Go and Proclaim.

Christianity, Religion

“As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:57-62

Luke 9 is, quite possibly, one of the most critical chapters of Luke’s gospel account. Within its sixty-two verses, we see some of the most important events of Christ’s ministry chronicled. The chapter begins with Christ commissioning the twelve disciples to go out before Him and prepare the towns through which He would be passing for His arrival and teaching. After this, we read of the account of Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Peter’s confession of Jesus follows this scene as the Messiah, and when we read immediately after this Luke’s account of Christ’s transfiguration in front of Peter, James, and John. In many ways, this chapter is a highlight reel of sorts in its depiction of Christ’s miracles and ministry.

This chapter is significant for another reason, beyond that of the scope of its content. Luke 9 is the turning point of Luke’s narrative account of Jesus’ life. Chapters 1-8 dealt with Christ’s birth and ministry in and around Galilee;  Luke 9 is the point of transition to Christ’s journey to Jerusalem for the Passover and His crucifixion. We see this made clear in Luke 9:51, “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem.” Christ knew the day–the literal day–of His ascension back into heaven was drawing near, and that it was time to head up to Jerusalem to complete the mission for which He had been sent to earth. He knew it was time to head up to Jerusalem to die for humanity’s redemption. Everything that happens following Luke 9:51 and before Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19 occurs on His journey up to Jerusalem. In that ten chapter span, Christ continued teaching and preaching and performing miracles, knowing that the crowds that followed Him in amazement would soon be crying out for His crucifixion. He knew all of this, and He continued to journey toward Jerusalem to His death. 

As Christ and the twelve “were going along the road” (Luke 9:57), crowds would have been following them to see what Christ would do next. People were undoubtedly trying to get close to Jesus to speak to Him, and Luke details the interactions that Jesus had with three anonymous men.

The first man mentioned approached Christ and told Jesus that he would follow Christ wherever he went. Jesus’ response was not one welcoming the man aboard; instead, the answer was intended to make sure the man understood the nature of the commitment he was making. Christ told the man that, unlike the birds and foxes, He–the Son of Man–had nowhere to lay His head. Jesus had no place of His own, nor did he have material wealth. He lived the life of a vagabond, relying on the Father to provide for and meet His needs. If this was the case for Christ, then the follower of Christ wasn’t to expect anything better. The man needed to understand that committing to following Christ was committing to living a life of total reliance and dependence upon God; it was a commitment to living the type of life that Christ Himself modeled. Following Christ does not lead to earthly wealth and comfort. Following Christ causes the follower to live out their trust in God’s dependence; it forces the follower to put their faith and trust into practice. 

The second man Luke mentions did not approach Christ; instead, Christ called the man to “Follow Me.” We are not told anything about this man, about why Christ chose to issue this call to him over others who may have been there. We only know what Luke tells us; that the Incarnate God called on this man to follow Him, and that this man could not commit to this call. The man’s response to Christ’s call reflects a misunderstanding about the importance of the call the man just received. The called-man asks for permission first to go and bury his father. The man’s request shows that he thought that fulfilling this familial obligation was more important than following Christ; that checking off some ritual duty was a better use of his time than heeding Jesus’ call. In its essence, the man’s response was “I will follow you, but not now; not yet.” Christ corrected the man’s skewed thinking. He told the man to “let the dead bury the dead,” to allow the spiritually dead–those who hadn’t just been called by God Himself–to go and attend to this less important duty. As for the man, he must go and preach the kingdom of God. Christ saw the flaw in the man’s thinking and priorities, and He quickly corrected them. The man had no more important duty than that of following Christ–who was on the way to Jerusalem to die–and preaching the kingdom of God.

The third man mentioned repeated the same mistake as the second man. He wanted to follow Christ, but he wanted to do so on his terms–he wanted to begin following after he took care of the business of saying good-bye to his family. Like the second man, this man was attempting to put conditions on his commitment to following Jesus. Once again, Jesus corrected this inappropriate thinking. Christ told the man that he would be of no use to the kingdom of God if he kept looking back at the things of his life before following. Following God must be the sole priority of the follower; they cannot look back at the old things–family included–and follow God at the same time. One cannot say they want to follow God and wish they could do other things as well. God must be the most important thing in the follower’s life.

