
How did Jesus reach you? What were the means, the people, the circumstances that attracted you to Him? Did you find His people particularly winsome, engaging, contagious?
In our text for this chapter we want to notice how Jesus lured His first disciples to Himself. We read,
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,
10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Lk. 5)
The scene seems innocent enough. Jesus is standing by a lake and the people crowd around Him to hear Him teach. But there is a logistical problem. Too many people in too small a space equals an ineffective learning environment.
A Favor for Jesus
Jesus needs to gain a bit of pedagogical distance between Himself and the people, so He spots two boats at the water’s edge belonging to local fishermen. The fishermen were washing their nets, we will learn later, after a completely unproductive night of fishing.
Apparently without asking, Jesus boarded one of the boats — it happened to be the one owned by Simon — and asked him to put out a bit from the shore. The logistical problem was solved. Jesus taught from the boat to the crowds who were content to stay on the shore and listen. It is hard to tread water and listen at the same time.
We are not told how Simon reacted, but I can well imagine that he was glad he could help out the wandering Rabbi Jesus. Perhaps he expected a word of thanks when they put back in to shore.
An Audacious Command
But he got what he did not expect. He receives not a word of thanks but a command of challenge. “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch,” Jesus says to him. Commandeering another man’s boat for a preaching predicament is one thing; commanding the owner of that boat to do something foolish and obviously wasteful is quite another.
The command of Jesus is two-fold: (1) “put out into deep water” and (2) “let down the nets for a catch.” Apparently they had not yet made it back to shore from the teaching lesson, so putting out into the deep water would indicate to all watching that Simon was going to try his luck at fishing one more time. It is possible that the fishing nets were still on shore, so they were unprepared for another fishing expedition. But who is his right mind would guarantee a catch of fish?
Simon’s objection seemed to involve both saving face as well as not making more work for himself and his partners. One wonders if in his heart Simon was thinking, “Jesus, you’re a great Teacher. But I know fishing. And this seems to be an exercise in futility. You’re letting Your popularity go to Your head.”
We read Simon’s response as, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” The futility of an all-night fishing expedition was raw and exhausting. Simon seems to be saying, “We have not lacked effort. We’ve worked hard. But we have nothing to show for our labor but nets needing mending and cleaning, and exhausted bodies needing rest.” Giving reasons why a particular command makes no sense assumes that one knows better than the One giving the command.
Perhaps Simon’s response could be worded: “Rabbi Jesus, we are hard-working fishermen. You’re an
excellent teacher. You’re good at what You do. We know what we’re doing. Sometimes the fish are there — and sometimes they aren’t. Do you really want us to go out there again and repeat our fruitless efforts and then come back into shore with nothing to show for our time and labor? Really?”
“But Because You Say So”
What Simon says next might well serve as a motto for every serious Christ-follower. Simon continues, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (v. 5). Jesus lets Simon give his reasons why going back out fishing makes absolutely no sense. The second part of Simon’s statement, however, — “But because you say so” — summarizes the Christian’s walking by faith. To Simon’s mind, Christ’s command made no sense. But Christ’s Person was worth trusting, and Simon’s trust was greatly rewarded!
We read that, “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.” (vv. 6-7).
For those disinclined to believe in miracles, this story sounds like a fable, an embellished, humorous legend suitable for telling one’s children at bedtime. For those who affirm God’s existence and power to break into His creation and do whatever He desires to do, this story rings true and reminds us that the Creator of the fish knows fishing!
The Reward of Obedience
I know very little about fishing. When I was a teen, I recall my father and uncles taking me and my brother to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to “gig for flounder.” Gigging for flounder involves going out very early in the morning and walking around the four- foot deep, warm waters of the Outer Banks to find flounder to gig. “Gig” means stab. So we would pull a styrofoam float behind us and with a light on a pole, we would scan the sandy bottom to find flounder calmly sleeping in the sand. Great fun — for all but the flounder who would be stabbed in the back while they were sleeping. That’s about the extent of my knowledge of fishing.
Simon’s “because-you-say-so” kind of faith is not only rewarded, but embarrassingly overwhelmed by the Rabbi’s power. Short of pulling up buried treasure, I would imagine that there is no greater joy for a fisherman than hauling in so many fish that one’s boat is in danger of sinking! Jesus’ gracious action not only filled the borrowed boat belonging to Simon, but his partners’ boat that had to be summoned to help with the catch. Talk about overflowing mercy!
We notice that Simon Peter is not inclined to count his profits at this point. He is so overwhelmed at this miracle catch that he drops to knees before Jesus (perhaps in the midst of his boatload of fish), and says, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (v. 8). His response is not: “Let’s count these fish and get them to market!” or “Rabbi, I’m so sorry that I underestimated You!” or “Jesus, will You go fishing with me tomorrow?” He is struck by his own sinfulness. How was Simon’s sinfulness shown? By defining Jesus as merely a great teacher, by squeezing the Lord into one category: wandering Rabbi. As the great theologian Bill Cosby says, “Only a pigeon belongs in a pigeon
hole.” Simon had pigeon-holed Jesus, and Simon’s container had gotten smashed.
