Finding the Right Leader

leaders

Pastor search committees have one of the most difficult jobs imaginable.  They have been tasked by their churches to evaluate and find the man which God has chosen to lead their congregations.  But each and every one of us has the same burden when finding a church and/or simply deciding which religions teachers and leaders to follow.  There are so many out there, so many denominations, so many blogs, podcasts and books – how do we even begin?

My intention is not to give a step-by-step or exhaustive look at practical steps to finding a church or choosing who to revere.  That is in part because so much has been written on the topic already, and in part because each need and situation is unique.  God uniquely gifts and prepares people for specific roles and abilities and thus one cannot outline with exhaustive specificity the steps required.  We do have clear and helpful outlines of the requirements a church and individual should uphold corporately and personally when evaluating a teacher/pastor’s qualifications from Scripture, but no step-by-step manual from God (1 Tim 3.1-7, Titus 1.6-9).

There was, however, one man who walked the face of the Earth whom Jesus called the “greatest man ever born of woman” (Matt 11.11).  He came as a prophet, as a leader and teacher, and he had many disciples who followed him.  John the Baptist’s entire ministry and purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus, to declare His coming and the point people to Jesus.  His witness was clear that even though he was proclaiming repentance and leading people back to the faith, he himself was not the Messiah and he himself was not the promised one.

This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”  And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”  They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”  Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you say about yourself?”  He said, “I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

– John 1.19-23

John knew his role.  Because he knew that he himself was nothing and that Jesus was everything, he purposefully and intentionally continued to teach people and point them to Jesus.  So much so, in fact, that the very people who were listening to him and absorbing his teaching left him immediately upon seeing Jesus and having an opportunity to follow Him:

Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.

– John 1.35-37

Was John upset by this?  Did he bemoan the loss of his followers and the lessening dynamic of his ministry?  Quite the contrary, he embraced it and recognized it as the goal of his efforts!

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.  You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’  He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full.  He must increase, but I must decrease.  He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.

– John 3.27-31

This is perhaps the truest and purest example of humility in Scripture, and is in part why Jesus called him the greatest man to ever be born of a woman.  John existed to point people to Jesus and had no care for his own reputation or ministry – in the sense that he wanted to not be in the spotlight so that Jesus could be in the spotlight.

This should be our first and foremost observation when observing leaders, teachers and pastors.  Are they name droppers?  Do they boast about their success in ministry?  Do they take pride in their qualifications and education?  Do they evaluate how exactly they can help you in your situation or teach you in your need?  Or do they completely and fully point you to Jesus?  Are they head over heels in love with Jesus, see Him as the source and end of their ministry?  Or do they have a God-complex and want to be your guru and source of your enlightenment?

You can easily evaluate a church by the types of testimonies they share:  do people praise the local church and the pastor for the changes and benefits to their lives?  Or do people praise Jesus for saving them and redeeming them?  Do they even have testimonies at all?  Or is it just an event with all of the emphasis on one man?  You can also easily evaluate an author/teacher that you might listen to or read throughout the week:  Are the books and podcasts saturated with Scripture and direct teaching of the word of God?  Or are they more experience-based and reflective on the self?

There is much value in personal testimony and we can use our own experiences to push one another on to know and love Jesus more.  But let us be keenly aware that it is Jesus alone who saves.  It is Jesus alone who takes away our sins.  It is Jesus alone who sanctifies us and welcomes us into the presence of God.  Jesus alone.  We do one another the greatest benefit when we point each other into the arms of Jesus and when we spur in one another  a passion for knowing and loving Him.  We do each other no real benefit otherwise.  So let us pray for discernment in choosing those people to whom we submit and follow.  Let us also evaluate ourselves and our personal efforts and testimony to make sure that we never seek to draw people to ourselves but only to push them on to Jesus.

Love ≠ Tolerance

intervention

The seventies instilled in us the belief, er, wish that “all you need is love” to be happy and succeed in life, politics, the workplace, relationships, whatever.  Love and peace were the mantras echoed against the Vietnam war and turmoil of the draft amongst other things.  Today the battle cry has morphed into tolerance.  We do indeed long to be loved, but we are more concerned with having the freedom to believe and do whatever we darn. well. please.  Sure, it would be great if you loved me for what I do – but I want the government to protect me from you disagreeing with me, bullying me, or trying to prove me wrong.  This mindset is permeating our culture at such a rate that parents are now hesitant to teach and discipline their children, friends consider the highest form of mutual respect to be unmitigated acceptance, and employers and professors are now afraid of their employees and students – for fear that the wrong policy or statement might end in a lawsuit.

