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2022 Christmas Eve. The Wise Men, Matthew Chapter 2:1-12

I think it is significant that even people who do not trust Jesus are affected by Christmas. In Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, the six weeks or so before Christmas are noticeably different from the rest of the year. This is true in a lot of South American countries, also. South Korea is less than thirty percent Christian, but the whole population is aware of the Christmas season. We celebrated Christmas in Papua New Guinea, too. It wasn’t really like Christmas in North America, but there was something different about the season.

When I think about the record of the Wise Men, I’m reminded that Christmas is indeed for the whole world. Now, to be honest with you, if I was God, inspiring people to write the Bible, I would either keep the wise men out of the gospel of Matthew, or I would explain more about them.

Only two out of the four gospels tell us much about the birth of Jesus in the first place – Matthew and Luke. Matthew leaves out the shepherds; Luke leaves out the wise men. In the first six chapters of his gospel, Matthew takes great care to point out how the birth and early life of Jesus fulfilled various prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament. In fact, in the first two chapters, Matthew points out four specific instances where prophecies were fulfilled. Surely, if there was a prophecy in the Old Testament about these visitors from the east, Matthew would have mentioned it. But he doesn’t.

Not only does this incident have nothing to do with prophecy, at first blush it seems to have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity or even Orthodox Judaism. The term translated “Wise men” or “Magi” usually refers to a sort of Babylonian priest or scholar who was especially acquainted with the study and interpretation of the stars, and of dreams and things like that. In different times or places they might have been called Shamans, or Druids, or Seers, or even Magicians. That’s right. The Babylonian or Arabian Magi held roughly the same position in their society as Druids did in Celtic society. Do you understand? – we are talking about pagan priests coming to see Jesus.

Not only are these people pagan priests, but somehow, they have learned about Jesus’ birth – through astrology. It was the behavior of the stars which told them that someone very important and significant was born. The stars even told them generally where in the world to look for the child. As far as we know, it was not because they searched the scriptures, or listened to a Jewish preacher, or anything else. The wise men don’t really fit into my typical way of looking at world. Pagan priests are drawn to Jesus through astrology?! I think what bothers me most is this question: does this mean that all religions really do lead to the same God?

First, I want to point out that this is another one of those passages that seems to confirm the authenticity of the New Testament. If we are honest, we must admit that it raises troubling questions and ideas. If the New Testament were made up, or if the stories about Jesus were extensively edited and changed, this story would have been one of the first to be cut. In other words, there seems to be no reason to have this here unless it really happened, and God wants us to learn something from it.

I want to briefly set up the historical timeline here. Matthew makes it clear this occurs after Jesus was born (2:1). Herod asks the Magi when the star appeared. When the Magi find Jesus, he is living with his parents in a house (not a stable). Later, based upon what the Magi told him, Herod thinks that Jesus might be up to two years old (2:16). So, while it is very picturesque to imagine the wise-men standing in the stable with the shepherds and donkeys on the night of Jesus’ birth, that is probably not how it actually happened.

So, what does the Lord want to say to us through this little section of scripture? First, and probably most importantly, the message is this: This little baby, born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecies for the Jewish Messiah, is for all people. His life, death and resurrection and his teaching also, are not intended only for the Jews and the small nation of Israel. From birth, his influence and significance are there for the whole world. The wise men were not Jews by religion nor by birth. But Jesus was for them too. We call Christmas a “Christian” Holiday. But God calls it a gift for the whole world; a gift for all people – including pagan priests. Even today, it affects millions of people who are not themselves Christians. Even today, anyone who desires to can receive Jesus in faith, no matter what they have done, no matter where they are from, or what religion they were born into.

Second, let’s look at those wise men. By the way, the Bible does not actually tell us how many of them there are, or what their names were. All of that is folk legend. Probably, the idea of three wise men came about because three kinds of gifts were presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We only know that there was more than one (the Greek word for Magi is plural), and it is reasonable to suppose that it wasn’t an extremely large group either. In any case, we can be reasonably sure that not every pagan priest in the region came to see Jesus. Presumably, other pagan priests also studied the stars. They saw what the traveling wise men saw. But why did only these particular men come to see Jesus?

I think the answer is this. These men saw Jesus in the stars because in their hearts, they were honestly seeking the truth and they were hungering for God. When they made it to Jerusalem, they told Herod they were there to worship the child revealed in the stars. When they actually found Jesus, that is exactly what they did – they worshiped him. You see, I don’t think this is an affirmation of pagan religion. Instead, it is an affirmation of honest seeking. These pagans didn’t know any of the Bible. They had never heard of the Messiah. But in their hearts, they hungered for God, and they pursued him honestly and diligently. And even though they were looking in the wrong places, they really were looking. Since there were no other means available, God used the stars to direct them to him.

This is in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders. Herod wasn’t a Jew, but he was surrounded by Jews and easily could have learned about God if he chose. The Jewish leaders studied the scriptures. They knew that Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, Matthew lists the scripture here, allowing us to see yet another way in Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But the Jewish leaders at that time weren’t seeking God. Instead, it was pagan priests, completely ignorant of the Bible, who found God when he came into the world. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says this:

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord.

Jesus says it like this:

Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

The wise men were seeking. And in accordance with the promises listed above, when they looked wholeheartedly, they found the true God. It wasn’t their pagan religion that led them to “the same God worshiped by all religions.” Instead, it was that their seeking, hungering hearts led them to true faith in Jesus Christ. Other pagans didn’t come to Bethlehem, even though they had the same information. Those men didn’t have the same hearts. Herod didn’t come, and neither did the Jewish leaders – even after they heard what the Magi had to say. They didn’t have seeking hearts as the Magi.

 The wise men who saw Jesus didn’t go to Bethlehem and then perform pagan worship rituals. They went to Bethlehem, put their faith in Jesus, and worshiped Him, specifically. To express it another way, the moment they worshiped Jesus, they were no longer pagans, but Christians.

That may answer the question about other religions. I think the idea is sort of this: a true seeker will not remain in a false religion, but that false religion may be the initial point from which a true seeker eventually comes to know Jesus. The wise men didn’t receive eternal life through pagan religion – they received it through faith in Jesus. A Hindu won’t get to heaven by being a good Hindu. But suppose something in Hinduism leads him to find out about Jesus. Suppose he eventually puts his faith in Jesus – then he would have eternal life. It would not be Hinduism that saved him, but Jesus. By and large, Hinduism does not point to Jesus; but God could certainly use some aspect of it to draw a true seeker to the truth and salvation found only in Jesus Christ. That is very much like what he did for the Magi.

What initially drew the Magi to study the stars was only a shadow of the reality found in Jesus, who is called the Bright Morning Star (Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16). The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol too. But maybe the pagan imagery of tree worship, like that of astrology, is just a memory of the real thing, which goes farther back still, all the way to the Garden and the tree of life. The real thing is what those pagan priests sought.

So, with these strange pagan shamans in mind, I think there is a question worth considering: What are you seeking these days? Are you interested in finding the truth? Do you really want God himself, or do you just want God to do something for you? Maybe, like Herod or the Jewish leaders, your biggest concern is how Jesus might affect the plans and ambitions you have for your life.

What has led you to this place? Family, friends or your horoscope? The hope of a day’s comfort? Whatever it might be, let go of the shadow, and see the true reality that the Magi saw –  the little toddler, invested with all the fullness of God. True hope. True life. True love. With the wise men, fall down, and exchange the empty shadows for the truth. Worship him. Receive him.


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We are called to show Jesus to the world in three important ways: by enduring suffering with patience, by making a verbal defense, and by living a life that reflects the character of Jesus. We cannot do any of this unless we rely upon the life of Jesus within us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 22

1 PETER #22. 1 PETER 3:13-16

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

(1 Peter 3:13-16, ESV)

After describing the way Christians need to act toward each other, Peter now says a few words about how we should act toward those outside of our community of faith. In a way, this text is neatly laid out for us. In the first place, in our relationships with non-believers, we should be prepared to suffer – even if it is unjust. Second, we should be prepared to “make a verbal defense” of the hope we have (that is, our Christian faith). Third, our lives should be so directed by the Holy Spirit that the way we live also provides a kind of defense, or testimony.

We might as well start with the first: patient suffering. As we have seen already in Peter’s letter, he is passing on the teaching of Jesus, more or less directly.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
11 “You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. 12 Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(Matthew 5:10-12, CSB)


38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?

(Matthew 5:38-47, CSB)

We talked about this a bit, last time: these verses should make us despair of our own efforts and resources. I find it impossible to rejoice when even the company Amazon treats me unjustly simply because they are huge, and can get away with it. How much more difficult is it to suffer because I’ve been doing the right thing? How much more difficult to be criticized, to be lied about, to be considered evil when I’ve done nothing wrong, and in fact, I’ve been trying to do good? I find these words of Jesus, and of Peter, his apostle, to be impossible to actually follow.

I am supposed to find them impossible.

Jesus gives us the answer to this dilemma. He and his followers often warned about the great dangers of worldly wealth. At one point, he described how difficult it was to be rich, and remain faithful to God:

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

(Matthew 19:23-26, ESV)

With man – that is, with our own effort – suffering unjustly seems impossible. But with God, all things are possible. When we allow Jesus to live his life through us, we can indeed love those who hurt us. But only then is such a thing possible. We need to despair of doing it by our own efforts, and cry out to Jesus, and lean on him to do it through us. Then, with God, it is possible.

The second piece of our text today tells us to continually make sure that Jesus is first in our lives, and then to be ready to offer a verbal defense for our faith. Paul says something similar in Colossians 4:6. In case anyone wonders if “make a defense,” might include physically defending ourselves in that situation, I need to say two things. First, the Greek word here is very clear – the defense is one made with words. There’s no semantic wiggle room to expand it to mean anything physical. Second, when we read the context, it is all about entrusting ourselves to God, and allowing God to make things right in his own time. One cannot shoot, or strike, someone “with gentleness and respect.” I believe the Bible does allow Christians to be soldiers in a proper, legal army or militia. I believe the Bible allows, and even encourages, us to defend the weak and defenseless. I don’t see anything wrong with fighting back against someone who wants to hurt you in general.

But the Bible does not endorse Christians using physical force to either defend or propagate Christianity. If someone is trying to hurt you in general, I don’t see a problem with physical self defense (although the Bible does not insist that you respond with physical force). But if someone is attacking you specifically because you are a Christian, a different kind of defense is called for.

