Thursday, April 29, 2010

A portrait of Christ

This is what I seek…to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Psalm 27:4).

What is your favorite picture of Jesus?

Many people like the portrait of Jesus’ head against a dark background, His face gently glowing with light. They find peace by looking at His calm, composed features, a sense of security when emotions are running wild.

Another popular one is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, a ray of light coming down to Him from heaven. It reminds the viewer that Jesus has a close relationship with our Father God, and that the Lord approved of Jesus’ work on our behalf.

There are many pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, holding a lamb gently in His arms. Such paintings offer reassurance of God’s care. He has the power to protect us, He provides for all our needs, and He treats us with tenderness.

There are pictures of Jesus surrounded by children. These illustrate His love for everyone, starting from infancy. They send the message that you don’t have to be smart, successful, or popular in order to win God’s affection—the Savior welcomes anyone who craves His loving touch.

But the most dramatic paintings are of Jesus dying on the cross. They are not pleasant to look at, yet they summarize what Jesus’ life was all about—suffering for our sins. It was on the cross that the Lord of Life gave His life for ours. Isaiah says, he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). In Jesus, opposites meet—He is both God and man. On His cross, opposites meet—Jesus suffered the punishment for our wicked thoughts, words, and deeds. It was during the shame and agony on the cross that Jesus accomplished His greatest miracle of all—He freed us from the curse of hell. When the Lord said it is finished, the universe was changed forever.

Jesus on the cross—it might not be the prettiest picture to gaze upon, but nothing does a better job of illustrating His great love for us.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I am the light of the world (John 8:12).

When you look at paintings of Jesus, you often see a halo of light crowning His head. Some halos look like a soft glowing light; others are shown as a floating ring of gold. Of course, Jesus did not walk around with a glowing head. And the first artists to make paintings of Jesus did not include halos in their work. It wasn’t until the fourth century that halos became a feature of Christian art.

The church has always used art to reinforce Biblical teaching. So what does the halo tell us about Jesus? Some artists used the halo to show that Jesus is the source of light, referencing what the Lord said about Himself: I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (John 12:46). Others have used the halo to suggest the golden light of heaven, which can only be seen through Jesus. Some painted Jesus with a halo to represent His dual nature—the human face shows that He is the Son of Man, while the glowing halo shows that He is also the Son of God.

Originally, halos were only found in pictures of Jesus. Later on, they became a popular way to picture anyone filled with the grace of God. Modern artists don’t use halos much anymore; their original meaning has been diluted from misuse, and they don’t represent Jesus as He looked to His disciples.

Of course, there is one time when Jesus did glow with heavenly light. It happened shortly before He went to the cross to die for our sins. He allowed Peter, James, and John to see the glory hidden within His mortal form, a glory that was dazzling in its brightness. Why did Jesus choose that particular day to reveal His glory? Because of the cross that cast a dark shadow across His future. It was almost time for one of the disciples to betray Jesus, leading to a false arrest. It was nearly time for Jesus to be humiliated, beaten, and found guilty of crimes He did not commit. The day was close when He would be nailed to a cross, rejected by man and God alike. In those dark hours, anyone who followed Jesus might easily give up hope. But Jesus is the Son of God; He had the power to use those tragic events and make them into a wonderful blessing, by which our sins are forgiven and the grave is stripped of its power. Jesus showed His best friends a glimpse of that power beforehand, so they would not lose hope during the terrible days ahead. The halo of Christ shows His power to triumph over any tragedy and make our futures bright.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Finding the right place to worship

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:1-11a).

He had promised to love her forever. It came as a complete shock, then, when he filed for divorce. She had sacrificed everything for him, had given up a promising career to stay at home and make him happy. Now, with so many years gone by since her college graduation, her skills were no longer marketable—all she could find for work were minimum wage positions. To make matters worse, he hired a high powered attorney and fought her tooth and nail over every provision of the settlement; by the time she had paid her legal fees, she was destitute. The only thing left of value was the beautiful wedding ring he had given her as the pledge of his love; bitterly, she took it to a jeweler to have it appraised and then sell it. But there was one final betrayal still to come—what she thought was a very costly diamond was in fact a very nice-looking, but nevertheless very cheap replica. Her entire relationship, right from the beginning, had been built on a beautiful lie.

People lie to you all the time to get what they want. A boyfriend will tell you how much he loves you in order to get you into bed. A salesclerk will tell you how handsome you look in that suit in order to make a sale. A politician will promise you tax relief in order to win your vote. Every day you have to be on the lookout for come-ons, as people try to get something from you by telling you what you want to hear.

This is true of religions as well. Every religious organization wants more members. But the question that needs to be asked is this: why do they want more members? For some, it is a matter of economics—more members means more income. More income can mean nicer facilities, better salaries for church workers, more programs and activities for the members and the surrounding community. For others, it is about meeting emotional needs—more members means more security. As membership increases, there are increased opportunities for fellowship, there is the reassurance of being surrounded by many others who share your beliefs, there is security in knowing that the church will continue to be around for years to come.

