Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Offense of the Cross

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14: 6).

What is your reaction to this verse? It says a lot about where you are relative to Jesus.

Some people might think, "I am so glad that I know Jesus! He is the one who ushers me into a relationship with His Father. And through this relationship, I am ushered into eternal fellowship with both the Father and the Son." Thus, their reaction is one of hope, joy and peace.

Other people might think, "How arrogant of Christians to think that only they are right. This is the height of pride and intolerance." Thus, their reaction is one of indignance, rejection and offense.

These two reactions stand at the heart of the great divide that Jesus Himself provoked while He was here on earth and that continues throughout this age.

"Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household'"(Matt. 10: 34-36). In other words, there is a division that is created when Jesus places the option to believe or not to believe in front of people. And even households will be divided by this.

"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12: 32).

Jesus was lifted up on the cross as a kind of banner that rallies all of humanity to Himself. Those who look to the cross with eyes of faith are saved. Those who look at the cross, but do not believe, are left in their existing state.

"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life...Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (John 3: 14-15, 18).

The "snake in the desert" refers to a story in the book of Numbers. The people were being plagued by snake-bites that were fatal. As a cure, God instructed Moses: "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live. So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived" (Numbers 21: 8-9). This image of a bronze snake became the symbol of medicine.

To "look at the bronze snake" indicates more than receiving the image of the snake on the back of your retina. When someone was bitten, they needed to believe that looking at the bronze snake held promise of salvation. Implied in looking at the bronze snake is the idea that one was looking with faith in God's provision for their healing.

And the picture of the bronze snake on a pole is a beautiful illustration of Jesus on the cross. He actually "became sin" (2 Cor. 5: 21) for us on the cross. When we look to Jesus by faith, lifted up on a cross, bearing all the weight of sin in Himself for us, we are saved.

When Jesus was crucified, there were two condemned thieves also crucified on each side of him. One of them looked to Jesus and believed He was the Messiah, the Son of God, who was bearing the penalty for sin as He hung there. He placed His faith in Him. And Jesus told him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23: 43). The other thief mocked Jesus and did not look to him in faith. All of humanity is summarized in these two criminals.

Back to our original question, how do you react to Jesus' claim that He is the only way to the Father? If you are in the "joy" category, it is because you have grasped that it is a question of who Jesus is, not which religion is right. If you are in the "indignant" category, then you see the question as a religious question of who's right.

It all boils down to the person of Jesus, Himself. He is the unique Son of God who came to do for us what only He could do, die for the sins of humanity in order to bring us to God the Father. No other person in all of human history has made such a claim. And because His claim is so radically challenging, it divides all of humanity into two camps: those who look to Him in faith, and those who are offended by His claims.

On what side of the cross do you stand?

Friday, April 27, 2018

Addiction and Recovery

"My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water"
(Jer. 2: 13).

Jeremiah's prophecy to Israel was directed at their constant temptation towards idolatry and away from total dependence on Yahweh, the God of Israel. The false idols of the surrounding pagan world were broken cisterns. And this problem describes perfectly the issues that lie at the heart of addiction, and indeed, the problem of sin itself.

A cistern was a kind of well. Essentially a huge jar was buried in the ground and filled with water to be used as an oasis and source of water in arid climates.

Imagine that you have been traveling in the desert and arrive at a cistern to water your flocks and take a long drink yourself--only to find that the cistern is broken and all the water has leaked out of it. The thing that promised to be a source of life may actually kill you since you now have to try to find another source of water. Will you make it to another cistern in time?

Gerald G. May, M.D. wrote a wonderful book, Addiction and Grace. In this book, he notes that we are all made by our Creator with a desire to attach to Him and that, ultimately, all of our other desires will be fulfilled only through that attachment. Addiction is the forming of an attachment to a substance or behavior in the hopes that it will "scratch the itch" that naturally exists whenever we are not connected to God. The substance or behavior is a broken cistern that cannot hold water. But we keep going to it, ignoring the source of true living water, in hopes that our thirst will be quenched.

Addiction itself is a perfect picture of sin and how it works to undermine our attachment to God. God stands by, the true source of living water. As Jesus said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7: 37-38). But instead, we keep going to alcohol, drugs, food, work, TV, gambling, exercise, approval, etc. hoping to find our desire fulfilled. All of these things are broken cisterns.

