FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (ESV, Galatians 2:20)

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

GOING WITH JESUS

go-therefore-feet-walking

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him.

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Download Matthew Part 100

Matthew #100.  Matthew 28:16-20

16The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:16-20, HCSB)

This section of scripture is often called “The Great Commission.” One way or another, all four gospel writers record that after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that he wanted them to spread the word about Him. So Luke writes, at the beginning of Acts:

3After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise.

“This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time? ”

7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:3-8, HCSB)

Mark has it like this:

15Then He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16, HCSB)

And John includes this incident:

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

I doubt that any of these refer to the same incident. Instead, it seems that after his resurrection, several different times, and in different ways, Jesus told his disciples that they were to continue on with his mission after he left the earth, and that he would empower them with the Holy Spirit to do so, and that His presence would be with them through the Spirit.

This mission was not only for the eleven faithful apostles. Earlier on, Jesus sent seventy of his followers on a smaller mission, preparing them for the time when they would have the opportunity to share the full good news (Luke 10:1-12). Almost immediately after Jesus left the earth, we find not only the apostles, but other Christians as well, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Stephen, who was not one of the twelve, shared it so boldly that he became the first Christian martyr. After his death, the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered by persecution, but even as they left their homes, they brought the good news to other places:

4So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. (Acts 8:4, HCSB)

Mostly, they spoke to other Jews, but eventually, they began sharing with the culture at large:

19Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews.

20But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21, HCSB)

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. I italicize “spoke” because many people think they shouldn’t have to say anything. I have heard many Christians express enthusiasm for the saying: “Share the gospel. If necessary, use words.” It sounds cool, but it is utter nonsense. There is no record in the New Testament of anyone coming to faith without hearing someone speak. Cornelius was a man who was seeking God. He had a vision from the Lord. The Lord did not reveal the full gospel in that vision. Instead, he instructed Cornelius to find Peter, and he instructed Peter to share the good news with him. In order to make disciples, we must be willing and able to speak about Jesus.

Of course, it is important how you live your life as well. Both things: Living your life for Jesus, and speaking about Him, are important. The rest of the New Testament backs me up with this.

14But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, 15but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1Pet 3:14-15, HCSB, emphasis added)

5Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. (Col 4:5-6, HCSB, emphasis added)

Even in our text for today, Jesus emphasized that teaching is an indispensable part of making disciples.

These texts show us that speaking about Jesus is the responsibility of all Christians. Obviously, some are called to do it in a special way, full time, but every Christian should be willing and able to share about Jesus at any time. The Greek expression for “go therefore” might also be translated “as you are going.” In other words, this is something all Christians do, as we go through life.

To more fully express the mission Jesus gave us, we might say this: all Christians are supposed to be disciples and help make other disciples, as we go through this life. Most certainly, that is what the very first Christians did (and not just the apostles).

Let me clarify some things that many Christians seems to get confused about. Acts 11:26 tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” In other words, to be a Christian means you are a disciple. To be a disciple means you are a Christian. Being a  Christian (and thus, a disciple) means that you trust Jesus, and, however imperfectly, try to allow him to be in charge of your life. This means that you make decisions based on what you believe Jesus wants you to do. You treat others the way you think Jesus wants you to treat them. You live your whole life that way.

In order to do this of course, you have to get to know Jesus. Disciples spend their whole lives getting to know Jesus more, and more. They do this through reading the Bible (which is His special message for us, so it is listening to Him), praying (which is talking to Him), and “doing life” with other disciples so that you can help each other along the way. This is what Jesus meant when he said “make disciples.”

Jesus did not say “make converts.” A convert is someone who goes from believing one thing, to believing another. Often, becoming a disciple involves being converted. But that is only part of the process. Once you are converted, you are supposed to continue to walk the path of discipleship. Conversion is only one step in that path.