Deep in our hearts, on the most visceral level, we know that tolerance does not equal love and tolerance is not a sustainable value in education, maturation and interpersonal relationships.  If a child wants to play with a poisonous snake we tell him no and we explain the dangers.  If a young person believes that babies arrive by storks delivering them to happy parents, the eventually need to be given sex education to learn about how our bodies work and why certain changes have happened to them as they grew older.  If an American moves to England, someone must sit him down and explain driving on the left-hand side of the road and how the turn signal is opposite from the windshield wipers in the US.

Tolerance sounds great:  Live and let live, however we all recognize that there must be confines within which that tolerance resides.  Proclaiming “peace” and declaring that “all we need is love” will not stop terrorists from killing people who are not fighting.  Withdrawing from war will not force the Sudanese people to suddenly get along.  Ignoring evil will not make evil go away.

We also recognize that we must teach children to read and write, to learn math, to walk, and countless other basic skills.  To play a sport or a game there must be rules otherwise the game falls apart.

Ok, so the philosophically elite argue then that tolerance should be encompassing of our “immutable characteristics and belief systems”.  Simply, religion and carnal desires – and general worldviews that would encompass cultural tendencies and desires, as long as you are not hurting or imposing on someone else’s rights.  Again, this sounds very neat and tidy up front, but what about the culture that marries children?  What about the culture that allows multiple spouses?  What about the person who is born with the addiction to cocaine or the person who is genetically prone to alcoholism?  What about the religion that sacrifices animals?  What about the religion that eats human flesh to interact with their gods?  Or has sexual relations with animals?

We are left again with a difficult situation:  to tolerate and allow one person to practice their worldview will cause another to feel discriminated against in almost every situation.  If there are no absolutes, then everyone will find an opponent and it is asinine to expect the government to be able to rule on such a wide and vague range of topics.

That, however, is a side topic.  My main argument is that this kind of tolerance is not only impossible, it is illogical.  If a person truly believes whatever it is that he is proclaiming, then the truest form of love is to tell others and try to convince them of this belief.  If I truly believe that you will die if you step onto the street in front of that speeding bus, then it is not loving of me to philosophically evaluate the situation and consider your worldview and decision.  I will shove you out of the way or pull you back onto the sidewalk.  If I truly believe animals have rights and deserve to be treated humanely, I will join PETA and try to save animals from abusive homes and from religions that would sacrifice them or fight them for sport – and try to convince you why it is wrong to do so.

And most importantly, if I truly believe that apart from Jesus Christ we are all sinners and condemned to Hell, the most loving act for me is to warn you of the coming judgment and tell you of the hope in Jesus Christ.  If I believe that you are headed to Hell because of your sin and never tell you how to be forgiven in Jesus, I either hate you or do not truly believe that, because an eternity separated from God in the lake of fire and torment is infinitely worse than getting hit by a bus.

Tolerance, therefore, is essentially indifference.  To allow someone to do something and live something that is contrary to your belief system – if there is a consequence involved – is to not care.  Or worse, to hate.  One cannot truly validate another’s worldview and opinions without invalidating his own – unless he someone has a completely illogical all-inclusivism which would leave him with fundamentally no belief system.

Philosophy is greatly complicating our relationships and politics.

Therefore, let us cling to the long-standing authority of the Bible which has never been disproven and has withstood the test of centuries of critiques and cultures.  Alcoholism is not new.  Mysticism is not new.  Homosexuality is not new.  Nothing that our culture attempts to throw at the Bible in an effort to discredit or defame it is new.  And while it is a work of the Holy Spirit to draw someone to the Truth of the Bible, Scripture is clear that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  Therefore, we must share so that people can hear and be saved.

“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”

– Rom 10.17

If you believe the Bible, if you believe in Heaven and Hell, to love your friend and neighbor is to tell them about Jesus.  To tolerate them is to not talk about Jesus and to not love them, but to condemn them to Hell via inaction.  Once they have heard, there is a level of tolerance required, but true love would continue to be concerned about their eternities and souls, and to never leave the topic far from conversation.  Let us love people, and earnestly try to reason with them so that they may be saved.

“If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”

– Charles Spurgeon

How Should Christians Respond to Target?

target

The world is spiraling to her demise once again because Target has publicly announced that anyone may choose to use the bathrooms and dressing rooms in their stores according to the gender with which they associate.  As of this morning over 700,000 people have signed a petition to boycott Target, vowing never to shop there again while the LGBT community and those who support a progressive society are attempting to make up for the loss by shopping there in excess.  Did we not just go through this a few years ago with Chik-fil-a?  I would like to pose a simple question for Christians to consider in responding to the hype:

Why are surprised that the world is acting like the world?

This is not a new issue, folks.  I started college in 2001, and not only was my dormitory co-ed, so were our bathrooms.  This sheltered Christian girl who was not allowed to go to dances or wear a two-piece swim suit was dropped off by two terrified parents at a state university and after settling in my room and saying goodbye, I walked down the hall, into the doorless bathroom to see a guy standing at a urinal.  Shocked and embarrassed I blubbered, “Oh excuse me, I am so sorry” and ran from the bathroom to check for a gender sign.  There was no gender sign.  So I waited for him to leave and then I went in.  I never really got used to that.

