Category Archives: Spiritual

Jesus’ Suffering Started Long Before the Cross

It’s the beginning of December, the time of year to remember the suffering of our Lord.

Wait, what did I just read? Did this guy accidentally post an Easter column by mistake? This is the season of joy to the world, of peace on earth, of angels and shepherds, gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s the season of the birth of a beautiful baby, not of a grown man being cruelly crucified to a cross.

True. But let me ask this question: When did Jesus’ suffering begin?

Before answering that, let me start with a sort-of parable – suppose you have been selected to be the savior of the earthworms. You are zapped into the body of an earthworm, although you still have access to all your human senses, thoughts and memories. Your mission now is to tunnel daily through the dirt, bringing the words of salvation to the earthworm population. Eventually you are sacrificed on a cruel hook and dropped into the water, where a large fish swallows you, and the earthworms have their salvation.

At what point do you think your suffering would begin? Only when the hook pierced your body?

No, I think your suffering would begin the moment you left the world of humans and entered into the earthworm body. Still being fully aware of your humanity, it would be humbling and true suffering to now be confined to a body that had so little mobility and ability.

He entered the confines of not just a human body, but an infant human body.

Jesus was fully God, a partner in the creation of the world, with all the power, omniscience, glory and other aspects of the Father. And then he entered the confines of not just a human body, but an infant human body. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t walk and he had to depend on someone to change his diaper. We can’t begin to imagine what kind of suffering that was for him.

Even when he became an adult, he was still shackled to the most basic of human needs for food, shelter, sleep and bowel movements. He was tempted in every way we are, with pride, lust, anger and fear, yet successfully overcame succumbing to any of them.

Jesus had to endure the plodding simplicity of the humans around him – even the wisest, most educated human being was little more than a doddering fool in comparison to his wisdom. Even in his last hours on earth, he had to face the inevitability of human death, even though he was immortal God.

This is how Paul described Jesus’ sacrifice in Phil. 2:6-8:

“(Jesus), existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—even to death on a cross.” (HCSB)

There is no doubt that Jesus’ birth, eventual death and his resurrection gave us the opportunity to experience joy and peace on earth. We can celebrate that birth with joy. But I think it is good for us to remember how much that joy cost God the Father and God the Son. It’s when we realize that Jesus willingly placed himself in a position of suffering in human form because of his great love for us that we can truly rejoice in the true Christmas spirit.

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Questions About God and Tragedy: Jesus Responds in a Surprising Way

For the past few months, our nation – our world, really – has been reeling from one tragedy after another. A mass shooting in Las Vegas, shootings in churches in Tennessee and Texas and trucks driven by terrorists plowing over people in New York City and Barcelona.

But it isn’t always a deliberate attack causing tragedy – back-to-back hurricanes hit the United States, while at the same time an earthquake caused mass death tolls in Mexico, and fires burned homes and took several dozen lives in California. All the while, car accidents, home mishaps and life in general exerted their toll.

In the wake of these tragedies, people around the world – including many Christians – ask, “Where is God in all of this? How can a loving God allow tragedy like this? If God is really love, wouldn’t he have stopped this?” Others have asked, “Is this God’s way of punishing our nation (or world) for all the sinful acts we allow?”

This generation is hardly the first to ask those questions. In fact, the oldest book in the Bible, Job, asks this question. Many of the Psalms resonate with us because the writers ponder these same questions. And in Luke 13, we find Jesus confronted with these questions as well.

Some people, who aren’t identified, asked Jesus about what must have been a relatively recent tragic event in Jewish history. Pontius Pilate, the same man who would later condemn Jesus to the cross, had killed some Galileans. The incident is not recorded in history, but the Jews at that time had a history of revolt and we know from Acts 5:37 that at least one of the revolutionaries came from Galilee. It is probable that the incident mentioned was the Roman response to such an insurrection.

We aren’t told the specific question the people asked Jesus, but based on his response, it was probably along the lines of, “Why would God have allowed that to happen? Is it punishment for their sins?”

According to the people who questioned Jesus, Pilate had killed a number of Galileans, probably including a number of innocent people, as a warning statement, then had mixed their blood with the Jewish sacrifices. This not only defiled the sacrifices, but went against God’s prohibition of offering humans or blood as sacrifices. Pilate did this as a way to demoralize the people, not unlike terrorist attacks we face today.

We aren’t told the specific question the people asked Jesus, but based on his response, it was probably along the lines of, “Why would God have allowed that to happen? Is it punishment for their sins?” Perhaps even, “You say God is a loving God, but how could a loving God allow this to happen?”

