Taking Jesus at His Words

Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (Jn. 12:48).

In some parts of America, the label “Christian” is still a celebrated identifier. What someone means by claiming such a moniker is usually little more than simply saying, “I believe in Jesus.” But even this phrase begs greater specificity. What do you mean by “believe?” And who is “Jesus?” The Bible reveals substantial answers to these questions, and the Bible warns us to take the words seriously.

In fact, Jesus Himself so closely associated His person and His words that one cannot receive or reject one without doing the same to the other. To receive Jesus is to receive His words, and to reject His words is to reject Jesus. The plain and absolute nature of this proposition rubs against our modern sensibilities, but it is no less reasonable or consistent.

The words of Jesus Christ are indeed the promises and precepts of eternal life. The one who hears and obeys Jesus has no judge, but rather enjoys freedom from condemnation altogether. But the one who does not receive Christ’s words… who does not hear and obey Christ’s words… that one will be judged and condemned by those same words on the last day.

Let’s be real about death.

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn. 11:25).

Concerning death, modern American Evangelicalism can seem much more like Epicureanism than biblical Christianity. The ancient Epicurean philosophers taught that the key to happiness is the experience of pleasure and evading pain. Death, being the ultimate pain, must be avoided and ignored. Many Evangelical funerals today have become “celebration of life” ceremonies or some other kind of forced-happiness occasion.

Biblical Christianity is much grittier and more direct than many of us might think. The Bible speaks much of suffering and death, and these ugly foes are confronted head-on. The Bible gives expression to what we know deep-down about suffering and death. Death is awful. Death is painful. Death is bad.

The Bible also speaks of a sure victory over death and suffering for those who look to Jesus Christ, who has already conquered such things. In fact, Jesus’ power over death is so certain that He calls Himself “the resurrection and the life.” Anyone who believes or trusts this masterful Savior will certainly and joyfully live, even in the face of death.

Are You Prepared to Suffer?

When tragedy strikes, we usually experience a range of emotions. We feel sorrow and pain, guilt and regret, and sometimes even vulnerable and bitter. At some point we decide, whether consciously or not, how we will cope with our new reality.

In these moments of turmoil, there is little we can do to regain our solid footing. The winds of circumstance and emotion furiously toss us to and fro. And yet, there is solid ground for those who are prepared for these perilous times.

But, how does one prepare for such times? And, how does one brave such perils?

The Bible proves itself to be divine wisdom in so many ways, but in my experience, its usefulness is most precious in the midst of the stormiest calamities. God knows His creation well, and He is sovereign over everything, so He is not surprised by suffering. In fact, He has ordained it. Furthermore, He has given us counsel and even His own example in an effort to prepare us and shelter us from all kinds of distress.

First, consider the reality and expectation of suffering. Since Genesis 3, this mortal life has been full of suffering. In our modern western culture, we are often insulated from some of the painful realities of life, but our illusions of safety are ripped away when the sting of this world wounds us too (James 5:10-11).

Second, consider the biblical teaching that God ordains suffering. The Bible knows nothing of a god who merely watches human events and activities. The God of the Bible is sovereign over whatever happens, and He is at work through suffering. God not only allows suffering; He brings it to pass according to His will (1 Pet. 4:19; Lamentations 3:37-38) and for His purposes (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 8:28-29).

Third, consider Christ’s example of suffering. Not only may we take heart in the fact that God is sovereign over our suffering, but we may also be encouraged to see God Himself endure suffering through Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are not surprised to experience suffering because our Master and Lord experienced it long ago (Heb. 2:10; Phil. 3:8-10; 1 Pet. 2:19-21).

Last, consider the hope of what is to come for those who trust Christ through their suffering. One can hardly say it better than the Bible already has:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 5:6–11).

May God spare us all from too many harsh and painful experiences. More importantly, however, may He help us to be sober-minded about what to expect in this fallen world, and may He grant us grace to trust Him in the midst of our stormy days.

For we know that He who reigns supreme will gloriously strengthen all who lean upon Him, and we know that God Himself will exalt those who cast their anxieties on Him.

The Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11).