Jesus did not say “make churches.” However, becoming a part of a church is a necessary by-product of being a disciple. A real disciple is part of the family of God, and according to the New Testament, the family of God is not “all humanity,” but rather, it is the church. We need other disciples of Jesus to encourage us, pray with, and for, us, tell us when we are being stupid, work together with us for the purposes of Jesus, and help us through tough times. A church can also get together and call Bible teachers, who can assist people in understanding God’s Word (the Bible), which, again, helps us to be better disciples. A real church navigates the ups and downs of life together. If you don’t have a group of fellow-disciples-of-Jesus with whom to do that, you need to find one, as soon as possible. Christians quickly drift away from really following Jesus when they don’t have a church.

Even so, being a part of a church is merely part of being disciple. In other words, if we make disciples, and pursue discipleship ourselves, we will naturally join together and form churches. If we keep the proper mission in view (“Make Disciples”), then churches will indeed form. But we need to remember that our main goal is not to form churches, but to be, and make, disciples. The emphasis should always be not on growing churches, but growing, and making, disciples.

We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Luke and John, and the rest of the New Testament, teach us that when Jesus returned to Heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to be with us in a special way. Through the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus is always with every one of His disciples.

16And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. 17He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive Him because it doesn’t see Him or know Him. But you do know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you. (John 14:16-18, HCSB)

Now, I hope you know that this is a scary thought. That’s right, he’s with us always. When you did that thing, you know what I’m talking about – the Holy Spirit saw you. That’s why Paul writes:

30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:30, HCSB)

And:

15Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! 16Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. 17But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (1Cor 6:15-17, HCSB)

But it isn’t just that Jesus knows when we sin. Through the Spirit, he applies the work He did on the cross, to us. Through the Spirit, he forgives, washes and renews us:

4But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared, 5He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, HCSB)

Through the Spirit, he teaches us, comforts us and guides us.

25“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. 27“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

We can only do the work of discipleship, and making disciples, through our connection with Jesus by the Holy Spirit:

5“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:5, HCSB)

I am embarrassed when I sin, and then after, remember that the Holy Spirit is with me. But His grace and forgiveness are bigger than my sins, and bigger than yours, also. He reminds me of all the teachings of Jesus, and applies all of the work of Jesus to my heart.

All in all, the promise that Jesus is with us always through the Holy Spirit should bring us tremendous comfort and joy. Relying on the Spirit’s power and guidance, if we give Him our willingness, we can be sure to find joy in fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus, in being His disciples, and in helping other disciples to come to Him, and grow.

DYING IN ORDER TO LIVE

follow Jesus to cross

The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross. – Dietrich Bohnhoeffer

 

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Matthew #56 . Matthew 16:20-27

Last time we began to talk about the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Let’s review his words:

Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matt 16:20-28, ESV2011)

I admit, I was deliberately vague about what exactly it means to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.” Instead, last time we considered that this is indeed the call of Jesus, and in general it contradicts the values of the world around us. We also considered that the cross can bring us unexpected joy.

So this time I want to dwell on what, more specifically, is the call of the cross? What does it mean to follow Jesus by taking up our cross?

Before we do that, once again I want to thank you for listening, and remind you that we deeply appreciate your prayers for this ministry. I believe in the power of prayer, and I’m grateful for you asking our Father in heaven to use this ministry, to bless it, and to supply all our needs. I don’t want you think I’m requesting prayer as a covert way of asking for money. We really do value your prayers most of all. It is possible, of course, that as you pray, Lord leads you to give us some financial support. Obviously, if he does, 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. But please do continue to pray for us, regardless.

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:

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Thank for your prayers, and your support!

Now, back to the text. Let me start by clarifying what it does not mean. It is not ordinary human suffering. You may have heard the expression: “That’s just my own cross to bear.” That saying is almost always used wrongly, at least in the sense of what Jesus meant here. For instance, suppose someone with arthritis says, “This arthritis is my cross to bear.” That is not at all the kind of thing Jesus is talking about here. How do I know that Jesus didn’t mean things like arthritis? To put it bluntly, arthritis is painful and difficult, but is not a consequence of following Jesus. Jesus clearly tells us here that the cross is all about following him.

Not everyone has arthritis, but most people suffer in some way. This is true of people who follow Jesus and true of those who do not. Obviously, not all suffering is a consequence of being his disciple. Also it is important to realize Jesus doesn’t call us to have arthritis – sometimes things like that just happen because we live in a fallen world.