But if the goal of increased membership is to raise more money, watch out! Such an attitude can lead to poor stewardship practices, as everyone decides they can give less to the Lord because there are lots of other people to pick up the slack. Leaders in the church can get caught up in fancy clothes and sprawling worship facilities, spending money on looking good and having the very best instead of getting the most ministry out of every dollar contributed.

Similarly, if the goal of increased membership is to salve the emotional needs of the members, watch out! Such an attitude can lead to all sorts of problems. Some churches stop preaching against sin for fear of offending any potential new members. Some church leaders value being popular and relish the prestige of being in charge of a large organization, instead of devoting their time to humble service. Some members become snobbish, forming exclusive cliques within the membership.

When a church body invites you to join their fellowship, what is behind their request? Do they simply want another person to put money in the plate? Do they need more people to fill the various boards and committees that have empty seats? Or are they sincerely interested in your spiritual well being? Are they concerned about the guilt and confusion and despair that make each day a chore for you to get through? Do they want to spare you an eternity of misery after you die?

Many churches are truly concerned about you. And because of this, their attention is flattering. So how do you decide which church body to join? Looking at things from the perspective of the woman we met earlier, how can you be sure you are being offered a love that will last forever? How can you be certain that the diamond in your engagement ring is genuine?

John writes, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. There is more to selecting a church than just making sure their intentions are good and honorable. Many people in this world are sincere in their beliefs, but that does not automatically mean that their beliefs are correct. Some religions teach that God will let you into heaven if you have tried live a good life. Some religions say there is no hell; God loves everyone too much to punish them eternally, so don’t be afraid—everyone is going to heaven. Other faiths claim that there is neither heaven nor hell—when you die that’s it, so it is important use each day to make the world a better place for those who will survive you. A few church bodies assert that you can become a god if you work extremely hard at following their teachings, while others hold that you will live one new life after another, continually being reborn until you finally get it right.

Clearly, these different religions can’t all be right, because there is so much disagreement between them. Yet each has many followers who believe with all their heart that they are right, and you will be blessed if you join them. But how long can the love they offer last? Is there permanence in what they hold out to you?

John tells us to put each religion to the test. There are ways for a woman to test whether the diamond in her engagement ring is genuine; there are ways to test religions, too. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. The test of any religion is simple: does it teach that Jesus is the Son of God, born into the world to save sinners by dying in their place?

Some religions claim that Jesus was just a man, a brilliant teacher and powerful leader, but just a man nonetheless. He died, but his ideas live on. Such a teaching does not come from God.

Some religions claim that Jesus was a very special man—a man so advanced in his spiritual development that God rewarded him with godhood after he died. Such a teaching does not come from God.

Some religions claim that Jesus is God’s Son, but that He never became a human being, He only appeared human so that we could more easily relate to Him. Of course, having never been human, He didn’t really die, it only looked that way. Such a teaching does not come from God.

And some religions don’t speak about Jesus at all. Such religions do not come from God.

The religion that does come from God is fundamentally different from all others. It teaches us that Jesus is God’s Son. It teaches us that God’s Son took on human life so that He could die. But this was no ordinary death—this was an atoning death. When a crime is committed, we expect the perpetrator to make restitution for the harm he’s done—he needs to pay off his debt to society. When Jesus died, He was offering His own life in restitution for harm done—but it was for the harm that you have caused. When the Son of God was crucified, He paid off your debt incurred by the many ways you have repeatedly broken God’s laws. By His suffering and death, Jesus atoned for your sins, sparing you the agony of God’s punishment for being selfish with your love.

Jesus did this for you purely out of love. He knew that if He did not suffer in your place, your life would be nothing but an ever-increasing mountain of guilt, and death would only make that misery permanent in hell. Because of His love for you, Jesus offers you forgiveness and He offers it for free—there is nothing you need do to earn His favor. The only thing He wants from you is your undivided love; if you pledge yourself to Him, the Lord will release you from guilt, guide you through life’s challenges, and give you the hope of everlasting happiness with Him in heaven.

How can you know that this love will last? God is love, and God is eternal—therefore, the love of God is an everlasting love. He loved you so much that He sent His Son to die for you. Who else has made such a monumental sacrifice for you? The cross of Jesus is all the proof you need that you have found love that will go the distance, that won’t change it’s mind or grow weak with the passing of time. The love of God expressed through Jesus is like a flawless diamond—beautiful, unbreakable, priceless and eternal. His pledge of love is the one promise you can safely build your entire life around.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The look on Jesus' face

This is what I seek: to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Psalm 27:4).

When you look at paintings of Jesus, what kind of facial expressions do you see? Some show a tender look of love. Others depict a quiet confidence. But only a few show Jesus smiling or laughing. It’s very rare to see Him angry or in pain.

The Bible tells us that Jesus was fully human in every respect but one—He never sinned. In other words, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotion. We know that He cried at the tomb of Lazarus. We know that He was angry when He drove merchants out of the Temple so that God’s people could pray in peace. We know that He was tender with people who were sick. We know that He spoke with powerful authority. We know that His soul was troubled while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and we know that He cried out in anguish as He was dying on the cross.