Yes, during the crusades, and in some of the Roman Catholic Church’s missionary endeavors, they did use force to defend and propagate Christianity. But they did so in contradiction to the scripture. Just go back and read our text for today, and the verses I’ve quoted so far. To the extent that anyone has tried to spread or defend Christianity by force, they have been bad Christians, disobeying the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. In case it is not clear, I condemn the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the other “holy wars” of the Roman Catholic church, and I condemn them with, and based upon, the words of the Bible. Virtually all true Christians are with me on this.

We are definitely told, however, to offer a defense made up of words. The Greek word here for “offer a defense” is “apologia.” You might recognize a form of the word “logos” there at the end (logia). Logos is a term that means both “words,” and “logical thinking” (just by looking at it in English letters, you can see that the word “logic” comes from “logos.”) Apologia means, essentially, to speak out, to use logic, reason and words to explain and justify. From this word we get a Christian term you might have heard before: “apologetics.” Christian apologetics is basically the process of putting this command into action. In Christian apologetics, we use words and logic to explain, reason with others, and verbally defend the Christian faith.

The first Christian apologist was arguably Paul the apostle, who used the Roman legal system, and Greek philosophy, to argue for the truth of Christianity. Immediately after the time of the apostles we have the letters of Christians who were engaged in explaining the faith, and reasoning with others about the truth of Jesus Christ.

Over the centuries, Christians have developed a wealth of resources for explaining and defending the Christian faith, and reasoning with others. In recent years the internet has brought an explosion of websites dedicated to apologetics. I have to admit – for me, apologetics is like mind-candy. I could read these sorts of resources for hours, and in fact, I often do. Just to get you started, let me offer a couple books and websites.

Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, is sort of the gold-standard for Christian apologetics. It was written about eighty years ago, now, however, and there are some modern concerns that C.S. Lewis simply never thought he would have to address. Even so, Mere Christianity is well worth reading. A more recent resource that is very good is What’s So Great about Christianity? By Dinesh D’souza. In addition to explaining many of the traditional pillars of apologetics, he addresses issues like the checkered history of Christian behavior, and other things that modern people find important, that are not found in Mere Christianity.

If you are specifically interested in the relationship between Christianity and modern science, Reasons to Believe ( is an excellent place to start. It was founded by Dr. Hugh Ross, who was notable in the field of astrophysics, and later founded the ministry. In general, Reasons to Believe is made up of legitimate high-level scientists who are also Bible-believing Christians.

William Lane Craig is a philosopher who is also a Christian, and he has developed a ministry that touches on virtually all aspects of defending the faith with gentleness and respect. The organization he started can be found at: . The video in the next link is produced by that ministry, and is a great example of Christian apologetics:

There is a widely-held assumption that because Christianity is a religion, there is no evidence in favor of it, and it is not intellectually robust. Even a quick skimming of some of the resources I’ve listed here will reveal how utterly false those ideas are.

Now, apologetics are very interesting and fun to people like me. But you could spend countless hours and days on apologetics resources. These days, you can literally get a Ph.D. in it. However, traditional apologetics might not really be your cup of tea. It is a fairly scholarly, intellectually-oriented discipline. Your own approach should reflect who you are, and above all, it should reflect the things you really know and believe.

Perhaps the best advice I can give you when you start the process of defending your faith, is that you should be willing to say: “I don’t know the answer to that,” when you don’t. Honesty goes a long way in our present cultural moment. I still have to say that once in a while. For instance, several years ago, someone asked me this question: “Can a God who is all-powerful make a rock that is impossible for Him to move?” This is a conundrum. If the answer is “yes,” than how can he be all powerful if there is a rock he cannot move? If the answer is “no,” how can he be all powerful, if he can’t make a rock according to any specification at all? Some people believe that this makes God vanish in a cloud of cold logic. Personally, I think the question assumes facts that are unknown and unknowable to human beings, but I couldn’t absolutely prove that by logic. I could have turned the question around a little, and discussed the alternatives to an all-powerful God, and prove that everyone ultimately believes in something that is absolute (like an all-powerful God, or an infinite multiverse), and that every version of that belief has problems, but that isn’t a direct answer to the question. So, I said, “I don’t have a good a answer for that.”

Since then, I have found a better answer, but of course, no one else has asked the question again. The better answer is that God’s nature is the one inviolable thing in the universe, and if God were able to contradict his own nature, he couldn’t be God in the first place. In other words, “No, he can’t make a rock that he is unable to move, because if he could, he wouldn’t be truly God: something he himself created would be as great as himself.” In other words, the question is a “contradiction in terms,” which, in even more plain language, means: “it is nonsense.” Another example of the exact same kind of nonsense is this question: “Can God make a square circle?” That makes it more clear. If God made a square circle, it wouldn’t be a circle anymore. A circle cannot contain right-angles, or it ceases to be a circle. “A square circle” is nonsense. So, also, is the idea that God can contradict in Himself what it means to be God, while remaining God. So, actually, the question about creating the unliftable rock is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick.

 I think that answers the question, but even so, there’s a lot of subtlety built into that answer (such that I could probably write several thousand words about it), and I doubt it satisfies everyone.

Sorry, the last few paragraphs were a lot of fun for me, but, again, that might not be your style. The point is, when I encounter questions I can’t answer, I’m honest abut it. I also then tend to go look for a good answer. I encourage you to do both things as well.

You should also find a way to talk to others about your faith that reflects who you are, and what you do know about Jesus. This is one reason, I think why Peter begins this little instruction with: “Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life.” That’s the way the NLT puts it. It isn’t exactly “word for word,” but I do think it gets at the essence of what Peter is saying. If you want to make a good verbal defense of your faith, it begins with letting Jesus have first place in your life. Only when we orient our lives around him, when we make him our first priority, will we be able to offer a good verbal defense of our faith.

When we get that part straight, we can speak to people in a way that accurately reflects what we know, or don’t know, about following Jesus. But we can start with what we know. For instance, here’s a question everyone can answer, no matter how long (or briefly) they have been following Jesus: “Who is Jesus to you?” When he is Lord of your life, that question isn’t so hard to answer. Everyone has enough knowledge to answer that question, because it is a question about your own experience. Here’s another one: “Why do you trust Jesus?” Again, our answers might differ somewhat, but anyone who does, in fact, trust Jesus, can answer these questions.

Here are a few more: “What has Jesus done for you, and what does he do for you now? What is the best thing, for you, about trusting Jesus? What difference does Jesus make in your life?

The key is to think about what you believe, why you believe it, and who Jesus is to you, and focus on those things. No one will say to you: “No, you’re wrong, you don’t follow Jesus because you feel his love.” They may think your experience is mistaken, but there can be no doubt that it is your experience. People can’t, and don’t, typically argue with personal observations and experiences like that. In other words, you don’t need to be William Lane Craig, Hugh Ross, (or even Tom Hilpert!), to make a good verbal defense of your faith.

Peter closes this section (and begins the next) with another observation about our behavior: that we should maintain a clear conscience, and good behavior, and sooner or later that will bring shame to those who slander us.

Suffering patiently for the sake of Jesus is a way of showing him to the world. Telling people with words about your experience of faith is another. Finally, having a clear conscience and good behavior will show Jesus to the world.

All of these should scare us. All of these should lead us to say: “But I can’t do that!” Because we can’t. But Jesus can do all of these things through us, if we are willing to let him. We need to allow him to lead us to act, or not act, to speak, or not speak. We need to use our hands and voices as he directs. But if we are relying on him, he is the one who will make it all work out. It won’t come from our own strength, but from His. It won’t come from our flawed natures, but rather, from His perfect character. All he needs is our trust.         


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Elijah was a great prophet, and God did amazing things through him. Yet, like many of us, Elijah fell into deep despair when things didn’t go well. God taught him that real life is not found in external things, in things that can be seen and touched. God’s life is not present just because things going well, and His life is not absent when things are bad. Like Elijah, we need to find the life that Jesus promised, the life that is always present, like a never ending spring of water welling up from our spirits.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 3


1 Kings 19:1-13; Hebrews 4:15; John 4:12-14; John 6:35; John 6:63; Luke 11:9-13

Last time the message might have been a little heavy on intellectual concepts and light on stuff we could “sink our teeth into.” But my purpose in discussing all of it was actually to improve your “teeth” so that when you do have something to “bite into,” you bite further and deeper. Christianity is an entire way of looking at the world, and an important part of that world-view is the concept of eternal, spiritual reality as well as immediate, physical reality. Another important part is the understanding of human beings as having bodies, souls and spirits. Our spirits can access the eternal, spiritual reality. We need this knowledge to understand the Bible properly.

This time, we’ll put this altogether with a practical example from the life of Elijah the prophet. I believe (and hope and pray) that this message will be practical and meaningful for you, and even more so if you have some understanding of the concepts we covered last time. I have preached this message a few times in different places, so I apologize if you’ve heard it before. And yet, I trust that the Lord will use it to continue to do good things in you.

There is a story from the Old Testament that has always fascinated me. It’s about the prophet Elijah. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. The prediction came true. And yet the king and queen did not repent, so soon afterwards, Elijah went into hiding for most of the time of the drought.

At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.

Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and a cloud formed, and then a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.

Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.

The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done… ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further until he ended up at Mt. Sinai.

9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10, ESV)

Elijah is saying basically this: “After all I’ve done, after how hard I’ve tried, it’s all coming to nothing. Nothing I can do makes any difference.”

Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about to show Elijah His presence.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:12)

Many translations say, “a still small voice,” in verse 12. But it is an odd Hebrew expression that is hard to capture. I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. A literal translation might be: “a sound, a thin silence.” Another way to translate it would be: “a voice, silent and intangible.” What is a “silent voice?” What is the sound made by “a thin silence.”

There is supposed to be a big contrast between the wind, earthquake and fire on the one hand, and the “silent voice” on the other. The silent voice was God speaking into the spirit of Elijah. It is an example of communication with the eternal world, as opposed to the noise and chaos of the temporary, “seen” world. The presence of God was in a calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.

There was a great wind – strong enough to split rocks. Obviously God’s presence was around, but the heart of God was not in the wind. The same was true of the earthquake and the fire.

Now, why did God do this? Why send the wind and the earthquake and the fire. Did he need to impress Elijah? And why send those things, if that was not really his presence?

I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.

Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed for drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing!

But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.

You see what was going on? Remember the two sides to reality: the “seen, temporary” reality that we call the world around us, or the physical world. Then there is the unseen, eternal reality. Elijah was entirely focused on what was going on in the seen/temporary realm, and was almost ignoring the life that was available to him through the spirit.

He was trying to draw a sense of life and wellbeing from what was going on externally, in the visible realm. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. When God was working miracles and Elijah was feeling bold, everything was great. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.

