This is an illustration I drew the other day and as I don’t often do these sort of illustrations, I thought I might share it on here.
It was inspired by the fact that my church, Bundoora Presbyterian, has just started as topical sermon/bible study series called Gospel Shaped Outreach. It’s a program developed by The Gospel Coalition and its focus is not teaching a new evangelism technique, but rather its looking at evangelism or “outreach” and asking things like, “What is evangelism?”, “Why should we evangelise?”, “Why don’t we evangelise?”. I’m sure it’s got lots of practical stuff in it but we have just started and I’ve been enjoying thinking through some of these questions. I look forward to getting a good theology of evangelism which will inspire me to do it more boldly and in a way that is more God honouring.
After the first study I was reflecting on the parable of the four soils, which is a parable I have thought lots about in the past. If you don’t know it, I recommend it. You can find it recorded in all four gospels (in Matthew it is in Matthew 13:1-23). Basically, Jesus tells this parable of a sower who goes out and sows seed, finding that it falls on four types of soils, and only the fourth soil is really good and bears fruit. Jesus also explains this parable to his disciples telling him that the seed represents the “Word of God” or the gospel message and the four soils are four different types of people that the disciples will encounter as they go about sharing the gospel. This is not designed to make them stress about looking for the “good soil” in order to make sure the gospel bears fruit. Quite the opposite. It’s supposed to encourage them to relax and just throw the seed around liberally. It’s supposed to prepare them for the variety of responses they will see as they share the gospel with everyone they meet.
As I reflected on this, I thought of my church. A few hundred people, each (if they are a Christian) with a pile of seed in their pocket. I began getting excited by the prospect of what might happen if this bible study series (which we are all being encouraged to do) would prompt each of us to throw a bit more seed around the place. Who knows what soil it might land on? To some degree the parable encourages us that 3 out of 4 of the people we share the gospel with might not respond with faith. Now, I know Jesus didn’t mean for it to be taken so mathematically, but it is fair to say, odds are, if more seed is being thrown around, then more chance it will land on some good soil.
This vision also made me reflect on something… If we aren’t throwing this seed around at the moment, what are we doing with it? Well, that’s when this illustration popped into my imagination. It’s an image of a sower that doesn’t sow seed. He loves the seed. He enjoys the seed. He feeds on the seed. He just doesn’t sow it. And he grows fat and comfortable gorging on the seed whilst before him are the four soils ready the receive it. This illustration isn’t really about me bagging lazy Christians. It’s more of a sign of where our church might get to if we don’t get on board with Jesus’ mission. It’s a pictureÂ of being spiritually overweigh. And if it is a criticism, it is first and foremost a criticism of myself. I don’t want to forget that the seed of the gospel that someone gave to me is seed that I am supposed to pass on.
It’s similar to another illustration I once heard about the difference between a swamp and a river. A swamp collects water but doesn’t move it along, and so it gets stagnant and disgusting. A river however stays full of fresh, pure, thirst-quenching water precisely because it doesn’t hold on to it. It lets the water flow into it and out of it to other places. This is what we should be like. Any blessing that we receive from God is given to us so that we can bless others. That includes our money, our possessions, our health, our intelligence and most importantly, the gospel itself.
So, anyway, that was my thinking behind the illustration. You may have seen something different, which is fine. Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Also, if you like colouring in and you’d like to improve my illustration with some colour, I’d love to see that!
CLICK HERE to download a high quality version of the image. Feel free also to print or use the image for your own ministry purposes. Just tell me how you’ve used it as that will encourage me!
Recently the Pope made a statement that implied that Donald Trump was not a Christian. He pointed to Trump’s plan to build a wall between the US and Mexico and said “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”
Trump responded withÂ this statement: “For a religious leader to question a personâ€™s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian…Â No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another manâ€™s religion or faith.”
Firstly, I want to say that Trump is completely wrong in regard to the right of a religious leader to question another man’s religion. In fact, the apostle Paul would say that that is one of the responsibilities of a religious leader. Consider Paul’s instruction to his trainee-minister, Titus: “[An elder]Â must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.Â For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group.They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teachâ€”and that for the sake of dishonest gain.” (Titus 1:9-11)Â Paul even models this in his public rebuke of Peter which he mentions in Galatians 2:11-14, when Peter was clearly “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel”.
Jesus himself also warns us to watch out both for false believers and for the fact that we might be a false believer ourselves. In Matthew 7:13-23 Jesus says:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.Â Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheepâ€™s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.Â Not everyone who says to me, â€˜Lord, Lord,â€™ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.Â Many will say to me on that day, â€˜Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?â€™Then I will tell them plainly, â€˜I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!â€™”
Now, we have to be careful not be too quick to judge someone as a false believer. Jesus even warns his followers to have this caution in Mark 9:38-41. But in order for us to clearly proclaim and protect the gospel message, we need to be able to call a spade a spade. When someone has no understanding of the Christian gospel or shows no fruit that should accompany someone who claims to be a Christian (see GalatiansÂ 5:16-23), then we should feel free to suggest that that person is not a Christian.
Now, there may be many, many reasons for someone to consider that Donald Trump is not a genuine Christian. You could point to his unrepentant boasting about his various extramaritalÂ affairs, or his sexist,Â racistÂ and ableist comments, or his foul language, or his commitment to bring back the practise of water-boarding and worse, or his threats of violence against those that oppose him, or his general arrogance and ego. These examples show that the fruit of a life shaped by the Spirit of God – namelyÂ love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control – are severely lacking in Trump, and mightÂ be considered enough to conclude that he wasn’t actually a Christ-follower. As Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:20).
Now, you have to be careful judging the reality of someone’s conversion based on the fruit you see. We are all flawed works-in-progress. Someone may be a genuine follower of Christ and still have a lot of bad fruit that God is working on over time. The example I mentioned before whereÂ Paul publicly rebuked Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) was an example of one Christian rebuking another Christian. Paul accused Peter ofÂ “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel”. The problem with Trump though is not that he isn’t acting in line with the gospel, it’s that he doesn’t even know the gospel in the first place.
TWO CRITERIA TO BE A CHRISTIANÂ
When Jesus called people to follow him right at the beginning of his ministry he said, â€œThe time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel!â€ In order to be a Christian (a Christ-person) JesusÂ commands two things: “Repent” and “believe the gospel”. This message is echoed later in Jesus ministryÂ when he explains what the heart of his message is: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) and after Jesus was resurrected this call to “repent and believe” was carried on by his followers, as can be seen in Acts 20:21, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
Turning to God in repentance for our sin and believing in the good news about Jesus for our forgiveness is the simple requirement for the salvation that God offers. If you have not done this,Â then you are not a Christian and you can not claim that name. If you do not show evidence of having done this, then other people are right to (as Trump puts it) question your faith and religion.
The gospel message is the thing God uses to bring people into his kingdom. As Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “the gospel…is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes”. Because of this, it is important that we are clear about the gospel, it is important that we defend the gospel and it is important that we protect the gospel from being corrupted over time. One of the ways to do this is to not be afraid to call someone out for not having the right to call themselves a Christian – either due to their lack of “repenting and believing” or due to their lack of the fruit that should accompany it.
As I mentioned about, it is easy to see that Trump is lacking in the fruit, but I think the thing that makes it even clearer that he is not a Christian, is the fact that he has not “repented and believed”. This video clip makes that abundantly clear.
