The Great I AM

“[Jesus] said… “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you, therefore, that you would die in your sins, for if you do not believe that I AM you will die in your sins” (John 8:23–24).

While many people claim that all religions are basically the same – various ways of aiming at purpose and morality – Christianity sets itself apart in no uncertain terms. Jesus makes the claim of deity; He demands that His hearers admit He is God.

Jesus clearly and emphatically claimed to be God in many ways, but one of the most dramatic ways He does it is through His “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John (example: Jn. 8:24, 58).

God revealed His name and essential divine character to Moses at a burning bush. God said, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). This profound and mysterious passage is understood as a high point of God’s self-revelation, and Jesus claims the very same language for Himself. Jesus says He is “I AM” (Jn. 8:58), and He even makes clear the fundamental necessity of believing His claim (Jn. 8:24).

Whatever one may say of Jesus, one cannot say anything good of Him unless it is admitted that Jesus is, in fact, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the famous words of C.S. Lewis, Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or He is Lord (i.e. God Almighty).

Identifying Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

Mark, like the other Gospel writers, is very interested in conveying much about the identity of Jesus Christ. This is clear in his opening statement, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). While Mark is keen on his reader knowing Jesus’ true identity, he is also frank about Jesus’ disciples’ inability to understand accordingly. Only after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead did His disciples understand who Jesus really was and is.

Mark presents Jesus as a unique person from the beginning. Jesus is the “Son of God” (1:1), the “Holy One of God” (1:24), the “Lord of the Sabbath” (2:28), and more. Jesus is seen proclaiming the gospel of God (1:15), rebuking and silencing demonic spirits (1:21-28), commanding the stormy sea (4:35-41), and bringing a dead girl back to life (5:35-42).

All of this is designed to answer the question Mark tell us Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (8:29). Peter rightly confessed, “You are the Christ,” and this is the same confession Mark desires his reader to make. Just as the Roman centurion proclaimed, after the death of Jesus upon the cross, Mark’s purpose is to demonstrate that Jesus was and is the Son of God (15:39; cf. 1:1).

While Mark is adamant about Jesus’ identity, he is also blatantly honest about Jesus’ disciples’ lack of understanding on this vital point. Mark repeatedly exposes the disciples as confused and ignorant.

When Jesus rebuked the storm, demonstrating His divine power and authority, the disciples feared and said, “Who is this?” (4:41). Just after Jesus miraculously fed more than 5,000 people with divine bread, Jesus walked upon the water and met His disciples in their boat on the sea of Galilee. Again they are described as fearful, and they are also said to lack understanding since “their hearts were hardened” (6:52). These are just two examples, but Mark does not paint Jesus’ disciples in any positive light on the matter of Jesus’ identity.

The fact is, apart from Peter’s famous confession (8:29), the only ones in Mark’s Gospel who perceive Jesus as the Son of God are the demons (1:24, 5:7), one of the Roman soldiers who watched Jesus die (15:39), and possibly the Greek/Syrophoenician woman who begged for ‘crumbs‘ from the Master’s table (7:28).

Nothing is more important than the identity and activity of Jesus Christ. Mark wants his reader to see Jesus for who He is and to believe or trust in Jesus. It seems that the reason Mark presented the disciples in such dramatic ignorance and confusion may have been to draw his reader’s attention to the absurdity of doing as they did.

It may be that Mark is artfully and skillfully saying, “See how bumbling and slow to understand these disciples were! Isn’t it obvious who Jesus is?! Don’t be like those disciples… Look! Understand! Believe! This is the Son of God!”

May God open our eyes to see, and may we trust ourselves to Jesus – the Son of God and Savior of sinners.

The Unsettling Jesus

Christians and non-Christians alike may envision Jesus as a social reformer, a passive resistor, or a gentle teacher. In a discussion about the biblical Jesus, there may well be room for these concepts, but this collection is far less than a complete view of the Jesus of the Bible.

The Jesus of the Bible is also quite biting in some of His remarks, calling some people “snakes” and others “sons of the devil” (Matt. 12:34; Jn. 8:44). The biblical Jesus is unbending in His judgments against sin (Jn. 4:17) and false worship (Jn. 4:22). The real Jesus is also expressively angry, literally threatening physical harm to those He opposed in the temple (Jn. 2:15-16).

The Jesus of the Bible (the real Jesus) is perfectly sinless and morally upright. He is also unflinchingly authoritative, and this is unsettling to our own sinful comforts. Jesus forces us to lose everything to gain Him – a winning exchange to be sure, but a painful one for those of us who are comfortable where we are.