Yet artists seem reluctant to show Jesus unhappy. When He is praying in the Garden before His arrest, He is usually pictured with a peaceful expression; when He is shown dying on the cross, you don’t see pain or inner turmoil sketched on His face. Why not? I think that artists try to sanitize Jesus’ suffering. You don’t see the blood that dripped from His wounds, blood that washes away our sins. You don’t see any hint of the hell His soul endured as our substitute. Maybe such paintings would not sell; who would want such an image in their living room? And yet what a shame it is to minimize the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made for us.

Artists are also reluctant to show Jesus happy. He’s usually depicted as serious or at peace or with a tender look on His face, but almost never with a smile. Now I’ll grant you that the Bible does not say, "Jesus laughed." But your face lights up when you greet a friend. Kids laugh with joy when a puppy licks their face. People smile with pleasure at aroma of a delicious meal. Smiling shows that you are happy with God’s blessings.

That’s why I believe that Jesus must have smiled. He, better than anyone, saw the hand of God at work all around Him. He said that heaven rejoices when a sinner repents—Jesus must have showed happiness when people asked for His blessing and praised God for His work. Our Lord does get angry at sin—but he is a loving God who takes delight in His earthly children.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The face of Christ

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him (Isaiah 53:2).

What does Jesus look like?

There are many paintings of Jesus, but none of those artists ever saw the Lord face to face. Typically, they show Jesus with shoulder length brown hair, a beard and a mustache. Most paintings depict Him with fair skin and blue eyes. But it’s all guesswork; the Bible never describes the man who died on the cross and rose from the dead.

All we know about Jesus’ looks is that He was average in appearance. Isaiah said, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. In other words, Jesus looked like a typical Jew of His day. He would have had long brown hair, a beard and a mustache, just like the paintings show. But His skin was darker than most of us picture it to be. He probably had brown eyes, and was not a tall man. To the casual observer, Jesus was nothing special.

Yet that ordinary-looking man was actually the holy Son of God. One day He went to a solitary place with the three men He was closest to—Peter, James, and John. While they were there, Jesus showed them a glimpse of what was hidden beneath tanned skin and sun-bleached hair: His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Then a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Luke chapter 9) This experience frightened Jesus’ friends out of their wits; thankfully, the Lord soon resumed His ordinary appearance.

We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but we do know this—His ordinary human features concealed the holiness of God, a glory too frightening to look at. Jesus appeared like a regular guy for our benefit—He made it possible for us to see love on the face of God, and to approach Him with confidence instead of fear. And Jesus did not set out to wow us with His handsome looks or fashionable clothes; what He said was far more important. His words are words of forgiveness, hope, and eternal life. His words were carefully recorded so we can still hear them today. His words are God’s words, and we would do well to listen carefully.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Growing in our understanding

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever (2 Peter 3:18).

Our society has grown up around TV. Television is a part of everyone’s life; it is a major source of news and entertainment, and sometimes it can even be educational. So I got to wondering: can different types of television shows help us understand Christianity? I think perhaps they can.

Christianity is like a crime drama. Such shows consist of two parts. First, there is the investigation of a crime. What laws were broken? Who are the perpetrators, and why did they do it? This is followed by an arrest and trial. Are the defendants sorry for the hurt they’ve caused? What is an appropriate sentence?

Christianity tells a similar story. It starts with a crime. The crime might be anything from feeling jealous to having an affair; it could range from swearing at someone to punching them in the face. Whatever the crime, it is a breaking of God’s Laws—that you should ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, `Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27).

Who is the perpetrator? You already know the answer—you are the one who has failed to obey God’s law in all ways and at all times. You are the one who skipped worshipping God to go to the lake; you are the one who has yelled at a parent, lied to a teacher, took something that didn’t belong to you.

Why did you do it? Maybe you resented being told what you should and should not do. Maybe you did it for a thrill. Maybe your desires overwhelmed your good sense, at least for a while. But whatever your motivation, it does not justify your crime—not in God’s eyes.

God knows you are a perpetrator, and the day of your court appearance is set—on the day you die, you will appear before the judge of heaven for sentencing. But the final verdict will depend on your relationship with your court-appointed defense attorney. Paul writes in Romans chapter 8: Christ Jesus…is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. If you meet with Jesus before your day in court and tell Him how sorry you are for all your crimes, He will do something remarkable before sentence is passed—He will approach the bench and speak to His Father on your behalf; He will reveal the exhibit of a cross, stained with His blood, as proof that the hellish punishment earned by your crimes has already been served by the Son of God. Based on this evidence, He will move that your case be dismissed, and you will enter heaven cleared of all charges.

Christianity is also like a makeover show. Each segment begins by showing us someone who needs the help of an expert. They might have a room that is a disorganized mess; maybe their house is in desperate need of repair; or maybe they have no sense for fashion. What they have in common is this—they all agree that change is needed. So the professionals swoop in and give them a makeover.

Christianity tells a similar story. It starts with a person who needs a makeover—that person is you. Maybe your life is cluttered with things that keep you busy but leave you confused, lost or uncertain of how things should be. Maybe your life is falling apart around you, and you feel vulnerable and afraid. Or maybe you just don’t know how to act when you are around other people, and you always feel awkward or foolish. Whatever the problem is, you know that change is needed.