This reveals the brilliance of the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. First we must acknowledge our desperate helplessness to save ourselves. Then we must acknowledge that God exists and has the power to rescue us. Finally, we must surrender to Him, rather than struggle against the addiction. It is only in surrendering to God that we get in touch with the source of true living water that will satisfy our deepest desires.

Are you struggling with an unhealthy attachment to a "broken cistern?" Why not admit your powerlessness, acknowledge God's ability to meet your needs and surrender to Him today? It would also be helpful to get connected in a community of recovery people and lovers of Jesus who can help keep you coming to the spring of living water.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Jesus and Culture

"...but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" (1 Cor. 1: 23-25).

Have you been feeling the huge shift in culture that has been going on in America in the last half-century? The predominant worldview in the West has been moving in two directions, and both of them are away from God.

On the one hand, secularism has largely taken over the education system and media. Whereas the Bible used to be revered, quoted and used for source material, it is currently pushed away and replaced with scientific rationalism. (Sometimes pseudo-scientific rationalism.)

On the other hand, this God-vacuum that has been created has been filled with all kinds of other spiritualities, anything but Christianity. As G. K. Chesterton is credited with saying, "When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything."

Paul and the disciples of his time brought the Good News of Jesus Christ to a similarly divided world. The Pagan cultures based in Hellenism thought that the message was foolishness. How could God become a man (since they believed that the material world was inherently inferior to the spiritual world)? Thus, when Paul presented the Gospel to the Pagan philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17), he was met with a rather tepid response. They sneered at the idea of a resurrection. "Why would someone, once freed from the flesh, want to be raised in a physical body? How could anyone worship a God thus en-fleshed?" The idea of the Gospel sounded foolish to them.

But the Jews of Paul's day also rejected the Gospel. In their thinking, Jesus failed when He went to the cross. How could the One Almighty God go through such humiliation and death? The Gospel appeared to be too weak to them. They were expecting a powerful Messiah to appear on earth, the heir of David's throne, who would suppress all opposition to God in order to re-establish the Kingdom (read Israel) on earth again. They rejected the idea of Messiah as a "suffering Servant of Yaweh." 

So what are we to do? Let us join with Jesus, taking up our own cross, and follow Him. The church is called to be a culture that looks foolish and weak, yet within it is contained the wisdom of God and the power of God to transform lives. This is the Culture of Jesus Followers, which runs counter to the Cultures of This World. 

And let us embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is able to save all who believe. "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith'" (Rom. 1:16-17).

The recent passing of Billy Graham should challenge all believers to take up the torch of evangelistic zeal that he bore for over half-a-century. Let us not be ashamed of looking different than the world. Let us embrace the culture of the Kingdom, the culture of the Gospel, the culture of Jesus.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Manifestation Gifts of the Spirit

In 1 Cor. 12: 7-11, Paul lists nine "manifestation gifts."

"Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good..." (vs. 7).

These are specifically supernatural endowments by the Spirit that, when given, reveal His presence in our midst. The word used here is phanerosis. The root of the word is phanos, which means "light" or "lamp." So, it is a revealing of something that was hidden.

Imagine it this way: whenever a believer is present, the Holy Spirit is also present but hidden from our senses, like a lamp with a shade that completely covers the light. When the Holy Spirit decides to act through the believer, he imparts a charisma, that is, a gift (or what Dr. Russell Spittler called a grace-let). The believer is like a conduit to impart that grace-let in a way that blesses someone else. When that happens, it is like lifting the lampshade to reveal the light.

Paul never uses the word charismata (gifts) in the technical way we do today. Biblically, the charismata refer to more than just this list and more than just supernatural endowments. For instance, in another part of this same book, Paul refers to the ability to be celibate or married as charismata. "But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that" (1 Cor. 7: 7). However, this list describes a kind of charismata which I refer to as The Manifestation Gifts.

The writer of Hebrews uses another word for gift, doron, which refers to a parcel given to me. "God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will" (Heb. 2:4). But it still supports the same idea of God distributing supernatural impartations.

I organize the nine manifestation gifts in three groups:
1)  The Revelation Gifts--Word of Knowledge, Word of Wisdom, Discerning of Spirits;
2)  The Speaking Gifts--Prophecy, Tongues, Interpretation of Tongues;
3)  The Power Gifts--Gifts of Healings, Workings of Miracles, Gift of Faith.