On the other hand, the cross is always about Jesus. So what does the call of the cross involve?

First, death to self. Jesus says we must deny ourselves and not seek to save our own lives, but lose our lives for his sake. This is not a call to suicide. But it is a call to make Jesus even more important than everything, including (perhaps especially) yourself. Ordinary flesh rebels at this thought. I mean, let’s be honest. For most us, the default “most important thing” is ourselves.

What could possibly motivate us to be willing to put the needs of someone else above our own? What could possibly induce us to be willing to even die for someone else? A few remarkable individuals might die for another for the sake of duty or honor. But I think for most of us the answer to those questions is: love. We can put the needs of another above our own needs as an act of love. We can die for another, say a spouse or child, motivated by love.

I think we need to understand the call of Jesus in this light. I think for most of us, the only way to do this is to love Jesus more than anything else.

Obviously, I am not talking about romantic/erotic love. I’m talking about making a choice and a commitment to value and honor Jesus above all else. The better we know him, the easier it is to do this. This is one reason it is so important for us to have regular habits of Bible reading, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and regular, solid Bible teaching. These things help us to know Jesus better which help us also to love him better. They lay the only reasonable groundwork for being able to deny ourselves and follow him, even when it involves dying to our own desires, and perhaps even martyrdom. Matthew records that Jesus already said this once before:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, ESV2011)

To sum up this point: the cross means that I love Jesus so much that I am truly willing to give up anything for his sake. This isn’t about feeling guilty when we fail to do so, but we need to live with an ongoing recognition that the focal point of the universe is Jesus, not ourselves, and not anyone else.

Another aspect of “taking up your cross” is that it means accepting shame and rejection and even sometimes persecution. It involves following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was (and is still) rejected and scorned by many people.

“If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. But they will do all these things to you on account of My name, because they don’t know the One who sent me. (John 15:18-21, HCSB)

This is part of the cross we take up to follow Jesus – that the people around will not understand, and in many cases will even hate us. I think sometimes it surprises us that Christians are considered by many to be hateful and bigoted. But if people slandered Jesus, why should we be surprised when we are slandered today?

For me, it has been a perplexing thing to have others who call themselves Christians speaking mockingly and hatefully about those of us who seem to be serious about following Jesus and believing the bible. However, it may be helpful for us to remember that those who first persecuted Jesus and his followers were religious people who claimed to be of the same faith as Jesus and the disciples. Saul (who later became Paul, the apostle) viciously persecuted the followers of Jesus in the name of God. I think today, more than ever for the past 500 years, we have a large number of people who are willing to call themselves Christian, but who also willfully ignore what the Bible teaches. It isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, but it is part of the cross of Jesus to be misunderstood, criticized, and ostracized even by others who claim to follow the same God.

Paul, who was both persecutor, and persecuted, notes this in many places. Here is a small sample:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. (1Cor 1:18, HCSB)

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. (Gal 5:11, ESV2011)

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1Cor 1:23-25, HCSB)

The cross of Christ means, among other things, that we will be considered foolish, dangerous, evil and offensive. This is happening more and more even in historically Christian-friendly societies. However, we in the West have not even begun to suffer when you consider how Christians are persecuted in other places around the world. Many countries have laws limiting the expression of Christian faith. Others include laws that make Christians “second class citizens.” From North Africa, east to Indonesia and north to China, there are Christians being imprisoned, physically assaulted and even killed for following Jesus. As far as I know, since Jesus was crucified and for two-thousand years since, at least some of his followers have been persecuted in at least some places in the world. Jesus said to expect it. This part of what it means to take up our crosses.

Not everything about taking up the cross is hard and negative. One thing that it means is that we are dead to sin. That should be positive and encouraging for us.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Rom 6:3-8, ESV2011)

Taking up our cross means that we recognize that in regard to sin, our flesh is as good as dead. The old sinner, Tom, has been killed with Jesus on the cross. I need to remember this, and trust that it is true, every day. I’m dead to sin. Sin has no relationship with a dead body, and sin has no relationship to me. Now, I am not claiming that I never commit sins, but the disease of sin has been killed in me, though some symptoms might linger. In the eyes of God, the sin problem is over. And so every day I need to take up my cross, and trust again that I am dead to sin, and live accordingly.