Christianity is a distinct religion among all of the options we have in the world. The basis of Christianity is not found in a leader who shows the followers what they must do and how they must do it, nor is it found in a leader who demands nothing of the followers.

Christianity is defined by the Christ who came from God in order to rescue a people from their own destruction. This rescue, however, was not performed according to worldly standards of power. Rather, Christ rescued His people by giving Himself over to the destructive consequences of the people’s disobedience and foolish rebellion against God.

Christ took on the role of a shepherd among His people who are like helpless sheep; and when the flock was exposed to ruin, Christ absorbed the full weight of it. This selfless sacrifice is not all that Christ does as shepherd of His flock, but it is the pivotal point at which His relationship with His people is solidified. All that Christ is and all that Christ does is enjoyed by those people who are counted as His sheep from among all the people of the world.

May Christ be glorious to you today, and may you find Him to be the Good Shepherd of your soul.

Intolerant Jesus

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that [My sheep] may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).

In our day, intolerance is likely the last great societal sin. One may believe almost anything they like and act out the implications of those beliefs without fear of being judged… for the most part. Public sentiment is much more concerned with the subjective feelings of the person than the propriety or morality of his or her actions.

This is especially true when it comes to religious beliefs. The only doctrine off-limits to religious adherents in America is the exclusive one. So long as “I believe” does not mean “I’m saying this is universally and absolutely true,” then no one seems to think critically about whatever you might say.

Jesus, however, does not play by our modern rules. He is interested in objective and effective truth over subjective feelings and experience. Jesus offers gracious life and merciful freedom, but He warns that these are exclusively found in Him.

May God help us to resist the arrogant desire to believe whatever we want, and may He give us grace to understand and believe those things that are objectively true about Him and the gracious gift He gives.

Have you tried doing ‘Ordinary Christianity?’

I sometimes meet people who think they are doing pretty well at “this whole Christianity thing.” They seem completely confident that they are spiritually mature and well-able to meet whatever life may toss at them.

If this seems far-fetched, it’s probably because we all know that we are much less mature and prepared than we sometimes make ourselves out to be.

In my own spiritual development, it has become quite helpful to realize that “discipleship” and “ordinary Christianity” are the same thing… Let me explain.

I do not mean that your common or ordinary experience of Christianity is true discipleship. You may be an exemplary disciple of Christ, who also disciples others, but this is not common in our American Evangelical culture.

I am saying that the Bible only knows of ordinary Christians who are disciples. A disciple is a learner, a follower, a practitioner, and a student of the Master. Jesus commissioned His disciples to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:18-20), and every generation since has been responsible for the same commission.

If you are a Christian, you should be a disciple (connected with at least one Christian who leads you towards greater spiritual maturity) and a disciple-maker (connected with at least one Christian who follows you towards greater spiritual maturity).

Let’s look at several verses to see how our unity with Christ and with one another impacts the concept of ordinary Christian discipleship.

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Colossians 1:2 and similar usages in Ephesians 1:1 and Philippians 1:1).

Simply put, all Christians are ‘saints,’ ‘brothers,’ and ‘in Christ.’ This means that no Christian is outside of the family of faith, and no Christian is an island unto himself or herself. This should affect the way all Christians view their responsibility to and benefit from one another.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1–2).

In this passage, we are reminded that all Christians are completely free from condemnation from God. We may lament our ongoing failure to live perfectly free from sin, but we do not have to fear God’s wrath at all. We are free from the law of sin and death, though we still must war against our sinful desires in this life until we are finally completed in glory in the life to come.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready…” (1 Corinthians 3:1–2).

Here we are forced to recognize that Christian disciples may be mature or immature. The goal is the same for all disciples: grow to become ‘spiritual people,’ that is spiritually mature or Christ-like. However, each disciple will progress differently, and each will be at a different place on the continuum of spiritual development. Some are ‘infants,’ others are spiritual adults (1 Cor. 16:13), and most are likely somewhere in between.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:5–6).