They certainly asked the right person; if anyone could give the right answer, it would be the Son of God.

But Jesus’ response not only doesn’t answer the question, it doesn’t really come across as very comforting.

“Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.”

The questioners must have wondered how this got turned around to be about them.

Then he brings up another incident, possibly some type of construction accident.

“Or those 18 that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed – do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.”

Jesus does seem to answer the question about whether this is punishment for sin – no – but then he calls on the questioners to repent before the same thing happens to them. The questioners must have wondered how this got turned around to be about them.

What Jesus is saying here is that we shouldn’t spend our time worrying over something that happened, how it happened or why it happened to those particular people. We should instead make sure our hearts are prepared for eternity so that if physical death happens we won’t also die spiritually.

Death is inevitable. Except for Jesus and a couple of Old Testament saints (Enoch and Elijah), everyone who has ever lived has died or will die. Even Lazarus, after being raised from the dead, eventually died again.

Is the tragedy any less real for parents who lose a child to brain cancer than those who lose a child in a shooting?

Jesus seems to be saying that the method of death is not what’s important. And, in some ways, that is true. Is the tragedy any less real for parents who lose a child to brain cancer than those who lose a child in a shooting? Is death any less real for the loved ones of someone killed in a car accident than for those of someone killed by a terrorist driving into a crowd?

Jesus’ point is that, death is death and it is inevitable. What isn’t inevitable, though, is where you will spend your eternity. You have a choice – accept the loving forgiveness of Jesus’ death on the cross and the new life he provided through his resurrection, which leads to eternal life, or reject him and receive the wrath of God, which is an eternity of pain and dying without relief.

Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and we grieve for these losses as well.

This doesn’t mean we’re callous toward these tragedies – Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and we grieve for these losses as well. We don’t become foolish, either. We take measures to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and take steps to prevent such tragedies from happening to others. But we also can’t let tragedy alter our belief in God. Instead, these should be wake-up calls to examine ourselves, our own relationship with God, and serve as an impetus for Christians to reach out with Jesus’ love and salvation to those around us.

We may never be able to answer the question of how a loving God can allow such tragedies. But we can state with joy and confidence that a loving God has provided a way to not only transcend such tragedies, but to transcend death itself.

Jesus Says We Have to Choose a Master: God or Mr. Money

As I mentioned in a previous post, lately, I’ve recently seen a number of memes along these variations: “Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic” or “Jesus spoke more about money than (three or four subjects) combined.”

The implication is that if Jesus thought money was important enough to devote so much of his time to, then it’s important to us and we are justified in thinking about it.

His parables, though, aren’t about money; he just uses money sometimes as an illustration of a heavenly concept. Read my previous blog here.

Jesus does, however, speak pretty plainly about money – it’s just not anything we really want to hear, because he doesn’t often speak of it favorable terms.

When actually speaking about money, and not using it as an illustration to make a point about a different issue, here are the things Jesus had to say: the poor will be blessed, but woe to the rich; don’t take any money or provisions on a mission trip; give away everything you have so you can follow him; that only through God’s miraculous intervention can the rich enter heaven; and don’t worry about money, because it is God’s job to provide for your needs. Then he also went on a rampage in the temple against those who were selling animals there, including dumping the money all over the ground.

Did he speak positively about money? Sort of. He defended the woman of ill repute who anointed him with expensive perfume; he praised Zacchaeus when he decided to give half his wealth to the poor and repay those he’d cheated, with interest; and he honored the faith of the poor widow who gave the only two small coins she had to the temple treasury. He also approved the paying of both the temple tax and the government’s taxes.

Then there was his enigmatic story in Luke 16 about the shrewd money manager, where Jesus appears to be telling people to use money to win friends and influence people (16:9). In context, though, he probably meant something a bit different, since he designates worldly wealth as unrighteous and the Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at his teaching (16:14). I believe he is illustrating the importance of the true riches of heaven as opposed to the money the world reveres, and that we can’t misuse something of the world and expect to then be trusted with the real riches of the kingdom.

“You cannot serve both God and money.”

The bottom line for Jesus, though, can be found in Luke 16:13 and in Matthew 6:24, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. He says quite clearly that we have a choice to make when it comes to our wealth: “You cannot serve both God and money.”

The word translated as money is the Greek word mamona (translated in the KJV as Mammon). But more than money, it can mean wealth or assets. It has a sense of being an animate object, of being almost godlike. You could call it Mr. Money.