I am now a 32 year old, married and five month pregnant woman.  Every time I leave my house to go on a run, to go to the grocery, or to grab a coffee with my girlfriends I get cat called, whistled at, approached, and I have even been grabbed and touched by complete strangers on the sidewalk and in stores.  This does not happen because I am some striking beauty, this is simply the reality for all women.  This is the culture in which we live.  The culture that tolerates, the culture that sexualizes, the culture that abuses children and women.  It is so normal, in fact, that my girlfriends and I have mastered the art of ignoring people and the topic rarely comes up in conversation.  It is what it is.

We have also mastered the art of knowing our surroundings and being wise.  If a man is lingering, you move on.  If a person approaches you in a parking lot, you quickly enter the car and lock the door.  We know that there is safety in numbers and that it is wise keep your cell phone visible so a potential threat knows you can contact the police if needed.  Some carry mace.  I know how to align my keys through my fingers to make a powerful punch and the sweet spots to kick.  It is all just common sense nowadays.

Because of the vigilance women and mothers must have over themselves and their children, we are keenly aware of the risk bathrooms pose.  This, again, is not news.  It is illegal to monitor bathrooms with surveillance, thus it is one place that a person is guaranteed privacy to relieve himself, and also the one place a person is guaranteed privacy to abduct, molest or harm another person.  Most mothers would never consider allowing their young children to make a bathroom run unsupervised and many mothers of boys will open the men’s bathroom to make sure it is vacant before allowing their sons to enter.  This has been normal parenting for years.

Enter:  the target scandal.  Target’s intention is to publicly state that someone who has made the transformation from one gender to another may now utilize the bathroom according to their new or associated gender.  Seeing as there is no way to police or monitor genitalia before allowing admittance, it is left up to the individual to choose which gender with which they associate.  Thus a man who is only starting down the road as a cross dresser and is still physiologically a man may enter the women’s restroom.  This new policy has been clearly exemplified by countless people filming and documenting themselves asking target team members to explain the new policy – one such film is going viral today of a man guaranteeing himself permission from the manager to use the women’s bathroom.

Is it uncomfortable?  Absolutely – for the vast majority of the American population – except in those cases where someone has successfully completed the transformation and we are unaware that they have changed genders.  Is it unsafe?  Yes.  But bathrooms have notoriously been unsafe environments for years.  Does it make the bathroom more dangerous?  This is a difficult question to answer, because Target has now made themselves complicit in the utilization of bathrooms by all genders, thus if a child is harmed by someone of the opposite sex in one of their bathrooms they will be held accountable on a much different level than a company that maintains normal gender differentiation.  And people will be much more on guard in the bathrooms at Target, making them more difficult targets.  Time will tell.

While weightily considering the safety and sociological implications of this decision, let us now consider the Spiritual aspect.  First of all, we must stop being surprised that the world is acting like the world.  We are all sinners, it is our very nature to sin, and apart from Christ that is all we can do (Rom 3.10-12).  As Christians we rely on the strength and power of the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin and to help us live righteous lives as an act of love for Jesus Christ.  But the world does not love Jesus, and therefore has no incentive to obey Him.  We should not be shocked when sinners sin – even within the Church.  None of us will reach perfection or true holiness until we are free from our flesh and in the presence of Jesus.

Secondly, we must remember that fighting a non-Christian’s sin is like putting makeup on a corpse.  Jesus said it makes people into “white washed tombs” – pretty and clean on the outside, but just a pile of bones on the inside (Matt 23.27-28).  Not only is it fake, it is worthless.  If a transgender person learns to accept his God-given sexual identity and even enters into a heterosexual marriage, he is still condemned to Hell apart from knowing and being forgiven by Jesus Christ.  This is true for every human being who has walked the face of the Earth, regardless of your sin of disposition.  Pride, lying, theft and deceit and  will eternally separate one from God every bit as much as homosexuality.  Unless we have been forgiven and saved by Jesus, we will all go to Hell.

Thirdly, we must remember that we – as Christians – have been placed in the world as a witness, as a city on a hill, as a testimony to the grace of God with one simple battle plan:  Make disciples of all nations (Matt 5.14, Matt 28.18-20).  In order to make disciples, we must be interacting with the world around us and proclaiming salvation to those who are not believers.  At the same time, we have been sternly commanded to be in the world but not of the world.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

– Rom 12.2

We can maintain a pure mind by meditating on Scripture, praying and spending time with God – our true treasure.  We must not love the world or the things of it:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

– 1 John 2.15-17

“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

– James 4.4

To love the world and the things in the world means that we do not love God and have made ourselves to be His enemies.  This is terrifying.  Thus Jesus prayed for His disciples and continues to intercede for us:

“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.  As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”

– John 17.14-18

Fourthly, if we understand that Jesus has left us in the world intentionally, to make disciples and to be a part of His plan for redemption, we must recognize the fact that we cannot accomplish this if we isolate ourselves from non-believers.  Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom 10.17).