Trump is asked the most basic of questions that a Christian should be able to answer without hesitation: “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?”
Trump first tries to avoid the question,Â talking non-stop for a full minute trying to win the crowd by name-dropping his minister. When he is forced to confront the questionÂ he stumbles over his answer saying: “I’m not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t… I don’t think in terms of that. I think in terms of let’s go on and let’s make it right.”
Not long after this interview, Trump was questionedÂ about his answer and his understanding of Christianity on CNN.
Interviewer Anderson Cooper asked Trump: “The idea of repentance. Is that something that’s important to you?”
Trump answered: “I think repenting is terrific.”
Cooper: “But do you feel a need to? As part of forgiveness.”
Trump: “If I make a mistake then yeah, then I think it’s great, but I try not to make mistakes. I mean, why do I have to, you know, repent? Why do I have to ask for forgiveness if you’re not making mistakes? I work hard. I’m an honorable person. I have thousands of people who work for me. I’ve employed tens of thousands of people over the years.”
Cooper: “You give millions to charity.”
Trump: “I give millions. I built the Vietnam Memorial in Lower Manhattan, with a small group of people!”
JESUS CAME FOR THE SICK
As has been often pointed out by Christian commentators, if you do not see the bad news of our sin and need for forgiveness, then you will never see the good news of Jesus’ offer to die for your sin and provide you that forgiveness. It’s like chemo. You’ll never go do it if you don’t realise you have cancer.
In Luke 5:30-32, theÂ Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answers,Â “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”Â Jesus describes himself as a doctor, and if you don’t know you’re sick, you won’t go to him. Jesus has come for sinners, not those who think they are “righteous”.
Trump falls into the exact same problem the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. When asked about whether he has asked God for forgiveness, TrumpÂ says “I don’t think so”. When asked about what he thinks about repentance, Trump says “Why do I have to repent?”. Trump does acknowledge that he may have made some mistakes, but that doesn’t drive him to his needs before God. In fact he says, “If I do something wrong I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture.”
In his mind, Trump is his own saviour. And if asked about whether he feels a need to repent, he will point out all his good works – working hard, being honorable, employing people, giving to charity and building stuff. I don’t know about you, but that reminds me of a parable Jesus once told that seems quite appropriate. It’s found in Luke 18:9-14. Have a read and see who the Pharisee in the parable sounds like.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
â€œTwo men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: â€˜God, I thank you that I am not like other peopleâ€”robbers, evildoers, adulterersâ€”or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.â€™
â€œBut the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, â€˜God, have mercy on me, a sinner.â€™
â€œI tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.â€
WE ARE LIKE TRUMP
Now, this article may sound like I am just having fun dumping on Trump. That’s actually not my goal at all. In fact it would be hypocritical for me to quote the parable above and then just say, “God, I thank you that I am not like Donald Trump!” The fact is that although Trump needs forgiveness and needs to repent, we are no better than him. The point of the parable that Jesus told was that we should not base our understanding of our own goodness by comparing ourselves to others. We should be like the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector was actually a worse sinner than the Pharisee, but he did something that meant that he went home right with God – he acknowledged his sin and he asked for mercy. In Jesus’ words, he “humbled” himself before God. That is something we all need to do, and if you are standing next to Trump on the day of Judgment, you can’t point to him and say, “At least I was better than him.” No. We are like Trump. We all need forgiveness. We all need to repent. We all need Jesus. We are all in the same boat.
My aim in writing this article is not to get you to hate Trump. It’s not to get my American friends to not vote for him (though most of them are more anti-Trump than I am). My aim in writing this is twofold. Firstly, in order to defend the integrity of the true Christian gospel I feel it is important to say that Trump does not get it. It is important that I point to an example like Trump and say, despite the fact that he calls himself a Christian, he is not one. There is only one gospel. And asÂ R.C. Sproul said at the Ligonier National Conference just yesterday, “Whatever else we do with the gospel, we must never, ever, ever mess with it.”
But secondly, we must make sure that we do not fall into the same trap. We must make sure that we understand the gospel clearly and that we have responded to it in the way that Jesus commands. Those that call themselves by the name “Christian” must be open to that sort of self-scrutiny and self-reflection. We can not presume that just because we call ourselves a “Christian” that we are one. And if someone questions our genuineness as a Christian, we need to not react like Trump did to the Pope. We need to give people theÂ right to ask those questions and we need to ask those questions of ourselves. We need search our hearts and the Scripture to allow God to convict us and call us to repent and believe. We need to take Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23 seriously:
“Not everyone who says to me, â€˜Lord, Lord,â€™ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.Â Many will say to me on that day, â€˜Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?â€™Then I will tell them plainly, â€˜I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!â€™”
Sadly, I believe there a millions of people who, like Trump, would tick theÂ “Christian” box on the census form and yet do not know the gospel and have never responded to it. Millions of people who expect to meet God as a friend when they die, and yet will meet him as a stranger. It is a harrowing and sobering thought.
The best we can do is make sure that we know the gospel ourselves and make it known as best we can.
Lately, I have been thinking lots about baptism. I am talking to people, posting thoughts on facebook, listening to talks and reading a really helpful book called, “Baptism: Three Views“.Â My aim is to reach a biblically faithful understanding of baptism and come to some conclusion as to which “camp” I sit in. There are many different understandings of baptism and people have debated it for centuries, but I am only considering three basic views – “pedo-baptism” (the idea that it’s appropriate to baptise children of Christian parents), “credo-baptism” (the idea that only professing Christians should be baptised) and “inbetweedo-baptism” (not a real term, but represents the view that either position is ok and there does not need to be uniformity between Christians on the issue).
But as the title of this blog asks… why worry about baptism? Why go to such lengths to think through an issue that may not be resolvable and is definitely not core to the gospel? Well, firstly I do want to acknowledge that I do think this is not a core gospel issue. Baptism is not necessary for salvation, a point that is most clearly shown by the story in Acts 10:43-48 where people respond to the call to believe in Jesus for forgiveness, are born again and given theÂ Holy Spirit, and after all that are baptised. Only Jesus saves us and he does so when we put our faith in him, which is why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “It is by graceÂ you have been saved,Â through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God –Â not by works,Â so that no one can boast.” Baptism doesn’t save us, so why worry about it?
Well, baptism might not be necessary for salvation, but it is connected with salvation. All the views of baptism that I respect (namely the three that I mentioned above) acknowledge that baptism is an important ritual that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform as they spread the message of the gospel and made disciples. The final words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel record this command: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Â Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,Â baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,Â and teachingÂ them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with youÂ always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Any Christian that takes seriously Jesus’ authority and his command for us to make disciples and spread his teaching, has to engage with what he means when he commands us to “baptise”.
First and foremost, it must challenge all Christians to get baptised themselves. There may be muchÂ debate about whether or not we should baptise our kids, but if you are an un-baptised Christian, then the call and biblical expectation to get baptised is a no-brainer. I understand some Christians may want to think through exactly what it all means, or they may be unsure about the mode of baptism (dunk or pour), or they want to make the event something their friends and family can come to, but those concerns should not drag on too long. We should rather have the enthusiasm of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36, who after comprehendingÂ the gospel, said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” To put it off indefinitely or to simply ignore it,Â is I think, dishonouring to the beautiful ritual that baptism is supposed to be.Â At best it is a sign of being ignorant of the importance Scripture puts on it, and at worst it is an act of willing disobedience to the clear command of Jesus. So, if you haven’t done it and you’re a follower of Jesus, then get your bathers and get on with it!