Mr. Money is a nice-looking guy, with a $200 haircut, Armani suits and Italian loafers. He has promised to care for your needs, to give you all the happiness and comfort you desire. He even gives you some nice bonuses, like the occasional filet mignon dinner and a cruise to the Bahamas. However, he is a demanding taskmaster, requiring your exclusive services or you don’t get the things you desire. He has no patience for you having outside interests, like God.

Before long, you find yourself in the exact situation Jesus described – choosing which master to serve.

Does God ask you to be more involved in church? Mr. Money says, no, you need to work overtime or you won’t be able to take that Disney World vacation. Does God want you to help someone in need? Mr. Money says, no, you won’t be able to make the monthly payments on your 4,000-square-foot house, that shiny new car and the jet skis. Has God asked you to take a stand on an issue? No, Mr. Money says, that could cause you to lose your job and then you’ll have to take your kids out of the private Christian school.

Before long, you find yourself in the exact situation Jesus described – choosing which master to serve.

You think, I could still give time and money to the church and have money for myself, right? It just wouldn’t be as much money and as much time for God, but still, it’s better than nothing.

No, it isn’t. Because Jesus calls us to give all our allegiance to the Father, and partial isn’t all. We really do have to choose between God and Mr. Money, two beings who require our full devotion. We can’t split it.

Jesus has little to say about earning money. In fact, he says virtually nothing about having a job or making a good income, and storing up treasure for the future, like retirement, is viewed as foolish (Luke 12:13-34). He does, however, talk about the importance of relying on God for our needs and storing up treasure in heaven, the kind of treasure that is gathered while following Jesus rather than anything monetary.

And, for the record, I don’t believe that Jesus spoke more about money than anything else.

I don’t believe that Jesus thinks earning money is wrong, or that he doesn’t want us to have jobs. And I do believe God does reward some Christians with wealth, knowing that they will use it for the greater good of the kingdom rather than greedily for themselves. The bottom line always is, where is our allegiance? With God, or with Mr. Money?

And, for the record, I don’t believe that Jesus spoke more about money than anything else. Without quantifying it numerically, I would guess that the majority of his teaching revolved around the theme of what is inside a person – the heart – matters more than outward appearances. He also spoke a lot about the kingdom of God and the radical lifestyle it requires. And he spent a good bit of his time talking about faith – praising those who exhibit it and criticizing those who don’t.

Money was a frequent subject, but more often than not, he spoke of the benefits of ridding ourselves of its influence, and never about making or having more of it.

Instead, Jesus commands us to be fully devoted to serving God and God will take care of providing for whatever physical needs we have. Mr. Money can take a hike.

A Christian Response to the Aftermath of Charlottesville

As a Christian, the post-Charlottesville rhetoric may have your head spinning. The klaxon of fear from the left-leaning mainstream media was expected, but there are many blogs on Christian websites as well decrying racial injustice along with unctuous homilies on white privilege.

How should the clash between a group of self-proclaimed white supremacists and violent self-proclaimed moral authority Antifa make you feel? Which side are you supposed to choose?

My answer is, neither side. Just because there are two sides doesn’t make one side right and one wrong – they can, as in this case, both be wrong.

Still, there are all these stories. I’ve seen articles, some from Christian leaders I respect, that say we should acknowledge and apologize for our white privilege, that we are responsible to right the wrongs suffered by blacks (especially black young men), that non-racism isn’t enough and that we can’t be colorblind because that means we’re stripping away the identity of blacks (especially black young men). I haven’t had time to read them all and the (il)logic used in some of them is dizzying.

Christianity has played a huge role, and in some cases deserves the majority of the credit, in creating the racial equality we have now.

There is one huge fallacy running through many of the narratives that equate Christians with white, privileged, upper middle class people, primarily men. Christianity, of course, is not an exclusive white club and acting as if it is completely ignores the many brothers and sisters of other races and ethnicities. It also ignores the fact that Christianity has played a huge role, and in some cases deserves the majority of the credit, in creating the racial equality we have now, from before the Civil War through the Civil Rights marches. Without the impetus of Christian churches, both black and white, we may still not have equality today.

