Christmas is, no doubt, the biggest holiday of the year in America. It’s a gigantic event. And I love the Christmas season – the lights and decorations and music and gift-giving. It’s a special event.
But some of it bothers me. Everybody celebrates but many don’t seem to know what’s being celebrated. Some school districts have changed “Christmas” to “Winter Celebration.” Does that even make sense? Celebrate winter – celebrate icy roads and frozen pipes and the flu!
And people use things that don’t have any connection with Christ to celebrate. Like some Christmas cards – a picture of a mailbox or a coyote howling at the moon or a stuffed bear to bring us “holiday greetings.” What does that mean?
Do you see what I’m saying? People want to celebrate; they don’t know what to celebrate; they celebrate anyway.
So, with Christmas ramping up, let’s focus our attention on the reality. Let’s set this in our hearts and maybe we can get through the season with a strong hold on what we’re celebrating. Here’s the story.
Chapter 1: BEGINNING BEFORE THE BEGINNING (John 1:1-5)
We can’t say that the story of Christ’s birth has a beginning because the Son of God does not have a beginning. John puts it: he was in the beginning with God and he was God and he made everything and he is the source of life.
Jesus Christ is the pre-existent, eternal Son of God. He was present at the beginning of the universe. He was the co-creator of all there is. Life, not just physical existence but complete life, comes from him.
The Son of God has always been and always will be; he has no beginning and no ending. He exists outside time and space. He is eternal. He is divine, the second person of the Triune Godhead. He possesses within himself absolute life.
At some point beyond time and space, God the Father and Son and Spirit decided that the Son would come into time and space onto the earth as a human being. The Creator would step into creation as one of the creatures. The one who existed in absolute glory and majesty and authority would lay that aside and live in the limitations of humanity.
I want to emphasize: that decision came from power not weakness. The awesome, glorious Son of God willingly and intentionally chose to become a man. He took that step out of powerful righteousness, purpose, and love. The story began before the beginning.
The time came for it to happen. Paul calls it the fullness of time in Galatians 4:4. He meant that everything God planned for preparation had been completed. When that time arrived, “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” God decided that his Son would come into the world as a baby. That meant human parents were needed. A woman would carry the baby and give birth.
Chapter 2: THE SELECTION FOR THE CONCEPTION
(Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-24)
God selected a young couple in Nazareth, Israel – Mary and Joseph. They were betrothed – pledged to marry but not yet married. Mary was likely a teenager, Joseph a little older. God revealed to them what he was doing.
An angel named Gabriel visited Mary one day. The 14 or 15 year-old girl was frightened when Gabriel showed up. I would be, too, and so would you. He assured her that there was nothing to worry about; she was being favored by God for a great purpose. He told her she would become pregnant and deliver a son she was to name Jesus. He would actually be the Son of the Most High – Yahweh – and he would rule an eternal Kingdom. She would not become pregnant in the normal human way. She was a virgin and would remain a virgin until after the birth. She would become pregnant by the power of God through the Holy Spirit. Mary responded to this astonishing announcement by saying, “I am your servant. Let it be.”
When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he must have been shocked and saddened. It seemed that Mary had cheated on him. He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it so he decided to end the betrothal very quietly. Then an angel spoke to him in a dream and explained what was happening: “Joseph, don’t be afraid. Mary is still a virgin. She is pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit. Her son will be the Savior.” With incredible faith, Joseph believed the angel and went ahead and married Mary.
So, the eternal and awesome Son of God became a fetus in the uterus of a young Jewish girl. He who ruled in Heavenly glory and majesty now for nine months developed in the darkness and warmth of Mary’s womb.
Chapter 3: BIRTH IN A BETHLEHEM BARN (Luke 2:1-7)
In about 4 – 5 BC, the emperor of Rome, Augustus, issued an executive order for everyone under his control to be registered. It was a census, but instead of census takers going to the people, the people had to go to their home towns to register. Joseph was originally from Bethlehem; he was in fact a descendant of King David of Bethlehem. He had to go there. Mary went with him.
It was around 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was a slow trip, most likely on foot. Maybe they had a donkey, but the Bible doesn’t actually say they did. Mary was 9 months pregnant. I can’t imagine what that was like. Those of you who have been pregnant can probably relate.
They finally arrived in Bethlehem, normally a small, quiet village. Because of the census, every lodging place was taken. Joseph and Mary could not find any place to stay until someone allowed them to use a barn of some kind. Mary went into labor. Not in a gleaming, bacteria-free delivery room, but in a dark, filthy barn, the Son of God was born. No JC Penney baby clothes, just strips of old cloth. No new cradle, just a feed trough. He whom the universe could not contain arrived as a six-pound infant.
As Luci Shaw wrote, “Older than eternity, now he is new.” Our King, our Savior has come.
That’s good news, and people needed to know about it, just like today.
Chapter 4: CELEBRATION AND ADORATION
(Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:1-12)
Who would be the first to know? Shepherds. Plain, ordinary – in fact, despised and outcast – shepherds. Not the Emperor. Not the High Priest. A band of probably 6-8 shepherds had bedded down with their sheep. It was a night like so many – just dull routine. Suddenly the routine was shattered. An angel stood before them. The majestic light of God’s glory engulfed them. They were scared stiff. They heard the angel announce, “Today your Savior was born. You can find him in Bethlehem sleeping in a manger.” Then the darkness of the night sky was filled with a crowd of angels giving praise to God.
After that concert was over, the shepherds left their sheep and went to find the baby. And they did find him just like the angel said. As they left the barn and headed back to the pastures, they told everyone they met and they went whooping and hollering their praise to God – their Savior was here!
Sometime later – maybe a few days, maybe several weeks or months – some other guys showed up: the wise men or magi from the east. They were probably followers of astrology and philosophy from Babylon. They had seen an unusual star which signified the birth of one who would be King of the Jews. The star guided them to the house where Joseph and Mary and Jesus had moved. They entered the house and found the Baby. The magi knew he was more than a King for just Israel. He was the King. They bowed low and presented gifts. The worshipped the Child. They honored him. They exalted him. They adored him.
Both the shepherds and the magi understood something of the significance of the birth in the barn. No one like that baby had ever been born. No one like him has been born since. Messiah. Savior. Lord. Son of God. The good news of his arrival was proclaimed, and there was celebration and adoration.
Well, that’s the story, but it’s not THE END. The story of Christ’s coming continues right into our lives. He came for us – to fight our battles, to reign over us, to lead us, to save us, to restore us, to transform us, to love us. The Son of God has come. That’s what Christmas is about. That’s really what we celebrate.
What does it mean to you?
Worship based on Psalm 107
During this time of thanksgiving, I’d like to offer this worship activity for you to focus on God’s redemptive story in your life.
Psalm 107:1-3 reads:
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary
And gathered from the lands,
From the east and from the west,
From the north and from the south.
This psalm focuses on experiences that call us to give thanks to God. There are 5 categories of his work in the rest of the psalm. Before reading the rest, pray for the Spirit of God to lead you to see how God has redeemed you and to enable you to express your gratitude…
WANDERING (verses 4-9)
They wandered in the wilderness in a desert region;
They did not find a way to an inhabited city.
They were hungry and thirsty;
Their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble;
He delivered them out of their distresses.
He led them also by a straight way,
To go to an inhabited city.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,
And for His wonders to the sons of men!
For He has satisfied the thirsty soul,
And the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.
This is a picture of insecurity, loneliness, empty uncertainty, personal hunger & thirst. Nothing satisfies. The Lord hears our cry and takes us home and fills our souls.