MY JOURNEY WITH BAPTISM
So baptism is important to think about for all Christians, but why am I particularly engaging with this issue now? Well, the answer is in the blog I wrote before this one. I have a baby on the way. And so, I feel I need to come to some conclusion as to whether or not God wants me to get my child baptised. One thing I have come to realise is, I can’t do nothing. I can’t sit on the fence indefinitely. Basically, if I think about it for 20 years and then decide I believe that the pedobaptist view is correct, it’s a bit too late. It’s like someone driving towards a cliff asÂ they are asking themselves “To be or not to be”. Once they hit the cliff, they have decided “not to be” whether they are ready for it or not! In the end, I do think there is some merit to the case for pedobaptism and so I think I should consider it before my child is too old and I have accepted the “credobaptist” position by default!
Even though my child’s impending birthday does create a sense of urgency (if you can call 6 months “urgent”), even before I was married I was interested in understanding baptism. You see, I was brought up in aÂ Catholic family and so was baptised as an infant myself. For most of my childhood I didn’t contemplate my own baptism, but it did effect the way I understood Christianity. I was always taught that my baptism was like my ticket into heaven, and because of it, I was a child of God.
As opposed to what I now know the bible teaches, the Catholic Church’s position is that God uses the actual act of baptism to save us. The Catholic Catechism teaches: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the SpiritÂ and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.”Â
Due to this teaching, I always just presumed I had a relationship with God and so I did not engage with the message of the gospel or the call to put my trust in Jesus for my forgiveness. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I started to question this idea. Despite being told I was right with God, I didn’t feel it. It didn’t ring true to my experience.
At aged 16, I finally heard the message that I could beÂ freed from my sin and received this rebirth as a child of God, not through my baptism, but through trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I heard this message through a pentecostal family, who were very much “credobaptists”. The daughter, who I was dating at the time, even told me how she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Saviour and was baptised at the young age of 5!
After becoming a Christian I developed a real disgust with the idea of infant baptism. After all, it was my infant baptism that lied to me that I was already right with God and prevented me from seeking the truth about the gospel. At least, that’s how I felt. I came to think that infant baptism was the primary thing wrong with the Catholic Church and was the cause of most of their problems. Also, I had such a wonderful example of “believer” baptism in this pentecostal family’s testimony and now, my own experience.
I would have happily remained a devout credobaptist if it wasn’t for the Christian Union. If you haven’t heard of them, they are a wonderfulÂ evangelical group that meets on University campuses around Australia, teaching, evangelising, training and mentoring students. It was through the Christian Union (or CU as we called it) that I really started to delve into studying the Bible. The pentecostal church I had started going to was loving and full of enthusiasm, but they were not good at bible teaching. It was the CU that helped me study the bible, write bible studies, ask questions, seek answers, engage in robust theological discussion and get a fuller and clearerÂ understanding of the gospel.
The CU (and its parent organisation, AFES) is made up of lots of denominations, but clearly there was a dominance of Anglican and Presbyterian churches. It was through the CU that I started attending Bundoora Presbyterian Church (a church I have now been going to for aroundÂ 14 years). It was also through the CU that I heard the crazy idea that some Christians who knew the gospel and studied the bible, also believed that you could baptise infants!
You can image how shocked I was. For nearly 5 years I had believed that infant baptism was the biggest poison to true Christianity. I was thoroughly convinced that no valid biblical argument could be made for pedobaptism, but, not wanting to be stubborn in my beliefs, I was willing to be swayed. I looked for a solid biblical article that would explain the position to me, and low and behold… I found one! I am very sad to report I can’t supply a copy of this article, but I can testify to it’s arguments being solid and biblically based. It didn’t completely convince me, but it did show me that there was more to this debate than just what I had experienced in my childhood and conversion.
From that point on, I was pretty much “on the fence” on the issue. Over the years I have done some thinking and discussing on the issue, but nothing that would compel me to pick a side. I would hear one argument and find it robust and convincing, but then I would hear a valid rebuttle and a presentation of the opposing view that was also robust and convincing.
As I said earlier, with a child on the way I feel I should once again pick up this issue and see if I can come to any settled position. Although I am an active member in my local presbyterian church, I feel no specific loyalty to agree with its position on this matter. My minister, Neil Chambers, is wise and very biblical, keeping our church focussed on the core issues of the gospel and not forcing people to agree with the official presbyterian position on an issue is not clear in Scripture. He definitely is a pedobaptist, but he would not expect I would have to agree with that position in order to be a member or be involved in church ministry. His focus has always be that Christian parents raise their children to love Jesus, whether they baptise them or not.
So, here I am, still on the fence. After years of reading and discussing, I feel I am getting a good grasp on both sides of the debate. In fact, if you are fully convinced of either position, I reckon I could happily and passionately argue for the opposing view. This doesn’t help me in my goal to reach some conclusion myself, but it does give me a respect for both sides, a humility when it comes to these issues, and an acknowledgement that neither side is “clearly” wrong or wildly unbiblical.
Now, I haven’t actually gone into the arguments for either position in this blog. This is partly because I am still reading the book “Baptism: Three Views” and wanting to solidify my thoughts a bit more. I will hopefully write another blog down the track to reveal and explain which position I have decided upon, when (or if) I eventually reach a decision. I just thought I’d write this blog to explain a bit of my journey so far and why I find it personally very stimulating, engaging and interesting to think about the issue of baptism.
To aid my journey, please feel free to do the following, either in the comments on this blog, or in an email to me personally:
Share your own journey and questions relating to this issue.
Pass on any articles, sermons or thoughts that you find explain either position well.
Catch up with me to ask your own questions or to discuss or debate the topic with me. I’d love that!
Please also pray for me. This issue may be complex and both sides may have valid arguments, but I do want to be faithful to Scripture and the commands of Jesus, in how I think about this issue. At the same time, I don’t want to give this issue more time than I should. As my brother Tony advised me, ‘I believe with the first child your primary thought will be “I must not drop you” until you relax. Just enjoy those early days.’Â Good counsel.
So, why worry about baptism? Well, I don’t plan to worry too much. But I am looking forward to the journey.Â
In the meantime, if you want a laugh, have a read of a funny post I wrote on this topic last year…
Is God number #1 in your life? Does God get first priority? Do you seek to worship God, serve God and love God before you get on with the rest of your life?
These can be challenging questions. In fact, it was questions like these that got me thinking about God twenty years ago. I had always believed that God existed, but I realised that God had always been a small part of my life. I treated him like a calculator. I always had my calculator handy. I didn’t want to live life without a calculator. But when did I reach in my pocket and take engage with my calculator? Well, only when I had a problem to solve. I treated God in the same way. I had no issueÂ believing God existed, but I didn’t really engage with God unless I was thinking about the meaning of life, or if I would ever get a girlfriend, or if I would be caught for doing something naughty. God was convenient, but no a big part of my life.