To sum it all up, when I take up my cross, I die to myself in order to live for Jesus. Paul says this so eloquently in Galatians 2:19-20

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20, HCSB)

I think it is important to understand that what many churches market as “Christianity” is really woefully lacking compared to what Jesus actually calls us to. Being a Christian is so much more than merely subscribing to a certain set of truths – though those truths are important. Instead, it is about selling out completely for Jesus Christ – loving Him with heart, mind, soul and strength, and dying to ourselves, dying to sin and being willing to undergo anything for His sake.

All this is not simply so that we can learn more about discipleship, instead, I want us to hear the invitation of the Lord here. All he needs from us is our willingness – he will take care of the rest. Martin Luther frames the call of Jesus to discipleship in this way:

Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I will help you to comprehend even as I do… You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were blind men. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no living creature, but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go.

Now, I realize that all of this might sound a little bit “heavy.” But remember what we talked about last time: when we accept the cross we enter a life of joy. It is not the pleasure or comfort that the world seeks, but it is true joy. When we give up on ourselves, and accept the will of Jesus for our lives, we find a peace and grace and the joy that cannot be found any other way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his excellent book, The Cost of Discipleship. But Bonhoeffer did not just write about it, he lived it. Ultimately, he gave his life for the sake of Jesus; he was executed in Nazi Germany because his Christian faith was a threat to Hitler’s regime. When he speaks of the cross, and the cost of discipleship, he has authority, because he lived it. So, I think we can trust him when he shares about the strange joy that comes through accepting the cross of Jesus.

But Jesus invites all who travail and are heavy laden to throw off their own yoke and take his yoke upon them – and his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross.

JESUS CLAIMS #1 SPOT FOR HIS FOLLOWERS

carryingthecross-2

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.

WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN JESUS?

no-excuses

Jesus did not give people the option of being half-hearted about Him. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected, by Jesus Himself, to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Matthew #27 . Matthew 8:14-22

When Jesus went into Peter’s house, He saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. So He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve Him. When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.

Starting at the beginning of chapter eight, Matthew has been telling us of several healing incidents. Some commentators like to point out that the first two healings were done to people who were outcasts in the eyes of normal Jewish society at the time, so they say that Peter’s mother-in-law was also a kind of outcast – in that she was a woman. However, you can’t get this idea from either the text itself, or from actual historical evidence. In point of fact, given that Peter’s mother-in-law serves Jesus as soon as she is well (presumably meaning she cooked and served his dinner) and the fact that she lives with Peter, it’s pretty ridiculous to view her as some kind of outcast. I bring this up merely to caution us against trying to make the bible fit neatly with our pre-conceived patterns or biases. It’s unfortunate, but true, that sometimes people misinterpret, or even make up, historical and cultural details in order to get the bible to support their own agenda.

The point here is that Jesus didn’t just heal two outcasts – he healed a whole bunch of people, including good Jewish people like Peter’s mother-in-law. Even more than that, Matthew points out that this is a fulfillment of another prophecy about the Messiah, this time from Isaiah 53:4

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains

In other words, Jesus’ healing miracles provided yet another confirmation of who He truly was, and backed up his claims to have the authority of God Himself.

It also says that people brought many to Him who were demon-possessed, and Jesus drove out the spirits with a word. There has been some confusion for many Christians about the condition of being “demon-possessed.” The Greek word here is daimonidzomenous, which could be literally translated “being oppressed by demons.” A good shorthand translation of the root word would be “demonized.” The point I want to make is this. The New Testament does not usually paint a picture of someone being completely “taken over” or “inhabited” by demons (though there are a few exceptions). In most cases, when we see “demon possessed” in English, we should probably read it as meaning, “harassed by demons.” The ESV does a good job with this word, often translating it “oppressed by demons.”