How have you wandered? How has God heard your cry and led you home to rest and nourishment? Give thanks to the Lord…
IMPRISONED (verses 10-16)
There were those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Prisoners in misery and chains,
Because they had rebelled against the words of God
And spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Therefore He humbled their heart with labor;
They stumbled and there was none to help.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble;
He saved them out of their distresses.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death
And broke their bands apart.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,
And for His wonders to the sons of men!
For He has shattered gates of bronze
And cut bars of iron asunder.
This is a picture of trying to break free of God-centeredness to live by our own ideas and ways. Godless freedom only results in bondage. We become prisoner to sin, Satan, self-centeredness. Jesus enters dungeon and breaks the chains and brings us out to freedom and new life.
How have you rebelled and found yourself in bondage? When you cried out, how did Jesus come and set you free? Give thanks to the Lord…
SELF-DESTRUCTION (verses 17-22)
Fools, because of their rebellious way,
And because of their iniquities, were afflicted.
Their soul abhorred all kinds of food
And they drew near to the gates of death.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble;
He saved them out of their distresses.
He sent His word and healed them,
And delivered them from their destructions.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,
And for His wonders to the sons of men!
Let them also offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
And tell of His works with joyful singing.
This is a picture of refusing what we need for life – suffering spiritual anorexia. We reject God’s provisions for our souls and self-destruct. In our weakened condition we cry to God and he saves. He speaks what we need to hear; he nourishes and heals. By grace, brings us back to life.
How have you refused what God has for you? How has God poured out his grace to save you and restore your life? Give thanks to the Lord…
OVERWHELMING ODDS (verses 23-32)
Those who go down to the sea in ships,
Who do business on great waters;
They have seen the works of the Lord,
And His wonders in the deep.
For He spoke and raised up a stormy wind,
Which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They rose up to the heavens, they went down to the depths;
Their soul melted away in their misery.
They reeled and staggered like a drunken man,
And were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
And He brought them out of their distresses.
He caused the storm to be still,
So that the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they were quiet,
So He guided them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,
And for His wonders to the sons of men!
Let them extol Him also in the congregation of the people,
And praise Him at the seat of the elders.
This is a picture of overwhelming odds, crisis times – like being in a storm at sea. We are at our wits’ end, don’t know what to do. When we cry to Lord, we find him in the ship with us. He leads through the crisis to safety and peace.
What storms have you been threatened by? How has God shown he is with you and given you peace? Give thanks to the Lord…
REFINING (verses 33-43)
He changes rivers into a wilderness
And springs of water into a thirsty ground;
A fruitful land into a salt waste,
Because of the wickedness of those who dwell in it.
He changes a wilderness into a pool of water
And a dry land into springs of water;
And there He makes the hungry to dwell,
So that they may establish an inhabited city,
And sow fields and plant vineyards,
And gather a fruitful harvest.
Also He blesses them and they multiply greatly,
And He does not let their cattle decrease.
When they are diminished and bowed down
Through oppression, misery and sorrow,
He pours contempt upon princes
And makes them wander in a pathless waste.
But He sets the needy securely on high away from affliction,
And makes his families like a flock.
The upright see it and are glad;
But all unrighteousness shuts its mouth.
Who is wise? Let him give heed to these things,
And consider the lovingkindnesses of the Lord.
This is a picture of God refining his redeemed people with a process of blessing and trauma – sometimes it’s like paradise, sometimes like desert. God refines our character to make us like Jesus – God-centered and holy. All is in “lovingkindness” – the ferocious passion of awesome God.
What in your character has needed changed? How has God refined and transformed you more into the likeness of Christ? What a loving gift! Give thanks to the Lord…
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,
“For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”
Racism and the division it produces has become a serious issue in the U.S. during the recent few of years. Well, it has always been a serious issue, that’s for certain. But it has again come to the forefront of our society. I don’t need to rattle off all the examples; you know what’s happening.
A lot of people know what’s happening and want it to change. Can it change? When the civil rights movement resulted in new laws and policies, it seemed that change was happening, but now look at the anger and fear and hatred and violence that are present – if there was change it certainly didn’t last. Why not? What needs to happen?
I want to share succinctly what happened to me.
I am a white man and I was a racist, growing up in Texas during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Not the white supremacist kind; I didn’t hate or fear other races. I just felt we whites were somehow better than other races, specifically African-Americans, and to some extent Hispanics . Well, yes, that is a white supremacy stance. I grew up in a culture that functioned with that belief. I have a very poor memory and there are only a few specific things from my childhood that I can remember. One is going with my mother to the Leonard Bros. department store in Fort Worth when I was about 6-8 years old. The image is still in my memory: separate water fountains and restrooms marked “Whites Only” and “Coloreds Only.”
We lived in a small town. A railroad ran through it. I heard stories from years past when black men riding in boxcars would try to get off in our town, and they were physically stopped by some of the local men. I felt proud of my town.
One day when I must have been about 10 years old, I was playing in our front yard. A two-lane road ran by. I saw a dump truck coming around the bend just south of our house. A black man was driving it. When he passed me, I blurted out a racial slur without even thinking about it. When the driver jerked his head around and looked at me, I ran into the house. Fortunately, he didn’t stop and beat the hell out of me.
Schools were integrated when I was in the 5th or 6th grade. I didn’t even know there was a separate school for African-Americans in our area. Only a couple of families from it enrolled in our school. One of the boys was in my class. Obviously, he was treated poorly. For my part, I can say that I liked him but I felt he was inferior to me because of the color of his skin.
My church in that small Texas town fostered that racist attitude. When there were protests and marches and demonstrations going on all over the country, my church voted on and adopted the policy that if any black person came into a service, the deacons would escort him out. The purpose of that was supposedly to avoid a confrontation and the disruption of the worship of God. “Go away! You’re not welcome here!” instead of, “Welcome! Let’s worship together! Let’s work together and make things better!”
I am embarrassed and saddened by these things.
When I was 19 years old, I put my faith in Christ and surrendered my life to him. I became a Christian, a follower of Jesus. Abracadabra – racism disappeared! Well, no it wasn’t that easy.
One of the critical features of my new life was learning that I needed to look at things, everything, from God’s point of view. I couldn’t have explained it very well at the time, but looking back now, I was developing a new belief system. Not just doctrine – an internal guidance system, core beliefs that shape my values and behaviors. There were truths that God wants his people to accept and live by instead of the ideas, values, and feelings they had been living by.
Then I read this (using the King James Version of the Bible at the time): “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:26, 28). From the apostle Paul’s perspective, being a first-century Jew, there were two “races” in the world: Jews and Gentiles (“Greek” in KJV). God’s point of view is he doesn’t distinguish between these different kinds of people, including races, but makes all of us his children, unifies us in a faith relationship with Christ.
I had to compare what I had been believing with that and follow it to its logical conclusion. I realized if God doesn’t put the different races in any kind of pecking order, then who am I to think my race makes me better than another? Here was a new belief for me. It took some time of course, but I accepted this truth for myself. The Spirit of God changed my racist mindset. I began and have continued, imperfectly, to look at all people from that perspective. (I’ve learned many other truths which reinforce this key idea that God does not make a distinction between us and he desires unity in place of division.)
In the efforts to overcome racism, the idea often presented is that we need to try to understand others and appreciate others’ perspective and gain insight from others so we can reconcile and be united. I’m thinking maybe the process needs to be turned around. We need to be united then we will be able to understand and appreciate and gain insight from others. That kind of unity happens when we follow Jesus Christ and accept truth from him as our core belief system, when we pay attention to the Spirit of God transforming our hearts.
This is my basic story. I know that in practice overcoming racism is a complex process. I want to share that change can happen.