We are not told what happened to these men. We are not told that they followed Christ, nor are we told that they turned away from Him that day. We are only told what we need to know, and the accounts of these interactions serve to teach us a crucial message about the nature of following Christ: saying that we will follow Christ means nothing if we do not back up that profession with our actions. It is not enough to merely profess Christ with our lips, our hearts and actions and lifestyle must also reflect this commitment. To do otherwise is to repeat the same mistakes as ancient Israel. We would be acting no differently than those in the days of Isaiah, when God said “this people draws near with their words and honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me,” (Isaiah 29:13). Saying we want to follow Christ requires us to do just that—no ifs or buts.

So often we make the same mistakes as the three men depicted in Luke’s gospel. We find ourselves attempting to put conditions on our commitment to following Him. We attempt only to submit parts of our lives to Him, while we try to keep control over other aspects. We allow other things to take priority over being a follower of Christ. We think that following Jesus will be comfortable and don’t understand the nature of submitting to Him. We say we want to follow Jesus, but we keep looking back to other things and long for those things. If we say we want to follow Jesus, we must submit entirely to Him. We must remember that our usefulness to the advancement of His kingdom is dependent upon our entire submission. Then, once we submit and follow, we can do nothing else but go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Artwork: “Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill,” Pieter Claesz, 1628.

Illogical.

Christianity, Religion

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had to address several issues. The Corinthians were a raucous bunch, and the church was overflowing with spiritual problems. The church was full of division; there were factions who favored the teachings of certain men over others– some followed Paul, some Apollos; others followed Peter, while still others followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was also a divide between the social classes within the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their practice of not eating the Lord’s Supper together as one body. The early churches observed the Lord’s Supper much differently than modern churches do; it would be a full meal at which the baptized members of the church would observe the ceremonial breaking of bread and drinking of wine. When the Communion would be partaken in Corinth, the wealthy members of the church would arrive before the poorer members, while many of the poorer members would still be working. The rich members would not wait for their poorer brethren to arrive, and would begin to eat and drink to excess. When the poor Christians finally did arrive at the communal meal, there would be no food remaining, and the rich Christians would be intoxicated. The Corinthians did not observe then Communion as a sacred act; instead, they treated it like a party. As if these issues were not enough, the Corinthian believers were accepting of an affair between a man and his step-mother, and nobody spoke out against this immorality that was going on within the church. Paul was, at the very least,  disappointed and disgusted with the lack of restraint that was so evident in Corinth; the letter that is now referred to as 1 Corinthians was his attempt to begin helping the Corinthians correct these grave issues.

One of the greatest strengths of the Apostle Paul’s writings was his ability to understand the context of the culture in which his audiences lived. As he said himself, he could be a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This cultural awareness is evident in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians as Paul goes to some lengths to discuss the “foolishness” of the Gospel. Paul understood the importance of logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that was so pervasive within Hellenistic culture. He dealt with this firsthand when he debated the Stoics and the Epicureans before the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The fundamental core truth of the Gospel–that God would send His son, Jesus, to die for man’s salvation– was utterly illogical. Furthermore, as is also evidenced in Acts 17, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was equally laughable. Luke records in Acts 17:32 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” Paul was no stranger to the opposition to the Gospel that was put forth by those who claimed to be wise by the world’s standard of wisdom.

Paul, therefore, goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that the world’s standard of wisdom is not the same as God’s, and it is God’s wisdom that they should be concerned about. A prophecy from Isaiah was quoted to reinforce the point that, along with everything else of this world, all man-centered wisdom would eventually pass away and be destroyed. The wisdom that man can ascertain for himself is nothing compared to the wisdom found in God. Compared to God and His wisdom, the wisdom of the world is nonsense.

 To those who have not been changed by Christ, this message would not make sense. To the non-believer, to the philosopher, to the seeker of wisdom the Gospel of the Cross is completely and totally ridiculous. It makes no sense that God–the Creator of the Universe–would send His son to die for the salvation of man–the creation. This kind of belief seems unfounded and illogical. Paul points out that the Greeks’ commitment to having a logical understanding of the world is what prevents them from seeing and understanding the beauty of the Gospel, just as the Jews’ demand for signs prevented them from seeing the signs being played out before them. The cross of Christ breaks all barriers, it is a stumbling block to those of any background, both Jew and Gentile, who don’t believe in it. The message of the cross was too illogical for the philosophers to take seriously. They, like the Jews, were too deeply committed to their own understanding of how the world was supposed to operate and they could not see the incredible work that God did through Christ and the cross. It was through this illogical and “foolish” act that God chose to save the world, and it was this foolish gospel that Paul preached, and is this foolish gospel that draws men and women back to God.