I have some friends who have a son. Several years ago, the boy was exhibiting huge behavioral problems, and he was diagnosed by psychiatrists as having a condition called “reactive detachment disorder.” The parents didn’t know what to do, and had very little hope – they had tried everything that psychiatry and medicine had to offer. I talked to them about the possibility that their son was harassed by demons. They said, “We don’t think so. If we know anything, we do know that he truly trusts in Jesus.” They believed, as many Christians do, that a Jesus-follower cannot be possessed by a demon. I believe that too, but I do think that Jesus-followers can be harassed by demons, or, “demonized,” and the language of the New Testament suggests that is true; in fact, that is most often what daimonidzomai means. Anyway, we got together with the parents, their son, and some other friends, and confronted the demonic harassment in the name of Jesus, and their son’s life was transformed. We witnessed a genuine, New Testament miracle brought about by Jesus Christ.

I share all this for two reasons. First, so that if you are struggling with something that seems very difficult to get handle on, and nothing else seems to work, you may consider the possibility of demonic harassment. I certainly don’t think that all mental illnesses or behavioral issues are demon-induced. However, even among Christians, there is that possibility. The second thing is, Jesus is here present with us just as fully as he was in Peter’s house that evening, and through us He can and will still remove demonic oppression and set people free.

When Jesus saw large crowds around Him, He gave the order to go to the other side of the sea. A scribe approached Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go! ” Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”

“Lord,” another of His disciples said, “first let me go bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

It appears that Jesus was not entirely happy about having crowds of people following him. These days, we think that the bigger a ministry or church is, the better and more effective it must be. Jesus didn’t seem to think so. He wanted to get away from them, and (it seems, from what follows) even thin out their ranks a little bit.

A man in the crowd comes to him. This individual was a scribe, which makes him one of the educated elite, and probably even wealthy. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” or, “teacher.” He seems enthusiastic as he declares his commitment to Jesus and you would think Jesus would want to encourage him. These days, if an educated elite person came to a modern Christian pastor and enthusiastically said he wanted to join the church, most of us would say, “Oh Absolutely! I know you are going to love being part of our community. Please just let us know how we can minister to you.” Initially, we would talk about the benefits of following Jesus and of joining our church. We would probably feel nervous about suggesting ways that such a person might contribute until he had been with us for a while, and it would probably be even longer than that, if ever, before we pointed out how it might negatively affect his standing in the community and his financial security.

But Jesus’ response to this man amounts to basically this: “Whatever. You aren’t going to be able to keep your home if you follow me.”

If you have never noticed this side of Jesus before, I want you to pay attention now. He is shocking, almost rude. It almost seems like He doesn’t care if the man follows Him or not. I could quickly name a hundred or more church-goers and even church leaders who would chastise any pastor who acted like Jesus did in this situation; but actually, I’m not sure I know any pastor who would risk it.

But the truth is, all four gospels record Jesus behaving like this. Rather than trying to make discipleship appealing, he often seems to say things to discourage people from “joining the movement.” He consistently avoided and distrusted large crowds of people who appeared to be excited about him, at least, at a superficial level. In America, for a whole generation, Christian leaders have been trying to gather large, superficial crowds, hoping that they will move from shallow, non-committal church goers into true disciples. We challenge them only reluctantly and even then we do it very, very gently. However, Jesus immediately confronts people with the cost and commitment level required to follow him.

A second person was with Jesus. Matthew calls him a “disciple” and records that he calls Jesus “Lord.” The ancient church leader, Clement of Alexandria, writing about this passage one-hundred and fifty years later, records a tradition that says this was actually Philip, one of Jesus’ first two disciples, and one of the “twelve,” but we can’t know for sure.

This disciple says that he needs to bury his father before he can come with Jesus. Some commentators have speculated that the man’s father was not actually dead yet, but was elderly, and expected to die soon. In this case, the disciple was saying, “I’ll follow you, but not until I after I have finished dealing with my dad’s illness and eventual death.” The other possibility is that this disciple’s father had just died, and the burial was about to happen, and so he was saying to Jesus that he couldn’t go across the lake with him just now, because he had to go to the funeral.