I came to see that if my life was a movie, I was the star and God was just an extra. The good thing was, as soon as I came to see that, I knew instinctively that that was wrong. If I believed in God at all (which I did) then he couldn’t simply be a bit part. He was too big for that. He was God! When it came to the meaning of life, God either didn’t exist at all or else he had to have everything to do with it!
So began a spiritual journey for me that would lead me to hear the gospel about Jesus and what he had done on the cross to reconcile me to God. At aged 16, I gave up my crown and let God take his rightful place as #1 in my life. That is, in very simplistic terms, what it means to repent and become a Christian. We say sorry for trying to rule our own life, we thank Jesus for dying for our sins so we can be forgiven, and we treat God as he deserves and we commit to following Jesus as “Christ” – God’s appointed king.
When I first became a Christian, this meant that on my list of priorities, God moved right up the top of the list. First came God, then came my family and friends, then everything else. This way of thinking, still challenges me and I hope it challenges you as well. As you get older and your life is filled with many more responsibilities, you have to keep considering your priorities. It is very difficult to assess whether God is #1 in your life. I work 40 hours a week, and only do around 6-8 hours of God-focussed stuff a week. Does that mean my job is more important to me than God? I only give away about a quarter of my wage to charities and gospel ministries. Does that mean I serve money more than God? I watch more YouTube than pray, I eat more often than I read the bible and I sleep for longer than I serve others. I only go to church one day a week and that for only a couple of hours! Does that mean that I worship myself for the other 166 hours a week? Well, of course not. In fact, I have never really thought like that. Fortunately, back when I was still a teenager and a baby Christian, I went to a youth event where I heard a speaker challenge that whole idea.
God should NOT be #1 in your life. God should not be at the top of the list of your priorities.
God is not #1 on the list…
God IS the list.
In Mark 12:28-34, when Jesus was asked by an Old Testament scholar about which was the most important commandment of all, the question was about what was #1 in the long list of rules that God had given in the law. Jesus blew that way of thinking out of the water with his answer. He pointed the man to the Old Testament law book Deuteronomy and quotes chapter 6, verse 4 and 5. These verses weren’t one of the laws. They were the premise behind all of the laws. This is what Jesus said to the man’s question:
“The most important one,â€Â answered Jesus,Â â€œis this: â€˜Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Â Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Jesus says the most important thing we must do is love Yahweh (the “Lord”) with everything you have – your heart, soul, mind and strength. Everything! God shouldn’t just be our #1 priority. If we are to follow Jesus’ words then God must be the one thing that ALL of our priorities are shaped by. We must love God with every part of our life. That means that every dollar I spend is God’s money, every hour I work I am doing ministry. Worship is not just something I do on a Sunday. Every category on my list is a form of worship. God is not #1 on my list, he is the paper that the list is written on. He is the pen that writes what goes on the list and what stays off it. God IS the list.
The danger with talking about God as your #1 priority, is that you can fool yourself into believing that he has nothing to do with your #2 priority or #3 priority. That sort of Christian can go to church, give money to charity, even read his bible and pray or be involved in ministry, and yet cheat on his wife on the side. Or maybe it’s not so dramatic. Maybe he just likes to play computer games and resents his wife and children for invading that little bit of space that is just his own.
For a Christian, there is not time that is “just our own”. There is not one cent in our bank account, not one second of our day, not one breath in our lungs that is not God’s. We are completely his. As Paul says, “You are not your own;Â you were bought at a price.Â Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
We must not compartmentalise our Christian lives. God is not simply the most important oneÂ of our various priorities. He is not simply the one we attend to first, before going off to engage in our other pursuits. We shouldÂ love God with everything we have. He is not just #1. He is #1 to infinity.
Or, as God himself puts it in the very last chapter in the bible: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,Â the First and the Last,Â the Beginning and the End.”
He IS the list.
So reflect on this… Where is God in your life? Is he on the list at all? Or do you treat him like a calculator or an extra in the movie where you are the star?
Maybe you need to flip the whole thing around. That what the word “repent” actually means. Stop ignoring God and stop feeling guilty that God should have a bigger role in your life. Don’t just “prioritise” God. Give him him everything. Give him the crown. Give him your heart, soul, mind and strength. Give him the pen and the paperÂ and let him be more than just #1 in your life. Let him be your life.
Becoming a Christian was for me a bit like getting married. I can remember the a specific day, the specific moment that I put my trust in Christ and was reconciled to God. But, like any relationship, there is often a long relational process before aÂ commitmentÂ is made. The process that takes us from being a stranger (or even enemy) of God to being a friend, is often a very interest journey of wooing and being wooed, of exploring and asking questions. Every Christian I have ever met has an interesting and unique story of how they came to know Jesus. God brings people into our life and circumstances along our path in order to lead us to understand and respond toÂ the gospel. IÂ definitelyÂ had that experience. One of the interesting things God used in my journey was… the Catholic Rosary.
I was brought up going to Catholic Mass every Sunday and was sent to both a Catholic Primary and Secondary School. I didn’t know much about the finer points of Catholic theology, but I did come through that time with an understanding that God existed, that he was all powerful and that he loved me. In regard to Jesus and the gospel, I knew some of the very basic elements of the story, but that was it. If you had asked me “Why did Jesus die?” I would have responded faithfully with the answer, “He died for my sins.” But I would have had absolutely no idea what that meant, why that was necessary or what impact that should make to my life.
Around the age of 16, God began to prompt me and I started asking some of the big questions about the meaning of life. I started to wonder what the point of everything was and if God had anything to do with it. I had no problem believing that God existed, but it started to seem odd to me that, if he existed, why didn’t he feature more prominently in my life? Wasn’t God the biggest thing there was in the Universe? How could he just be a small character in my story – almost just an extra in the background? I concluded in the end, if God existed and there was a meaning to life, then those two things HAD to be inextricably linked. God had to be what it was all about, or else, God wasn’t really God.
Now, I know, many people who are brought up in the Catholic ChurchÂ take that last option and conclude that the God that they were taught about as a child was just a fairy tale like Santa that you should just grow out of. That was not my story. My own experience didn’t include God, but my worldview did. I thought then, as I still think now, that the world makes much more sense with God than without God. Some see this inconsistency with worldview and their personal experience as a sign that their worldview is faulty. For me, it was a sign that what needed to change was my personal experience.
So I began to explore more about God, asking questions, talking to people and generally being more interested in spiritual things. I could share all the things that God brought into my life during this time, but I want to share just one of the key moments that was quite a turning point for me.
At the Catholic High School I went to we did Religious Education (or RE as it was called). Now we didn’t always learn about Catholic teaching and practises, but during this season of spiritual searchingÂ I remember one class where we were learning about the Catholic Rosary.
If you don’t know what the Rosary is, let me try to explain it to you. It’s a set of beads linked together in a necklace, that is used as an aid for prayerÂ and meditating. There is nothing magical in the beads themselves, it’s just that each bead represents a prayer and so you feel along with your fingers one bead at a time and pray the appropriate prayer as you go. You travel around the circle of the necklace which is broken up into five sections. Each section has ten beads in it and is called a “decade”. There is also one single bead that separates each “decade”. Every time you come along to one of these single beads, you pray the “Our Father” (or “The Lord’s Prayer” as it is otherwise known). Then you move through the “decade” and for each one of those ten beads, you pray the “Hail Mary“.