This effort to “contain” Jesus, to categorize Him, assumes that one’s container or category is large enough to not limit or hinder Him. If Jesus is indeed Lord of heaven and earth, if He is the creator of the birds and the fish and humans, then having a minimalist view of Jesus is just about the worse thing that a person can do!
Astonishment is a powerful thing. In our cynical world, one might argue that it is hard to become astonished any more. Not for Simon Peter. He and his companions saw a cause-and-effect relationship between Jesus’ commanding Simon to put out into the deep water for a catch of fish and the fish which virtually jumped into their two boats! And they were astonished. The two partners are actually named (James and John), perhaps for the purpose of indicating, “Look. If you don’t believe this story, go and ask them!”
A minimalist Jesus can only do minimal things. But a Jesus who is the Creator can do things that completely and undeniably astonish us! How we lost the ability to let Jesus astonish us? Have we confined Him to the role of our spiritual guru who dispenses non- threatening advice about how to live a nice life, but keep Him out of our businesses, our plans, our lives?
A Fruitless Fear
Fear can be a positive motivator sometimes in life. It can cause us to flee a burning building, not trust someone with our finances when they haven’t proven their financial wisdom, or engage in activities which make promises our bodies can’t keep! Fear can be a blessing. The culture that thinks of fear as always
inhibiting and restrictive misses some of the benefits of a proper perspective on danger.
But fear can also be a curse. Fear can prevent us from living lives of calculated risk for the sake of something or Someone more important than ourselves. Fear can debilitate us, hamper us from stepping out in faith, hamstring us, causing us to limp cautiously through this thing called life. Some fears should be embraced; some should be rejected. Simon — and perhaps his partners as well — responded in fear to this miraculous catch of fish. Why? It appears that for Simon his sin of greatly underestimating Jesus disqualified him to even be in Jesus’ presence. And he became afraid.
But Jesus’ first words to him were, “Don’t be afraid.” How often those words are spoken to people that God wants to use in mighty endeavors. Angels often say to those they visit, “Don’t be afraid” or “Fear not!” Easy for them to say, right?
But some kinds of fear can keep us from fulfilling the mission Jesus has for us. So Jesus quickly says to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people” (v. 10).
If I had been Jesus, I might have responded differently to Simon. When he said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man,” I might have said, “You know, Simon, you’re right! You are a sinful man! How dare you underestimate me? Thanks for the use of your boat. See ya’.”
But Jesus is not into condemnation and abandonment. He is into transformation and deployment. He says to Simon, “From now on you will fish for people.” (v. 10). Fishing for people. Jesus doesn’t change Simon’s vocation — He changes his catch.
Jesus does not simply use people — He redeems them and puts them to work! This call to become fishers of men is heeded not just by Simon, but by his partners. We read, “So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” (v. 11). We are not told that they took the time to sort and count the catch of fish. They simply left that eye-popping haul for the benefit of others.
What is involved in fishing for people? In the mind of Simon and his brothers, this involved going with Jesus, being with Him. And being with Him means going after others, seeking to lure them to the Savior.
Friends: This is the second chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
Saved! Chapter Two: LOVED!
“Nobody loves me but my mamma — and she might be jivin’ me too!” (B.B. King)
There are many passages of Scripture that tell us that God loves us. The best-known verse in all the Bible is “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
Whenever I have seen preachers preach on this great verse, they have inevitably stretched out their arms as widely as they could when they repeated the words “God SOOOO loved the world.” God’s love for the world is, indeed, great and is described as such in many passages. Ephesians 3 records Paul’s prayer that the believers might deepen their understanding of that love, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” (Eph. 3 KJV).
Titus 3 reminds us that “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit . . .”
We read in Ephesians 2 that God is “rich in mercy” and we learn of “His great love wherewith He loved us.” (verse 4 KJV). I John 3 reminds us to “see what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (verse 1).
This greatness of God’s love is a constant theme in the book of Romans where we read that “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (5:5), that “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). The Apostle Paul asks “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (8:35) Paul answers his own question four verses later where he assures us that “neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:39) We also learn in Romans that we are loved not just by the Father and the Son, but also by the Spirit. Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” (15:30).
Scripture indicates that God was under no obligation to save any of us, but of His own mercy and love He provided His Son as the ransom for our sins (Mk. 10:45), as the rescue from our lostness (I Thes. 1:10; Col. 1:13), as the redemption from our slavery (I Pe. 1:18; Gal. 3:13; 4:3; Heb. 2:15).
One of the great privileges in my life is that of occasionally teaching New Testament Greek. Don’t you wish you could study Greek with me? My students labor over a new alphabet, completely strange words, constructions that will drive one close to insanity, and a teacher who insists that studying Greek is a blessing of God! One of the first points I make with my students concerns our verse, John 3:16 which says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
We’re pretty sure we understand that best-known of all Bible verses. What is fascinating is that the little word “so” (“God so loved the world . . .”) doesn’t actually teach the greatness of God’s love, but rather the manner of His love. The verse could be translated, “God loved the world in such a way that He gave His only Son . . .”
My suggestion is that when preachers preach on that famous text, they would be more faithful to what the verse is actually saying if they were to hold their arms out to the side in a parallel fashion, indicating manner, rather than stretching them out trying to indicate greatness. “This is how God loved the world — He gave His one and only Son!”
