Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Nth Degree of Love

Are there degrees in which we can love Jesus? Do some people love Him more than others? In our politically correct culture—even within the Church—we shy away from making such distinctions. We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes and imply that there are some people who just seem to have a much deeper love for God than others.

Yet it is a distinction that Christ made.

When visiting with Simon the leper, who was also a Pharisee, one day in his home, the crowd all around Jesus suddenly stopped. Their gaze was firmly implanted on a young woman who was weeping inconsolably. She was at Jesus’ feet, washing them with a mixture of tears and fragrant oil. On two occasions Luke tells us she was a “sinner,” as if this made her different than anyone else. But this was a deliberate designation on his part.

Simon, the great host, was scandalized by this lady’s maneuver. There is a plethora of reasons as to why this was so, but, suffice it to say, he was disturbed that someone was stealing his thunder and embarrassed by the fact that she was doing to Jesus that which he, himself, should have been doing. And so, in his heart, he tried to justify his own lack of love by trying to undermine Christ’s divinity.

And so Jesus, reading his heart, tells an amazingly subtle story, helping Simon see the big picture. “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors,” Jesus said to Simon, “One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41-42).

Simon didn’t have to think long about it. He quickly blurted out, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” No doubt, Simon immediately knew he had just indicted himself. Notice that Jesus, at least in Luke’s account, does not say who had been forgiven more—whether it was the woman or Simon. But, at the very least, the woman felt she had been forgiven much. And Simon, for his part, should have felt the same indebtedness.

And this should be true of all of us. The reality is, the reason many—if not most—of us live our lives from day to day with little direction, little purpose, very little fervor for God and what He is all about, is because we probably do not realize just how much we been forgiven. We love little because we think we have been forgiven little. We love little because we do not really label ourselves a “sinner” like Luke was quick to label this woman.

And I think this is the key: we need to have a healthy balance between our understanding of our sinfulness and our understanding of how much we have been forgiven. It is only when this is achieved that we can “love much.” And then we can all come weeping at the feet of Jesus, willing to give up all for Him.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Learning to Embrace Rather Than Reject

Dr. Luke shares one of the most sobering statements I have come across in a while. Tucked away in the seventh chapter of his Gospel account, he writes this about a group of people who thought they were the great repositories of God’s favor. Notice what he says: “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves” (Luke 7:30).


You talk about cutting to the heart of the matter. Here was a group of people who were convinced they were always in the right, always steering people in God’s direction, always correct in their views. Yet Luke pulls no punches when he says that they actually “rejected” God’s will and purpose for their lives.

When I read that, my mind immediately started racing and thinking of people I know who, from my perspective, seem to be rejecting God’s will and purpose for their lives. I came up with a whole list. But then it all of a sudden dawned on me: could Luke be speaking about me? Am I in danger of rejecting the wonderful blessing that God wants to give me and He wants to give through me?

Far too often, I am afraid that the answer is “yes.” I have, for too long, embraced “Shawn’s will” and rejected “God’s will.” There are many other times when I embrace my church members’ will, or my wife’s will, or my parents’ will, or other peoples’ will, but not God’s will (though this latter experience usually loses out to the “Shawn’s will” category most of the time). But what about God’s will?

I must say, however, that recently I have felt particularly burdened about embracing God’s will, living more by His Spirit, and responding to His grace. And what a blessing it has been! I have shared a number of stories recently about this with those who have been coming to Prayer Meeting, but suffice it to say, life is a lot more adventurous, enjoyable, and satisfying when we reject our own will and embrace the will of God.

This is not to say that I have “arrived,” or that I have learned how to embrace God’s will at all times. But I am encouraged by the little victories He has already given me.

And what about you? Should we not all take a page out of Christ’s playbook when, in the Garden, He pleaded with His Father to “take” the cup from Him but ultimately relented, saying, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done” (Matthew 26:39). This is the experience Christ longs to give us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Intertextuality and the Unity of Scripture

One of my favorite disciplines within biblical study is the exercise of intertextuality. In fact, this is my favorite way to study the Bible. For those who are unfamiliar with this discipline, I like how Wikipedia defines the practice: Intertextuality "is the shaping of texts' meanings by other texts. It can refer to an author’s borrowing and transformation of a prior text or to a reader’s referencing of one text in reading another." So the person who comes to interpret scripture seeks to discover which texts a certain passage is borrowing from, alluding to, or relying upon. I sometimes, kind of tongue-in-cheek, say that intertextuality is glorified "proof-texting," but, truthfully, it goes way beyond that.