It’s Springtime. Balmy temperatures, pleasant breezes, gentle showers, budding flowers. Nice. But wait – that’s not the whole picture, is it? Just ask the folks in Texas about gentle showers. Or ask people in the plains about pleasant breezes. And today (June 1) is the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. Springtime can be brutal. One day, it’s awakening and refreshing and new life. The next day, it’s fear and destruction and death. Let’s call it what it really is – Stormtime.
I’m talking about the weather because in the 4th chapter of Mark there’s a story about a storm which I believe addresses all kinds of storms that we experience. Storms don’t come just with wind and rain and hail and lightning. They also come with layoffs and betrayals and diseases and assaults and crimes and sins – all kinds of elements produce all kinds of storms — a brutal life. So, let’s see what we can get out of this story in Mark 4 for our “stormtimes.” The first part, verses 35-38.
On that day, when evening came, He said to them, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”
It had been a long and tiring day. A huge mass of people had come to listen to Jesus teach. There were so many people that Jesus had to get in this boat a little ways from the shore line so he wouldn’t be crowded in. This horde of people seemed eager to hear what he had to say, so Jesus taught, but at the end of the day he and his men wanted to get away, they needed a break from all these people. They needed things to calm down, quiet down. They needed some down time. So they all got in the boat and rowed across the lake. So relaxing. Everything’s good, everything’s fine. Being with Jesus – so tranquil – balmy temperatures, pleasant breezes, gentle showers, budding flowers. Springtime with God.
It gets brutal. Stormtime. The clouds build. Thunder rumbles. Lightning streaks and crackles. Rain pelts. The wind picks up and the waves get bigger… bigger… bigger. Washing in and out, in and out of the boat. Finally it seems they’re not going to make it – the boat’s going to sink and they’re all going to drown.
Time for somebody to do something about the weather. Somebody who has an inside track to God – maybe he can get them out of this. Where is he anyway?
Sleeping on a cushion in the back of the boat. Silent and inactive. They wake him up. “Don’t you care if we drown?” Is it nothing to you that we’re in this deadly storm? Doesn’t it matter to you what’s happening to us?
Stormtime and the one they think cares about them isn’t doing anything about it.
Have you ever been in that boat? A lot of people have. Lost a job. Lost a house. Lost a child. One woman, Anne Donovan, delivered a stillborn baby. She said, “Those things I had relied on – modern science, women’s intuition, God’s mercy – had failed, and I had nothing to hold on to.”
So many different storms. Car accidents. Diseases. Mental illness. David Weiss has schizophrenia, and he wrote an article for Christianity Today Magazine. He has taken the usual psychotropic drugs and been administered electroconvulsive therapy, all with little benefit. In the article he wrote, “Of course, whether we suffer alone or with others, the question “Why?” will never be answered, at least in this lifetime. Who knows why God allows pain? Who knows why God sometimes seems to leave us alone?” (5/2/11, “God of the Schizophrenic”)
Yeah, sometimes God seems to leave us alone. Silent and inactive. Even when the storm is so personally deep and damaging. In his book “Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God,” Brennan Manning tells his story:
Sitting on a curbstone along General Meyer Avenue in New Orleans. I am intoxicated after a relapse with alcohol. My clothes are in tatters; I reek with rancid body odor; I am unshaven. My face and belly are bloated, my eyes blood shot. I am clutching a fifth of Smirnoff vodka – only a few ounces left. My marriage is collapsing, my friends are near despair, and my honor is broken. My brain is scrambled, my mind a junkyard of broken promises, failed dreams, unkept resolutions. Fifty yards behind me is the detox center of F. Edward Herbert hospital. As I take the last swig I shudder at the pain and heartache I have caused. Going to AA meetings, working the 12 steps, talking to my sponsor, reading the Big Book, praying – these have all worked for others. Why have they not worked for me? I know I will never hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Staggering down four blocks, I find a convenience store. I buy a pint of vodka. I retrace my steps, weaving across the avenue to reclaim my seat on the curb. I do not want the lifesaving treatment of detox. I continue drinking. My eyes fill with tears. Now I am crying, Abba’s drunken child. “Jesus, where are you?” (p46-47)
Sleeping on a cushion? In so many of our storms, that’s what the objective evidence seems to indicate. He is silent and inactive. That’s what those disciples were feeling and it felt like Jesus didn’t care about them.
Let’s see what happened after they woke him up. Verses 39-41.
And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”
Awakened from peaceful slumber, Jesus did two things: commanded the storm and questioned the disciples.
When he commanded the storm to calm down, it did. The wind stopped blowing and the waves stopped billowing. Jesus showed his authority over stormtime. Here is his greatness. Here is his power. Here is his ability. Here’s what he can do. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
This happened pretty early in Jesus’ ministry – it’s only chapter 4. A lot of what he was doing was to show who he is. Look back in chapter 1:23-27, notice the similarities with this storm story.
Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” Throwing him into convulsions, the unclean spirit cried out with a loud voice and came out of him. They were all amazed, so that they debated among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.”
Jesus commanded the evil spirit to be quiet and he commanded the wind to be quiet. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” “Even the wind and the sea obey him.” The people ask, “What is this?” then the disciples ask, “Who is this?” What is happening; who is this man in our synagogue and in our boat? The evil spirit already knew and eventually the disciples understood – this is “the Holy One of God.” This is the Son of God. And Hebrews 1:3 explains, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” Jesus Christ is Lord.
Whatever storm is raging, whether it’s evil spirits or howling winds, Jesus has authority over them. And every other kind of storm. Whether you’re being abused or you’re abusing drugs. Whether the bank is taking your house or cancer is taking your spouse. Whether your worst enemy attacked you or your best friend betrayed you. Whether the IRS wants more or your loved one doesn’t want you anymore. Whatever storm is raging, Jesus has authority over it. He is Lord. He has the power to calm the storm.
So, when the furious squall was swamping the boat, why was Jesus in the stern, sleeping on a cushion? Why didn’t he prevent the storm from starting or stop it before it got so bad? Or why didn’t he help try to row to shore or at least encourage his men: “Row, row, row; go, go, go; you can do it!” Why was he sleeping?
The short answer is, “I don’t know.” I wish I had a “thus says the Lord” to answer that. I wish I could say “read such and such verse and we’ll have the answer.” I can’t do that. One of the most helpful verses to me is what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:9 – “For we know in part and we prophesy in part…” We only know part and we can only say part of what’s going on with God. He hasn’t told us everything. He hasn’t told us why he was sleeping in the boat or why he seems silent and inactive during our storms.
I did think of something that helps me and maybe it will help you. Think about it this way – when something bad has happened and you’re worried and confused, and maybe scared, how well do you sleep? A few people don’t have difficulty, but most of us have trouble sleeping when something bad has happened or when we think something bad is going to happen. You lay in bed, mind racing – imagining the worst, trying to figure it out – rolling back and forth, turning the pillow over, getting up till you feel sleepy then going back to bed and waking up again. We can’t sleep well when we are worried. Could it be that Jesus was sleeping because he wasn’t worried? Could it be that he wasn’t afraid of what might happen? He was at peace. Because why? Maybe he was just trusting his Father? Maybe he was resting, not just on a cushion, but in the security of his Father’s will and presence? And that was bigger and stronger and more life-shaping than the wind and waves.
And so here’s the second thing Jesus did – questioned his disciples. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Why are you so worried, you still don’t trust me?
When it’s stormy, it’s so natural to watch the storm. And what we see – the turmoil and trouble and chaos – influences and shapes our feelings and thoughts. I think Jesus is saying “don’t look at the storm, look at me – I can sleep during this; I’m not afraid, I’m not worried, I’m not giving up; trust me; I’m in the boat with you.”