One story that we want to examine more closely concerning the love of God occurs in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). We will find that the question that is raised there is the most profound question one could ask, that the answer Jesus gives is the most shocking possible, and that the
truths about salvation taught there are quite surprising. We will also see that it is a strange context to speak of God’s love.
Mark 10 tells us about a young man who had a critical conversation with Jesus:
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Let’s analyze this important section of Scripture. This is obviously someone who desperately wants an answer to his question. He runs up to Jesus. Middle Eastern men normally do not run, especially those who are wealthy. He detains Jesus who was preparing to go somewhere else, prostrates himself before this rabbi, and asks his question. He physically shows his intense desire for an answer to his question by dropping to his knees. But what was his question?
An Urgent Question
If you had the opportunity to literally and personally ask Jesus a question, what would that question be? Some might ask Him, “Why am I going through this trial right now? Why me?” Others might ask, “How can I
achieve maximum happiness in this life?” Others might not ask a question at all, but might point an accusing finger at Jesus and declare, “How can you allow such evil in Your world?”
This young man’s question (we are told that he is a young ruler in the parallel accounts, Mt. 19 and Lk. 18) was urgent! He “ran up to [Jesus] and fell on his knees before him . . .” He obviously thought his question extremely important. He cast aside all customs of dignity for Eastern royalty to ask his question of Jesus. Eastern rulers did not normally run — for anything. His falling on his knees indicated respect and honor as he fell before Rabbi Jesus.
The very way we sometimes word questions says much about our assumptions — and ourselves. This man’s question was: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What a great question! The parallel account in Matthew 19 has him asking, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (v. 16). This man was really into goodness, wasn’t he?
There is, of course, a difference between asking how might I inherit eternal life and what good thing must I do to get eternal life. I believe that there are ultimately no real contradictions between the gospels, so it may be that Mark picks up on the inheriting part of his question while Matthew focuses on the doing part of his query.
Before we read further in our passage, how might you or I respond to both parts of that question, if we were Jesus? To the inheriting part, we might say, “Well, someone has to die for you to inherit eternal life — and that’s why I came — to die for sinners.” That answer, of course, would be true, but it isn’t how Jesus responds. To the doing part of his question, we might say, “There is nothing that you can do to get
eternal life! You can’t earn it. You can’t buy it! It is given as a gift!” And that would be a true, biblical answer as well. Jesus’ answer to this man’s question begins, surprisingly, with a rebuke.
Jesus’ Response to Compliments
The man addresses Jesus as “Good teacher.” Whenever we see people in the Bible approach Jesus with a compliment, He seems to either ignore their compliment or to see through their nice-sounding words to the heart of the matter. For example. when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (Jn. 3:2), Jesus does not acknowledge Nicodemus’ compliment by saying, “Thank you!” or “Yes, God is really giving me power to do these miracles.” No, Jesus’ response is “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (Jn. 3:3).
On one occasion, the Jewish leaders sent their disciples to Jesus along with the Herodians and asked Him, “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (Mt. 22:16-18). Jesus saw through their flattery and challenged their motives.
Jesus did not care for compliments, especially if they were engineered to manipulate or trap Him. The young man in our text (Mk. 10) may have had neither of these intentions, but his greeting of Jesus as “Good Teacher” certainly provoked an interesting response from Jesus.
Perhaps the last response this young man expected from Jesus was what he received. “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.” (v. 18).
What was wrong with calling Jesus “Good Teacher”? Could it be that the young man had a wrong understanding of goodness and a wrong understanding of who Jesus actually was?
“No One Is Good”
This man may well have been the poster child of all those who think they can earn their way into heaven. “What must I do?” is a great question! What if the answer is, “There is NOTHING that YOU can DO!”?
Perhaps Jesus‘ rather curt response to the young man’s greeting of “Good Teacher” was intentional, was meant to say something about Himself that the one asking the question did not understand. Jesus appears to be saying, “Because there is only one who is good, if you call me good, you are calling me God.”
At the very least, Jesus is establishing the truth that goodness — the kind of goodness that guarantees eternal life — is unattainable by mortal man: “No one is good — except God alone.” This is a lethal blow to man’s pride if he wishes to have a hand in his own
salvation. We can bring nothing good to God for helping Him save us. We have nothing to bring.
Isaiah had it right when he said, “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Is. 64:6). I understand the Hebrew word for “filthy rags” is menstrual cloths, evidence of no new life.
We have nothing to bring, nothing to commend us to God, nothing to contribute to our salvation. Because we are not good, because we are sinners, all we have are our transgressions, our iniquities, our failed efforts to measure up to God’s standard of holiness and perfection.
A Shocking Response
Jesus allows the young man to set the agenda for the conversation, and the agenda is goodness. “Let’s start at the most logical place,” Jesus seems to be saying when he declares, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” Jesus begins with the commandments of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) which pertain to how we relate to other human beings. The first half of the Decalogue has the commandments:
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything (no graven images/idols).
3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord.
4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
The second half of the Ten Commandments pertain to men. 5. Honor your father and mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. (Exodus 20)
So, what commandments has Jesus listed for this young man? He has listed commandments #6-#9 and #5. I’m not sure why He has brought in the fifth commandment to honor one’s parents last, but these are the commandments He lists. Notice that Jesus has left out the first four commandments — the ones that command how we are to relate to God Himself. He has also left out the tenth commandment: do not covet.