We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

He says the same thing to us.

And so God sent a storm. Raging wind, splitting rocks, this beats any tornado you’ve ever heard of. It was noise, excitement, huge, awe-inspiring. But the LORD was not in the storm. So he sent an earthquake. Nothing is solid anymore, everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to, no security. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire. I’ve heard many people – even preachers – pray for God to “send his fire.” But the LORD was not in the fire.

Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So he was in them in a sense – they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still. The voice of the spirit is often quiet and “thin.”

We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn how to cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense.  Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life or hope from Externals, that is from things in the seen, temporary realm. One reason is this: things in the seen/temporary realm are…temporary. So, right after a miracle, things are great. But it doesn’t last. What Elijah needed to recognize (and what we desperately need to recognize) is that temporary things will always let you down.

We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Even Jesus, in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus  was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). In other words, this is part of the “seen” life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt.

Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – sometimes good, sometimes bad, and none of it lasts – that can be a daunting idea. You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going to live holy again.

The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life and hope and goodness out of our behavior, out of the seen and temporary reality. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.

Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there.  There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.

There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.

One of the problems with living our lives with an external focus, a focus on the seen, temporary world, is that whatever results we get are temporary. Jesus pointed it out to his disciples:

 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  
“Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-7 emphasis added)

He says the same sorts of things about other observances. Notice the contrast – the people who focus on the seen, temporary world, get a seen, temporary reward – that is, they get the result of their behavior here and now on earth. It’s over rather quickly. Those who focus on the unseen spiritual reality get an eternal reward from their Father in heaven. When we live our life from externals, then that’s all we get – the external result. That’s our reward. And that is temporary, not eternal. The Lord says the Spirit is what is most important.

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)

It is from the spirit – connected to the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus – that life comes; real life, life that does not change and fluctuate and sometimes desert us. Once we are in Jesus, that life is always there. It is always available, though we often forget it. That is because it doesn’t come from our behavior. We can’t control it by manipulating our circumstances, or even our own actions. It doesn’t come from our thoughts or feelings. It doesn’t come in noise, earthquake and fire and exciting things happening outside of us. It comes from the spirit – a place that Elijah found was still and silent, where the voice of God was a soft whisper.

63 The Spirit is the One who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. (John 6:63, HCSB)

The only way we can access the spirit-life is by believing that what God says is true. We receive it only through faith.

Practically, if you want the real, spirit life, the life that lasts forever, and cannot be changed by time or circumstances, you must seek it in the spirit, and do so in the attitude of faith that says: “I believe God is to be found there, and I believe he wants to give me this life.” He does want to give it to us, you know:

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again.” (John 6:35)

That promise cannot be true in the visible, temporary world. Everyone experiences hunger and thirst every day. But Jesus was making a promise about eternal, spiritual reality. It is in the spirit where we can be fully satisfied, always and forever. It is in the spirit that we find the nourishment to sustain eternal life.

Seek it through the bible. Seek it in sitting quietly, in God’s presence, waiting. Every time you catch your mind wandering, just softly whisper the name of Jesus to bring you back. Don’t worry if your mind continually wanders. When you catch yourself, just come back to Jesus with his name. Seek the life in beauty, goodness, truth and joy, whenever you encounter them. Listen for the quiet voice that is not the voice of the world, not the loudness that is everywhere, but is in the spirit.

The life is not in your behavior. It is not in your thoughts and feelings. It is in Jesus, and the only way to get it is to believe he offers it to you.

Sometimes it can seem sort of vague, or esoteric, this listening to the soft whisper of God in the spirit. I recommend that you start by asking God to help you find him there. This is a prayer he loves to answer:

9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13, ESV)

Ask him and then actively listen for his soft, silent voice in the spirit. As you practice, it will eventually become easier, and more natural. When Jesus encountered a woman at a well one time, during their conversation he said something. Hear the promise in his words, and trust that he will deliver it you:

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14, ESV)

Believe the promise. Receive the promise as you thank him for it.


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The beginning of the Christian life is turning away from sin and toward God (this is called “repentance”). Sometimes we fail to receive the wonder and joy of God’s grace because we have not actually repented. We are called to despair of our own efforts to make ourselves (or the world) better, and turn to God alone for hope and salvation. Only then can we be changed. When we do that, and only then, we can begin to receive the stunning riches of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. This is the gate, through which we all must walk, the lifeboat that is our only hope of being saved from drowning.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 1

During the past year or so, I have noticed that many people in our house-churches seem to be struggling with a deep tension in the life of following Jesus. We are told that everything is by God’s grace. And yet we are told that we shouldn’t sin. We are told that we are new creatures, created in Christ Jesus – and yet we still act like the old creatures, frequently sinning and failing.

The tension that this creates is actually very important. We need to pay attention to it, because it will lead us to some wonderful, amazing truths that will affect every area of our lives.

Our new sermon series is about all that.

As we revisit the riches of the gospel, you may (or may not) recognize some ideas, stories and concepts that I introduced more than ten years ago now, in the sermon series: Living Life in Reverse. Those truths are powerful and practical. I think it is worth revisiting them. So, in a way, this is an updated and expanded version of the original “Living Life in Reverse.” If you want a series title, we could try: “Living Life in Reverse – Again.”

When I did the series the first time, there were a few things which I left out. So, I want to start with very beginning of the Christian life, which is, repentance and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.

It has been on my mind lately that Christians, in the 21st century Western world, have a very different way of reaching people for Jesus than the Christians of the New Testament. We typically reach out to non-believers with the following basic message:

“God loves you, so much. He really wants you to experience his grace and joy. He is the missing piece of your life. He heals your brokenness and forgives your failures. Come and experience his love.”

Now, that message is good, but it is only half the message that was preached by most Christians throughout history. Here’s the way Jesus himself preached. He taught his disciples to do the same.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)

14 Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31, ESV)

20 I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21, ESV)

In the verses above, I have italicized the word repentance so you see my point more quickly. You do see it, right? Repentance is an essential part of the gospel. It is the beginning, and it is necessary if we are to receive the gospel.

You see, I believe many people think the gospel is essentially just: “God loves you.” And they hear this, and look up, and think, “Oh, that’s cool. How sweet of him.” And then they go back to whatever they were doing.

Maybe some churches put it a little more forcefully. “God loves you. But if you want to benefit from this love, you need to walk down in front here, say a prayer, and then get baptized.” This is a bit more inconvenient, so not as many people respond positively. And yet, after all, it’s just something you need to do, like going to the DMV, or paying taxes. So, a lot of people take the time out of their lives to go to church for a while, take the deep breath, and then do the God-transaction. Then, they can get back to their lives. Maybe they think it’s like joining a political party. They are now “registered Christians.”

Think about it for a moment. “God loves you,” is not that big of a deal until and unless you feel in need of that love. Scripture tells us that we are desperately in need of his love and mercy. Without the love and grace of God you are utterly lost. You are already dead, spiritually. You are in the process of dying physically; every second brings you closer to the moment of your death. And your soul (where “you” are) is slowly withering, utterly committed to self above all. Even when you do “unselfish” things, it is to benefit your own sense of self-esteem. At the same time, we find ways to justify so many of our selfish desires and actions. (By the way, if I just made you mad with all that, think about why). Yes, your soul, too, is on a long slow decline to eternal frustration and self-hatred.

This is the beginning of the gospel: you are dead in your sins, slave to self, and the things that tempt you, manipulated by spiritual forces of evil, though you don’t realize it. You are infected with a deadly disease that is gradually destroying every part of you. The Bible calls that disease “sin,” and it really means “all that is in conflict with the character of God.”

The human race, in all recorded history, has improved technologically, but not much morally. Thousands of years ago, human beings were greedy, cheating each other, lying, hurting one another, oppressing the weak, and engaging in bloody wars and violence. Isn’t it good that we’re so much better now? Oh, wait. Never mind. Just read a few news sites, and you’ll be convinced that there is something deeply flawed and wrong with humanity in general. The same thing that is wrong with humanity is also wrong with you and me.

Now, a lot of people look at themselves, and think “Gee, I don’t think I’m that bad. I’ve never stolen anything, for instance.” The bible asks: But have you ever been greedy? Ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to want? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

We might say, “Well, I’ve never committed adultery.” But have you ever imagined it? Have you ever wanted to? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

“I’ve never lied.” But have you ever gossiped? Ever said hurtful words, or malicious things? Ever been hurtfully sarcastic? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

If you have the courage to be honest with yourself, you know that within you is a deep well of awful muck, of self-centeredness and arrogance and the desire to have what you want, no matter the consequences.

The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God

Now, let’s put this together. Everything that is good, awe-inspiring, encouraging, beautiful, glorious, true and loving originates with God. Some things may come directly from God, like a sense of his love, or the words of scripture. Other things may be several generations “removed” from their origin in God, like, for instance, beautiful music, or a lovely painting, or awe-inspiring landscape, but it all begins with him. The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God. Even people who do not know him are affected by him nonetheless, and anyone at all might be used, even unknowingly, to reflect a small piece of God to the world.

But God is so profoundly good, so holy, and so completely powerful, that his very presence destroys anything that is not perfectly good. Bring the tiniest bit of sin into the presence of God, and it is destroyed.

When you combine pure sodium with water, the result is a spectacularly violent reaction. Google it sometime, and watch the video results. There is a similar reaction when sin comes into the presence of God. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. It is violently destroyed.

18 Then Moses said, “Please, let me see Your glory.”
19 He said, “I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He answered, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” 21 The LORD said, “Here is a place near Me. You are to stand on the rock, 22 and when My glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23, HCSB)

God was pleased with Moses, and very gracious to him. But he could not allow Moses to “see his face,” which means, in that culture, to be fully in his presence. Later on, when Moses was reminding the people of their first encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he said this:

4 And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. (Deuteronomy 5:24-28, ESV)

The people did not see God’s face, but they were close enough to him to be terrified that his holiness would destroy them. And God said, “That’s right. No one can come too close.”

Now, if God is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, and if the presence of God destroys all that is not perfectly aligned with God’s character, and we are infected with sin (the antithesis of God’s character) we have a problem. If we come into God’s presence we will be annihilated. If we don’t come to him, eventually, we will be further and further separated from all truth, beauty, joy and goodness. We will end up gnawing away at our own souls, bitter, withered, pathetic, hating ourselves, but utterly alone. Complete separation from God is sometimes called “hell,” and that is where we are all headed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our efforts to stop the slide into self-destruction are pathetic, and in fact, they end up being nothing more than additional manifestations of our twisted and flawed natures.

This is the starting point. Until we face this reality, we have not begun. Until we recognize this reality, there is no hope for us.