Either way, Jesus’ response is once again shocking and rude: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” This is another one of those places that is not great moral teaching, or wise philosophy, or a kind outlook. In these two incidents Jesus plainly puts it to people that what he wants from them is to obey Him, and put Him above everything else. It is not good teaching or wise philosophy unless Jesus is in fact, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh.

Could I put it this way? Jesus is not trying sell people on the benefits of being his disciple. He is up front about how hard it is. The reason to follow him is not because it will benefit you. The reason to follow him is because he is the Messiah, the Savior of the World, God the Son come in flesh.

The Word of God is always relevant. Just this week as I was preparing this sermon, one of the leaders of the largest church in the United States made a statement that the real reason to follow God and worship Him is for what we get out it, because it benefits us, and makes us happy, and that’s what makes God happy. All you have to do is read these verses to know how distorted that message is.

There’s more. This passage is not a specific command for every Christian to sell her house, or let her parents die unattended. But Matthew uses these as examples of the fact that Jesus intends us to put Him in front of absolutely everything and everyone else, and that there are times when doing that results in radical obedience that involves very difficult choices, and giving up things that are very dear to us.

At some point, following Jesus will cost us. Nothing should be more important to us than Jesus, and if it comes to it, yes, we should leave our family in His hands and follow Him, or be willing to give up our home and our financial security to follow him. It may cost us family members or friends, or a career, or the kind of life we think we want.

Let me be a little bold. I know many people who call themselves Christians who have a very difficult time taking even just a couple hours a week to worship Jesus with other believers, let alone dedicating any other time to serving Him. Something like giving up financial security to follow Jesus is not even on the horizons of their minds. Sports get in the way, especially sports for children. Families will think nothing of running their nine-year-old children to practices and games that chew up six to twenty hours in a week, and then say they are too tired to spend an hour or two learning more about Jesus and worshipping him with other believers, or even just hanging out with other Christians who need emotional or spiritual support. Jobs and careers interfere. People get busy with all sort of things: hobbies, home-improvement, social events, entertainment, even television.

Here we read that Jesus confronted one man about having a home, and a second about going to his father’s funeral. What do you think he has to say to you about your excuses for not following him, and not being more involved with others who do?

Following Jesus means he comes first, before everything and everyone. He comes before your home. Before your family, your friends or career. He comes before getting a sports scholarship for your child. He comes before your comfort, your security, your preferences, your plans.

We want to give half-hearted Christians an option. In part, we pastors allow half-hearted Christians in our churches because it feels safer, financially. Honestly, if I had whole bunch of half-hearted Christians in my church who would at least just give some money, I would feel better off financially than I am with these few whole-hearted Jesus-followers. If just don’t offend them, everything will be stable for me We also do it in the name of compassion. We don’t want people to feel bad about the choices they are making, especially if they are not choices to sin overtly. I mean, what’s so bad about sports?

But do we really think we are more compassionate than Jesus? Isn’t it compassion to tell someone the truth? Would you want a doctor to tell you that you were absolutely fine, when in reality you were suffering from cancer, and needed treatment immediately if you were to be cured? Compassion would speak the hard truth: “You need treatment, and you need it now.”

Jesus did not give people an option to be half-hearted about Him. “You want to follow me, you will have no house.” Or, “You want to follow me, you won’t be able to take care of your elderly father, or even go to his funeral.” This is not an obscure teaching of Jesus. We will revisit it again in the book of Matthew, and it appears all throughout the New Testament. Still to come (in just Matthew) are: “You want to follow me, you have to put me above father, mother, husband, wife, children, sister and brother,” and “You want to follow me, be willing to die – to give up everything for me – every single day.” The compassion of Jesus tells us this: If He is not first, if he does not come before everything, we are in danger, and we need treatment.

Now, there is grace to us when we fail to put Jesus first. Let’s suppose for moment that the second man here, the disciple, was in fact Philip. He had been putting his father first. Jesus confronted him about it. We know that Philip humbly received that correction, and he went on to become an important leader in the early church, responsible for sending Christianity to Africa for the very first time. I fail to put Jesus first sometimes. I imagine we all do. He has compassion on us, and forgives us, but he does also call us to correct the mistake.