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27–29).

Jesus Changes Everything

The Gospel is the story of Jesus.

Jesus is the whole point of the Gospel. Rather than a message of self-help or religious structure, the Gospel is the story of a real historical person. Who He is and what He did (and does) is the essence of the Good News.

This news, however, is not just something we add to the overabundance of news we receive every day. No, this news changes everything… Jesus changes everything.

When we hear about a car accident across town, we are hopeful that there were no serious injuries, but we are not detoured from our daily activities. If someone tells us about a weather front that is causing flooding in another state, we are prayerful that there will be no fatalities, but our plans for dinner go unaltered.

There are a multitude of headlines and news captions vying for our attention every day, but the message about Jesus is different. The message about Jesus is personal and serious. Jesus claims to be our King and our Judge, and this means that we are either in submission to Him or at war with Him. Jesus claims to be the singular remedy for our problem of eternal guilt, and this means either we enjoy His cure for our condemnation or we bear the judgment still.

Growing in Gospel Understanding = Spiritual growth

Christian spiritual growth is experienced as the believer comes to a greater understanding of the Gospel and grows in his/her conviction that the Gospel is actually true. Of course, every Christian believes that the Gospel is true. And yet, there is a progression in every Christian’s practical and active alignment with that belief.

We believe that Jesus is our King, but we still disobey Him in various ways. We believe that His love for us is overwhelming, but we still sometimes imagine that His rules are meant to steal our joy. There are numerous examples, but the point is that each Christian lives with a greater or lesser degree of consistency. We believe the Gospel is true, but we do not yet live exactly according to what we believe. Spiritual growth, then, is our increased understanding of the Gospel and its implications for everything.

Jesus Changes Everything

If Jesus is truly our savior and redeemer, then this changes everything! This changes our heart of opposition to a heart of gratitude. It changes our despair into hope, and our shame into freedom. The Gospel is not just news; it is THE NEWS, the best news, the greatest news, the news that changes everything!

Make no mistake; Jesus changes everything. The Christian life is lived as a daily renewal of perspective, desire, and activity.

Do you think too little of Jesus? Possibly…

In our day of 140 character tweets and eye-catching promos, we are accustomed the seeing just about everything through the lenses of reductionism. “Reduce what you want me to know to the least possible amount of information so that I will be able to quickly assimilate, assess, and (of course) accept or reject it.”

Even in Christian circles, it has become tolerable and sometimes admirable to reduce the Gospel itself to some minimalistic form. Just ask several Christians to describe who Jesus is according to the Bible, and you are likely to hear what I mean. “Jesus is the savior of sinners;” “Jesus is the lover of the outcast;” “Jesus is the Son of God;” and one of my personal favorites, “Jesus is my homeboy.”

Christianity centers upon Jesus Christ (just think of the first five letters of “Christianity“), so it is critical that the Christian think deeply and thoroughly about Jesus. Who is He? What did He do? What does He still do? What has He promised He will do in the future?

There are many dangers of thinking too little of Jesus, but consider the following:

If we think only on the babe in a manger, then we forget that God the Son was with the Father before the world began. We forget that the Son is the One through whom all things were created and the One in whom all things exist.

If we focus too much on Jesus’ obscure childhood, then we venture into pure speculation, and tread on ground that God did not provide for any sturdy follower.

If we see Jesus only as the tender friend to sinners, then we may be surprised to catch a glimpse of Him beating and throwing out the money changers.

If we attune our ears to Jesus’ words of love and peace, such that we cannot hear the fullness of their meaning, then we may forget that God disciplines those He loves.

If we affix our eyes upon the suffering Savior, hanging upon that Roman cross, we may be tempted to think that He has lost His power to rule the world.

If we celebrate only that Jesus arose from the dead, then we may lose sight of His miraculous ascension and think little of His intercession on our behalf this day.

If we idly await the day when Christ returns, and think only of Him as a distant King, then we may forget that He is right with us through the good times and bad in this life.

If we only refer to Jesus as someone we invited into our lives at some point in the past, then we may be surprised to learn that He is our Lord, King, Master, and Savior at this very moment.

We may see, then, that knowing Christ is much more encompassing than most of us might imagine. Cover to cover, the Bible speaks of the person and work of Christ. We ought to love and know Jesus as fully as we are capable; for our joy is made complete in the knowledge of Him.