Notice that through all these gifts, the church is empowered to SEE supernaturally, SPEAK supernaturally and ACT supernaturally.

A survey of the book of Acts shows that these kinds of manifestation gifts were evident through the church throughout its early expansion. Luke, like the writer of Hebrews, loves the term "signs, wonders and miracles." It was the manifestation of the Holy Spirit through believers in the early church that was like the uncovering of a lampshade to reveal the presence of God Himself. The manifestation of God's presence in this way confirmed the validity of the Gospel message and brought conviction. "God also testified to [the Gospel] by signs, wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit..."

"So Paul and Barnabus spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders" (Acts 14:3).

Are you allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal His presence through you
to those around you?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thank You Martin Luther

I'm in the middle of reading Eric Metaxas' new biography of Martin Luther. Like all of Metaxas' books, it is a great read. I highly recommend it. Reading it during the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation reminded me to be grateful to Martin Luther. Here are three things that I think are key.

1.     Sola Fides
Martin Luther was a very devout monk who, during his early years, struggled with the burden of guilt over his sinfulness. In fact, his superior and confessor, Staupitz, became worn out with his interminable confession of the most picayune sins. Evidently Luther could never get to a place where he felt forgiven.

Luther had an incredible breakthrough of rediscovery that salvation is through the grace of God, that is, through the free gift of forgiveness that we must receive solely through faith, and not through works. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-10).

What is the best Christmas gift you ever received? For me it was a bicycle from my parents. Did I have to pay them for it afterwards? No, because it was a GIFT. Salvation is also a gift. And the way we receive it is through faith in Jesus Christ, and what He has already done for me.

2.     Sola Scriptura
The church of the 1500's was not the church of the Apostles. A huge organization of rules and rituals and traditions and hierarchy and budget had grown up around the original teaching of the apostles. The authority for faith and practice had moved its center from the teaching of the apostles revealed in the Bible to the church hierarchy itself. In Luther's time, people no longer knew the Bible, but instead, studied Aristotle and Aquinas.

But Martin Luther read the Bible as the Word of God and realized the authority it contained. Whereas the papacy had become a corrupt political seat, the Bible remained a constant--the Word of God from which all authority for faith and practice emanated. "For all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (1 Tim. 3:16-17).

This led to a process of "deconstructing" church practice in light of a fresh reading of the Bible. Thus, the reformation did not just happen 500 years ago, it is a process of reforming that must continually be happening. We must constantly look at our faith and practice while shining the light of the Bible on it with fresh insights.

3.     The Priesthood of All Believers
Finally, Martin Luther realized that the New Testament did not set apart certain people to mediate a relationship with God. Instead, every individual was responsible and empowered to go directly to God. The difference between a Pastor and a Plumber are simply a matter of calling, not holiness. Both professions are holy if they are fulfilling the calling of God.

"I will pour out my Spirit on all people...sons and daughters...young men...old men...servants, both men and women" (Acts 2:16-18). "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms" (1 Pet. 4:10).

Of course, this introduced a radical democratization of not just the church, but all of society. Each one of us is responsible for our choices. We can't blame it on someone else. We must study and wrestle with the issues and make informed choices. But the great thing is that God's grace is always there to lift us up if we just place our trust in Him.

Happy 500th Anniversary.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Gifted to be a Gift

"Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms" (1 Pet. 4:10).

I've been studying about Spiritual Gifts ever since I was in college and started attending the Bible studies of Julianne Easton some 42 years ago. She not only taught material from Dr. Albert Grimes of Christian Training Center, but I learned very practically how to prophesy and pray for the sick. The Charismatic Movement was in full swing. And I received a dose of teaching about Spiritual Gifts that has stuck with me ever since.

When I arrived at the Anaheim Vineyard in 1985, I was persuaded to change some of my more Pentecostal paradigms for the Kingdom Theology of G. E. Ladd. Pastor John Wimber presented a compelling model for ministry that began to answer some of the problems I had encountered as I wrestled with what I had been taught.

Don't get me wrong, I still believed then and, indeed, still do believe now, in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit in and through the church today. But the Third Wave perspective that I began to embrace made so much more sense to me. (First wave was Pentecostalism, Second Wave was Charismatic Renewal, and the Third Wave was Vineyard and other Evangelical moves of the Spirit).