Jesus never promised no storms. He promised to be with you. He promised to be in your boat. And somehow that’s enough. It’s enough to know the Holy One of God is here, going through the storms with us. It’s enough to know that he’s not afraid that he’s going to get swamped and buried, because he’s already been swamped and buried on the cross and now he is risen and reigning, and he’s with us. He doesn’t ask us to control the storms; he asks us to just trust him. And that’s enough.
When the place where I worked was forced to close down, I was talking with the site director about going through that storm; we talked about not knowing what is going to happen but trusting God through it and she said, “And that gives me peace.” The Lord is at peace and he’s in our boat and we can trust him and we have peace; we’re okay. And as we rest, trusting in him, we find out more about who this is and what is happening.
David Weiss, the schizophrenic who wrote the magazine article, finished it with this:
“Though my illness persists, I have finally met the God I had heard about but never truly experienced. A God who heals. A God who loves. A God I cannot logically explain to my psychiatrist. A God who manifests his genius by salvaging good from the evil in our lives. Someone unlike me. Someone unlike the well-meaning inquisitors who judged me and sought to spiritually cure me. Someone I never would have discovered without my affliction. A God who calls himself Emmanuel—God with us.
A furious squall comes up. You’re getting hammered. It looks like and feels like you’re going under. But, the Holy One of God is in your boat. Christ the Lord is with you. He’s not afraid or worried. Trust him. Trust what he says to you. Trust what he does around you. Trust his plan for you, not your own or someone else’s. Trust his ability to use the storm for good, to help you know him better and even to make you a little more like him. Trust his commands. Trust his power. Trust his care, his mercy, and his love. When it’s stormtime, trust him.
(“Christ Asleep in His Boat” by Jules Joseph Meynier)
Let’s study one of the most well-known sections in the Bible. Please read it in your own Bible or click on this text and open the link – John 3:1-21.
As I said, this is one of the most well-known sections of the Bible, parts of it anyway. Everyone knows John 3:16. Everyone has heard about being “born again.”
We’re going to work our way through this conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus, but don’t think that you’ve actually heard everything that’s there. You may not have heard enough.
John says Nicodemus went to see Jesus “at night.” He’s telling us that Nicodemus was in the dark. So there are things he cannot see. No doubt about that. He’s aware of Jesus’ work – teaching and performing miracles – but he doesn’t really understand it; he hasn’t been able to make a personal connection with it. He sounds very official – “we know” this and that – not “I,” it’s not personal. He’s being very logical – Jesus’ miracles are obviously signs that he’s doing God’s work. Nicodemus knows the right things about Jesus, but it’s all very shallow. He has knowledge without experience. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Nicodemus is in the dark, but he’s searching for the light.
How about you? Are you in the dark about God, about Jesus Christ? Maybe you don’t know much of anything about it. Or, maybe you know a lot, but do you really know? Have you gone beyond the shallow level and really made a deep connection with God? It’s okay to be in the dark, as long as you’re willing for some light to come.
Jesus interrupted Nicodemus’s speech. It’s time to get real. Let’s cut to the chase, Nic. Here’s the bottom line: you’re not going to see the kingdom of God unless you’re born again. The kingdom of God. That means God’s work in you and your part in his work; it means God ruling over your life and changing it; it means living in a faith and love relationship with God. The kingdom is the environment consisting of the things of God which influence, motivate, and support new life and new living. It’s the system of God’s Spirit and God’s word and God’s purposes and God’s mission and God’s resources shaping how we live. It’s where disease is healed, death is overcome, and Satan is defeated. The kingdom is where greatness is measured in terms of humility, reconciliation, and forgiveness. It’s the environment of righteousness, peace, joy, and power. It’s where morality and ethics and justice and goodness and beauty thrive. It’s where the royal law is love. It’s where all things are possible with God. It’s the system that will replace all other systems and there will be no end to it. The kingdom is God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. Sounds exactly like what we need. You’re not going to see that, you’re not going to experience any of that unless you’re born again. You have to go back to the drawing board. You have to reboot. You have to start life all over.
Nicodemus – still in the dark – doesn’t get it. So Jesus explains. He’s not talking about a physical rebirth; you don’t become a baby in your mom’s womb again. This is a spiritual thing. You start over inside. You reboot your beliefs and ideas and feelings and values. The core of it is that God’s Spirit does something in you. The Spirit makes the rebirth happen. The Spirit takes you back so you can start over, this time as a part of God’s kingdom.
You don’t do it yourself. You don’t add something to what you’ve already got. You don’t add religion to your way of living. You don’t add faith onto all your other characteristics. You don’t add Christianity to the beliefs and values that you’re already living by. No, you don’t add to what you’ve got. You get born again; you start over. The Holy Spirit takes you back to nothing and makes you a new person in God’s kingdom. God put it this way, in Ezekiel 36:26-27: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you…”
Nicodemus wants that, but he doesn’t know how to get it. “How can this be?” How can I get born again? What does it take for me to start over? What button do I push to reboot? He’s really in the dark. He sees something of God’s kingdom, but he doesn’t know how to get there.
Ever been there? You can see something of what God wants, but you don’t know how to make it happen. Oh, yeah, still in the dark. I’ve been there many times.
All I can say is do what Nicodemus did – ask. Then listen. I’ve noticed that in the gospels people don’t go on and on telling Jesus what’s wrong and what they need and what he should do for them. By far, Jesus does most of the talking. People ask then Jesus answers – sometimes very long and detailed. So we have to listen – more listening than talking. Ask, listen, then wait, for as long as it takes, for the answer.
Jesus told Nicodemus the answer. How can you be born again, start over? Here’s how.
Jesus came from Heaven and was “lifted up.” That’s talking about the cross. Jesus was lifted up on the cross and died for the sins of the world. Anyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God sent his Son in love for that to happen. Through Jesus, God pulls us to himself instead of pushing us away. If you believe in Jesus, he’ll save you, give you eternal life, take you into his kingdom, put a new heart in you.
Now, don’t stop there. Jesus didn’t. Don’t stop before you get to the end of the conversation. There’s more, and it’s vitally important.
It’s time for a reality check. We think that there’s not much to it: Jesus comes, dies on the cross and rises from the dead, and all we have to do is believe – so simple, so easy. But wait. Here’s what really happens: Jesus told him, “ This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”
See that word “verdict” – “condemnation” – “judgment” – it’s our word “crisis.” When Jesus comes into the world and dies on the cross and offers to take you into his kingdom and give you a new heart, you face a crisis, a crucial decision
Jesus is the light that came into the world. To be born again, to start over and be part of God’s kingdom, you have to come out of the darkness into the light. But we don’t want to do that because we know what will happen: our evil deeds will be exposed. We’re afraid of that. We’re afraid for the things that are wrong with us to be brought out in the open. So people hate the light; they stay in the dark where you can’t see how bad your old heart is, can’t see how much you’re hurting. People think if believing in Jesus means exposing my wrongness and weakness, I won’t do it. Some people try to believe without coming out of the dark. They try to accept Jesus so they can go to Heaven without turning their lives over to him. They want to keep the bad stuff in the dark. They won’t come into the light to be born again.
Jesus tells us how it can be: “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done through God.” You come into the light with the evil. You know the evil is there in you, but you need to come out of the dark. You come to Jesus with everything that’s wrong with you. You come to Jesus with all the ways you’ve been hurt and all the ways you’ve been trying to take care of yourself. You bring it all into the light.
I bring him my evil, everything that’s hurting me – my anger, my self-centeredness, my pride, my fear – and I know he hates it; I know he despises my evil. I bring it all to him. He hates it, yet he takes it as his own. That’s what him being lifted up on the cross is all about. Jesus takes my evil as his own! He hates it, he despises it, it repulses him, yet my old heart becomes his old heart. Whatever I’m willing to bring into the light, whatever I’m willing to bring to Jesus, he takes it as his own and kills it on the cross.