One example of this is in the book of Revelation. In fact, I could probably go to any verse in the book of Revelation and demonstrate intertextual links because the book of Revelation is essentially entirely borrowed from various parts of the Old Testament (I have heard some claim that every single verse is a reference to some OT passage). But, relevant to this discussion is Revelation 6 where we are introduced to the seven seals. And the first four seals are accompanied by four horses.

When one studies the intertextual links, it quickly becomes apparent that John is utilizing the language of Zechariah to shape the meaning of this particular vision. In fact, the Greek wording that John uses to name the four horses is the same wording that is used in the LXX of Zechariah. There, in Zechariah 6:2, we see four horses - three of which are the same colors as the first three in Revelation 6 (white, red, and black; the fourth horse in Zechariah is "dappled" while in Revelation is it "pale." I am not yet sure what to make of this difference).

The point in all of this is that when John wrote his vision, he knew that his audience would immediately call to memory these four horses in the book of Zechariah. And the meaning behind those four horses in Zechariah would be transfused into the meaning of Revelation. Some have described this practice as "short hand," as a way to get the full meaning of a particular point without having to reinvent the wheel, in some senses.

Now, there are some who propose that the practice of intertextuality in the Bible depends greatly upon the "unity of scripture," that is, that the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is unified in theme, purpose, content, and even authorship (ie., the Holy Spirit). But as I have thought about this more, I am not so sure that this is even necessary. Yes, I believe that scripture is united in all of these things. I have a "high view" of scripture. But in order for a person to make an intertextual case, I do not believe that this idea of the Bible's unity must necessarily be foundational.

Simply put, when John, for example, wrotethe book of Revelation, he wrote to an audience that was steeped in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures. They knew the Hebrew Bible better than they knew the back of their hands. Many people were illiterate in those days and thus they often memorized large portions of scripture instead of reading it. And their recall of Old Testament language was, no doubt, incredibly remarkable.

So when John wrote about four horses, for example, this would have immediately brought to mind Zechariah - especially since this is the only place in the OT that talks about four horses.

To use a contemporary analogy, it would be like a newspaper writer today placing in an article the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Most American readers would immediately know that he is intertextually referring to the Declaration of Independence. It is simply the cultural and historical millieu in which we exist. Thus, we are able to understand the language he is couching his article in.

So what's the point? I guess my point is that we must learn to read the Bible through the lenses of those to whom it was written. Thus, when we read the New Testament we must keep in mind the Old Testament. When we read the Prophets and Writings we must keep in mind the Torah, etc. This may be easier said than done, but if we are some how able to do it, I think we would be able to gain far greater insights and appreciation for the message and content of the Bible.


Discouraged? Need a jolt of energy or assurance that God is with you and will provide for you? How about this: “I have been young, and now am old,” David writes, “yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendents begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).

Of course, David was a King. He had it all. He did not have to worry about where his next meal was coming from, or whether he would have a place to lay his head. And all of his descendents, being the children of royalty, would not have to worry about such things, either.

But even if this were true, David certainly had his fair share of heartache and anxiety. This was the same David who, as he would testify in Psalm 51, nearly had God’s Spirit depart from him because of his grievous double-sin of committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband killed. So David knew a thing or two about the broken road. In fact, this is also the same David who also cried out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:2).

And yet he could still say, with confidence, that he had never seen the righteous forsaken. Even though he, himself, felt forsaken at times, he understood that he most definitely was not. God stuck close by his side.

So what about us? Shall we worry about being forsaken, abandoned, left to fend for ourselves? No, no! A thousand times no! The truth of the matter is, though we may feel forsaken and abandoned at times, we never are—if, for no other reason than the fact that that Messianic Psalm that David cried out in Psalm 22 was fulfilled in the life of Christ. It’s the same Hebrew word as Psalm 37, as Psalm 37! The righteous—or anyone, for that matter—need never be “forsaken” because Christ took upon Himself our forsakenness!