How does this young man respond? He says to Jesus, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” [It is interesting that the man does not address Jesus again as “Good” Teacher.] I wonder how he said those words. Were they said in pride? Were they said quietly, and, what might seem to us impossible, in humility? The passage doesn’t tell us. All we can do
is notice how Jesus responds to this man’s declaration of goodness.
Let’s give this man the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is telling the truth about his own life, as best he can determine. To his knowledge, he certainly had never murdered anyone or committed adultery with anybody. He had led an exemplary life of honesty, not stealing from anyone or giving false witness about anyone concerning anything. He had a morally flawless track record, at least in his own mind. And when it came to his relationship with his parents, his name would be on the honor roll of those who respected his parents. His righteousness scorecard was looking pretty good, at least in his own mind.
One wonders if this young man was surprised that Jesus’ listing of the commandments started in the middle of the Decalogue, with commandment #6 (“You shall not murder”), not beginning with the commandments about how we are to relate to God, and also leaving out the last commandment about coveting. The young man obviously knew the Decalogue by heart. He had to suspect that Jesus was up to something in the very way He responded with the commandments.
But he was honest — and he had led a nearly flawless life. It is fascinating that Jesus does not correct him when he says, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” Based on Jesus’ expansion of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount earlier in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5-7), Jesus could have said to him, “If you have ever hated someone in your heart, you are guilty of murder. If you have ever lusted after a woman, you
are guilty of adultery. If you have even once taken the credit due to someone else, you have acted as a thief. And your parents — if we were to interview them — would they say that you have honored them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, since you were a child? I don’t think so!”
Jesus does not challenge this man’s claim. However, the very next statement that Jesus would make to him would shatter his world, would turn his understanding of goodness on its head, would cause this young man to walk away from the God-man Jesus.
“One Thing You Lack”
The young ruler had come to Jesus with a question. That question was essentially, “What do I need to do, what in my life is keeping me from inheriting or earning eternal life?”
Jesus now answers that question. Of the three gospel accounts which include this story (Mt. 19, Mk. 10, and Lk. 18), only Matthew’s account has the young man ask, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” (verse 30).
But before Jesus tells this young man what he lacks, Mark’s gospel alone includes an interesting statement. There we read, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” We know that God loves the whole world. Why are we told here that “Jesus looked at him and loved him”?
It seems reasonable that because Jesus knew how this young man would respond to His next words, Jesus looks
at him with love. Jesus knew that what He would say to this young man would push him away from eternal life, would shatter his self-righteousness, would cause him to walk away with his possessions but without Jesus.
Jesus then says to him, “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v. 21).
On the surface this sounds like salvation by one’s works. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that salvation comes by divesting oneself of all worldly goods, donating those possessions to the poor, and then following after Jesus. Trying to buy one’s way into heaven is a mockery of the very idea of why Jesus came — to give His life a ransom for sinners, as we learn in this very chapter of the gospel of Mark (10:45).
Jesus says to this five-out-of-ten-commandment-keeping young man: “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (verse 21).
Perhaps this young man expected Jesus to compliment him on his law-keeping, model behavior toward other people. He apparently was taken by surprise by Jesus’ “one thing you lack.” How awful that must be to be told by the Son of God, “One thing you lack.”
Matthew’s account adds, “If you want to be perfect . . .” It appears that Jesus is saying, “You’re into humanly-achieved perfection? Then let me give you the key. The only requirement you need to
meet is to sell everything you’ve got, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow me.”
But let’s not move too quickly past these words: “one thing you lack.” The young ruler knew something was missing when he first approached Jesus with his question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He knew that there must be something for him to do, that he was not yet a recipient of eternal life. When faced with some of the Ten Commandments, he testifies of his relative goodness, perhaps thinking that Jesus will say, “My, you have been good! And that’s what heaven requires: goodness! You’re ‘good’ to go!” But what he gets instead are the words, “one thing you lack.” And that thing was not something peripheral, something on the edge of something else. It was the main point. Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, there are a lot of things that you’re missing. Here’s one . . .” No! He says, “One thing you lack.”
How would he make up for this lack? Jesus‘ instructions are unambiguous: They really involve four steps: (1) go; (2) sell all you have; (3) give the proceeds to the poor; and (4) come, follow me.
What precisely is Jesus asking this man to do? First, to go away from the immediate presence of Jesus. The rich young ruler had something he needed to do before he could join Jesus. He had to leave or depart from Jesus. Second, he had to divest himself of all that he had. This would involve inventorying his possessions, finding buyers for them, and letting them go. Third, he was to donate the proceeds of his massive garage
sale to the poor. He would have had to literally hand over the monies received from the sale of all of his possessions to those who had nothing to give him in return (“the poor”). This man himself would be a giver of grace to those who had nothing to give back, who only had empty hands and hungry stomachs to welcome his generosity. Perhaps this was to help him see his own poverty. Then this young ruler could come, totally penniless, and dedicate himself to Jesus and join his traveling entourage.
We dare not skip over the promise of Jesus regarding the third step in this man’s quest to make up for what he lacked. Jesus says concerning his giving his monies to the poor: “and you will have treasure in heaven.” Well, that is exactly what the man wanted! He wanted an inheritance in heaven. He wanted to inherit eternal life. And Jesus guarantees him precisely what he had asked Jesus for.