Now, I’m not going to comment here about what I think about the Hail Mary prayer, or about devotions to Mary in general, even about the dangers about repetitively praying the Our Father (other than to say that I obviously have problems with them all). At the time, during this RE class back in High School, I was more intrigued by what you were expected to do during each decade. Apart from praying the Hail Mary 10 times, you areÂ also meant to meditate and reflect on a particular religious story. These are called “Mysteries”. Every time you do a circuit of the Rosary, you think about five different Mysteries. In Catholic tradition there are four different types of Mysteries – the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries and the Glorious Mysteries. You can see what they all are HERE.
So, to conclude (in case you’re losing track), to completely pray the Rosary, you will go around the necklace 4 times, each time reflecting on 5 different Mysteries, so that in the end you have thought about 20 different religious stories (and prayed the Hail Mary over 200 times!) Now, as a teenager just starting to look into the bible, I was interested in these “Mysteries”. I wanted to look up these stories and investigate them myself.
I remember I had a little pamphlet which included all the MysteriesÂ next to a religious picture depicting the story. Underneath each one was the Bible reference where you could find the story recorded. It looked like the picture below…
I was going through them all and noticing how each bible passage clearly referred to the Mystery. This was, until I got to the last two “Glorious Mysteries”. You can see them above in the bottom right hand side of the picture and from the bible passage listed there, you might be able to see what I mean. These two stories are called The Assumption and The Coronation.
The Assumption is the idea that Mary didn’t actually die, but was assumed into heaven. This stems from the Catholic idea that Mary was sinless and so could not have died – as death is a punishment or consequence for our sinfulness. The Coronation is the idea that because Catholics see Mary as the Mother of God, after she was assumed into Heaven she was then crowned as Queen over all creation. This is how the Catholic Catechism puts it: “Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things”.
Now, even as a teenager who didn’t know the bible from a bar of soap, that seemed to be a bit of a stretch to get to from the passages referred to in the Rosary pamphlet. Look at the passage that get used as a “proof text” for The Assumption. It says: “You are theÂ gloryÂ ofÂ Jerusalem … You are theÂ splendidÂ boastÂ of ourÂ peopleÂ …Â GodÂ isÂ pleasedÂ with what you haveÂ wrought.Â MayÂ you beÂ blessedÂ by theÂ LordÂ AlmightyÂ foreverÂ and ever!” (Judith 15:9-10)
Now, not only is Judith an Old Testament book (and so is not a story about Mary), it is one that is disputed as to whether it is actually part of the Bible (Protestants refer to these books as “apocryphal“, meaning “obscure” or “non-canonical”). Also, look how many time the quote uses anÂ Ellipsis (the three dots “…”). This refers to the quote being majorly edited.
I noticed this and so looked up the passage in the book of Judith in my Catholic bible. The whole section reads: “TheÂ highÂ priestÂ JoakimÂ and theÂ eldersÂ of theÂ Israelites, whoÂ dweltÂ inÂ Jerusalem,Â cameÂ toÂ seeÂ for themselves theÂ goodÂ thingsÂ that theÂ LordÂ had done forÂ Israel, and toÂ meetÂ andÂ congratulateÂ Judith. When they hadÂ visitedÂ her, all with oneÂ accordÂ blessedÂ her,Â saying: ‘You are theÂ gloryÂ ofÂ Jerusalem, theÂ surpassingÂ joyÂ ofÂ Israel; You are theÂ splendidÂ boastÂ of ourÂ people. With your ownÂ handÂ you have done all this; You have doneÂ goodÂ toÂ Israel, andÂ GodÂ isÂ pleasedÂ with what you haveÂ wrought.Â MayÂ you beÂ blessedÂ by theÂ LordÂ AlmightyÂ foreverÂ and ever!’ And all theÂ peopleÂ answered, ‘Amen!'”
You can guess how amazed I was when I saw that the passage wasn’t about Mary, but about about a woman named Judith in the Old Testament!Â And even Judith wasn’t being assumed into heaven due to her sinlessness. She was being congratulated for her assistance in winning a battle. This was a very poor proof text to use, I thought.
The passage used for The Coronation story wasn’t much better, but at least it was from a non-disputed book from the New Testament. The verse was Revelation 12:1 which read “A great sign appeared in the sky, a womanÂ clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Well, that at least sounded like it could fit a picture of a coronation with the whole “crown of twelve stars”. But as I read the passage and the verses around it, I realised it was a prophetic vision and that the woman being talked about wasn’t referring to a real woman like Mary, but, as the verse calls it, a “sign”. There was no crowning ceremony taking place, no bestowing of Queen-like authority over all creation.Â
I was very confused. Surely, I had missed something. Clearly, I just didn’t know my Bible well enough.
I went to my RE teacher and asked her about it. I said, “The verses given don’t really talk about Mary being assumed into heaven or crowned Queen of all things. If it’s not in the bible… where did the story come from?”
Without a hint of concern, my RE teachers casually said, “Oh, they’re thingsÂ the Church developed later.”
I was floored. A little bubble of trust burst in my 16 year old brain.
“Developed later??” I thought to myself, “So, they’re not in the Bible? Why should I trust it then? Why did they even try to use a bible verse to back it up? What else do I believe isn’t in the Bible? What else have I been taught isn’t actually true?”
It was like a reversal of the epiphany that Martin Luther had about Romans 1:17 which was the catalyst for the Reformation. For Luther, he discovered somethingÂ that was in the Bible which he hadn’t been believing. With me,Â I discovered that something I had been believing, wasn’t actually in the Bible.
And with that, my own journey of reformation began. It involved a lot of questions and hours of conversation and lots and lots of reading the bible.
A few months later, this journey led me to a point where I turned to the Christian I was sitting next to at a Christian event and asked, “Ok… So what do IÂ have to believe in order to be born again?” This guy, who I didn’t really know that well, calmly and clearly took me through a few passages in the book of Romans (which I have since learned is something called “The Romans Road“).
With each verse I nodded and said, “Yep, I believe that” and when he got to the end I said, “Is that it?” “That’s it.” he replied. And so, that very night, I sat around a kitchen table in Coburg with a small group of Christian friends and I thankedÂ Jesus for dying for me and asked him to become the Lord of my life.
My life has never been the same since.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I reflect back on that RE class and my little “reformation” moment. During that whole journey, I never felt like I was rejecting the Catholic Church or the faith I was brought up in. In fact, quite the opposite. I was discovering the Jesus that I had always been taught about, I was learning what it meant for Jesus to “die for my sins” and I was beginning a real, personal relationship with the God I always knew existed.
And even though I do believe the Catholic Church has many things wrong with it, including some of its unbiblical ideas about Mary, the only reason why I questioned that Rosary pamphlet was because, even as a teenager, I had a deep conviction that the Bible was where the truth about God would be found. I thought, if it wasn’t in the Bible, then why should we believe it?
Now,Â where did that ideaÂ come from? Well, it came from the Catholic Church, of course. The Catholic Church instilledÂ inÂ me such a respect for the Bible as God’s Word, that in the end, it challenged me to read the Bible for myselfÂ and it led me to the gospel of Jesus.