God is the expert just waiting for you to realize that you need help. When you open the door of your heart to Him, He comes in and helps you sort through the many things cluttering your life. He gives you the ability to look at each possession and determine whether it can help you to achieve a worthwhile goal or only serves as a distraction; He guides you in sorting out which of your activities are important and which are merely wasting your time.

Jesus was raised to be a Master Carpenter. If your life seems to be collapsing like an old neglected house, the Savior can help you renovate. He will forgive you for all your mistakes that have brought you to the point of collapse; He will rebuild your life according to His blueprint, resulting in a future that is solid and secure in the face of every storm.

The Spirit of God can show you what is morally right and mentally healthy; with His wisdom giving clarity to your thinking, you can live life with confidence. Instead of feeling awkward and foolish around others, you’ll discover that God has given you an inner beauty that enables you to feel good about yourself.

In 1st Corinthians Paul writes: Don't you know that you…are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? God spares no expense when He gives you His makeover; after all, He desires to live in your heart, and the Lord of the universe deserves only the very best accommodations.

Another TV show that can teach us about Christianity is the medical drama. A medical drama introduces us to a seemingly endless stream of patients, all afflicted with some sort of health problem. Some know they are sick and will do anything to be cured. Some are so busy pursuing their goals that they ignore even the most alarming symptoms until they find themselves at death’s door. Some don’t like doctors or are scared of hospitals and so put off treatment for far too long. And some who have been given sound medical advice ignore their treatments, soon ending up in worse shape than before. But they all have this in common: without the doctor’s healing touch, they will soon experience the chilling grasp of death.

Christianity tells a similar story. We are all infected by a plague, the disease called ‘sin.’ God would love to welcome us into His magnificent home, but not if we are carrying this plague. So the Lord offers us medical treatment through His Son, the Great Physician. If we let Jesus treat us, we can enter heaven cured of sin; however, if we refuse treatment, we will spend eternity quarantined in hell.

Why would anyone refuse treatment? Some are so busy with all the things going on in their lives that they don’t notice the symptoms of sin—dysfunctional relationships, constant pursuit of pleasure with no lasting satisfaction, self-destructive behaviors, and the like. If they are too busy to see that their lives are falling apart around them, then they will not make time for treatment by the Great Physician. Others refuse treatment because they don’t like Jesus or going to church; they resent anyone—even the Lord—who dares tell them hard truths that they don’t want to hear. And there are those who have listened to Jesus but then ignored His prescribed treatments; they are having too much fun living life as they see fit, to give up those things that are hastening their spiritual death.

Thankfully, not everyone reacts this way. There are many who fear eternal quarantine and desperately want to be freed from the illness that is killing them. These are the patients who will be healed; these are the ones who will benefit from Jesus’ promise that they will have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).

And the life of a Christian is like a soap opera. A soap opera is all about relationships. It features a large cast of characters interconnected in a variety of ways—blood relations, friendships, business dealings, and, of course, romance. Each episode shows how people forge relationships with each other, ruin relationships by selfish behavior, and search desperately for a way to repair what they have broken.

Christianity tells a similar story. Christianity is all about relationships—our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. Christians are interconnected in a variety of ways—through blood, through friendships, through business dealings, and through romance. Yet all of these relationships are in constant turmoil. Relatives argue and fight. Friends poison their relationship by taking advantage of each other. Business associates stab each other in the back in a quest for profit or promotion. Lovers split up rather than make compromises to preserve the relationship. The emotional fallout is terrible—feelings of hatred, of worthlessness, of loneliness, and a crippling fear of ever trusting again. And the question then becomes: how to patch things up?

All these relationship problems are rooted in our failed relationship with God. The Almighty made humanity to be His companions, friends forever, sharing paradise together. But we to want to be in control of our relationships, insisting on having our way, even if it is at the expense of others. God our Maker does not tolerate our substituting such arrogance for real love; and since we refuse to embrace God’s love in the purity of His design, there is no way that we can show true love to each other.

But God offers a solution. He wants us back as His beloved companions, so He sent Jesus as the ultimate expression of what true love is. In the love of Jesus, there is forgiveness and the healing of old hurts. In the love of Jesus, there is commitment to long term relationships. In the love of Jesus, there is a willingness to sacrifice gladly for the sake of others. In Jesus, we not only see what relationships can be, we can start experiencing the relationships with God and each other that should be. 1st John chapter 4 says, if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Of course, no TV show can replace time with God’s inspired Word. It is only through the Bible that Jesus is revealed to us in complete purity and truth. It is only through the message of Christ and His followers that we can understand how one man’s death on a cross can result in forgiveness and eternal life for all who trust in Him. But some types of TV shows can help us see the messages of Christ from a new perspective. Peter urges us to continually grow in the faith, and we should seize every opportunity to do so.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Luck or God's caring protection?

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).