You might say, “But Tom, I thought you just said there was no hope anyway. You said an essential thing to recognize is we cannot do anything about it.”

I did, and it is. There is no hope from within humanity in general, or from your friends and family. There is no hope from within your own corrupted body or soul. No hope from your dead spirit.

That is why Jesus entered the world. When he came, he said two things. First: Repent! That means recognizing the truth I just told about our own sin and the pointlessness of our own efforts. To repent means to earnestly desire to turn away from sin, and toward God. It means also that we genuinely give up on the idea that we can help ourselves. We have no hope within ourselves, but we turn toward God in our need, recognizing our own helplessness and hopelessness. In a way, we cannot even do this on our own. The Spirit of God has to empower us to repent. That’s why I’m giving this message: to allow you to hear the Word, and through the Holy Spirit, believe it and repent.

The second part of what Jesus said was: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In some ways, he was being a little bit coy, since he hadn’t yet completed his mission. But after he had died and risen, he gave his apostles the full message. Peter put it like this:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:38-40, ESV)

Being baptized does mean the physical act, but the literal meaning of the word is immersed. We are to be immersed in Christ. Baptism also means you are leaving one realm, and entering a new one. You are leaving behind the world, the devil and your sinful flesh, and entering the kingdom of God. Paul described it in terms of repentance toward God (that is, turning away from sin, and self, and toward God) and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21, quoted earlier).

You might wonder, “But if I am a sinner, and God’s presence destroys sin, how does this help?” That’s a great question. In some ways, the answer takes a lifetime to unpack, but here’s the short version:

God’s intention is to destroy all sin. In doing that, it will be necessary to destroy all sinners, also. So he chose to find a way to make sinners into “not sinners.” He sent Jesus into the world to combine his God-nature with human-nature. Jesus was perfect, because of his God-nature. Because of his human-nature, he became an appropriate vessel to do the job. All sin was placed upon Jesus (which could be done, because of his human nature), and destroyed by his suffering on earth, death on the cross, and descent into hell. Only Jesus, with his eternal God-nature, could survive this. So now, all sin – even the sins of those who lived before Jesus, and sins yet to be committed – has now been punished, and paid for:

1 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-28, NLT)

The way to take hold of this forgiveness, this cleansing of sin, is through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust him, and what he has done. And we entrust our entire lives into his care. We immerse ourselves in Jesus, and in his kingdom. Those who reject this are, in essence, saying, “No, we want to continue to sin.” Or, if not: “We believe we can get our salvation some other way.” Those who reject Jesus, who do not trust in him, have rejected the only lifeboat in the ocean. They would be welcome on board, but if they want to wait for some other boat they like better, they will drown.

 But faith turns away from sin, receives what God has done, and entrusts all of life into the hands of God through Jesus Christ. When we do that, God makes our spirit, which was dead to him because of sin, come alive. Through the spirit, he pours grace, love, truth, beauty, goodness and joy into our souls.

This is the starting gate. Everyone must enter through this gate, or remain separated from God forever. Jesus put it like this:

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)

If you have never done so, I invite you to believe God’s Word. Repent of your sins, turning away from them, and to God. Entrust your entire life to Jesus. Come alive to God in the spiritual realm.

Now, I am sure that many of you who follow this blog have already entered through this gate. But if you have, you understand how important it is that everyone recognizes these truths, repents, and enters through Jesus.

I myself am using this message to renew my repentance from sins. It can become easy, once we have trusted Jesus and received the grace of God, to forget the deadly and awful nature of sin. Let this message remind you to never make peace with sin. Let it also remind you of the incredible truth, love, joy, beauty and goodness of God, and remind you that all of that is available to us through Jesus Christ.

Let the Spirit keep speaking to you now!


grayscale photo of man taking shower
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I’ve been recently convinced that I need to start writing about my pain. Ultimately, what follows will be a chapter in a book. Perhaps it can be helpful to those who are concerned about what the future holds in these uncertain times. Sorry, no recording this time. This week, this is what I have to offer:

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Oh, my brothers and sisters who are in pain and suffering, my heart cries out with you.

I know your confusion, your hurt, your anger at God, your frustration when others don’t understand. I know how insensitive well-meaning friends can be, hurtful without even realizing it. I know the dark lonely hours you spend, wondering if it will end, why it won’t end, why won’t God just do something?

This is for you. This is for me. This is for your loved ones who suffer with you. This is for us.

This is also for those who watch our suffering and don’t understand. You have compassion, but you don’t know exactly what to think, or how to act around your struggling friends.

This is also for those of you who secretly suspect that there must be some reason, perhaps a hidden one, why other people suffer and you don’t. You may not say it, but it crosses your mind that perhaps we suffer because of hidden sin, or because we spoke bad things into our lives. Perhaps we poor souls failed to follow the simple rules for godly living that will result in peace and prosperity for everyone wise and disciplined enough to stay on the path. To you, especially, I say: pay attention. Your souls are in grave danger. Give up pride, seek humility, read on and learn, lest you find your hands empty on the only day true rewards are given. I don’t give such warnings lightly.

Let me begin with my story. To be clear, I don’t think I have suffered more than anyone else. I am not competing with anyone here to see who has it worse. If you want to claim your suffering is worse than mine, I won’t argue one bit. I freely admit that I know dozens of people that I would never want to trade places with. That’s not what this is about. What I do want you to know that, at least in some way, I do know what suffering is. I am in it, even as I write this.

I am in pain.

Physical pain. Severe, constant, relentless, unending pain.

It started with a kidney stone. Not all kidney stones are equally bad. But the worst kidney stones, what I call “the real kidney stone experience,” is generally the worst pain anybody ever experiences in one’s life while remaining conscious. I have spoken with several women who delivered babies without any painkillers, and who have also had kidney stones. They report that the kidney stones are far worse. I’ve spoken to war veterans who were shot, and shredded by shrapnel. They report that kidney stones are far, far more painful than combat wounds. I have had several surgeries, including the kind where they make a large incision, and the post-surgery pain never remotely approached the real kidney stone experience.

A “real kidney stone” produces a pain so severe that if you can’t get relief within an hour, you desperately hope, and even pray, that you will die quickly. It is pain to the point of insanity. This is what I call 10/10 pain. If you have this level of pain, you seek medical help immediately. If you think you can go without medical help, you are not experiencing 10/10 pain. According to some doctors, most people don’t experience that level of pain ever in their lifetimes.

I have experienced it at least five times.

Due to two small tumors that developed when I was about thirty-five years old, I began to pass kidney stones roughly every six months. This went on for more than ten years until the problem was finally detected, and the offending tumors removed. I have passed somewhere around twenty-five stones.

Not every stone I had reached that 10/10 level of pain, but, as I mentioned, four of them did (more on the fifth time momentarily). The others may not have reached that level of insanity, but even a level of 7/10 puts you in a place where most of your energy and time is devoted to dealing with and riding out the pain. At that level, you might be able to watch TV, or play a mindless computer game to try and distract yourself, but meaningful work or interaction is not possible for more than a few minutes at a time. Most people take strong drugs if things get to 7/10. If those don’t work, the next step is the emergency room. By 8/10, and certainly by 9/10, everyone is heading there.

It took weeks at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic to identify and correct my tumor problem. My body finally stopped producing new stones, though, at that point, I still had several more in my kidneys waiting to pass. The Mayo clinic also explained what was causing the continuing pain problem.

All of that severe, intense pain that recurred regularly for more than ten years gradually changed my body. It did two things. First, it caused a rare kind of physical damage that cannot be surgically repaired. Second, it damaged my nerves. The end result is that even though I no longer produce them, I still feel the same pain as if I am passing kidney stone. I feel this pain all day, all night, every day for the past six years. That’s 2,190 days of kidney stone pain, or 52,560 hours, but who’s counting?

Of course I take pain medication for it. If I didn’t, I would have been dead a long time ago. What I have now is a virtual kidney stone that will never pass. That means the pain will never end. Medication does not really remove the pain. Most days I live at a 5/10. That’s halfway to insanity. On an average week, my pain creeps up to 7/10, or 8/10, two or three times. This is while I am taking pretty significant pain medication. Once in a while I’ll experience a few good days, where I might get down to four out of ten. Three out of ten is as rare as the Minnesota Vikings going to the Superbowl. This is not a low level of pain, pain I can ignore. If I take nothing for it, I end up in the emergency room. The last time I waited too long to medicate, I hit 10/10 pain for the fifth time.

If you want to try and experience what I feel on a minute by minute basis, trying lying flat on your back with your knees up. Tuck a golf ball just below your rib cage, two or three inches to the left of your spine. Now, rest all of your torso weight on that golf ball. That might approximate my daily, 5/10 pain experience. I am a strong, stoic person, so I may not be admitting to how much pain I really have. My wife tells me that I typically undersell it.

There is a reason I am emphasizing how bad my pain is, how difficult my daily life is. I want you to understand that what I go through is almost unbelievable, because what I want to say next is even more difficult to believe, but it is far more important.

I am so thankful to God for this pain.

I am closer to Jesus because of this pain.

Now, I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Of course I struggle. Sometimes, I just don’t know how I can get through a day. I write a little. I try to go for a short walk. A car ride of more than forty-five minutes is certain to ramp up my pain something fierce. Sometimes playing a simple computer game helps distract me enough push the pain back just a little. I spend most of the time sitting or lying with a hot bag of rice on my kidney, which is the only thing that sort helps, besides medications that I should only take when I’m desperate. And I get desperate too often. I worry about getting the medications that keep me sane – many of them are controlled substances, and sometimes doctors make mistakes and that leads to lapses in getting what I need.

I want to be writing. I want to write this book. I want to finish the fifth in my mystery series. I want to write a book about house church. Meanwhile, I know I am called to feed the sheep of Jesus by teaching them Word, and by teaching them how to learn the Word for themselves. How can I do these things, things to which I feel strongly called, if all I can do is writhe in pain?

I need to remind myself to stop thinking in days. I need to remember to think moment by moment. Now is a good moment. A combination of things is keeping it at 5/10, and possibly I’ve had a few minutes of 4/10. I’ve just written five hundred words in one sitting. Before the pain, that would about a quarter of what I would have called a decent writing session. Maybe I should call that win for these days. Even now I feel the pain, crouching like a menacing shadow just beyond the light. It is growing. This good moment clearly has an expiration, and it isn’t far off. Soon it will be back to the grind.

But before I quit, I want to make sure you understand something of earth-shaking importance: There is something greater than the pain, something so good, so true, that even though the pain does not become less, it becomes less important.