So, beyond that fallacy, here are a couple of things I know:

  • God created a human race. And Jesus came to save the human race. If the creator and savior of universe didn’t distinguish between races, neither do we need to.
  • Christians should not feel shame or guilt for the color of their skin. As Paul says in Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those in Christ have already had their sins removed as far as the east if from the west.
  • White Christians do not have to atone for any sins or atrocities committed by their ancestors. Hundreds of years before Christ, God said, “The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father won’t suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous person will be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be on him.” (Ez. 18:20) In fact, this is so important that God gives a long example of how the actions of one generation will not affect the other.
  • It is not the responsibility of white Christians to “solve” or “correct” the problem. This is saying that the only way black people can make their way in the world is if white people give them special privileges. This is arrogant and insulting. Not only that, it is tantamount to making blacks an inferior race who can’t help themselves. White Christians and black Christians must work arm-in-arm as equal brothers and sisters to address any issues.
  • We must pray for the white supremacists and the Antifa groups. As appalling as that sounds, Jesus made it very clear what our response should be to enemies. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44-45). “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
  • We must strive to see each other as individuals, not as members of a group. This was the lesson of Jesus when he healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter, healed the servant of the Roman Centurion and spoke to the Samaritan woman – all members of groups the Jews hated or saw as inferior. In fact, the overriding lesson of the story of the Good Samaritan is that it is an individual’s right actions, not his or her skin color, ethnicity or group that makes him the neighbor we are to love as we love ourselves.

We must pray for the white supremacists and the Antifa groups. As appalling as that sounds, Jesus made it very clear what our response should be to enemies.

The news is still filled with stories about last weekend’s events, and will be until the next tragedy or hot item rises to the forefront. Reading the stories and social media blurbs can produce anxiety in Christians. But we can read something that will produce peace – the Word of God.

A Life of Victory: God No Longer Condemns You, So Why Condemn Yourself?

In the famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an albatross (a large sea bird) leads a ship to safety. But soon after their rescue, the main character, the mariner, shoots the albatross, and the ship is again in peril.

To punish the mariner for his churlish action, the ship’s crew forces him to wear the dead albatross around his neck. As he watches the crew succumb to death, the albatross serves as a constant reminder that he is to blame. Today we use the term, “wearing an albatross around one’s neck” to signify a psychological burden, often brought on by one’s own foolish or careless action.

Unfortunately, many Christians today live as if they are that ancient mariner, wearing their guilt around their necks like a big dead bird. I became aware of that recently when, within a span of a few days, I had a friend tell me he still dealt with guilt about things he’d done more than two decades before; another friend confided that she still felt shame for actions committed years before; and another person talked about the anguish he felt daily about the sins he’d committed.

Understand, these are all devout Christians who have been walking with the Lord for decades, who have confessed these sins repeatedly, yet they still function as if they are bound and condemned for them.

I have a feeling these are not isolated cases. But by worrying about, thinking about and feeling guilt and shame about our past sins, we are seriously impairing our ability to live the abundant life Jesus promised.

I am set free and no longer under condemnation, so why should I feel guilt or shame?

It’s not that I don’t understand where my friends are coming from: I have plenty of sinful behavior in my past and I regret having caused God the pain of my actions. I still suffer from some of the consequences of those actions.

But I no longer feel guilt or shame for them. I choose instead to believe the truth of the words in Romans 8:1-2: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” This is one of the greatest statements in the Bible. I am set free and no longer under condemnation, so why should I feel guilt or shame? And it’s not just the Romans passage that gives me that confidence.

  • Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18)
  • God has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12)
  • Jesus set us free to have freedom (Gal. 5:1)
  • God sweeps away our sins and remembers them no more (Isa. 43:25)
  • God has taken our blood red sins and washed them white as snow (Isa. 1:18)
  • The Lord will never charge us with our sins (Rom. 4:8)
  • Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice once for all sins (Heb. 7:27)

There are a number of other scriptures in the same vein – that once we are in Christ Jesus, once we are following him as our Lord – all of our sins have not only been forgiven, they have been removed completely from our account. We are free and we are washed clean.

But, you may argue, you don’t know what I’ve done in my past. No, I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Really.

What matters as a Christian is not what you have done but what Christ has done for you. No evil of your past can compare with the abundant life of your present or the glory of your future.

If God no longer condemns you, why should you condemn yourself?

The difference is where you choose to turn your eyes and ears. Will you keep looking behind you at how you have failed, or will you focus on Christ and how he has overcome? Will you look at your weakness, or his power? Will you accept the lies of the enemy, or listen to the voice of the Great Shepherd calling you to the truth?

As a follower of Christ you no longer have to be captive to shame and guilt for your past actions. All you have to do is accept the truth that you are free and no longer under condemnation. If God no longer condemns you, why should you condemn yourself?

The ancient mariner could never get over the guilt of killing that albatross, forced to wander the earth to tell his tale of woe. But as a Christian, your guilt has been removed. Christ died for that guilt so that you, unlike the ancient mariner, can live a life of victory.

Gary Kauffman is Bible teacher, Christian life coach and freelance writer/photographer living in North Augusta, South Carolina.