“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?  And how will they hear without a preacher?”

– Rom 10.14

Thus we are left with a balance to uphold:  We are called to holiness and we must seek to obey God.  We do not love the things in the world and we look differently than the world because of our beliefs and habits, yet we must consistently and wisely interact with the world in such a way that we are proclaiming the Gospel, the lost are being saved and they are learning to obey God as well.  It will accomplish no good for the lost to obey God until they understand the Gospel and come to Him for salvation.

Lastly, there is perhaps the most difficult piece to this puzzle:  removing from the Church those people who embrace sin and will not obey God.  Scripture teaches us clearly and painfully that if a person claims to be a Christian but will not obey God (on any sin), then we are to remove him from the church (Matt 18.15-17).  This person is considered a non believer and the most dangerous kind because they understand intellectually the Gospel and the Word of God, but they manipulate and distort it:

“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people;  did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.  But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”

– 1 Cor 5.9-11

So what does all of this mean about Target?  Target is most certainly not a Christian based company.  In fact, throughout the years they have been a progressively liberal company.  As we are deciding where to buy our groceries, clothing and household goods, do we judge each store based on their moral and ethical codes?  Do we only shop at companies that are openly run with Christian morals?  Or do we go to comfortable places, expecting them to not rock the boat?  I would be willing to bet that the owner of Walmart has some policies and ethics with which we disagree…

Do we consider our daily outings as opportunities to engage the world, meet non believers and share the Gospel?  Or are we simply going about our chores and hoping to be comfortable and left alone?

Every decision parents make is a calculated risk for their children.  Do we pay big bucks to have them in an exclusive school?  Do we separate them from the world to protect them from bad influences?  Or do we send them to the public school to be a light?  Do we take them downtown to meet the homeless and serve at soup kitchens to share about the love of Jesus?  Or do we take them on play dates with Christian friends who are closely supervised by their Christian moms?  I would argue that a balance is best, all unified by continual teaching about the love of Jesus and His expectations of believers.

The Bible does not say “Do not shop at Target”, and the Bible also does not say “Shop at Target”.  This is a decision that we as believers must make based on our commandment to make disciples and also to be holy and protect our children and ourselves.  We must be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matt 10.16).

Let us also be careful to not overreact.  The world is sinful and is going to remain sinful.  We will not change that by being hateful and mean.  We can and must stand up passionately and continue to speak the Truth, but we must do so in love.  We should also be intentional to weigh the implications and risks, making sure to teach our children how to maintain integrity and obedience to God while actively loving and making disciples of those around us.

So pray about it.  Ask God what is best for you, your family and for those people you might meet at Target.  Continuing to visit Target with the intention of putting employees on the defensive while being filmed serves no greater good:  this decision was not made at the store level and at best they have been given a few talking points to parrot to concerned customers.  Instead, let us be concerned about their souls.  Let us be ready and prepared to offer jobs or help find work for those employees who decide they can no longer work for such a company.  If you believe the allowable risk to be too great, then shop somewhere else or confront Target on the corporate level based on the safety issue alone.

Let’s not make fools of ourselves.  We are all fighting a variety of sins in our lives, and we must humbly acknowledge the fact that God is in the process of sanctifying us.  It is our joy and our honor to proclaim that grace to people who do not yet know Him, and if we taint our testimony with ugliness we are not only pushing people away but we are in fact in sin ourselves.

Be careful which promises you claim.

bible

The Bible is our most glorious tangible gift from God.  God inspired Moses to give us the history of the beginning of the world and the calling of the Hebrew people in the first five books, and He has continued to compel writers to document His work throughout history.  It informs us of the actual events but it also teaches us the heart of God and His story of redemption from creation until the end of time.  Every word in the Bible is inspired by God (2 Tim 3.16), it is inerrant in its original form, and is by far the most credible work from antiquity in number of copies and consistency between them.  It has been evaluated for centuries by scholars and scientists looking for flaws, and not one word of it has ever been disproven or discredited.

It is the Word of God, written down.  If you want to know God, you must know the Bible.  If you want to be a Christian and follow Jesus, you must submit to the Bible.  If you want a word from God and direction from the Spirit, you must find it within and compare it against the teachings of the Bible.  God will never contradict the Bible and will always uphold what He has already revealed and taught therein.