Because I have been afflicted, I have experienced the love of God in a more deep, intense way. I am more certain than I have ever been of his love for me, and of mine for him. Experientially, I belong more fully to Jesus than I have ever before. This is not in spite of my suffering, but because of it.

I recently heard someone comment on the hymn, “It is Well With my Soul.” She said, “I wish I could have that. It just wish that it could be well with my soul, no matter what is going on.”

Brothers and sisters, today I do have that. It is well with my soul, in the middle of this moment-by-moment struggle, in the middle of five years of disappointed hopes and dead ends, and unanswered prayers. It is well with my soul as I cannot help but grunt or sigh in agony. It is well with my soul, though the prayers of thousands on my behalf have not been answered as asked. It is well with my soul as I toss and turn and squirm and try desperately to get comfortable to grab few hours of restless, unfulfilling sleep. It is well with my soul as I watch my writing career slowly grind down and lose momentum, because I do not have the energy to fight with this pain and do everything else I want to.

What I am about to say might require some major readjustments in your thoughts and attitudes. Especially, it  might require some adjustments to your heart.

It can be well with your soul too.


Revelation #5 NO ROOM FOR FEAR

Old keys on a old book, antique wood background

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand. Jesus words to each of us today are: “Do not be afraid. I have the keys to death and hades. I have this. I have you. I am the first and the last – I have your trouble surrounded.

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Revelation #5. Revelation 1:9-20

John continues his letter with a reminder, and then, his first vision of the heavenly realm.

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John says he is a brother and partner in three things that “are in Jesus.” I think these things are very important for Christians in our time to remember, or perhaps to realize for the first time. Being “in Jesus” involves each of these things.

First, John writes he is a brother in the tribulation that is in Jesus Christ. The Greek word here (thlipsis) implies pressure, or “being squeezed.” It can be translated, as tribulation, affliction, distress, or pressure. In his gospel, John records that Jesus said that tribulation or affliction will be a normal part of following him. In the passage below, it is this same Greek word that Jesus uses:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

You will have suffering/trouble/affliction/distress in this world if you follow Jesus. Peter affirms this idea:

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1Pet 4:12-13, HCSB)

We Christians in 21st Western Civilization need to understand this, for two reasons. First, we need to recognize that suffering and tribulation are the present reality for millions of Christians in various places around the world. Like John, we need to act as siblings and partners in tribulation with those Christians who are suffering for their faith more than we. In China, Indonesia, all over the Middle-East and North Africa, our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ are in trouble for believing what we believe and trying to live it in their everyday lives. We need to stand with them in prayer. We need to support those who support them. We need to communicate our love and encouragement to them.

Second, we need to recognize that, as we remain obedient to Jesus, we encounter various types of suffering – not all of them persecution. John Piper writes, in Desiring God:

The suffering that comes is a part of the price of living where you are in obedience to the call of God. In choosing to follow Christ in the way he directs, we choose all that this path includes under his sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ – whether it is cancer or conflict.

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand.

Those of you who know me well will realize that I know what I am talking about. More importantly, John knew what he was talking about.

The second thing that is “in Jesus” is “the kingdom.” We examined this in greater depth last week. When we follow Jesus, we belong to His heavenly kingdom. Our primary “citizenship” is in heaven, not in any earthly country. Our primary “fellow-citizens” are those who follow Jesus, whatever country they come from, whatever ethnicity or culture they wear on the outside. There is one other thing about “the kingdom that is in Jesus” and it is this: it means we must obey the King.

The third thing that John says is part of being in Jesus is “patient endurance.” This goes along with suffering/pressure/trouble.  Paul puts it together in his letter to the Romans:

3And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:3-5, HCSB)

In case you were wondering, Paul’s word for “afflictions” is the Greek word thlipsis – the same that John uses, the one we discussed above. We aren’t called merely to suffer, we are called endure it patiently, to stick to Jesus, to have “grit.” This would have been very important for John’s first readers, since, as we shall see, they were facing all sorts of pressures and troubles. John is saying, “You aren’t alone in your struggles. This is part of the deal, this is part of what it means to be ‘in Jesus.’ You aren’t off track and you aren’t doing something wrong. We are all in this together.”

Next, John goes on to share one reason why we should be encouraged as we suffer and endure patiently in Jesus. He records that Jesus gave him a message for seven specific churches, but also to all Christians at all times. And Jesus not only gave him the message, he also gave him a picture of the heavenly reality that should encourage us; a reality that exists even when our lives are in the midst of pressure and struggle.

John says that he was “beginning-to-be in spirit on the Lord’s day,” (my rough literal translation) when he heard a loud voice behind him. I’ll tell you frankly, that I don’t have a clear idea of what that means. I suspect it means that John was meditating, deeply. But here’s something interesting. Even though John was “in the spirit,” the voice he heard came from behind him. It’s not much, but perhaps this is a reminder that even when we do all that we can, we still God to reveal Himself to us. For all his meditation, the voice of God came from a direction he did not expect. The revelation had to be given to him – he couldn’t get it simply by meditating.

John looked and saw a scene with seven golden lampstands, and Jesus standing among them. By the way, my own way of looking at Revelation divides the book into seven “heavenly encounters.” A “heavenly encounter,” for my purposes, is a vision of things as they are in heaven, or from heaven’s perspective. After each heavenly encounter in Revelation follows some content divided up into sets of seven. This vision of Jesus among the lampstands is the first Heavenly Encounter.

Thankfully, verse 20 explains what is going on. The seven golden lampstands are the seven churches to whom the letter is written. I think there is every reason to believe that the seven churches (named in chapters 2-3) were seven actual Christian communities that existed at the time John saw his vision. At the same time, I believe that the Lord chose seven particular churches in order to communicate that this amazing vision is for all Christian churches at all times in history. Remember, the number seven represents God’s complete work. So, I think he picked seven churches (there were certainly more than seven in existence at the time) to show he meant this to be for all of us.

In the midst of the seven lampstands John sees “one like a son of man.” He means Jesus, who consistently called himself “the son of man.” John’s vision of the Heavenly Jesus sounds similar to visions that were seen by Daniel and Ezekiel, down to details like the hair, feet, eyes and the sound of his voice; especially, however, the sense of bright light emanating from him (Daniel 7:9 and 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:26-27).

Jesus holds seven stars in his hand. Again, we are given an explanation in verse 20. The stars are the seven angels of the churches. I don’t know about you, but this surprises me. I don’t normally think of an individual congregation as having an angel watching out for it.

While we are here, we might as well briefly talk about angels, since there is a boatload of them in Revelation. Though we don’t talk about angels very often, there are 182 verses in the New Testament that mention them directly, and a few others that speak of them indirectly. Sixty-five of the direct verses are in Revelation. Angels are usually portrayed as spiritual beings who do God’s work, often serving God as messengers. Hebrews 1:14 (one of the indirect mentions of them) gives us the clearest description of what angels are:

14Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14, ESV2011)

So, angels do God’s work, and part of what they do for Him is to minister to us who are inheriting salvation through Jesus Christ. Apparently, also, some of them are responsible for individual churches. To put this theologically: That’s awesome. It might also give us a different view of church. There is an angel assigned to your church. Just think on that.

In verse 16, we get our first taste of the weirdness of Revelation: there is a sword coming out of the mouth of Jesus. This is meant to be symbolic. The Apostle Paul pictures a sword as a spiritual weapon:

17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. (Eph 6:17, HCSB)

The sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is The Word. For us who follow Jesus, that “word,” that sword, is the Bible. His words are powerful and strong. His words created the universe:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. (John 1:1-3, HCSB)

 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible. (Heb 11:3, HCSB)

So Jesus stands among the churches, with the power of his Word evident. Now, listen once more to His words:

17When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. He laid His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last, 18and the Living One. I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades. 19Therefore write what you have seen, what is, and what will take place after this. 20The secret of the seven stars you saw in My right hand and of the seven gold lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev 1:17-20, HCSB)

“He laid his right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid!’” How deeply we need this sometimes! We are afraid of so many things: the future, or the future of those we love. We are afraid of financial ruin, or social ruin. We fear pain, and sorrow and difficulty and loss. Most of all, we fear death, and the death of those we love. I invite you to gather your fears up right now. It’s OK. Admit to them, let them show themselves. Now, feel the strong hand of Jesus on your shoulder. Listen to him say: “Do not be afraid!”

And why should we not? Because Jesus is the First and the Last. He has us, and our lives, and everything surrounded. We fear death, but look – he has overcome death, and he holds the keys. Not only that, but he is with his church – he stands among the lampstands. He holds our angels in his right hand.

Jesus is with us. He hasn’t forgotten or abandoned us. He touches us and says “do not fear!”

Will you listen to Him today?



jesus teaching in temple

We need to understand that Jesus didn’t welcome sinners simply because they were sinners – he welcomed them because they humbly recognized that they needed forgiveness, repented, and put all their hope in Him. They let him change their lives. They submitted to his authority.

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Download Matthew Part 75


Matthew #75. Matthew 21:23-27

I trust that you have noticed as we’ve gone through Matthew 21, that there are certain themes running throughout the chapter. One, is that Jesus is becoming very deliberately confrontational towards the religious leadership in Jerusalem. He is doing so in order to force them to make a choice about him, a choice which he knows will end in his own crucifixion. A second theme is that even though Jesus is doing this in order to fulfill his mission to die for the sins of the world, everything he says and does is righteous. In other words, he is not wrong to confront the religious leaders in the way that he does. I think it is appropriate to take this even a step further, and say that not only is it not wrong, it is good and righteous. The things that he says to them need to be said. They are part of his mission, not only in the sense of forcing the religious leaders to make a choice, but also in that his words are truth that needed to be spoken, and later written down by his apostles. What I mean is, if we did not need to hear the same words today, the Holy Spirit would not have inspired Matthew and the other apostles to remember them.

During this second day of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus was found teaching in the temple. It is as he is teaching that the chief priests and elders – that is, the religious leaders – confront him and ask the question of the day: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

These are the people who feel a certain amount of ownership of their own religion, and religious observance. Jesus entered the temple, and let little children sing praises to him. He caused a riot, driving out the money changers and livestock merchants. The feeling of the religious leaders is that he has come into their place, and is acting as if he owns it. Why does he get to decide that the moneychangers shouldn’t be there? Where does he get off, teaching that the people of Israel were not fulfilling the purpose for which God created them?