In this passage, we learn to expect good ‘fruit’ (or growth in holiness) from all those who are ‘in Christ’ (i.e. Christian). Of course, the fruit of godly living is a direct result of union with Christ; “apart from [Christ] you can do nothing.” The Christian rejoices and praises God for any good that is his/hers.

The flipside of this expectation is that those who do not produce (or exhibit) good fruit are bringing their union with Christ into question (at best). No Christian can know the heart of another person, but Christ clearly warns each of us that He will not graciously welcome the sinner who continues in rebellion against Him. A loving friend most certainly will not allow a fellow professing believer to continue on a path of self-destruction in the face of such a warning.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12–13).

In this final passage, we are reminded that the Christian’s union with Christ is also union with other Christians. We are not only to seek holiness and growth for the benefit of enjoying Christ more fully, but we are to enjoy the benefits of Christian fellowship as well. Especially in the context of the local church, Christians are united to Christ and to one another, members of a single body.

This bond of unity means that each Christian is responsible for and attached to every other Christian (especially in the context of local church membership). Your spiritual maturity affects the whole body, and so does your stagnation or spiritual disease (i.e. sin).  Therefore, it is imperative that Christian brothers and sisters take responsibility for one another, as well as enjoy the benefits of those who are taking responsibility for them.

 

With all of this in mind, Christian discipleship is perceived to be a necessary and natural (even if divinely empowered) outworking of the ordinary Christian life. Indeed, God’s wisdom is wiser than the best of human wisdom! God has designed the spiritual growth of all believers to flourish under the tutelage of ordinary means.

Try this kind of ordinary Christianity if you dare… but I warn you, the experience will be anything but ordinary.

Christians Don’t Need the Bible?

Yesterday, I overheard a conversation between a handful of friends. A table full of ladies (in their late 20s and early 30s) were talking loud enough for the whole room to hear, so I was not eavesdropping. As a matter of fact, I would have preferred to avoid hearing the dialogue altogether. The interaction centered on their relationships with one another and at least a couple of other ladies who were not there to contribute.

As a Christian (and particularly a pastor), I was interested in the strong spiritual nature of their banter. Their vocabulary sounded Christian, but the apparent meanings of the phrases and words they used were much more pagan and mystical than biblical. Most concerning to me was the fact that they never once cited a passage of Scripture or even alluded to the Bible.

Not one Bible story or example was offered for consideration. No quote from Jesus was mentioned. No biblical principle was called upon to undergird any personal application. The whole conversation was devoid of the objective authority of the Bible, and yet there were many authoritative statements and claims made.

Once they finished and departed, I resisted the urge to apologize to everyone else in the room for the eccentric display of pseudo-Christianity. The reason I felt compelled then (and feel the same now) to distance myself from this version of Christianity is because I believe it is often silly, usually lazy, and frequently dangerous.

Whatever one believes about specific applications of biblical truth, the very minimum standard of Christianity is a submission to Christ as Lord; and Jesus Christ cannot be separated from His words. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments [or instructions]” (Jn. 14:15). Jesus also said that the way a Christian grows in unity with Christ is through the word of God (Jn. 17:17).

There is a foolish notion afoot today. Many think that some kind of Christianity can be experienced and cultivated apart from the Bible. Of course, Christians will not usually say this; but their utter neglect of the Bible speaks loud and clear. Many Christians do not have even a general ability to reference biblical grounds for what they say or why they believe the way they do.

Sentimental spirituality is not admirable, and it is a poor substitute for genuine (biblical) Christianity. Only a familiarity with Jesus’ words will cause a person to grow in real intimacy with Jesus Himself.

Has God not made the effort to reveal Himself on the pages of Scripture? Do we believe the Bible is God’s word? Have we any ability to know about Jesus Christ (and, therefore, truly know Him) without the biblical record?

Of all the people in the world, Christians should be the most biblically literate. In times gone by, Christians spoke with a vocabulary that came directly from the Bible. Words, themes, and illustrations in everyday language were directly drawn from the Scriptures.

May God rid us of our laziness, and may we hunger and thirst for the words of our God. And since the Bible is more accessible today than ever, may we be diligent in our use of this marvelous gift of God – His Word.