It has erroneously been taught and believed, however, that the Bible is a collection of proverbs, a string of pearls, or a collection of promises, truths and blessings that we can pick and choose for our day-to-day lives.  Many people will flip open the Bible in search of a blessing and just start reading until they find something to “claim” before God.  And while there are beautiful promises that we can lift from Scripture to claim throughout our trials, they are all weighted in theological, doctrinal and intricate truths that only add glory and preciousness to them when understood.

The Bible is systematic.  It is logical.  It tells a story and humanity’s interaction with God develops throughout the whole of the book.  Authors had intentions in writing.  God had intentions in inspiring the authors, and while every word in Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof and instruction, not every word is a direct promise or instruction for us.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

– 2 Tim 3.16-17

We must always seek to understand the context of the passage.  Who is the author?  Who is the audience?  What type of writing is this:  historical narrative?  Poetry?  Prophecy?  Instruction?  Just because Abraham lied to the Egyptians and told them that Sarah was his sister does not mean that we can or should lie.  Just because the disciples cast lots to decide who would take Judas’ place does not mean that we should trust the dice with our major decisions.  Just because God promised land to the Hebrew people, it does not mean that He has promised land and a nation to us.  Just because God told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned and give all the proceeds to the poor does not mean that He is commanding us to do the same.

Most of the New Testament is written as systematic arguments and logistical reasonings.  The book of Romans is a missionary support letter that Paul wrote explaining his theology and how he instructs new believers to understand and embrace the grace of God.  He starts with the problem of sin, builds on the explanation of the Law and how humanity is guilty, teaches God’s undeserved grace and gives us unfathomable hope.  We fully understand the instructions of the end only after we grasp the foundations of the teachings in the beginning.  Jesus Himself argued logically and theologically.

Consider, for instance, you came across this quote from Matthew:

 “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”

– Matt 4.9

What a shocking statement!  This promise marries perfectly with the Health and Wealth Gospel.  Jesus promises to meet all of our needs, and He will give us everything – the whole world – if only we will worship him. The context of the verse, however, reveals a shocking reality:

“Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.’  Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”

– Matt 4.8-10

To claim Matthew 4.9 is one of the easiest abuses of Scriptures to see, when you read the surrounding verses.  Jesus did not make this promise, it was the tactic of the Devil to tempt Jesus.  Jesus strongly rebuked the Devil, claiming the truth of Scripture to stand up against him and proclaim truth.  We also learn throughout Scripture that God is not in the business of quid-pro-quo.  God does not need our worship and He will not buy it with material blessings.  Not only that, but God considers our needs differently than we do.  There are often times that believers will go hungry, will not be able to pay their bills and will even be killed because of their faith.  These things all result in the maturity and development of the faith and are intentionally used by God to His glory.  These things will all work to our good and God’s glory, but we will not necessarily be comfortable and well fed (Rom 8.28).

There are many excellent study Bibles which explain the context of each book, the author, the date, the audience and the intention.  There is the MacArthur Study Bible, The ESV study bible, and the Open Bible are a few good ones!  There have also been study tools developed which will help grasp each text as we read.  We can ask generally:

Step 1: Observation—What does the passage say?
Step 2: Interpretation—What does the passage mean?
Step 3: Application—What am I going to do about what the passage says and means?

We also must ask:

Who is speaking?
To whom are they speaking?
What does this teach me about God?, and
How does this apply to my life?

It has been summarized in a variety of ways, some people like this test:

Is there a sin to avoid?
Is there a promise to claim?
Is there a blessing to enjoy?
Is there an example to follow?
Is there something new to learn about God’s character?

There are countless tools to help us in understanding, learning and applying God’s word.  Let’s be intentional to be wise as we approach the only tangible and uncontestable instruction from God, and let’s be purposeful to know everything we can about God – through His Word!

Did Jesus really hang out with sinners?

truth

Evangelism training has left many well-meaning Christians at a loss.  Should we stand on the street corner and proclaim the Gospel?  Or should we spend years building rapport with people before we ever even breach the topic of faith?  Should we love, welcome and accept everyone regardless of their lifestyles and choices?  Or should we expect people to live in the world, but not act like the world?  Does the Bible really teach us to love the sinner but hate the sin?  How did Jesus really do it?

The United States is quickly becoming a post-Christian culture, as much of Europe already is.  It is no longer expected that people go to Church on Sundays, and there are many amongst us who have never darkened the doors of a Church.  It is trendy and cool to explore the world religions, develop one’s own Spirituality by merging any myriad of teachings, and while there are many who claim to be spiritual and have faith, there are few who truly submit to any one teacher.  We essentially believe that we have the autonomy to create our own belief system and thus make ourselves out to be our own gods.