A Sure-Fire Way to Know God’s Will for Your Life

“What is God’s will for my life?”

That is one of the most frequently asked questions by Christians, often in a voice tinged with anguish, confusion, longing or fear – sometimes all of them at once. It is a legitimate question because as sincere Christians we want to honor God in all that we do. Knowing His will is an important part of that.

The question is often asked by young people in college or soon after graduation, when they realize that the real world awaits. Is it God’s will that I take a job in the secular world or that I go into full-time Christian work? And if so, is it God’s will that I attend a seminary or go onto the mission field? Is it God’s will that I marry that cute girl I saw in church but whose name I don’t even know yet?

But older people ask it as well, sometimes with even more angst because there are families, bills and prestige to consider. Is it God’s will that I go back to school? Is that job offer three states away God’s will for my life? Is it God’s will that I buy a motorcycle instead of car because of the better gas mileage? (Yes, I’ve actually heard that one.)

I’ve wrestled with the question myself and I’m sure you have too. Doing God’s will is important. So what if I told you a sure-fire way to determine God’s no-doubt-about-it will for your life? Interested?

OK, here’s how you do it – read the Bible.

Oh, did that disappoint you? After all, the Bible says nothing about going back to school, or job offers in other states, or marrying cute girls, and is especially silent on the motorcycle vs. car debate.

God has made it abundantly clear what His will is for our lives – He’s stated it and in most cases restated it more than once.

But it is chock-full of passages about God’s will for your life. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

It is God’s will that you:

  • Love God with all your heart, soul and strength. It says so in Deut. 6:5 and Jesus emphasized it in Matt. 22:37, Mark: 12:30 and Luke 10:27.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself. Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27
  • Love one another as believers. John 15:12, 1 John 4:11-12
  • Make disciples. Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:1, Heb. 13:7
  • Be generous. Mal. 3:8-10, Luke 6:38, 1 Tim. 6:17-19
  • Live in victory. John 10:10, John 16:33, 1 Cor. 15:57
  • Keep His commands. John 14:15, 1 John 2:3
  • Be thankful. 1 Thess. 5:18, Eph. 5:20

There are a number of other things that are God’s will as well, such as prayer, submitting to one another and being filled with the Spirit. If you are a married man, it is God’s will that you love your wife unconditionally as Christ loved the church; if you are a married woman, it is God’s will that you submit to your husband as the church submits to Christ.

Maybe we should start by asking, “Am I doing God’s will that He has already revealed to me in His Word?”

The point is, God has made it abundantly clear what His will is for our lives – He’s stated it and in most cases restated it more than once. So before we ask, “What is God’s will for my life?” when facing new situations, maybe we should start by asking, “Am I doing God’s will that He has already revealed to me in His Word?”

If we’re not already loving and being generous and living in victory, etc., then maybe we should concentrate more on those things before wondering about that out-of-state job or the cute nameless potential marriage partner. It’s not that God doesn’t care about those things, or that He doesn’t have a will for those areas of our lives. He does. But it seems rather self-serving to seek His will in the unknown if we’re not already living in His known will.

Plus, there’s a good chance that once we start following His will as outlined in His Word, the path of His will in those other situations, even regarding motorcycles and cars, will become much clearer.

Identity Crisis: Who Are You Really as a Follower of Christ?

 

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Princess Bride (Men: This is not a chick-flick movie. It has sword fights, great feats of strength and overcoming overwhelming odds to rescue a damsel in distress – plus it’s funny). One of the main characters in the movie is Inigo Montoya, a man obsessed with revenge.

When Inigo was a boy, his father was killed by a six-fingered man and he has spent most of his life training so that he can one day exact his revenge. He even has his introduction to the six-fingered man down pat:

“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

And (spoiler alert) he does just that. Once he has exacted his revenge, though, he is left with a conundrum because his entire identity had been tied up in one thing.

“Is very strange,” he marvels in his Spanish accent. “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”

Our identity, even as Christians, is almost always based on the work we do for a living. Yet we are many more things.

Many Americans are in the same situation about their identity, although they may not realize it. When you ask someone, “Who are you?” (or sing it, like The Who, “Who are you? Who, who?”) the person is likely to reply with something like this:

“I’m an office manager.”

“I’m a school teacher.”

“I’m a rock star (if you happen to ask a member of The Who).”

Our identity, even as Christians, is almost always based on the work we do for a living. Yet we are many more things. For example, I could answer the question, “I’m a husband,” or “I’m a father,” or “I’m a baseball fan.”