Wait a minute!, some might say. Jesus is telling this young man how he can earn eternal life? This isn’t the message of salvation by grace that we read about in the rest of the Bible! What is going on — and how in the world do we defend Jesus here?
Nowhere in the Bible do we get any hint that man can be good enough to earn God’s grace. So Jesus is giving this man a process by which he will learn that he is not good, that he is spiritually poor in himself, that he is in need of one thing: grace.
“How hard it is for the rich . . .”
How did this young man respond to that “one thing he lacked”? Matthew’s gospel says, “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Luke’s gospel says, “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.” Our passage, Mark, reads, “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
What was so devastating about Jesus’ statement that would cause this young man’s face to fall, for his conversation with Jesus to abruptly end, and for him to walk away from the one Person in the universe who could tell him how to receive eternal life?
The Bible does not leave us in doubt here. We do not need to speculate as to why this response by Jesus was so terminal, why what He said caused this young man to abandon the conversation and turn his back on the Savior. The passage tells us he left “because he had great wealth.”
In His brilliant response to the young man’s question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus had put His divine finger on exactly what kept him from the kingdom — his wealth. Wealth is never characterized in the Bible as evil, but the holding onto wealth can anesthetize one’s heart to having treasures in heaven. Jesus had gone right to this man’s heart, for He had said to him, “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, come and follow me, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.” The man’s question had been about inheritance — “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer had been the key
(for this man) of how to inherit eternal life. The key to getting treasure in heaven is to make sure our treasures on earth haven’t hijacked our hearts.
Jesus was obviously not telling this young man how he could buy his way into heaven. Nothing in the Bible indicates that we can bribe God, or pay off God, or achieve eternal life by any kind of installment plan. This man’s secret sin was precisely that which the tenth commandment prohibited: coveting. And it seems obvious that he did not covet his neighbor’s house or his neighbor’s wife, or his neighbor’s male or female servant, or his neighbor’s ox or donkey, or anything that belonged to his neighbor (Ex. 20:17). It appears that he coveted his own possessions. His possessions possessed him. And they caused him to walk away.
Let’s review the strategy of Jesus in this conversation:
1. He is open to this man’s question which is asked in an urgent fashion.
2.He responds to this man’s greeting with a profound theological statement: “Why are you calling me good. No one is good but God alone!”
3. Jesus’ profound theological statement is followed by a selective listing of some of the Ten Commandments (commandments #6-9 and #5).
4. The young man responds by saying, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus provides the opportunity for him to claim a certain righteousness. And Jesus does not correct or rebuke
him. He lets him dwell in his own “righteousness.” He does not directly confront him with his sin.
5. The next step is that “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” In our efforts to help people recognize their need of Christ, do we really love them? Does our love involve the recognition that some will find the words of the gospel too hard, too demanding, to be followed? Will they feel loved as they walk away?
6. Jesus then directly says to him, “One thing you lack.” Do we point out what people “lack”? It seems arrogant on the surface that we would dare point out anyone else’s “lack.” But if we have recognized our own need, and find that need had been thoroughly met by Christ, how dare we not share that satisfaction with others? But what if they feel that they are already fulfilled, satisfied, complete? We then want to use God’s Word to show them their self-deception. This young man thought he was set, that he had done the best he could, that there might have been something small that he was missing. But that something small was actually something very large in his eyes: all his possessions had to be gotten rid of! And that was too much for him.
7. The last step is that Jesus allows him to walk away. This may appear to have been an evangelistic failure on Jesus’ part, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are not told what happened to this young man after he left Jesus. Perhaps he thought about what Jesus had said, thought about his lack, thought about the 10th Commandment. Perhaps he gave away all his wealth and joined Jesus. We simply don’t know.
And it does not appear to be the Bible’s intention to end this story on a happy note. The conclusion of the conversation is extremely sad. The man “went away.” He went away “sad.” Jesus did not come to make everyone He met happy. Some need to be saddened on their way to salvation.
Perhaps as the man walked away, the disciples might not have noticed his negative reaction to the words of Jesus. Maybe they had assumed that he was going to do exactly what Jesus told him to do — to sell all his possessions, give to the poor, then come back and join them in following Jesus. But instead of saying, “He’s got a few things to do — He’ll be back,” Jesus makes an amazing statement to His disciples.
Jesus turns His gaze from the young ruler walking away to His disciples who are standing there. Jesus declares, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 23).
These words must have amazed Jesus‘ disciples, for they assumed that a wealthy Jew was a righteous Jew, already in a relationship with God. Apparently the idea had never struck them that one’s riches could keep one from the kingdom of God rather than guarantee entrance into it.
Jesus uses the man’s walking away as an object lesson. He also employs an absurd-sounding illustration. Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (v. 25).
Talk about cognitive dissonance! Perhaps the disciples were already calculating how this rich young ruler could financially help their cause. Jesus challenges the disciples’ assumption that the rich are already right with God.
Responding to their amazement, Jesus intensifies His statement: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” (verse 24). He then resorts to an analogy to drive home the difficulty of getting into God’s kingdom. He refers to a common camel and a common sowing needle. “It is easier,” He says, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (verse 25).