With this blurring of lines and lack of true adherence to one religion or teacher, it has become a curious reality that many will quote Jesus, claim parts of His teachings and even try to corner more devout followers with attributes of His life.  Most poignantly, Christians and non-Christians alike regularly declare that Jesus never judged anyone, he hung out with sinners, and Jesus is essentially made out to be just one of the guys who happened to preform a lot of miracles and taught a lot of people.

With whom, however, did Jesus really spend His time?  Of his twelve disciples, we know that some were fishermen and Matthew was a tax collector (a government employee).  Mary Magdalene was possessed by 7 demons, but Jesus freed her from those (Luke 8.2).  John the Baptist was a prophet and had taken the Nazarite vow – he was as holy as could be.  Nicodemus was on the Sanhedrin and Joseph of Arimethea (who buried Jesus) was on the religious council – Jewish teachers and leaders.

Scripture teaches us that Jesus was widely regarded as a religious teacher.  He also preformed many miracles.  Most of these miracles were helping people whom the pious considered “sinners” or “dirty”.  Jesus most commonly gets the reputation for having hung out with sinners because of two specific incidents:

“As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he got up and followed Him.  Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?’  But when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.  But go and learn what this means: “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice,” for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

– Matt 9.9-13

When Jesus called Matthew to be one of his disciples, the pious religious teachers were confused and judgmental.

The other common story is the stoning of the woman caught in adultery:

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?’  They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.  But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’  Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.  Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’  She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.'”

– John 8.3-11

We see much about the character and heart of Jesus in both of these stories.  On the most basic level we can observe that Jesus did in fact interact and eat with “sinners”.  He also intervened on the behalf of a woman who was either sleeping with a man who was not her husband or sleeping with someone else’s husband.  This is no small matter.

To simply leave the observation there, however, is inadequate at best, and wicked at worst.  Jesus did in fact interact with those whom the world considered sinners.  He also interacted with those whom the world considered righteous or holy.  Interestingly enough, He was in the temple teaching the religiously devout when the Pharisees brought the woman before Him (John 8.2).  He regularly went to the temple, he often met with religious leaders, and some of his disciples were religious leaders like the Pharisees.  Jesus did not have a type with whom He normally chose to associate.

He associated with those who came to Him.

This is a jarring reality.  Jesus had an intentional plan and agenda.  He went to specific towns, followed the leadership of the Spirit, and ultimately went to Jerusalem where He was crucified.  He met many people along the way.  Some were unsuspecting, like the Samaritan woman at the well and the twelve disciples when He called them.  But by-in-large, His reputation and His presence drew a crowd.  He was continually surrounded by people wanting to hear Him teach and looking for a miracle.  We have no stories of Jesus in Scripture casually wandering into a bar or “sinner’s hangout”, just to blend in with the people.

Jesus also never trivialized or condoned sin.

Everyone who has ever been born has sinned.  Except for Jesus.  This is the foundation of Jesus’ profound response to the Pharisees who sought to kill the adulteress.  Even the Pharisees, who were pious and religious, knew that they were not perfect and without sin – thus none were able or willing to throw the first stone at the woman.  However, after He proved their guilt before the crowd, Jesus turned to the woman and strongly commanded her to “go and sin no more”.  He did not condone her adultery.  He did not excuse her sin on the basis that everyone sins, He told her to change.  He knew that in a very short time He Himself would pay the penalty for her adultery and all other sin.  He was giving her no leeway or freedom to continue in her lifestyle, He was profoundly offering forgiveness by preparing to take her place on the cross.

With Matthew and the tax collectors, Jesus also boldly proclaimed that He was there to call the sinners to righteousness stating simply that the sick need a healer.  All of humanity is sick, and we all need a healer.  Jesus is that healer.  He was not dining with the tax collectors to condone their theft and abuse of the people, He was eating with them calling them to righteousness.

What then is the application?  Jesus regularly preached to the masses and He also had intimate conversations one-on-one with people.  Jesus spent three years teaching and training the disciples, but he also sent people out to be His witness after a single encounter.  Jesus condemned some sinners for their sin and encouraged others to repentance.

In short, there is no science to evangelism and disciple-making.  Every person is unique.  Some people are sinning and know that they are sinning, but are ready to repent.  Some people are sinning and know that they are sinning but are not ready to repent.  Some people are sinning and do not know that they are sinning!  Each situation is dramatically different and should be handled intentionally.  Some people are open to instruction in a group setting while others prefer instruction that is specific to their situation and personality.

What is vitally important, however, is Jesus’ clear example of never entertaining sin.  He build intentional relationships with people and spoke truth clearly from interaction number one.  He never welcomed or overlooked sin, but intentionally pushed each person according to their disposition and personality. Even so, however, almost everyone deserted Him.  There were many times throughout His ministry that the crowds came to Him to listen to Him preach or to receive healing and His teaching was too difficult for them to hear – so they left.  Many times people sought to kill Him – both the religious leaders and the crowd.  And we all know that ultimately they did kill Him, with even the twelve disciples being scattered.