Still, my identity is not tied to my occupation or my marital status or my devotion to the New York Yankees. My identity is that I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a child of God.

Paul wrote a lot about this identity. He said we are now citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), our old self was crucified and we now live by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20), we were chosen for adoption into God’s family (Eph. 1:5), we are children of God (Ga. 3:26) and we are no longer slaves to sin (Rom. 6:6). John adds that our new identity as God’s children is a result of God’s great love (1 John 3:1).

When you think about it, shouldn’t our identity be the same as our top priority in life?

This is obviously quite a bit better than even our noblest professions or relationship statuses. This new identity comes with some pretty good perks – a new abundant life on earth, co-heirs with Christ in his glorious inheritance and eternal life.

When you think about it, shouldn’t our identity be the same as our top priority in life? And when we answer the identity question with our job function, what does that say about our priorities? If we truly make following Christ our No. 1 priority, then our identity will first and foremost be that of being a Christ follower. (This works even if the question is, “What do you do?” You can answer, “I follow Christ.”)

I’ve even thought of a catchy way to phrase it a la Inigo Montoya: “Hello. My name is Child of God. You have been saved by grace. Prepare to live.”

 

The Great Suggestion or the Great Commission? How Do We Respond to Jesus’ Final Words?

After his resurrection and just before his ascension into heaven, Jesus came up with an interesting option for Christians. He said that if a select few people felt like it, if it wasn’t too much bother, they could tell people about him. This is called the Great Suggestion.

Um, really, no, it’s called the Great Commission and Jesus was hardly suggesting it as an option. He was commanding it, to all of his followers then and now. Yet today, many Christians treat his final words as a nice suggestion that somebody should be doing, as long as it isn’t them.

The Great Commission is found in Matt. 28:18-20, although frequently it’s listed as verses 19-20, and often only verse 19 is quoted. But it is actually verse 18 that is the key to understanding the rest of the Commission. Here’s what Jesus said:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”

The very first thing Jesus states is that all authority has been given to him in heaven and earth. Not some authority, not just authority in heaven, but all authority in heaven and on earth – in other words, it’s all the authority there is, anywhere in the universe. No one has more authority than Jesus – not a police officer, not the president, not even your mom (sorry, Mom).

Jesus is saying that the reason he states his all-encompassing authority is to give us a command – not a suggestion, not an option, but a command.

What does it mean when someone has authority over you? It means they have the right to tell you what they want to have done. Someone in authority, ideally, will be someone who understands the big picture, understands what needs to be done, how to do it, and can give you the order to do so. We have learned to obey authority – if the blue lights start flashing because you chose to ignore the speed limit sign, you’d better pull over. If your boss tells you to get a project done by a certain date, you’d better get it done by then.

Why? Because we have submitted ourselves to these people as having authority over us – and because there will be consequences if we don’t obey that authority. Run from the cops and eventually you’ll be tasered and thrown into prison. Ignore the boss’s instructions and you’re soon standing in the unemployment line.

Yet how do we – how do most Christians – respond to Christ’s authority? Do we say, well, Jesus said it and he has all authority so I’d better snap to it? Or do we say, cool suggestion, Jesus; somebody better get busy on that, and then look around the room to find someone who should be doing it?

Jesus isn’t just telling us that he has all authority in heaven and earth to brag about it. It’s not, “Hey, I got all authority from the Father. What’d you get?” He is telling us this for a reason, and the reason follows in verse 19, which begins with Therefore.

Now, anytime you see the word “therefore” in the Bible you have to ask yourself, what is it there for? Because what follows the therefore is based on what was said in the previous sentence or paragraph. In this case, Jesus is saying that the reason he states his all-encompassing authority is to give us a command – not a suggestion, not an option, but a command.

And that command is to go and make disciples. There are two verbs that are connected here, “go” and “make.” Go means, of course, that you aren’t stationary. You aren’t sitting back waiting for these disciples to magically appear around you. It is an aggressive action on our part. But is that how we generally think of this process? I think most of us sit back, waiting for people to show up at our church and decide to become involved in the church activities. The closest we come to “go” is to occasionally invite someone to check out our church sometime.

So Christ, based on his absolute authority, is telling us it is absolutely necessary that we go make committed learners of every people group.

The second verb is make, and this is a modifier, describing the next word, disciples. Again, make is an aggressive action. Nothing is magically going to appear. It will take time and effort on our part. And notice what we are supposed to make – not more church members, not more people to sit in worship service, not even more people to lead Bible studies or sing on the worship team. The command is to make disciples.