So, when I’m in the light, I don’t see my wrongness and weakness. That’s dead. I see what “has been done through God.” I see life. I see love and grace. I see rightness and wholeness. I see power and wisdom. I see freedom and joy. Finally, I see the kingdom of God.
When you come into the light with your wrongness and weakness, you get born again. Jesus takes away the evil, so you go back to nothing. You start over. Only this time you have the Spirit of God working in you. This time you’re in God’s kingdom. This time you have eternal life. You start over and this time you have a new, good heart.
So, we have hope. If there’s a chance to start over, then we’re not stuck with what we’ve got. We’re not stuck with our wrongs and failures. We’re not stuck with our weaknesses and limitations. We’re not stuck with our addictions and routines. We’re not stuck with trying to make it on our own or with the boring and senseless ways of a world still in the dark. We have hope. We have promise. We have confidence. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is the glory of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
When you start over by faith in Christ, you start to live in his Kingdom, in God’s environment. So you have the possibility for shedding your guilt and condemnation and becoming the person God created you to be. You have the possibility for letting go of your self-centeredness and taking up a life of genuine love. You can break out of your fear and self-protection and live in freedom and joy. When you start over in the Kingdom of God your marriage and family can be shaped by God’s kind of goodness and rightness and most of all by God’s kind of love. Even your job and your school and your daily responsibilities can have holy, transcendent purposes. Your decisions can be chances to receive God’s wisdom and guidance. In the Kingdom, your struggles and challenges and needs can be opportunities to experience God’s love, power, provision, and blessing. There’s hope.
You can start over, anytime – come to Christ with your evil, with whatever is wrong with you, whatever is hurting you, and trust him to take it, kill it, and bring you into his Kingdom.
Look with me at the last chapter of the gospel of John. It’s not merely an interesting add-on. This chapter is an important bridge from the facts of Jesus’ life, teaching, death & resurrection to our lives.
After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish.
So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.” Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!”
Some of Jesus’ disciples went back to fishing. To the way it had been before Jesus came along. Back to the same old same old – people, home, work, lake, tackle. John is showing the tendency we humans have to default, to return to the same values, habits, patterns, behaviors, & lifestyles. He’s showing this so he can show the difference Jesus Christ makes with his dying & rising, defeating the enemy kingdoms, & becoming King. Now that he’s alive, what differences will there be? What differences will we accept? Did Jesus go through all that & there not be anything different come out of it? Can we believe Jesus is the Messiah & Son of God and that not make anything different? Now that he’s alive – what?
Fishing was not sport or recreation for those men. It was sustenance – how they kept themselves and their families alive. It was their career – their purpose, their reason to get up every morning, the way they produced something worthwhile. It was their lifestyle – what they did 6 days pretty much every week. Maybe they went back for safety, thinking if they stick with fishing maybe the people who killed Jesus won’t come after them. Maybe they went back because it was comfortable – Jesus has risen but maybe they’re not sure what’s going to happen next, so they go back to what’s comfortable. Fishing gives them meaning, security, control; it gives them life – physically, emotionally, psychologically, & spiritually. We all have those – like family or job, something of your own – which makes you happy. Does Jesus being alive make any difference in those things?
They caught no fish. John is saying there’s no real meaning, security & control in the same old same old. There’s no real life in all that.
On shore, Jesus yells: “Fish on the right side!” They take in a huge haul. One of them realizes: “It’s the Lord! The King is right here in Galilee!” Peter swims to shore, the others row the boat. What’s John saying? Get to Jesus.
They make it to shore. Jesus greets them: “Breakfast is ready. Let’s eat!” He already had the fish that had been trying all night to catch! John’s showing that Jesus has what we’re looking for, he provides what we need. Life. He’s been saying that all through this book: the Bread of Life, the Living Water, the Door, the Way & Truth & Life, the True Vine, the Resurrection & Life. Jesus is & has what you need. And now it’s ready for you. That’s the difference made by his sacrifice on the cross, rising from the dead, taking the throne & bringing the Kingdom into this (your) world. Breakfast is ready. You can have what you need. You can have meaning, security, & control. You can have life. Take it in. Take in God’s love & be accepted, take in God’s mercy & be forgiven, take in God’s righteousness & be good, take in God’s wisdom & be competent, take in God’s healing & be renewed, take in God’s peace & be secure, take in God’s joy & be satisfied, take in God’s hope & be confident. Now that he’s alive, it’s all ready.
Don’t go back to fishing. Don’t stick with the same old same old. Get to Jesus – swim, row, bicycle, 4-wheel, run, walk, crawl – get to him by faith & take the life he has ready for you.
They finish breakfast. Jesus starts a conversation with Peter. Peter’s the one who led that fishing trip. He’s a born leader, and he had led back to same old same old. But he also led the way getting to Jesus on shore. Peter had always been one of the 3 closest to Jesus, with James & John. Then he was the one who denied he even knew Jesus. In this conversation, Jesus taking all those pieces of Peter’s life and putting them together so Peter becomes a new man – he has a new relationship with Jesus, he has a new mission, he has a new destiny. He’s actually going to be a partner with the King building the Kingdom until the day he dies.
That’s a difference for us. The risen, reigning King takes the pieces of our lives & builds us into new people. Some pieces, he throws away. Some pieces, he repairs. He brings in some new pieces. He puts us together in a way that we can live in his Kingdom & work as his partners.
I wish I could say that all this is working smoothly in my own life. To tell you the truth, I have a lot of same old same old. A lot of the same sins, fears, & distractions.
I can say this. I know there can be a difference. I know that Jesus’ dying & rising was not just to add something religious to the same old same old so I can go to heaven. I know that Jesus being the risen King brings about the difference that I and every person (you) are looking for. Now that he’s alive, we can live. Get to him.
A lion woke up one morning in the jungle and felt pretty proud of himself. He decided to take a walk. He came across a monkey eating bananas and yelled, “Hey, monkey, who’s the king of the jungle?” and let out a tree-shaking roar. The monkey bowed low and said, “You, great lion, you are the king of the jungle.” The lion moved on and found a zebra grazing on the grass. He yelled, “Hey, stripes, who’s the king of the jungle?” and gave an earth-shaking roar. The zebra bowed low and said, “You, great lion, you are the king of the jungle.” The lion was quite pleased with all this and walked on. He found an elephant drinking at the watering hole and yelled, “Hey, dumbo, who’s the king of the jungle?” and roared with all his might. The elephant turned and looked, then reached out and wrapped his trunk around the lion, picked him up off the ground, threw him against a tree, and jumped up and down on him. As the elephant walked back to the watering hole, the lion scraped himself off the ground and yelled, “Okay, okay, no need to get mad just because you don’t know the answer!”
Do you know who’s king? Yes, Jesus is King. But do you know how he became King and what it means for you and for all of us and for the whole world? We’ll find the answer in the Gospel of John, chapters 18, 19, and 20. This is John’s description of Jesus’ trial, execution, and resurrection. He wants us to see that this is all about who will be King. Here are the sections that make this really clear.
(Ecce’ Home’ by Antonio Ciseri)
18:33 – 40
Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate *said to Him, “What is truth?”
And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?” So they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.
19:1 – 3
Pilate then took Jesus and scourged Him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and put a purple robe on Him; and they began to come up to Him and say, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and to give Him slaps in the face.
19:12 – 16
As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”
Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” So they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
19:19 – 22
Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Therefore many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
19:28 – 30
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.