And for that I will literally be eternally grateful…
Recently, some of the deep pain I experienced during the breakdown of my first marriage has resurfaced and I am going through a journeyÂ at the moment to process some of this pain and see what God has for me to learn through it. It has been over five years since my divorce, and it is around 8 and a half years since my first wife and I separated. God has done great healing in my heart over many of the griefs associated with the end of my first marriage, including providing me with forgiveness and grace for my sinful part in what caused it to collapse. Even so, many years later, I am still working through the pain, trauma and wounding that the long period of separation brought into my life and heart.
I once heard an analogy about pain and grief that has stuck with me and continues to ring true to my experience. I thought I’d share it with you.
Pain is like muck inÂ a lake. As the wavesÂ settle after a traumatic event, it may seem like the water becomes clear and still, but often it is just that the muck sinks deep down to the bottom of the lake and rests there for a while. We might know it is there, but the clarity of the still waters is so refreshing it is better for a time to let it be.
Sometimes we might be tempted to go digging around in the deep part of our lake looking to dislodge theÂ muck that needs to be dealt with. We might be worried that we are simply avoiding pain and keeping it repressed and that that would be unhealthy. Sometimes that may be true, but generally, I would discourage digging around in your pain. God knows the right time and season that we are prepared to work through our grief. The most important thing to do is keep seeking God and listening to his Word and letting his Spirit convict you and teach you and guide you.
Psalm 139 is a great reflection for this. Verses 1-4 says: “You have searched me,Â Lord,Â and you knowÂ me.Â You know when I sit and when I rise;Â you perceive my thoughtsÂ from afar.Â You discern my going outÂ and my lying down;Â you are familiar with all my ways.Â Before a word is on my tongueÂ you,Â Lord, know it completely.” God knows our hearts so much better than we do. He knows everything that is going on at the bottom of our lake and he knows when and how we should deal with it. Rather than digging around trying to dislodge something you might not be ready to deal with, the best thing to do is to pray the words at the end of Psalm 139: “Search me,Â God, and know my heart;Â test me and know my anxious thoughts.Â See if there is any offensive wayÂ in me,Â and lead meÂ in the way everlasting.”
Seek God and always allow him to search and lead you. God knows when it is the right time for the muck to be brought up from the bottom of your lake. He may do that directly through the prompting of his Spirit, or he may do that through life circumstances. God is sovereign over every part of your life.Â He will use an event or a conversation or some interaction as a stick that goes down into the water and stirs up the muck at the bottom. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, you may suddenly feel overwhelmed with the pain and emotions you thought were long gone, or at least, deeply buried.
When this happens, don’t fight it. In fact, see it as God’s kindness as he has sovereignly allowed for this muck to be stirred up at this time rather than any earlier when you may not have been able to deal with it. When the stick of life stirs up the muck in your lake, know that God probably has some healing in store for you. The important thing is to not ignore it. Let yourself feel the pain and be free to express it without embarrassment. The water that just recently looked so clear and still, now is swirling around with brown muck. It is unpleasant. In fact, it is really shitty. You may just want the pain to end, but don’t ignore it. This is just a season that you have to go through. Give yourself some time and make space in your life to allow God to do his work. Spend time in prayer and the study of the Bible, seeking God for what he wants you to reflect on or realise. Journal, draw, write, paint or even blog about what you are feeling. Talk through it with a wise and godly friend who can sit with you in your pain and continue to point you to the truths of God as they become relevant. It may be worth seeking professional counselling or meeting with your minister to give yourself the time and space to work through the pain.
Most importantly, keep bringing your muck to God. As it is dislodged from the bottom of the lake and comes to the surface, scoop it out and give it to God. Allow the truths of his Word to speak into your pain – to vindicate injustices done, to correct lies we believe about God, ourselves and others, and to remind you of the promises of God’s redemptive work, both in this life and especially in the New Creation, where God says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.Â There will be no more deathÂ or mourning or crying or pain,Â for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Then, as God brings you healing, insight, comfort and redemption, eventually that season will end. The waters will calm down and once again they will become still and clear. God will not have removed all of the muck. He knows us and knows how much of the process we can take. As he allowed the muck to come up, he will also allow some of the muck to sink back down. Be content with this. Not everything will be dealt with at once, and even if you spent your whole life in daily counselling, not everything will be dealt with in this lifetime. Pain and loss are a part of this broken world, and it is only when Jesus returns that this “old order of things” will have fully passed away.
Pain is like muck at the bottom of a lake. It is messy and unpleasant. It takes time to work through. It makes us long for the New Creation.
For me, in this season of swirling, muddy waters, I am daily feeling the pain of griefs that hurt me years ago. But I am also going through this season with great hope. I know that God loves me and will walk me through this time. I know God will not allow me to face anything that would completely crush my faith and joy as I keep putting my trust in him. I also know that God will do powerful and redemptive things through this time. I’m actually looking forward to it. The healing may be small. It may not deal with everything. But it will be exactly what I need for this time and this season. In that hope, I can walk through the pain rather than avoid it.
In fact, in the midst ofÂ this pain, I can scoop out the muck in my lake with joy.
For God, who said, â€œLet light shine out of darkness,â€Â made his light shine in our heartsÂ to give us the light of the knowledge of Godâ€™s glory displayed in the face of Christ.Â But we have this treasure in jars of clayÂ to show that this all-surpassing power is from GodÂ and not from us.Â
We are hard pressed on every side,Â but not crushed; perplexed,Â but not in despair;Â persecuted,Â but not abandoned;Â struck down, but not destroyed.Â We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,Â so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.Â For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesusâ€™ sake,Â so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.Â So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
It is written: â€œI believed; therefore I have spoken.â€Â Since we have that same spirit ofÂ faith,Â we also believe and therefore speak,Â because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the deadÂ will also raise us with JesusÂ and present us with you to himself.Â All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgivingÂ to overflow to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart.Â Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardlyÂ we are being renewedÂ day by day.Â For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.Â So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,Â since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
In some Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. These “red letter”Â bibles are well meaning, encouraging us to consider Jesus’ teaching by drawing attention to his words, but it’s also a bit of a misleading thing. It implies that the red letters somehow hold more authority as the “Word of God” and that the black letters are somehow less important. Nothing could be farther from the truth…
Back in July, I posted on Facebook this question: “What do you think is the best way to clearly explain the gospel (the message that is at the heart of Christianity)? If you’re not a Christian, what would be the most helpful way that it could be explained, if you ever wanted to get your head around it?” My cousin posted a great response that I took as a wonderful challenge. He wrote: “I’d love to see something based on Jesus’ actions, with contextual discourse. As opposed to the usual focus on what he said.” It was a wonderful insight and revealed to me how many people hear Christians talking about Jesus.
Sometimes, we can focus on Jesus as simply a moral teacher. Jesus saidÂ this, Jesus said that. It all nice to hear someone talk, but what did he DO? How did he live? Did his actions back up his words? What can we learn about Jesus and his message and his mission, from what he did rather than what he taught? It’s a great challenge. It encourages us to look at the black letters, not just the red. Well, this four-part blog is a summary of my thoughts on that topic.
A word of caution: Now, as much as the old saying, “actions speak louder thanÂ words” is very true, I will not completely ignore Jesus words in my exploration of his actions. If someone suddenly gives you a slap on the head, the words they say next might be vitally important. If they say, “You’re an idiot!” then you know the intention behind the action. But if they say, “You had a spider crawling on your head!” you might respond with thanks rather than a punch in the nose. Likewise, Jesus’ actions sometimes can be confusing or easily misinterpreted and so his words of explanation can be very insightful.