For many years, this verse has been loosely and lightly interpreted as doing evangelism – simply telling people about the good news of Jesus and hoping they would attain salvation. But that is not what Jesus is commanding here. The Greek word for disciples is mathetes, meaning a student or committed learner. The two English words, make disciples, are actually summed up in one Greek word, matheteuo, which is in the imperative form in Greek – imperative meaning it is absolutely necessary, or a command. It also points to the words “make disciples” as the central focus of the sentence. The people to be made into disciples are every ethnos, or people group.

So Christ, based on his absolute authority, is telling us it is absolutely necessary that we go make committed learners of every people group. That hardly sounds like some passive action, or a suggestion.

But Jesus isn’t done yet. He goes on to describe what this disciple making will include. First, we will baptize these new believers in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then we will teach them. What we’ll teach them is to obey or observe everything he commanded, through his words while on earth and through his revelations to Paul and other writers of the New Testament. In Greek, the word commanded carries the connotation that we are aware of the purpose of the commands – in other words, we don’t just obey blindly, but we do so because we know the purposes behind them. Again, there is an all-inclusive word here – we are to obey everything he commanded; not just the things we like or we approve of, but everything he told us to do.

The magnitude of conveying everything Jesus commanded, including the purposes behind them, indicates more than a one-time contact with someone. It requires more than a casual relationship with someone. It is an ongoing teaching process, one that Jesus took three years to accomplish with his disciples. But many of the early disciples took longer – Silas and Barnabas spent years pouring into Paul, who then spent years pouring into Luke and Timothy and Titus and others.

But just making disciples wasn’t the end goal. The end goal is to make disciples who make more disciples. After all, Jesus told us to obey everything he commanded, and one of those commands is to make disciples. So our disciples will have to obey that command as well.

His final words were to make disciples – to continue teaching what he’d taught to others, who would in turn teach others, who would teach others, throughout history.

Note also that making disciples is not listed among the gifts of the spirit. The gifts of the spirit are those special abilities that the Holy Spirit has endowed on some, but not all Christians. They are to be used together to build the body of the church. Among the gifts that some, but not all, Christians have are prophecy, teaching, hospitality, even evangelism. But discipleship isn’t listed because it is expected of all believers. It’s not something special endowed to just a few, but a command entrusted to all believers.

When Jesus came to the end of his time on earth, when it came time for him to say one last thing, to give one last command, to in essence to sum up everything he’d been saying all along, he chose to say this. It wasn’t to build big churches, to sing beautiful songs, to develop outstanding church programs, it wasn’t even to simply evangelize. No, his final words were to make disciples – to continue teaching what he’d taught to others, who would in turn teach others, who would teach others, throughout history.

The question now is, will we accept Jesus’ authority? Do we believe that Jesus has the right to tell us what to do? If so, are we willing to take action? Are we willing to enter into the long, involved process of making disciples rather than sitting in church letting words wash over us?

Perhaps the better question is, What authority do we have that exceeds Jesus’ authority to not do what he has commanded?

Stronghold: The Word Doesn’t Mean What You Probably Think it Means

In the classic movie The Princess Bride, kidnapping mastermind Vizzini frequently utters the word “Inconceivable,” even when he is presented with evidence that what is happening is, indeed, conceivable. Finally, Inigo Montoya says, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

I could echo Inigo’s words when it comes to the word stronghold as used by many Christians today. I frequently hear phrases like, “Fear of failure has always been my stronghold,” or “I have to get over the stronghold of my weight issue,” or “I have to break the devil’s strongholds on my life.”

The term is almost always used in the negative of someone or something having a strong hold on someone, synonymous with being bound in chains by it, or imprisoned by it. This has been a popular theme of some Christian speakers and authors. Addressing those areas of weakness in our life is important because they often keep us from living the full, abundant life Jesus promised.

However, if you use the word stronghold as described above, it does not mean what you think it means. In fact, it means the opposite.

If you are under attack, you want to go to a stronghold to stay safe.

A stronghold is a fortress, a refuge, a place of protection and safety. If you are under attack, you want to go to a stronghold to stay safe. It is a positive word.

Depending on which version of the Bible you’re using, stronghold appears between 47 and 66 times in the Bible – all but once in the Old Testament, where it always refers to a place of protection and safety. The lone reference in the New Testament is in 2 Cor. 10:4: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” The Greek word translated as strongholds is ochyromaton, which means fortress.

While this could be interpreted to mean breaking free of the chains that are binding us, it is clear from the context that Paul is encouraging believers to wage an offensive war against the enemy. Satan doesn’t have a stronghold on us (substitute the word fortress or refuge and see how silly it sounds), but he does have a fortress of lies and accusations he hides in. The resurrection of Christ, though, has given us a powerful offensive weapon to destroy the enemy’s place of safety.