Christian preachers have tried to argue that the eye- of-the-needle gate is a small gate entering Jerusalem and for a camel to go through it, the camel would need to kneel and crawl through. That isn’t what Jesus is saying. The word “camel” here is really the word for camel and the word “eye of a needle” refers to the opening at the top of a sewing needle. Jesus’ point is not the need to bow to drag oneself into the city, but the impossibility of getting into the kingdom by human effort.
Jesus challenges conventional wisdom that believed the rich had it made, not only in this life, but also in the life to come.3 Jesus says, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples responded with amazement, He added, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” (verse 24).
3 He does the same in His famous parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16). 32
His analogy of the camel and the eye of a sewing needle causes the disciples to verbalize their astonishment and say, “Who then can be saved?” (verse 26). Their understanding of who was “good to go” had just been shattered by Jesus’ declaration. Now they were open to the truth about who gets into the kingdom of God. And Jesus’ point is that human effort amounts to exactly zero when it comes to securing one’s place in God’s kingdom.
We read that “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’” (verse 27) Jesus declares with divine authority the truth that man cannot accomplish his own salvation, even when he has an abundance of material possessions at his disposal. In fact, it appears that having an abundance of material possessions at one’s disposal could very well keep one from the kingdom of God! There needs to be a poverty that only God can remedy, a lack that only He can meet.
Could it be that the entire point Jesus was making with the rich young ruler was exactly what we read in verse 27- “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God”? The rich young ruler wanted to do something to inherit eternal life, but an inheritance is received upon another’s death. There was no good thing that he could do to merit eternal life. As exemplary as his life might have been, it fell way short of loving God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. He was not willing to give up his worldly possessions to secure treasure for himself in heaven. The cost was too much. And he needed to learn
that salvation can’t be purchased by sinful man, no matter how much stuff he donates to the poor.
Only God can do the impossible — and He has provided salvation for those who trust in His Son and in His Son alone for their rescue. But Jesus will speak the truth in love to all who think they can earn their own way to heaven. To each of us, with love, Jesus says, “One thing you lack . . .”
Friends: This is the first chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
“Jesus came to seek the least, the last, and the lost.” (anonymous)
“When you try to add to God’s salvation, you subtract. If you try to merit God’s salvation, you haven’t believed in God at all; you are trusting yourself, even if you try to do only a little bit.” (Timothy Keller)
Pastor Billy Bob Yokel had been “preachin’ the gospel” for thirty years. This morning’s revival service at 1st Holiness Church was no exception. “Ya’ll need to REPENT — and believe in Jesus as your SAVIOR!”, he shouted, pounding the old wooden pulpit with each syllable of Sav-i-or.
Pastor Billy Bob wasn’t much to look it, some might say. On the other hand, he was hard to miss, all 312 pounds of him. A preacher’s history of after-service fried chicken dinners had ballooned the former left tackle for Park High School into what some people called a holy heart attack waiting to happen.
When he stepped out from behind the pulpit, his shirt tail had escaped from his pants and his stretch slacks were rolled over at the waist. His ever- present handkerchief, discolored by tobacco stains, wiped the sweat off his brow as he continued his sermon: “If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior — and confess your sins — you will be SA-V-ED!” The last word he drew out, raising both arms in the air in a pleading gesture.
When his sermon was over, he waddled over to the large chair on the podium and collapsed into it, exhausted from another round of fighting for the souls of men and women, boys and girls.
We might recoil at the sight of Pastor Billy Bob, thinking that his appearance obviously invalidated his message. Would we be right? What about his message, Beloved?
There is much confusion these days about salvation, and some of the questions which need to be addressed include: What does it mean to be “saved”? Why do we need to be saved? Saved from what? Does Jesus save us from God? Is salvation individual or corporate? Are just our souls saved? Is salvation permanent? Who can’t be saved? What is the alternative to being saved? What role does the Holy Spirit play in our being saved?
We’ve subtitled this book “Rescued from God, by God, and for God.” As we will see in our study of salvation, our sin puts us in a lost condition from which we need to be rescued. The only One qualified to save us is God. But God needed to become man in order to die for our wrong-doings. We come into this world not as friends of God, but as enemies, and only God’s wrath awaits us if we are not rescued. We need to be saved from a holy, righteous God. And the One who provides that salvation is none other than the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are rescued from God . . . by God.
But salvation — as we will see — is not just an escape from God’s wrath. We will learn that God saves us to make us like His Son and to deploy us into the world to seek others who recognize their need to be rescued. We are saved for God.
Chapter One: LOST!
The explorer Daniel Boone was once asked, “Have you ever gotten lost?” He replied, “No. But I was bewildered for three days once.” Ours is much more than a bewildered society. It is a LOST society, plain and simple.
But lost how? We learn in the Scriptures that we have not only departed from biblical mores and ethics, but we have abandoned God Himself. We have wandered — some have run — away from the true God and constructed our own substitutes. “Idols” is the term the Bible uses, illustrating in no uncertain terms what Paul in the New Testament book of Romans says when he describes sinful man as “worshiping the creation rather than the Creator.”