Ok, now there’s lots that could be said about Jesus’ actions and it’s pretty hard to go through each one (as wonderful an exercise as that may be), so I’ve summarised them under four categories: MIRACLES, MEALS, DEATH & RESURRECTION. You might be able to find many actions that he did that don’t exactly fit under these categories, but when it comes to the most significant actions recorded in the gospels, I’d say these four pretty much cover them all.
In this first of four blog posts, we will look at: Miracles.
Possibly the most memorable actions that Jesus is known for is the miracles he performed. Ask the average guy on the street and he might remember the stories about howÂ Jesus turned water into wine, healed people, fed the 5,000 and walked on water.Â But what were his miracles all about? Were they like super powers that he used when he saw someone is trouble?
Well, the word that is often used alongside (or instead of) the word “miracles” is the word “signs”. The apostle Peter, when he summarises the life of Jesus before his crucifixion, says: “Jesus of NazarethÂ was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs,Â which God did among you through him,Â as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) In fact, in the New Testament, supernatural actions are called “signs” around three times more often than they are called “miracles”.
The reason whyÂ Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” is because they weren’t simply super powers on display. They were a sign pointing to or SIGNifying something. Jesus’ miracles were deliberate demonstrations of the authority and identity of Jesus. They showed that he was from God.Â
You see this very clearlyÂ throughout the gospels. In John 3:2, whenÂ Nicodemus the Jewish religious ruler met with Jesus, he says: “Rabbi,Â we knowÂ that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signsÂ you are doing if God were not with him.” When Jesus calms a storm with his word in Mark 4:35-41, his disciples are terrified and wonder,Â “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”Â Also, when John the Baptist was in prison and starting to lose faith about whether Jesus was who he said he was, Jesus pointed to his miracles as proof. Read the following passage from Luke 7:18-23…
“Johnâ€™sÂ disciplesÂ told him about all these things. Calling two of them,Â he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’Â When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, â€˜Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?â€™’Â At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknessesÂ and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.Â So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosyÂ are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.Â Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.'”
Jesus’ saw his own miracles as signs that pointed to the fact that he truly was “the one who is to come”.
The very first public miracle that Jesus performed is probablyÂ his most famous – turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. You can read the whole story in John 2:1-12. Now, you may think that Jesus may have done this miracle in order to help out the thirsty wedding guests or the bride and groom who were embarrassed by running out of booze, but the text says something different. It says in verse 11, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signsÂ through which he revealed his glory;Â and his disciples believed in him.” The point and purpose of the sign was to reveal his glory, and the response Jesus expects is for us to believe in him. This is the point of all the miracles, as John writes at the end of his gospel account: “Jesus performed many other signsÂ in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.Â But these are written that you may believeÂ that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,Â and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The miracles are supposed to be a signpost pointing to the identity of Jesus. Jesus performed them to show us that he has divine authority over nature, over sickness, over evil and over death. He is God in human form and we should respond to him as such.Â But how should we respond to someone who is demonstrating the authority of God? How should we respond to God?
Well, when Peter firstÂ saw Jesus perform a miracle, his response wasn’t joy or amazement – it was fear for his own soul. In Luke 5:1-11, after Jesus has just caused a miraculous amount of fish to be caught by Peter, it says, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesusâ€™ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!'” Peter knew he was in the presence of God his Creator – the one who was holy and perfect, the one who knew the darkness of his heart and the one who one dayÂ would judge all the world. This is the response that the miracles should inspire – A deep awareness of our own sinfulness before a holy God. It should inspire repentance.
This is what Jesus expected. You see that in Matthew 11:20-24 where Jesus rebukesÂ the people who had seen lots of his miraculous signs: “Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!Â For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon,Â they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.'”Â
So the miracles of Jesus show us that Jesus is more than a mere moral teacher – he is God in human form. Those, like Peter, who are honest with themselves do not find Jesus’ miracles good news. When God shows us that means that you and I will be held accountable for our sin. The expectation of Peter is that Jesus has come to bring God’s wrath.
Well, Peter was right to respond to Jesus with fear of being condemned. But Jesus does something spectacular. InÂ Luke 5:10, Jesus respondsÂ by sayingÂ “Do not be afraid” and by inviting PeterÂ to follow him. That’s how Jesus responded to sinners. He doesn’t run away in disgust or turn away in anger,Â like Peter thought he would. In fact, he draws near and extends the offer to follow him. This actually a simple definition of what it means to be a Christian – someone who knows they are a sinner, but believes in Jesus and takes up his offer to follow him.
Jesus, even though he was our Creator in human form, did not come to condemn sinners. He came to welcome them and call them to repent and come back into friendship with God. This offer to sinners of mercy and reconciliationÂ is demonstrated no more powerfully than by the second category of Jesus actions – meals.
Post on “Meals” coming soon…
Please ask your questions about this post or make a comment below.
Think of the parableÂ of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. Imagine there are three points in the story – The Father’s house, the pigsty and the road in between the two.
At one point, the son is in the pigsty, far from his father’s house, and at another point he is closer to his father, on the road.
Which of these two is a better place for him to be, do you think?
“On the road” you might say, because the closer you are to the father’s house the better.
Well, it would be understandable to think that, but you must consider this most important question… Which way is the son facing?
You see, at one point of the parable he was on the road, quite close to his father’s house, but he was walking away from the father. Being close to the father was no help to him because his direction was leading him further and further away.
But in that moment in the pigsty, when he came to his senses and turned back to begin his journey back home, he was in a much better position. He had repented. His direction was set and even though he was far from the father’s house, bankrupt, hungry and covered in mud, he was better off than that point on the road when he was facing away from his father.
Jesus uses this story as an analogy to the moment when someone turns in repentance back to God and he says, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
There are many stories throughout the gospels where Jesus makes the point that the most important thing to God is not your position (how “good” or “close” you are to God), but your direction (which way you are facing and the direction you are travelling in). He often challenged the outwardly “good” religious leaders of his day about how God was actually more pleased with “bad” people who had turned to God in repentance. He’d say things like, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)
It’s not that God doesn’t care about how godly we are. It’s not that he doesn’t care about whether we lead a sinful or a holyÂ life. It’s just that he cares about our DIRECTION more.
If you didn’t know, I run a little ministry called Elephant Room, where I have the privilege of supporting Christian guys as they journey out of an addiction to porn. The truth that God cares more about the direction they are travelling than exactly how much progress they have made, is a great encouragement to them. They can feel so overwhelmed by their failures and so far from where they know they should be as a Christian. It is important for them to be reminded that every time they repent, all of heaven throws a party! Every little step walking in the right direction is worth it, no matter how far the journey seems and no matter how small the step. God is glorified greatly by us facing the right direction. As King David wrote as he repented over his own sexual sin: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
Back in 2007, I came to learn this great truth on my own road out of an addiction to porn. To express it, I wrote a song called, “The Road”, which has these words in its first verse:
“When I wonder whether I am travelling fast enough I just remember, I am on the road.
Cos speed is not the key to be freed, the priority’s the direction that you go, there on the road.
I might fall and I might stumble, but I am on the road.
And my hope it won’t crumble, if I am on the road.”