A few days before this, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, and the people welcomed him as the King, the Messiah whom God had promised. Jesus did not assemble an army and take down his enemies by force as the way he took the throne. He put himself in his enemies’ hands and died as a sacrifice. That’s how he became King.
There certainly were other kingdoms in force. Force is the right word because that’s how they operated. The religious leaders used the Law as a force to require people to live the way they thought would qualify them as God’s favored people. Law without mercy or kindness or love. Heavy requirements that kept the people under the authority of those religious leaders. And if anyone dared oppose them, there would be severe consequences, including even execution, which is what they wanted for Jesus since he was claiming to be King but not including their way in his Kingdom. So the Jewish religious leaders made the astonishing declaration: “we have no king but Caesar.”
Caesar, the Roman emperor, represented by Pilate the governor. Rome was the great empire that claimed to bring peace on earth. Well, there was peace as long as you did what they told you to do. Their military legions were stationed all over the lands they had conquered by war. The Romans lifted up Caesar as Lord, as a god, and you didn’t have to believe that in your heart, but you better pay him your taxes and you better not try to take back any place he had conquered.
Now the reason those kingdoms of force were in place goes back to the beginning. Those ways of running things were in place because humanity rebelled against the Creator. Instead of continuing to rule the world which God had made as partners with him, we went our own way. We sinned and corrupted the world. We sinned and brought chaos. We sinned and brought death. Running the world by force is just the opposite of the way God intended it to be.
And instead of being partners with God, that rebellion made us partners with the Ultimate Sinner. Jesus called him “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). He’s the one who leads the whole world astray, that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan (Revelation 12:9). The world was under the dominion of a being who intended to rule forever in rebellion against God and who was quite satisfied for humans to keep on doing things their way because that meant they were really doing things his way.
So Jesus took on those kingdoms, those powers of force, in his own way. Without violence. Without force. With sacrifice. He put himself in their hands for them to have their way, yet God was using it for his way, to bring rescue and redemption to the world. Jesus gave his life. He took the sin of all people as his own. He took the rebellion of all humanity to himself. And because he took the sin and rebellion he had to take the consequence, and so he died.
Now that doesn’t look like a King taking his throne. It looks like he lost and the other kingdoms won. It looks like rebellion and force and violence come out the winners. It looks like humans will keep doing their own thing until they run the world into the ground. It looks like death will not be beat. It looks like Satan will remain the prince of this world.
Thanks be to God, that’s not the end.
John 20:1 – 2
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
The two men ran to the tomb and yes, it was empty. They went back into town and Mary stayed close to the tomb. Someone else spoke to her.
John 20:14 – 16
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher).
Well, now things look completely different! The Law-enforcers condemned him but he didn’t stay condemned! The political/military establishment killed him but he didn’t stay dead! He has risen! He knocked the prince of this world off the throne by breaking the hold of sin and guilt. He took our sin to himself and left it in the grave. He took our rebellion as his own and left it in the grave. The enemies were conquered and Jesus became King. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us, he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:14-15). Jesus is King and so, God’s Kingdom has come into the world.
But wait just a minute, you may be thinking. Look out the window – does it really look like Jesus is King? There’s still a lot of force bearing down. Governments make us live by their codes and regulations. Political/military powers move into smaller nations and take them over. And look at the evil that makes headlines every day – murder and abuse and embezzling and mass shootings. Terrorist attacks throughout the world. And there’s all the dark, twisted stuff in our own hearts. God’s Kingdom has come? Jesus is King? If he is, you may be thinking, he’s not doing a very good job of making things right.
But see, Jesus did not become King by force and he doesn’t rule by force. Jesus and his first followers knew that even though he is King, opposition and rebellion will continue; force will still be used to run the world. They taught that the Kingdom takes root in individual hearts and that it spreads slowly and gracefully. It’s like a gentle stream of water that soaks dry ground instead of a raging river that washes everything away. A gentle stream can be dammed and diverted. The Kingdom and the King can be refused and rejected. But the King has promised that his Kingdom will never end and eventually the glory of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea.
We can see the basis for this in one more incident in this story of how Jesus became King.
John 20:27 – 31
Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
The King and the Kingdom come to those who choose to believe. Thomas became convinced that Jesus was his Lord and God. His King. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ and Son of God – the Messiah, the Rescuer, God come in the flesh and now the King will have life. Because Jesus is King, people can start over like Nicodemus (John 3). People can have their deepest thirsts quenched like the woman at the well (John 4). People can be unconditionally accepted like the woman caught in adultery (John 8). People can and will be raised from death like Lazarus (John 11). Like Thomas and John and Mary, we can become partners with the King building the Kingdom – not by force – and bringing life to others.
I’d like you to hear one young man’s story.
Jesus has died. Jesus has risen. And he is King.
Hey, law, you can move on now
When the Bible speaks of the Law, it is talking about the entire covenant which God made with Israel when he brought them out of Egypt. It includes the Ten Commandments, the sacrificial system, the temple organization, the feasts and holy days, the moral commands, the social guidelines, and the economic instructions. I remember being taught that the work of Christ took the place of the sacrifices but the moral law was still binding on Christians. As far as I know, there is no such division like that mentioned in Scripture. The Law is all of the Law given to Israel (including the prophets who made application of the Law to the nation in their times). Note: I will capitalize the word Law as a reminder of its all-inclusiveness.
There are several statements in the New Testament that clearly assert the Law is no longer required for living as a follower of Jesus, such as:
Romans 7:6 (NASB) “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”
Ephesians 2:15 (NIV) “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.”
Colossians 2:14 (NASB) “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
Hebrews 8:14 (NASB) “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.”
The contexts of these verses as well as the entire Letter to the Galatians and 2 Corinthians 3 show us that the Law given by God to Israel is not in effect any more. We have been released from the law. By abolishing the law. He (Jesus) has taken it out of the way. He made the first (covenant) obsolete. I don’t know how it could be any clearer.
But it is still difficult for us to see. Deeply embedded in our minds is the idea that we are supposed to be behaving by obeying God’s commands, that God has given us a set of rules which bring order to life and guidelines which determine our faithfulness and righteousness. We may say that we believe Jesus saved us so we can obey God’s Law. And we assume that since God gave the Law, it is permanent and therefore mandatory for all people in all times to live by it.
What helped me the most with this is finally understanding why the Law was abolished and the purpose of the Law.
The Law “was taken out of the way” (Colossians 2:14) because Jesus fulfilled it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18 NASB). His intention was not to just say “no more Law.” He intended to fulfill it. Fulfill doesn’t just mean he obeyed it perfectly so he could be the Savior and help us obey it. Fulfill means that he completed what the Law was meant for. Romans 10:4 (NASB) says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The word “end” means “complete.” It’s the same word Jesus used when, on the cross, he announced, “It is finished.” Jesus finished, completed, fulfilled the purpose or meaning of the Law. He said, “Not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law UNTIL all is accomplished.” Meaning that once all was accomplished, once the Law was fulfilled, it did “pass away.” Jesus began the passing away of the Law even before his death and resurrection: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19).
So, what was the purpose of the Law? Why was it given by God to Israel? There are two primary features that are attributed to the Law in the New Testament.
The first: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25 NASB). The New International Version puts it: “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Paul even says, “we were held prisoners by the law” (v23). God gave the Law to the Hebrews to get them ready for the arrival of the Messiah. It wasn’t meant to be a code of behavior for everyone to follow. There was a specific time frame it was in effect: “until Christ came.” Since the Messiah has come, the Law is no longer needed. Its purpose – get ready for the Messiah – has been fulfilled. This is kind of like a mortgage: the purpose of the mortgage is to pay for a home; when all the payments have been made the mortgage has been fulfilled so you’re no longer under the requirement to send money to the finance company.