Because of this reality, the biggest misunderstanding about Jesus and His interactions is not always the “who” but the “how”.  Jesus never just hung out with people.  He was always teaching, building up, healing, praying, and fulfilling His mission on Earth.  We must live with this type of urgency and intentionality.

There is very much a place for “relational evangelism” today.  However, we often use that term as an excuse to avoid the topics of sin and salvation.  We think that we will just be friends with non Christians and “sinners” and hopefully one day they will see what is different about us and ask.  Jesus’ relational evangelism was the exact opposite, however.  The truth was always boldly proclaimed and he continued to work with people towards the goal of their understanding and salvation.  We cannot condone sin.  We cannot overlook it and pretend it isn’t there.  But we also must remember that the greater problem is salvation – it serves no good to clean up a person’s actions if they have not yet met Jesus.

In short, Jesus hung out with anyone who wanted to hang out with Him.  However, in every situation He was intentional and spoke truth.  We should strive to be like Jesus.  We should engage everyone, speak truth with everyone, and adapt that truth fittingly to every situation and personality.  Let’s live with urgency and intentionality!

To be a voice for another

ambassador

Jesus stated that John the Baptist was the greatest man to ever live.  Jesus considered him greater than Moses, Abraham, any of the patriarchs or people we typically associate with Old Testament greatness:

“Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

– Matt 11.11

God Himself, in the human form of Jesus Christ, declared John the Baptist to be the greatest.  This is remarkable.  Especially considering we have such a small knowledge of his life and ministry!  Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, Paul wrote much of the New Testament, Abraham’s life is detailed through nearly every stage, but the story of John the Baptist is primarily wrapped up in his singular purpose:  to be the witness.

The Old Testament promised a prophet who would come before the Messiah and “make straight the path for the Lord” (Is 40.3).  As the Jews were awaiting the Messiah whom they believed would come and rescue them from the bondage of the Roman Empire, they were looking for this prophet.  Many believe that this would be Elijah, in fulfillment of a prophecy in Malachi:

“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.  He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”

– Mal 4.5-6

The Jews knew that Elijah had not died, and thus they were expecting the physical reincarnation of Elijah.  Thus, when they questioned John as to his identity, John proclaimed that he was not the reincarnation of Elijah, but Jesus stated that John was indeed fulfilling the role that they were expecting of Elijah:  the fore-runner prophet declaring Jesus’ coming:

“And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.”

– Matt 11.14

John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus.  He was the prophet.  He was the “voice crying out in the wilderness” (Matt 3.3, Mark 1.3, Luke 3.4, John 1.23).  He had a dynamic ministry, he had disciples, and he led many people to repentance and baptized them back into the ways of the Lord.  But His ministry had one purpose:  to point to Jesus.  His personal witness was that he was the forerunner and after him was coming someone much greater:

John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’”

– John 1.15

“It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”

– John 1.27

And perhaps his most well known statement is the humble observation:

He must increase, but I must decrease.”

– John 3.30

John existed to point people to Jesus.  He was “a voice crying out in the wilderness”.  The interesting thing about a voice, however, is that it is nothing in and of itself.  It belongs to someone.  It is the tool of someone.  It is a means by which someone communicates and makes a point.  A voice is only valuable as the user deems to utilize it.  John was the voice proclaiming the truths of God.  God was utilizing John and speaking through him, and John knew it.  He sought no glory for himself but fully and regularly pointed people back to Jesus.  And in doing so, Jesus declared him to be the greatest man ever born of a woman.

What can we learn from this remarkable example of John?

It has become very trendy to encourage people to become the voice for those who have no voice:  the homeless, the orphans, the unborn children, etc.  Non-profits and humanitarian organizations are continually seeking to raise awareness for their causes, for the needs of people around the world, and they systematically do so by seeking out advocates and ambassadors.  They teach us that we can change the world by being the voice of someone in need.

Much greater than this ambition, however, is our calling to be ambassadors for Christ.  The Bible actually calls us that:

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

– 2 Cor 5.20

All of humanity has one, singular and massive need:  salvation.  Apart from Christ we have no life and we are condemned to an eternity in Hell.  This need is infinitely greater than food, water, clothing, shelter or anything else we consider a basic human need.  When we come to know Christ and are forgiven, we are given Spiritual life, we are saved from Hell, and we are appointed as voices to go out and tell everyone.  Thus we are ambassadors from God to the needy.  We can offer the hope that only He provides.

Unfortunately, often times our worlds center around us.  We can be selfish, we can be proud, and we can be lazy.  We can preach Gospels that bring the glory and attention back to ourselves and our efforts instead of bringing glory to Jesus and His wonderful grace.  We can be silent when the Holy Spirit within us is urging us to speak and proclaim the truth.  We can choose to lay around and watch TV rather than invest in our family, friends and neighbors.