I remember reading The Desire of Ages a long time ago for the first time. I did not get very far in my first reading, but this quotation stood out to me and has always stuck with me: “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. ‘With His stripes we are healed’ ” (p. 25).

Yes, indeed, Christ was forsaken and abandoned by His Father so that we would never have to be. So why not thank Him for this reality today?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Inasmuch. . . .

I have been thinking a bit lately about what Jesus’ living situation would be were He alive today. Would He be driving a Lexus? Would He have a nice house with a three-car garage, replete with a big plasma TV so He could watch 3ABN? What about His clothing? Would He wear the top-of-the-line name brands all the time?

We could never know for sure, I don’t think, but I believe the Gospels give us a little glimpse into Jesus’ world and indicate to us how He would probably live today. There are a few clues that we can glean.

First of all, let’s be clear on His financial situation: He didn’t have much. When He was asked on two separate occasions about paying taxes, both times He had to “borrow” money from elsewhere. Once He had to instruct Peter to go get a coin from a fish’s mouth (Matthew 17:27), and the other time He had to borrow a denarius from someone else so He could show His audience whose picture was on it (Matthew 22:19). So, make no mistake about it: Christ did not have a padded bank account. His 401k didn’t look too good.

How about food? Would He be eating out at all the fancy restaurants today—or any restaurant for that matter? Would His refrigerator always be stocked full? There are a few places that seem to indicate that Christ hardly ever even knew where His next meal was coming from when He was around. On one occasion, the Pharisees got mad at Him and His disciples because they were going through the grainfields on the Sabbath, plucking grain and eating it (Luke 6:1). And, though I don’t know for sure, I think it is pretty safe to say that it wasn’t His grainfield. They were—in our modern vernacular—“mooching” off others.

Then there is the time when Jesus fed the five thousand. He had to rely upon a little boy who had five loaves of bread and two small fish in order to feed, not only the five thousand, but also Himself and His disciples (John 6:9).

Yes, it seems like Jesus and His disciples lived without knowing where their next meal was coming from.

And then there were His living arrangements, which were, in a word, non-existent. When a scribe came up to Jesus and said that he wanted to follow Him, Jesus responded by saying, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). Thus, He could often be found in the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (Luke 10:38) and, no doubt, many others.

So if Jesus were alive today, I couldn’t help but imagine Him being like that guy who just goes from house to house to house, staying with various people who are willing to put Him up.

What’s the point of all this? One, it helps us appreciate Christ’s great humility and condescension. He went from living “high off the hog” in heaven to becoming, not only a human being—which is humble enough—but one of the most humble human beings on the planet. And His life bears testimony to the fact that it was one of constant self-denial.

Two, it helps to inform my living when I understand how Christ lived. Do I really need the sports car, plasma TV, or big house? If Christ could change the world without these things, is it really necessary for me to have them? Or, how much more should I be able to accomplish with them if I do already have them?

Three, it gives me an appreciation for the fact that Christ placed Himself in situations where He relied upon others. He had confidence that others would help Him. He could have done it all Himself. He could have taken care of Himself. But, just like He asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, He still places Himself in a position today where He “needs” our help.

And, lastly, and kind of related to this third point, how is it that we “help” Him today? He is pretty clear: clothe the naked, feed the hungry, “take in” the stranger (Matthew 25:43). For, as He says, “Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these, My brethren, you have done it unto Me” (Matthew 25:40).

No, we don’t even need to imagine what Jesus would be like were He living today. We see Him right in front of our faces when we walk by the homeless man on the street; when another person walks into the foyer of our church, wearing “hole-y” pants; or when another comes to our church simply because she wants to go to potluck and have a good meal.

Indeed, “Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these, My brethren, you have done it unto Me.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ruled by a Greater Power

For some reason, I have never gotten all that excited in the past about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and the subsequent temptations from Satan. I am not sure why. I guess I always felt like it was the story of a Man who almost had superhuman strength and He did something that the rest of us could never do. I mean, 40 days without food?

But just recently I have realized the incredible import of this wonderful event. You see, what this wonderful story shows us is that we, as human beings, do not have to be ruled by our appetites, our feelings, our pride. Truthfully, I had always kind of intellectually recognized this, but it didn’t click until recently.