In Matthew 16, Peter gives his great confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus replies that it is on the rock of this confession that he will build his church “and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”

Gates, of course, are part of a defense, part of protection. So what Jesus is implying here is that we as believers will be on the offensive against satan and his stronghold, and we will win. Jesus the Messiah will be our battering ram to raze satan’s fortress and leave him defenseless.

God can be and is our stronghold. The psalmists and prophets get it right when they repeatedly tell us this.

So it is wrong to say that your struggles with your weight are your stronghold. You could say that overeating is your stronghold, if that is what makes you feel safe in the face of attack. But your struggle cannot be a stronghold. Nor can the devil have a stronghold on you unless, again, he is where you find your sense of safety and protection.

However, God can be and is our stronghold. The psalmists and prophets get it right when they repeatedly tell us this. In Psalm 37, for example, David says, “The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble.” The prophet Joel declares, “But the Lord will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.”

Satan does attack us at times, as do earthly bad guys, and when that happens we can retreat into the safety of God’s protection, a stronghold that can withstand even spiritual attacks. But we are also to use our salvation in Christ to go on the offensive against these attacks with the expectation of winning. As Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

When we take the offensive, satan’s stronghold will crumble in the face of the Word of God. To think anything else would be inconceivable.

Gary Kauffman is a writer, photographer and Bible teacher living in North Augusta, S.C.

Did I Say That? Our Words Will Have Eternal Consequences

Time can never mend
The careless whispers of a good friend
To the heart and mind – Careless Whisper

Back in 1984, the group Wham! (yes, with an exclamation point), featuring George Michael, had a huge hit with the song Careless Whisper. The song is basically about a man cheating on his wife or girlfriend, who apparently learned about it by overhearing a careless whisper to the new lover. It speaks about how much those careless words can damage a person’s heart and mind.

Of course, we’ve also long heard the old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But at least according to one authority other than George Michael, careless words can have a long-lasting impact. And since that authority is Jesus, we would be wise to pay attention.

In Matthew 12:33-35, Jesus talks about fruit trees – a good tree can only produce good fruit, a bad tree can only produce bad fruit. The trees, of course, are us. Jesus goes on to say that we will speak what is in our hearts – good words can’t come from an evil heart.

Then in verses 36 and 37 he says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (ESV)

The word translated as careless is the Greek word argon, which some versions translate as empty or idle, and can also mean lazy. So what does it mean to speak careless, empty, lazy words?

These words often hurt the person they’re spoken to – and, Jesus seems to be saying, you don’t get a free pass just because you didn’t mean them to be hurtful.

In the context, we can infer that they are not good words – they come from a heart that is not right with God. These words may be blurted out without thought of their effect on others or be reactionary, angry responses based on another’s words or actions. These words often hurt the person they’re spoken to – and, Jesus seems to be saying, you don’t get a free pass just because you didn’t mean them to be hurtful. That’s part of being careless and lazy – not taking the time to think about how your words will be perceived.

Paul had a lot to say about words as well. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 12, for example, he lists several areas of speech among unrighteous acts: Slander, deceit, quarreling, outbursts of anger, boasting and gossiping. He warns Timothy twice about not speaking with irreverent, empty words. And John, in 1 John, implies that love that is based on speech only rather than accompanied by action is empty.

On the other hand, Paul says our speech should be an example to other believers (1 Tim. 4:12) and should be full of grace, seasoned in salt (Col. 4:6), meaning it should be thought out with words that enhance others. We are to speak the truth in speech, Psalms and songs; we are to speak the gospel fearlessly and boldly; and we are to be quick to hear and slow to speak.

Our words will be used to either justify us or condemn us on the Day of Judgment.

With TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we are so surrounded by words that we become inured to their affect. They’re here for a moment and then vanish. But Jesus clearly says everything we say will have an eternal impact. Our words will be used to either justify us or condemn us on the Day of Judgment.

That angry remark you made to your spouse, the little white lie you told your parents, the flirtatious words to that cute new employee at work all may seem like innocent words, just words, that don’t mean anything. Except that Jesus said they do matter – a lot.

But, fortunately, so do the words of encouragement you spoke to your neighbor, the kind words you told your child, the loving words you expressed to your spouse. We just need to make sure we think before we speak.

In the song, George Michael’s careless whisper had a negative impact – he was left with no one to dance with. Jesus said that your words will determine who you’ll have as a dance partner for eternity.