I was in a car accident early last year. Coming home after dark, I suddenly noticed two deer standing right at the edge of the road. Although they were standing still, my first instinct was to give them plenty of room. I swerved, the car went into a spin on the ice, and we hit the ditch. The car rolled and we found ourselves upside down, hanging from our seat belts.

My wife was fine. I had a broken collarbone, and the car was a total loss. Over all, we had much to be grateful for—the injuries could have been much worse. But I’m not telling you this to get your sympathy. I’d like to use this experience to make two points.

First point. Many concerned people have told me that I was lucky. But luck had nothing to do with it. First, we were driving a well-made car. Second, we were wearing our seat belts. But most important of all, God protected us. The car did not catch on fire. We were able to reach our cell phones and dial 911. A passing couple saw us and stopped to help. The first responders arrived before we got cold. After they got us out, I was able to walk to the ambulance. In all these ways, God kept a bad situation from becoming a tragedy.

Still, having my left arm pretty much useless was annoying. I needed help with showering and dressing. I wasn’t able to drive. I had to be careful how I get up from a chair. Almost everything I did was harder, and took longer than I was used to.

Which brings me to my second point. We take things too much for granted. We set our alarm clocks based on the assumption that there will be hot water for the shower, getting dressed won’t take much time, and the car won’t give us any problems. We don’t build room into our schedules to allow for problems and delays. When life doesn’t cooperate with our plans, we get annoyed—and a friend, spouse, or child often bears the brunt of our anger.

The thing is, God doesn’t guarantee you good health or smooth sailing. What He does guarantee is His help, if you are on friendly terms with His Son. Jesus said, In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. The Lord has protected me and continues to bless me; He loves you the same way.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Finding comfort

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

During times of boredom or unhappiness, we seek things that give us comfort. A teen jilted by her boyfriend might find comfort in a quart of ice cream. A child bullied at school might seek comfort by shooting bad guys in a video game. A woman bored with her husband and stressed by her kids might get comfort from shopping for clothes and jewelry. A man pressured by conditions at work might find comfort in restoring an old car.

All of us need times of relief and relaxation. But if we’re not careful, these things, that we turn to for comfort, can become problems as well. Using food to make yourself feel good can lead to poor health. Hiding from the world in a video game can rob you of friends. Hobbies can eat up your time and money at an alarming rate.

We all need comfort when times are bad. Remember how Mom could make you feel better with just a hug and a few words of encouragement? When they need comfort, children go right to an adult that they trust. That adult is big and strong. That adult is smart and caring. Seen through the eyes of a child, that adult has the ability to make things all better.

But who do we turn to once we’ve grown up? By the time you’re a teenager, you realize that Mom and Dad are far from perfect. They don’t have all the answers; they can’t make your problems go away. When you need comfort, isn’t there something better than devouring a bucket of ice cream or buying yourself an expensive toy?

Absolutely there is! There is one person you can always go to for comfort. He is big and powerful. He is smart and loving. And He invites you to call Him ‘Father.’ Of course, I’m speaking about the LORD. And while you cannot crawl into His lap, He is close by, watching every moment of your life with great interest. Whenever you speak, He is listening. And whenever you attend worship or read His Book, the LORD speaks to you, offering words of comfort and peace. Our heavenly Father gives deep and lasting relief like nothing you can find on earth. To get the comfort that you hunger for, spend time with the only One who really can make things all better.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Holy books

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:45-49).

Our world is filled to overflowing with books advertised as ‘holy’. Go into any bookstore or library, and you can find countless works claiming to reveal the nature of God and how you can get to know Him. Some are familiar to you, at least by name: the Koran of the Muslims, the Jewish Kabbalah, the Book of Mormon. Other religious texts might not be so familiar—the oriental Tao-Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the Dhammapada of the Buddhists, the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism. All of these works anchor different religions; all of them have been read by millions of people, if not more.

With all this religious literature floating around, what makes the Bible special? How can Christianity claim that the Scriptures are not only different, but fundamentally superior to every other collection of religious sayings?

How can you trust that what we are told about Jesus is true? The disciples spent three years at Jesus’ side, listening to Him teach. Think back over the last three years of your life; if you were asked to write down every conversation you heard during that time, how much could you remember? How accurate would your memories be? And the disciples did not write down what they heard right after Jesus rose from the dead; several years went by before they put pen to paper. How then can we have confidence that the disciples remembered their time with Jesus correctly?

As we read the Gospels, it is clear that the people who followed Jesus often did not understand what He said or what was really going on. Jesus spoke about Himself as the Good Shepherd and us as His sheep, but John tells us: Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them (John 10:6). Jesus warned to be on guard against false teachings; He compared religious lies and half-truths to yeast that can quickly work through a whole loaf of bread, changing it dramatically. But the disciples did not understand what He was getting at, prompting Jesus to scold them with the words: Do you still not see or understand? (Mark 8:17) When Jesus told them that He was going to be put to death and three days later rise again, Mark records: they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it (Mark 9:32). When the Lord rode a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and was greeted as a king, we are told: At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him (John 12:16). And when Peter and John found Jesus’ tomb to be empty, the sad truth was: They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (John 20:9).