Someone has said that man’s first duty is to find someone to worship. And we have often simply discovered ourselves. In a sense, God took a great risk in creating this world at all. The moment He created Adam, He created the possibility of idolatry, didn’t He? Adam could now worship himself instead of God.
But how much do we need to be “saved”? And what does being “saved” mean?
Jesus made it quite clear that He had come to earth “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10). This book assumes the biblical facts that Jesus was and is the Second Person of the Divine Trinity who chose to come to earth as a perfect human being for the explicit purpose of dying for sinners. He knew His mission and explained it several times. Not only did He say that He came to seek and to save that which was lost, but also that He did not come “to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:45).
In the 1996 movie “Ransom,” Mel Gibson plays the role of an airline executive whose son is kidnapped. One of the more dramatic moments of the movie is when Gibson is on the phone with the kidnapper and shouts, “GIVE ME BACK MY SON!” God gave us His Son that we might get ransomed back to God.
Somehow our lost condition put us in a kidnapped condition. The only rescue was for the Son of God to give Himself as the ransom!
All Are Lost!
But do all human beings need this salvation? Are all lost, or only a few? Estrangement from God is humanity’s universal condition. We come into this world as God’s enemies! Romans 5:9-10 reads:
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
Lest any of us think we had anything to do with our salvation, Paul makes it clear that we were in a state described as God’s enemies when the Son was given to bring us back to God. What must it feel like to be an enemy of God? If you have trusted Jesus as your Savior, has it dawned on you that you were an enemy of God prior to your being saved? C.S. Lewis reminds us that “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”1 We don’t want to think of ourselves as God’s enemies, as rebels who without cause turned away
1 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952/2001), 56. 4
from their Creator. But that’s the testimony of Scripture.
We would prefer to think of ourselves as slightly off spiritually, as those who have wandered away a bit, semi-sinners who probably need some assistance in getting back to God. But like a stage 4 cancer patient who asks merely for an aspirin, we have greatly underestimated our perilous condition before the God who is holy, and expect Him to work with our foolish self-diagnosis.
How lost are we? In 1981 a Minnesota radio station made an odd announcement about a car which had been stolen in California. The police were staging an intense search for the vehicle and the driver, even placing radio ads to contact the thief. On the front seat of the stolen car sat a box of crackers that had been laced with poison to be used as rat bait. Now the police and the car owner were more interested in apprehending the thief to prevent him from eating the poison than to recover the car. So often, when we run from God, we feel it is to escape His punishment. But what we may actually be doing is eluding His rescue.2
On this issue of being rescued, allow me a brief story. When I was in college, I took a life-saving course with about 25 other students. The Bible college I attended had a swimming pool in the basement and the young man who taught the course was not a student at the Bible college, was mean as a snake, and apparently didn’t want to teach us how to rescue drowning swimmers.
I remember his telling us one night to come wearing a pair of pants over our swim suit because he was going to teach us how to use our pants as a flotation device.
2 Leadership Journal. Further information unavailable. 5
He had us jump into the deep end of the pool, pull our pants off, blow them up, and then use them as a kind of buoy. My only problem was that that night I wore a pair of tight, bell-bottom jeans, and I couldn’t get mine past my ankles. I began to drown — in lifesaving class! No one noticed my predicament. I saved my own life by doggie-paddling to the side of the pool.
The instructor taught us how to rescue someone drowning when we had nothing to reach out to him with, or no rescue buoy to throw to him, but had to swim out to the drowning person and physically rescue them. He explained that a drowning person will climb on our heads and drown both of us. So he taught us to dive down when we got within 8 feet of the victim, grab them by their hips, spin them around, and come up holding them in a head lock. If they struggled or panicked and tried to climb on top of us, we should take them to the very place they did not want to go — under water — so they would give up and let us rescue them.
After the month’s worth of grouchy classes, our instructor said, “Your final exam will be next week and it will be simple. I will jump in the deep end, pretend to be a drowning victim, and your job will be to rescue me. I WILL TRY TO KILL YOU!”
Each of us, one after another, rescued the instructor. Each of us took the instructor to the bottom of the pool — whether he struggled or not. It was a glorious ending to a gruelling course.
Watchman Nee relates a similar story from one of his experiences as a Christian leader in Communist China. A group of young Christian brothers were gathered together to take a swim in one of the many creeks that run throughout the countryside there. Since most were
not good swimmers, they were careful to remain close to the banks so as not to get in water over their head.
One of the brothers got out a little too far and begin to struggle in the deep water. Realizing his predicament he began to cry out to his neighbors, who by now were out of the water and drying off. “Help! Save me!” he yelled, all the while thrashing his arms and legs in a futile attempt to keep his head above water.
Brother Nee knew that only one man was experienced enough at swimming to provide some assistance, and he turned to him for help. But strangely enough, the would-be rescuer calmly watched the man’s plight but made no move to save him, to the great consternation of Brother Nee and the rest of the group. “Why don’t you do something?” they all screamed in unison. But the man just stood there apparently unconcerned.
After a few moments the drowning man could stay afloat no more. His arms and legs grew tired and limp and he began to sink underwater. Now the slow-moving lifeguard dove into the creek, and with a few quick strokes reached the victim and pulled him to safety.
Once all was well, Brother Nee was beside himself. “I have never seen a Christian who loved his own life quite as much as you,” he scolded the rescuer. “How could you stand by and watch your brother drown, ignoring his cries for help and prolonging his suffering?”