Coalescing Churches and Missionaries

The Church – the universal body of Christ – is a unique institution made up of people rather than materials or mechanisms. Established and sustained by God Himself, the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The oft-quoted passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel contains the commission of the Church – her purposeful assignment and the promise of her providential Lord. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says to His disciples,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Mark Dever (commenting on this very passage) says, “Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ [or ‘all nations’] reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world.” Dever also understands that congregations (local expressions of the universal Church) are bearers of this same responsibility, because congregations are made up of individual Christians. “Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations…” Dever leaves no room for individual Christians or assembled groups of the same to remain unengaged from this Great Commission when he says, “Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.”[1]

Involvement in this intentional activity is no peripheral matter for any local church, and many congregations have been purposefully working at it for a long time. However, recent research and contemporary conversations are revealing that a disconnect may have developed over time between the two prongs that have formed the spearhead of this Christian commission. Local churches in America seem to have been allowed to understand missions as something that is done over there – anywhere but here – by someone called a missionary. Many local churches support “missions efforts” with their financial backing, giving a portion of their budget to some kind of cooperative program that distributes funds to local and international missionaries. Sometimes local churches may even call a special prayer meetings with a “missions” emphasis, but taking ownership of particular missional efforts appears to be lacking at best. In addition, the perceived distance between missions and local church ministry has permitted most American Christians to remain personally unengaged from the Great Commission. This is a tragedy.

What is worse is that missionaries, having such a strong commitment to go and tell, are continuing to do so without an essential and healthy attachment to a local church or churches. “The problem is that there are now missionaries all over the world with virtually no connection to local churches to love and care for them, shepherd them, and join them on mission.” To compound the loss, “there are also local churches full of laypeople talking about being ‘missional’ without the benefit of learning from those who are actively crossing cultures with the Gospel. They are talking about mission without the input of missionaries (emphasis added).”[2] If one is to understand what it is to be missional, it is imperative that one understands what it is to be a missionary.

Ed Stetzer helpfully defines the term “missional” in his standard-setting work on the subject of “missional churches.” He says, “Missional means actually doing mission… adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”[3] With this definition in mind, it is helpful to consider that missional living may only realized in the local church context as missionaries and their efforts are appropriately known and celebrated in the local church.

The bringing together of missionaries and the local church is a combination that regains the benefits of the multi-membered body of Christ. If the missionary is the extended arm of the local church, then the local church is the core, which lends stability, resources, and strength to the missionary. Just as the arm needs the core to function properly, so the core needs the exercise, reach, and functionality of the arm in order to remain healthy. There are many more aspects of local church ministry that may not include a direct relationship to missionary efforts, but all of what the local church is and does should center around the idea of living missionally in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – both in the context of its own community and in the world at large. These two distinct branches of missional engagement (missionaries and the local church) are so intertwined that each compliments the other in multiple ways, particularly when they are both functioning healthily.

The pervading goal of the missionary is the same as the local church, namely the Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them, and teach submission to Christ to the glory of His great name. If this directive is embraced and acted upon, the result will inevitably be a plurality of baptized disciples who will be life-long learners who grow in their submission to Christ. This plurality of Christians, if the missionary is properly focused on the task, will be formed into a local church themselves. “The result of [the missionary’s] work should be biblical, local, independent churches that reflect the soil in which they are planted.”[4]  Therefore, the missionary is most effective when he is planting local churches with those baptized disciples who have benefitted from his proclamation of the Gospel.

These locally planted churches will be better churches if they resemble the same kind of local church(es) that have cultivated a quality relationship with the missionary who facilitated their own rooting and grounding. If missionaries and local churches work in tandem (as it seems they were designed to do), then the cycle will simply continue. Aubrey Malphurs says of church planting and its ultimate goal,

“We are not to start just any kind of church; they should be Great Commission churches. These are churches that take most seriously Jesus’s command to make disciples! Making disciples begins with evangelism and continues with edification or the building up of the saints in the faith with the ultimate goal of their attaining spiritual maturity (Col. 1:28–29; Heb. 5:11–6:1).”[5]

Malphurs’ statement brings us back to the beginning; the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The goal of newly planted church is the same as the missionary, and it is the same as the established local church congregation. When the established local church is healthy, she will serve her role well as a support structure for the missionary and a model for the church plants that (by God’s grace) result from his efforts. When the missionary is healthy, he will serve his role well as an evangelist and facilitator for the eventual indigenous church plant(s) as well as a motivation and inspiration for the congregants who support him. When the indigenous church plant is healthy, she will repeat the cycle with new missionaries and fresh groups of newly converted Christians.