The beauty of the cross is that it makes no sense; its illogical nature is what gives it so much power. Yes, we can study the Old Testament and understand the deep symbolisms and fulfillment of prophecies that are contained within Christ’s death, but even then we are still forced to answer critical questions: Why God would come to Earth and allow Himself to die at the hands of His creation? Why didn’t God just start over again, as He did in the days of Noah? Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t God do that? There are any number of questions that we could ask and drive ourselves crazy with if we were to try to find logic in what Christ did. But that’s just the point–there is no logic in it. Christ’s actions defy any wisdom and understanding of man. We are not saved by finding the logic in Christ’s death; we are saved by having faith in His illogical outpouring of love and mercy and grace. We are not saved by uncovering some secret, hidden knowledge; we are saved by trusting in the God who came to die for us. 

We are foolish to think that we can predict how God will operate. We cannot put Him in a box and systematically predict what He will do. Our wisdom is not His; our wisdom is foolishness in comparison. The message of Christ crucified proves this;  the cross shows us how little we understand about how God operates. Thankfully, God does not operate according to our standard of logic. Our God operates in the illogical, like coming and dying to take away our sins, so that we might be allowed to have a new life with Him.

Artwork: “The Philosophers,” c. 1620-1625.

By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews‬ ‭12:1-2‬ ‭

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

Be Salty.

Christianity, Religion

“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Luke 14:34-35

Salt seems relatively unimportant to us today; it is nothing more than something added to food to enhance its flavor. For the ancients, however, salt was much more than this; it was a precious commodity. In many cultures, this mineral was worth its weight in gold. In an era before refrigeration and medical advancements like antibacterial medications, salt was a wonder mineral that could do nearly everything.

One characteristic of salt that made it so valuable is that it has the unique ability to preserve meats and foods from spoiling. This is the result of the mineral drawing moisture out of the food to which it is being applied. Additionally, salt also has the ability to purify things to which it is applied, and this also aids in its preservation. The salt kills any bacteria which would cause the food to rot or spoil quickly. Salt removes impurities and preserves that which is worth saving. It removes the bad and preserves the good.

As valuable as salt was to the ancients, though, it was useless once it lost its “saltiness”—those characteristics which enabled it to do the numerous things it did. Once the salt became not “salty,” there was nothing which could make it salty again. It could not be thrown into the fields, because too much salt in the soil would ruin the soil and prohibit and future growth. In this regard, even manure was better than saltless salt, because manure had a use as fertilizer. In Matthew’s gospel, Christ says the only use for salt that has lost its saltiness is to be thrown out upon the roadways and trampled under the feet of people. In other words, it was useless and good for nothing–it had lost the qualities which made it such a precious commodity.

Christ compares those who follow Him—His disciples—to salt. The authentic follower of Christ–one who follows the hard teachings of daily taking up one’s cross, loving Christ more than their family or their lives, seeking to embody the qualities of humility and total reliance upon God depicted in the Beatitudes–acts as salt in this world; they purify and preserve. The true disciple preaches out against sin and seeks to teach others how to be rid of the their sins by submitting to Christ and being washed in His blood. Along with this, the disciple of Christ builds up fellow believers, seeking fellowship and further discipleship. In these ways, the disciple purifies and preserves, just as salt did.

We must recognize that there is nothing in us innately which empowers us to be “salty;” it is only through the indwelling of God’s spirit within us that we can be the salt of the world. Furthermore, we must remember that we must abide in Him to continue being “salty.” When we lose sight of either of these facts–when we begin seeking our glory instead of His, or when we think that it is our talent and strength that is changing people–we lose our saltiness. When we neglect our duty as disciples of Christ–to preach and teach and make new disciples–we lose our saltiness. When we sit back and not speak out against the sin that is so rampant in the world, and we do not build up our brothers and sisters in the faith–when we do not purify and preserve–we lose our saltiness. Remember what salt is good for once it has lost its saltiness–nothing.

Christ made it clear: you can’t be a neutral disciple. You can’t be a nominal follower of His. You are either salt, or you are not. You are either good for something, or you are good for nothing. You are either purifying and preserving, or you are being trampled underfoot by the world. The choice is yours. Be salty.