It often seems like we have made the faith into a set of intellectual beliefs which to which we subscribe. And that’s comfortable, because we can say believe those things, no matter what our behavior. But what the bible calls faith is really just following Jesus. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected by Jesus Himself to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.

“Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world. Happy are those who know that discipleship simply means the life that springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

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SINGLE PURPOSE

Jesus with the Disciples_discipleship

Jesus is calling you – not just to be a member of a church, not only to repent of your sins and receive his forgiveness. He is calling you to walk with him daily; To have a relationship with him that is more important to you than anyone or anything else in this life.

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Experiencing Life Together #5: Single Purpose

John 18:36; Ephesians 2:10

The very first Christians exhibited a very important characteristic. Their lives had a single focus:

The believers had a single purpose, and went to the temple courts every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. (Acts 2:46)

The key phrase here is “single purpose.” Their lives were aimed at one target. Their focus both individually, and as a church, was on one thing. They were led by this purpose in everything they did, and every decision they made. Their purpose was discipleship. Jesus told them to be disciples, and to make disciples.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The word “disciple” in Greek is closely associated with learning from a teacher. As we look at Jesus’ disciples in the gospels, we see that they listened to his teaching and tried to put it into practice (Mark 3:31-34). They were “followers” of Jesus’ teachings. The disciples often asked Jesus questions, but didn’t understand when he explained the answers to them (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 4:10-14). Even so, though they had their struggles, they made his teaching central to their lives.

They not only followed his teaching, but they followed Jesus physically, wherever he went. They shared his life and had experiences with him. They walked together with Jesus on the rough mountain roads of Galilee. They lodged together, ate together and talked together.

They went across the lake with him, and experienced the storm, and then were awed by his power over it. They went to a lonely place with him, and saw him feed 5,000 people. They watched him drive demons out of people, and heal others. They went to Jerusalem and saw him die and later they saw him alive again.

Jesus’ disciples also had relationships with each other. They weren’t isolated in their relationship with Jesus. They talked with each other, fought with each other and helped each other. Jesus called them (and us) to love each other (John 13:34-35).

Besides teaching and sharing his life, Jesus also trained his disciples. He recruited them for the same work that he was engaged in – spreading the good news (Luke 10:1-24). He involved them in exercises of faith and ministry (Matt 14:18). He gave them instructions, sent them out on tasks, and then debriefed them (Luke 10:1-24).

Jesus wanted his relationship with his disciples to be the closest, most important relationship they had. He was dramatic in stating this. He said that in comparison to their relationship with Him, it would seem like they hated their own families (Matt 10:37-39; Matt 12:48). All this is to say that He became absolutely the most important person in their lives. He took precedence in everything.

Even before he returned to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples authority to be a part of His mission, authority to accomplish His purposes in the world (Matt 10:1). He promised that he would be with them spiritually at all times (Matthew 28:18-20).They were witnesses to His life, death resurrection and power (Acts 1:8), and they had a responsibility to tell about their life with Jesus, and to recruit new disciples to Him.

In John chapter 15, Jesus called his disciples to “abide” in him. He said this just a few hours before he was captured and crucified. One of the things he meant by it, was that the disciples were to keep on being his disciples, even after his death and resurrection. Their relationship – the sharing of Jesus teaching and their lives together – would go on. Jesus would come and live with them again, this time in their spirits, through His Holy Spirit. Discipleship goes on.

So what does it all mean for us? Now that we see how the first disciples were, how can we be disciples? How can we live with a single purpose? First, I think we ought to recognize that Christians were called “disciples” before they were ever called “Christians” (Acts 11:25). In other words, the very first followers of Jesus understood that it was not about being a member of a church, or even of being converts, but rather of being learners who lived life in the midst of their on-going relationship with Jesus.

Jesus is calling you – not just to keep things as they are, not just to be a member of a church, not only to repent of your sins and receive his forgiveness. He is calling you to walk with him daily. To have a relationship with him that is more important to you than anyone or anything else in this life. To engage with him as you work, as you eat, as you rest. To be trained and equipped by him to take your part in recruiting and training more disciples. He is calling you to listen to, and follow his teachings. He is calling you to be a part of a group of disciples – folks who are a bit rough around the edges maybe, but who love one another and love Jesus like you do.