There are so many benefits to this relationship that a brief work such as this cannot explore them all. Suffice it to say that the coalescing of churches and missionaries is a recipe for enjoying vibrant, Great Commission assemblies of vigorous, missional disciples of Christ – both locally and globally.

 

[1]Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

[2]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[3]Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

[4]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[5]Malphurs, Aubrey. The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting: A Guide for Starting Any Kind of Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

The “Jesus” of Mormonism

What do Mormons believe about Jesus Christ?

As is true of Christian churches, those parishioners of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints may not be aware of or able to articulate every foundational belief of the institution. Like many naïve Christian church attendees, some Mormon temple members might be unable to state (and fewer are likely able to explain) the doctrinal stance of the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) Church pertaining to the person and work of Jesus Christ. However, a church’s statement of belief concerning Christ (biblically orthodox or not) is essential to understanding what the church believes about almost everything else.

So foundational is the biblical description of Jesus Christ that maintaining an inaccurate or lacking view of His person and work in the face of truth is destructive to the soul. In other words, belief or trust in the true Jesus of the bible ensures the salvation of one’s soul, but a belief or trust in someone with different or missing attributes accompanied by the same name leaves one condemned. Of particular importance is the acknowledgment of Christ’s full divinity and actual humanity. This unique and biblical description of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian belief and the message of the Gospel itself. God’s plan to redeem sinful humanity is only accomplished through the person and work of this singularly capable God-man – Jesus Christ.

Mormonism maintains a view of Christ that is extremely dangerous to those who are not deeply planted in the soil of biblical truth. One could read the statements about Christ on the official Mormon or LDS websites without noticing much in the way of distinguishing marks from Christianity. However, Mormons may use the same terms as Christians when they speak of Christ, but they have attempted to redefine His person and work – the terms have new definitions.

Brigham Young, a major Mormon Prophet who directly followed Joseph Smith, said, “He [Jesus] was the Son of our Heavenly Father, as we are the sons of our earthly fathers. […]Jesus is our elder brother spirit clothed upon with an earthly body begotten by the Father of our spirits.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 2, September 28, 1862 [emphasis mine]).

An Apostle of Mormonism stated, “We are brethren and sisters of Satan as well as of Jesus. It may be startling doctrine to many to say this; but Satan is our brother. Jesus is our brother. We are the children of God. God begot us in the spirit in the eternal worlds.” (Apostle George Q. Cannon, March 11th, 1894, Collected Discourses, compiled by Brian Stuy, vol. 4, p. 23 [emphasis mine]).

Not only do Mormons believe that Jesus was the literal offspring of Mary and a physical Heavenly Father, but it also claims that Jesus had many wives himself. “The grand reason of the burst of public sentiment in anathemas upon Christ and his disciples, causing his crucifixion, was evidently based on polygamy, […] a belief in the doctrine of a plurality of wives caused the persecution of Jesus and his followers. We might almost think they were ‘Mormons.'” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:345-346 [emphasis mine]).

In conclusion, there could be many other citations and a more detailed description of the Mormon Jesus as he contrasts the biblical Jesus Christ. The words of authoritative Mormon Apostles and Prophets state it clearly as they proclaim, “It is true that many of the Christian churches worship a different Jesus Christ than is worshipped by the Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (LDS Quorum of the Seventy member Bernard P. Brockbank, The Ensign, May 1977, p. 26 [emphasis mine]) In fact, Brigham Young makes it unambiguous when he says, “Brigham Young said that the “Christian God is the Mormon’s Devil…” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 5, page 331).

The Jesus of Christianity and of the bible is not the Jesus of Mormonism and, therefore, not the Jesus who saves.

The purpose of stating such a thing in dramatic contrast is not to personally ‘cast stones’ at those who willingly take upon themselves the label of “Mormon” or “LDS.”  Rather, my purpose is to present the real and present divergence of these two religious systems.  Christianity – the bible itself – offers salvation, the forgiveness of sins, through the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.  This gift is to be received by faith, apart from any work, effort or will of man.  Mormonism offers a version of salvation through one’s diligent effort and overwhelming obedience.  This system is like many others with respect to its “path towards salvation.”  According to the bible, the path is really no path at all – the path is a man, and only He can save sinners from God’s imminent wrath (John 14:6).