One thing we should know is that already by this point in history the Jewish people had begun to develop the habit of teaching by quoting “authority.” Suppose, for instance a rabbi (which simply means “teacher) was discussing the Sabbath. The rabbi might say: “The great Rabbi Hillel used to say about the Sabbath that the chief purpose of it is rest for the soul.” The rabbi would then go on discussing Hillel’s ideas, and perhaps offering quotes from other rabbis with different ideas, and maybe finally adding his own thoughts. Rabbis most definitely did not say things like: “This is what I think about the Sabbath.” They always quoted others; that is, they taught in reference to other “authorities.”

This was not how Jesus taught at all. Earlier in Matthew, we have a great deal of Jesus’ teaching, and we see that sometimes Jesus would even go out of his way to show that he was not quoting authorities. For instance, in the sermon on the Mount, several times, he said “You have heard it said…, But I say to you…”

So the religious leaders in Jerusalem are offended by Jesus’ style of teaching, in which he seems to regard himself as the authority, and also by the way he seemed to treat the temple as if it was his own house. By confronting him while he is teaching, the religious leaders are trying to expose him in front of those he is teaching. They’re trying to remind the listeners that he is not quoting authorities.

Jesus turns the question back on them. He asks, “Where did John’s baptism come from? From heaven or from men?”

I think it is likely that many people knew that John the Baptist, before his death, had endorsed Jesus. It is unclear how many people knew that they were relatives, but many of Jesus’ disciples had started out by following John the Baptist. In a way, this is a big endorsement of the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus is saying that John’s ministry came from the same source as his own.

This caused a big problem for the religious leaders. Many people have forgotten it now, but John the Baptist sparked a movement that lasted for more than a generation. At this point in time, John, and his ministry, were still a very big deal. John the Baptist represented a significant religious and cultural movement within Judaism.

So, the elitist leaders are afraid to say “John the Baptist was not legitimately sent by God,” because they know that will make a lot of people very angry, and they might lose their power over the people. But if they say, “John was from God,” then they would have to explain why they didn’t listen to what John said about repentance, and even more importantly, what John said about Jesus.

Like the politicians they really are, the religious leaders give an evasive answer: “We don’t know.” So Jesus responds in kind: “If you won’t answer about John’s teaching, then I won’t answer about mine.”

Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why Jesus didn’t just answer them directly? Why wouldn’t he just say: “My authority comes from God”? Before this, he was trying to lay low and finish training the disciples, and so sometimes he was evasive or enigmatic. But at this point, he knows he has less than a week to live. Why not just come out and say it? I can imagine that perhaps Jesus wanted to make sure he wasn’t arrested until after he had eaten the Passover with his disciples. Even so, directly saying “My authority comes from God” would probably not have made them arrest him much faster than they did. As it turned out, they arrested him in secret, since they were afraid of the support he had from the ordinary people. I doubt it would have happened any differently if he had answered them directly at this point. So why did he take this approach with them?

I can think of one possible reasons. First, he may have done this in order to expose their own internal dishonesty. Rather than just answering the question, he made them think. His question forced them to become aware of the choice they were making about him, and what was going on in their hearts. They couldn’t pretend they were defending the sacredness of their own religion, or the temple. They had to decide: “Are we going to accept Jesus as sent from God, or not? Does God’s authority even matter to us in this case?”

They understood that if they accepted his authority as from God, they would have to listen to him and obey him. His question made them face that, and decide.

In all of this section of Matthew – almost a quarter of the book – Jesus often sounds harsh and confrontational. As I have said, there is a practical purpose to this, in that it led to his crucifixion. But we need to realize that these words are still relevant today. When people were humble, repentant and desperate, we see Jesus being gracious, loving and compassionate. But when he encountered people who wanted to live their own lives, who rejected his authority, he made them face their true attitudes, often by speaking in ways that seem harsh to us. Jesus still presents people with a choice today: Will you accept his authority in your life, or will you hedge your bets, stall, or evade the question?

These days, we still have religious hypocrites who reject the real work of Jesus in their lives. What I see here in the Southeastern USA, is that a large number of people attend church and claim to be Christians, but in reality, they live their lives however they please. They often don’t wield religious power, but they claim, to one degree or another, that they are people of faith in Jesus. However, when they are confronted with something that Jesus says through the scripture, like: “Don’t get drunk,” or “Don’t gossip and slander,” or “Don’t have sex outside of marriage,” or “Don’t pursue money or wealth,” they are like the religious leaders Jesus confronts. Their internal attitudes are: “Nobody has the authority to tell me how to live my life,” or, “Is that part of the Bible really even relevant anymore?”

When I read these verses in Matthew, I am reminded of a similar attitude toward the authority of God and his word to his people.

1Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’? ”

2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. 3But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’ ”

4“No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5“In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:1-5, HCSB)

From the beginning, Satan has been casting doubt on the authority and reliability of what God said. Like with Adam and Eve, like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, he tempts us to listen and agree when the serpent whispers: “Did God really say that? Do you really have to pay attention to it? Actually, God is just trying to hold you back. You’ll be better off if you don’t pay attention.”

Some people read these parts of the gospels and think, “Jesus is taking down religious people. Go Jesus!” But the problem with these leaders is not that they are religious, but that they have rejected the authority of Jesus in their life. There are plenty of people in the workplace, in bars, at the gym, in our families, who are not religious, but who reject the authority of Jesus in their lives. They are just as proud and stubborn as the religious leaders during Jesus’ time.

We need to understand that Jesus didn’t welcome sinners simply because they were sinners – he welcomed them because they humbly recognized that they needed forgiveness, repented, and put all their hope in Him. They let him change their lives. They submitted to his authority. Unlike the religious leaders, they did not say: “Where do you get the authority to tell me how to live?” Instead, they said: “I need you, your love and forgiveness. Take my life and do whatever you want with it.”

Obviously, no one is perfect. Even those of us who generally are sincere about our faith often fail to live as Jesus wants us to. They key is what happens when Jesus confronts us about it through the scripture, or other believers who are sharing scriptures. Do we hedge, and say, “Do I really have to accept the authority of Jesus [through the Bible] in this matter?” Do we listen to the serpent? Or do we say, “I’m sorry Lord! Forgive me. You have the right to every part of my life.”

I don’t think we need to be afraid every minute that we might be rejecting the authority of Jesus. The religious leaders probably were not thinking consciously about what they were doing, but Jesus, by his question, drew their attention to it. He made sure that they understood the choice they were making. He will do the same for us – if we have a problem, He will make it clear.

Perhaps he is using this scripture passage, and this sermon, to make something clear to you right now. Is there some area of your life where you are tempted to reject the authority of Jesus? Is there some way in which you are saying, “Do I really have to pay attention to that part of the Bible?”

Before we close I want to remind us again that He is merciful and gracious, and loves to show compassion to those who humbly repent and receive him. With that in mind, let him speak to you about these things right now.


perfect life

Jesus truly cares about our trials and struggles, and sometimes he does alleviate them. We should not be embarrassed or ashamed to ask him for help with earthly problems. Jesus should be the most significant factor in any situation for us. Even so, having our troubles “fixed” often leaves us unchanged, and that’s not always a good thing.


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To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 50


Matthew #50 . Matthew 15:29-38

Greetings, dear friends. This week I will be writing about, among other things, how the presence of Jesus should be the most important factor to believers in all circumstances. In terms of energy, time, talent and finances it often seems like I am inadequate to the callings the Lord has for me. But just as the most important thing for the 4000 hungry people to know was that Jesus was among them, so it is with me, and you too, I might add.

For this reason, I invite you to pray with me for the ministry of Clear Bible.

Please pray that the Lord will provide every need to keeping making this ministry what He wants it to be. Pray it will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. God really is our true provider, so please do pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

917 Canyon Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

(this is a new address by the way. It is merely an administrative change).

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!


One of the arguments made by skeptics is that the Bible, as we have it today, was shaped and “redacted,” by early Christian communities. In other words, goes the theory, over the first few hundred years of Christianity, various Christian communities changed some of what was originally written, and made up other parts out of thin air. Of course, this theory is destroyed by the known facts of how the Bible came to be. With vast numbers of complete and partial manuscripts in various languages, with a few surviving portions of manuscripts dating back to the time of the apostles, and large numbers of surviving papyri dating to within one generation of the apostles, we know that early Christian communities changed nothing. If they had, we would find widely varying readings in the various surviving manuscripts, with significantly variant readings clearly centered in geographical areas. Instead, we find that by A.D. 250, virtually all Christians across the known world (at the time) were using essentially the same New Testament texts. This occurred while Christianity was still an illegal, persecuted religion, so no one got any wealth or power from what is written in the bible.

Matthew 15:29–38 is another one of those passages that would only be included if the Bible is in fact what it claims to be. In other words, if you were in an early Christian community deciding what the Bible was going to be, you would almost certainly leave this out. If you haven’t already, go ahead and read the text. Now, think about it. We already have the feeding of the 5000. In that story, Jesus healed a bunch of people, and then fed them all with a few fish and some pieces of bread. In this story, we have almost the same thing. Jesus heals a bunch of people, spends three days with them, and then feeds them all with a few fish and some pieces of bread. The main differences appear to be that the second crowd was with Jesus for three days (instead of just one), and there were 4000 men (plus women and children), instead of 5000 (plus women and children). We also have different numbers of bread and fish and of baskets of leftovers.

Why would we include this second story? We already have a story just like it. The answer is simple: the reason Matthew included this story is because it really happened. It wasn’t put in by an early Christian community because they had some sort of agenda; this story does not advance any agenda beyond that of the first mass-feeding. A made-up gospel would simply leave it out. No, the only reason to include this story is because this is what actually happened. By the way, Jesus and his disciples have a conversation in Matthew 16, in which they refer to both incidents.

We might ask, why then, did Jesus repeat this miracle? We can ask this in true faith; it is a reasonable question. Sometimes, however, I think we hyper spiritualize what we read in the Bible. Sometimes the answer is very simple and straightforward. I think the reason Jesus fed the 4000, even though he had previously fed the 5000, was because, at that particular time, he was with the 4000 and they were hungry. In other words, it wasn’t some sort of additional lesson, or spiritual parable. He wasn’t proving a point. He happened to be there with those people. They were in need, and so he healed them; they were hungry, and so he fed them. It was simply Jesus providing for needy people.

Now, I believe this is true, and I think it is the main reason we have this text. I also believe that the Holy Spirit can, and does, use every part of the Scripture, and so I also think that we can hear God speak to us through this text.