Think about it: Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and doesn’t eat. And then the devil comes and meets Him, knowing He is incredibly weak, and invites Him to turn stones into bread for a highly-nutritious meal. Now, previous to this, I thought to myself, “What would be wrong with Jesus accepting the devil’s invitation? After all, there is nothing wrong with eating!” His refusal almost seemed arbitrary. But Jesus was on a mission—and the devil knew it. His mission was to show that we, as human beings, are endowed with one of the greatest and most powerful weapons in the Universe. And one of the devil’s greatest missions is to try to convince us that we are not endowed with this great and powerful weapon.

And what is that “weapon”? Quite simply, it is the power of choice.

And so, instead of giving into the devil’s temptation, Jesus showed that humans do not have to be governed by their flesh. He showed that, no matter what the circumstances are that befall us, we always have a choice. We do not have to be ruled by temptation, by appetite, by passion or emotion. And instead of being governed by His flesh, Jesus chose to believe in Scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” He said, “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

And this is great news for us! When I walk by that television and I feel an almost irresistible urge to watch “Must See TV,” I realize I have a choice in the matter. When I have missed a meal—notice: one meal, not 40 days’ worth of meals—and I am tempted to devour some unhealthy item because I am “starving,” I do not have to be ruled by such cravings. I have a choice in the matter and, by God’s grace, I can overcome. When I am lonely and long for companionship, I do not have to give in to the seemingly irresistible craving to get into bed with my boyfriend. I have a choice in the matter. When someone disagrees with me at the Board Meeting and I just want to snap back and lay into them, I have a choice in the matter and can respond with patience and love. When someone wrongs me and I feel like I have been treated unjustly, I do not have to throw a “pity party” for myself and get down and discouraged, building walls between me and that person. I can choose to continue to shower him or her with God’s grace, in spite of my personal feelings.

What incredible liberation this is for all of us! God has given us the capacity to, in the shadows of—what we think—are insurmountable temptations, take a step back and objectively consider the situation. We do not have to be ruled by our temperament, our emotions, our feelings, our cravings. We can fortify our minds with the truth and that truth can set us free.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Evangelism 101

The greatest evangelists have always been those who have had a life-altering experience with Jesus. Such is the case of a man with leprosy that Luke tells us about in Luke 5. The physician-author Luke relates that Jesus was in a “certain city” when a men with leprosy approaches Him. Having heard about Jesus’ ministry, the man is hopeful that Christ will be able to heal him of his infirmity.

Now, we have to understand just how bad it was for a person to have leprosy. We’ve probably caught a little sense of it in the past, but if a person were to have leprosy, they were essentially considered to be dead. They lived off by themselves without social interaction—the very substance of life—and any time they even wanted to approach someone else, they had to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” Talk about a job to someone’s psyche!

And yet, here comes this man—unnamed—with his eyes firmly planted on Jesus. He has one thing and one thing only on his mind. He wants to be cleansed. So he asks Jesus to do just that and says to Him, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean” (Luke 5:12). Notice, first of all, that he calls Him “Lord,” and that he is not demanding. He says, “If you are willing.” Then, also notice he does not say that he needs to be healed or that he wants his leprosy to go away. He wants to be “cleansed.” This is because a person with leprosy was not simply someone who was sick, but they were ritually “unclean” and accursed of God. So he wants his sins taken away! He wants complete cleansing.

Of course, Jesus is “willing” and heals the man. But then He does something strange—which He often did at the beginning of His ministry. He tells the man to simply go and present his offering to the Lord at the temple, and to “tell no one” else.

Easier said than done, however! The man cannot contain himself. He cannot keep silent. He has to tell everyone he sees on the way to the temple! He was once lost, but now has been found. And in an almost-literal sense he was dead, but now is alive. And men who are alive like to talk and tell and proclaim! Such a great evangelist is this recovering leper that “great multitudes” came to hear and be healed by Christ—so much so that Christ had to withdraw from the people!

So here’s the question: have you been “healed” by the Lord? Some of us may get discouraged because we don’t witness enough; we are too bashful to tell people about our Savior; we don’t want to step on peoples’ toes. If this is the case, it is not a matter of trying harder or honing our witnessing skills. It’s about being healed and cleansed by Christ.