We really should not be surprised at this—after all, the disciples were only human, ordinary men trying to understand the revelations of God. Nor were they experts in religion; they were unschooled, ordinary men (Acts 4:13). They were practical folks, their thoughts focused on the need to make a living and support their families. To learn the mysteries of God’s kingdom from His own Son must, at times, have been like trying to drink water from a fire hose. It is no wonder that Jesus devoted three years to patiently teaching them.

So why can we trust what the disciples wrote about Jesus, years after our Lord ascended back into heaven? Because of what Jesus did to them: He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. Jesus performed a miracle—a miracle that benefited His disciples, and through them benefited us. The Lord cleared out their mental cobwebs, enabling them finally to understand. They were enabled to see how hundreds of references in the Old Testament spoke of Jesus and what would happen to Him. Now they understood everything that Jesus had tried to teach them, they finally ‘got’ the point of every parable, they understood the significance of each miracle. Over three years of association, Jesus had slowly given them the pieces to a puzzle, and now the Lord made everything fall into place, revealing a beautiful picture of God’s plan of salvation, realized through His Son.

A year earlier, Jesus had posed a question to His followers: he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:13-17). What was true of the disciples then is true for us now—no one can understand the truth about Jesus unless God intervenes. In 1st Corinthians chapter 12 Paul writes: no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. This is because the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). Spiritual truths make sense only because of God’s miraculous work within us, and the same was true of Jesus’ disciples.

The Spirit of God was essential for the writing of the Bible. Jesus told the disciples: stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. That power came on Pentecost, when the disciples were enabled by the Spirit to communicate with people in a variety of different languages. But just as important was another gift the Spirit would bring—Jesus promised: the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14:26). Jesus made sure that His faithful friends would remember every important conversation He had with them; the Spirit of God would see to it.

This is why you can trust what the Bible says. Our Lord used His godly power to ensure that the writers of the Good Book accurately remembered everything about their years with Jesus, and that they understood what it all meant. Men may have written the Bible, but Jesus made sure they got everything right. And so Peter could say, Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet's own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20-21). To this, Paul adds: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The disciples had a wealth of memories to preserve in writing; did they record everything? John gives us the answer: Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25). At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, books only existed in the form of scrolls, tubes of paper rolled onto two sticks, one held in each hand. Such technology limited how long a book could be; if a scroll were too big the paper would tear. This is why the Old Testament has First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, and so on—these books were too long to fit on one scroll, so the content was divided between two rolls of paper. When the books of the New Testament were written, space was still at a premium. So each evangelist set down what he considered to be the highlights of Jesus’ life. Matthew emphasized how many Old Testament prophecies Christ fulfilled, in order to convince Jewish readers that Jesus really was the promised Messiah. Mark focused on Jesus’ miracles, which proved His divinity and power to save. Luke preserved quite a bit of detail about Jesus’ life, starting with His conception and finishing up with His ascension into heaven; He also devoted a considerable amount of ink to Jesus’ parables. John wrote for educated foreigners; his focus was on the words of Jesus that revealed the heart and mind of God.

Between these four scrolls, God made sure that we have a well-rounded account of Jesus’ time on earth. We are told of a woman who, although she was a virgin, conceived and gave birth to a Child. The Child’s Father was none other than God Himself, and because of this, the Child was born sinless. This Child was named Jesus, and His life was one that honored God perfectly at all times. As an adult, this sinless Son of God assumed the role of Teacher, explaining how God wants us to live. Then, showing His great love for us, Jesus took on the role of Sacrifice, suffering and dying for our sins. After a brief stay in the grave, our Lord returned to life and ascended into heaven to be our everlasting King, a benevolent ruler who, if we pledge our loyalty to Him alone, forgives us when we admit our wrongs and takes us to join Him in paradise when we die.

So how do the Scriptures stack up when compared against the Koran, the Kabbalah, the Book of Mormon, the Tao-Te Ching, the Analects, the Dhammapada, or the Bhagavad Gita? These were all written by men—none are inspired by Christ. And why is Christ’s involvement so important? Heed Peter’s words, once he had ‘been clothed with power from on high’: There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). It only makes sense, then, that the one book which can reveal God is the one authorized by His Son—the Bible. So open the Scriptures and read—you can believe what Jesus’ followers have said about Him. God Himself made sure they got it right.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Who's in control?

You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing (Psalm 145:16).

‘April showers bring May flowers.’ Well, if you’re like me, more water doesn’t sound very appealing. Heavy snow and spring flooding have soured me on April showers this year. Of course, we might feel differently later on. If things get too dry during the summer, there will be hand wringing over the fate of the harvest.

We’ve seen congress wrestle with health care reform. It’s amazing how differently two parties can view the same issue. Such bitter division makes compromise all but impossible.

We grumble about the weather. But it’s just as well that we can’t do anything about it. How could you get every farmer in our part of the state to agree on how much moisture we should receive and when? It would be like trying to get unity in congress about healthcare. Each farmer has different needs. Topography, soil composition, access to water, even prevailing winds—no one has the same conditions to work with. In addition, some farmers have certain crops they prefer to grow. And those who specialize in livestock have their own ideas about agreeable weather conditions. Good weather for one person might be disappointing weather for another.

