Joy to the world! It’s a popular expression at this time of year as we focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus.
We sing about joy in song, post it on walls and send it in Christmas cards. Joy is all around us. Right?
Unfortunately, not always. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Years Day, can be a tough time for many people. (Although it is frequently reported that suicides increase during this time, statistical analysis shows that the rate actually declines right before Christmas.) People dealing with their first Christmas following the death of a loved one, losing a job, dealing with exes and step-children during the Christmas week, going into debt to buy gifts, negative family situations – all of these and more can leave people feeling anything but joyous at the holiday season. This is even true for many Christians.
So why doesn’t the joy from the Christmas carols translate into real lasting joy?
For starters, many people rely on their circumstances or their relationships to bring them joy. At this time of year, they also hope to derive joy from the songs, sights and traditions of the season.
According to scripture, we can be full of joy even when our circumstances are less than ideal.
They are, however, confusing happiness with joy. Happiness depends on things going well for us. But according to scripture, we can be full of joy even when our circumstances are less than ideal.
Jesus and the apostles often talked about joy in the midst of persecution and suffering. Jesus endured the suffering of the cross because of the joy he knew would result from it (Heb. 12:2); the Macedonian churches exhibited great joy during affliction and deep poverty (2 Cor. 8:2); the Hebrew churches accepted with joy having their possessions seized from them (Heb. 10:34); and Peter urged his readers to rejoice when suffering for Christ (1 Peter 4:13).
So if not the circumstances, where does the Bible tell us to find our joy? Surprisingly, it’s not in the birth of Jesus, which is when we most commonly think of joy. Not that we aren’t to rejoice at his birth – the wise men were overjoyed beyond measure when they saw him, and the angel told the shepherds that Jesus’ birth signaled great joy for the world.
But other than the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ birth is never mentioned again.
Instead, we read that we derive joy from entering into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13:34), serving God faithfully (Matt. 25:21), the repentance of sinners (Luke 15:4-10; Acts 15:3; Rom. 4:7-8) and living out our faith (Phil. 2:2; 1 Peter 1:8-9).
Jesus’ birth was the promise of joy; his death and resurrection were the fulfillment of it.
Primarily, though, our joy is in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this fact that makes our salvation possible, gives us our entrance into the Kingdom, empowers us to live out our faith and offers us hope for eternal life after death. Jesus’ birth was the promise of joy; his death and resurrection were the fulfillment of it.
Notice that the death and resurrection is a fact. We don’t hope that Jesus will die for us and then be raised to life. It already happened, in a specific time and place, nearly 2,000 years ago. It validated everything Jesus said and did.
And because it already took place, we know that we already have all the things Jesus promised (2 Peter 1:3-4).
Since that is true, we can live life in great joy, no matter our circumstances. Whether we have abundance, health and are surrounded by loved ones, or we’re persecuted, destitute and bereft of close relationships, we still have the same source of joy anchored in a fact that already happened. That source of joy can never be revoked or taken away from us.
People and situations will eventually disappoint us. Jesus never will.
That is so much better than relying on circumstances or relationships as a source of joy. People and situations will eventually disappoint us. Jesus never will.
The fourth verse of the hymn Joy to the World says, “He rules the world, with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.”
The wonder of his love is not just that he came into the world, born in a stable, but that he died to cleanse us of sin, and rose again to give us new life in him. That truly is joy in our world.
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.
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.
A friend of mine was excited about his trip to the doctor’s office for his annual checkup. During the previous year he’d become involved in a strenuous workout program. He’d had to buy smaller-sized clothes on several occasions. He couldn’t wait to see how much weight he’d dropped in that year.
As he stepped onto the scales he wondered what the numbers would show. At least a drop of 20 pounds. Maybe even more. And then the readout displayed – exactly the same weight as the previous year.
He thought he was being pranked. How could he possibly weigh the same? It was then that he realized that while he had dropped significant amounts of fat and wore smaller clothes, he had also bulked up with muscle. So despite the scales showing exactly the same weight as the previous year, he was much fitter, much healthier and much better able to function. He learned that numbers may have very little to do with actual health.
Like with my friend’s weight, numbers may have little to do with the actual fitness of the church.
Many churches, especially smaller churches, need to change their focus in the same way. Thanks to the rise of megachurches, many Christian leaders have become obsessed with numbers and growth. But like with my friend’s weight, numbers may have little to do with the actual fitness of the church.
Seeking an increase in the number of people attending church is not listed anywhere in the Bible as being one of the pastor’s duties, or even being a church goal. The only reference to a growing church is in Acts 2, but it specifically takes the burden off the church leadership: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)
That should be a big relief to church leaders everywhere. It isn’t their job to add to the numbers. That responsibility belongs to the Lord.
And then there’s the example of Jesus. After three-plus years of ministry, preaching to tens of thousands, the “church” at the time of his ascent into heaven was about 120. Not exactly a megachurch.
Taking the pressure of numbers off the responsibility list leaves the church free to pursue what God has called it to – becoming fitter and healthier to carry out God’s mission.
After three-plus years of ministry, preaching to tens of thousands, the “church” at the time of Jesus’ ascent into heaven was about 120. Not exactly a megachurch.
But what does that mean? Here are a few steps church leaders and their members can take.
Thank God. Start out by being thankful for who you already have in your church. Realize that God may have a reason for keeping your church small. Acknowledge that He and He alone will create genuine growth.
Discipleship. The call for all Christians is to make disciples – not just evangelize, but to create an ongoing discipleship process that builds mature Christians. Church leaders should have discipleship groups which in turn disciples others, which disciple others, etc.
Shepherd your flock. God has entrusted church leaders with the people in their congregation. They should be the first priority whether or not any growth ever happens. Leaders shepherd by example – how they live out their faith, how they pray, how they study the Bible and the evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives – which will do more to build the congregation than any sermon.
Stay humble. Why do you desire a bigger church? Is it so that you’ll look better in your own eyes and in the eyes of other pastors? Is it so you can create better programs or produce better funding? If it is for any reason other than to bring glory to God, then you’ll need to change your focus to see your church the way God sees it.
Focus on maturity. When you’re working out, you can see a visible difference in your muscles and fitness. When members of your congregation begin speaking up about insights in their personal Bible study, when they take the lead in offering to pray for a situation, when they ask about starting a ministry God has put in their hearts, you’re seeing your congregation flexing its spiritual muscles and fitness.
Delegate. The temptation in a small church is for the pastor to do everything. Begin developing leadership in your congregation and delegate tasks appropriately to their skills and gifts. As they prove faithful in small things, give them bigger items to manage. The pastor’s job in shepherding the flock is to make sure everyone is taken care of. He can’t do that if he is also running every meeting, organizing every event and sweeping the floors. Delegating allows pastors and leaders to focus on people rather than the programs.
Encourage. Speak positively about the congregation, praise effusively and celebrate successes. Celebrating and encouraging are biblical principles.
Point to God. Always stay aware and keep the congregation aware that everything the church does is for the glory of God and should point people to the Kingdom of God. “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?’” (Deut. 4:5-7)
When you take your eyes off the numbers and begin focusing on these things, you’ll develop a stronger, fitter, healthier congregation that is mature in serving the Lord. But you’ll probably also start to see something else happen – growth. Christians who are mature in the Lord will reach out to other people and begin telling them about what He means to them and why they serve Him.
But even if the “scales” show the same number, as they did for my friend, you’ll know that you’re much healthier and stronger than before.
Gary Kauffman is a freelance writer, photographer and Bible teacher in North Augusta, S.C.
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?
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.