First, I want us to notice something about our desires and their fulfillments as we look at this passage. Matthew tells us that he’s only counting men (in a census, only men were counted, which was a good thing for the people when it came to war and taxes). Conservatively, if you assume only one woman and one child for every two men present, on this occasion, Jesus fed about 8,000 people. On the previous occasion it would have been 10,000. So, between the two incidents, Jesus miraculously fed 18,000 people (possibly many more). In addition, he healed many of those people. I am sure that many of them desperately wanted healing for themselves or their family members before they went to see Jesus. I’m sure that many of them were very tired and hungry before Jesus fed them. Well, they got what they wanted: they were healed and then fed. They came to the Lord, asking him to meet their needs, and he did. But what was the result?

Luke tells us that when the dust had all settled after the crucifixion and resurrection, there were about 120 people (men, women and children) who followed Jesus. We don’t know for sure who each one of those 120 people were, but we know that the twelve followed him before the feeding of the five or four thousands. We know also about many women who were already his followers before this, along with several people whom were not present when he fed the five thousand, or the four, but became followers later, in Jerusalem. What this means is that at most, out of 18,000 people who received miraculous healing and miraculous food, fewer than 100 ended up following Jesus. That’s about one half of 1%. It is possible, of course that not a single one of these 18,000 people were among the 120 disciples at the time of Jesus’ resurrection.

The reason I bring this up is because it speaks to the heart of a lie that we human beings tell ourselves so often. We think that if God would just show himself we would put our faith in him. We believe that if God would simply fix our difficult situation everything would change for us. There are many Christian circles where it is popular to say “you cannot minister to a person’s spiritual needs until you have ministered to her physical needs.” But all these ideas are destroyed by this fact: Jesus Christ himself ministered to the physical needs of more than 18,000 people, and virtually none of them followed him; virtually none of them were fundamentally or permanently changed.

Our true need is not for God to simply alleviate our suffering, for him to deal with the thing that we think is bothering us the most. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the alleviation of suffering, particularly my own. But I do not think it accomplishes as much as we suppose it does. In the lives of these 18,000 people, it did not accomplish much spiritually, it did not fundamentally change the lives, or eternal destinies, of very many of them.

When I have a friend who is not a believer, and is suffering in some way, I usually pray that the Lord would alleviate his suffering. In that situation, I also often tell my friend I am praying for him. I have this idea that if God will simply intervene, my friend will become a believer, surrender his life to Jesus, and be changed forever. But this business about the feeding of the thousands shows me that that is not necessarily the case. Perhaps (!) the Lord is wiser than me when he chooses not to intervene miraculously. Maybe fixing everything doesn’t actually fix everything.

Jesus addressed physical pain, and physical needs, because he loved people, and the Father allowed him to help them. And I think this is another important lesson to take from the passage: Jesus cares, and sometimes Jesus does something about suffering. If nothing else, this passage shows us that he has great compassion on those who suffer. He did his miracles of healing and feeding, not because it led to more people following him, not because through it, more people received his salvation, but simply because it broke his heart to see them in need.

He did not need to do this miracle to show the people something about who he was as the Messiah – he had already done that with the feeding of the 5000. But he cared about the fact that these people were also hungry. He had just provided physical healing for number of them, and he did not want to send them off on a long journey with nothing to sustain them; he did not want hunger to undo the physical healing he had already brought. He cared about their hunger, he cared about their need, and combining his compassion with power, he met that need. The book of Hebrews says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).” That means that Jesus is still like this today: he still cares about our physical needs, and he still meets them, perhaps even miraculously at times. Maybe you need to hear this word for you today: Jesus cares about you, about every single thing in your life.

I don’t think I’m contradicting my earlier point. I think we need to put our own struggles and sufferings in perspective. We need to realize that if Jesus were to miraculously solve all our problems, we would still have a deep need for him. We need to recognize that the resolution of all earthly obstacles does not actually accomplish very much for us in eternity. Even so, Jesus truly does care about our present, earthly trials and struggles, and sometimes he does alleviate them. We should not be embarrassed or ashamed to ask him for help with earthly problems.

There is another thing I find interesting here: the response of the disciples when Jesus suggested that they should provide food for the crowd. It’s easy to judge them; after all they were in this same situation, probably no more than a year or two before (Matthew does not tell us how much time has passed since the feeding of the 5000). To me, their response seems almost incredible, at least on the surface: “Where could we get enough bread in this desolate place to fill such a crowd?” Seriously? Did they learn nothing from the first time?

However, I think perhaps when we judge the disciples in this way we are not being entirely fair. First, it isn’t like Jesus is producing food out of thin air every day. From day-to-day, week to week, month-to-month they are eating with Jesus in the normal way. In fact, we know from Luke that they were generally dependent on help from others for their daily necessities (Luke 8:1-3). It is likely that they themselves had experienced times when they wondered whether or not they would get a meal. Clearly, Jesus did not miraculously provide food on every single occasion when there was a need.

Second, I find that when I am in a place of need, I still often doubt the Lord, even though he has so clearly provided in the past. I think this is human nature, and it may be one of the reasons why the Lord grants so very few Christians the dangerous position of financial security. We are meant to keep looking to him for all we need, and very few of us really do look to him until we are in need. There is something about our relationship with the Lord that keeps inviting us to trust, and in order to truly trust, doubt must be possible. In any case, I have to admit, I’m still sometimes not expecting Jesus to do anything, still sometimes surprised when he does. How often do I, like the disciples in this text, expect that Jesus will not really do anything?

This is a reminder to me to keep looking to him. Once again, I don’t think this a contradiction to anything I said earlier. I don’t think God’s provision turns people into disciples. However, for those of us who have already begun to follow Jesus, it is vital that we remember God as the most important factor in every situation. We have eight thousand hungry people, what shall we do? Look to Jesus. We have a bill we can’t pay, what shall we do? Look to Jesus. We have a broken relationship that we can’t fix, what shall we do? Look to Jesus. Maybe you are lonely, or dissatisfied with life, or overwhelmed. The presence and will of Jesus should be the deciding factor for us in all circumstances.


offended taylor swift

Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it. What do we do when that happens?


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Matthew #36 . Matthew 11:1-6

When Jesus had finished giving orders to His 12 disciples, He moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent a message by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else? ” Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.” (Matt 11:1-6, HCSB)

I believe that one of the first two or three sermons I ever preached was on this text. I really wish I could remember what I said, because I’m sure it was brilliant. Actually, of course what we do here is always to try and listen for what the Holy Spirit has to say to us through the text right now. So perhaps it would be a bad idea to simply go back to something I said 20 years ago.

Let’s get a little background here. As we know, John the Baptist started preaching before Jesus began his public ministry. We saw already in the book of Matthew, that John (the Baptist) believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and pointing people to Jesus was John’s major mission. In addition, we learned that Jesus’ mother and John’s mother were cousins, and while they were both pregnant they spent some time together. At that time, John, still unborn, leaped in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary when she was with pregnant Jesus. So these two have a long history together.

There is evidence that after Jesus came upon the scene, many of John’s followers left him to follow Jesus. Apparently John felt that this was good and right and appropriate. The apostle John (a different individual) records that some of the Baptist’s remaining disciples complained about those who left John for Jesus. But John the Baptist responded like this:

“No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-31, HCSB)

John viewed Jesus as the bridegroom, the man of the hour, and himself as the best man. This was absolutely correct and good. But no one, not even John, knew before-hand quite what Jesus’ mission on earth was really supposed to look like. As Jesus’ ministry unfolded, circumstances caused John the Baptist to wonder.

What happened was this. Sometime after Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist, being the outspoken person he was, criticized Herod Antipas, who, under the Romans, was ruler of Galilee (this was the son of Herod the Great, who had tried to have the Messiah killed as a baby). He chastised him for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own wife. Herod might have put up with this, but Herodias did not, and John was thrown in prison (Matt 14:3).

John, like most Jews of his time, probably had the idea that the Messiah was going to liberate the people of Israel from foreign oppressors like Herod and the Romans. He went into prison believing that the Messiah was his cousin, Jesus. This is just a guess on my part, but I think it’s a pretty reasonable one: I believe that John expected Jesus to liberate him during the course of his messianic campaign. So John went to prison thinking: All I have to do is wait and when Jesus starts the war to drive out the Romans and the Idumeans, he’ll free me from prison, and I’ll join him in the victorious campaign.

Even if John was not caught up in that sort of thinking about the Messiah, he still probably thought: the Messiah is my cousin. I’ve served him and his cause faithfully. Surely he will not let me rot in prison. After all, that’s reasonable. Friends don’t let friends die in prison, if they have the power to prevent it.

At least, that’s what we think.

So after John had been in the dungeon for a while, it was natural for him to become a little bit impatient. After a little while longer, it is clear that he began to wonder if he had been wrong about Jesus being the Messiah; that is, in fact, the reason he sent people to Jesus as recorded in this text.

Now, I want us to observe something very significant. What caused John to wonder? Think about it. John had a deep knowledge of the Old Testament, and his preaching about the coming of the Messiah was based upon those Scriptures. But those Scriptures had not changed since John was put into prison. John also knew Jesus personally, and Jesus was still the same person that John had known since before he was born, the same person, in fact, whom John had pointed out to others and said “There is the Messiah. He’s the one I’ve been talking about.” So John’s knowledge had not changed, and the Scriptures had not changed, and Jesus had not changed. What caused John to wonder was that his own circumstances had changed, and Jesus had done nothing about it.

This is tremendously important. Jesus was not meeting John’s expectations. He was not behaving the way John thought he ought to behave. As crass as this sounds, the truth is that Jesus was not doing what John wanted him to do, and that caused him to doubt Jesus.

I have met many, many people who have the same struggle as John. For years, I’ve eagerly looked forward to the day I could meet with someone who was an atheist for purely intellectual reasons. In my imagination, when I met such a person, we would have an engaging, far-reaching, stimulating discussion. It would end with the atheist realizing for the first time that his arguments are in fact illogical and not founded on the truth. With the intellectual obstacles removed, the atheist would become a person of faith.

But the truth is, everyone I’ve ever met who claims to have an intellectual objection to Christianity, in fact rejects faith in Jesus because God has disappointed them personally in some way. It never fails. It sounds noble to have intellectual objections to faith. But the truth is that people reject God because at some level he did not behave according to their expectations, or do what they wanted him to do. At times, I’ve had the same struggle myself.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that what John the Baptist wanted Jesus to do was trivial. It was no trivial thing to be put in prison in first century Galilee. The prisons were generally damp and unsanitary, filled with rats and disease. Nutrition was poor, fights and abuse by guards were frequent. Many people died simply from being in these conditions for long period of time. John had no standing, no patron to plead his case with Herod. His prospects were incredibly grim. It wasn’t unreasonable for him to want Jesus to rescue him. What could be more natural than to expect the Messiah to rescue his own cousin, the same man who had proclaimed him to be the Messiah to many people?