So it’s for the best that God reserves control of the weather for Himself. In fact, God keeps many things under His direct control. We are given stewardship of the earth, but sin makes us pretty bad managers. Under our watch, entire species have been killed off. Under our management, pollution has made a mess of the environment. Under our supervision, Americans grow fat while all over the world people are starving to death.

Because of sin, we think about ourselves first and foremost. Priority One is to make ourselves happy and comfortable. Considering what is best for others comes later. This is why God limits how much control we have over worldly matters. This is why the Maker of all things sent His Son to join us on earth, where the Son of God put our happiness and comfort before His own, dying on the cross in terrible agony so we can be forgiven.

We often grumble about things that we can’t control. I suggest praising God instead, because He works hard to bless each and every one of us.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

He IS risen!

You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! (Mark 16:6)

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The Christ of God who died has risen to live forever. Of course, a lot of people don’t believe the Good News of Easter. They don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But consider the following evidence:

If Easter did not happen, how do you account for the disciples’ changed behavior? The night that Jesus was arrested, they all abandoned Him. Peter was the unofficial leader of the group, and three times he denied even knowing Jesus. None of the disciples had the courage to ask for Jesus’ body so He could be laid to rest; two other men arranged the burial. On the day of the resurrection, the disciples were in hiding behind locked doors, still fearing arrest. But then Jesus came to them; they touched Him and He ate some of their meal to prove He was no ghost. After that day, the disciples were changed men; now they preached about Christ without fear, singing hymns when they were beaten and thrown into prison. If Jesus had not come back to them alive, how do you account for these cowards turning into men of courage?

If Easter did not happen, why put Jesus in the center of our calendars? The years BC were before Christ; once He entered our world, the years were renumbered starting with 1. Something incredibly important must have happened in His lifetime, something that caused our ancestors to renumber their calendars around.

Or consider this. Ancient writings are few and far between; it is rare to have more than one or two sources of information on any event that took place so many years ago. Yet Jesus’ death and resurrection are documented by no less than four different sources—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Not only that, but several other men who lived at the time speak of these events as well: Peter, James, and Paul. No single event from 2,000 years ago has such thorough documentation. If Easter did not happen, why do we have so many witnesses speaking about it?

Jesus died and rose from the dead. You can be sure of it. And because He rose, you can be sure of something else: if you trust Him, He will raise you from the dead, too. He’s proven that He can do it.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Eyewitness testimony

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

There sure are a lot of crime dramas on TV these days. Not only that, but schools that offer degrees in crime scene investigation have reported increased enrollment over these past few years. Americans, it seems, are fascinated with investigations that uncover the truth.

But no matter how sophisticated our science gets, there is one thing that remains essential for getting a conviction—you need the testimony of witnesses. Every trial involves the calling of witnesses who share whatever they have seen or heard that is relevant to the case at hand. Nor is every witness equal. Cases often collapse if the evidence is only circumstantial, like when a witness at a murder trial recalls the defendant arguing with the victim shortly before her death. Although this is important information, no crime was actually witnessed.

The best witness is someone who saw the crime take place with his own eyes; such testimony must be taken very seriously. Even then, however, it is just one person’s word against another’s—the word of the witness against the word of the defendant. This is why multiple eyewitnesses are needed to assure a conviction.

Even the Bible holds court proceedings to this standard. In Deuteronomy chapter 19 the Israelites were given the following instruction: One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. When a matter is in dispute, multiple witnesses are needed to verify the truth of things.

This explains why no less than four different men wrote about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. Matthew was a tax collector who left his former way of life and became one of Jesus’ twelve disciples; he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death and return to life. Mark was close friends with Peter, the unofficial leader of the disciples; like a court stenographer, Mark listened to Peter’s testimony about Jesus’ time on earth and preserved it in writing. Luke tells us that he researched his books by meeting with people who were eyewitnesses to everything that transpired. And John? John was brother of James and a business partner with Peter. He was the disciple whom Jesus loved most dearly of all. He, along with Peter and James, was with Jesus even when the other disciples were not. These three men were the only ones to see Jesus’ glory on the mount of transfiguration. These three were the only ones invited to remain close to the Lord during His hours of prayer in Gethsemane. John and Peter were the only disciples present for Jesus’ trial before the religious leaders who condemned Him to death; John was the only disciple to stand close by cross as Jesus died. The first disciples to enter the empty tomb were John and Peter, and John was the first to believe that Jesus had really come back from the dead.

John and Matthew were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death and return to life; Mark and Luke provide us with commentary from other eyewitnesses as well. God demands the testimony of two or three witnesses to establish the truth of any important matter; Jesus’ death, burial, and return to life are such important facts that our Lord provides no less than four witnesses to establish the truth of these events.