The second feature of the Law’s purpose is closely related. In fact we might say this is how the Law served has a tutor or guardian. How do the following three statements describe the Law?
Colossians 2:16-17 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Hebrews 8:4-5 there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things…
Hebrews 10:1 For the Law, since it was only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.
Did you see it? “Shadow.” The Law (the entire Covenant with Israel) was a “shadow of what is to come” – “a shadow of the heavenly things” – “a shadow of the good things to come.”
The shadow of any object – a tree, an aardvark, a woman, a skyscraper – shows something of the object but not everything. It shows a basic outline, but no details, no texture, no color, no expression. And no life. The shadow is not the real thing. The Law was not the real thing – it was not the real means for God to reconcile and redeem humanity. It was not the real expression of God’s Kingdom. It was not the real way for God’s people to live with him and each other and the creation forever.
“The substance belongs to Christ.” Jesus is the real thing. The Person and Work of Christ cast a shadow over Israel so they would have some idea – but not complete – of God’s plan for saving and restoring humanity. Everything in the Old Covenant – the Ten Commandments, the sacrificial system, the temple organization, the feasts and holy days, the moral commands, the social guidelines, and the economic instructions – pointed to Jesus. After he had risen and appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke says, ” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27). All of it is about him.
But the Law is only a basic outline, only a shadow, so we don’t hang on to it now that Christ has come and redeemed. There’s a wall corner that juts out into a room in my house. Imagine me standing near the corner, not able to see around it. I see a shadow on the floor of a person around the corner. And then my wife walks around the corner. Do I keep watching the shadow, talking to the shadow, hugging the shadow? Of course not. I want my real wife!
Jesus is the reality of all that God is doing. The Law was his shadow.
The Law’s purpose has been fulfilled. It has accomplished what God intended it to do. Now it is obsolete. It has been abolished. It has been taken away. It is not in effect for anyone. We still can learn much from the Old Covenant, but we do not need to try to obey it or adhere to it or observe it.
Now an important question has to be dealt with. If we don’t live by the Law, how do we live? How do we know what’s right and wrong? What determines our morality? How can we identify God’s will, what he wants us to do? Where do we get wisdom for making right choices? How do we function as God’s people in the world religiously, morally, ethically, socially, and economically?
The Law has been replaced with a new way – the only real way – for living faithfully and obediently to God.
To this day, Pentecost (Shavuot) is observed in Judaism as the feast of the giving of the Law. On the fiftieth day from Passover and leaving slavery in Egypt, the Hebrews came to Mount Sinai. The Lord descended to the top of the mountain with thunder and lightning and thick smoke and a loud trumpet blast. The people trembled in fear. Moses went up the mountain, and God sent him back down with the Law – the tablets of the covenant, the instructions for how to live in obedience to the Lord. That is the shadow cast backward from the day of Pentecost that’s described in Acts 2. Fifty days before, Jesus died as the true Passover Lamb then he was resurrected, making the way for humanity’s release from slavery to sin and death. Like Moses climbing Sinai, he ascended to the throne with his Father, and the Holy Spirit was sent down with the power to put the new covenant into effect. This new covenant is not operated by words written on tablets of stone. It’s operated by the Spirit living in the hearts of God’s people. The Holy Spirit has replaced the Law as the way for us to live faithfully and obediently.
The way God wants us to live cannot come about by commands and rituals and observances on the outside of us. The Spirit works in us to produce inner change so we each become a different kind of person. God wants us to be more than people who obey rules. He intends for us to be his images, his likenesses (Genesis 1:27). That is our true identity, what it means to be fully human. Ephesians 4:24 says “[you] put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Due to our sinful corruption we can’t do that on our own, and the Law bring it about. The Holy Spirit present in our lives makes that happen – he teaches, confronts, shows, and enables. Paul teaches on this in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, and this verse sums it up: “we all…are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (3:18).
The Spirit is working in our hearts and minds, our wills and emotions, our thoughts and desires, transforming us into a different kind of person. This is what God promised through Jeremiah and confirmed by the writer of Hebrews: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts” (8:10, shortly before he said the old covenant is obsolete). God makes the ways for people to live a part of who we are. For example, I won’t just manage my anger but will become the kind of person who does not get angry when it’s not called for. Behaviors and priorities and desires and spirituality come from within instead of being requirements forced on us by external rules and commands. Of course, this doesn’t take place instantaneously or easily for the most part; it is a lifelong process.
The crux of becoming a different kind of person by the Spirit is learning to live relationally with God. Instead of adhering to a list of commands and observing a schedule of holy days or following a system of principles, we live by responding to God. The Gospel of Mark, in chapters 2 and 3, describes how Jesus taught this. He and his disciples were criticized for not obeying the laws of fasting and Sabbath observance. His response to the fasting issue was, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (2:19-20). Instead of fasting in obedience to a rule, you decide whether or not to fast in response to what the bridegroom (Jesus) is doing. The Holy Spirit reveals what God is doing (John 14-16) through Scripture, prayer, circumstances, other believers, and sometimes by speaking directly to our spirit.
This is kind of a messy way to live. It’s not well-ordered and scheduled by a Law. It’s a relationship with a Person. It’s not about mere surface behaviors. It’s about deep, inner transformation. So it can be a challenging struggle. Ben Patterson, campus pastor of Westmont College, explained, “Through circumstances he nudges us or draws us or jolts us into prayer. Suddenly we are faced with something that challenges our deepest securities, knocks away all of our props or violates everything we ever believed to be true about God and his ways.” Living in response means we must deal with God dealing with us. It’s messy and challenging, but it’s real, and it results in our developing a genuine closeness with God and being renewed in his likeness. Living by the Spirit in relationship with God is freeing and victorious.
This is a radical way to live. It’s not what most of our Christian training looks like. It’s not how the world operates. Most of our culture promotes a legalistic approach to morality, ethics, economics, society, and religion. Things like rules, values, rights, legislation, medication, executive orders, and coping skills have their place in a community of broken sinners, but they are only stopgaps and makeshift methods to control human behaviors and prevent anarchy. They produce very little real change. Much of American Christianity promotes a formulaic approach to religion – “here are the 19 keys to having a blessed, prosperous life!” – and attempts to find satisfaction in emotional experiences. Some still emphasize keeping the laws of the old covenant as the way for Christians to please God – “tithing is God’s financial plan for supporting the work of the Kingdom!” – and even believe they were meant to be the guide for all civilizations – “use of the Ten Commandments for their civic and moral significance should be not only permissible, but indispensable in encouraging age-old maxims of good citizenship.”
No, it takes something more radical than Law for us to hear the Spirit and become more like Christ. The Law doesn’t give life. John Piper provides a great description of this radicalized Christianity:
The way we strive towards being obedient, holy and loving people is not by getting up in the morning and pulling the list out of our pocket. No! We get on our knees and we open ourselves to the whole counsel of God in the Bible. We saturate and shape ourselves by everything he has done, he is doing and he will do. We stake our lives in the gospel and then instead of serving the law, we serve one another in love… You are now married to the risen Christ. You are not married to the law and the oldness of the letter, but to the newness of the Spirit. Our whole approach towards transformation, love and life is different than list keeping.
This is a guide for encountering Christ for yourself. You probably will need to set aside some time to be alone and uninterrupted. Use it any way you need. Don’t feel you have to be locked in to what I’ve written; follow the Spirit’s lead for you. I pray God will meet you and give you what you need.