Perhaps we have never had such a dramatic and life-changing experience like this leper had. Perhaps we do not feel as though our story is all that “miraculous.” But here’s a place we can start: have you seen a literal birth lately? I have! Is it not a miracle of miracles that you were brought forth from your mother’s womb? We owe our very lives to Christ.

More than that, have you experienced a new birth lately? All of us are invited to be born afresh every day—to have a life-changing experience with Christ every morning. No, every moment. So if our Christian experience is dry, lifeless, uninspiring, we need to recognize anew that we are constantly being upheld by the miracle of God’s grace. Every loaf of bread we eat is because of God’s grace. Every dollar we earn is because of our Lord’s love.

And, once fully realized, we won’t be able to help but tell others of God’s goodness—and we, too, can be unstoppable evangelists for Christ.

Monday, April 5, 2010

No More Falling!

Camden is in a place now where he is learning the hard way how to walk. Perhaps it is harder for his parents! (If you’re a parent, I’m sure you know what I mean.) He is finding his way around our house by holding on to various pieces of furniture or walls or whatever. Occasionally he takes steps on his own without the assistance of anything else.

But, though it is getting less frequent, there are plenty of times when we hear a bang and then loud screaming and crying. We don’t want to be the type of parents that just hover around him and not let him learn for himself, but it is tough to take when your ten-month-old child is screaming at jet-like decibels, replete with an ocean of tears shooting from his eyes.

And yet, in this cruel world of sin, pain is necessary to grow. I wish it weren’t so. But that’s the reality of things. We don’t learn to walk unless we have taken a few tumbles—and painful tumbles at that. We don’t learn to spell a word unless we first misspell that word. And we don’t understand and appreciate grace unless we have first messed up and recognize our need for grace!

There are a few lessons that I have come to realize as a result of Camden’s stumbling: first, if I am so pained over Camden’s pain when he falls, how much more so is God, not only over Camden’s pain, but all of our pain—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual? And think about this: God has to witness over six billion people falling—often simultaneously—and His heart is touched with grief for every single one. “What is the price of two sparrows,” Jesus asked, “But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. . . . Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29, 31).

Second, I long for the day—hopefully very soon—when pain is eliminated as a necessary prerequisite for learning and growing. And God reminds us that there will come a time when there is “no more sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain” (Revelation 21:4).

Lastly, I think about all this in the context of sin. It’s hard to believe that there are some of us who like stumbling in sin so much—and the pain that it causes—that we refuse to believe that God’s goal in the salvation process is to eliminate our acts of sin completely in this present life. And yet this is what He promises over and over in the Bible—perhaps not more beautifully than in Jude’s prayer at the end of his tiny epistle: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24). This is, perhaps, the greatest news of all! The grace of God can keep us from falling. It can keep us from sinning. It can present us as faultless before God’s very throne.

And the pain of sin is definitely something I could do without!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Christ's Personal "Mission Statement"

Have you ever thought about Jesus having a personal “mission statement”? Companies, churches, and institutions often have mission statements. It is a brief explanation of why they exist. And all actions, decisions, or events are planned within the framework of that mission or purpose—at least ideally.

I have heard of individual people who have their own personal mission statement. There is even a book entitled, How to Develop Your Personal Mission Statement. It seems odd to me that a whole book would be required to figure out your personal mission and purpose, but whatever gets you there!

And make no mistake about it: Christ was crystal clear on what His purpose was. And, indeed, He had a personal mission statement. And what was it? There are a number of places where Christ talks about His “purpose,” but it seems to me that all these places could be easily and simply summarized in this one statement: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

That’s it! Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. Nothing all that profound.

And yet it is, of course, profound, if you were to really pause and meditate upon it for a second or two. This “Son of Man” is none other than God, Himself. And yet His divine purpose—His divine mission—was, and continues to be, to seek and to save the lost. Why this divine Being would desire to seek and save those who are lost—and those who don’t even care to be found—is almost beyond comprehension! And yet this is the reality of Christ’s mission, His purpose, his all-encompassing reason for being.

And what a beautiful reality it is. What a beautiful idea to contemplate. Sinful though we are, Christ’s greatest desire, mission, and purpose is to bring us back into right relationship with Himself.

And, of course, Christ’s mission has implications for ours as well. For, if God’s very mission is to stoop lower and lower in an attempt to seek and save the wretched and sinful people that we are, are we not called to do the same?