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice,Â â€œEloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?â€Â which meansÂ â€œMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?â€.Â When some of those standing near heard this, they said, â€œListen, heâ€™s calling Elijah.â€Â Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar,Â put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. â€œNow leave him alone. Letâ€™s see if Elijah comes to take him down,â€ he said.Â With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.Â The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.Â
These words found in Matthew 15:33-34, record an incredibly powerful moment in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The gospel writers Matthew and Mark record the words, “Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani?” as one of the final words of Jesus before breathing his last. They are words that, as the story shows, can be misunderstood, as some standing nearby mishear the word “Eloi” and make the assumption that Jesus is crying out to the Old Testament prophet Elijah to save him from the cross. Fortunately, the gospel writer gives us the correct translation of the Aramaic words and so points us to what was going through Jesus’ mind as he approached death.
The words, we are told, are translated into “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As with those standing nearby, a superficial reading of these words could easily lead us to a wrong understanding. We could think Jesus was wondering why God had not saved him. It could seem that Jesus was confused after all the good stuff he had done as to why God seemed to had forsaken him and left him to die. Wasn’t he the Messiah? Shouldn’t he be rescued by an army of angels, proving that he was who he had claimed to be? Only now, as he struggled to breath, knowing death was near, it dawned on him that rescue wasn’t coming and all he could ask God was “why”.
Well, if you read these words in complete isolation to the rest of the Bible, you could be forgiven for concluding that’s what was happening. But as with most confusing verses in Scripture, having a wider knowledge of the Bible is often very helpful. The fact is, these words of Jesus don’t just come out of nowhere.Â They are actually a direct quote from the opening line of a very relevant ancient poem… Psalm 22.
The 22nd Psalm is an emotional poem written by King David during a time where he faced intense persecution and danger. The suffering that Jesus was experiencing during his execution, powerfully echo the events described in Psalm 22. I recommend reading the whole of Psalm 22 to get all the context, but here are a few highlights, along with the parallel texts from the crucifixion story:
“But I am a wormÂ and not a man,Â scorned by everyone,Â despisedÂ by the people. All who see me mock me;Â they hurl insults,Â shaking their heads.
‘He trusts in theÂ Lord,’ they say, ‘let theÂ LordÂ rescue him.Â Let him deliver him,Â since he delightsÂ in him.'”
“In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he canâ€™t save himself! Heâ€™s the king of Israel!
Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believeÂ in him.
He trusts in God. Let God rescue himÂ now if he wants him, for he said, â€˜I am the Son of God.â€™'” (Matthew 27:41-43)
“DogsÂ surround me,Â a pack of villains encircles me;Â they pierceÂ my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display;Â people stareÂ and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among themÂ and cast lotsÂ for my garment.”
“When they had crucified him,Â they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watchÂ over him there.”
It is amazing that the events described in Psalm 22 were written over 1,000 years before the events described in Matthew 27. Maybe their parallel is not just a coincidence. MaybeÂ Jesus saw all these things taking place before him and quoted the first line of Psalm 22 as a way of expressing this connection. Jesus often described events in his life as “fulfilling” events described in the Psalms an other places in the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus said that much of the Old Testament is really all about him (Luke 24:25-27). Maybe Jesus knew that Psalm 22 was not simply a record of events similar to his own circumstance, but a type of prophecy that pointed to this moment in history? David’s kingship pointed to its fulfilment in the “Son of David” – the Messiah. Maybe David’s sufferings pointed to Jesus’ as well.
Now, although Jesus may be expressing some theological point in quoting Psalm 22, we should not forget that Jesus was also in incredible anguish. The words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” shouldn’t be read as simply an interesting Bible cross-reference. They also speak of the suffering Jesus was going through. I mean, if Jesus just wanted to point us to Psalm 22, he could have chosen a much more uplifting quote like verse 24: “[The Lord] has not despisedÂ or scornedÂ the suffering of the afflicted one;Â he has not hidden his faceÂ from himÂ but has listened to his cry for help.” or verseÂ 26: “The poor will eatÂ and be satisfied;Â those who seek theÂ LordÂ will praise him -Â may your hearts live forever!”
Now, when reflecting on the crucifixion of Jesus, our first instinct is to think that Jesus’ suffering is primarily physical. Watch a movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and you’ll get a graphic picture of Jesus’ physical suffering. But interestingly, the gospel writers don’t actually focus on this at all. The crucifixion, which was a long, brutal and bloody form of torture and execution, is never described in any detail. In all the gospels it is simply mentioned in a rather matter-of-fact sort of way: ie. “When they had crucified him…” (Matthew 27:35) We are not given a blow by blow account of what is happening to Jesus’ body, but rather, the focus is put on everything that is happening around Jesus. Why? Because the real suffering that Jesus was enduring was not physical, it was metaphysical – it was between him and God the Father. This suffering was unseen and so the gospel writers tell us about everything around the cross, that points to this reality.
The crowd’s mock. Jesus is rejected as the Messiah. Yet ironically, the sign above the cross declares that “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Darkness covers the land for three hours in the middle of the day. And at the end of this, after Jesus cries out the words from Psalm 22, he finally breaths his last – which brings a whole new series of events. The thick curtain in the temple that separated the people from the Most Holy Place was torn from top to bottom. There was an earthquake that split rocks. Even some dead people were raised to life and entered Jerusalem!
Now, there’s lots of ideas about what each of these events mean and I’m especially moved by the powerful symbolism of the temple curtain being torn in two, but at the very least it highlights that Jesus’ suffering and death wasn’t anything ordinary. Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t simply an unfortunate act of injustice. It wasn’t an object lesson by Jesus as he taught us to “die for what we believe in”. Something majorly supernatural was taking place. The testimony of Jesus’ words, the gospel writers, the Old Testament Prophets and the New Testament Church all points to one simple and powerful word – substitution.
When Jesus suffered, he was suffering on behalf of sinners like you and me. Jesus suffered and died in our place. He is our substitute.
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus explained this during the Last Supper (I explain this in more detail here) and during his prayerful agony in the Garden of GethsemaneÂ Jesus is grappling with the reality that he is about to drink the cup of the wrath of God spoken about in Isaiah 51:17-23. It’s not physical pain that he fears. It’s the wrath of God. That is the “cup” that Jesus wants the Father to take away from him.
During the crucifixion, Jesus bears the wrath of God that we deserve. As Jesus’ closest friend, the apostle Peter writes: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,Â so that we might die to sinsÂ and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) The idea that Jesus is our substitute is the heart of the message of the gospel. It is the reason why Good Friday is called “good”.
Surely, in Jesus’ cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” we should not only hear the echo of Psalm 22. We should also hear the cry of someone experiencing the wrath of God. It’s unclear exactly how Jesus (the incarnate Son of God) could be “forsaken” by God the Father, but his words are a little window into the supernatural suffering he was facing on our behalf.
As Good Friday approaches, and we reflect on the events and words that took place in the last moments of Jesus’ life, may we be filled with awe, with grief and with humble wonder. But most of all, I pray we may be filled most of all with gratitude. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be free of fear and guilt and condemnation. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be reconciled with your Creator both now and forever.
Jesus was forsaken so that we all could be forgiven, and it is because of Jesus’ death, I will never have to cry,Â “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”Â
Those words will never be mine. Jesus said them for me.