John was the greatest voice to live.  He was completely committed, he spoke truth, and he pointed people to Jesus continually.  By making little of himself, he became great in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus says,

“It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

– Matt 20.26-28

We can and should strive to be great in the Kingdom of God.  We can and should seek to store up for ourselves treasures in Heaven.  And we do this by dying to ourselves, serving others, and being a faithful witness for God to the world.  Let’s be the voice He has called us to be.  Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us and give us the words as we need them.  Let’s be more like John, giving all of the glory and honor to Jesus Christ alone.

Forgetting what lies behind.

future

What is your background?  Do you think fondly of your life story to this point?  Or have you had a difficult past that has shaped you through struggles and pain?  Are you generally proud of your accomplishments and confident in your experiences?  Or are you ashamed of your past, your decisions and your life’s path?  Maybe you are somewhere in between, confident in your identity but embarrassed of that one story or those few years tucked in back there.

The root of both dispositions, when it impacts our personality and worldview, is pride.  Either was have the normal expression of pride which considers our thoughts, values and experiences as superior or we exemplify the victim and shame mentality which draws on pride saying “I deserved better” or “I should have known better”.  God gives us experiences and plans our lives very intentionally.  It is not wrong to remember fondly or to feel sorrow over the past, as long as we intentionally turn the glory and honor back to God.  We should praise God for the successes and we should cling to God for the strength and truth needed to repent from failures and sin.  Both responses rightly bring glory to God.  Anything else robs God of His glory and brings praise or attention to ourselves.

The Apostle Paul, arguably the most influential man in Christianity after Jesus, wrote poignantly on the subject.  Before his conversion, Paul was the shining example of Jewish religiousity and legalism.  Not only did he keep the rules and preform above and beyond his peers, he also had the pedigree which set him apart from birth.  He had everything going for him.  He knew it, and everyone else knew it.  Then Jesus radically transformed his life.  He literally knocked him off his horse, called him to repentance and salvation verbally, and blinded him for a few days to consider Jesus’ power and calling.  After his sight was restored and he was baptized, Paul went away to the wilderness for three years where Jesus and the Holy Spirit personally taught Paul and prepared him to be the first missionary to the non-Jewish world.

After years of successful ministry and disciple-making throughout the known world, Paul wrote this in a letter to one of the churches he founded, in regards to his personal past:

“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.  Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

– Phil 3.8-14

Paul consistently shared his testimony of conversion and church planting.  This is, in fact, how we know so much about him:  he wrote it in his letters which are much of the New Testament!  He had achieved unmatched success and position in the Jewish world before Christ, and after his conversion he almost single-handedly planted churches throughout the entire known world.  At the point of his conversion, Jesus revealed to him that his efforts were in deed persecuting and hurting the Church and Jesus personally, and his life was radically transformed – such that he became just like those whom he sought to kill.  Thus, he had reason to boast in himself, he also had reason to be ashamed of himself, and he had reason to boast in his accomplishments for the Church.

His response, however, was to give glory to God for that path down which he had walked, but to always look forward to eternity with Jesus.  His focus was so eternal, in fact, that he essentially “forgot” what was behind him.  He did not literally forget, obviously, but he considered it to be of no consequence to where he was going.  It did not define him, hinder him, or give him grounds for boasting.  He was focused only on Jesus, on becoming more like Him and striving after the goal of eternity with Him.

This is perhaps the greatest example of true humility.  Often times we consider humility to be when a person thinks less of himself than his value, thus the truest opposite of pride would be some form of self doubt or self hatred.  But in reality, Biblical humility is spending one’s efforts to focus on God and not one’s self.  It is not thinking less of one’s value but spending less time thinking about one’s self and thinking more about God and others.

We can also learn from Paul’s example that no matter where we are in life we should always be looking forward and pressing on to maturity and growth.  It is easy to become complacent.  It is easy to allow ourselves to think that we deserve a break from work, ministry or discipline once we reach certain mile markers in life.  But God never gives us a pass.  God does not allow our Spiritual growth to reach its fullest potential until we are freed from our physical bodies and in His presence, thus even if we are retired or confined to a bed, we can still grow in our prayer life, in our witness, in our knowledge of God and in our devotion to Him.

Let us leave it to those who write our eulogy to determine our greatest moments and achievements.  Let us never consider our past to be our glory days, nor our moments of shame.  Let us continually look forward to the prize, to the goal of eternity with Christ and let us forget what lies behind.  We should always remember what God has done and the victories He has won, but let us always be expectant of His miraculous movement yet to come.  Let us remember the sin from which He has freed us and because of it press on to greater maturity and more intimate fellowship with Him.  Let us remember the trials through which He has brought us, but let us continue to seek to die to ourselves and let Him live through us more.