Why did God give us four witnesses? One reason is that, right from the start, people have been denying the truth of the Easter event. Already in Matthew chapter 28 we are told the following: some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep"… So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. Already on Easter morning, people were being bribed to lie about the resurrection. And the lies continue, from ancient writings like the so-called Gospel of Judas to modern fiction like The DaVinci Code. For two millennia, Satan has been trying to convince the world that Jesus remains dead and buried. And so our heavenly Father, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, provided us with four eyewitness accounts regarding what really happened—more than enough to satisfy any court of law.

There is a second reason why God gives us testimony from four different sources. Frankly, the resurrection is hard to believe. Do you know anyone who was verified dead by a government official, underwent partial embalming, and then came back to life after three days in the tomb? Sure, there have been people who were clinically dead for a few minutes who were successfully resuscitated, but dead for two nights? Such a thing is completely beyond the bounds of our experience. You’ve been to funerals. You’ve looked at dead bodies; maybe you’ve even touched one. No amount of makeup can give the illusion of life. When you have seen someone lying dead in a coffin, you know something vital is missing, never to return. The soul has departed, and it fills you with grief.

This is why we need four eyewitness accounts. On Easter, something truly impossible happened, and God knows that it is hard for our mortal minds to accept. Indeed, many people do not. But no one can reject the truth of the resurrection for lack of eyewitness evidence.

Why are the events of Good Friday and Easter so important? John tells us why: these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Are you afraid of dying? Does each death of a loved one tear out another piece of your heart? You can have life in spite of death. So can your loved ones. You can experience love that never comes to an end. Jesus makes it possible. All you need is faith—faith that Jesus is who He claimed to be and will make good on His promises.

Who did Jesus claim to be? None other than God’s own Son, born into our world with mortal flesh and blood. What did Jesus promise? He promised that anyone who came to Him for mercy would receive forgiveness and a new start in life. He promised to send God’s Holy Spirit to help us resist evil and embrace a godly way of life. He promised that when the hour of death comes for us, He will send His angels to lift our trembling souls in their arms and carry us to heaven. He promised that when He returns to make all things new, our bodies will rise from their graves in perfection and be restored to us.

Jesus can make good on these promises because He is indeed God’s Son. Only the Son of God could suffer for every sin of the entire human race; by suffering for our sins, He has earned the right to forgive us every time we seek His loving touch. Only the Son of God could come back to life after having died; by breaking free of the grave, He has demonstrated the power to free us from the grave as well.

We need to believe these truths about Jesus; if a person does not believe, he sees no reason to go to Jesus for mercy and the offer of everlasting life. A stranger could write you a check for a million dollars, but if you don’t know that the stranger is both wealthy and generous, you’d probably figure the guy was a nut job and just throw the check away rather than cash it. People who don’t believe that Jesus is the risen Son of God react the same way; they throw away His generous offer to settle their debt of sin with God, and laugh off the possibility of a never-ending vacation in paradise. Such a lack of faith prompted Jesus to issue this warning: whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:18).

Which brings us to you as a witness. You have listened to John’s eyewitness account, and by believing, you have the promise of eternal life. But many others in your life have not heard, do not believe. As things stand at this moment, they are condemned for lack of faith. It’s time that you take the witness stand. It’s time that you describe for them the crime scene, the foot of the cross where Jesus died for our crimes against God’s laws. Show them the evidence. Read together with them the eyewitness accounts of what happened. Bring them with you to church and to Bible study, where the evidence can be examined in detail. It’s not up to you to create faith in the heart of your friend; let the facts of the matter be established by four witnesses who know what happened because they were there.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The hardest thing

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13).

What is the hardest thing a person can do? Is it pushing your body to the limit, like an athlete who trains for competition? Is it never letting on that another person annoys you, like a chatty stranger sitting next to you on a plane? Is it the hardest thing of all to maintain a positive attitude in the face of tragedy, like staying cheerful even though you’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer? Or is it finding something to excite and interest you when days are boring and dreary, like they are during the dead of winter?

Life brings many challenges that are hard to overcome. People are victimized by crimes like abuse, discrimination, and theft. Some have to deal with the pain of unfaithfulness and divorce. Others face problems like unemployment and homelessness. Many feel stress from pressure—pressure to conform, pressure to meet high expectations.

But there is one challenge that eclipses all others in terms of difficulty. This hardest thing of all is something that each of us faces over and over again. This hardest thing makes us back away in reluctance, because we don’t like doing it. And even when we try, we usually do a poor job of it. The hardest thing of all is to forgive.

Forgiving is the hardest thing that you’ll ever be called upon to do. When someone wrongs us, the last thing we want to do is forgive them. When others treat us badly, we want to see them hurt. When others take advantage of us, we want them to give us some kind of restitution. But forgiving denies us these things. Forgiveness releases the other person from punishment. Forgiveness makes no demands for any sort of pay back. When you forgive an enemy, you’re letting him off the hook. When you forgive a friend, you’re promising to bury her mistake in the past forever—you’ll never bring it up again, and you will respect and trust her just like you always have.

Nothing is harder than forgiveness. Jesus is living proof of it. The Son of God had to suffer and die so that your sins and mine could be forgiven. Yet Jesus was willing to do it—He endured God’s anger in our place because He loves us and wants us to be with Him forever. That’s what forgiveness does—it reunites people in love.

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