When you are a disciple, everything in your life is filtered through your relationship with Jesus. We still have to go to work, and pay the bills, and deal with crises. But we do all these things with an awareness that we are not living our own life anymore. We are here to let Jesus live his life through us. That is our single purpose in everything.

When you let Jesus live your life, that is, when you live as his disciple, you are immediately confronted by the temptations and challenges of what life offers us apart from Jesus. If we live for the single-purpose of discipleship, we might find that many things we are used to doing are actually at cross purposes with the life of Jesus. Sin, of course, diverts us from the purpose of Jesus in us. But sometimes, I think the biggest threat to Christians is not outright sin, but rather, good things; things, however, that Jesus does not want us to waste our time with. Jesus said something very challenging:

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” (John 18:36, HCSB)

Are you struggling and fighting for something in this world? I know I can get sucked into this all too easily. I want to follow Jesus, yes, but I also want other things: comfort and security while I am on earth. The moment I pursue comfort and security in addition to being a disciple, is the moment I lose my single purpose. That takes me a step backward in following Jesus. Jesus’ kingdom, his life and purpose are far beyond the temporary, cheap things of this world.

This is one of the reasons the Christian faith has always appealed to the poor more than the rich. If your life right now is a struggle, and you have little hope of improving it, it is easier to place your hope more fully in eternity. Poor folks know that security in this life is not really attainable. People with more resources tend to keep believing that their salvation is in this life. They tend to keep striving for the temporary treasures and goals that this life offers.

Ephesians 2:10 says this:

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Have you ever wondered about your purpose in life? Well there it is – to do the “good works” which God created you to do. And those good works ultimately all lead to encouraging believers and reaching out to those who don’t believe. This was the single purpose of the church in Acts 2:42-47. This is what they lived for. This purpose influenced all of their decisions, particularly decisions about the use of time.

Especially in America, living with a single purpose has enormous implications for the way we use our time. I am convinced that most of us try to live with more than one purpose in life. When I try to do that, if I was honest, my purpose in life could be described as: “ To serve God, and to be comfortable.” The first part is OK, but that “to be comfortable” makes it a dual purpose. And that causes problems when the purposes conflict with each other. What if being comfortable isn’t conducive to serving God, or vice versa? Others might want to “serve God, and have a good career” or “Be a disciple, make disciples, and achieve certain financial goals.” There is nothing Biblical about this. Sometimes, God makes his servants comfortable. Sometimes he gives them fulfilling careers, or wealth. But we need to pursue God – not the other things. If wants to give the other things also, well and good. If not, can we still say, “well and good”?

Others of us really do live to “be a disciple and make disciples”. But we fall into the trap of doing many good things, instead of the two or three best things. We might run all over town participating in workshops, ministries and conferences – all good and wonderful things. But often these wonderful spiritual things, keep us from truly connecting with Jesus, and concentrating on the two or three things that will be most effective, and are most important. Many times, perhaps almost always, we need to turn down the good things for the best things; the non-essential for the essential.

In most house-churches, things are deliberately structured so that members focus on just two or three important things in the process of becoming and making disciples. They generally don’t have “programs”. They focus on ministry in the group, outreach, and equipping (worship & prayer are underlying elements of all of these). None of these things should be “programmatic” – instead they are structured so that they take place in the context of lives that are lived with a single purpose. Thus, our “community life” can be oriented to that single purpose; and we are not so distracted with the “busyness” of many other things going on all the time.

Our personal lives ought to be structured this way as well. America is the land of opportunity, but enough already! We put our three-year-olds in T-ball in spite of the fact that they will almost certainly never become professional athletes. We put in extra hours in case we miss the opportunity to make more money. We run from activity to activity and it absolutely drains us spiritually and emotionally. The crucial and difficult task in learning to orient our lives around a single purpose, is saying “no” to things that are good, but which are not best, or essential.

We strongly encourage you to pray about this during the next week, and then ask your house church for help and prayer in determining what is essential and best for you to be doing at this point in your life. Make sure to address that question with an open Bible and an open heart.