Many of the things that we want God to do for us are not unreasonable either: to save the life of a child, to heal a parent, to restore a marriage, to prevent something that any reasonable human being would call a tragedy.

But we find, like John, that sometimes Jesus simply doesn’t do it.

This fact made John wonder, perhaps it even caused him to doubt. At least John did the right thing with his doubts: he was honest about them, and he took them to Jesus.

Jesus did not chastise him for having doubts. He said this:

Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. (Matt 11:4-5, HCSB)

This little statement from Jesus makes reference to no fewer than five messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Job 29:15; Isaiah 26:19, 29:18, 35, 61:1-2). In essence, Jesus’ reply is this: “You want to know if I’m the Messiah? I am fulfilling the messianic prophecies about healing the blind, healing the lame, cleansing those with leprosy, healing and death, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news to the poor.”

To say it even more plainly, Jesus was telling John to remember and rely upon the scriptures. He was reminding him what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, urging him to compare it to Jesus himself, and then to trust.

Jesus then adds this comment: “and blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me,” (my translation). I think Jesus is cutting to the very heart of the matter. He knows that we are sometimes offended or scandalized by the fact that he does not conform to our expectations. Again, in John’s case it wasn’t about social or religious expectations; it was about a personal desire that was entirely good and appropriate, which Jesus chose not to fulfill. In a way, he is saying, “I know you don’t understand, John. But you will be blessed if you don’t let your lack of understanding cause you to be offended by me.”

But Jesus is not only talking to John. His words are for all of us. Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it.

Like John, the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to bring our doubts and wonderings to Jesus himself. We can be honest with him. He did not rebuke John for doubting, or for his honesty. His answer to John is also for us: Look to the Bible, it is the most reliable witness to whom Jesus is. The Bible has not changed. Jesus has not changed. The only thing that has changed is our circumstance, and that is not a reliable guide to truth. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is the same person we read about in the pages of the Bible. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that the Bible is reliable and can be trusted (By the way, if you are not sure about that, I encourage you to go through my 10 part sermon series entitled, “Understanding the Bible.” The first sermon can be found here, and you can go on sequentially from that). We know from all this that Jesus is real, and that he loves us. We know also, that this life is not all there is, and there are many reasons for things that we will never be able to comprehend. Sometimes, we can only see part of the picture, and the rest of the explanation can only be understood in the light of eternity.

And Jesus says to us, “You are blessed when you’re not offended by me.” We are blessed when we allow Jesus to be who he is, even when it doesn’t conform to our own expectations of him. We are blessed when we trust him, in spite of our circumstances.

John never did get out of prison. But Jesus says, later in this text, that while he is alive, John is not as well off the very least individual who is already in the kingdom of heaven. There is a plan. There is an answer. It is just that sometimes the plan and answer extend into the next life, where we cannot see right now. Ultimately, in the light of eterinity, John was better off more quickly because he was not released from prison.

With John, will you hear the words of Jesus now? Will you trust him? Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

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At some point, anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is faced with a call to daily deny himself or herself, die to self, be willing to actually die, and follow Jesus. This isn’t just theoretical. It will affect the way we relate to other people. It will affect what kind of jobs we take, and when and where we take them. It should make an impact on how much we indulge ourselves. It may even at some point cost us our lives.


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 35



Matthew #35. Matthew 10:32-42

Remember, Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus sending his disciples out on a training mission. He gave them certain instructions, from which we can gain certain principles, and we looked at those already. Last time, we looked at the words of warning that Jesus gave his disciples. He told them to expect persecution and trouble. But he also gave them (and, by extension, us) many wonderful words of comfort and promise, words which we can hold on to in times of trouble.

After these comforting promises, Jesus begins with this: “Therefore…” One of my old Bible school teachers always used to say “What is that therefore there for?” It’s a useful little question. In this case, it is to remind us that what Jesus is going to say next is connected with what he has already said. In other words, because we have these warnings, and especially because we have these promises, Jesus says this:

“Therefore, everyone who will acknowledge Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven. (Matt 10:32-33, HCSB)

Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Acknowledge me before men.” He first gives us instructions, and a sure and beautiful promise of his presence and his grace to us in the middle of hard times. Considering those things, he now says, “All these promises are connected to me. To receive them, you must confess me. You must put me before all things.”

The Greek word that is here translated “acknowledge,” might also be “confess.” The two root words of the Greek term, put together, really mean “to say the same thing as,” or “to speak with.” Some translations make it “confess.” I like this better than “acknowledge.” We are to confess Jesus. Confession means not only to admit something, but also to agree with something or someone. We are to say the same things that Jesus says, to agree with him. Jesus makes it clear that we are to do so not only privately, but also in public.

Jesus goes on. He makes reference to a verse in the book of Micah, implying that it is a messianic verse and he is fulfilling it:

Surely a son considers his father a fool, a daughter opposes her mother, and a daughter-in-law is against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household. But I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me. Do not rejoice over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will stand up; though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. (Mic 7:6-8, HCSB)

He also says “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This is one of those things Jesus said that many people don’t seem to know about. You don’t have to go far to hear Christians and non-Christians alike saying, “Why do conservative Christians have to stir up so much trouble? Christians are supposed to get along with everybody. It isn’t Christian to cause controversy.” In light of these verses, I guess maybe Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He is quite clear: He is a polarizing personality; those who follow him will find themselves at times embroiled in conflict, even within their own families. This isn’t an endorsement of violence in any way, shape or form. It isn’t a license to be rude, or to bully. But Jesus does want us to recognize that following him can lead to controversy and difficult relationships.

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this preached by anyone else before. But obviously, it is right here in the text. If Jesus said anything at all, he said this as well. We can’t ignore it. These days, when we agree with (that is, confess) the things that Jesus said, or the things that his Holy Spirit inspired his apostles to write, it is easy to draw flak. If we agree with the Bible about what the Holy Spirit calls “sin,” we are called hatemongers. If we agree with what Jesus actually said about himself, we are called narrow-minded and intolerant. Following Jesus does indeed lead us to be peaceful and loving. But it does not mean that others will see us that way, or even that our lives will be free from conflict with those who do not follow Jesus or his word.

Now, Jesus ratchets it up a notch. Not only does he suggest that following him can lead us into conflict, but he demands that when there is a conflict, we choose him above anything and anybody else.

The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt 10:37, HCSB)

It’s easy to breeze through these words of Jesus. But hold on a minute: we are supposed to choose Jesus even above our own children? That is what He says here. Now obviously, much of the time we are not faced with choices like this. Following Jesus is usually compatible with loving our children. But Jesus is saying, flat out, that we should always love him more than we love our own children, or anyone else for that matter.

Let’s step back a minute and look at this message. This is not merely a great moral teaching about loving other people. It is, in fact, a demand that we love Jesus, and that we do so at a higher level than we love anyone else. Unless Jesus is God, this teaching is either nonsense or pure evil. There is no sense in which Jesus is saying “Follow your own path to enlightenment.” He is not saying, “Follow me, follow Buddha, it makes no difference as long as you are sincere.” He is not saying, “Just love everybody else and you’ll be fine.” Instead, he is clearly saying: “Everything comes down to how you relate to me. I am the basis upon which you must prioritize your life and make your decisions.” To put it another way, the central teachings of Jesus are about himself. No wonder he was such a polarizing figure.

Next he says this:

And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:38-39, HCSB)

Over the years, this little part of what Jesus said has morphed into this: “I have my own cross to bear.” But this is not at all the meaning that Jesus had in mind. It’s true, each person has their own unique struggles in life; I think it’s fine to recognize that. But when Jesus was talking about taking up our cross, he wasn’t talking about that. This was the period in history when the Romans used crucifixion as a method of execution. Typically, if the condemned person was healthy enough, he had to carry the instrument of his own death to the place of execution. In other words, condemned people could be seen from time to time carrying the crosses upon which they were to be killed. To carry a cross was to be on your way to death. So when Jesus tells us that we must pick up our crosses and follow him, he is saying that we must follow in his example of dying.

I think it is appropriate to understand that Jesus means, among other things, that we must die to our own ambitions, comforts, and goals. Jesus actually repeats this teaching again later on in his ministry. Luke records that the second time Jesus said it, it was “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” I think this definitely captures the meaning. Taking up our cross means that we deny ourselves. We don’t deny ourselves just to show that we are self-disciplined, but we put Jesus’ goals and ambitions and desires for us ahead of our own. I think it’s useful that Luke says this needs to happen “daily.” But even more than dying to our own desires, right here, Jesus is telling us that in order to follow him we need to be willing to go as far as actual physical death. Throughout the past 2000 years, many Christians have been faced with the choice to either deny Jesus or give up their physical lives. I live in a time and a place where that is unlikely to happen, even so, Jesus wants my willingness. Not even continuing to live should be more important to me than Jesus Christ. As Jesus says, if you save your own life, by compromising your relationship with him, you have actually lost it.

In the next few verses Jesus’ claim is emphasized once more. He says that he is so central to everything, that when people offer respect, regard, or even a cup of water, to his followers, because they are his followers, they will be rewarded. The point here is not the reward, it is the fact of people recognizing who Jesus is and honoring that in the way they relate to his followers. It is about honoring Jesus.

I hope you understand that these words of Jesus are confrontational. He is presenting us with a choice: does he have the preeminent place in our lives? Do we love him more than we love anyone else? Is Jesus our number one priority? He is claiming here that he should be. This isn’t about following a moral code, it isn’t about living according to some sort of principle. It is about making Jesus Christ, the person, number one in our lives.

When controversy comes because you confess Jesus Christ, or you agree with what he says, what is your response? It isn’t wrong to seek peace with those with whom you disagree. But when peace is impossible, when agreement cannot be reached, Jesus unequivocally calls us to side with him.

At some point, anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is faced with a call to daily deny himself or herself, die to self, be willing to actually die, and follow Jesus. This isn’t just theoretical. It will affect the way we relate to other people. It will affect what kind of jobs we take, and when and where we take them. It should make an impact on how much we indulge ourselves. It may even at some point cost us our lives.

Now of course, we can’t be perfect in putting Jesus first. I know I fail to do that in many ways. I believe Jesus offers me grace and forgiveness when I fail. But I do think he wants me to make the choice to put him above everything, even if at times I fail in following through. It is good to know, that my failures are not the final word.

Once again, we do not have the comfortable choice of viewing Jesus as a kind, harmless moral teacher. In some ways, he has been at the center of controversy for the past 2000 years. We can reject what he has said here, and call him a lunatic, or a megalomaniac. Or, we can receive him as our Lord, take up our crosses, and follow him.