Focus your mind and spirit on getting together with God…
Read Matthew 9:36 –
Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus saw the people. He was aware of the people around him. He was giving them his attention. He was focused on the persons who walked by or who stood around or who sat before him. Think about Jesus right now being aware of you – attentive and focused on you…
Jesus felt compassion. This is a graphic word that’s root meaning is “intestines or guts.” It pictures a feeling that convulses you deep inside. Jesus was intensely moved with compassion, with concern and tenderness. Can you believe that he reacts this way for you? Meditate on Jesus caring about you deeply and intensely…
The reason Jesus felt such deep compassion for the people was “they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” The condition of the people’s lives reminded Jesus of a flock of sheep alone in the wilderness. Maybe they were wondering around lost and they have pushed through briars and fallen into gullies – the sheep are bruised, cut, and exhausted. Maybe they had been chased and attacked by wolves – the sheep are wounded and bleeding, collapsed to the ground and now easy prey. Jesus saw that the people were distressed – a word meaning “torn skin” – their minds and hearts are ripped and shredded. He saw that they were dispirited – this word means thrown to the ground – they were spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally beaten and weary.
Jesus does not pretend that everything is okay with us. He understands how life’s circumstances, people, and Satan have bruised and exhausted us. He gets what we have done to ourselves with our false beliefs, bad attitudes, poor choices, and sinful actions – I guess you can call it self-mutilation of our hearts and souls. How are you distressed and dispirited? Listen for the Spirit of God to speak his compassion for you…
Read John 10:11-15. Jesus said –
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.
Jesus is the shepherd that the sheep are without. He is the Leader needed by the people who are distressed and dispirited. Meditate on Jesus being the Shepherd for you. (Part of this may be expressing your doubts and struggles about who Jesus is – if that’s where you are, it’s good to talk to him about it…) Express your trust in Jesus to be your Shepherd – to know you and lay down his life for you…
Read Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus said –
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Jesus invites you to himself for rest – recovery and healing. He asks you to take his yoke – to be connected to him by faith. He promises rest for your soul – deep inside, the real you will be tended and restored to life.
“The Message” translation puts these verses:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Lean into Jesus. With your wounds and weariness, rest in him. Receive his gentleness and grace…
A man pulled up and stopped his car in the street next to my home in a small town in Texas. I had just parked my own car and gotten out. I didn’t know the man. He knew I was a pastor, maybe because I was living in the parsonage of a church. He looked distressed as he stood next to his car. I don’t remember all of his exact words but the gist of what he said was, “Can God forgive me for what I’ve done?” He seemed desperate. I assured him of God’s love and willingness to forgive any wrongdoing. He started getting back in his car, shaking his head. I do remember his last words: “No, God can’t forgive me!” He drove away and I never saw him again.
Some people see God like that: I’ve done things so bad and so often that God cannot or will not forgive me.
I think many more people see it a little differently: there is something I need to do that will make a good enough impression on God or will meet his requirements well enough that he will forgive and accept me. That something may be a religious rule or ritual or activity that God has put in place for us to perform. Or it may be practicing a general everyday life of treating other people well – most others anyway; there must be a few exceptions – “17 miles out in the ocean and I still can’t get away from lawyers” (Jethro Gibbs, NCIS). Another way that seems would make us acceptable to God is to live by the principle expressed as “I do the best I can” or “I stay true to myself” or “I follow my heart.”
This idea of how to be accepted by God is the religious form of the cultural idea of making it on your own: work hard and earn what you get, there’s no free lunch, you get what you deserve, be worthy of love. It is the well-worn and often-praised principle: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
How will a radicalized Christian see this? Is Christianity any different than other religions and viewpoints?
Many Christians will quickly answer, “Yes, God accepts us by grace.” Okay. How are we putting that into real life? How far are we taking that? How radical is God’s grace?
This radical: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1, NIV) “No.” None. Nada. Nil. Zero. Zilch. No condemnation.
Let’s be clear. This applies to all people “who are in Christ Jesus.” “No condemnation” is true for every person who is united to Jesus by faith. Verse 3 explains why this is true: “For what the law was powerless to do…God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.” The law did not have the power to make us acceptable to God. Jesus did. He made us acceptable by taking away our guilt by offering himself to death on the cross. So anyone who depends on Christ and his offering to be acceptable to God is not condemned.
No condemnation from God – no put down, no judgment, no rejection, no disapproval. God completely accepts and totally approves.
There is no time when God condemns.
There is no situation in which God condemns.
There is no place where God condemns.
There is no action that brings God’s condemnation.
There is no inaction that brings God’s condemnation.
There are no words that bring God’s condemnation.
There is no thought that brings God’s condemnation.
There is no person whom God condemns.
No blame, no shame, no denunciation, no censure, no scorn for anyone who has faith in Christ.
So, there is nothing that needs to be done to get out from under condemnation. There is nothing for you to do or not do for God to accept you – and acceptance is not God reluctantly putting up with you; it’s God gladly welcoming you as his own. The Message translation of Romans 8:1 says, ” Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud.” There’s no condemnation, there’s no low-lying black cloud, so there’s nothing to do to get out from under it.
Nothing. You don’t need to promise God that you will do better so he will accept you. You don’t have to make up for your wrongdoing for God to approve of you. You don’t have to repent for God to start favoring you. You don’t even have to ask God to forgive you to get him to forgive you! You’re already forgiven (Ephesians 1:7). There’s nothing to do. God fully, completely, absolutely accepts you with no condemnation.
Yes, this is radical, far-reaching, too much for some people. In Brennan Manning’s book “The Ragamuffin Gospel” he teaches this radical idea of God’s grace. You should read it. Ten years after it first came out, Manning added a chapter to the original and described some of the reaction that had come his way:
“I have been denounced publicly and privately as a heretic, schismatic, universalist, and cockeyed optimist… I have been labeled unbalanced, spiritually immature, and intellectually unhinged. The gospel of grace continues to scandalize. The legalists, puritans, prophets of doom, and moral crusaders are having a hissy fit over the Pauline teaching of justification by faith. They take umbrage at the freedom of the children of God and dismiss it as licentiousness. They do not want Christianity to help us become whole but to feel wretched under its burden.” 1
Some think Christianity is a religion of rules, performance, achievement, control, and hard work. They default to that way of thinking because it seems like the responsible way to live faithfully and pleasing to God. It’s the way the real world works, right? But it’s not the way we follow Jesus. It can’t be. If we attempt to make ourselves acceptable to God by pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, we will discover the bootstraps are broken. We can’t do it. We don’t have to. The heart of radical Christianity is the radical love of God in Christ Jesus.
I went on a spiritual retreat, alone in the mountains of northern Colorado. I was going through a hard time, struggling with some issues in my life. I spent most of the first day reading Scripture and a book. That night I built a campfire and looked up at the star-filled sky. The Lord grabbed my soul and reminded me that the Jesus who made all that loves me personally even when I struggle. He didn’t just say he loved me – I felt his love pouring into me. There’s a worship song that says, “In moments like these I sing out a love song to Jesus…” I started to sing that, but God said, “No, don’t sing. Let me sing to you.” (See Zephaniah 3:17) I didn’t hear with my ears, but I felt with my heart Jesus singing: “in moments like these I sing out a song, I sing out a love song to Mike, singing ’I love you, Mike,’ singing ’I love you, Mike,’ singing ’I love you, Mike, I love you.’”
The really astonishing thing is even when I am at my lowest, vilest, most guilty and shameful, God “rejoices over me with singing.” God loves and accepts and approves of me with absolutely no condemnation.
This is radical Christianity. Be radicalized. Believe that there is no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus. Release your bootstraps. Instead of asking God to forgive your sins tonight, just thank him that you are forgiven. Accept God’s acceptance. Embrace the Father’s grace. Allow Jesus to apply all that he has accomplished to your mind and soul. Permit the Spirit to sing his love into your spirit.
1 Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, Oregon, 2000), p.223