But the man calmly explained. “If I were to jump in immediately and try to save a drowning man, he would clutch me in panic and pull me under with him. In order to be saved, he must come to the end of himself, and cease struggling, cease trying to save himself. Only then can he be helped.”
Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings
But what if one doesn’t feel lost? Our feelings can be of great help in many situations in life, but when it comes to our spiritual condition before God, they can become outright deceptive. If we ask the question, where should we go for a definitive diagnosis of our relationship to God?, the Bible and the Bible alone is our best source.
The Bible claims to be direct revelation from God and is characterised by an expectation that it will be taken seriously. Although we should not simply affirm the authority of the Bible without good reason, providing those reasons isn’t our task here. Others — one thinks of Lee Strobel’s A Case for Faith — have done a commendable job of providing good and sufficient reasons to accept the Bible and the Bible alone as the Word of God to man.
Here we wish to ask, what is the Bible’s analysis of our spiritual condition before God? As many preachers have said, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. We would prefer to think that our hearts are right before God, but the witness of the Bible challenges our preferences.
When I was born, I came into this world as a premie. I was stuck in an incubator (I’m sure they didn’t call it that) for a while before I could go home with my mother. Being born premature led to hernia surgery at the age of one month, predisposed me to be early for every appointment in life, and also meant I was born with a leaky heart valve (called mitral valve prolapse). That condition never really created any problems for me in my first fifty-some years of life, except for my having to take massive amounts of an
antibiotic whenever I got dental work done (a mouth infection can apparently go directly to that heart valve in cases like mine, without passing “Go” or collecting $200).
When I turned 59, my cardiologist said, “Your heart has gradually enlarged because of your leaky valve. We need to fix that.”
I said, “Okay. Does that mean I’ll get a zipper from my chin to my belly button?”
“No,” said my cardiologist. “We can now do robotic surgery to repair your heart valve and only have to poke a couple of holes in your chest.”
“Cool,” I said. (probably not — but who’s telling the story?). “Let’s do it.”
I went to Atlanta for the surgery with some fear and trepidation. You see, the robotic surgery was going to be done by the Da Vinci machine, and I had been a bit quite critical of Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code. Fortunately, Dan was not in the operating room, and the surgery came off without a hitch.
My point is that my heart needed repair. Only an expert could tell me that it was not what it needed to be — and required a radical intervention, plus several holes, plus a very large bill.
Our spiritual hearts are not right either. They suffer from far more than a leaky valve. We need a new heart — and that’s what the gospel provides to all who believe.
Before one can get saved, he or she must get lost. What we mean by that is that he or she must recognise
their lostness and respond to God’s gracious offer of forgiveness through Christ.
Apart from terms like “lost” and “perishing,” the Bible uses several metaphors to describe (in painful detail) how absolutely needy we are in our fallen condition.
I never got into the TV series “Lost.” I must admit, that after following a few episodes, I became, well, to put it mildly, lost! The story took so many twists and turns and used so many flashbacks that I found myself wanting to be stranded on a tropical island without electricity just so I wouldn’t have to watch the next installment. Lynnette Porter and David Lavery even wrote a 270-page book entitled Unlocking the Mystery of Lost: An Unauthorized Guide. I hate to admit it, but I was beyond finding, beyond caring, how to sort out the plots and counter-plots. I was happy to be lost with Lost.
But God is not happy with our being lost. He is no confused or reluctant Savior. In fact, we understand that there is a pep rally — the Bible doesn’t say “pep rally,” but it could — in heaven every time a sinner repents! There is more rejoicing over a repentant individual than over 99 righteous people who don’t think they need to repent.
We read in verse 10 of Luke 15, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” We are told back in verse 7 that there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over 99 who don’t need to repent. Finding that one lost sheep is somehow valued more by the shepherd than the 99 who didn’t get lost or didn’t
see themselves as needing to be found. Quantitatively, the Shepherd rejoices greater over that lost one who is found than over the 99 who don’t need to be looked for, or don’t think they are lost. And when it comes to that lost coin, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!
I’ve always assumed angels were happy 24/7, but here their happiness breaks out into full-fledged rejoicing! I wonder how angels rejoice? Do they slap their wings together like high school kids at a football game when their team has scored a rare touchdown against their cross-town rivals? Do they shout “Yippee!” in Hebrew? Or Greek? Or Southern English, “Out of sight, ya’ll!” When an introverted, pimply-faced teenager believed the gospel fifty years ago, was there a senior angel who turned to a group of energetic angels and shouted, “Give me an ‘L’! Give me an ‘A’! Give me a ‘R’!” and so forth?
I was actually the very first male cheerleader at the Bible college I attended after high school. I learned some valuable lessons there, such as never stand next to the girl with the megaphone. I also became fluent in defensive cheers (our team seldom seemed to have the basketball). My next year in Bible college I joined the second string of the team as a player. My claim to fame was being put in a game we were losing by 70 points (seriously). I no sooner stepped onto the court than a player from the opposing team rocketed a pass to a teammate and my left pinky got in the way. I spend a couple of hours at an emergency room getting my dislocated finger popped back into place. It was better — and safer — as a cheerleader.