This verse from First Peter encapsulates so much that is important for us to understand about how God gifts believers in order for us to bless others. We are "gifted to be a gift."

The word for gift here is charisma which is the singular of charismata. It is based on the word for "grace, favor" which is charis with a neuter ending attached. Literally "gracious things" or what Russ Spittler, former Fuller Theological Seminary professor, called "gracelets." God's favor or blessing is given to us or imparted to us in a discreet and identifiable way.

But charismata is not used in the Bible with the kind of technical precision that we have tried to give it today. It is a very general term that is used for the grace to be married or single (1 Cor. 7); God's grace that delivers Paul from peril (2 Cor. 1:11); as well as the nine manifestation gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12-14), etc. Any unmerited favor of God--including natural talents or abilities, life experiences, training, social status, as well as supernatural endowments--can be seen as a charisma.

Any time God's unmerited favor is expressed to us, we become recipients of His grace. You see, it takes "various forms." Certainly we include in this the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:7-11 and the Ministry Gifts mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:28, Rom. 12:6-8; and Eph. 4:11. One of the things we need to do is to "boil over with desire for Spiritual Things" (1 Cor. 14:1).

But Peter tells us that we have been appointed stewards of the gracelets that He has deposited in our lives. Like any good steward, we don't hoard these blessings as if they are our own stash, but we are simply entrusted with a resource to use on behalf of God Himself. We are supposed to be "Faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms."

I remember so well the teaching that "You have been given a gift. You need to find it and learn how to use it." But this sounds like I am the intended recipient of the gift. This actually results in a lot of wrong-headed thinking. The gift of God is not for me, but for others through me. I am Gifted, not for myself. I am Gifted to be a Gift.

How are you doing investing God's resources? Remember the parable of the Talents? Are you investing the resources of the Kingdom so that it produces more? That is what it means to be a "faithful steward of God's grace in its various forms."

(Oh. BTW: I ended up marrying my teacher, Julianne, over 39 years ago. Thanks God!)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Emulating Jesus the Servant

In Philippians 2, Paul uses Jesus' obedience as an example for all who would call Him their Lord. "Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus" ( Php. 2:5). He then chronicles Jesus' journey from the Godhead, through humble service unto death, and back to the throne-room of God. It is His example of humble obedience and patient endurance that we are to emulate.

But in verse 6, Paul uses a word that is very hard to translate. Thus we have the following variations:

"thought it not robbery to be equal with God" (KJV).
"did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped or asserted [as if He did not already possess it, or was afraid of losing it]" (Amplified).
"did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped" (NASB & ESV).
"did not think that being God was something he should hold on to" (NIVR).
"he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to" (NLT).

but the newest version of the NIV (2011) says:
"did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage" (NIV).

I think this last translation hits closer to home. The underlying Greek word is a participle which makes a verb into a noun. Kind of like taking the verb "to play" and making it a noun "player," or maybe even "plaything."

The Greek verb here is "to seize, grasp, rob, acquire." That is, using my advantage to amass more for myself. Hence the idea of grasping at something. When I go to school, I acquire knowledge. When I invest my money, I acquire more wealth. When I go on vacation, I acquire more experiences.

When Paul changes this to a substantive participle, it becomes more literally, "an acquisitive thing." That is, "a state of grasping or seizing or acquiring more for myself."

When people are powerful, they generally use their power to amass more power and wealth for themselves. They use their position of power to their own advantage.

So what did Jesus do with his position of equality with God? Did He act like the power-elites of this world and use it to amass greater wealth and power for Himself? No. In fact, He did the exact opposite. "Rather, he made himself nothing" (Php. 2:7). And here Paul means that, in comparison to His position as equal with God, He went the opposite direction. Rather than amassing for Himself, He poured Himself out for us.

So, let me paraphrase: "In your relationships, have the same attitude as Christ Jesus, who, although he was equal with God, did not use his position to acquire more for himself, but instead, poured himself out, essentially emptying himself of all of his advantage, privilege and power. Thus, although He could have amassed more and more for Himself, He gave all of Himself for us in the very act of incarnation, humble servitude and death on the cross."

As Jesus said in Mark's Gospel: "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).

If we are to emulate Jesus, we will put to death our own ambition in order to become the humble servants of God and of His people.